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Śākyamuni's final nirvāṇa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2009


Despite the admonitions of responsible scholars, writers of books on Buddhism still tend to assume that a reasonably historical account of the life and personal teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha may be extracted from the earliest available canonical accounts. This quest of the historical Buddha began as a Western nineteenth-century interest, imitating both in its pre-suppositions and its methods of inquiry the parallel quest of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The general principle of operation is set forth succinctly by Hermann Oldenberg in his impressive work, Buddha, sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde, Berlin, 1881, 92:

‘Abstrahiren wir nun von den Traditionen der bezeichneten Kategorien, welche sämmtlich unhistorisch oder doch des unhistorischen Characters verdachtig sind, so behalten wir als festen Kern der Erzählungen von Buddha eine Reihe positiver Thatsaohen iibrig, die wir als einen zwar sehr bescheidenen, aber vollkommen gesicherten Besitz für die Geschichte in Anspruch nehmen dürfen’.

Copyright © School of Oriental and African Studies 1973

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1 This is the Mahāparinibbānasῡtra as it occurs in the Dīghanikāya. Another and very short version occurs in the Saṃyuttanikāya, as translated by Thomas, E. J. in his Early Buddhist scriptures, London, 1935, 51–3Google Scholar.

2 As edited by Waldschmidt, the Sanskrit version is taken from the edited text of Dutt, N., Gilgit manuscripts, III, part I, Srinagar, [1947]Google Scholar, and the Tibetan version from a manuscript copy of the Kanjur in the former Prussian State Library in Berlin, and from the rNar-thang block-print, 'Dul-ba, xi, folio 535b ff. I have referred throughout to the Peking block-print as reprinted conveniently in the Tibetan Tripitaka, Tokyo–Kyoto, 1958, XLIV, page 210Google Scholar, leaf 1, line 5. Future references to the text will appear in the form e.g. p. 210–1–5.

Waldschmidt provides a translation of the Chinese version from the Taishō, Tripiṭaka, xxiv, pp. 382b ffGoogle Scholar.

One may note that the various indexes to the Tibetan canon refer not to this Mahāparinirvāṇasῡtra, but to later Mahāyāna versions in the Sῡtra (m Do) section, viz. Tokyo-Kyoto ed., XXXI, items nos. 787, 788, and 789. I have referred to points of contact with these later works in the footnotes. The corresponding Chinese versions of these later works occur in the Taishō, Tripiṭaka, XIIGoogle Scholar.

A most detailed and brilliant analysis of these Pali and Sanskrit versions and of four other Chinese versions has just been completed by Bareau, André, namely his Becherches sur la biographie du Buddha dans lea Sῡtrapiṭaka et les Vinayapiṭaka anciens. Vol. 11. Les derniers mois, le parinirvāṇa et les funérailles, Paris, École Française d' Extrême Orient, Tom. 1, 1970, Tom. 2, 1971Google Scholar. His conclusions leave hardly any basis for a historical substratum in the texts, certainly even less than I myself envisaged when first writing this short article.

3 See Waldschmidt, , op. cit., 197–201Google Scholar, and for my extracts as translated Ti. T (= Tibetan Tripitaka, Tokyo–Kyoto, 1958), XLIV, p. 216–2–6Google Scholar onwards and p. 216–3–6 onwards: kun dga' bo nga la ni 'di snyam du dge slong gi dge 'dun ni nga'i yin te / ngas dge slong gi dge 'dun la bstan par bya'o / ngas dge slong gi dge 'dun drang ngo snyam du dgongs pa mi mnga' na / ngas dge slong gi dge 'dun gyi phyir zhal chems kho na chung zad bstan du ci yod /

gzhan yang kun dga' bo nga la dge slong gi dge 'dun gyi rag lus pa ci zhig yod / kun dga' bo ngas rtag tu goms par bya ba'i chos / 'di lta ste / dran pa nye bar gzhag pa bzhi dang / yang dag par spong ba bzhi dang / rdzu 'phrul gyi rkang pa bzhi dang / dbang po lnga dang / stobs lnga dang / byang chub kyi yan lag bdun dang / 'phags pa'i lam yan lag brgyad pa ni bshad zin to / …

kun dga' bo gang yang ngas khyod la sdug pa dang / 'phags pa dang / dga' ba dang / yid du 'ong ba thams cod ni 'bral ba dang / 'jig pa dang / 'gyes pa dang / mi Idan par 'gyur ba snga nas bshad zin to / kun dga' bo de lta bas na da lta 'am / 'das kyang rung gang su dag bdag nyid gling dang / bdag nyid skyabs dang / chos kyi gling dang / chos kyi skyabs kyis gnas par bya'i / gling gzhan dang / skyabs gzhan ni ma yin no / de ci'i phyir zhe na /

kun dga' bo da lta 'am / 'das kyang rung / gang su dag bdag nyid gling dang / bdag nyid skyabs dang / chos kyi gling dang / chos kyi skyabs kyis gnas par byed kyi / gling gzhan dang / skyabs gzhan gyis ma yin pa de dag ni 'di lta ste / nga'i nyan thos bslab-pa 'dod pa rnams kyi mchog yin no /.

