160 - Bearing Witness without Burning Out
162 – Am I a Good Buddhist?

Parinirvana, the death of the Buddha Shakyamuni, is commemorated by a ceremony in mid-February in most Buddhist communities throughout the world. The Buddha gave several important teachings right before his death, and there is teaching contained in the very manner and fact of his passing. In this episode I describe the Parinirvana (Nehan) ceremony in my lineage and discuss what we can learn from it.

 

 

Quicklinks to Episode Transcript:
The Annual Buddhist Parinirvana Ceremony
An Excerpt from the Parinirvana Sutta
Our Parinirvana (Nehan) Ceremony
A Word on Ceremony in Buddhism
The Dharma of the Buddha’s Parinirvana (and Ceremony)
The Parinivana Message Summarized

 

The Annual Buddhist Parinirvana Ceremony

Today, I’m talking about the Parinirvana ceremony and the teaching of the Buddha’s dying and death. The Nirvana ceremony, or in my Soto Zen tradition, called the Nehan ceremony takes place on February 15th and it commemorates the Buddha’s passing and his final teachings. (See “Commemorating the Buddha’s Death”)

I’m going to share what the ceremony is like in my lineage and say a few things about the practice of ceremony in Soto Zen in general. Much of what I say will also apply to many other forms of Buddhism, most of which include some kind of ceremony. Then I’ll talk about the teaching contained in the Buddha’s dying and death, both in the teachings that he gave as he was dying, and in the very fact and manner of his passing.

Parinirvana

I’m not sure about all other Buddhist traditions, but I believe most celebrate Nirvana Day. As I said, in Soto Zen we do this on February 15th. And the Sotoshu website (which is the website of the official Soto School in Japan) says that in this ceremony, a scroll is hung depicting the Buddha’s passing. This is an image that you can search online for Parinirvana images and you will see many renditions of this. This is the Buddha. He’s lying down between two trees that he’s surrounded by disciples and laypeople and even gods and other kinds of beings and animals. And many of them are grieving because he’s dying. And there’s flower blossoms falling from the skies and all kinds of stuff like that.

The Sotoshu website also mentions that Buddha gave his last teaching (Yuikyogyo) on his deathbed, and they talk about that. And some temples in Japan, also commemorate this day by making dumplings. I call them flower dumplings, which are offered to the Buddha and then given out to the people who attend. The dumplings are thought to protect you from disaster and illness over the coming year.

I haven’t had the good fortune to attend a Japanese Nirvana ceremony in a Soto Zen temple, but I suspect it goes something like this, which is how most public ceremonies go: The temple has a ceremony hall. If it’s a small temple, it’ll be small. If it’s a big temple, it’ll be huge. And anywhere in-between. The priest (or multiple priests) and monks (depending on the size of the temple) will do the ceremony. Traditional Soto Zen ceremonies have a lot of ritual and choreography to them. The ordained will spend a lot of time practicing the different aspects of this ahead of time.

Generally speaking, lay people will watch from the sides, kneeling on either side of the ceremony area or in front. Many temples have an open area you can walk into. If you’re strolling by the temple and you hear something going on, you can just walk in the front door and see what’s going on, watch a ceremony for a while. There’s usually a big altar. There’s offerings of food and incense and candles. There’s chanting and bows and processing around. And usually afterwards there’s also a community meal.

In the West, over the last 70 years or so, Soto Zen temples have sprung up and grown all over the place. And the differentiation between monk and lay has decreased significantly. Lay people want to practice. They’re not just interested in donating money to a temple that allows monks to practice, and many of them practice as intensely and diligently as monks. We also expect less formal training and particular lifestyles from our priests and monks. The end result of this is the laity participate in and often even take lead or pivotal roles in the ceremonies.

An Excerpt from the Parinirvana Sutta

In many respects, the Parinirvana/Nehan ceremony in my lineage resembles the traditional Soto Zen one. We put a Parinirvana statue on the altar. That’s the Buddha lying on his side, on his right side with one leg on top of the other and his head supported by his right hand. This is also a traditional meditation posture. If you’re going to do reclining meditation, traditionally this is how you would lay. And of course, the Buddha then takes this posture as he’s dying. We also have a beautiful, framed copy of a Parinirvana painting in our Zendo, which shows all the grieving beings surrounding the Buddha (see above).

