Cunda: the Beginnings of Lay Buddhism

published in Ancient History Encyclopedia on 01 December 2016

 

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.

 

chunda

 

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.

 

death-of-buddha-fresco

 

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.

THE UNPRECEDENTED ENLIGHTENING OF CHUNDA, A LAY PERSON
AND HOUSEHOLDER, WAS TO OPEN THE PATH FOR ALL BEINGS, NO
MATTER WHAT THEIR CASTE.

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,

Chunda said,

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.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha

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.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Nirvanasutra.net
  • 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)
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