The frail Buddha Shakyamuni, known as Gautama Buddha and
the Historical Buddha, had reached the end of his physical life
and long teaching career. He and his close disciples decided
on his final resting place under the twin sala trees in Kushinagar,
the republic of Malla in North Eastern Ancient India. There he lay
on his side surrounded by many dignitaries and enlightened monks
who had gathered to say farewell to him, (c. 563 or 480 BCE).
Among them, there was a deeply devoted lay follower named Cunda (Chunda).
He was the son of a blacksmith from the nearby area of Kushinagara
castle who had come of his own accord to pay his respects to the
great Buddha, bringing with him 15 of his friends.
To show his devotion, Chunda had discarded his daily work clothes
and put on a simple robe, bearing his right shoulder in the traditional
way of monastics. He knelt on his right knee and bowed at the feet of
the Buddha. He then made a speech confidently and sincerely which
was to change the future course of Buddhism.
As all those attending had done, Chunda implored the Buddha
to accept the simple customary offerings of homemade food
he and his friends had brought. All the distinguished members
of the congregation had already offered luxurious gifts of precious
commodities like livestock and gold, but the Buddha had refused
to accept everything until this point. Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise,
Chunda’s modest offerings were accepted and he proceeded to
eloquently express his deep sadness of himself and his 15 friends
at the prospect of losing the Buddha. He hoped that the simple food
would prepare him for entering Parinirvana, the highest state of
the ceasing of all craving, and that all sentient beings would not
suffer from spiritual poverty after his decease.
In ancient India, and to a certain extent there today, the rigid caste
system rejected people such as Chunda because he did not fit into any
of the four main castes: He was not a clergyman or scholar, not of the
nobility or a warrior, not a merchant or farmer, or a general labourer
or servant. But he had confidence that all humans, despite their caste
imposed at birth, were equal, and that when the Buddha left them,
they would all be equally spiritually destitute. He said:
O World Honoured One! My situation is like that of anyone among
the four castes who, because of poverty, has to leave his country to
find work and then buy domesticated cattle and fertile fields.
After removing the stones and weeds and tilling his land,
he has only to wait for the rain to fall from the sky.
(Chapter 2, Mahaparinirvana Sutra)
His words displayed great wisdom despite his lack of formal education
or spiritual training. He knew that all living beings needed simply
the rain of the Dharma to make them spiritually fertile, and that the
Buddha, the truly awakened one, the Tathagata, could bring such rain
into the human world of suffering (samsara). The Buddha was delighted
and immediately conferred eternal life and connected him to the
ever-presence ( Skt.; dharmakaya). In other words, he was enlightened
on the spot.
During his ministry the Buddha had insisted that his disciples should
leave their ordinary life and become monastic practitioners, learning
strict moral discipline (Vinaya) and upholding monastic rules.
The assembled disciples who had reached the pinnacle of all spiritual
training were looking on as Chunda, a lay person and an ‘untouchable’
– a person outside the caste system – became immediately enlightened
with no training and therefore supposedly little virtue. Chunda became
the exception that was to be a crucial part of the Buddha’s last will and
testament as he moved back to the spiritual source.
There were two ways in which this moment in the history of Buddhism
brought fundamental changes to the aspirations of Buddhists. Firstly,
this unprecedented enlightening of Chunda, a lay person and householder
was to open the path for all beings, no matter what their caste,
whether lay or clerical, to aspire to reach Nirvana (or enlightenment).
It is easy to imagine just how radically this changed the course of Mahayana
Buddhism because now anyone could become enlightened and many lay Buddhist
orders emerged later.
Secondly, Chunda became enlightened within his own lifetime as a
relatively young man. He did not have to work hard to accrue merit and
virtue in order to become enlightened in a future lifetime, which was the
prevailing Brahmin belief at the time. The Buddha’s acceptance of humble
Chunda’s offerings was symbolic of the fact that all sentient beings are
endowed with Buddha Nature, and that when the rain of Dharma waters
the seeds of Buddha Nature, they will ripen, cutting away all negative karma
and human suffering. By bringing so many of his friends in a sincere gesture
of reverence to the Buddha and by having the confidence to make his offering
in front of all the dignitaries and esteemed disciples, he had exhibited the
spirit of a Buddha, without training or privilege.
In appreciation of the Buddha’s acceptance of his humble offerings,
It is hard to be born a human being, and harder still to encounter a
Buddha. It would be like a blind sea turtle encountering a floating log
with a hole in it and poking its head through. (The Great Parinirvana Sutra)
This comment prompted the Buddha to leave his final instructions before
shifting into Parinirvana. His final teachings known as the Dharmakaya
focused on impermanence and detachment followed. He left them in place
of his physical body, assuring the grieving congregation that he would always
be with them embodied in the last teachings and that these final teachings
would exist for all eternity because they were indestructible.
Chunda is also reputed to have described the rareness of meeting a
Buddha in the Sala grove as follows:
An udambara (a flower said to bloom once every 3000 years) can
rarely be seen, and so is it to encounter a Buddha…who can nurture
the faith of all sentient beings and…extinguish the suffering of
death and rebirth. (The Heart, Diamond and the Lotus Sutra)
A recent sculpture of Chunda in the Sala Grove with his 15 friends
executed by a modern Japanese sculptor is an inspiration for Japanese
Buddhists of Shinnyo Buddhism whose principal belief is that all beings
are capable of polishing their Buddha Nature and reaching Nirvana.
Chunda’s deep humility and sincere heart radiated out beyond that of
the advanced practitioners and enlightened who had perhaps become
arrogant or complacent. This indicates that practising as a true Buddhist
of the heart is not about worldly success and reputation, but about humility,
sincerity, and simple but total belief in the power of loving goodness and
pure faith in the world. The character of Chunda marks the beginning not
only of lay Buddhism but also a prevailing feature of the Mahayanas of
Buddhism (2nd century CE onwards), the Bodhisattva who achieves
enlightenment for the sake of all other beings and vows to postpone
his own enlightenment until universal enlightenment is reached.
- Anonymous, Mahapariniravan Sutra
- Anonymous, The Heart, Diamond and the Lotus Sutra (Lepine Publishing, 2009)
- Asvaghosatr – Suzuki T., The Awakening of Faith (Dover, 1900)
- Kato, Tamura, Miyasaka (trans.), The Threefold Lotus Sutra. (Kosei Publishing, Tokyo, 1975)
- Page, T., Buddha-Self: The Secret Teachings of the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. (Nirvana Publications, London, 2003)
- Patton, C., The Great Parinirvana Sutra (Abuddhistlibrary.com)
- Williams, P., Mahãyãna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (Routledge, 1989)
- Yamamoto K. (trans.), Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (3 volumes) (Nirvana Publications, London, 1973)
- Yamamoto, K., Mahayanaism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. (Karinbunko, 1975)