The Last Blissful Breath

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

Allan Hunt Badiner



The monk and I fell silent. The calls of the crows grew louder. The Buddha warned us that our lives are short, and implored us to make haste, to pursue liberation “as though there were a fire in our hair.” When I asked if he was afraid to die, the monk displayed no sign of surprise or dismay. “We need to balance our will to live,” he said solemnly, “with an acceptance that death is coming.”

Born under a tree, enlightened under a tree, the Buddha took his last breaths under two stately Sal trees. Their falling red blossoms are said to have framed an intensely beautiful sunset. “Ananda,” the Buddha asked quietly, “do you really see it?” Then the Buddha asked him to assemble the monks, and he pronounced his last words: “Listen, bhikkhus. All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence.”

Then the Buddha began to meditate. After some hours of perfect stillness, it was unclear whether he had ceased to breathe or was in samadhi. Only after Ananda was completely certain his master had passed on did he allow the body to be washed, wrapped in shrouds, and placed in a casket adorned with jewels. The Buddha was then taken to the area marked now by the Ramabhar stupa and cremated on the full moon of the month of Vaisakha (April–May) in approximately 483 B.C.E.

After the Buddha’s death, pilgrimage to stupas became a significant part of Buddhist practice. Over time they evolved from shrines to the dead into shrines to the seed of enlightenment that dwells within all living things. “Those who come with an open heart,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “will be inspired and their hearts gladdened.”

As the late sun turned crimson, the monk and I rose and exchanged farewells. Feeling like a vagrant adrift on the ocean of death and rebirth, I reboarded the gloomy bus for the long ride to Buddha’s birthplace, in Nepal. But this time my smile was irrepressible. Kushinagar is a surprisingly enjoyable place.

Allan Hunt Badiner is a contributing editor to Tricycle and the editor, most recently, of Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism. He is currently at work on a book entitled “Buddha Land: The Path of Pilgrimage.”

VISITING KUSHINAGAR

Kushinagar is situated in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The closest major city is Gorakhpur, 33 miles to the east. The best time to visit is from October through March. Gorakhpur is reachable by train from Delhi; there is bus service from Gorakhpur to Kushinagar, or a car can be hired. Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, is 100 miles from Kushinagar.

There are three hotels in Kushinagar: the Pathik Niwas, The Lotus Nikko, and the Royal Residency. The Royal Residency, on Buddha Marg, is the best choice, situated adjacent to the Thai Temple and just three hundred yards from the Nirvana Temple. It offers all amenities, including a gift shop and Japanese-style baths. The restaurant also serves delicious food and is probably the best dining option in Kushinagar. Royal Residency reservations c/o IMPAC Hotels, SU5, Bhikaji Kama Bhawan, New Delhi, 110066, India. Tel: 26174772, 26171442, 26181474, Fax: 26186389, 26162149, E-mail: impacind@del2.vsnl.net.in, URL: www.theroyalresidency.net.

Image: A monk stands vefore the Nirvana temple in Kushinagar © Simon Chaput

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