Introduction

The Mahāparinibbānasutta is a carefully crafted record of the events and Teachings that took place in the last year of the Lord Buddha's life, but as it stands it is lengthy, repetitious, and has suffered from additions which break up the narrative. Therefore I will give a summary of the main events here, which will give an overview of the discourse and help to orientate the reader.

Rājagaha to Vesālī (Chapters 1-2)

The discourse opens in a very historical setting, with the Magadhan King Ajātasattu, who is in his capital Rājagaha, declaring that he intends to destroy the Vajjian Republic, which lay on the lands on the opposite bank of the River Gaṅgā, which formed the Northern boundary of his own Kingdom.

According to the Commentary there had been a long-running dispute over the trade that was being conducted along the Gaṅgā, which the Vajjians had won out on, but which was making the Magadhan King more and more hostile. Ajātasattu, reflecting that it is not wise to enter into war without hearing what the wise have to say on the matter, sent one of his Chief Ministers, Vassakāra, to inform the Buddha of his plans, and to listen to whatever he says.

Vassakāra therefore approaches the Buddha, who was living on the nearby Vulture's Peak Mountain, and explains the King's intentions. The Buddha doesn't answer Vassakāra direct, but instead turns to his faithful attendant Ānanda, and asks whether the Vajjians ‘assemble regularly and frequently, carry out their Vajjian duties unanimously, do not establish new laws or cut off old laws, honour their elders, do not coerce their women and girls, honour the Vajjian shrines, and have made good arrangements in regard to the lawful protection of the Worthy Ones’. This is an edited paraphrase. All the words placed in single quotation marks in the Introduction are either direct quotes or close paraphrases.01 Ānanda replies that they do all these things, and the Buddha declares that as long as they do ‘growth is to be expected for the Vajjians and not decline’.

Vassakāra understands through this that the Vajjians cannot be defeated through war but ‘only through diplomacy or the breaking of the alliance’, and he thereupon withdraws. It appears from the Commentary that within 4 years the Magadhan King did in fact manage to divide the Vajjians and overcome them, mainly thanks to the intrigues of his Minister Vassakāra.

After his departure the Buddha asks Ānanda to assemble all the monks living around Rājagaha, and when they have come he instructs them with a parallel teaching to the one he had given regarding the Vajjians: Notice that both the Vajjians and the Saṅgha were living under a Republican type of Government, so the conditions that apply to the one were easy to transfer to the other.02 the Saṅgha should ‘assemble regularly and frequently, carry out their Community duties unanimously, not establish new laws or cut off old laws, honour the elder monks, not come under the influence of craving, have desire for forest dwellings, and attend to the ways of mindfulness’. In which case ‘growth is to be expected for the Saṅgha and not decline’. It is noticeable that throughout the discourse the Buddha shows concern time and again that the Sāsana and Saṅgha which he has founded are well-established and will be able to survive his passing.

The Buddha then enumerates five more sets of conditions that will have the same effect. I have argued elsewhere See the introduction to the establishment of the text of this discourse in the Buddhist Texts and Studies section of this website.03 that these conditions do not appear to be original to the text, so there is no need to list them again here. At the end of this section though it is said the Buddha taught in summary form Virtue, Concentration and Wisdom. The details are not set out, but this statement is inserted at the end of his stay in each of the places he visited, and may be taken as a summary of the kind of teachings the Buddha gave everywhere, but which have not been recorded in detail here.

The Buddha then leaves the Magadhan capital and begins his final tour of the Middle Country. He passes through Ambalaṭṭhikā, Where interestingly enough no teaching or events are recorded except the summary.04 and on to Nāḷanda, where he meets with one of his Chief Disciples Ven. Sāriputta. Although we shall have to discuss this matter later, it appears that this is the last recorded meeting between the two of them. Here Ven. Sāriputta roars his lion's roar (sīhanāda), and proclaims his faith in the Buddha and his teaching.

The Buddha then moves on to Pāṭaligāma, which was at that time being built up by the Magadhan Ministers Sunīdha and Vassakāra to ward off the Vajjians. The site was situated on the bank of the Gaṅgā, facing the rival nation who were just over the waters. This settlement eventually became a city, and was known as Pāṭaliputta. Some two centuries later it was the center of administrative affairs for the Emperor Asoka. Today it is known as Patna and is still an important city in the modern Indian State of Bihar.05 After instructing the householders of Pāṭaligāma in the benefits of virtue, and accepting a meal prepared by the Chief Ministers, the Buddha crossed over the Gaṅgā, entered the Vajjian lands, and made his way up to Koṭigāma where he taught the Four Noble Truths.