4 These are the 37 bodhipakṣyā dharmāḥ. For a detailed analysis of them see Dayal, Har, The Bodhisattva doctrine, London, 1932, 80–164Google Scholar. It is interesting to note that this same list forms the climax of the third and shortest Mahāparinirvāṇasῡtra, Ti. T, XXXI, no. 789. See p. 209–4–3Google Scholar. This sῡtra is in the form of a prophecy concerning the success of the Dharma under the Emperor Aśoka 100 years after the parinirvāṇa and a subsequent decline gradually worse up to 1,100 years after. Ānanda is distressed and asks what are the essential teachings for restoring order. The Buddha quotes the 37 ‘principles’, adding ‘total repose’ (Skt. śamatha, Tib. źi-gnas), ‘special insight’ (Skt. vipaśyana, Tib. lhag-mthong) and ‘final release’ (vimokṣa, rnam-par thar-ba), referred to as ‘three doors’ (Tib. sgo-gsum).

5 Waldschmidt, , op. cit., 205–7Google Scholar.

6 The Pali version mentions a dish described as sῡkaramaddava, which is interpreted by Singhalese commentators, at least from the fifth century A.D. onwards, as specially prepared pork. However, the term is so unusual that others were able to explain it as a kind of mushroom. See Thomas, E. J., Life of the Buddha, p. 149, n. 3Google Scholar, and see especially Waley, Arthur, ‘Did Buddha die of eating pork ?’, Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, I, 19311932, (pub.) 1932, 343–52Google Scholar. The possibility of Śākyamuni having actually died of dysentery as a result of eating pork has fired the imagination of Western commentators from the nineteenth century onwards. Even so careful and reliable a scholar as Alfred Foucher exclaims: ‘Quelle dégradation pour I' être sublime qu'un sièole on deux plus tard ses fidèles auraient volontiers exempté de toutes les nécessités naturelles! Mais aussi quelle garantie d'authenticité pour un trait que la légende aurait eu tant d'intérêt à taire ou à déguiser!’ (La vie du Bouddha, Paris, 1949, 305)Google Scholar. On such a special dish, reserved for the sole consumption of a Buddha, see Bateau, A., Recherches sur la biographie du Buddha. II. Les derniers mots, Tom. 1, 268–73Google Scholar. One should note also his article ‘La transformation miraculeuee de la nourriture offerte au Buddha par le brahmana Kasibhāradvāja’ in Études tibétaines dédiés à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou, Paris, 1971, 1–10Google Scholar. Thus as is so often the case, this supposedly historical incident may be a later interpretation of an interesting Buddhalogioal concept.

7 It is interesting to note that this ‘transfiguration’ story, which is here placed in a quasihistorical setting by the mention of a wealthy layman, named Pukkusa, is expanded in an extraordinary manner in one of the later Mahāyāna versions, mentioned above, p. 400, n. 2. See Ti. T, XXXI, pp. 134–2–5–135–1–6Google Scholar. The Buddha puts on a pair of garments as he sits on his lion-throne, and he becomes the colour of purified gold, filling the directions with rays before an astounded fourfold assembly. Again and again he mounts to the skies in a chariot made of the seven jewels, and as the display goes on, he explains repeatedly that this is the sign of his approaohing nirvāṇa.

8 Le parinirvāṇa et les funérailles du Buddha’, Journal Asiatique, XIe Sér., XI, 0305 1918, 486–526Google Scholar; XII, nov.–déc. 1918, 401–56; XIII, mai–juin 1919, 365–430; XV, jan.–mars 1920, 5–54.

9 Waldsohmidt, , op. cit., 399–401Google Scholar: sangs-rgyas bcom Idan 'das mya ngan las 'das ma thag tu shing sa la zung gnyis kyi tshal sa la'i ljon shing mchog las me tog 'thor ba'i drung du / bcom ldan 'das seng ge Ita bur gzims pa dang / de'i tshe dge slong gzhan zhig gis tshigs su bead de smras pa /

sa la zung ni rab mdzes pa'i / ljon shing mchog gi tshal bu 'dir /

ston pa mya ngan 'das pa la / me tog dag gis rab tu gtor /

sangs rgyas bcom Idan 'das mya ngan las 'das ma thag tu / lha'i dbang po brgya byin gyis tshigs su bcad de smras pa /

Kye ma 'du byed mi Hag ste / skye zhing 'jig pa'i chos can yin /

skcyes nas 'jig par 'gyur ba ste / de dag nye bar zhi ba bde /

sangs rgyas bcom ldan 'das mya ngan las 'das ma thag tu / mi mjed kyi bdag po tshangs pa tshigs su bead de smras pa /

'byung po kun gyis 'jig rten 'dir ni bsags pa'i mtha' /

'dor 'gyur 'jig rten 'di na gang zag zla med cing /

de bzfiin gshegs pa stobs mams brnyes pa spyan ldan pa /

ston pa 'di lta bu yang yongs su nya ngan 'das /

sangs rgyas bcom ldan 'das yongs su mya ngan las 'das ma thag tu / tshe dang ldan pa ma 'gags pas tshigs su bead de smras pa /

brtan pa'i thugs kyis skyob mdzad cing / mi g-yo zhi ba brnyes gyur pa /

dbugs 'byung ba dang rngub 'gags nas / spyan ldan yongs su mya ngan 'das /

rnam pa thams cad mchog ldan pa / gang tshe ston pa dus mdzad de /

de tshe rab tu sngangs gyur cing / de tshe spu yang langs par gyur /

zhum pa med pa'i thugs kyis ni / tshor ba dag la lhag par gnas /

de yi thugs ni rnam grol ba / sgron ma de 'dra mya ngan 'das /.

