2021-05-21 Sutta Stories - The Buddha's Last Year
2:59PM May 21, 2021
This morning will be another day of storytelling from the discourses of the Buddha. This time some of the story will be constructed out of the evidence, the pieces that are there. It seems that for the most part, the people who composed these earliest discourses of the Buddha, were not particularly interested in history, or even biography. They were not doing much of a biography of the Buddha. But there are all these little snippets of stories that exist. With some of them we can connect the dots and understand a bigger piece of the history of the times, the life of the Buddha.
I am going to tell some of what comes from the early discourses. Some of it is piecing pieces together. Some of it comes from a little bit later – the commentaries that also tried to provide the bigger context for some of these stories. A piece of what inspires this discussion today is the work of Stephen Batchelor who has done some piecing together of the evidence.
It has to do with the end of the Buddha's life – the context, the times of the last year of his life. What we begin seeing is that the society around him – much of the society he knew, and the people he was close to – were dying. The societies were beginning to fall apart. War was happening. Kings were being usurped. The Buddha's own disciples, senior closest disciples were dying this last year of his life.
The Buddha, seemingly through it all, was calm, peaceful, died very peacefully under some trees. This contrast between the society falling apart around him and his peacefulness is quite a contrast. Maybe it is something relevant for all human times. Almost every generation thinks that the world is falling apart around them.
This piecing things together begins in the last year of the Buddha's life, when he was about 80. I think it says that in the text. The king comes to talk to the Buddha and says, "Both of us are 80 years old." The Buddha is up in his home country Sākiya, in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal. He was on retreat, or just living quietly there in his old age.
Nearby was another kingdom where there was a king, Pasenadi. They had been friends for 40 years. Early in the Buddha's teaching career, they were same age and struck up a friendship. For 40 or 46 years they had seen each other periodically and were considered friends. Pasenadi was also a student, very devoted to the Buddha.
This king was out and about and wanted to visit the Buddha, maybe one last time, in their old age. He went with his minister, who he apparently trusted. They rode close to where the Buddha was in the forest. The king got off his horse, or elephant, whatever he was riding. He said to his minister, "I'm going to go in there and see the Buddha alone. Here, hold these things." He handed over to the minister, all the insignia, all the paraphernalia that represented the power of the king – his sword, maybe his crown, or his turban, and different things that he had that represented his authority.
The minister was a little bit perturbed like, "What is going on here? Some secret plan, that he doesn't want me to be there and hear what is going to be talked about?" He was suspicious about what was happening.
The king goes into the forest and sees the Buddha. The king gives almost a eulogy for the Buddha, like he is going to see him one last time. He speaks high praise of the Buddha. That is the end of the story – this sutta ends right there.
The Buddha is 80 years old, an old man. We have another discourse that is usually called "The last days of the Buddha's life." It is the story of his passing away. It is more of a chronology over many months. It begins with the Buddha almost as far away from his home country as he could be in the world that he lived in of northern India. Maybe 300 miles – I am not sure exactly how many, but quite far.
Here was a man who was 80 years old, who had been in his home country, and then sometime over the next year, we don't know exactly when, he was 300 miles away. Far to the south, could be near the Bay of Bengal, something like that. Near what is now called Pātaliputra, I think. How did he get there? Why did he go there? This story ("The last days") almost begins with a story of the Buddha, now walking back home. He came all the way down these 300 miles, only to seemingly turn around and go back to his home country. Why such a quick trip?
So piecing it together. One idea is that the minister of the king, who took all the king's paraphernalia, what the commentaries say is that this minister had a resentment of the king. The minister left and abandoned the king there in the forest. Left him with a horse and one attendant. The minister went back to the capitol, and handed the symbols of power to the king's son, who thereby usurped the throne.
The king came out of the forest without anything except a horse. He went down to visit another king, at this place where the Buddha ended up going. The other king was his relative – a son-in-law, cousin or something. They had been at war with each other over those 40 years, but had made enough peace, and were relatives. King Pasenadi had nowhere else to go, supposedly, so he went to see his relative, the other king.
