Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Day Buddha Died

It was a full-moon night in the 6th month of the lunar calendar. At 400 metres above sea level, the small town in the Gangetic plain was scorching during the day with temperature reaching the high 30s. There was no rain, despite the fact that it was in the middle of a monsoon season.

Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

At nightfall, there was a calm hush where 500 Enlightened men gathered just outside Kusinara. Summer night's wind breezed past sadly as if to say its final farewell. Around the men, sala trees wept their young, white petals on to the sandy soil that was moisturized by night dew.

It was the day Lord Buddha would die.

Last words: Life's summary chapter

Fast forward to the 21st century. In bookstores and on websites all over the world, we see countless volumes of famous - and not-so-famous - people's last words. From the words uttered by someone about to be beheaded on a guillotine to whispers of dying leaders in the comfort of their deathbed. Chinese sages, Japanese feudal warriors, European philosophers, American writers; a startling number of people in history seemed to have wanted to say something before they departed.

For most quotes that made it to print, they seem to share one thing in common. It is a summary of life's learning. It does not have to be dramatic, or poetic, for that matter. For real wisdom of life tends to present itself in its simplest form. When someone's time is running out, and they know it, it is more likely to be something that comes out in the spur of the moment, almost as an afterthought. Few, we may assume, would bother to edit the rhymes in those words.

Why are we drawn to read such words with great enthusiasm, then? Answers could vary. Many probably read out of curiosity, some might do just for the sheer entertainment factor. Yet, there are presumably others who are determined to learn something out of the people who passed, recognising the undeniable wisdom of life at the most crucial moment. For it goes without saying that, when facing our own death, we would be able to see life in its practical perspective.

The importance of Lord Buddha's last words

Yet, while we take pleasure from reading the last words of people from all walks of life, trying to visualise what the person was like when they were living and theorising about their state of mind when they were about to go, has it ever occurred to us that we should pay special attention to the last words of the Enlightened One?

Two thousand, five hundred and fifty-one years after that fateful day, with the advent of modern science, researchers interested in Lord Buddha's death seem to be more preoccupied with what exactly Lord Buddha ate in his last meal (was it pork or mushroom?), what exactly the illness that took his life was, or what materials were used in the cloth used to wrap his body. Less and less emphasis is put on the attempt to understand what Lord Buddha intentionally left behind as his last words. Even less is the attempt to live the life according to those last words.

Lord Buddha, after all, was a Great Teacher. Until today, he is our Spiritual Father, someone who decided to preach and help the rest of us out of suffering despite the realisation that it was not going to be easy on him. With a heart full of loving kindness, Lord Buddha sacrificed his whole life, spending every day and night teaching, sleeping only two hours a day.

Why so little rest? Maybe because he knew that he wouldn't be returning ever again in another rebirth. Yet there are so many suffered beings desperately seeking liberation. Therefore, it became his habit to turn every deed into a teaching opportunity. When he was in a forest, he used a handful of leaves to teach dhamma to the monks that were following him. When he was sitting by a river, he used floating logs as a metaphor.

Naturally, lying on his deathbed, Lord Buddha made sure he used the occasion to leave a lasting lesson. Once a teacher always a teacher, goes one saying. In fact, one can even argue that Lord Buddha's last words seem to sum up his entire teaching.

What are they?

Understanding Lord Buddha's last words

"...Vaya dhamma sankara,

Appama dena sampadetha..."

Literally, those Pali words mean "...All components are subject to decay, do accomplish all your duties with mindfulness..."

In its literal sense, the words may not mean much to those unfamiliar with Buddhism or those who have yet to experience mindfulness practice. That is why most of us could not grasp its high value. But if you have practiced mindfulness, you would be truly moved by the last words deliberately uttered by a dying man who was lying modestly on Earth. He was talking to us, for our own benefits. For he knew that if anyone pays enough attention to the words uttered in the context of his death and act accordingly, they, too, would be able to bring themselves out of suffering.

Basically, Lord Buddha wanted to use his own deteriorating body as an educational medium, using the first half of his last words to reinforce his teaching on the Law of Impermanence. The latter half provides us with how we could get out of suffering - by practicing mindfulness in everything we do and also to give it a full effort so that one day we, too, will be fully liberated.

In the context of the present situation in Thailand

Lord Buddha's last words are applicable to all types of suffering, not just for the ultimate big picture of getting ourselves out of this samsara. At the very basic level, if we diligently apply mindfulness in everything we think, say and do, we will be able to understand and conquer our everyday suffering.

