Cunda: the Beginnings of Lay Buddhism

Article published in Ancient History Encyclopedia  –

published 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.




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.




Cunda Preparing the Last Meal for the Buddha

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, 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.


We’re a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Each article costs us about $50 in history books as source material, plus editing and server costs. You can help us create even more free articles for as little as $5 per month, and we’ll give you an ad-free experience to thank you! BECOME A MEMBER


  • 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 (
  • 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)

Spiritual Practice for Householders




Once the gods walked among us in the Golden Age of humanity. The divine spark in every being was burning brightly because we were pure, and our karmic debts were as yet non-existent. We were awake, not slumbering and responding blindly to delusions and external stimuli as we are today. We had not yet retreated into the cavern of our ego-mind, separated ourselves away from our origins, and neither did we block or interfere with our deep connection to nature and the universe. In that era, we did not have or need to have opinions, and we were not addicted to gratification, so our intents were pure and rooted in the sacred. In the Golden Age, when humans were at their peak, we had no need to practice to awaken and focus our spirits through mindfulness and meditation, no need to enter monasteries and go on retreat away from the world, to use rituals to invoke the holy beings in sanctuaries or to take refuge. We wore the human form with ease, and were not weighted down and tormented by it as we were in later eras. In fact, our purity allowed us to see the whole spiritual picture instead of tiny glimpses of it or fixating on certain parts of it, and thus we were wise, an integral part of the Universe.

In short, we did not need to rehearse or ‘practice’ how to locate and connect with the divine, because we were divine ‘performers,’ not ‘practitioners,’ as we are often referred to today. The notion of ‘practice’ in modern English historically implies ‘doing’ or ‘acting,’ but post 15th century it often alluded to a profession, e.g. medicine or law, indicating that a skill had to be performed repeatedly in order to perfect it. Gradually, the practical or ‘mundane’ (worldly) human attitude came to prevail as we moved increasingly further and further away from the divine. Finally, in our present degenerate times, we so-called developed peoples are so remote from the divine, wedged tight into our secular worlds, that we have to self-consciously practice to make contact with our higher selves, and, if we are so disposed, with the divine.

Today, most of us are living our modern human lives moment after moment carrying out daily duties and rules as householders, with all their banality, social limitations and rules, their logic, their linear nature, mixed with fleeting moments of joy and rites of passage. Our backdrop, projected by the media, is the daily tragedy of war and corruption, torture and loss, oppression mixed with worldly achievements and status. How can we practice spiritually? How can we bring what we glean from rituals, meditation, teachings, texts, into this everyday life? How can we bring our spirits into play in this seemingly ‘ordinary’ and rigid framework which controls us and in which delusions thrive. Following is an eclectic list of aspects of spiritual practice:

  1. Mindfulness: during daily life guided by holy texts, teachings, or spiritual words.
  2. Meditation: various types – sitting, insight, walking, reflection, etc.
  3. Good and altruistic deeds: helpful actions in society; serving at temples; putting aside the ego and self-serving; putting others first, etc.
  4. Generosity: with materials, time and thoughts.
  5. Devotion: surrender, gratitude, humility.
  6. Interface with the spiritual/invisible world: sense of awe and bliss; realizing that we are spirit above all, and when we become flesh, we are training to become perfect compassionate beings (Bodhisattvas).
  7. Recognition of being integrated into the universe: sacred messages surround us if only we can accept and trust in them.
  8. Ever-presence of divine beings: connecting with them and placing total trust in them.
  9. Recognizing and polishing our Buddha Nature.

Gaia As hinted at earlier, in a way, the phrase ‘spiritual practice’ is a paradox because the word ‘practice’ implies human effort to acquire a skill, or a practical approach: whereas, ‘spiritual’ relates to the magical invisible world, an ethereal world of ‘ness’ or universal truth. However, it is doubtful that spirit needs to ‘practice’; whereas the determination of human beings to succeed or to overcome by acquiring skills and knowledge, requires constant reinforcement in order to perfect it. Such is the allure of the mystical and the magical for human practitioners who are determined to escape from the self-made prison of samsara, and break loose from the manacles of karma. But what if such striving was unnecessary?

