The Buddha's Last Journey
Many years had passed since the Buddha began his ministry. He was now old and infirm, but he still travelled from village to village, teaching the people and sympathizing with their sorrows. When the rainy season came on he retired to one or other of the garden monasteries, where the disciples would gather round their Master for counsel and instruction. One of Gotama's favourite resorts was the Jeta Garden near Savatthi, and here he passed the forty-fourth Lent since his Enlightenment. This was the last season which the Buddha spent in that pleasant retreat. From Savatthi he travelled to Rajagaha, a long and weary journey, and took up his abode on the hill called the Vulture's Peak.
Now King Ajatasattu was about to declare war on the Vajjians, the tribes inhabiting the country north of the Ganges, where the famous city of Vesali stood. Doubtful as to his chances of success, the King determined to consult the Buddha, so he sent his Prime Minister to the Vulture's Peak. When the Prime Minister had saluted the Buddha and made inquiries after his health, he delivered the King's message. The King, he said, had resolved to attack the Vajjians; would he overcome his enemies and destroy them utterly? The Buddha replied that so long as the Vajjians remained united among themselves, true to their established customs and the precepts he had once laid down for them—so long as they honoured their elders and holy men, and paid respect to their shrines, an invader would have no power to overcome them.
When the Prime Minister had taken his departure the Buddha summoned all the brethren and spoke to them of the importance of unity and right conduct. So long, he said, as the brethren continued to assemble together in perfect concord, respected their elders and obeyed the rules of the Order, adding nothing nor taking away anything of that already laid down; so long as they walked in the paths of righteousness, keeping themselves free from worldly concerns, and avoiding idle talk and gossip, the religion of the Buddha would not decline but prosper.
When Gotama had stayed some time on the Vulture's Peak, he left Rajagaha with a large company of disciples and travelled northward, visiting many villages on his way. Coming to the river Ganges, he crossed it at a point where King Ajatasattu was building a strong fortress as a defence against the Vajjians. In years to come a great city was to occupy this site—Pataliputta, the new capital of Magadha. At the present day the city of Patna stands near the spot where the Buddha crossed the Ganges for the last time.
Having visited Vesali the Buddha spent the following rainy season in a village nearby. Here he was attacked by sickness, and for some time suffered great pain and weakness, but he bore these ills without complaint. Ananda, who tended him, was overcome with grief, fearing that his Master would die. One day, when he was getting better, and was sitting on a folded mat outside the monastery, Ananda came and sat near his Master, and told him of the misery he had gone through when he feared he might lose him. "Thy Master," said the Buddha, "has reached four-score years, his body is bent and infirm, and just as an old, worn-out cart, which is bound up with cords, can with difficulty be kept going, so is it only with care and trouble that this body continues to exist. I am old, Ananda, my journey is nearly ended, but sorrow not, and let the Truth be your refuge."
The Buddha, knowing that his life must soon draw to a close, told Ananda to summon all the disciples who were in the neighbourhood of Vesali. When they had met together he earnestly enjoined them to spread the truths of pure religion for the good and happiness of mankind. When the rainy season was over, the Buddha set forth to visit the villages round about, and as he left Vesali he turned and gazed long at the city, for he knew that he looked on it for the last time. Passing from village to village in a north-westerly direction, the Buddha came to a place called Pava, where he stayed in a mango grove belonging to Chunda, a worker of metals. When Chunda heard that the Blessed One was staying in his mango grove he invited him and all his disciples to come to his house on the following day. In the early morning Chunda made all ready for the feast, and provided sweet cakes and rice and mushrooms. Then he went to the mango grove to bid his guests come, for the meal was ready. It was the custom in Eastern lands for the householder to collect his guests when the feast was prepared. We read in the Bible of the king who "sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the marriage feast." As Buddhist monks eat only one meal a day, which must be taken between sunrise and noon, those wishing to show them hospitality invite them to a morning meal. The Buddha, having robed himself, took his bowl and went with his disciples to the house of Chunda the metal worker. When all had been served, Chunda took a seat at the Master's feet to listen to his words.
Now that same day Gotama was attacked by sickness; toward evening, however, he was able to start on his way to Kusinara, a small town lying south of Pava. But his footsteps were weary, and he was often obliged to rest by the way, for the end of life's journey was nearly reached. Once, when he was resting under a tree near a stream, he asked Ananda to fetch him some water, for he was thirsty. But Ananda, knowing that a caravan of five hundred bullock carts had just crossed the ford above, feared the water would be foul and muddy. The Buddha repeated his request a second, and again a third time, so Ananda went down to the brook. To his surprise the water was clear as crystal. "How great is the power of the Master!" he exclaimed, thinking that a miracle had been performed. He filled a bowl with clear cool water and carried it to the Buddha, who drank and was much revived. The next halt was made on the banks of a beautiful river, and the Buddha and his disciples went down to the water to bathe. During the heat of the day they rested in a mango grove on the farther shore.
Thus by slow and painful stages the Buddha continued his journey until he came to Kusinara, a little mud-built town in the midst of the jungle. Nearby was a grove of sala-trees, and here Ananda prepared a couch for his Master. Between two twin sala-trees—so called because they were of exactly equal size—the Buddha laid him down to rest, with his head to the north. All at once the two sala-trees beneath which he lay burst into bloom, and the blossoms fell in a shower over his body, while sounds of heavenly music floated in the sky in honour of the Blessed One.
