The Astounding Assembly

Our choice of translation for this series on the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is by Kosho Yamamoto, from Dharmakshema’s Chinese version and edited and revised by Dr. Tony Page in 2007. From time to time we will also draw-upon the translation from the Chinese by Mark L. Blum and the redacted version from the Chinese of Dharmakshema by Huiyan, Huiguan, and Xie Lingyun, translated into English by Charles Patton.

Chapter One: Introductory

Thus have I heard. At one time, the Buddha was staying at Kusinagara in the land of the Mallas, close to the river Ajitavati, where the twin sal trees stood. At that time, the great bhiksus [monks] as many as 80 billion hundred thousand were with the Blessed One. They surrounded him front and back. On the 15th of the second month, as the Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, he, with his divine power, spoke in a great voice, which filled the whole world and reached the highest of the heavens. It said to all beings in a way each could understand:

“Today, the Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] the Alms-deserving and Perfectly Awakened One, pities, protects and, with an undivided mind, sees beings as he does his [son] Rahula. So, he is the refuge and house of the world. The greatly Awakened Blessed One is about to enter Nirvana. Beings who have doubts may all now put questions to him.”

Kusinagara: Kuśinagarī. [alt. Kuśinagara] (P. Kusinārā; T. Rtswa mchog grong; C. Jushinajieluo; J. Kushinagara; K. Kusinagera 拘 尸 那 羅). The town in Uttar Pradesh where the Buddha entered into PARINIRVĀṆA among a grove of ŚĀLA trees.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 34781-34785). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

sal trees: śāla. (P. sāla; T. sā la; C. shaluoshu; J. saraju/ sharaju; K. sarasu 沙 羅 樹). In Sanskrit, the “sal” tree (Shorea robusta, [alt. Vatica robusta]); a species of tree native to South Asia, which figures prominently in the Buddhist tradition. In India, the tree grows upwards of one hundred feet in height and provides both timber and fragrant resin, which is burned for incense. In several of his discourses, the Buddha uses the growth of the śāla tree as an analogy for the development of wholesome qualities (KUŚALA). This tree also is particularly significant in Buddhist hagiography because it was under this type of tree that the Buddha was born and died. Queen MĀYĀ, the Buddha’s mother, is said to have given birth to the prince while clinging for support to the branches of a śāla tree that had bent itself down to help her. The Buddha chose a grove of śāla trees near the town of KUŚINAGARĪ as the site of his PARINIRVĀṆA. Different versions of the Buddha’s demise represent these trees in various ways. One version says that the Buddha laid down between twin śāla trees and passed away. Another version says that the Buddha’s deathbed was surrounded by pairs of śāla trees— two in each of the four cardinal directions— and at the moment of his death these trees blossomed out of season, rained petals upon him, and their trunks turned white.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 55971-55984). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

spoke in a great voice, which filled the whole world and reached the highest of the heavens: one of the miraculous signs of the Buddha is the ability to project an astounding sound emanating from his Blessed mouth—the resplendent sound, like the roaring of a majestic Lion, reverberates throughout the entire cosmos. Yea, all of creation stands on end in awe of its nature. In this sutra the sound of his voice also pierces the heart of all beings as they are astonished and perplexed by its message of deepest woe—the very passage of the Blessed one from the face of the earth.

his [son] Rahula: Rāhula. (T. Sgra gcan ’dzin; C. Luohouluo; J. Ragora; K. Rahura 羅 睺 羅). In Sanskrit and Pāli, “Fetter”; proper name of the ARHAT who was the Buddha’s only child, born on the day his father renounced the world. According to the Pāli account, as soon as Prince SIDDHARTHA learned of the birth of his son, he immediately chose to become a mendicant, for he saw his son as a “fetter” binding him ever more tightly to the household life. In a famous scene, the prince looks at his sleeping wife and infant son before departing from the palace to seek enlightenment.

Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 52394-52400). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

with an undivided mind: best translation here, for the supreme and undivided moment of the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa is about to occur. Also, his own Bodhipower is now attuned at full-peak and securely undivided as to the great significance of this passage into the Nirvanic Kingdom of Self.