Spiritualis in medieval Latin meant ‘of or pertaining to breath, breathing, wind, or air.’ The word ‘spirit’ corresponds well with ‘aspiration’ (breathing, raising), another word common to religious ‘efforts’ (exerting our strength); ‘spirit’ is ethereal, whereas ‘effort,’ which we need when we practice, is a human quality. In simple terms, etymology aside, perhaps we humans aspire to instantly recognize our true nature, our true spirit or energy, and we make ongoing efforts to live in a compassionate balanced way, aiming to create harmony in our communities and bring about world peace. ancestors

So, in this present period of what Buddhists call ‘The Last Day of the Law,’ if we are going to excel as human beings (Bodhisattvas, in a ‘state of grace’), we must deliberately or self-consciously reposition our good and innocent nature, our true nature, which the Buddha revealed and reaffirmed to us in his last teachings, The Nirvana Teachings. Before he passed into the Universal source, he encouraged us to polish this Buddha nature until it shone, until our individual brightness became apparent in the universe. This polishing of the original divine spirit leads to what the Buddha referred to as ‘enlightenment,’ an extinguishing of all craving, or a return to our divine nature or spirit.

The sad parting of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni from the human world – revered teacher and tireless devotee to the happiness and liberation of humanity from all suffering – creates a situation in which his disciples were forced to cease their reliance on him. He had appeared in the human world of suffering, or samsara (Skt), and relinquished his privileged life as a Prince, expressly to devote himself to this end. His appearance, as for any spiritual leader, in human form is highly significant. It indicates that human beings needed detailed instructions and constant support in transcending their suffering and arrogance at this time. That they needed a guide because they were becoming remote to the divine.

2600 years ago in ancient India gripped by war and power-mongering, Buddha Shakyamuni’s physical presence as a model was desperately needed. Even in his own lifetime, the entire Shakya clan (his own people) was massacred in a battle for supremacy and wealth, and his father’s kingdom appropriated.

Most of us moderns place our own sensory needs, according to our own view of the world synthesized by our human minds, first. Eventually, perhaps we lose touch with our spiritual being, our divine nature, all together. Within that human view, if we are not gratified, we indulge ourselves in delusional behavior, such as fear, anger and machinations to get what we feel we are entitled to, and more. This sense of craving – regretting the past, and anticipating a future, or longing to be somewhere we are not – is generated from our superimposed human concepts of time and space. However, our Buddha Nature is one with the universe, so it craves nothing for or of itself.

divine link 1 It is salutary to recall that once we had no fears or delusions because we were totally in tune with the love of the great universe of which we are a vital part. Our divine nature was and still is a special thread, its texture and colour vital to complete the tapestry of the Universe. In that Golden Era, we were not yet arrogant leading us to separate ourselves away to try to fabricate our own tapestry.

In this latter degenerate period, we desperately need to locate our original nature, which has become dirtied by negative karma and neglect. We need to purify and clean away this detritus, which conceals it, and so reconnect with the divine power.

The ‘spiritual practices’ or performances of indigenous people are akin to those of this Golden Age. I experienced them first-hand when I stayed with a tribe which was returning to traditional life deep in the interior Lands of Australia. Their desert lives are totally integrated with those of their creation heroes who manifest all around them in the natural environment, which is known as ‘The Dreaming.’ They consider themselves to be not separate from the universe, and view natural phenomena as they view themselves, part of the Great Mother Nature’s creation. They interact directly with the external world, never needing to put themselves apart from it by constructing their own concepts of it or filtering their perceptions. fire sticks

The climax of their lives is The Djang, the glorious death ceremony. Each of them is in love with death, longing for the moment when their spirit is freed from its physical vessel, the body. Preparations for Death ceremonies last usually for 12 days, filled with ritual dances and observances. Then, as the moment of the Djang approaches, they sit and wait for creator spirits to visit the sanctified Burial Ground, and for that moment when the deceased is released, having learned all the lessons of being human. Their spirit rises up into the sky against the backcloth of a full moon, and travels on into other dimensions. It is well attested that life conducted in full knowledge that death may come at any moment is perhaps the greatest spiritual practice of all.

