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Mahaparinirvana Sutta 4

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/25/2012
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Pali Canon

Norman gives the fourth and final talk on the Mahaparinirvana Sutta on Buddha’s final days as found in The Long Discourses of the Buddha – Translation of the Digha Nikaya by Maurice Walshe.

Mahaparinibbana Sutta 4

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

The story of Ananda raises the question of how we read these ancient texts, how we understand them. So we’re reading the Parinibbana Sutta, which is a two thousand year old text, from a completely different place and time. So on the one hand, it would be very natural and easy for us to say, Well, this is so different, and it doesn’t really apply to us that much. Then we could choose the parts that are relevant to us, seem to make sense to us, and discard the rest. This is pretty much the American way: take what you like, and forget about the rest. But, of course, the trouble with that approach is that we are forever stuck with our prejudices and our misconceptions and our faulty assumptions. The text is doing nothing whatsoever to challenge all of that. It only reinforces our beliefs. And not only is it what we like and what we believe in, now it’s also “Buddhist.” So now it’s even better! The problem is that there’s not much growth and development in that way of reading, just reading to reinforce what you already know. How are you going to know something that you didn’t know before?

You could take the opposite approach, which many in the field of religion do: to believe that one’s sacred texts are 100% to be believed. Furthermore, they believe that the texts reflect an historical reality. This is what the Buddha really said. So whether you like it or not, whether you agree with it or not, you must validate the Buddha-word. You either follow it or be in the wrong. There are a lot of Buddhists who actually read the texts like that. Now, of course, there’s no reason to believe that the words of the sutta actually are Buddha’s words. It seems pretty clear that in this sutta, as in all scriptures of all religions, there are always various sneaky little additions or corruptions in the text, from various groups that have an axe to grind, or perhaps by mistake – a misunderstanding or mistake creeps into the text. After all, people are just copying these by hand, so they’re going to make mistakes.

So what to do about this problem with ancient texts? I take these texts, and all Buddhist and religious texts, very, very seriously – as text. They’re prized and serious texts that have been passed on and discussed for thousands of years. The text needs to be contemplated and interpreted, and deeply understood as a living thing that changes over the course of the generations, through discussion and interpretation and serious consideration. Just like everything else: a human being changes, a society changes, an ancient text changes.

So when I read, if I disagree with something in a text – and I often do – I’m aware that I don’t like it or that I disagree with it, I keep on reading or contemplating in order to try to find a deeper meaning. Maybe I missed something. Maybe there’s another way of looking at this disagreeable part of the text. And very often I do find—Aha! I learned something there. But sometimes I go on objecting and disagreeing.

So all this is background to the case of Ananda. The first thing is that Buddha and Ananda go together. The story of the Buddha wouldn’t be about the Buddha without Ananda. Ananda is Ananda, because of Buddha, and Buddha is Buddha because of Ananda. In fact, it says in the text that the Buddha says, “All the buddhas of the past had their Ananda. Each one had an Ananda. And all the buddhas of the future, each one is going to have their Ananda. Because a buddha always goes along with an Ananda, and an Ananda always goes along with a buddha.”

In other words, it’s a mistake to read the text as if there’s Buddha and there’s Ananda, and these are actual people. There’s a Buddha-Ananda! Buddhananda! It’s one character, not an historical figure, but an archetype, a myth. One character. In the archetype, in the myth which is Buddha-Ananda, Buddha stands for the enlightened person and Ananda is the unenlightened person – as one character. So this complete figure, that’s at the center of the Buddha’s whole life, and at the center of this text, is an unenlightened-enlightened being, who requires both of those sides for his functioning.

This begins to sound a little bit like Dogen, doesn’t it? You see how Dogen would have seen that in this text! And Dogen talks about this all the time. He talks about how real enlightenment goes beyond enlightenment and non-enlightenment. He has all kinds of ways of speaking about “going beyond Buddha,” “going beyond enlightenment.” He talks about “total inclusion” and “total dynamic working.” He has many terms that cover this concept, this idea that real awakening includes awakening and unawakening. If it’s just awakening, that’s very one-sided, and in the sutra the Buddha is very one-sided. And some times you need to say one side in order to make the other side clear, but in actual reality, you need both sides. We need enlightenment and non-enlightenment. That’s the path.

However, there’s also a third part of the archetype. Wherever there’s a Buddha, there’s also an Ananda. Wherever there’s a Buddha and Ananda, there’s always a Mara. The archetype of the Buddha has to include a Buddha and an Ananda and a Mara. And notice what happens in this sutta. You know, in the great triumphant story of the Buddha’s awakening, he defeats Mara totally. Except, he doesn’t. Mara keeps coming back to the Buddha periodically throughout the course of his life. And after Buddha’s awakening, what is he tempting Buddha with? He’s not tempting him with chocolate, or sweets, or anything like that. He’s tempting him with extinction. Because that’s what the Buddha really likes. The enlightened ones are tempted by extinction, nirvana, cessation, total peace, total letting go. That’s the Buddha’s weak point. That’s where you can tempt the Buddha. But every time Mara tempts him with this, the Buddha says, No, no, no. I’m not going. I have work to do. I have to make the sangha strong. And he remains in life, teaching, for that purpose even though he would prefer to disappear.

