The last words a person speaks before they die are generally thought to be of special significance. For this reason this book takes a look at the words the Buddha spoke in his final months. However, before taking them to heart, it makes sense to see which words all the surviving early texts agree on. Is there a version common to early Buddhist schools? Which teachings or passages situated during the last months of the Buddha are of special importance in those Buddhist texts or to specific Buddhist schools? Which specific subjects are related to dying and death?
The author tried to answer those questions based on the Pali canonical long discourse about the final extinction, compared with sources from Sanskrit and Chinese traditions. When most canonical sources agree about an episode, we probably get close to the common version Buddhist monks recited before the groups spread during the rule of Aśoka. If a passage refers to some pronouncement during the last hours of the Buddha’s life, or when it is repeated in a specific discourse, that passage has a special importance.
The available versions show remarkable similarities. The author found a greater number of doctrinally relevant passages that sufficiently overlap than passages that are not supported by enough other texts. The main subjects of overlapping passages are: The importance of Buddhist morality and its interdependence with concentration and wisdom. The principle of impermanence is stressed and sometimes explained. Monks should pay much attention to, and frequently practice, the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four constituents of psychic power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the noble eightfold Path. The noble eightfold Path is also emphasized as an essential tenet. Finally, the story of the Buddha’s final passing has underlined the importance of right concentration. Right concentration is explained in the Pali canon through the four jhānas. Together these points present a summary of the Dhamma, and some essential points of the Vinaya. These two, Dhamma and the Vinaya, serve to guide monks in the absence of the Buddha himself. Most of these teachings are also relevant for lay practice.
Some results may be controversial: It is pointed out that following the Dhamma is more important than honouring the remains of the Buddha. The Buddha renounced his life principle, his will to live, three months before his final passing. However, there is no support for suggestions that his last meal offered by the smith Cunda led to his illness or even death.
René C. van Oosterwijk has a master’s in Languages and Cultures of India and Tibet at Leiden University and studied beyond that with Bhikkhu Pāsādika (Prof. Bangert) in Marburg. For this research, the author has extensively studied the sources. He also acquired practical experience in vipassanā-meditation in The Netherlands and at several Thai monasteries.
Publication date: July 26th 2014