In the western world, meditation has become one of the prominent and fashionable forms of spiritual practice in modern times. However, there is great danger that it becomes the be-all and end-all of spiritual pursuits, representing an end in itself. Many of us desire transformation; we are convinced that we are imperfect, that our minds need wiping clean because they are fundamentally flawed. But this is an impossible feat, our striving indicative of our tendency towards dependence: in other words, we ask someone or something else to give us a fresh start.

We must learn to accept all our thoughts, good or bad, sincere or insincere; simply stand back and witness them as if we are staring up to the surface of the iceberg from its massive body (the tip is the conscious mind and the body of the iceberg is the unconscious mind).

Nirvana Buddha by H.H. Master Shinjo ito

Nirvana Buddha by H.H. Master Shinjo Ito

So, it is inspirational to consider what ordinary people were like going about their daily lives in the early periods of so-called ‘civilisation.’ In this Golden Era of ancient India, several thousand years before the Buddha’s appearance, the gods, the Holy Beings, lived among the members of communities, making the divine easily accessible and full enlightenment possible by simply being in their presence. This notion is based on the premise that all humans born into the physical dimension are indiscriminately endowed with a divine flame, an indestructible link with the sacred.

The world view of ancient India then, long before the Buddha’s appearance, was the Buddha’s legacy, and witnessing the deterioration around him, his last teachings were intended to prepare us for the deterioration we witness in today’s world, which he predicted with his clairvoyant powers. But what had also happened among his disciples was that they had become dependent on him, literally following him around as he taught substantial congregations of seekers of the truth. This dependency on his physical presence, made them deeply fearful as his death rapidly approached. He earnestly reassured them with the following words:

A Buddha does not die. Likewise, Dharma does not perish. Only tathata (shinnyo-Jpn) is real; everything else is illusory. The substance of the Buddha is shinnyo.

In his last moments, Buddha revealed to his beloved disciples that the teachings he was leaving for them would become his body, the Dharma body, or Dharma kaya, after his physical death. In other words, to the first generations of disciples, the posthumous presence of the Buddha could be found in the form of his teachings, the Dharma. Later in the Mahayana, there are three ‘bodies’ of the Buddha; the Dharmakaya is the ground for the other two – the Enjoyment Body (Sambhoga-kaya) and the Emanation Body (Nirmanakaya). These 3 are synonymous with perfect enlightenment, transcending all perceptual forms. They have many astounding qualities: freedom from all conceptualization; liberation from defilements; and the intrinsic ability to perform all activities. In later forms of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, influenced by tantric thought, the Dharmakaya is considered to be equivalent to the actual mind of the Buddha.

While transmitting his final teachings to the first disciples, which have flawlessly been transmitted orally up until today via the various Dharma Streams, the Buddha entreats them to become a reminder of Buddhahood, a representation of the Dharma-Body for all sentient beings to return to. In chapter 12 of the Sutra, The Nature of the Tathagata, he says:

I (the Buddha and all disciples) shall become a stupa (a repository of holy relics), a reminder of Buddhahood that other sentient beings can respect, and represent the Dharma body for them to return to…….I shall be the eyes for the blind and also a true refuge for Hearers and Solitary Awakened Ones.

This is surely testament to our divine origins, to our inclinations towards the good and moral, to kindness and compassion, which are without doubt at our core. We each have the spirit of a Buddha, an awakened one. We each have the choice of waking up from the deluded dreams contaminating our minds, of sensing the formless nature of reality, of resisting indoctrination and repression. The Dharmakaya, the Dharma body of the Buddha, walks among us today as we struggle with our delusions in a secular world of overwhelming diversity. If we connect with our true nature, letting go of our addiction to gratification and living with the courage to be our true selves, then we will find happiness in the realization of our sacred missions.

stupa We are each a stupa, a shining tower housing the essence of the Great Truth (Tathata {Skt} Shinnyo {Jpn}), but the divine can only work in us when we are empty of delusions, self-serving desires and attachments. There are numerous ways we can ‘practice’ to realize this emptiness, but there is a danger that we ‘practice’ with ego, becoming attached to the practices themselves, forcing and striving to achieve these states. This struggling against the current of the natural, this shouldering and manipulation and grasping by religious means, is perhaps burying our true nature even more deeply.

