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​The Buddha Teaches You to Say Goodbye Properly

When his own father was on the deathbed, and his chief disciple passed away, what kind of teachings did the Buddha give to the assembly? And what kind of example did he set? When facing with the sorrow and reluctance of parting with loved ones, how does the Buddha guide the public? Let us learn together.

The Buddha carried his father's coffin, fulfilling his filial duty and preaching about impermanence

When his father King Śuddhodana was on the deathbed, how did the Buddha bid farewell to his own father and fulfill his duty as a son? Scriptures such as "The Buddha Speaks of King Śuddhodana's Parinirvana" and the "Sutra on the King Śuddhodana's Nirvana" chronicle the  Buddha's farewell to his father.  

The scriptures describe how King Śuddhodana was old and seriously ill, and the doctors were helpless and unable to do anything about it. Everyone knew that the king would not live long, and they were deeply saddened. However, they still encouraged King Śuddhodana to let go. On his deathbed, King Śuddhodana told his younger brother and ministers that he wanted to see his two monastic sons, namely, Siddhartha (the Buddha) and Nanda, as well as his nephew Ananda and grandson Rahula. The ministers heard King Śuddhodana's deep longing for his children, but they also knew that the Buddha was far away on Vulture Peak in Rajagriha, and could not rush to the Sakki kingdom immediately, so they shed tears like rain.

At this moment, the Buddha heard the voice of his father, King Śuddhodana, longing for him, using his power of divine hearing. Along with Ananda and others, he used his supernormal power of unimpeded bodily manifestation to appear in Kapilavastu, and arrived at the king's palace. The Buddha extended his hand and placed it on King Śuddhodana's forehead, comforting him by saying: "Father! You are a person who keeps the precepts intact and have distanced yourself from mental defilements. Today, you should rejoice and not be troubled. You should wholeheartedly contemplate the true meaning of all phenomena. In this impermanent world, you should cultivate a firm resolve and deeply plant virtuous roots. Therefore, my lord father, today you should have a joyful heart. Even though your life is coming to an end, you can be at ease without any mental burdens."

Preaching to his father on the deathbed

After King Śuddhodana's last wish to see his son was fulfilled, he passed away peacefully. When the assembly wanted to escort King Śuddhodana to the crematorium, Nanda knelt down and said to the Buddha: "The king raised me and made me grow up. Please allow me to carry the king's coffin." Ananda and Rahula also requested to carry King Śuddhodana's coffin. The Buddha said: "In the future, people in the world will not know how to repay the kindness shown by their parents in raising them. Let us set an example for future beings!" 

When the Buddha was about to personally carry his father's coffin, a billion-world universe shook with six kinds of tremors. At this moment, the heavenly beings from the desire realm came to mourn, and the Four Heavenly Kings each led billions of their retinue to come. The Four Heavenly Kings knelt down simultaneously and requested the Buddha, saying: "World-Honored One with great compassion and mercy, you are showing the act of personally carrying your father's coffin for the future beings who don't know how to repay their parents' kindness. We are your disciples. After hearing your teachings, our minds have been opened to true understanding, and we have attained the first fruit. Therefore, we should carry King Śuddhodana's coffin." The Buddha agreed to their request, and the Four Heavenly Kings took the form of humans, carrying the coffin on their shoulders. At this moment, all the people of the entire nation cried out loud."

Setting a model of filial piety for future generations

The Buddha personally held an incense burner at the front of the funeral procession, walking to the cremation site. At this time, a thousand Arhats on Vulture Peak came to the Buddha using their supernormal power of unimpeded bodily manifestation to pay their respects, and asked the Buddha if there was any way they could assist. The Buddha then sent them to fetch various fragrant woods, such as ox-head sandalwood, from small islands in the great ocean. Afterward, the Buddha and the people together piled up the fragrant wood, placed the coffin on top, and lit the fire. Everyone couldn't help but cry in sorrow. At this moment, the Buddha addressed the crowd, saying: "The world is characterized by suffering, emptiness, and impermanence. Our physical body is like an illusion, similar to the moon in the water or a reflection in a mirror. Do not fear the burning firewood's heat; the fire of desire is even more intense than this. Everyone should diligently practice, so as to forever liberate from the cycle of birth and death and thus attain great peace."

