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Comments on Salient Points in the Mahiparinibbina Sutta

U Shwe Mra




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         The Mahaparinibbana Sutta is the account of the events of the last year of the Buddha's life. It is there fore not strictly a discourse but a narrative of the Buddha's last journey, interspersed with the discourses delivered by the Buddha in the towns and villages where he stopped or through which he passed. The narrative ends with the passing away of the Buddha into parinibbana at the town of Kusinara in the country of the Mallas, the ensuing funeral celebrations, and the distribution of the Buddha's relics. The Sutta is one of the most detailed consecutive accounts of the events of any single year in the Buddha's life to be found in the Buddhist Canon.

         The earlier life of the Buddha in the form of a consecutive narrative can be found both in the Canon and the Commentaries, up to the point when the essentials of the Dhamma had been formulated and expounded and the Order of bhikkhus definitely organized. Examples of such narratives in the Suttanta Pitaka are the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, Mahasaccaka Sutta and Bodhirajakumara Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. A continuation of these accounts, giving the story of the Enlightenment and subsequent events for a few years, can be found in the early chapters of the Mahavagga in the Vinaya Pitaka. The commentarial accounts are contained in the Commentary on the Buddhavamsa and the Nidanakatha or the introductory narrative of the Jataka Commentary. The above accounts carry the story of the Buddha's life up to a few years after the Enlightenment but there is no consecutive narrative of the remainder of the Buddha's life and activities until we come to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. The Commentary on the Buddhavaihsa however gives a list of the vassas, or residence periods of the rains, spent by the Buddha in chronological order, and the events of the Buddha's life can be arranged and fitted into that list.

         The Buddha was born as Prince Siddhattha in the Sakyan Kingdom in 624 B.C. He made the Great Renunciation at the age of twenty-nine and became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, after a period of six years of striving. Thus he became fully Enlightened at the age of thirty-five, in 589 B.C. In that same year, he preached his First Sermon, the Dhamma-cakkappavattana Sutta, containing the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Path of Eight Constituents and secured his first five bhikkhu disciples. When he had secured the adherence of a sufficient number of bhikkhu disciples he sent them forth in all directions with instructions for spreading the dhamma. Among the earlier events of great importance are the donation of the Veluvana monastery to the Buddha and his Order of Bhikkhus by King Bimbisara of Magadha, and the conversion of Sariputta and Moggallana, who became the Buddha's Chief Disciples.

         According to the Commentary on the Buddhavamsa, the Buddha had no fixed place of residence during the first twenty years after the Enlightenment. The first vassa, or residence period during the rains, was spent at the deer park near Baranasi. The next three Vassas were spent at Rajagaha, as also the seventeenth, nineteenth and twentieth vassas. The rest of the vassas were spent by the Buddha in different places which included, among others, Vesali, Kosambi, Savatthi and Kapilavatthu. The first three of these places were the capitals of important states in the Buddha's lifetime, and the last the, capital of the Buddha's own native state. During that period of twenty years the Buddha did not spend more than one vassa at any place other than Rajagaha. After the twentieth vassa, however, the Buddha stayed permanently at Savatthi, either in the Jetavana monastery or the Pubbarama monastery. In the forty-fifth year after his Enlightenment, which was the eightieth year of his life, the Buddha went back to Rajagaha but did not spend the vassa there. After staying there for some time, he started on his journey northwards, the journey which is described in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. It was only after reaching Vesali in the course of that journey that he decided to spend the vassa, the last one of his life, at Veluva village in the neighbourhood of that city.

         Having taken the reader to the point from which our Sutta begins, we should perhaps leave him to savour the flavour of the great narrative by reading the Sutta in our English translaion with the help of the foot notes in which we have tried our best to explain the difficulties which he may encounter. We therefore refrain from commenting on the many invaluable utterances of the Buddha in this the last year of his life, utterances which include a statement or re-statement of the Thirty-seven Elements of the perpetuation of the Teaching (Bodhipakkhiya Dhamma) as well as the last words of the Buddha. But there is one point which needs some explanation; and this point is concerned with the episode in which Mara appears towards the end of the rather long period of the Buddha's stay in Vesali and its neighbourhood before continuing his journey to Kusinara.

         According to the Sutta, Mara the Evil One approached the Buddha and made a request, saying that as by that time the Buddha's disciples had become well trained and proficient in the dhamma, and as the religious system had been well established, it was time for the Buddha to pass away and realize Parinibbana. The Buddha then declared to Mara that his Parinibbana would take place three months from that day. It must not be assumed from this, and from the fact that Ananda was blamed for not having requested the Buddha at an earlier date to remain alive for a kappa, that the Buddha, in making his declaration regarding the date of his Parinibbana, had done so under Mara's pressure. As stated in the Sutta, the decision of the Buddha to give up the life-sustaining mental process by not re-entering into phalasamapatti after three months was made mindfully and deliberately, and not under anybody's pressure. It may be mentioned here that in entering into the residence period of the rains seven months earlier at Veluva village, the Buddha had asked the bhikkhus to take up their residence in the neighbourhood of Vesali. The Commentary expressly explains regarding this matter that the Buddha made this arrangement because he realized that he would pass into Parinibbana in ten months' time and that he wanted the bhikkhus to be within easy reach of Veluva village to enable them to came and receive religious instruction from him regularly before the Parinibbana took place. Considering the lapse of time since the beginning of the vassa period at Veluva village and the date at which Mara's request was made, it can be clearly seen that the Buddha had anticipated the time of his Parinibbana long before Mara's request and not as a result of that request.

         The Parinibbana of the Buddha took place in 544 B.C. at Kusinara in the country of the Mallas. Let us constantly bear in mind his last words which were:

        " O Bhikkhus, I say this now to you: All conditioned and compounded things (sankhara) have the nature of decay and disintegration. With mindfulness endeavour diligently (to complete the task)."

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