From there he went to Nādika where Ānanda questioned him at length about the people, lay and monastic, who had attained Path and Fruit in that small village. The Buddha answers, and also teaches a way in which anyone can be sure he has attained at least the first stage of Stream-Entry (Sotāpatti). After leaving Nādika the Buddha walked on to the Vajjian capital Vesālī, where he took up residence in the pleasure park of the courtesan Ambapāli.

When she hears that the Buddha is residing there she comes and invites him and the Saṅgha for a meal on the morrow, which the Buddha accepts. The Licchavīs, who were the largest clan in the Vajjian Republic, also try to invite the Buddha to a meal, but are distressed to find that the meal has already been given to the courtesan. At the end of the meal Ambapālī donates the park to the Buddha for the use of the Community.

By this time the Rainy season is approaching, and the Buddha withdraws from the immediate vicinity of Vesālī, to the nearby village of Beluvā, which is where he spent his last Rains Retreat. It is here that the Buddha fell seriously ill, We are not told the exact nature of the illness, but we can perhaps infer that it was dysentery, as the Commentary notes that, after the illness was suppressed it did not arise again until 10 months later, and that illness is said in the discourse to have been dysentery.06 but he determined to suppress it until he has had time to address the Community on various matters.

The Buddha then rises from the illness and gives his famous teaching that he has no esoteric and exoteric teaching and that Ānanda And implicitly all his followers.07 should ‘live with yourself as an island, yourself as a refuge, with no other refuge, with the Teaching as an island, the Teaching as a refuge, with no other refuge’, and explains that this means attending to the ways of mindfulness.

The Missing Months

At this point we come to the end of the second chapter for recitation (bhāṇavāra). We now come to a problem in the narrative, which has been progressing smoothly so far. As noted above, according to the Commentary, the Buddha fell ill about 10 months before the Vesākha Full Moon day, which is the traditional date for the Final Emancipation.

In the next Chapter we find the Buddha entering Vesālī for alms, and immediately afterwards going to Cāpāla Shrine with Ven. Ānanda, which is where the Buddha gives up the life-process (āyusaṅkhāra), and announces that in 3 months he will attain Final Emancipation. We therefore have a lacuna in the history of about 7 months.

The Commentary inserts here another itinerary of the Buddha, unrecorded in this discourse, whereby he goes to Sāvatthī and has a last meeting with Ven. Sāriputta, who returns to his home village of Nāḷaka and dies of dysentery in the room of the house where he was born. The Buddha then travelled down to Nāḷaka and had a Shrine (Cetiya) built for the relics.

The Commentary says he then went to Rājagaha where Ven. Mahāmoggallāna had attained Final Emancipation after being murdered by bandits, and the Buddha had a Shrine built for his relics in the Great Monastery (Veḷuvana) in Rājagaha.

After that he is said to have gone to Ukkācelā in the Vajjian lands Now identified with Hajipur, across the river from Patna.08 which is where the Ukkācelasutta was delivered, Satipaṭṭhānasaṁyuttaṁ, SN 47.14.09 From there he is said to have walked back to Vesālī, which is where the following episode in the discourse takes place.

I believe the reason for this proposed itinerary is the need to reconcile the material found in the discourses. In the Satipaṭṭhānasaṁyutta (SN 47.13) it is recorded that following Ven. Sāriputta's Final Emancipation his attendant novice Cunda took his bowl and robes back to Sāvatthī and presented them to the Buddha; in the following discourse (Ukkācelasutta) the Buddha speaks about the Community being empty (asuññā) now that his two Chief Disciples had passed away.

However, the Commentarial account is difficult to reconcile with the traditional dates. According to the Commentary Ven. Sāriputta attained Final Emancipation on the Full Moon night of Kattika (November), which is one month after the first Rains Retreat closes. There is no reason to believe that the Buddha broke his last Rains Retreat, so the time-scale would be at most one month for the Buddha to walk to Sāvatthī, about 400 kilometres from Vesālī, and for Ven. Sāriputta to walk back to Nāḷaka, just north of Rājagaha, about 500 kilometres from there. Given the great distances involved this doesn't seem to be possible.