I will finish my talk by reading the last pages of the Buddha’s life in the sutta, because a lot of interesting little points come out.

And the Lord said to Ananda, “Ananda, it may be that you will think, ‘The Teacher’s instruction has ceased. Now we have no teacher.’ But you shouldn’t see it like this, for what I have taught and explained to you as dhamma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher.

And so this is how it is now. We have the teachings and we have our practice. And that’s the teacher. That’s how we survive.

And whereas the monks are in the habit of addressing one another as “friend,” this custom is to be abrogated after my passing. From now on, senior monks shall address more junior monks by their name, their clan, or as “friend,” whereas more junior monks are to address their seniors either as “lord” or as “venerable sir” (bhante).

In other words, the Buddha, for the first time, creates hierarchy, a hierarchy of seniority and respect in the sangha. Before, there was everybody, and there was the Buddha, but now there’s not going to be somebody who replaces the Buddha. There’s going to be a system of relationships based on mutual respect and hierarchy. Then the Buddha says a very famous line:

And if they wish, the Order may abolish the minor rules after my passing.

So the rules are not written in stone. They can be changed, but only the minor rules. And here is a hilarious mistake of Ananda, as the elders of the Theravada school understand it. Ananda forgot to ask the Buddha, But Buddha, which are the minor rules and which are the major rules? Because it’s not clear. As a result, the elders of the Theravada sect say, Therefore, we must keep all rules, minor and major, because we don’t really know which are minor and which are major. This is a gigantic discussion in the history of Buddhism.

“After my passing, the monk Channa is to receive the Brahma-penalty.” “But Lord, what is the Brahma-penalty?” “Whatever the monk Channa wants or says, he is not to be spoken to, addressed, admonished, or instructed by the monks.”

So he’s to be shunned. I guess he was a troublesome, disharmonious person. So that’s pretty harsh. And this is often cited as the Buddha’s recommendation. So he didn’t say put him in jail, kick him out of the order. He said leave him alone and don’t interact with him.

Then the Lord addressed the monks, saying, “It may be that some monk has doubts or uncertainty about the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha, or about the path or the practice. Ask! Don’t afterward feel remorseful, thinking, “The Teacher was there before us, and we failed to ask the Lord face to face! Ask!” But the monks were silent, and the Buddha repeated this a second and a third time and still the monks were silent. Then he said, “Maybe you’re embarrassed or maybe you don’t want to ask out of respect for the Teacher. Then speak to one another, if you have something. But still they were silent. And the venerable Ananda said, “It’s wonderful, it’s marvelous, that in this assembly there isn’t one person who has any doubts or uncertainty about the teachings.” And the Buddha said, “You say that, Ananda, out of great faith, but it’s really true, and I see it with my own clairvoyant eye. Nobody here has any doubt or uncertainty. Of all these hundreds of monastics here, they’re all at least stream-enterers and more. They’re all well established in dharma. Then the Lord said to the monks (the famous lines), “Now, monks, I declare to you, all conditioned things have the nature of disappearing. Keep on practicing with diligence.” (And those were the Tathagata’s last words.)

When the Buddha passed away, there was a tremendous earthquake, terrible and hair-raising, accompanied by thunder. And then the various gods spoke verses, and Ananda uttered this verse:

Terrible was the quaking—

Men’s hair stood on end—

When the all-accomplished Buddha passed away.

Those monks who had not yet overcome their passions wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down, twisting and turning, crying, “All too soon the Blessed Lord has passed away, all too soon the Well-farer has passed away, all too soon the Eye of the World has disappeared. But those monks who were freed from craving, endured mindfully and clearly aware, saying, ‘All compounded things are impermanent. What’s the use of crying.'”

In the spirit of what I was saying before, I think this is a complete picture. There are both of those. Enlightened human grieving is real grieving and real loss and real sorrow, and, at the same time, an appreciation that all compounded things are impermanent. Yes, that’s right, I know that, and also, still, there are tears. There’s Issa’s famous haiku that I’m so fond of quoting:

The world of dew

Is the world of dew.

And yet, and yet.

Then the venerable Anuruddha said,

“Friends, enough of your weeping and wailing! Hasn’t the Lord already told you that all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other, so why all this, friends? Whatever is born, become, compounded, is subject to disappearing. There is no way that it will not disappear.”

So those are the words of the sutta, more or less, how the Buddha passes on.

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