At that time, early in the morning, the World-Honoured One emitted from his mouth rays of light of various hues, namely: blue, yellow, red, white, crystal, and agate. The rays of light shone all over the 3,000 great-thousand Buddha lands. Also, the ten directions were alike shone upon. All the sins and worries of beings of the six realms, as they were illuminated, were expiated. People saw and heard this, and worry greatly beset them. They all sorrowfully cried and wept: “Oh, the kindest father! Oh, woe is the day! Oh, the sorrow!” They raised their hands, beat their heads and breasts, and cried aloud. Of them, some trembled, wept, and sobbed. At that time, the great earth, the mountains, and great seas all shook. Then, all of them said to one another: “Let us for the present suppress our feelings, let us not be greatly smitten by sorrow! Let us speed to Kusinagara, call at the land of the Mallas, touch the feet of the Tathagata, pay homage and beg: “O Tathagata! Please do not enter Parinirvana, but stay one more kalpa [aeon] or less than a kalpa.” They pressed their palms together and said again:

“The world is empty! Fortune has departed from us beings; evil things will increase in the world.

O you! Hurry up, go quickly! Soon the Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] will surely enter Nirvana.” They also said: “The world is empty, empty! From now on, no one protects us, and we have none to pay homage to. Poverty-stricken and alone! If we once part from the World-Honoured One, and if doubts arise, whom are we to ask?”

emitted from his mouth rays of light: as mentioned in our last blog this is another of the Buddha’s Miraculous Signs, rays of Spectacular Light issue from his mouth and eyes with a luminous refulgence that likewise fills every corner of the cosmos itself. This is also a “wake-up” call in this passage: Awaken and Be Aware! The Blessed One will soon pass from your midst!

“Oh, the kindest father! Oh, woe is the day! Oh, the sorrow!”: the Great Lament that reverberates throughout this chapter in the guise of every conceivable creature and deity known to all creation! Our Beloved Dharma Lord will soon pass-away from our presence—Oh, Woe is the Hour! What transpires in this chapter is beyond comparison in the annals of Religious Literature. Even the death of the Christ on the Cross was primarily lamented and limited by all creatures on earth (and the Light Heavens of Jehovah) and the fiery underworld when he descended into hell to free its abject denizens. This cry of Sorrow for the loss of the Blessed One reaches out into all Ten Directions of the Cosmos! To ALL the Heavens and Buddha-lands and regions of Denizens of Light AND of Dark Denizens as well. The whole Cosmos shrieks-out in agony and descends between those two Sacred Sala-Trees which are the symbols of beginnings and endings in samsara.

“The world is empty! Fortune has departed from us beings; evil things will increase in the world.”: all is Self-empty without the Tathagata! What fear and terror descended into their hearts at that moment—without the Blessed One in our life who will protect us from all evil? Will the Father of all Evil now win the day???

A decision was made not to include “entire passages” that portray all the vast and diverse denizens that descended upon Kuśinagara at that dark time. Their number and salient characteristics, where appropriate, will now unfold as a Great Litany:

At that time, the great bhiksus [monks] as many as 80 billion hundred thousand were with the Blessed One.

At that time, there were many of the Buddha’s disciples there, such as Venerable Mahakatyayana, Vakkula, and Upananda… All were arhats [saints]. They were *unmolested [unlimited] in mind and could act as they willed.

*unmolested: no longer afflicted by Mara’s kleśas.

At that time, there were present such women as Kuddara and such bhiksunis [nuns] as Subhadra, Upananda, Sagaramati, and 6 million bhiksunis. They were all great arhats. All “’asravas”’ [inner defilements] having been done away with, they were unmolested in mind and could act as they willed… Of the bhiksunis, there were again those who were the nagas of Bodhisattvas and humans. They had attained the ten stages [of Bodhisattvic development], where they abided unmoved.

They were born as females so as to teach beings. They always practised the four limitless minds [of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity], thereby attaining unlimited power and acting well in place of the Buddha.

