How does a Buddha Die?

Such a strange and powerful question.. Interestingly enough, there is a very specific answer provided in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha. Let’s look at it!

There are some terms we should look at before we begin this journey.

The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation

Henepola Gunaratana has written a wonderful article on ‘The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation”. Read it here.

Henepola teaches:

…Jhanas are states of deep mental unification which result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place. The early suttas speak of four jhanas, named simply after their numerical position in the series

…It was the memory of [a] childhood incident, many years later after his futile pursuit of austerities, that revealed to him the way to enlightenment during his period of deepest despondency (M.i, 246-47).

Henopola is referring to what takes place in the Mahasaccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, 36):

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’[12]

The jhanas in the Samaññaphala Sutta:

‘…And when he knows that these five hindrances have left him, gladness arises in him, from gladness comes delight, from the delight in his mind his body is tranquillised, with a tranquil body he feels joy, and with joy his mind is concentrated. Being thus detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, he enters and remains in the first jhana,

  • which is with thinking and pondering,
  • born of detachment,
  • filled with delight and joy.

And with this delight and joy born of detachment, he so suffuses, drenches, fills and irradiates his body that there is no spot in his entire body that is untouched by this delight and joy born of detachment.

Just as a skilled bathman or his assistant, kneading the soap-powder which he has sprinkled with water, forms from it, in a metal dish, a soft lump, so that the ball of soap-powder becomes one oleaginous mass, bound with oil so that nothing escapes – so this monk suffuses, drenches, fills and irradiates his body so that no spot remains untouched.

This, Sire, is a fruit of the homeless life, visible here and now, that is more excellent and perfect than the former ones.

‘Again, a monk, with the subsiding of thinking and pondering, by gaining inner tranquillity and oneness of mind, enters and remains in the second jhana,

  • which is without thinking and pondering,
  • born of concentration,
  • filled with delight and joy.

And with this delight and joy born of concentration he so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched. ‘Just as a lake fed by a spring, with no inflow from east, west, north or south, where the rain-god sends moderate showers from time to time, the water welling up from below, mingling with cool water, would suffuse, fill and irradiate that cool water, so that no part of the pool was untouched by it – so, with this delight and joy born of concentration he so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched. This, Sire, is a fruit more excellent and perfect than the former ones.

‘Again, a monk with the fading away of delight remains imperturbable, mindful and clearly aware, and experiences in himself that joy of which the Noble Ones say: “Happy is he who dwells with equanimity and mindfulness”, and he enters and remains in the third jhana.

  • And with this joy devoid of delight he so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched.

‘Just as if, in a pond of blue, red or white lotuses in which the flowers, born in the water, grown in the water, not growing out of the water, are fed from the water’s depths, those blue, red or white lotuses would be suffused. . .with the cool water – so with this joy devoid of delight the monk so suffuses his body that no spot remains untouched. This is a fruit of the homeless life, more excellent and perfect than the former ones.

‘Again, a monk, having given up pleasure and pain, and with the disappearance of former gladness and sadness, enters and remains in the fourth jhana

  • which is beyond pleasure and pain,
  • and purified by equanimity
  • and mindfulness.

And he sits suffusing his body with that mental purity and clarification. SO that no part of his body is untouched by it.

‘Just as if a man were to sit wrapped from head to foot in a white garment, so that no part of him was untouched by ‘ that garment – so his body is suffused.

This is a fruit of the homeless life, more excellent and perfect than the former ones.

Wikipedia tells us all about the Four Jhanas:

  1. First Jhāna — the five hindrances have completely disappeared and intense unified bliss remains. Only the subtlest of mental movement remains, perceivable in its absence by those who have entered the second jhāna. The ability to form unwholesome intentions ceases. The remaining qualities are: “directed thoughtevaluationrapturepleasureunification of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulnessequanimity & attention”
  2. Second Jhāna — all mental movement utterly ceases. There is only bliss. The ability to form wholesome intentions ceases as well. The remaining qualities are: “internal assurance, rapture, pleasure, unification of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention”
  3. Third Jhāna — one-half of bliss (joy) disappears. The remaining qualities are: “equanimity-pleasure, unification of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention”
  4. Fourth Jhāna — The other half of bliss (happiness) disappears, leading to a state with neither pleasure nor pain, which the Buddha said is actually a subtle form of happiness (more sublime than pīti and sukha). The breath is said to cease temporarily in this state. The remaining qualities are: “a feeling of equanimity, neither pleasure nor pain; an unconcern due to serenity of awareness; unification of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity & attention”.[5] Traditionally, the fourth jhāna is seen as the beginning of attaining psychic powers (abhijñā).

