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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Parinirvana or Nirvana Day


Dai-Batsu Buddha Shrine, Kamakura, Japan
February 8 or 15 (depending on which tradition one observes)  is the Buddhist holiday of Parinirvana or Nirvana Day. Note that while February 15 is the date for most Mahayana Buddhists, in some traditions, Parinirvana is observed on February 8 this year. In Canada, regardless of tradition, the holiday is officially observed on February 15.  

Nirvana Day marks the day in 483 BCE when Siddhārtha Gautama – the Buddha – died.  The Sanskrit word parinirvana or the equivalent Pali word parinibbāna refers to the death of physical body of anyone who attains enlightenment. The use of the word Parinirvana or Parinibbāna to refer to a holiday generally refers to the death of Siddhārtha Gautama -- Lord Buddha – as the first person to attain enlightenment.   

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Nirvana Day is celebrated primarily by Mahayana Buddhists. There are two major schools of Buddhism: Mahayana (with its offshoot of Vajrayana Buddhism) and Theravada. It should be noted that while the death of the Gautama Buddha is important in both branches of Buddhism, the event is celebrated as a holiday in the Mahayana (vs. Theravada) tradition. Theravada Buddhists usually celebrate this event in May as part of the the holiday of Vesak. Mahayana Buddhism is most traditionally associated with the Buddhist traditions of China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Bhutan, Cambodia Vietnam and northern India.

Mahayana Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s death as something joyous. It is not a sad event. This is because, in dying, the Buddha attained nirvana. Through his death, the Buddha left the world with his final lessons on achieving freedom from earthly existence and the cycle of suffering.

As a holiday, Parinirvana is an opportunity not only to rejoice in the death of the Buddha but also a day to recall those who have died among one’s relatives, friends and teachers. This, in turn, is used as a time to reflect on one’s own mortality and to be mindful of one’s own life in the face of the inevitability of death.

Two Versions of the Mahaparinirvana

Sakyamuni Buddha
Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island
Hong Kong 
The death of the Buddha is described in two different versions, both with the same name. The Sanskrit Mahaparinirvana Sutra is the main sutra on which Mahayana Buddhism relies. Thereravada Buddhists, in turn, rely on the Pali language version known as the Maha-parinibbana Sutta.  To avoid confusion, the Mahayana version is frequently called just that: the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

For an English version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, please see Kosho Yamamoto’s translation at

Yamamoto’s translation is the first full translation of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra that has been widely accepted.

To compare this with the Theravada Pali language Maha-parinibbana Sutta, please see the translation of Francis Story’s English rendition of Sister Vajira version posted at the Buddhist Publication Site at:

While these two versions both describe the last days and final teachings of Gautama Buddha, and both describe his death and parinirvana, it is important to re-emphasize that the two scriptures differ significantly in content and structure.

Bhutanese Buddha
Indeed, while Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism share a great deal in common, the teachings of the Buddha in his final days presents one source of significant differences. This is an important distinction since in both traditions, the Mahaparinirvana text lays out in greatest detail the central principles of Buddha-dhatu (also called “Buddha nature” in English, Tathāgatagarbha in Sanskrit and Bussho in Japanese).

For more on the shared principles as well as the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, I recommend that you read see Ankur Barua and M.A. Basilio’s excellent overview “Similarities And Differences Between Theravada And Mahayana Buddhism” at

Because the holiday of Parinirvana is primarily a Mahayana Buddhist holiday, the version of the Buddha’s death and the related passages quoted here are from the Mahayana scripture.

The Death of the Buddha

Foreknowledge and Delay of Death

 Death of the Buddha
Exterior of Daeungjeon Shrine
Jogyesa Temple complex, Seoul
Siddhārtha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 40, becoming the first person to attain buddhood. From this point, he acquired the title of the Buddha, meaning “Enlightened One.”  For more on Lord Buddha’s enlightenment, see the entry on this blog for Bodhi Day at

Buddha cave painting, 8th century
Dunhuang caves, Gansu Province, China

At the point of his enlightenment, the Buddha had the ability to enter Nirvana immediately, and be free from the cycle of attachment and suffering. He chose, however, to stay in his earthly existence to share the truth of enlightenment with those who would listen. For the next 40 years following his enlightenment, the Buddha traveled around northern India teaching and receiving those who sought understanding.