After the cremation of King Śuddhodana's remains, the people asked the Buddha: "Where has King Śuddhodana been reborn after his death? Please enlighten us." The Buddha told the crowd: "King Śuddhodana was a pure practitioner, and has been reborn in the Heaven of Pure Abode."

The Buddha's funeral rites for his father, King Śuddhodana, can be said to be a prototype of modern Buddhist ceremonies. When our loved one is on their deathbed, and there is no Buddhist master to provide teachings, we ourselves can preach the Dharma to the dying person, thereby helping them generate faith in the Buddhadharma and be reborn without worries and obstructions. Moreover, the Buddha not only preached to his father, but also expounded the meaning of Buddhist doctrine to the entire nation, thereby enlightening them and alleviating their sorrow. Even though King Śuddhodana was a noble king as well as the Buddha's father, his funeral rite was simple yet solemn. Two and a half millennia ago, it set an example for future Buddhists.

Śāriputra returned to his hometown and attained Nirvana to liberate his mother

Among the disciples of the Buddha, Venerable Śāriputra, known as "the foremost in wisdom," attained Nirvana before the Buddha did. Moreover, the place of his Nirvana was the room where he was born. Before his Nirvana, he helped his mother, who originally believed in Brahmanism, abandon heretical views, develop faith in the Three Jewels, and attain the first fruit (i.e. the fruit of stream-entry). This was Śāriputra's deepest act of gratitude towards his mother's kindness. 

According to the "Biographies of the Holy Disciples of the Buddha I: Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana" written by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, after the Buddha's last rains retreat, Venerable Śāriputra realized, upon coming out of sitting meditation, that he had only seven days left to live. Recalling that he had become a monk following the Buddha, yet his mother did not believe in the Three Jewels, he decided to return to his hometown and enter Parinirvana in the room where he was born. He used this event to guide and transform his mother.

Repaying parental kindness with the Dharma.

After Sariputra told the Buddha of his determination to return to his hometown, the Buddha gave him permission to do so. As soon as Śāriputra returned home and entered the house, he suffered from severe diarrhea. His worried mother, Rupasari, had no choice but to stand by the door and watch over him. At this time, the Four Heavenly Kings arrived one by one to visit Śāriputra. When she saw the Four Heavenly Kings coming in and out of her son's room, she couldn't help but think: "If even my son is revered and loved by the Four Heavenly Kings, then wouldn't his teacher, Gautama Buddha, be even more powerful?" Upon thinking this, her heart was instantly filled with joy.

Śāriputra knew that the time to transform his mother had come. He began to speak to her about the virtues of the World-Honored One and explained the Dharma: "When my teacher, Gautama Buddha, was born, renounced secular life, attained enlightenment, and turned the wheel of dharma for the first time, eighty-four thousand worlds shook with great tremors. He is unparalleled in precepts, concentration, wisdom, liberation, knowledge and views..." After hearing this discourse, Rupasari was deeply moved. 

Seeing that his mother had attained the fruit of stream-entry after hearing the Dharma, Śāriputra felt no more regrets. He first asked her to leave the room. Concerned for her son, Rupasari returned to check on him, only to find that he had attained Nirvana. She lamented not knowing about her son's spiritual practice in the past and thus missing the opportunity to make offerings to him to accumulate merits. To make up for this regret, she took out the family's treasures and organized a grand funeral for Śāriputra. A week later, during the cremation, the public first listened to the Dharma teachings throughout the night. Then, Anuruddha extinguished the flames, while Cunda collected the remains. Along with Śāriputra's robe and bowl, they brought the ashes to the Buddha to report the matter.

Buddha comforted Ānanda in his sorrow

When Ānanda heard the news of Venerable Śāriputra's passing, he was overwhelmed with grief. The Buddha asked Ānanda: "Ānanda! When Śāriputra passed away, did he take away with him the precepts, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and the knowledge and views of liberation? Did the teachings I have given since my enlightenment, such as the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of transcendental power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the eightfold noble path, all disappear with Śāriputra's Nirvana?"