Because of this I make here what I hope is a more plausible suggestion. We can imagine that the Buddha completed the Rains Retreat in mid-October, and that he would have stayed in the vicinity of Vesālī for the Kathina celebrations. Indeed, it is almost certain that he would not have left before these were concluded.

He may then have heard that Ven. Sāriputta had passed away and decided to walk back to Nāḷaka, about 90 kilometres away. This may have taken more than a fortnight, so it may be that even on the way he heard that Ven. Mahāmoggallāna had also passed away. After the burial and the building of the Shrines the Buddha started to return to Vesālī, stopping at Ukkācelā where he spoke the above mentioned discourse.

The distance from Ukkācelā to Vesālī is only about 40 kilometres, and wouldn't have taken more than a week to walk, but we cannot say that the Buddha proceeded there straight after the discourse. This would therefore be quite a reasonable way to account for the missing months, and it could account for the discourse given at Ukkācelā, but unfortunately not for the one about the novice Cunda bringing the bowl and robes to Sāvatthī.

Other possible ways to account for the missing months would be if the traditional dates of either the Buddha or his two Chief Disiples (or both) were incorrect, or if the Buddha didn't leave Beluva until February, but this hardly solves the problem as there would still be a gap of a number of months in the story at this point, which can not be accounted for.

There is a difficulty, however, even with the revised itinerary proposed above because it it is difficult to understand why such important events as the passing away of the two Chief Disciples and the building of Shrines for them would have been left out of the discourse, which it appears is intended to trace the last year of the Buddha's life, if they had been remembered by the Elders at the First Council. It is unfortunate indeed that the events that took place during that time seem to have been lost by the tradition forever, as we have no sure way of reconstructing the events now.

At Vesālī (Chapter 3)

If the tradition that the Buddha attained Final Emancipation at Vesākha is correct the next Chapter opens around the time of Māgha Full Moon day in January-February. The Buddha, after returning from alms-round in Vesālī, tells Ānanda that they will go to the Cāpāla Shrine for the day. Here the Buddha three times tells Ānanda that anyone who had developed the four Paths to Power could live on for the lifespan, but Ānanda doesn't understand that this is an opportunity to request the Buddha to do so, and lets the chance go by.

Next the Buddha is visited by the wicked Māra, who reminds the Buddha that previously In the eighth week after the Awakening according to the Commentary.10 he had stated that he would attain Final Emancipation once his Community and lay-disciples were established in the teaching, and Māra assures him that that now is the case, and urges him to pass away. Eventually the Buddha tells Māra not to be concerned about this, he has already determined that he will attain Final Emancipation in three months time.

With that declaration there is an earthquake and Ānanda approaches the Buddha and asks him what it is that has occasioned the great quake? The Buddha explains the eight reasons for earthquakes, which include his relinquishment of the life-process and, anticipating what is to come, his attainment of Final Emancipation. Following this teaching there are some more teachings which I omit here as I do not think they belong to the original rescension of the discourse. See the introduction to the establishment of the text of this discourse in the Buddhist Texts and Studies section of this website11

The Buddha then explains to Ānanda the whole story of his meetings with Māra, and his giving up the life-process that day, at which Ānanda tries to persuade the Buddha to live on. The Buddha asks him why he makes the request, and Ānanda responds that he has heard the Buddha saying that anyone who had developed the four Paths to Power could live on for the lifespan. The Buddha then blames him for not making the request earlier and says that it is not possible for him to do so now, and reminds him of just how many times he had told him, both in the Vajjian lands and in Magadhā about this, but at each occasion Ānanda had failed to make the request. I have questioned the extraordinary length and repetitiousness of this section in the above mentioned introduction.12

Vesālī to Kusinārā (Chapters 4-5)

The Buddha and Ānanda return to Vesālī and to the Great Wood (Mahāvana), where the Buddha asks his attendant to gather together all the monks who are living in the vicinity of the city, and after they have assembled he teaches them what later came to be known as the 37 Things on the Side of Awakening (Bodhipakkhiyadhammā). He then announces to the Community that he will attain Final Emancipation in three months time.

The Buddha and Ānanda, together with a great Community of monks then set out from Vesālī and travel by stages to Bhaṇḍagāma, where he teaches the Four Noble Things. Because these have not been penetrated, both the Buddha and everyone else have been wandering in Saṁsāra for so long. These are different from the Four Noble Truths taught at Koṭigāma above; they consist of Noble Virtue, Noble Concentration, Noble Wisdom, and Noble Freedom.13

From Bhaṇḍagāma they travel on to Hatthigāma, Ambagāma, Jambugāma, and Bhoganagara. None of these villages has been identified, but the route along which they lay is known.14 There the Buddha taught the Four Great Referrals and how to distinguish what was his real Teaching and Discipline from what has been wrongly remembered by examining the consistency of the teaching with what is known to have been taught by him.