But if we still do not take heed of Lord Buddha's last words and neglect to make an attempt to at least understand what he meant by "mindfulness", then, his last words uttered out of loving kindness to us all would have been in vain. It would not be only the death of the historical Buddha, but also of the Buddha-nature inside each and everyone of us as well.

When we fail to pay attention to our Spiritual Father's last words and act accordingly, do we still have the nerve to call ourselves Buddhists? Likewise, if we fail to listen to HM the King's constant reminder to us to be mindful and have loving kindness towards one another, do we still have the nerve to call ourselves Thai? Instead of paying attention to what colour HM the King is wearing today, isn't it better to try to understand what he repeatedly tries to say to us and act accordingly?

Kusinara is now without Lord Buddha. The place where he died has become a gloomy archaeological site. It looks rundown and empty, except for occasional groups of tourists. There, the sala trees stood sadly under a scorching sun, quietly weeping, mourning the past that can never return. What should we do in response to our Spiritual Father's final reminder, then? By accomplishing our duties with mindfulness, of course.


tambolianmap said...

Dear Mr. Siamwalla,

In reference to your article on The Day Buddha Died, Dec 5, 2008 and Mindfulness I thought your criticism cogent and appropriate but I suspect it is falling on deaf ears.

I am a simi-retired American Physicist who has just been recognized as a Buddhist Mystic by Pra Lompone Butane, Abbott of Wat Rachagond, about 30 km south of Ranong. Oddly enough, I suspect that what that actually means is culturally vague in both cultures but I was surprised at the recognition. Apparently he had a dream about me a week or so before we met. I took Upasaka vows at the Thai Temple in Bodhi-gaya India in 1979 as well as pasted an insight test given me by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand at that time. It was all quite odd. I was taken around Thailand to visit remarkable forest monks and was given a number of amulets to commemorate the occasion, which seem to be quite valuable now, a couple of million baht! You can see these at;


I also studied Zen with Sung Saneme a Korean Zen Master in Providence RI in the early 1970's as well as Tibetans Mahayana and Chan Buddhism at Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco.

As a Physics researcher I principally worked on Mapping Strategies for Predictability in Decision Making and actually figured it out with the help of ancient Buddhist visualizations. It seems that the Buddhist figured this our 2500 years before we in the west asked the question.

In reference to mindfulness of politicians the problem is that the political circumstances at this time in an actual chaos state such that it is not possible for any decisions to be made at all - ever. The decision making rules are undecidable on a social level and by inference unmanageable. The Thai political landscape can not change until the entire process changes via a new constitution or coop more likely. By the way, all democracy's are having the same problem, they no longer work on a technical level. There are option but I suspect things will get much worse before anyone willing to make the fundamental comceptual changes that need to be made. Much of this work in being done at the Santa Fe Institute by the people who figured out Hedge funds.

I am comming to Bangkok sometime about 18, Decemer if you want to talk. There are Buddhist options to these problems if we can get one of the Monks to take a position, which is against their vows!!!

Thank you,

James Marshall

nash said...

Dear Mr Marshall,

Thank you very much for visiting my blog and kindly leaving a note.

Believe me, you are not the first reader who observed that what I wrote might fall on deaf ears. :-)

Although I fully realize that my humble article might not be of interest for the majority in our society, I still have some hope in humanity.

That is, the reason I agreed to become a columnist for BKK Post and to cover on this seemingly-niche subject is because I still hope there would be someone who would listen.

My goal is modest. I told myself, if there is just only one person who is intrigued by what I wrote and wants to try mindfulness practice for the first time, I would be happy already.

With the story on Obama, "The Mindful Candidate," my modest goal was already achieved. There is a gentleman who, upon reading my article, decided to visit my blog and read some more from the archive.

He then kindly emailed me to say that something in there resonated with his past experience, and that it prompted him to believe it is time to move to the next step, that is, to try mindfulness retreat for the first time. He also asked me to recommend places for him.

There is no words to describe the joy I felt from reading his mail. I believe that we have to start from one person at a time. Then, he or she would continue to affect the people around him/her.

If other readers happen to read this message, please know that I always send my best wishes to all of you every time I write anything. For, it is my personal conviction that mindfulness practice is the most valuable gift that one human being can give another.

Well, thanks again, Mr. Marshall, for kindly left a note and for your observation that the message in the article(s) might fall on deaf ears. I totally understand what you mean, for once I was deaf myself!

But may be because I myself have been deaf for a long time, I felt I have to reach out to others as much as I can, so that they would have it easier, and earlier, than I did! :-)

I would respond your other observation in this email, then.


Nash Siamwalla
Bangkok, Thailand