This passage shows the profound impact of women on the Buddhadharma. These women, too, were “great arhats.” Interesting here with the “naga-component” as female nuns (bhiksunis). Yea, it states that they were all born female in order to teach beings the Buddhadharma. Being female, like Blessed Tara, does have its advantages as compassionate and receptive ministers of the Tathagatas.

At that time there were also Bodhisattva-mahasattvas [great Bodhisattvas] who were as plentiful as the sands of the river Ganges and who were all nagas of men, attaining the level of the ten stages and abiding there unmoved.

Once again nagas and naga-like takes on prominent characteristics and positions as emissaries of the Buddhadharma.

At that time, there were present upasakas [male lay followers of Buddha] who were as many as the sands of two Ganges; Already they were well contented within themselves and they made others feel well contented who prized Mahayana. They imbibed the unsurpassed Wisdom very well, loved and protected Mahayana.

Prime example of lay-folk being addressed as “protectors” of the Buddhadharma.

At that time, there were upasikas [female lay followers] present, as many as the sands of three Ganges, who were perfect in the five precepts and in deportment… Though female in form, they are, truth to tell, none but Bodhisattvas… They uphold the heritage of the Three Treasures, so that it will not die out and so that they can turn the wheel of Dharma in the days to come.

Another example of the prime status of women in the Mahayana; they are integral in upholding the heritage of the Three Treasures and for the continued propagation of the Dharma.

At that time, the Licchavis of Vaisali Castle were present and others as numerous as the sands of four Ganges, who were males, females, big and small, wives and children, relatives, and those of the kings of Jambudvipa [India]… They always said to one another: “We shall have stores of gold and silver for the service of upholding the sweet and endless depths of the Wonderful Dharma, so that it will flourish. Let us hope always to learn Dharma. We shall draw out the tongues of those who slander the Buddha’s Wonderful Dharma.”

Their riches enabled the Buddhadhara to flourish far and wide.

At that time, there were, further, ministers and rich laymen as numerous as the sands of five Ganges. They prized Mahayana.

At that time, there were present the King of Vaisali and his consort, the people of the harem, and all the kings of Jambudvipa… Each king had people and relatives as many as 180 million billion. The chariots and soldiers were drawn by elephants and horses.

* Jambudvipa literally refers to “the land of Jambu trees” where Jambu is the name of the species (also called Jambul or Indian Blackberry) and dvipa means “island” or “continent”. (Wiki)

At that time, there were the consorts of the kings as numerous as the sands of seven Ganges, excepting those of King Ajatasatru. So as to save beings, they manifested as females. They always were mindful of their bodily actions and perfumed their minds with the dharmas of the Void, formlessness and desirelessness.

Yet another example emphasizing the prominence of the female form.

At that time, there were also devis [goddesses] as numerous as the sands of eight Ganges… If there were any of other teachings who opposed or were jealous of Mahayana, they severely crushed them out, just as hail does grass.

An instance wherein “devis” play a role in upholding the Blessed teachings and the Mahayana as a whole.

At that time, there lived various naga kings in the four quarters, as many of them as sands of nine Ganges.

At that time, there were demon kings as numerous as the sands of ten Ganges.

At that time, there were also garuda [mythical bird] kings, as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges.

Also, there were gandharva [demigod musician] kings, who were as numerous as the sands of 30 Ganges.

Also, there were kimnara [celestial singer and dancer] kings there, as numerous as the sands of 40 Ganges.

Also, there were mahoraga [snaked-headed beings] kings, who were as numerous as the sands of 50 Ganges.

Also, there were asura [contentious, titanic demon] kings, who were as numerous as the sands of 60 Ganges.

Also, there were danavat [abounding in gifts] kings, who were as numerous as the sands of 70 Ganges.

Also, there were rakshasa [carnivorous demon] kings, who were as numerous as the sands of 80 Ganges. King Fearful headed their number. Abandoning evil, he did not devour men; even amidst resentment, he showed compassion. His form was ugly to look at, and yet looked right and austere, due to the power of the Buddha.

