Today, February 15th, marks the day in the Japanese Buddhist calendar of Nirvana Day or nehan-e (涅槃会):1
The picture above depicts the Buddha’s final passing, or parinirvana, in the Mahayana context as he is surrounded by disciples, bodhisattvas, demons, gods and others all grieving. However, note that the Buddha is peaceful as he is no longer subject to the endless, near-infinite cycle of birth and death, and he is utterly unbound, the complete master of himself, as the ancient texts describe it.
As I reflected on this day, I thought of something from the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra takes a very interesting approach to the subject in one of its most famous chapters, chapter 16 which leaves off from a big cliffhanger in chapter 15 where the assembly encounters vast, innumerable Bodhisattvas liberated by the Buddha, which prompts Maitreya Bodhisattva to ask how the Buddha could have possibly liberated so many in his eighty years of life. I quote here from the new Reeves translation (trimmed a little for brevity):2
The Buddha: “Suppose someone were to take five hundred thousand billions of myriads of countless three-thousand great thousandfold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, after going east through five hundred thousand billions of myriads of innumerable lands, one of those specks of dust was deposited. And suppose he continued eastward until he had used up all the specks. What do you think, my good sons? Is it possible to imagine or calculate the number of all those worlds?”
Maitreya: “World-Honored One, those worlds are innumerable, unlimited, beyond the reach of calculation and beyond the reach of thought…”
The Buddha: “Good sons, now I will speak to you clearly. Suppose you took all those worlds where a speck of dust has been deposited and where none has been deposited, and reduced them to dust. Let one speck be equal to an eon. The time that has passed since I became a buddha exceeds these by hundreds of thousands of billions of myriads of countless eons. Since that time I have constantly been in this world—preaching, teaching, and transforming. And in other places, in hundreds of thousands of billions of myriads of countless other lands, I have led and enriched living beings…
“Thus since I became a Buddha a very long time has passe, a lifetime of innumerable countless eons of constantly living here and never entering extinction…Even now, though I will not actually enter extinction, I announce that I will adopt the way of extinction. By using skillful means, the Tathagata teaches and transforms livings beings.
“Why is this? If the Buddha lives for a long time in this world, people of little virtue will not plan roots of goodness, and those who are poor and of humble origins will become attached to the five desires and be caught in a net of assumptions and false views. If they see that the Tathagata is always alive and never extinct, they will become arrogant and selfish or discouraged and neglectful. Unable to realize how difficult it is to meet him, they will not have a respectful attitude toward him.”
If you think of the Buddha not so much as a physical, historical person but rather as the living embodiment of the Dharma, then these passages seem not so far-fetched. Something to ponder for today.
Namo Shakyamuni Buddha
P.S. If this seems strange or somehow “not Buddhist”, similar cryptic teachings are scattered elsewhere in Buddhist texts. Consider a similar statement from the Theravada Pali Canon (DN 16):
And the Blessed One said: “Whosoever, Ananda, has developed, practiced, employed, strengthened, maintained, scrutinized, and brought to perfection the four constituents of psychic power could, if he so desired, remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it. The Tathagata [Buddha], Ananda, has done so. Therefore the Tathagata could, if he so desired, remain throughout a world-period [kalpa, eon] or until the end of it.”
1 Japan uses the solar calendar since the 1800’s for observence of most Buddhist holidays, while many other Asian countries still use the traditional lunar calendar. Hence, Nirvana Day may not be observed at the same time for all. Check your local community for details.
2 Currently, of the three translations of the Lotus Sutra I own, I really enjoy this one the most. Dr. Reeves truly made a solid, but easy to read translation, and something of a joy for me.