Because he had complete enlightenment, the Buddha knew exactly when and how he would die. He told his disciples that he would die at 80 far in advance of his death.

Cunda and the Final Meal

At 80, the Buddha became severely ill as he had foretold. For some time, he began to suffer from sharp abdominal pains. In the Theravada version of his death, Lord Buddha had sent his followers away for a set time during which his body began to fail. In this version, he willed himself to remain so that his followers could learn from him in his death.  In the Mahayana version, this is less clear. In both versions, in the days leading up to his death, the Buddha – weak and still suffering from intestinal pain -- was surrounded by his disciples in Kushinigar, the capital of what was then the nation of Malla, which is now the town of Kasia in the modern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Buddha receives his last meal
from the metalsmith Cunda
In his last day, the Buddha traveled with his disciples to the village of Pava where he rested in the mango grove owned by a pious metalworker named Cunda. The Buddha requested his personal attendant, the great disciple Ānanda, to procure an offering of food from Cunda. Unknown to Ānanda or to Cunda, but known to the Buddha, this offering will be the last meal of the Buddha. Cunda provides two meal offerings. One is of general food and the other -- the meal eaten by the Buddha -- is called sukaramaddava which means “boar’s delight” but the content of which is debated. In some (though not all) Mahayana tradition this meal is one of “pig truffles” (that is, of truffles found by a pig); in Theravada (and some Mahayana) traditions, this meal is one of pork.

Whatever the actual last meal is, the food is contaminated. Knowing that eating Cunda’s offering will kill him, the Buddha willingly eats the meal. The Buddha, however, prevents any of those around him from eating the sukaramaddava. Instead he asks his disciples to bury the remainder of his own meal and insists that they eat only from the other food that Cunda has offered. The Buddha then enters into a discussion with Cunda about the nature of the two offerings, then answering questions that the artisan raises. The Buddha then blesses Cunda for the offering. This discussion is recorded in the Cunda Sutra.

Kushinigar Temple
is on the site of
the Buddha's mahaparinirvana
The Buddha soon after eating Cunda’s food becomes violently ill. Despite this, the Buddha insists on traveling to the city of Kushinigar, approximately nine miles away from Pava. Throughout the journey, the Buddha grows weaker and weaker and is in great discomfort with terrible stomach pains. Colored lights emanate from the Buddha’s mouth and other phenomena suggesting that all is not normal.

The Last Teaching Beneath the Sala Trees

Once in Kushinigar, the Buddha bathes in the Kakuttha river and rests under a grove of sala trees. The Buddha then turns to Ānanda and expresses concern for Cunda:

The Buddha next asks Ānanda to
please make a couch ready for me with its head to the North between two big sala trees. I am tired and I want to lie down.

Sala tree (Shorea robusta) in bloom
Also called sal or shala trees, the species gave
shade both at the birth and death of the historical Buddha

When the Buddha lies down, although February is not the right season for it, the sala trees burst into bloom and begin to shower the Buddha with flower petals.

The request to rest under the sala trees is significant as Queen Māyā of Sakya -- the Buddha's mother -- had given birth to him beneath a sala tree.

The Buddha then says
Ānanda the two big sala trees are scattering flowers on me as though they are paying their respects to me. But this is not how I should be respected and honoured. Rather, it is the monks or nuns, or the men or woman lay followers, who live according to my teaching, that should respect and honor me.

 Now it may happen that some people may make Cunda regret having given me the meal that made me sick.  Ānanda, if this should happen, you should tell Cunda that you have heard directly from the Buddha that it was a gain for him. Tell him that two offerings to the Buddha are of equal gain; the offering of food just before his supreme enlightenment and the offering of food just before he passes away. This is the final birth of the Buddha.

 Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan)
Kamakura period (1185–1333), 14th century
 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Once the disciples have gathered beside him, the Buddha lies on his right side in what is called the lion position, with his legs one on top of the other and his head supported in his hand.  This is the position in which all representations depict the reclining Buddha. The Buddha then asks his disciples if they have any last questions, and no one among those gathered speaks. The Buddha then utters his last words:

Now, monks, I declare to you: All conditioned things are of transient nature; Strive on untiringly with diligence.