As the Buddha lay in the sala grove, calm and self-possessed, he spoke long with Ananda about the Order and the rules to be observed by the brethren when he should no longer be there to guide them. At the close of the discourse Ananda was overcome with sorrow. He saw that his Master was dying, and he went away by himself and shed bitter tears, so unbearable was the thought that his beloved Master was about to leave him. The Buddha noticed Ananda's absence. "Where is Ananda?" he asked, and he sent one of the brethren to call him. "Do not grieve, Ananda," said the Buddha, when his disciple was seated near him, "it must always be thus, the time of parting with those we love must come, sooner or later; for it is in the nature of everything that is born into the world that it must also die. How could it be otherwise? For a long time you have been very near me, Ananda; by many acts of kindness and a love which has never varied you have done well. Cease not to strive, and you too shall before long attain the Peace of Nirvana." Then the Buddha spoke to the assembled brethren of his cousin's kindness and thoughtfulness and his many good qualities. Presently he sent Ananda into the town to tell the people of Kusinara that the Buddha lay, near to death, in the grove of sala-trees. The nobles of Kusinara were assembled in the council hall, and Ananda went in and told them that before morning dawned the Blessed One would pass away. When the people heard the news they could not contain their grief—many flung themselves weeping on the ground, the women disheveled their hair, uttering loud lamentations, and all gave way to their sorrow, overcome with the thought that the Light of the World would vanish away. And during the first watch of the night the men of Kusinara, each with his family and his household, came to visit the dying Buddha, to do him reverence.
There was a young Brahmin philosopher called Subhadda, staying in Kusinara. Having doubts concerning his faith, he greatly desired to speak with the Buddha, and came for this purpose to the sala grove. But Ananda refused to disturb his Master. "Trouble him not," he said, "he is weary." Gotama, hearing voices, asked who was there, and had the Brahmin admitted. So Subhadda came into the Buddha's presence, and, having courteously saluted him, questioned him on the doctrines of the great Hindu philosophers, asking which of these understood the Truth. But the great Teacher bid him let be these learned discussions; true religion must teach, before all else, the practice of virtue; only in the earnest endeavour after right-doing, in the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, can Peace be found. As Subhadda listened to the Buddha's words, all doubt left his mind, and he was converted. "Like one," he said, "who shows the path to him who has gone astray, or brings a lamp to lighten our darkness, even so hast thou shown me the Truth, O Blessed One!" The young Brahmin begged to be accepted as a disciple, and Ananda, taking him aside, received him into the Order. He poured water on his head, shaved his hair and beard, and put the yellow robes on him. Then Subhadda repeated the 'Three Refuges': "I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the Truth, I go for refuge to the Brotherhood "; and returning to his Master, took his seat beside him. Subhadda was the last man whom the Buddha converted.
When the Buddha had again spoken with Ananda, he asked whether, of all the disciples present, there were any who had doubts about his teaching, inviting those who might wish to make inquiries to speak freely. But all the brethren were silent. The Buddha put the same question a second, and again a third time, but there was not one of all those present who had any doubt or misgiving.
The night wore on as the disciples watched beside their dying Master in the quiet sala grove. And in the third watch of the night the Buddha passed away.
THE PASSING OF THE BUDDHA.
With solemn ceremony, and such honours as they would have bestowed on the body of the greatest king, did the people of Kusinara reverence the remains of the Blessed One. The nobles, followed by all the people, walked in procession to the sala grove, bearing garlands of flowers, perfumes and sweet spices, harps and flutes and other musical instruments. Over the place where the Buddha lay they made a canopy on which were hung wreaths of lotus flowers, and until the close of day the people honoured the remains with hymns and music and religious rites.
When all was ready for the burning of the body, eight chieftains of Kusinara carried the Blessed One through the midst of the city, entering by the northern gate and passing out through the eastern gate to the place where the funeral pile had been prepared. The procession moved slowly, for the narrow streets were crowded with people, who strewed the way with flowers and sweetly scented spices. When the body had been consumed by fire and all the ceremonies duly performed, the ashes were placed in the council hall. To guard the sacred spot the warriors of Kusinara made a rampart with their bows, and planted their spears crosswise, like a lattice work. And without the council hall was a line of elephants, another of horsemen, and another of chariots. For seven days the people paid honours to the relics with garlands of flowers, with music, and solemn dances.
When it became known that the Buddha had died in Kusinara, Ajatasattu, King of Magadha, sent to beg for a portion of the ashes, for he wished to build a cairn or monument over them and hold a yearly festival in the Buddha's honour. The people of Vesali made the same request.
Likewise the Sakyas of Kapilavatthu.
In all the lands where the Buddha had been known and loved, the people wished to honour him and keep his memory fresh in their minds. There were, in all, eight messengers who came to Kusinara to beg for a share of the ashes. At first the nobles of Kusinara refused to part with the relics, for the Blessed One had died in their land, and they considered that his remains should rest there. A heated discussion might have arisen had not a Brahmin, who was a believer, addressed the people and pointed out how wrong it would be if strife should arise over the remains of the greatest of mankind, who had always taught peace and forbearance. In the end the relics were divided into eight portions, and over these were built eight cairns, in different parts of the country. These monuments were usually in the form of a solid dome, in which there was a small treasure chamber to contain the relics. The ruins of some of the ancient cairns have been discovered and excavated; they must have been of immense size, as, for instance, that built by the Buddha's own countrymen, the Sakyas, which is said to have been as large as the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.
Such monuments are seen in all Buddhist countries—in Ceylon they are called Dagabas, in other places Topes, or Stupas. They are raised to keep alive the memory of holy men, and do not necessarily contain relics. The people bring offerings of flowers to then shrines, staying a while to meditate, and, "the thought, 'This is the Dagaba of that Blessed One, the Buddha,' the hearts of many are made calm and happy."