The Buddha’s Last Days

A friend in Eau Claire is a fan of Gil Fronsdal’s talks and recommended one on”The Buddha’s Last Days,” which you can find on Audio Dharma. As I quite like Gil’s take on Buddha-Dhamma, his insights and balance, and his style, I gave this talk a listen during the drive back to Norwalk this frigid pre-dawn in central Wisconsin (-15 F).

Gil’s reading of the rather hagiographic Mahanibbana Sutta (DN 16) for clues into the human story and the situation of the last months of the Buddha’s life is good food for reflection. The signs he finds for societies undergoing change and stress are things I’ve overlooked before. That the Buddha’s final days took place with these changes in the background and how he responded can give us hints about living within a world that’s falling apart around us right now (as it always has). I recommend this respectful consideration of ancient Buddha story.

One tiny caveat …

Gil briefly mentions Ajahn Buddhadasa’s cremation and passes on one version of Tan Ajahn’s wishes for the disposition of his body after he died. The one Gil reports may have been current at Suan Mokkh when Gil was there (late 1984 & early 1985), though I didn’t hear of it till some years later. Tan Ajahn’s health was not very good then, and in subsequent years, and the story is plausible. However, Tan Ajahn lived on until 1993. Between 1985 (when I arrived at Suan Mokkh to live) and 1993, I heard other versions of Tan Ajahn’s wishes for the handling of his body, though none from Tan Ajahn’s own mouth.So it’s difficult to say which is ‘the real story.’

In the end, Tan Ajahn dictated and signed a “Will” that was witnessed by a few very senior and highly respected disciples. (I was just outside the room as this happened, but did not participate.) This Will was taken to be official and was actually followed closely. I was there throughout, including at the official moment of death, though not directly involved in funeral and cremation preparations, and can attest to the wishes being followed as well as was possible under the circumstances. We must give Ajahn Poh and others credit for that.

It was not the case that Tan Ajahn was given a “grand state cremation.” In fact, the date wasn’t even announced till the morning of the event. The ceremonies and fund raising that typically go on with such occasions did not happen. The event was kept as simple as possible and the actual cremation was done in the good old-fashioned Southern Thai style, not that of Bangkok and Royalty.

Some day I’ll give a more detailed account. A video documentary does exist.

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