Chapter Two: On Cunda
At that time there was present among the congregation an upasaka who was the son of an artisan of this fortress town of Kusinagara. Cunda was his name. He was there with his comrades, fifteen in number. In order that the world should generate good fruit, he abandoned all bodily adornments [to indicate his respect and modesty], stood up, bared his right shoulder, placed his right knee on the ground and, folding his hands, looked up at the Buddha. Sorrowfully and tearfully, he touched the Buddha’s feet with his head [i.e. in sign of respect] and said: “O World-Honoured One and bhiksus! Please have pity and accept our last offerings and succor innumerable beings. O World-Honoured One! From now on, we have no master, no parents, no salvation, no protection, no place wherein to take refuge, and no place to go. We shall be poor and hunger-ridden. Following the Tathagata, we desire to gain food for the days to come. Please have pity and accept our petty offerings, and, then, enter Nirvana. O World-Honoured One! This is as in the case of a Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaishya or Sudra, who, being poor, goes to a far-off country. He works at farming and indeed gains a trained cow. The land is good, flat and square. There is no poor, sandy soil, no harmful weeds, no barrenness and no defilements [there]. What is needful is awaiting the rain from heaven. We say “trained cow”. This may be likened to the seven actions of the body and mouth, and the good field flat and square to Wisdom. Doing away with the poor soil, harmful weeds, barrenness and defilements refers to Illusion, which we must do away with. O World-Honoured One! I now have with me the trained cow and good soil, and I have tilled the land and done away with all the weeds. I am now only awaiting the Tathagata’s sweet rain of Dharma to visit me. The four castes of poverty are none but the carnal body that I possess. I am poor, as I do not possess the superb treasure of Dharma. Pray have pity and cut away our poverty and hardships and rid us innumerable beings of our sorrow and worries. What offerings I make are paltry. But what I may think is that they will satisfy the Tathagata and Sangha. I now have no master, no parents, and no refuge. Please have pity on us, as you have on Rahula [the Buddha’s son].”
Cunda in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is not to be confused with the Cunda of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Blacksmith whose meal served to the Buddha was the catalyst for the Blessed One’s illness. But I believe that the choice of this name within the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra was chosen by the Mahayanist scribes as a “little twist” in that the Cunda in this passage serves as a catalyst for the growth of the lay-movement in Buddhism. His paltry offering became as it were, the Dharma-food for the masses. He’s described here as the son of an artisan, although some scholars indicate that this was more specifically translated as “blacksmith”, which is indicative of that “little twist”—instead now of serving poisoned food, the little offering became the means by which many could partake in the spiritual food of the Buddhadharma. Charley Linden Thorp writes eloquently in his article, Cunda, the Beginnings of Lay Buddhism:
[Chunda] then made a speech confidently and sincerely which was to change the future course of Buddhism… As all those attending had done, Chunda implored the Buddha to accept the simple customary offerings of homemade food he and his friends had brought. All the distinguished members of the congregation had already offered luxurious gifts of precious commodities like livestock and gold, but the Buddha had refused to accept everything until this point. Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Chunda’s modest offerings were accepted and he proceeded to eloquently express his deep sadness of himself and his 15 friends at the prospect of losing the Buddha. He hoped that the simple food would prepare him for entering Parinirvana, the highest state of the ceasing of all craving, and that all sentient beings would not suffer from spiritual poverty after his decease.
In ancient India, and to a certain extent there today, the rigid caste system rejected people such as Chunda because he did not fit into any of the four main castes: He was not a clergyman or scholar, not of the nobility or a warrior, not a merchant or farmer, or a general labourer or servant. But he had confidence that all humans, despite their caste imposed at birth, were equal, and that when the Buddha left them, they would all be equally spiritually destitute.
His words displayed great wisdom despite his lack of formal education or spiritual training. He knew that all living beings needed simply the rain of the Dharma to make them spiritually fertile, and that the Buddha, the truly awakened one, the Tathagata, could bring such rain into the human world of suffering (samsara). The Buddha was delighted and immediately conferred eternal life and connected him to the ever-presence (Skt.; dharmakaya). In other words, he was enlightened on the spot… It is easy to imagine just how radically this changed the course of Mahayana Buddhism because now anyone could become enlightened and many lay Buddhist orders emerged later.
