Norman gives the first talk on the Mahaparinirvana Sutta as found in The Long Discourses of the Buddha – Translation of the Digha Nikaya by Maurice Walshe.
Mahaparinirvana Sutta 1
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jan 04, 2012
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum
This month we are going to study the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, about the Buddha’s last teachings and last days. The first thing is just a little background. I have a big chart of the literature of the Pali canon. It lists every text, more or less, in the canon. I thought that it’s interesting, because the equivalent in Zen is a lineage chart. So in the one you have a chart of the texts, and in the other, you have a chart of the people.
So if you had that big chart, you would see that the Pali canon, which is pretty big, is divided into three main divisions. They call them “baskets,” the pitaka: the Sutta Pitaka, which is the discourses, the Buddha’s teaching; the Vinaya Pitaka, which is the monastic rule, all the regulations and rules and how they came to be; and the third one is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which is the scholastic, psychological, and philosophical teachings that systematized the teachings in the Sutta Pitaka. Then all these three great divisions are subdivided many, many, times over.
The text we’re reading tonight, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, is in the Sutta Pitaka; this sutta has five divisions: the Digha Nikaya, which is the long discourses. There are thirty-four of those, and the Parinibbana Sutta is the sixteenth one, and it’s the longest text in the entire canon. All the other texts are shorter. Some of them are quite short. The Majjhima Nikaya is the middle-length sayings.
Buddhism is famous for its numerical groups. The Anguttara Nikaya is organized according to the groups; there are two thousand, three hundred and eight of those. Then there’s the Kuddaka Nikaya, which is like the Apocrypha, more or less. All the other suttas that were later canonized were put together in the Kuddaka Nikaya. The Dhammapada is in that, and also the Therigatha and the Theragatha, which are the poems of the male and female enlightened followers of the Buddha. The Metta Sutta and the Jataka Tales are in that, so there are a lot of really famous and important and much loved texts in the Kuddaka Nikaya.
The Mahaparinibbana Sutta begins with an emissary coming to the Buddha from King Ajatasattu, who sends the emissary to ask the Buddha whether he thinks it would be advisable to ruthlessly attack his enemy. He wants to know if the Buddha thinks that’s a good idea and if he might win. Now the thing that is not apparent from the text is that King Ajatasattu came to power by killing his father, Bimbasara, who was one of Buddha’s closest followers. So here comes an emissary from the man who killed his father, who was one of Buddha’s closest supporters and friends. So you’d think that the Buddha would have something to say to him, but no. The Buddha receives the emissary perfectly normally. He doesn’t give him a lecture on non-violence or morality. He takes the question seriously: You want me to tell you whether I think you’re going to be victorious? And then he asks Ananda whether the Vajjians, who are the presumed attackees, keep to the seven principles that the Buddha taught them for a good society. Ananda says, Yes, they do that. Then the Buddha says, Well, if they do those things, that means that they are bound to prosper and not decline. In other words, they’ll have a good strong society, implying that the Kind would not be able to defeat them.
I always find interesting in these sutras what is not said. Implied here is the typical Buddhist attitude toward government and rulers: the world is inherently corrupt, and rulers are going to attack other people. Religion relies on the corrupt world for its support. If it weren’t for the kings and other rulers, the Buddha would not be able to survive, because the Buddha didn’t have a livelihood other than support. So there’s a sense of appreciation and tolerance for what is known to be inherently a corrupt. This is a little different in Mahayana Buddhism that has a very inspiring vision of a compassionate society that will come about some day.
This visit from the envoy reminds the Buddha about his own realm, the realm of the monastics. So he summons all the monastics together, and he gives them a list of principles. If you follow these things, you can be expected to prosper and not decline, just like the Vajjians can prosper and not decline:
As long as the monks (meaning the monastics) hold regular and frequent assemblies, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as they meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as they do not authorize what has not been authorized already, and do not abolish what has been authorized, but proceed according to what has been authorized by the rules of training, they will prosper and not decline.
As long as they honor, respect, revere, and salute the elders of long standing, who are long ordained, fathers and leaders of the order, they will prosper and not decline. As long as they do not fall prey to desires which arise in them and lead to rebirth, they will prosper and not decline. As long as they are devoted to forest lodgings (in other words, not living in cities and running around), as long as they preserve their personal mindfulness, so that in the future the good among their companions will come to them, and those who are there already will feel at ease with them, they will prosper and not decline. As long as they hold to these seven principles, the community will survive.