At my particular Zen center, before we get into the main part of the ceremony, a Sangha member reads from the Pali Canon Maha-Parinibbana Sutta. This is a very long sutta and our reading is very abbreviated, but it’s still about a page and a half. I hope you don’t mind if I read it to you… it helps set the stage for the ceremony and the teachings contained in it. (Traditionally, people participating in or watching the ceremony would know this story, perhaps from childhood) Note: In this sutra, the Buddha is sometimes referred to as “the Blessed One.” This is a translation from the Access to Insight website by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

In his old age, the Buddha had… recovered from [a serious] illness. He came out from his dwelling place and sat down in the shade. Ananda approached, saying: “Fortunate it is for me, O Lord, to see the Blessed One recovered! When I saw the Blessed One’s sickness it was as though my own body became weak as a creeper, everything around became dim to me, and my senses failed me. Yet, I still had some little comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions respecting the community.”

 

The Buddha answered him, saying: “What more does the community expect from me, Ananda? I have already set forth the complete Dhamma – the teaching – without making any of it hidden. I have no such idea that it is “I who should lead the community, or that the community depends upon “me.” What final instructions would I have to give?”

 

“Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Buddha is kept going only with supports.”

 

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

 

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Then, knowing his time of death was approaching, the Buddha went to the sal-grove near Kushinara with a large community of monks. He said to Ananda, “Please prepare a bed for me between the twin sal-trees, with its head to the north. I am tired, and will lie down.” Ananda did so. Then the Buddha lay down on his right side in the lion’s sleeping posture, with one foot on top of the other, mindful & alert.

 

At that time the twin sal-trees were in full bloom, even though it was not the time for flowering. They showered, strewed, & sprinkled petals on the Buddha’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms fell from the sky, showering, strewing, & sprinkling the Buddha’s body in homage to him…  Heavenly songs were sung in the sky, in homage to the Buddha.

 

The Buddha [observed all of this and] said to Ananda, “…it is not in this way that a Buddha is truly worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, or lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Buddha with the highest homage…”

 

———————————-

Then Ananda, going into a nearby building, stood leaning against the door jamb, weeping: “Here I am, still in training, with work left to do, and the death of my teacher is about to occur — the teacher who has had such sympathy for me!”

 

The Buddha became aware of Ananda’s grieving, and asked him to come to his side. [He] said, “Enough, Ananda. Don’t grieve. Don’t lament. Haven’t I already taught you the state of growing free from attachment to all things dear & appealing? What else is there to expect? It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.”

 

Then the Buddha said to the community, “Now, if it occurs to any of you — ‘The teaching has lost its authority; we are without a Teacher’ — do not view it in that way. Whatever teaching and guidelines for conduct I have pointed out & formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone…”

 

“Now, then, community of practitioners, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.” Those were the Buddha’s last words. The Buddha entered [a series of meditative states, and upon emerging from them] he immediately was totally Unbound from this earthly existence and passed away. At the moment when the Buddha was totally Unbound, there was a great earthquake, awesome & hair-raising, and the drums of the [heavenly beings] sounded…[i]

Our Parinirvana (Nehan) Ceremony

After the reading in our ceremony (most Zen centers will do something similar to this with some variations on order or what exactly gets chanted) there’s a procession into the ceremony hall with the Doshi, which is the celebrant, like a priest or lay teacher who’s leading the ceremony, and a Jisha who’s the attendant and another person with an instrument, a bell on a stick they ring slowly as the procession comes in.

The Doshi and Jisha go up to the altar and they offer incense. At this point there’s usually also (if the temple’s big enough and has enough folks able to participate)  something called a daimosho offering, which is a very fancy, choreographed offering. One person will pick up a tray with food and it’s often surrounded by a decorative paper wrapping and they’ll hold it up and the Doshi will bow to it and then receive it with their hands held in a particular way. The Doshi will hold that over the incense for a while and then turn and hand it to someone else who belongs to it first. It’s a very beautiful, choreographed process of essentially getting those offerings onto the altar. Then there’s bows and chanting.

And in our ceremony, we chant an English plainsong version of the Shariraimon, or verses of homage to the Buddha’s relics. This was created by my Dharma grandmother, Roshi Kennett, who was an organist in the Church of England before she got into Zen. She actually set a bunch of Zen chants to music. We don’t use them very often, but in some of our ceremonies, we’ll pull out these sung versions. So, during this chant, which is in a minor key, the Doshi goes up to the altar and blows out the candles, and then the lights are turned off in the meditation hall. This is symbolizing the Buddha’s death.