At this point, the Buddha died and enters mahaparinirvana.

Parinirvana Observation

The commemoration death of the Buddha on Nirvana Day, as mentioned before, is a joyful occasion even if the day is also often quite solemn. The joyfulness of Parinirvana focuses on celebrating the Buddha’s escape from the cycle of suffering of the soul with the soul’s final freedom to achieve Nirvana. The solemnity centers on using the day to contemplate one’s own mortality, one’s own path to nirvana and the illusion of permanence in the material world. Nirvana Day is also a time for remembering those among one’s family, friends and teachers who have passed away.

On Parinirvana, people go to the temple where the recite portions of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, sing special chants and meditate. During this time, the lighting in the temple is intentionally kept very dim. At the conclusion of the chants and meditations, the room is made bright. This symbolizes the enlightenment of the world through the Buddha’s teachings.

Nirvana Day in many areas is also traditionally a day for distributing gifts of money, clothing and other goods, especially to monks and nuns, but also to the needy.

Dum Alu

Many regional traditions have particular foods associated with Nirvana Day. In northern India, people traditionally eat Dum Alu (or Dum Aloo). This is made of potatoes (alu means potato in several northern Indian languages) in a rich spicy gravy. A recipe for Dum Alu can be found at

Udon Miso Soup

In Japan, some people mark the day by eating Udon Miso Soup. Udon are flat, wheat noodles.  A recipe for Udon Miso Soup can be found at

Concluding Comments

As with all posts on this blog, this overview is meant only to give a superficial overview of a widely celebrated holiday. This blog makes no intention of suggesting that one interpretation or religious text is correct or incorrect. The intent here is to be informative.

As always, I welcome your comments either here on the blog. Please share your traditions and customs.

Happy Nirvana Day! Blessed Parinirvana!

Want to Read More?

Buddha, Karen Armstrong, Penguin: 2004

“The Buddha’s Last Meal,” Buddha Dharma Education Association/Buddha.net, http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/lifebuddha/2_29lbud.htm

“How to Celebrate Parinirvana Day,” Helium How-To Guides

“The Life of the Buddha,” Souled Out.org., http://souledout.org/wesak/storybuddha.html

“The Mahaparinirvana Sðtra and the Origins of Mahayana Buddhism,” Sasaki Shizuka, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 1999. 26:1-2, http://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/publications/jjrs/pdf/539.pdf

“Nirvana Day,” About.com Buddhism,  http://buddhism.about.com/od/buddhistholidays/a/nirvanaday.htm

“Parinirvana Day of Shakyamuni Buddha,” The Jade Turtle Records, http://jadeturtlerecords.blogspot.com/2011/03/parinirvana-day-of-shakyamuni-buddha.html

“Parinirvana of Gautama Buddha,” Ramalingam, Relijournal, http://relijournal.com/buddhism/parinirvana-of-gautama-buddha/

Clip Art Sources

Dai-batsu Buddha Shrine, Kamakura, Japan. This is my own photograph. Please give credit if you wish to copy it.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism regions map: Buddha.net,  http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/schools1.htm

Sakyamuni Buddha, Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island, Hong Kong This is my own photograph. Please give credit if you wish to copy it.

Bhutanese Buddha. From the 2008 traveling exhibition "The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,"  http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/picture/upload/bhutan-art.jpg

Death of the Buddha, Exterior of Daeungjeon Shrine, Jogyesa Temple complex, Seoul: This is my own photograph. Please give credit if you wish to copy it.

Buddha 8th century Dunhuang cave painting:  http://dunhuang.mtak.hu/en/large-ch-53-1.htm

Kushinigar Temple: Buddhist Temples -- Path to Salvation: http://www.buddhist-temples.com/kushinagar.html

Sala trees: J. M. Garg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sal_(Shorea_robusta)-_flowering_canopy_W_Picture_117.jpg

Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan), Kamakura period (1185–1333), 14th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:   http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/12.134.10