The Last Blissful Breath

A visit to Kushinagar, where the Buddha took his last breath.

Allan Hunt Badiner

I thought about death all the way to Kushinagar. Not just because the northwestern Indian state of Bihar, through which I had to travel, is so primitive and forbidding, and not just because the tortuous road from Gorakhpur, the closest city, gives the word “pothole” new meaning. What turned my mind to death was that I was headed toward the site where, almost twenty-five hundred years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha took his last breath.

Upon reaching Kushinagar, on the banks of the Hiranyavati River in what is now northeast Uttar Pradesh, the Buddha announced to his disciple Ananda that his life was coming to an end. “The nature of things dictates that we must leave those dear to us,” he said. “Everything born contains its own cessation. I, too, am grown old, and full of years, and my journey is drawing to its close.”

Indeed, Kushinagar itself seems to have died many times. Ananda called it a “wattle-and-daub town amidst a jungle,” as at the time of the Buddha’s visit it was already in decline from its glory days as a major cultural and trading center during the Malla dynasty. But by 250 B.C.E., Kushinagar had risen again like a phoenix as an important religious center. In 406 C.E., Fa-hsien, one of the earliest Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, described elaborate monasteries and stupas, many of them erected by India’s famed Buddhist ruler, King Ashoka. Subsequently, Sasanka, an anti-Buddhist Bengali king, went on a rampage, exterminating monks and destroying monasteries. Thus, when Huien Tsiang arrived in 637 C.E., all that remained was the fifth-century Nirvana Temple and a colossal reclining Buddha of red sandstone.

In the tenth century, the Kalachuri dynasty embarked on a monastic building spree, but by the end of the fourteenth century, after Mogul invasions wiped Buddhism off the face of India, Kushinagar was pushed back into obscurity. It was not until the time of the American Civil War that Kushinagar would be reborn. Using clues found in the writings of those intrepid pilgrims Fa-hsien and Huien Tsiang, as well as archaeological evidence, the clever young British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham identified Kushinagar as the place where Buddha had died.

Thanks to Cunningham, Kushinagar has come back as a major pilgrimage site. Nevertheless, few vehicles impose their sonic reminders of modern life, and only occasionally do busloads of pilgrims appear. Surrounded by ruins of monasteries, a new Nirvana Temple houses the ancient reclining Buddha, which is almost dwarfed by a big and badly reconstructed stupa. Just outside the park of ruins is a nondescript tomblike building called Mathakuar, housing a spectacular nine-foot Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra, or earth-touching pose, which was carved in the tenth century from local blue stone.

Sitting outside the Nirvana Temple, I enjoyed watching children playing in the ruins and monkeys scampering about. Being in the place where Buddha’s absence began heightens one’s awareness of impermanence. I was contemplating this when the bright crimson robes of an old Burmese monk appeared before me like a sunrise suddenly noticed. Looking studious behind round spectacles, the monk half-smiled and waved with a weathered hand. I smiled back, bowed, and we began to chat along the ten-minute walk to the Ramabhar stupa, the site of the Buddha’s cremation.

We talked about the Buddha’s last supper, partaken of at the blacksmith Chunda’s nearby home. Whatever the tainted food was that Chunda inadvertently served him, the story of the Buddha’s poisoning reminds us that death can rush in and stake its claim without notice. In full view of the massive but crumbling stupa, we sat listening to the raucous cries of crows circling above. I asked the monk what he thought about death. “Buddhism,” he offered, “makes death the mirror for one’s life. Death is a very important teaching. Contemplating our mortality is unexpectedly liberating and inspires compassion.”

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