The closing line of the monumental treatise Visuddhi Magga on the chapter on ‘Mindfulness of Death’ is considered apt to open the essay. ‘One who is devoted to this mindfulness is constantly diligent, acquires a perception of disenchantment with all forms of existence and overcomes attachment to life. He abhors evil, abandons greed of things and is free of avarice about requisites. The perception of impermanence becomes familiar to him followed by perceptions of unsatisfactory nature of all conditioned phenomena and of non-self.
Those who have not developed this type of mindfulness are seized by horror and turmoil at the final moment of their lives as if confronted by wild beasts, demons, venomous snakes, robbers and murderers whereas those who have, pass away peacefully. If the deathless state is not achieved here and now, he is headed for a happy state upon break-up of the body.
Conceivably there is nothing more disagreeable and disturbing to the untrained mind than the prospect of having to face death some day, hence it is a topic best left alone. Salla Sutta quotes Gautama Buddha’s succinct words on the point. “Living beings constantly fear death just as ripe fruits of the trees that fear their fall at break of dawn ...... In the midst of weeping of relatives and ranting of onlookers Mara takes away one by one as does a butcher the cattle...... Infants and the feeble, fools and the wise, they all come under the spell of Mara......”
The girl attained the state of Sowanhood. No sooner she went to the weaving hall she fell dead as a result of a sharp strike from the very spool she carried, caused by a sudden involuntary movement of her father’s arm
The weaver’s daughter
The meditative practice is by no means confined to the aged and the sick, neither to an auspicious time or day. Once at Aggaalawa Chethiya, Anlaunuwara, Gautama Buddha preached a sermon on the enormous benefits of this particular meditation as to how a non-practitioner would die making hideous noises as if seen a poisonous snake, whereas a practitioner, who like a man having seeing a cobra at a distance, would throw it away with a stick. Mesmerized by the wonder of the sermon, a sixteen-year-old weaver’s daughter began practising it day and night whereas a majority of the listeners went about their chores as usual.
Three years later on a particular day, when the Blessed One entered the realm of limitless compassion before dawn to survey the world as was His practice, the weaver’s daughter fell within the net of wisdom. It was her last day on earth.
If he visits Aggaalawa she would attain Sowanhood and be born in Thusitha; if not she would face an uncertain death. In such a scenario a Samma Sambuddha would travel to the end of the universe for the individual’s deliverance. Accompanied by five hundred bhikkhus, he left Jetawanaramaya to arrive at Aggaalawa Chethiya. Having heard of the Blessed One’s arrival, the girl was elated that after three long years she was to witness the resplendent face and golden body again and be able to listen to sweet Dhamma. However she had an urgent task to perform and the punishment would be severe if she failed. Her father had entrusted her to wind a spool of thread and be brought to the weaving shed before noon that day without fail.
In the meantime Buddha had finished His midday meal and the people of Alaunuwara were eagerly awaiting His sermon. He had walked thirty yojanas for a particular purpose, so He remained silent until that moment arrived. When a Buddha remains silent, none in the world including gods can do anything about it. At last the girl carrying the thread arrived and stood at the end of the congregation gazing at Gautama Buddha. When the Enlightened One acknowledged her with a turn of His head, she knew He wanted her to come forward, so she walked directly into the aura of six coloured splendorous rays surrounding the Great Being and worshiped him.
Breaking the solemn silence He addressed her, “Girl, where did you come from?” “Lord, I do not know.” “Where are you bound for?” “Lord, I do not know.” “Do you then not know?” “I do know, Lord.” “Then you do know, do you?” “No, I do not, Lord.” There was a great commotion within the crowd over her flippancy. Having subdued the gathering, Gautama Buddha called upon the girl to clarify her answers. She explained that Gautama Buddha was well aware of her movements on the ground, but what He meant was, where she came from into this world and whither she was bound, from here. As to her third and fourth answers she explained she was acutely conscious of her death, but knew not whether in the morning, noon or at night. Gautama Buddha expressed.