Also, there were forest kings there, who were as numerous as the sands of 90 Ganges.

Also, there were dharani [magic spell]-possessing kings, who were as numerous as the sands of 1,000 Ganges.

Also, there were lustful pretas [ghosts] there, who were as numerous as the sands of 100 thousand Ganges.

Also, there were lustful devis, who were as numerous as the sands of 10 million Ganges.

*These examples of “lustful beings” indicated that none (in their various dispositions) were excluded in their sorrow of the Buddha’s passing. Yea, this was an all-inclusive gathering.

Also, there were the preta kings of the earth there, who were as numerous as the sands of a billion Ganges.

Also, there were princes, heavenly guardians, and the four guardian angels of the earth, as numerous as the sands of 10 million-billion Ganges.

Also, there were the vayus of the four quarters, as numerous as the sands of 10 millionbillion Ganges. These called forth seasonal and unseasonal flowers upon the trees and strewed them between the twin sal trees.

* vayus (literally “winds”)

Also, there were as many principal gods of cloud and rain present as the sands of 10 million-billion Ganges, who said to themselves: “When the Tathagata enters Nirvana, we shall call forth rain at the time of the cremation and extinguish the fire. Should there by anyone who feels hot and moans, we shall make the air cool.”

Also, there were greatly fragrant elephant kings there, as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges.

Also there were lion kings there, as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges. King Lion’s Roar headed their number. To all beings they gave fearlessness.

Also, there were the kings of flying birds there, as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges. They included lapwings, wild geese, mandarin ducks, peacocks, and all such birds, and gandharvas, karandas, mynahs, parrots, kokilas, wagtails, kalavinkas, jivamjivakas, and all such birds, bearing flowers and fruit, came to where the Buddha was, touched his feet with their heads, stepped back, and sat to one side.

Also, there were buffaloes, cows, and sheep present, who were as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges.

*This all indicates that all-manner of creatures were present—both man and beast and even (later on) insects.

Also, there were present rishis [sages] from the four lands, who were as numerous as the sands of 20 Ganges.

There were [also] present all the kings of the bees of Jambudvipa [India]. Wonderful-Sound, the King of bees, headed their number. They brought in many flowers, came to where the Buddha was, touched his feet with their heads, walked around him once, stepped back, and sat down to one side.

At that time, the bhiksus [monks] and bhiksunis [nuns] of Jambudvipa were all gathered together, excepting the two venerable ones, Mahakasyapa and Ananda.

*Notice how Ananda is conspicuously absent. This is mentioned in subsequent passages as well. He played a prominent role in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, yet he’s by and large only mentioned as a reference in different junctions of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, but that is all. Ananda is one of the old saints in the Theravada Tradition yet is not considered as a Bodhisattva, and so “within this sutra” takes a backseat. Interesting how in Chapter Forty-six the following is played out:

Then, seeing all, the World-Honoured One said to Kaundinya: “Is Ananda present?”

Kaundinya said: “O World-Honoured One! Ananda is away from the sal forest, 12 yojanas from this congregation, and is surrounded by 64,000 billion Maras.”

Also, Chapter Four on Long Life has this passage:

 If the treasure is entrusted to Ananda and the bhiksus, it cannot survive long. Why not? Because all sravakas and Mahakasyapa must pass away and the situation will inevitably be like that of the old man who receives the entrusted goods of the other person. Because of this, all the unsurpassed Buddhist teachings must be entrusted to the hands of all Bodhisattvas.

Also, there were present the gods of the four great seas and of the rivers, who were as numerous as the sands of asamkhyas of Ganges and who all had great virtues and heavenly feet.

At this time, the forest of sal trees of Kusinagara changed colour and looked like white cranes.

Even the trees themselves get an honorable mention is all this, becoming marvelously transformed.

At that time, Sakrodevendra (heavenly lord) and the beings of *Trayastrimsa Heaven carried up the vessels of their offerings, which were twice as many as those that had preceded them.