And itsurvived, all this time, more than two thousand five hundred years. It’s a very old, unbroken community. The Buddha goes on to say one last thing:
Monks, I will tell you six things that are conducive to communal living. As long as monks, both in public and in private, show loving-kindness to their fellows in acts of body, speech and mind, they will prosper and not decline. As long as they share with their virtuous fellows whatever they receive as a rightful gift, including the contents of their alms bowls (in other words, as long as they fully share everything they have), as long as they keep consistently unbroken and unaltered those rules of conduct that are spotless, leading to liberation, praised by the wise, unstained and conducive to concentration, and persist therein with their fellows, both in public and in private, continue in that noble view that leads to liberation, to the utter destruction of suffering, remaining in such awareness with their fellows, both in public and in private. As long as monks hold to these six things and are seen to do so, they may be expected to prosper and not decline.
Not only do you have to be an upstanding person, but you also have to conduct yourself in the presence of others in that way, because unless you do, people will not respect you and therefore support you.
Then the Buddha gives what’s called a comprehensive discourse, and he does this throughout the sutra. This is, in one paragraph, the entire teaching and practice of Buddhism.
The Lord, while staying on Vulture’s Peak gave a comprehensive discourse: “This is morality, this is concentration, this is wisdom.
Those are the three studies of Buddhism. Everything in Buddhism is included in morality, concentration, and wisdom. “Concentration, when imbued with morality, brings great fruit and profit.” So just concentration is insufficient. It has to be imbued with ethical conduct. And I think the implication is that ethical conduct itself is insufficient, it also has to be imbued with power of the heart and of consciousness. “Wisdom, when imbued with concentration, brings great fruit and profit.” The mind imbued with wisdom becomes completely free from the corruptions, that is, from the corruption of sensuality, of becoming, of false views, and of ignorance.
That, of course, is the goal of Pali Buddhism: to be free, in effect, from oneself, to be free from one’s own compulsions, one’s own confusion, one’s own ignorance, one’s own obsessiveness, grabby-ness, and just to be able to be free, to live and be kind. And that takes wisdom. But wisdom without concentration is insufficient, and concentration without morality is insufficient. These three things together, fully developed and supporting each other, will lead to that goal.[Question: What’s meant by “becoming”?]
Basically it means grasping for more all the time, more life, more experience, just more but not necessarily more stuff. It means more life, becoming more and more and more and more.
So I’ll just mention one last thing which I found interesting. Shariputra shows up, and says, Buddha, no one has ever been, no one will ever be, nor is anyone now as enlightened as you are—very enthusiastic. And the Buddha says to him something like, Well, Shariputra, this implies that somehow you know all the people in the past who were enlightened, and you’ve evaluated them and found that I’m superior. And Shariputra says, Well, no, I actually haven’t done that. This also implies,that you know all the people that will come along in the future, and you know all the people in the present. Shariputra says, Well, actually, I don’t know all that. But I do know this. I do know that this is how the dharma works: that the hindrances are dropped, wisdom is produced, the mind is free. And I do know that that’s true of you, Buddha. And that’s the end of the story. The Buddha doesn’t say anything else.
Then the Buddha gives a discourse to his lay followers. We often say that in our case, our Buddhist movement in Western countries, is unique in the history of Buddhism, because we are both lay followers and monastics, in the sense that we aspire to awakening. In earlier times, awakening was the province of the monastics, but in Western Buddhism, either nobly or foolishly, we also have that aspiration, even though we’re not living in monasteries and devoting ourselves 100% to meditation practice. So that’s why in these sutras it’s very interesting to read and think about what the Buddha recommends to lay followers, and what he recommends to monastic followers, and to see which of those lists we feel are useful to us or apply to us.
The Lord addressed the lay followers of Pataligama. Householders, there are five perils to one of bad morality, to a failure of morality. What are the five? In the first place he suffers great loss of property through neglecting his affairs. In the second place, he gets a bad reputation for immorality and misconduct. In the third place, whatever assembly he approaches, whether of Khattiyas, Brahmins, householders or ascetics, he does so diffidently and shyly.
In other words, the immoral person is not secure. Immorality leads you to a kind of radical insecurity.
In the fourth place, he dies confused.
Who would have thought such a thing? If you are an immoral person, not an upstanding person, you will die in a confused state. And maybe we’re not so worried about that, but I think that the implication here is that that’s a really bad thing. You do not want to die in a confused state, and if you can avoid that, you avoid it. And of course, the way to avoid it is by a lifetime of religious practice, starting with morality.