Then the World-Honoured One, the All-Knowledge [“sarvajnana”], the Unsurpassed Trainer, said to Cunda: “This is good, good indeed! I shall now cut off the roots of your poverty and let fall on your field of carnal life the unsurpassed rain of Dharma and call forth the bud of Dharma. You now desire to have from me life, body, power, peace, and unhindered speech. And I shall give to you undying life, body, power, peace, and unhindered speech. Why?
O Cunda! In offerings of meals there are two fruits that know of no distinction. What are the two? Firstly, one attains “anuttarasamyaksambodhi” [unsurpassed, complete Enlightenment] when one receives it [a meal-offering]; secondly, one enters Nirvana after receiving it. I will now receive your last offering and let you accomplish danaparamita [perfected giving].”
Our hypothesis concerning the two Cundas serves two types of meal offerings: One resulting in the end of life, the other transcending the samsaric and skhandic matrix all together. Cunda in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra offers to the Blessed One what little he has, symbolic of turning-over his skandhic identity or his “lesser-self”; in so doing he is rewarded by the Blessed One with the gift of the higher and “best-Self”—THE Self that is an Unborn and Undying One. This is also the spiritual significance of why the Tathagata accepted Cunda’s offering and none of the other extravagant ones as depicted by all the exotic characters in Chapter One. Simply turn-over the little significance of your skandhic-core and you will be blessed by the Buddhadharma a thousand-fold. This is described in the passage as Cunda’s “perfected giving” (danaparamita). As a sign that this is the best meal-offering, the door is left open for Cunda to attain anuttarasamyaksambodhi and enter into the Nirvanic Kingdom of Self.
(Charles Patton translation):
At that time, Cunda said to the Buddha, “The Buddha has said that these two rewards of giving are undistinguished. The meaning of this is unclear. Why? Prior to the acceptance of the charity, the afflictions have not yet ended and the knowledge of all modes has not yet been brought to fruition. And one is not yet able to lead sentient beings to consummate the perfection of giving (dana-paramita). After the acceptance of the charity, the afflictions are then ended and the knowledge of all modes is brought to fruition. And one is able to lead sentient beings to the consummation of the perfection of giving. Prior to the acceptance of the charity, one is like a sentient being; while after the acceptance of the charity, one is a god in heaven. Prior to the acceptance of the charity, the body is a body of component parts, a body of afflictions, a body with boundaries, and an impermanent body. Yet, after the acceptance of the charity, the body is devoid of afflictions, a body of adamantine (vajra-kaya), the essential body (dharma-kaya), the eternal body, and a limitless body. Why do you say that the two rewards of charity are undistinguished?
Prior to accepting the gift of charity one’s afflicted and “skandhic-bound” self rules the roost in samsara. As a result, since oneself has not benefited from it, it cannot possibly be offered to others. After the action of acceptance of the paramita, the afflicted-self is minimized and the larger Spirit-Self empowers all beings to be blessed equally with danaparamita. Thus, the impermanent-self is disengaged giving-way to the adamantine and Vajra-like Self that is eternal and boundless.
The Buddha replied, “Good son, for infinite and limitless asankhyas of kalpas the Tathagata has not had a food body or a body of afflictions. His body is limitless, an eternal body, the essential body, and a body of adamantine. Good son, it is the body of one who has not yet seen this nature of the Buddha that is called an afflicted body or a body of component parts and food. This is a bodhisattva with a limited body. At the time that this food and drink has been accepted, he then enters the adamantine samadhi. Once the meal is digested, he sees the nature of the Buddha and attains the anuttarasamyak-sambodhi. This is why I have said that the two rewards of giving are undistinguished. The bodhisattva at that time obliterates the four maras. This is why I have said that the two rewards of giving are undistinguished. That bodhisattva at that time, while he could not thoroughly explain the twelve-section scriptural canon before, he could penetrate through it [afterward]. Now that he has entered Nirvana, he can discern and thoroughly explain it for the expanse of sentient beings. This is why I have said that the two rewards of giving are undistinguished.