* An important world of the devas in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology.

All the devas up to the highest heaven were gathered there. At that time, Great Brahma and other devas put forth light which shone over the four lands.

Even the Hindu-Lord Great Brahma in present.

At that time, Vemacitra, the king of asuras, was present with innumerable great relatives. The light that shone [here] was brighter than that of Brahma.

At that time, Marapapiyas [the Devil] of the world of desire with all his kindred demons and domestic females, and with his innumerable people, opened the gates of hell, sprinkled about pure water, and said: “You now have nothing to do. Only think of the Tathagata, the Alms-deserving, and the All-Enlightened One, take part in joy, and offer your last offerings. You now shall have a long night of peace.”

The King of Hell itself offers a time of solace in honor of the Tathagata to all the hell-dwellers—yea, a momentary respite from their unbearable sufferings.

Marapapiyas’ minions come before and honor the Blessed One:

They came to where the Buddha was, touched his feet with their heads, and said to him: “We now love and protect Mahayana… We chant this dharani, for the sake of those who have lost their courage, who may be entertaining fear, who preach for others, who pray that the Dharma shall not die out, who desire to crush out the tirthikas [deluded believers, non-Buddhists], for protecting one’s own self, for protecting the Wonderful Dharma, and for protecting Mahayana”…

Interesting how the Buddha thanks them, but that he “already has their dharani”:

Then, the Buddha said to Marapapiyas: “I do not accept your offerings; I already have your dharani. This is to make all beings and the four classes of people of the Sangha rest in peace.” So saying, the Buddha fell into silence and did not accept Marapapiyas’ offerings. Thrice Marapapiyas asked the Buddha to accept them, but the Buddha would not. At this, his wishes unanswered, Marapapiyas was sad, and stepped back, and sat on one side.

Also Interesting how the Blessed One does not accept ANY of the offerings offered to him from the mass assembly of the great throng of devotees…the next chapter will relay just “who” he does accept offerings from.

At that time, there was present Mahesvararaja with his innumerable kindred and other devas.

The next passage describes how a Buddha from a different Dharma-realm far to the East calls upon his foremost disciple to be in attendance of the Blessed One’s parinirvāṇa:

Now, in the east, there is a Buddha-land, as many lands far out as the sands of uncountable, innumerable asamkhyas of Ganges, one called Easy-in-Mind-and-Beautiful-in-Sound, and the Buddha [there] is called Equal-to-the-Void, the Tathagata, Alms-deserving, the All-Enlightened One, the All-accomplished One, the Well-gone, the All-knower, the Unsurpassed One, the Best Trainer, the Teacher-of-Heaven-and-Earth, and the Buddha-World-Honoured-One. At that time, the Buddha spoke to his foremost great disciple: “Go now to the land in the west, called “’saha”’ [Endurance – i.e. our world of hardship!] There is a Buddha in that land called Tathagata Shakyamuni, who is the Alms-deserving, the All-Enlightened One, the All-accomplished One, the Well-gone, the All-knower, the Unsurpassed One, the Best Trainer, the Teacher-of-Heaven-and-Earth, and the Buddha-World-Honoured-One. He will enter Parinirvana before long. O good man! Carry to him the fragrant dishes of this world, the ones fragrant and beautiful, which give peace. Offer this to him. Having taken this, he will enter Parinirvana. O good man! Also, bow before the Buddha, put questions to him, and do away with whatever doubt you have.”

Manjushri announces the arrival of this emissary:

Then, Dharmarajaputra Manjushri stood up and spoke to those congregated there:

“Good people! Do not fear, do not be afraid! Why not? To the east, as many as the sands of innumerable, uncountable asamkhyas of Ganges away, there is a land called Easy-in-Mind and-Beautiful-in-Sound. The Buddha’s name in that land is Tathagata-Equal-to-the-Void, the Alms-deserving, the All Enlightened One. He possesses the ten epithets of the Buddha. There is a Bodhisattva there, of boundless body. Accompanied by innumerable Bodhisattvas, he desires to come here and make offerings to the Tathagata. By the power of that Buddha, your body now does not shine out. So, gladden yourselves; do not fear!” Then, those congregated saw far off a great number of people from that Buddha whom they saw as though they were their own forms reflected in a mirror. Then, Manjushri said to those congregated there: “You now see the people of that Buddha just as you see the Buddha himself. By the Buddha’s power, you can clearly see all the innumerable Buddhas of the nine other Buddha countries.”