When the chant is over, everyone stands in silence and a Sangha member takes a wax taper and lights it from a candle that’s been hidden behind a screen and re-lights the candles on the altar, and then the hall lights are turned back on. This symbolizes that the Dharma continues even though the Buddha has passed, that it’s passed on despite his absence. We then chant the Heart Sutra while processing around the Zendo in a formation that allows everyone to pass in front of the altar and make an offering at the Nehan statue. In our Zendo, out of consideration for people with allergies, we use lavender petals. We pick up a little bit of lavender petals and kind of crush them between our fingers and then sprinkle them into some water.

Then the chant leader chants:

The Dharma Body of the Buddha cannot be seen so long as one is within duality, for it is beyond birth and death, filling all things. Out of compassion for all living things the Buddha appeared in the form and figure of a human being. For this great act we bow in gratitude and pray that we may be able to illuminate our minds from delusion.

 

On this _____ day of February we have gathered to commemorate our Lord Shakyamuni’s entry into Parinirvana, and we offer incense, flowers, candles, cakes, tea and fruit, and the merits of the recitation of “The Adoration of the Buddha’s Relics,” and the “Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra” out of gratitude for his Great Compassion.

 

The moon over Mount Ryoju shines miraculously in all directions; the sala trees bloom and their petals convey the fragrance of the Dharma down to the present time. The Buddha transcended desire and used the blessing of his understanding to help all who are deluded. After all delusion is removed, that which remains is called the True Form, the Form of Buddha, all. The merit of this Form has been a light for all from the far past until the present time. All forms of existence join in the grief of this day, and wholeheartedly recite with us these scriptures. We are filled with awe at the countless voices and boundless light which proclaim the Dharma, and we vow to propagate it eternally.

Then there’s a closing dedication and bows.

A Word on Ceremony in Buddhism

I could certainly give a whole talk on the role of ceremony in Buddhism and I probably should at some point. But very briefly, ceremony gets our body involved in the practice in a different way. You might even say to some extent that our meditation because it involves a physical posture, is also a body practice and to some extent is a ritual. But this is in a different way. It gets our body involved in a different aspect of the teaching. It’s kind of an enactment of the meaning. As we process around the Zendo, as we turn off the lights, we are putting ourselves, in a certain sense, in this situation of the Buddha’s passing and feeling some sadness, but also some hope as the light continues. 

Ceremony can touch us, involve us, communicate to us in a different way, in a nonintellectual way. I’ve been through the ceremony all kinds of times, but every time I go through it and the candles are extinguished and the lights go off and we sit there in silence for a little bit, it touches the grief that we all have around loss and impermanence. 

I’m a very intellectual and skeptical person, and I think ceremony is particularly important for people like me, who might not immediately have taken to it or thought it would be a good idea. But somehow moving in these ancient patterns there’s recognition that these ceremonies can touch me. I am not so different from my ancestors. I’m not so different from other people. I’m not separate from that human drama being enacted by the ceremony. 

Is there some magical thinking sometimes involved in Buddhism and ceremony, you know, protective dumplings? Do we believe in them or are they real? Are we deifying the Buddha with him up on the altar and, you know, offering him things and bows? Well, I would say there’s room for all of this in Buddhism. It’s not necessary to believe in anything magical, anything extra holy or supernatural or anything about the Buddha, because even without that stuff, somehow the ceremony still has power. But your neighbor in the meditation hall may very well think of the Buddha as an almost supernatural being who can still hear his prayers. I think that is one of the strengths of Buddhism is that it can include both. We really don’t need to be judgmental of anyone else’s approach to this if it is a little bit more devotional than ours.

The Dharma of the Buddha’s Parinirvana (and Ceremony)

What is the Dharma of the Buddha’s Parinirvana? Both his teaching and the ceremony. As I already said, there’s this visceral reminder of impermanence, our own and that of our teachers and our loved ones, of the people that we rely on. There’s that very poignant line from the Parinirvana Sutta: It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born existent, fabricated and subject to disintegration from disintegrating. And we all have loss or face loss. 

As I was doing this ceremony yesterday, my little dog was sick, and I was going to be bringing her immediately afterwards to the emergency vet. It turns out she’s OK for now. But I did just lose a dog a few months ago, so this was a very poignant moment for me. We try to take care of things and we want to hold on to them as long as we can, yet we know that nothing subject to disintegration can be forbidden from disintegrating. The Dharma doesn’t protect us literally from old age, disease and death. 

I think that’s another message of this. There were some aspects of the Parinirvana sutta which suggest that the Buddha had special powers and he could have prolonged his life. But the fact that the Buddha got old, he had pain, he got sick, and he died is significant; he’s the absolute pinnacle of Buddhist realization and manifestation but it didn’t give him eternal life. And yet he was untroubled in his physical pain and in facing death and encouraged Ananda to embrace impermanence and transcend his grief.