“Good son, for infinite asankhyas of kalpas, the body of the Tathagata has not accepted any drink or food. It is for voice-hearers (sravaka) that it is said that first he accepted from Nanda and Nandapara a pasture with two cows which gave him milk and gruel and then afterward he attained the anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. In reality, I did not eat them. I now shall demonstrate it to all of the great assembly of congregations. This is why I have taken your very last offerings. In reality, I will not eat them.”
This is a good passage showing how the Mahayana departs from former Theravadin associations of what constitutes Buddhahood. The latter is really Self-limited since the Buddha’s manifestation form takes precedence. The Buddha here is a Transcendent One, no longer dependent upon a physical form but having the Adamantine-Body of the Tathagatas. The one who has not yet experienced this Self-realization of the Tathagata is still “self-afflicted”. After one Eats of the Dharma-food one enters into the adamantine samadhi, wherein the Self is set free to Self-realize Itself thus attaining anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
At that time, upon hearing that the Buddha, the World Honored One, would mercifully accept Cunda’s very last offerings for the sake of the great assembly, the congregation was elated, danced joyfully, and sang praises in unison, saying, “Excellent, excellent is this most extraordinary Cunda!
Your name shall be established to be a non-empty praise. The meaning of the word Cunda is ‘Free and Marvelous’. You are now the expression of such a great meaning. This is why it is in accord with reality that your name is established from this meaning. It is why you are named Cunda. In this present life, you have attained this great name, your blessed virtue and vows are fulfilled. Most exceptional is Cunda who has been born human and attained this difficult blessing of the unsurpassed.
“Excellent is this Cunda! He is a rarity in the world like that of the *udumbara flower. The appearance of the Buddha in the world is also very rare. To meet with the birth of a Buddha and have faith in the Dharma one hears [from him] is again difficult. Being able to provide the very last offerings when the Buddha nears parinirvana is also the rarest of events. Namo Cunda, namo Cunda! You have now fulfilled the perfection of giving. Just as the Autumn moon is pure for a period of fifteen days and nights, it is completely full without any clouds to obstruct the view. Just as none the sentient beings can avoid look at it with reverence, you are also so. And we do look reverently upon the Buddha who has accepted your very last offerings and lead you to consummate the perfection of giving. Namo Cunda! This is why we say that you are like the moon at its peak fullness, which none of the sentient beings can avoid look at with reverence. Namo Cunda! Although you have received a human body, your mind is like the Buddha’s mind. You, Cunda, are truly a Buddhist disciple, no different than Rahula.
* In Sanskrit and Pāli, name of a flowering tree (the Ficus glomerata) that is said to bloom only once every one thousand or three thousand years. Because it blossoms so infrequently, Buddhist texts often use the udumbara in similes to indicate something exceedingly rare, such as the appearance of a buddha in the world or the chance of encountering the BUDDHADHARMA during one’s lifetime.
Buswell Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Kindle Locations 70433-70437). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
The congregation praises Cunda’s name meaning, marvelously so in Patton’s translation, ‘Free and Marvelous’. They praise him because he has transcended his human condition—something that is a rarity in life, like the udumbara flower. They praise him because he has achieved perfect danaparamita AND the prize of the Buddha’s own gift of Selfhood—thus he is likened unto the Autumn Full Moon, i.e., being full of the stature of perfect-giving resulting in his own transcendence from the composed. Yea, his Mind is now Self-united.
Cunda is then deeply elated and sings of the Buddha’s own likeness to the udumbara flower. He then wishes that the Tathagata “remains forever in the world and not enter Nirvana!” This is the moment that Manjusri intervenes:
At that time, the Dharma prince Manjusri addressed Cunda, “Cunda, you should not say that you wish the Tathagata to remain in the world forever and forgo Nirvana, being like a starved person who can no longer produce saliva. You should, instead, regard the nature and signs of his actions. Thus regarding his actions, you should fulfill the samadhi of emptiness. Wishing to seek the true Dharma, thus you should train.”
The true-dharma of emptiness is imageless and thus non-graspable; training well in Buddhagnosis empowers one to grasp this truth and in doing so, one fulfills the samadhi of emptiness—self-empty of all that is not Self.