After leaving Bhoganagara they travel up to Pāvā where the Buddha stays in Cunda the Smith's Mango Wood. When he hears that the Buddha has arrived Cunda goes, hears an unreported Teaching from the Buddha, and invites him and the Saṅgha to a meal of the following day, which the Buddha accepts.

It is after this meal that the Buddha goes down with dysentery again. Even though he was ill still he decides to press on to Kusinārā, which is a distance of about 7 kilometres from Pāvā. An odd story is inserted here concerning one Pukkusa Mallaputta, who tells how Āḷāra Kālāma was once sitting in meditation when five hundred wagons went by, but he didn't notice them. The Buddha replies that once he was sitting in meditation when a fierce storm blew up but he didn't notice the storm at all. Pukkusa declares that the former faith he had in Āḷāra has been lost and he now places his faith in the Buddha, and he presents the Buddha and Ānanda with a pair of golden robes, but the robes loose their gleam when placed alongside the Buddha's skin, which is glowing unusually bright, as this is the night he will attain Final Emancipation. This section occurs in the middle of a discourse that is also recorded in the Udāna (Ud. 8-5), but in the latter collection this story does not occur at all. It strikes me as being apocryphal and probably has little basis in fact.15

The narrative continues with the Buddha assuring Ānanda that Cunda is not to be blamed for serving the last meal that the Buddha ever partook of, rather, he states, that that will be for his benefit for a long time.

At Kusinārā (Chapters 5-6)

They carry on until they reach Kusinārā and the Sal Wood at Upavattana. There the Buddha lies down on a couch. While he is lying in the lion's posture the Divinities come and worship him, and the Buddha asks Ven. Upavāṇa to step aside so they can get to see him for the last time. The Buddha tells Ānanda about the four pilgrimage centres The place he was born, Awakened, first taught, and attained Final Emancipation.16 that can be visited by those having faith, which is followed by some miscellaneous Teachings, including an instruction on how to deal with his body when he has gone.

The Buddha praises Ānanda's wonderful qualities, and declares that all Buddhas had, and will have, similar attendants. Ānanda requests the Buddha not to attain Final Emancipation in this small town, but the Buddha tells him that Kusināra actually has a glorious past, and relates the Mahāsudassanasuttaṁ at this point. In our narrative only the beginning of the story is given, but it appears in other versions the whole lengthy discourse is inserted at this point.17 The Buddha then sends Ānanda into Kusinārā to announce to the villagers that he will attain Final Emancipation that very night. Ānanda returns with them and has them worship the Buddha for one last time.

At this point a wanderer Subhadda arrives and asks permission to see the Buddha as he needs to clear his doubts. Ānanda refuses but the Buddha overhears the conversation and tells him to allow Subhadda to come. He initially asks the Buddha about the Teachings of the other famous teachers of his day, but the Buddha puts this aside and assures him about his own Teaching, and Subhadda becomes the last direct disciple of the Buddha.

After giving some last instructions to Ānanda, the Buddha asks if there is anyone in the gathering who has any doubts about the Teaching, but none of them do, as ‘even the least among them’ (Ānanda himself) has attained the first Path and Fruit. He then speaks his famous last words, urging his disciples to ‘strive on with heedfulness’.

The Buddha then passes through the various absorptions (jhāna) forwards, backwards and forwards again, and after emerging from the fourth absorption he attains Final Emancipation (parinibbāna). Ānanda goes and informs the villagers and they come and start to prepare the funeral. The preparations continue for seven days, before they are ready for the cremation.

Eventually they take the body out for cremation, but are unable to do so, because the Divinities will not allow it while Ven. Mahākassapa is still on the way, as he wishes to pay his last respects to the body. Once this is accomplished the pyre catches fire by itself.

The Mahāparinibbānasuttaṁ ends with the story of how the relics were distributed. It is worthy of note here that although the relics were taken to three capital cities, Kapilavatthu, Vesālī, and Rājagaha, none were taken to Sāvatthī, which is where the Buddha had done most of his teaching. It may be that the Kosalans were simply unaware of what had happened in the Mallan country.