2600 years ago, under twin Sala trees among all the dignitaries and enlightened monks gathered to say farewell to the Buddha Shakyamuni, there was a deeply devoted lay follower named Chunda. He was the son of a blacksmith from the nearby area of Kushinagara castle who came to pay his respects to the Buddha, bringing with him 15 of his friends.
To show his devotion, he had discarded his daily clothes and put on a simple robe, bearing his right shoulder in the traditional way of monastics, kneeling on his right knee and bowing at the feet of the Buddha. He then made a speech confidently and sincerely, which was to change the future course of Buddhism.
In essence, he begged the Buddha to accept the simple 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. To everyone’s surprise Chunda’s modest offerings were accepted. Chunda eloquently expressed his deep sadness at the prospect of losing the Buddha and begged him to accept the offerings from himself and his 15 friends before he entered Parinirvana, the special Nirvana only Buddha’s can enter, so that all sentient beings would not suffer from spiritual poverty.
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)
Chunda’s 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 on him and connected him to the ever-presence. In other words, he was enlightened on the spot.
The Buddha during his ministry had insisted that his disciples should leave their ordinary life and become monastic practitioners, learning strict moral discipline 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(someone who had not given up ordinary life or entered a monastery), 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 hence the emergence of many lay Buddhist orders later.
Secondly, Chunda became enlightened within his own lifetime as a relatively young man and did not have to work hard to accrue merit and virtue in order to become enlightened in a future lifetime, which was the prevailing Brahminbelief 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 and all negative karma and human suffering will be cut away.
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 either training or privilege.
In other words, this courage and wisdom was a facet of Chunda’s true nature, and thus true human nature is Buddha Nature. The Buddha’s exclusive mission was to liberate all beings from the sufferings of being a human.
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.’
This comment moved the Buddha to leave his final instructions before shifting into Parinirvana. His final teachings on impermanence and detachmentfollowed, known as the Dharmakaya, which he left in place of his physical body. These final teachings would exist for all eternity and were indestructible.
Chunda is especially significant to my own spiritual journey. During my lengthy Buddhist career, I can trace the beginnings of my Buddhist faith to the sea turtle that Chunda mentions. As a young child in urban Britain, I heard this maxim on a radio program and retained it as I searched for a way into Buddhism without any leads.
I was a quite devout Christian through my family’s influence, but the Buddha, even though at that time I had no idea what or who it was, somehow penetrated into my unconscious mind and I began to yearn to receive the teachings and become a disciple. I had neither Buddhist friends nor contact with the Buddhist teachings in northern working class Britain in the sixties, and yet, I was certain that I would be like that turtle, and that one day I would find the Buddha.
Chunda is also reputed to have described the rareness of meeting a Buddha in the Sala grove as follows:
‘An udambara blossom (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 Buddha’s revelation that even lay people and women, in fact, anyone, could train spiritually and so enter enlightenment is also pertinent to my case. As a Tibetan Buddhist in the Kagyu lineage, I was intent on taking vows and becoming a Lama, but at the final stage I had a tiny doubt about committing myself to monastic life because I felt the best training ground to learn how to love unconditionally, was in ordinary human life. I searched to find a lay order so I could fully devote myself to humanity. Also as a woman, as is commonly known and still the case in some lineages, there was no equal treatment with men.
Finally, the Nirvana teachings have found me in Japan, and I am fulfilled and engaged in normal human life while holding a priestly rank, and serving at the Temple whenever possible.
In Japan, for historical reasons, Buddhism has been and continues to be perceived as training for the elite or monastics only, so my order is working hard to make Mahayana Buddhist practice accessible to all Japanese people and people of the world. It is a challenge to guide Japanese people of great humility to have the confidence to practise rituals that were once only available to the Imperial family.
Kobo Daishi, or Kukai, was responsible for single-handedly bringing Buddhism to Japan from China in 9th century, but at that time the national popular religion was Shinto, and it remained so until 1945. Here, in modern times, Buddhism has become the principal means of conducting funeral rites within society, but the main emphasis on Buddhism still lies in monastic practices at a distance from general society.
Chunda then, is a seminal figure in my Dharma stream. We aspire to do as he did: to bring as many people as possible to the other shore of Nirvana. A recent sculpture of Chunda in the Sala Grove with his 15 friends executed by a modern Japanese sculptor, Nakayama Hideo, is one of our objects of devotion. It is truly inspirational.
As Mahayana Buddhists, the welling up of or generating of Bodhicitta – the wish to take all sentient beings with us to enlightenment – is made all the more possible by knowing that every being is capable of polishing their Buddha Nature and reaching Nirvana. That just as Chunda’s Buddhahood was identified by the Buddha because of his sincere heart and wish for all his friends unconditionally to have the opportunity to experience the presence of the Buddha so rare in the world, we can each experience the ever-presence of the Buddha through the Nirvana teachings, and our sincerity will be recognised
The Buddha’s acceptance of the final offerings of a lay householder and untouchable signalled the very final instructions, which could not have been revealed before that moment. The essence of them is that we must each learn to control our own minds; our minds determine our behaviours in the world, either as a self-serving beast or a magnanimous and compassionate Buddha. We must rid ourselves of human passions, driving them out of our rooms as if they were poisonous vipers.
He then reassures everyone that his death is only of the flesh – as it was born and nurtured by parents, so it must deteriorate and perish – and that Buddhahood is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. The final teachings were to become the body of the Buddha –the Dharmakaya – and he begs all his disciples to preserve them just as they had followed and cherished him in life. In doing so, the Dharma Body of the Tataghatas will be ever-present and so never disappear.
Chunda’s deep humility and sincere heart radiated out beyond that of the advanced practitioners and enlightened who had perhaps become arrogant or complacent. So we can learn from this that practising as a true being of the heart is not about worldly success and reputation, but about humility and sincerity, and simple but total belief in the power of loving goodness and pure faith in the world.
I believe we are all Chunda. Even if we have low status and are poor in materialist terms, even though we might have shortcomings and little knowledge, everyone has the capacity to love all beings unconditionally and indefinitely, and this is our principle mission in human life – to become a Bodhisattva – the embodiment of spiritual ideals.