Annnd, then there are the ‘formless’ Jhanas.

Again, wikipedia shares:

The four formless jhanas are:

  1. Dimension of Infinite Space – In this dimension the following qualities are “ferreted out”:[5] “the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention”.[5]
  2. Dimension of Infinite Consciousness – In this dimension the following quailities are “ferreted out”:[5] “the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, unification of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention”.[5]
  3. Dimension of Nothingness – In this dimension the following qualities are “ferreted out”:[5] “the perception of the dimension of nothingness, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention”
  4. Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception No qualities to be “ferreted out” are being mentioned for this dimension.[5]

Although the “Dimension of Nothingness” and the “Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception” are included in the list of nine Jhanas taught by the Buddha, they are not included in the Noble Eightfold Path. Noble Path number eight is “Samma Samadhi” (Right Concentration), and only the first four Jhanas are considered “Right Concentration”. If he takes a disciple through all the Jhanas, the emphasis is on the “Cessation of Feelings and Perceptions” rather than stopping short at the “Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception”.

Henopola continues:

The Buddha even refers to the four jhanas figuratively as a kind of Nibbana: he calls them immediately visible Nibbana, factorial Nibbana, Nibbana here and now (A.iv,453-54).

…Just before his passing away the Buddha entered the jhanas in direct and reverse order, and the passing away itself took place directly from the fourth jhana (D.ii,156).

And, we are going to focus on how Buddha is reported to have moved through the Jhanas during his passing.

Ready!?

You’ve got the necessary definitions to begin digging into what this description of Buddha’s parinibbāna entails.

How the Blessed One Passed into Nibbana

9. And the Blessed One entered the first jhana. Rising from the first jhana, he entered the second jhana. Rising from the second jhana, he entered the third jhana. Rising from the third jhana, he entered the fourth jhana. And rising out of the fourth jhana, he entered the sphere of infinite space. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite space, he entered the sphere of infinite consciousness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite consciousness, he entered the sphere of nothingness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of nothingness, he entered the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. And rising out of the attainment of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he attained to the cessation of perception and feeling.

10. And the Venerable Ananda spoke to the Venerable Anuruddha, saying: “Venerable Anuruddha, the Blessed One has passed away.”

“No, friend Ananda, the Blessed One has not passed away. He has entered the state of the cessation of perception and feeling.”[59]

11. Then the Blessed One, rising from the cessation of perception and feeling, entered the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he entered the sphere of nothingness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of nothingness, he entered the sphere of infinite consciousness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite consciousness, he entered the sphere of infinite space. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite space, he entered the fourth jhana. Rising from the fourth jhana, he entered the third jhana. Rising from the third jhana, he entered the second jhana. Rising from the second jhana, he entered the first jhana.

Rising from the first jhana, he entered the second jhana. Rising from the second jhana, he entered the third jhana. Rising from the third jhana, he entered the fourth jhana. And, rising from the fourth jhana, the Blessed One immediately passed away.

See!?

He went:

  • First Jhana
  • Second Jhana
  • Third Jhana
  • Fourth Jhana
  • Sphere of infinite space
  • Sphere of infinite consciousness
  • Sphere of nothingness
  • Sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception
  • Cessation of perception and feeling
  • Ananda thought he was dead. Anuruddha says, “No, he has just stopped perceiving and feeling.”
  • Then! Buddha shot to the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
  • Sphere of nothingness.
  • Sphere of infinite consciousness
  • Sphere of infinite space
  • Fourth Jhana
  • Third Jhana
  • Second Jhana
  • First Jhana
  • Second Jhana
  • Third Jhana
  • Fourth Jhana
  • And, rising from the fourth jhana, the Blessed One immediately passed away.

Why the cycling?

Not sure. It is interesting, though.

I bet people have interesting things to say about why this was the case. In future posts, I’ll keep digging into what this wonderful and wild event could mean.

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