The liberation the Dharma offers is very real, but subtle. As the ceremony offertory goes, the Dharma body of the Buddha cannot be seen so long as one is within duality, for it is beyond birth and death, filling all things. What is the nature of this Buddhist liberation from suffering? This is clearly a change in our relationship to our lives, to life and death. It doesn’t literally physically remove us from this life, but it changes our experience of it in a way that is liberating and profound.

Also, this ceremony expresses immense gratitude and love for our teachers. Whether they’re living people or friends or authors or whoever, who introduces us to the Dharma and to the freedom that makes it possible? But also communicated by this ceremony and teaching is that at a certain point we don’t need those teachers anymore. We internalize the practice. We rely on the Sangha treasure generally, on other people generally, but it doesn’t have to be any particular individual. It’s not dependent on that.

Another message is that you don’t have to be a saint or extremely remarkable super being to achieve the Buddha way. The Buddha is gone, but Buddhism continues. It is kept alive by people who realize what he realized. And Buddhism is not dependent on a charismatic leader, nor on that leader or founder’s, supernatural influence, or power after death. 

The key to Buddhism is practice and personal transformation, not asking for deliverance. Although a caveat: there are branches of Buddhism where that is what you do, where you are praying to a Buddha who lives in another realm and a heaven realm where you have a chance of being reborn and practices much easier. So, yeah, there’s great diversity.

But what about that message of being islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge with the Dharma as your island, with the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge? We’re right to doubt what we think this means (to use my Dharma grandmother’s words) if we think it means the Buddha’s saying we should stick to our own opinions and not rely on anyone else. After all, Sangha is one of the three treasures, one of the essential elements of Buddhism, and the Buddha also follows it up by saying the Dharma should be your refuge.

What is the Buddha saying? Ultimately, the Dharma is liberating only if we verify it in our own direct experience, we take refuge or rely on the teachings, including the importance of Sangha. You don’t just create your own philosophy about the world and stick to that. Not that that’s bad necessarily, but it’s very limited. But even though we explore and rely on the Dharma and practice the practices, ultimately you must know for yourself that something is true, or that a particular practice is liberating. You have to know through your own six senses. Sight, sound, smell, touch, tase; and mind is considered a sense in Buddhism. If you can’t verify it through your own just embodied direct experience, it’s not actually liberating. Being a refuge unto yourself isn’t taking a refuge in your small self’s opinions and agendas. It’s taking refuge in your deeper self. The part of you which recognizes truth, which knows pain from ease, which resonates with compassion when you see beings suffer. The part of you that just is awareness itself.

The Parinivana Message Summarized

If I were to encapsulate the message of the Parinirvana teachings and the ceremony, I would say: You are extremely fortunate to have encountered the Dharma in this lifetime; it is a miraculous medicine discovered by the Buddha, not created by him or dependent on him. Be grateful for having encountered the Dharma and being capable of practice. Do not waste time, because life is short. Practice to discover your own liberation; the Buddha left us the Dharma and the support of the Sangha, but ultimately, no one can liberate you – you must be a lamp unto yourself.

So, I can summarize the Parinirvana message like that. But just reading that to you might be a little interesting, but it’s very different to essentially enact that message in a ceremony. We absorb it in a different way.

We’ll end with the Buddha’s last words. According to the Japanese sutra, the Yuikyogyo:

“After I am gone, you, my disciples, shall hand the Law down to your disciples and practice it; then the spiritual body of Buddha will never leave the world.  There is nothing eternal in the world.  We have met, therefore we must part; never mourn my departure.  This is the real state of the world.  Make haste to work out your own salvation.  Destroy the darkness of ignorance with the light of wisdom.”[ii]

 


Endnotes

[i] (Excerpted and adapted from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Total Unbinding) Chapter 1-4 translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story; Chapters 5-6 Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1998 (DN 16 / PTS: D ii 137); Full texts on www.accesstoinsight.org

[ii] Shakamuni, Buddha . 仏遺教経 The Sutra of Buddha`s Last Instruction on the Buddhist Discipline: One of the Three Fundamental Sutras of Zen Buddhism (Trilingual Edition) . Kindle Edition.

 

Art Credit

Parinirvana of Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha, late 17th century, Hanabusa Itchō. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/117238/parinirvana-of-sakyamuni-hanabusa-itcho

 

160 - Bearing Witness without Burning Out
162 – Am I a Good Buddhist?
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