The girl attained the state of Sowanhood. No sooner she went to the weaving hall she fell dead as a result of a sharp strike from the very spool she carried, caused by a sudden involuntary movement of her father’s arm. Overcome with bitter grief, the father sought solace from Gautama Buddha and entered the Order.
Dwelling on the subject is not an exercise exclusive to a Buddha era; the extent to which Boddhisatvas and others developed the practice in non-Buddhist eras is fascinating, to say the least
The Brahmin farmer
Dwelling on the subject is not an exercise exclusive to a Buddha era; the extent to which Boddhisatvas and others developed the practice in non-Buddhist eras is fascinating, to say the least. The Noble Truths however, are non-existent. Gautama Buddha once had an occasion to narrate this incident to a person inconsolably grieving over his dead son. In the hazy past Gautama Buddha was a Brahmin farmer who with his wife, son, daughter, daughter-in-law and the house maid were avid practitioners of this particular form of mindfulness. Whilst working on the field, the son underwent instant death due to snakebite, whereupon the Bodhisatva father sent word home through a passerby that only one packet of lunch be brought that day. The inmates immediately grasped the situation and proceeded to the field dressed in white, carrying with them perfume, flowers and the single parcel of food.
Having eaten the food under the same tree where the dead body lay, the Brahmin along with the other four gathered firewood and started burning the body. Sakkha, the king of Thavathimsa Gods, wishing them to perform the ‘lion’s roar on contemplation of death’ descended on the field to inquire from the Brahmin what was being burnt there. “A dead body” said the Brahmin. “Is it a wild animal for meat or an enemy?” “My own son whom I used to carry on my shoulder.” “Must have become a stubborn one, so you have no remorse at all”. The Bodhisatta replied, “As the reptile that has no love for the skin it has shed, so my son who died of karmic force has no attachment to his corpse. He knows not it’s being burnt. What purpose should we weep for?” Sakkha then turned to the Brahmin wife who said that she had carried him in her womb.
“Why aren’t you then crying and weeping?” Her answer to the god in verse, appears in Uraga Jathaka.
“Uncalled he hither came,
Unbidden soon to go.
E’en as he came he went,
What cause is there for woe?”
The son’s wife, daughter and the maid offered equally sagacious answers in their turn, whereupon the king of gods applauded their absolute mastery of the particular concentration and rewarded them with enormous material wealth. The maid was born as Kujjuthathra in the dispensation of Gautama Buddha, the deceased son as Rahula Thero, the Brahmin’s daughter as Uppalawanna Bikkhuni and his wife as Khema Bhikkhuni. The Brahmin was Buddha Himself, He pronounced.
The humbling nonchalance of Arahants towards this singularly crucial moment in life is almost beyond belief. The impassive, insouciant stances of the two chief disciples Sariputta and Maha Moggallana while apprising the Blessed One of their impending arrival upon the moment of extinction are two of the most sensational episodes in the whole of the scripture.
One of the two Elder brothers of the sprawling, ancient Sithulpahuwa monastery, residence to 12000 Arahants, recited the disciplinary code of monks (Uposatha) on a full-moon day and accompanied by a community of bhikkhus went over to the walk-path near his dwelling. He inquired from his colleagues, in what poses they have seen bhikkhus pass into Parinirvana. They answered they have seen them while seated and in cross-legged position in the air. The venerable monk replied “I will show you one who passes away while ambulating.” He drew a line across the walk-path, went up to the farther end, turned back and passed into Parinirvana the moment his sacred feet touched the line – Visuddhi Magga.
An extract from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s preface penned in the English edition of Bhadanthacarya Buddhagosha’s masterpiece was considered in order, to be produced here. ‘The liberating doctrine discovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago has remained untouched by all the circumstantial change undergone since then. Old cosmologies give place to new; but the questions of consciousness, of pain and death, of responsibility for acts, of scale of values as highest of all, remain.