Did Buddha die a legendary death, choosing the very moment of his passing and calling on his friends to gather round him? Or did he die normally, of old age, an elderly man poisoned by pork or mushrooms...or maybe poisoned by nothing at all?
Both versions of the death of Buddha are defended by scholars. The more mythic versions are romantic and appealing, but some evidences suggests that even the poisoning explanation is myth. Many have argued that it is likely that Buddha died not of poisoning but of mesenteric infarction, a condition of advanced age.
But does it really matter which story is correct? What are we to make of these two seemingly opposing versions of the death of Buddha: one mythic and beautiful, one human and ordinary?
The stories surrounding the death of Buddha invite each of us to reflect on our own impermanence and our personal attachments to life and to the Buddha himself. Life is nothing but impermanence, after all. Buddhism teaches that clinging to any part of life is the universal root cause of all human suffering.
When Gautama Buddha's faithful servant Ananda began weeping at the prospect of losing his beloved teacher, Buddha is reputed to have said to him:
"Enough Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament. For have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved, there must be change, separation and severance? Of that which is born, come into being, compounded, and subject to decay, how can one say: 'May it not come to dissolution"? There can be no such state of things... Now you should put forth energy, and soon you too will be free from the taints."
In other words, Buddha told Ananda not to grieve for him, but to attend to his own practice instead, to let go of his own attachments ('taints'), and cultivate compassion for himself and others so that Ananda too would experience awakening and liberation.
All Buddhist practice is directed toward the release of all sentient beings from suffering, starting with oneself. The attachment to life is surely one of the most difficult attachments to release, but perhaps the very last attachment to go is the attachment to a beloved teacher.
The popular book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! addresses this difficult final attachment, reminding us that it is up to each and every one of us to find our own truth, to let go of the belief that answers lie outside of us. Gautama Buddha says as much to Ananda on his death bed, saying in paraphrase:
"Hey don't worry about me, worry about yourself! Practice so you too can be released."
Each person is charged with the task of awakening and passing on the teachings of the Buddha, also known as the Dharma. By doing the, the teachings are never really forgotten. A new Buddha emerges in every age, creating a new earth. In this way Buddhism adapts itself to every age and every culture.
Just as the lotus blossoms on the boundary between water and air, meditating on the death of Buddha shows us the boundary between the wheel of illusory forms that we call life, and the shining void which lies beyond the world of illusion and opposites.
We can look at the death of Buddha as both mythic and beautiful, and human and ordinary. Beyond that, the life and death of Gautama Buddha is a road map, a Middle Way that offers the promise of refuge to all who seek liberation.
- If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! Sheldon B. Kopp, Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1972.
- Last Days of the Buddha - The Maha Parinibbana Sutta, 1988. Sister Vajira and Francis Story. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.
- How Did Lord Buddha Die? Speaking Tree, Pallavi Thakur, May 27, 2017.