It is interesting and at the same time quite shocking that human beings often long to wipe clean the slate of their beings, to erase everything so that they can be reborn, totally transformed. Many of us view our thinking as flawed so we block it, hide it away; we experience a frisson of guilt at having such thoughts and then bury them, perhaps forever. But it is possible to just let our thoughts appear, let them surface as detritus or debris in water. We do not need to condemn ourselves for having so-called bad thoughts, in the same way as we do not condemn ourselves for having so-called good thoughts.

It is impossible to wipe the slate of our human existence and our spirit entirely clean, unless we synthesize amnesia or undergo brain-washing. Instead, we can adapt and accept – making the effort to free the flow of the water of our life. We are essentially formless exactly like water; in its natural state it flows wherever it wants to, wherever it can. Sometimes over-zealous practice can freeze that flow, fixing our nature into a glacier. Emptiness is the free flow of our waters, which are healing and cleansing, refreshing and exuberant. pouring water

As stated earlier, once we did not need to make an effort to keep our divine flame alight by spiritual practice. We were truly living out our original nature, flowing freely, merging with the fluid natures of those around us in loving harmony. Then, we learned to utilize the intellectual mind to interfere in this natural process, and our blindness began, leading us to go our own egocentric way towards the secular and personal power.

We may meditate, we may reflect, we may take empowerments and initiations, we may doggedly follow the letter of our teacher’s advice, but we must not lose sight of the truth, the suchness, which is deep inside ourselves, inside our stupa. We must not rule out the possibility that our ancestors were divine beings who handed on their divinity through the generations to us, and that in simply being, sitting with ourselves exactly as we are, that spark will burst into joyful flame once again.

We may see ourselves solely as followers of a teaching, of a guru, but being a follower implies that we are separate and different from our spiritual guide, and thus we are separate from the Buddha’s eternal presence, the Dharmakaya.

In Chapter 23 of the final teachings, Bodhisattva Lion’s Roar, the Buddha teaches the importance of observing the holy precepts, of entering into holy meditation, and of acquiring holy wisdom by first stating what they are not, an approach fashionable among religious teachers at that time:

Holy Precepts are not embraced:

  • for your own happiness
  • for the sake of profit or worldly affairs
  • out of fear that you may fall into the lower realms of suffering
  • to avoid encountering danger or unhappiness
  • to avoid being punished
  • to avoid damage to your reputation

Holy Meditation should not be practiced:

  • for your own enlightenment and benefit
  • for your own safety
  • to avoid negative things such as greed, being free from impurities, etc
  • to avoid disputes and physical violence

Holy wisdom cannot be acquired with the following thoughts: If I become wise I shall:

  • be able to liberate myself and escape the suffering realms, as no human can liberate all beings from the sufferings of birth and death
  • be able to become enlightened quickly, eliminating all delusions now I have encountered the Buddha, which is as rare as the blooming of an udambara flower (blooming once every 3000 years
  • be able to overcome the agonies of birth, aging, sickness, death and shine a light on my spiritual darkness

When we are truly practicing for the sake of others, we are not conscious of the form of wisdom, or meditation, or even the words of the precepts, for they are our true nature. The very fact that the precepts have been etched into texts, and have to be committed to memory, is testament to how isolated from the divine we have become. We do not have to be self-conscious of them. They are housed in our stupa, integral to our ancient unconscious minds, embedded in the body of the iceberg. Following is the aspiration of a truly divine being:

As one with wisdom, I wish to carry the burden of the inexpressible agony of all beings on my shoulders. I wish to remove people’s poverty, crudeness, insidious desire, and to soak up their poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. I implore people to let go of their greed and lust, and not be bound by their desire to have a good reputation and respect. I wish to free people from the cycle of birth and death, but will stay in that cycle myself to guide every last one to Nirvana. I wish every sentient being to attain ‘perfect universal enlightenment,’ and to recognize and cherish their divine origins and missions.



With each breath, each blink of the eye, each thought as it arises, we are a Buddha, an awakened one, firmly here in the centre of this moment. We are each flawless, inspirational, universal beings. We should look no further, for we are the divine if we allow ourselves to be.