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 Outline:
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

Nirvana, or Nehan Ceremony – Japanese Soto Zen, Feb 15th, “Commemorating the Buddha’s Death

Today: Share what the ceremony is like, say a few things about the practice of ceremony in Soto Zen (and by extension, much of Buddhism, most forms of which include ceremony), and then talk about the teaching contained in the Buddha’s dying and death.

ParinirvanaNot sure about other Buddhist traditions (I believe almost all celebrate Nirvana day), but Soto Zen: Feb 15thSoto Shu website says a scroll is hung depicting the Buddha’s passing (describe – grieving animals, gods, people, sala trees, blooms falling). – just search online for Parinirvana images and you’ll see many renditions of this

Also mentions Buddha gave his last teaching, Yuikyogyo, and that in some temples in Japan they make dumplings (“flower dumplings”), which are offered to the Buddha and then given out to the people. The dumplings are thought to protect you from disaster and illness.

I haven’t been to a Japanese Nirvana ceremony at a Soto Zen temple, but I suspect it goes like this (like most public ceremonies): Temple ceremony hall, priest/monk(s) do the ceremony. Lay people watch from the sides or in front, an open area you can walk into. Big altar, offerings (food, incense, candles), chanting, bows, processing). Usually, afterwards, a community meal.

In the West, over the last 70 years or so, Soto Zen temples have started and grown. Generally speaking, differentiation between monk and lay has decreased. Lay people want to practice, and many of them practice as intensely and diligently as monks, while we also expect less formal training and particular lifestyles from our priests/monks. So the laity participate in (often even lead/take pivotal roles in) the ceremonies.

An Excerpt from the Parinirvana Sutta

In many respects, the ceremony in my lineage resembles the traditional Soto Zen one. We put a Parinirvana statue on the altar (Buddha dying/in recline)

Also have a beautiful framed copy of a Parinirvana painting in the Zendo (showing all the grieving beings surrounding)

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.”

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.”



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… (most Zen centers which do this will do something similar, variations on order, what gets chanted, etc.)

Procession: Doshi (celebrant – priest or lay teacher), Jisha, attendant with inkin

Offering: Incense, traditionally also includes a daimosho offering…

Bows, then chanting; we chant an English, plainsong version of the Shariraimon, or Verses of Homage to the Buddha’s Relics (holy remains), created by Roshi Kennett

During this chant (minor key), doshi goes up to altar, blows out candles; lights are turned off in the hall

Chant is over, everyone stands in silence; Sangha member takes a wax taper, lights it from a candle that has been hidden behind a screen, relights altar; hall lights turned back on

Then we 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 (we use lavender petals)

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.

A Word on Ceremony in Buddhism

Could be a whole talk in and of itself, but briefly: Gets our body involved, enactment…

Can touch us, involve us, communicate to us in a different way; non-intellectual…

E.g. when lights go off during the ceremony, candles extinguished; grief poignantly mixed with gratitude…

I am a very intellectual, skeptical person, and I think ceremony is particular important for people like me

Moving in ancient patterns, recognition I am not so different, I am not separate from the human drama being enacted by the ceremony…

Magical thinking? (Protective dumplings?) Deifying the Buddha? There’s room for all of this in Buddhism. It’s not necessary; even without this stuff, ceremony 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.

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

Visceral reminder of impermanence – our own, that of our teachers and loved ones… “It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.”

The Dharma does not protect us literally from old age, disease, and death. And yet, the Buddha 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 says, “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 Buddhist liberation from suffering…

Immense gratitude and love for our teacher(s), who introduce us to the Dharma and the freedom it makes possible; but also, at a certain point, we don’t need them (we internalize the practice, or we can rely on the Sangha treasure…)

You don’t have to be a saint/remarkable/once-in-a-universe super being to achieve the Buddha way (the Buddha is gone but Buddhism continues, and is kept alive by people who realize what he realized…)

Buddhism is not dependent on a charismatic leader, nor on that leader/founder’s supernatural influence or power after death; the key to Buddhism is practice and personal transformation, not asking for deliverance (however… Pure Land Buddhism…)

What about “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?” We are right to doubt what we think it means if this sounds like the Buddha’s saying you should stick to your own opinions and not rely on anyone else. After all, Sangha is one of the three treasures, essential elements of Buddhism. And he follow it up saying the Dhamma should be your refuge. What is the Buddha really 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 limited… ultimately you must know for yourself that something is true, or a particular practice is liberating. So being a refuge unto yourself isn’t taking refuge in your small self 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 Parinivana Message Summarized

Encapsulated message: 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.

Enacting this together with others in an ancient ceremony lets you absorb this message in a way that listening to or reading a prose paragraph can never match…

End with Buddha’s last words according to 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]



[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?