This passage takes on great Hua-Yen, or a View of Totality, overtones. By seeing this shining ideation numerous other Buddha-realms and their inhabitants are present as well.

The next passage portrays how, due to the “great-mass” of this most astounding assembly, not one-blade of grass was made visible.

Then, there did not remain a space left in the auspicious ground of weal between the sal trees and within 32 yojanas square which was not full of people. At that time, all the space around the persons of the Bodhisattva of boundless body and his retinue who were gathered there from the four quarters looked [merely] like the point-size of a mote, or awl or needle. All the great Bodhisattvas of all the innumerable Buddha lands of the ten directions were gathered together there. In addition, all the people of Jambudvipa were assembled there, except for the pair, Mahakasyapa and Ananda, and also Ajatasatru and his retinue, and the poisonous serpents that harm people, the dung-beetles, haly-vipers, scorpions, and the doers of evil of sixteen kinds. The danavats and asuras had all forsaken their evil designs and had become compassionate-minded. Like fathers, mothers, older and younger sisters, all the people of the 3,000 great-thousand worlds came together and spoke to one another with the same compassionate heart, except for the icchantikas [those most spiritually alienated from Dharma].

As noted previously, even insects and all forms of poisonous vermin are also present amongst the assembly.

*Also at this junction the icchantikas are singled out as being unworthy of the Buddhadharma; however later, in this Dharmakshema version of the Sutra, they are welcome to reorient their callous ways.

Then, by the power of the Buddha, the 3,000 worlds became soft to the touch. There were [no longer] any hills, sand, gravel, thistles or poisonous plants there, but all was [instead] adorned with various treasures as in the case of the Western Paradise of peace and happiness of Buddha Amitayus. At that time, all those congregated there saw the innumerable number of Buddha lands as though seeing their forms reflected in a mirror. The same was the case when they saw the lands of all the Buddhas.

Once again, great reference to Hua-Yen, or a View of Totality—yea, like a great holographic image, ALL Buddha lands are made to be present as well. I Like the honorable mention of Amitayus Buddha.

The light that issued from the Tathagata’s face was fivefold in colour, and it shone and covered all the great congregation, so that it blotted out the light that came out of the body.

Having done this, it again turned back to the Buddha, back to him through his mouth. Then, the heavenly beings and all those congregated there, asuras and others, became greatly afraid, as they saw the Buddha’s light entering him through his mouth. Their hair stood on end. And they said: “The light of the Tathagata, having appeared, goes back and enters [him again]. This is not without reason. This indicates that the Buddha has done what he intended to do in the ten directions and now will enter Nirvana as his last act. This must be what it mean to indicate to us. Woe is the world, woe the world! Why is it that the World-Honoured One so forsakes the four limitless minds and does not accept the offerings of man and heaven? The light of Wisdom is now going out eternally. The unsurpassed boat of Dharma is now sinking. Ah, the pain! Woe is the world!” They held up their hands, beat their breasts, and sorrowfully cried out and wept.

Their limbs shook, and they did not know how to support themselves. Blood came from their bodies and ran over the ground.”

Magnificent conclusion to this First Chapter on the Astounding Assembly. The Buddha’s luminous refulgence of his Light-Rays penetrate all as if, in shining upon them, the hidden light within them is drawn out and reflected back to the Blessed One! Yea, what this was all about is a Great Symphony of Light manifesting through a myriad of forms and spiritual agencies. And in one resounding crescendo, everyone’s life-force is spent like great pools of Blood overflowing everywhere. Yea, this Sutra is most Baroque-like in feel and texture.

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