Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage
by Jeremy Russell
- "... and here at Kushinagar he entered
- "How transient are all component things!
Growth is their nature and decay:
They are produced, they are dissolved again:
And this is best, -- when they have sunk to rest."
- (Mahaparinirvana Sutra)
Vast of the places of pilgrimage is Kushinagar, where Shakyamuni entered
mahaparinirvana. This was the furthest he had reached on his final journey, which retraced
much of the road he had walked when many years before he had left Kapilavastu.
When he reached his eighty-first year, Buddha gave his last major teaching--the subject
was the thirty-seven wings of enlightenment--and left Vulture's Peak with Ananda to
journey north. After sleeping at Nalanda he crossed the Ganges for the last time at the
place where Patna now stands and came to the village of Beluva. Here the Buddha was taken
ill, but he suppressed the sickness and continued to Vaisali. This was a city where
Shakyamuni had often stayed in the beautiful parks that had been offered to him. It was
also the principal location of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma.
While staying at Vaisali, Buddha thrice mentioned to Ananda a buddha's ability to
remain alive until the end of the aeon. Failing to understand the significance of this
Ananda said nothing and went to meditate nearby. Shakyamuni then rejected prolonging his
own life-span. When Ananda learned of this later he implored the Buddha to live longer but
he was refused, for his request had come too late.
Coming to Pava, the blacksmith's son Kunda offered him a meal which included meat. It
is said that all the buddhas of this world eat a meal containing meat on the eve of their
passing away. Buddha accepted, but directed that no one else should partake of the food.
Later it was learned that the meat was bad. He told Ananda that the merit created by
offering an enlightened one his last meal is equal to that of offering food to him just
prior to his enlightenment.
Between Pava and Kushinagar the Buddha rested near a village through which a caravan
had just passed. The owner of the caravan, a Malla nobleman, came and talked to the
Buddha. Deeply moved by Shakyamuni's teachings, he offered the Buddha two pieces of
shining gold cloth. However, their lustre was completely outshone by Shakyamuni's
radiance. It is said that a buddha's complexion becomes prodigiously brilliant on both the
eve of his enlightenment and the eve of his decease.
The next day, when they arrived at the banks of the Hiranyavati river south of
Kushinagar, the Buddha suggested that they should go to the caravan leader's sala grove.
There, between two pairs of unusually tall trees, Shakyamuni lay down on his right side in
the lion posture with his head to the north. Ananda asked if Rajgir or Shravasti, both
great cities, would perhaps be more fitting places for his passing. The Buddha replied
that in an earlier life as a bodhisattva king this had been Kushavati his capital, and at
that time there had been no fairer nor more glorious city.
The noblemen of Kushinagar, informed of the Buddha's impending death, came to pay him
respect. Among them was Subhadra, an 120-year-old brahmin who was much respected, but whom
Ananda had turned away from the monkhood three times. However, the Buddha called the
brahmin to his side, answered his questions concerning the six erroneous doctrines, and
revealed to him the truth of the buddhist teaching. Subhadra asked to join the Sangha and
was thus the last monk to be ordained by Shakyamuni. Subhadra then sat nearby in
meditation, swiftly attained arhantship and entered parinirvana shortly before Shakyamuni.
As the third watch of the night approached, the Buddha asked his disciples thrice if
there were any remaining perplexities concerning the doctrine or the discipline. Receiving
silence, he gave them the famous exhortation: "Impermanence is inherent in all
things. Work out your own salvation with diligence." Then, passing through the
meditative absorptions, Shakyamuni Buddha entered mahaparinirvana. The earth shook, stars
shot from the heavens, the sky in the ten directions burst forth in flames and the air was
filled with celestial music. The master's body was washed and robed once more, then
wrapped in a thousand shrouds and placed in a casket of precious substances.
For seven days, offerings were made by gods and men, after which, amidst flowers and
incense, the casket was carried to the place of cremation in great procession. Some
legends say that the Mallas offered their cremation hall for the purpose. A pyre of
sweetly scented wood and fragrant oils had been built but, as had been foretold, it would
not burn until Mahakashyapa arrived. When the great disciple eventually arrived, made
prostrations and paid his respects, the pyre burst into flames spontaneously.
After the cremation had been completed the ashes were examined for relics. Only a skull
bone, teeth and the inner and outer shrouds remained. The Mallas of Kushinagar first
thought themselves most fortunate to have received all the relics of the Buddha's body.
However, representatives of the other eight countries that constituted ancient India also
came forth to claim them. To avert a conflict, the brahmin Drona suggested an equal,
eightfold division of the relics between them. Some accounts state that in fact
Shakyamuni's remains were first divided into three portions--one each for the gods, nagas
and men--and that the portion given to humans was then subdivided into eight. The eight
peoples each took their share to their own countries and the eight great stupas were built
over them. In time these relics were again subdivided after Ashoka had decided to build
84,000 stupas. Today they are contained in various stupas scattered across Asia.
In later times Fa Hien found monasteries at Kushinagar, but when Hsuan Chwang came the
site was almost deserted. Hsuan Chwang did see an Ashoka stupa marking Kunda's house, the
site of Buddha's last meal. Commemorating the mahaparinirvana was a large brick temple
containing a recumbent statue of Buddha. Beside this was a partly ruined Ashoka stupa and
a pillar with an inscription describing the event. Two more stupas commemorated former
lives of the Buddha at the place. Both Chinese pilgrims mention a stupa where Shakyamuni's
protector Vajrapani threw down his sceptre in dismay after Buddha's death, and some
distance away a stupa at the place of cremation and another built by Ashoka where the
relics were divided.
Kushinagar was rediscovered and identified before the end of the last century.
Excavations have revealed that a monastic tradition flourished here for a long time. The
remains of ten different monasteries dating from the fourth to the eleventh centuries have
been found. Most of these ruins are now enclosed in a park, in the midst of which stands a
modern shrine housing a large recumbent figure of the Buddha. This statue was originally
made in Mathura and installed at Kushinagar by the monk Haribhadra during the reign of
King Kumaragupta (415-56 AD), the alleged founder of Nalanda Monastery. When discovered
late in the last century the statue was broken but it has now been restored. Behind this
shrine is a large stupa dating from the Gupta age. This was restored early in this century
by the Burmese. Not far away a small temple built on the Buddha's last resting place in
front of the sala grove has also been restored. Some distance east a large stupa, now
called Ramabhar, remains at the place of the cremation.
On one side of the park a former Chinese temple has been reopened as an international
meditation centre. Next to it stands a large Burmese temple. On the south side of the park
is a small Tibetan monastery with stupas in the Tibetan style beside it. Thus also at
Kushinagar one can see dharmic activities alive even today.