Nirvana Day: The Death of the Buddha

nehan_zu_28chojuji_nanao29There are arguably 3 major holidays in Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, all centered around the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni (e.g. Siddhartha Gautama): his birth, awakening, and death.

February 15th in the solar calendar marks the death of the Buddha, though many traditions still rely on any number of lunar calendars to track this date (e.g. the 15th day of the 2nd month).  In English, we call this day Nirvana Day.  Ostensibly, it is a day of mourning since the appearance of a fully-awakened Buddha who can teach others is extremely rare.¹

However, like all Buddhist holidays, it is also a time of reflection.

The Buddha is said to have lived countless, countless past lives, just as all beings are said to have:

“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.

“Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

quoted from the Assu Sutta, translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

But according to tradition, the Buddha awakened to the truth and resolved to become a fully enlightened Buddha some day, and bent his efforts, lifetime after lifetime toward that end, finally culminating in the life and ministry of Siddhartha Gautama, known more widely as Shakyamuni Buddha.²  This is encapsulated in the Jataka Tales (one of the oldest, extant Buddhist texts), but also became a template for other Buddhas such as described in the opening lines of Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life.

So, the death of the Buddha also reminds us of the Buddha’s accomplishments, and also that the Buddha finally achieved his aim and became fully unbound (e.g. pari-nirvana, hence the name Nirvana Day).

That said, the holiday tends to be somewhat solemn by comparison, which is saying something given how solemn Buddhist holidays typically are.  😏  Per some funeral traditions, people who normally would not eat vegetarian diets might choose to abstain from meat on this day, while some use the opportunity to renew one’s commitment to the Dharma.

It’s also frequently cited in various ways in Asian-Buddhist culture.  Among the six days of the traditional Japanese calendar, butsumetsu (仏滅, “extinction of the Buddha”) is considered the unluckiest, and many traditional temples feature nehan-zu (涅槃図) or images of the Buddha’s death/unbinding.

Let me quote a line from a Japanese epic from the 12th century called the Tales of the Heike:

祇園精舎の鐘の聲、諸行無常の響き有り。 沙羅雙樹の花の色、盛者必衰の理を顯す。 驕れる者も久しからず、唯春の夜の夢の如し。 猛き者も遂には滅びぬ、偏に風の前の塵に同じ。

Gionshōja no kane no koe, Shogyōmujō no hibiki ari. Sarasōju no hana no iro, Jōshahissui no kotowari wo arawasu. Ogoreru mono mo hisashikarazu, tada haru no yo no yume no gotoshi. Takeki mono mo tsui ni wa horobin(u), hitoeni kaze no mae no chiri ni onaji.

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

Chapter 1, translation by Helen Craig McCullough, cited from Wikipedia

The sāla trees cited here are native to India, not Japan, but it was said that when the Buddha was dying from illness, he laid down down facing west between two sāla trees before he breathed his last just as the nehan-zu above depicts.

For Buddhists everywhere, may the passing of the Buddha be a time for reflection, peace and renewed effort. ☺️

¹ the next Buddha to appear, Maitreya, is traditionally not said to come for another few million years if that gives you any clue.  Also, anyone claiming to be Maitreya now, or using that term, is obviously a phony.  Caveat Emptor.

² there is an interesting trend where non-Buddhists call the historical Buddha by his birth name, Siddhartha Gautama, while Buddhists use the title Shakyamuni Buddha (e.g. “the Awakened One from the Sakya tribe”).  Also, small nit-pick, but “Buddha” is not his name, it is a title like “the Pope” or “the President” or “the O.G.”, etc.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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