In Japan, the death day of Shakyamuni Buddha falls on 15th February. Everyone has heard of the Buddha, but in case this is your first meaningful acquaintance with him, here is a brief biography. It is important to know a little about his life for several reasons: first, his life is inspirational for those who wish to fill their lives with all that is sacred as opposed to secular; secondly, he had profound insights into how to live fully as a human being instead of existing in a twilight zone, pressurized by sufferings and loss; thirdly, his spiritual evolution throughout his 84 human years of life helps to make sense of the lessons left to all generations of humans to follow, known as the great Nirvana Teachings, given on his deathbed.
He was born a Prince of the Shaka Kingdom, hence the name Shakyamuni Buddha, about 2600 years ago. His birth was acclaimed as highly auspicious, the result of the descending into the lower human kingdom of previous Buddhas, Manavaka and Dipamkara. At his birth he proclaimed himself ‘the holy one of heaven and earth’ and vowed to end all sufferings in the human world. When he was 7 years old, the young Prince started training in civil and military arts so that he would be able to take his father’s place as King. But while attending a festival with his father, he was disturbed by the sight of a small bird pecking at a worm turned up by a plough. He hid in a nearby grove and naturally entered into a deeply meditative state highly praised by his father.
As the Prince’s privileged life progressed, his distress deepened and became apparent to the whole Palace Court. His father became worried about him and so arranged for him to marry the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. But even his love for his new wife could not distract him from his ingrained sadness about the suffering in the world and his birth vow to end it all. Eventually, on learning more about the suffering and death which came to all beings of flesh, he decided to leave his life at the Palace to seek a way to relieve them. His determination to become a monk caused great distress to his family, but he cut off all his hair, put on a simple robe and set out with his begging bowl. After 6 years of terrible austerities, which almost caused his death, he decided to take a Middle Way and to sit in deep meditation until he became enlightened. He then spent the rest of his life sharing what he had experienced with as many people as possible.
The Nirvana teachings reveal the true nature of Nirvana, which roughly translated means ‘release from or the extinguishing of all fear, suffering and craving.’ Another more positive way of viewing it is as freedom or liberation, a state in which we can awaken to the truth of the Universe. In Nirvana, we can become one with the Buddha Shakyamuni and with all beings. There is no longer any separation. At the end of his long ministry, the Buddha had amassed incredible wisdom and insight into samsara (Sanskrit), the sufferings of human life. As he was about to leave the human world and shift back to the celestial realms he had descended from, naturally he wished to leave his fearful mourning disciples a storehouse of teachings and practices, which would motivate them to keep their faith.
He announced to them that when his physical body had disappeared, his storehouse of teachings would embody his eternal spirit, and he would be with them always. This body of teachings was known as the Dharmakaya (I wrote an article on this last year – ref:https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/01/dharma-kaya-the-body-of-truth/) So, as energy is indestructible, and as all the Buddha’s disciples have flawlessly protected the teachings for the last 2,600 years, today, in the 21st century, we can become one with the Buddha’s incredible energy. In this way, if we train using the Nirvana teachings, we are intent on realizing and acquiring the true mind of a tathagata, a fully enlightened Buddha. (see:https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/dharmata-or-tathata-the-essence-of-enlightenment/)
The Buddha bequeathed these final teachings to all beings, saying that all the teachings that had gone before paled in significance compared with them, and that their mystical quality was beyond judgment or intellectual analysis. A Bodhisattva, as mentioned in a previous series on Bodhi (ref:https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/bodhisattva/), is a being driven by compassion supported by wisdom, who pursues the path to Enlightenment through practicing the 6 Paramitas or perfections (which are: giving, moral discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom). The Buddha on his deathbed declared that Bodhisattvas dwelling in Great Nirvana are superior to all others who seek enlightenment for their own sake. He said, “Even if they suffer numerous agonies in hell for the sake of all beings, it will not bother them. For them, it will be as if they are in the midst of the serene pleasure of meditation. Therefore, it is wondrous.”
Pure actions are the key to attaining Nirvana. We are taught that we must accept everything showing our respect for all beings, who are after all Buddhas, and that we must recognize what they are attached to and help them to acquire it while introducing them to the Nirvana teachings. There may be those who speak badly of the final teachings, but we must be tolerant while expounding this wisdom to them. Universal compassion is paramount in our daily lives and thoughts, and towards this end, the analogy is made with doctors curing illnesses. The tathagata administers sweet medicine, which prevents death and rebirth. We can see that in these final teachings the Buddha makes the vow, made at his birth to liberate all people from suffering and loss, complete.
I am so fortunate to have encountered these wondrous final teachings in the evening of my life here in Japan. For me, they are the culmination of all the previous teachings, most of which I have studied and practiced as I mention in ‘My path so far’ (ref: https://lindenthorp.wordpress.com/my-path-so-far/) My guru, the founder of Shinnyo Buddhism, had also experienced many teachings before he came upon this Mahaparinirvana Sutra, but he felt that his mission was to find a teaching that the world most needed at that time 78 years ago. In Japan there was war and deprivation, as well as a Dharma crisis in which all religious leaders fell under suspicion. He realized the absolute suitability of the last teachings and boldly stepped forward to make them the core of a new stream of Buddhism in Japan.
Most schools here revere the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teaching, so Shinnyo Buddhism is unique to date in Japan. In addition, Master Shinjo in his determination to bring all sentient beings to Nirvana, decided to sculpt a Nirvana image as the principal image. He had never sculpted anything previously, though he showed considerable artistic talent as a young person. But his prayers, one for each strike of the hammer on his chisel, drove him on and soon he had completed a 4 metre long image to guide us all. He worked tirelessly to finish it as a true Bodhisattva, with no thought for his physical condition.
We can all find Nirvana in this life if we make the necessary efforts for the sake of others. It is that sincere altruism which brings us closer to the heart of the Buddha. The Nirvana teachings are truly magical and mystical, teachings of the pure heart. There is nothing to analyze or question. The pathway is clear and perfect for this troubled epoch of materialism and cynicism.
The topics of the following 9 articles in this series ‘The Ultimate Teachings’ are:
Article 2: Buddha Nature; Article 3: Emptiness; Article 4: Tathgata; Article 5: Hearing the Dharma; Article 6: Stupas; Article 7: Junda; Article 8: Lifespan; Article 9: Everpresence; Article 10: Supreme Enlightenment