He made this long trip, himself as an old man. He apparently was not in very good shape. Some of the texts say that he was kind of fat, and a bit lazy. But he made this long trip. He came to the capitol where this other king, Ajātasattu (the one who had killed his father in the story I told earlier) was reigning. He arrived at night and the city gates were closed. So he stayed in some place – slept in some home or hall – something outside, and died that night.
Piecing this together, it seems that the Buddha knew that his friend, the king, had been usurped and headed south. The Buddha followed, maybe to offer support for the king or to intervene or something. But when he arrived at the capitol, his friend had died. There was not much reason to stay there, so the Buddha started marching home. Before he did, Ajātasattu sent his minister to talk to the Buddha and said, "I'm thinking about attacking the neighboring country." The country that was between Ajātasattu's country and the Buddha's home country. A place that the Buddha had often been. It was a republic, not run by a king.
The minister said, "Do you have any advice for us? What do you think of this, us attacking and conquering this neighboring country?" The Buddha gave some advice. I won't tell you what he said, because of the time. He prevented the war, then and there. But in giving his advice about why you should not attack, the Buddha unintentionally gave the clue for what the king had to do in order to attack the neighboring country. Which he did, three years later, successfully.
As the Buddha got up to leave and started heading north to his home country, he was going to cross a river. There he saw another minister of the king Ajātasattu, who was beginning to lay down the ramparts for a great new fort, in preparation for war. So here, war is at hand. War preparations are going on.
The Buddha begins walking north, and he describes himself as an old man. I wanted to read you this description the Buddha gives of himself. "I am now old, worn out, venerable. One who has traversed life's path. I have reached the term of life, which is 80. Just as an old cart is made to go by being held together by straps, so that the Tathāgata's body is kept going by being strapped up. It is only when I meditate deeply, that this body, my body, knows comfort, is at ease." Here is a person who is 80, in the ancient world, who is being held together by straps – body is falling apart, in other words – and he is in pain. Only the meditation to be free of his pain. Back then they had no pain medication. He is walking. This old man is walking in pain.
His close friend, his king, had just been usurped and had died. The other king is about to conquer a country that had embraced the Buddha. It had been a place that Buddha had lived a lot. That was about to be attacked. During this long walk back north to his home country, he learns that his two closest disciples had died. One had been killed by bandits and the other had just died. The Buddha keeps walking.
At some point, he gets diarrhea, dysentery, and is quite sick, with lots of pain. He gets revived enough and he is heading home. At some point, he realizes he is going to die, and not reach home. He finds two magnificent trees to lay down underneath. He lays there, never to get up again. There he lays and spends his last time teaching his disciples.
He carefully asks them, "Do you have any other questions for me before I die?" No one asks anything. The Buddha finally says, his last words, "All things are impermanent. Everything is impermanent. Practice diligently. Carry on, diligently, ongoingly, carry on." Then he dies.
He dies by going into deep meditation states, as deep as is possible through meditation. Then he begins coming out. In the fourth jhana, which is one of the most sublime places to be, maybe the ideal place in which to die, his life passed away. This image of this man, peacefully dying – at peace with himself, surrounded by his disciples, giving his last teachings. Peacefully going one last journey in his deep meditation states. In those states, his life goes, passes away. Spiritually, in his inner life, he is deeply at peace, peaceful setting in the woods under trees.
But all around him, kings are being usurped, war is about to happen. People are dying. The Buddha is an old man, sick, in pain, walking through India. He does not reach home. He is trying to get back to his home country. The juxtaposition of a world out-of-kilter and the Buddha at peace. This is the end of the Buddha's time, his life.
What we think about that, how we live with and understand that in relationship to our own life. Perhaps what the Buddha said, as his last words, can apply to us as well. All things are impermanent. Practice diligently. Thank you.