Ānanda replied: "No! However, with Venerable Śāriputra's diligent practice and wisdom, he could provide powerful teachings according to people's different spiritual capacities, and often praised and encouraged everyone he encountered. My sorrow and distress are due to the fact that those taught by him have lost the presence of Venerable Śāriputra."

The World-Honored One patiently consoled 'Ānanda: "Ānanda! Don't be distressed. Haven't I taught you that everything we cherish will decay and separate from us?'

The Buddha told Ānanda that even the Tathāgata would soon pass away. Therefore, one should rely on oneself and the true Dharma, rather than depending on unreliable heterodox teachers and teachings. Ānanda asked: "World-Honored One! Could you please further instruct on how to rely on oneself and the true Dharma, while not depending on heterodox teachers and teachings?'

The Buddha instructed Ānanda: "Ānanda! You should practice according to the four foundations of mindfulness, namely, observing the body, feelings, mind, and phenomena, and truly perceiving all phenomena, be they internal, external, or a mix of both. You should be clearly aware of the phenomena, so that each and every thought is clear to you, thereby subduing worldly craving and sorrow. This is relying on oneself, relying on the true Dharma, and not depending on heterodox teachers and teachings." After listening to the World-Honored One's teachings, Ānanda was filled with joy and happily followed the Buddha's instructions."

The Sutra on impermanence

All who are born will eventually die, 
All beautiful appearances will decline with age, 
Even the strong will be stricken by illness, 
And no one can escape this fate. 
Even a wondrous high mountain, 
will crumble and erode by the kalpa's end.
The vast and bottomless seas, 
Will also eventually dry up; 
The earth, sun and moon, 
Will all perish in due time.
There has never been a thing, 
That is not swallowed up by impermanence...

These verses, familiar to the ears of Buddhists, are from the "Sutra on impermanence", translated by the Tang Dynasty's Master Yijing, also known as the "Three Teachings on Impermanence Sutra" or "Three Teachings Sutra". In his "A Record of Buddhist Practices Sent Home from the Southern Sea", Master Yijing explains that "three teachings" refers to the three sections of the sutra recitation ceremony: the first section praises the Three Jewels, the middle section contains the main text of the sutra, and the final section is dedicated to making vows and dedications-- hence the name "three teachings".

In this sutra, the Buddha directly points out that both the sentient world and the material world face the fact of impermanence. The most unwilling and inevitable events encountered by sentient beings are old age, sickness, and death. The Buddha says that within the three realms, there is no place where one can find true stability. Even if one is born in the Heaven of Neither Thought Nor Non-Thought, where the lifespan last for 84,000 eons, there is still a day of death, and after death, one must be reborn according to their karma and receive their karmic retributions. Before death, even the most beloved family and friends cannot take one's place.

The Buddha appeared in the world to show sentient beings how to escape the suffering brought about by old age, sickness, and death, as well as to attain ultimate happiness. We don't necessarily have to solely rely on reading the "Sutra on Impermanence"  when facing separation in life and parting at death. If we can recite it daily and always contemplate impermanence, we will be able to appreciate the preciousness of life and always be in accord with the Dharma. "Always anoint the body with the fragrance of precepts, and sustain it with the strength of samadhi; adorn the world with wondrous flowers of bodhi, dwell in peace and joy wherever you are." The sutra concludes by emphasizing the practice of morality, concentration, and wisdom, transcending the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, and the sorrow and grief brought about by life and death. Moreover, while facing impermanence, the sutra opens up infinite hope for sentient beings. 

Related articles:

Making a Will in Advance and Facing Death Head-On

The Buddha's demonstration of his final journey 

The Buddha Teaches You to Say Goodbye Properly

Contemplating death with a remembrance of impermanence

Remaining Steadfast in the Face of Aging, Illness and Death

Resource: Issue 417 of Humanity  Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Anne Yeow (姚麗萍) 
Editing: Keith Brown, YKL