Cunda responds to Manjusri by stating that the Tathagata is unconditioned :
“Manjusri, the heretical paths of those with mistaken views may say that the Tathagata is the same as the conditioned. A precept-holding bhiksu, however, should not give rise to such conditioned thinking about the Tathagata. If he were to say that the Tathagata is something conditioned, then that is a deluded statement. It should be known that upon death this person will enter the hells as though his own home. Manjusri, in reality the Tathagata is an unconditioned dharma and should not be said to be conditioned. From this day all in samsara should abandon this deficient understanding and seek the correct knowledge. Then, you will know that the Tathagata is unconditioned. If you can thus regard the Tathagata, then on perfection [of that knowledge] you will attain the thirty-two marks and swiftly realize the anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.”
Manjusri said to Cunda, “You have stated that the Tathagata is the unconditioned, that the body of the Tathagata has a long life span. Have you come to the knowledge of the Buddha’s bliss?”
Cunda replied, “You should not say that the Tathagata brings bliss. The blissful person is a mistaken idea. If there are mistaken ideas then there is birth and death. When there is birth and death, then there are conditioned things (dharmas). This is why, Manjusri, that one is not to state that the Tathagata is conditioned. If it is said that the Tathagata is conditioned, I and the sages together would be practicing in delusion. Manjusri, the Tathagata does not have the idea of being compassionately mindful. Compassionate mindfulness is like the cow being compassionately mindful of its calf.
Manjushri praises Cunda by stating that things will go well with him and that he was only testing him to see his level of Buddhagnosis, like a true Bodhisattva.
Yet, even though Cunda has surpassed his skandhic-self, it’s interesting how he still humanly grieves over the Tathagatas passing:
At that time, having heard this said, Cunda raised his voice in a cry of grief, saying, “The suffering, the suffering! The world is vacant!” And to the great congregation he said, “We all now must throw our five members to the ground and with the same voice exhort the Buddha not to enter parinirvana.”
The Buddha’s response is that Cunda should NEVER lose his hard-won awareness over the inadequate nature of the skandhic-shell, in this instance telling Cunda to look upon his (Buddhas) own apparent form as no more than a phantasm:
At that time, the World Honored One addressed Cunda, “Do not cry out and confuse your own mind! You should regard this body just like the banana plant when it is burned, frothing water, a conjured illusion, a gandharva city, a clay vessel, and like a lightning flash. It is also like a drawing made in water, a prisoner facing execution, burnt fruit, and like a lump of flesh. It is like the end of a woven thread and like a mallet going up and down. You should regard its actions to be like various poisonous foods. Conditioned things (dharmas) are its numerous errors and anxieties.”
Yet, Cunda continues in the same vein:
At that time, Cunda said to the Buddha, “So it is, so it is. Sincere is the honored teaching. Although I know that the Tathagata expediently manifests the entry into Nirvana, still I am incapable of not being greatly grieved about it. It upsets my concentration [needed] to again give rise to consolation and happiness.”
upsets my concentration: Due to his great grief, indeed in unison with the other attendees at this auspicious gathering, his Bodhi-ability of entering into Deep Samadhis is greatly marred and rendered ineffective, so great is the grief of his passion for the Blessed One.
At that time, in order for sentient beings to attain liberation, Cunda bowed his head, choked on his tears, and said to the Buddha, “Excellent, World Honored One! If I were to deeply serve [the beings] for their blessed fields, then I would be able to comprehend and know the Tathagata’s Nirvana and non-Nirvana. As it is now, our wisdom along with that of the voice hearers and pratyeka-buddhas is like that of mosquitos. We are, indeed, unable to fathom the Tathagata’s Nirvana and non-Nirvana.”
At that time, Cunda and his retinue sorrowfully wept and encircled the Tathagata, burning incense, scattering flowers, and with their last thought respectfully presenting [gifts]. And soon those with Manjusri also rose from their seats and went to offer their alms and supplies.
It’s interesting to note that the dominant portion of this chapter has Cunda speaking at the level of an advanced Bodhisattva, yet here he is falling-backward to former positions like the voice hearers and pratyeka-buddhas. This reveals that even though one reaches the High Peaks of Buddhagnosis, one ought not to lose one’s humanity in the process. Hence, Cunda is the perfect model for lay discipleship.