For the text of the Peking print, see Ti. T, XLIV, p. 232–3–6 ff. Once again it is interesting to glance at the expanded Mahayana version in XXXI, p. 136, where the Lord lies down ‘on a jewelled couch’ under the sāla trees, and at the following elaborate account. The general frame-work of the earlier version is preserved in that sets of verses, much lengthened, are recited in turn by Brahmā (p. 137–1–2 ff.), Indra (137–2–1 ff.), Aniruddha (137–3–1), and Ananda (137–4–3 if.).

10 These other versions occur in the Sanskrit original in the last story of the Avadānaśataka (ed. Speyer, J. S., StPetersbourg, , 1906, II, 198–200)Google Scholar, and in Chinese translations of a Mῡlasarvāstivādin Sayṃukta-āgama (Nanjio nos. 544 and 546). See Przyluski, , art. cit., JA, XI e Sér., XI, mai–juin 1918, 496–505Google Scholar.

11 Thomas, E. J., Life of the Buddha, third ed., 154–5Google Scholar.

12 Waldgehmidt, , op. cit., 411Google Scholar; Ti. T, XLIV, p. 233–2–2: btsun pa kun dga' bo 'khor lo sgyur ba'i rgyal po la ji ltar bgyid lags / gnas 'jog dag 'khor lo sgyur ba'i rgyal po la ni / lus shing bal gyi 'da' bos dkri zhing / shing bal gyi 'da' bos bkris nas / ras zung lnga brgyas bkri bar bya'o / ras zung lnga brgyas bhris nas lcags kyi sgrom du bcug ste / 'bru mar gyis bkang ste steng nas lcags kyi kha gab gnyis Kyis bkab ste / dri zhim po'i shing thams cad spungs te / des bsregs nas / me de dag 'o mas bead de / de'i rus pa gser gyi bum pa'i nang du bcug nas / lam po che'i bzhi mdor rus pa'i mchod rten brtsigs nas / gdugs dang / rgyal mtahan dang / ba dan btsugs te / dri dang / phreng ba dang / bdug pa dang / phye ma dang / rol mo'i sgras bkur stir byed / bla mar byed / ri mor byed / mchod par byed cing / dus ston chen po yang byed do /.

13 Waldschmidt, , op. oit., 415–17Google Scholar. In the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions the gods object in particular to the women of Kuśinagara honouring the bier. The Chinese version has removed all reference to women, and in this respeot comes into line with the Pali account. For detailed comparisons see Przyluski, , art. oit., JA, XV Sér., XV, 0103 1920, 26–34Google Scholar.

14 Waldsohmidt, , op. oit., 431Google Scholar; Ti. T, XLIV, p. 234–4–3:

rnam pa 'dren pa rin chen sku mnga' ba /

rdzu 'phrul chen po tshangs pa'i 'jig Hen gshegs /

chos gos along anyed kun tu dkris gyur pa /

nyid kyi gzi brjid kyis ni sku gdung dang /

Shin tu bkris par rob tu tshig par gyur /

de la chos gos gnyis ni ma tshig pa /

nang rim dang ni phyi rim 'di rnams gnyis /.

15 See Bareau, A., Les premiers conciles bouddhiques, Paris, 1955, 9–12Google Scholar.

16 Przyluski, , art. cit., JA, XI e Sér., XV, 0103 1920, 11–12Google Scholar.

17 Waldsohmidt, , op. oit., 305Google Scholar; Ti. T, XLIV, p. 222–3–5: btsun pa ci'i slad du 'jig rten tha dad pa grong khyer chen po drug po gang dag mnyan yod dang / gnas bcas dang / tsam pa dang / bā rā ṇa sī dang / yangs pa can dang / rgyal po'i Khab la sogs pa grong khyer chen po drug po 'di lta bu spanga nos / gang grong khyer ngan pa dang / dgon dung dang / mkhar ngan pa dang / grong khyer gyi yan lag dang / grong khyer gyi tho shut tsam 'dir yongs su mya ngan las 'da' bar dgongs /.

16 One must note, however, that Śākyamuni's reply represents an insertion of traditional material in the form of the Mahāsudarśanasῡtra. For references, see Lamotte, É., Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse, II, Louvain, 1949, 763–6Google Scholar.

19 See Przyluski, J., ‘Le partage des reliques du BuddhaMélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques, IV, 19351936, (pub.) 1936, 341–67Google Scholar.

20 Waldschmidt, , op. cit., 447–51Google Scholar; Ti. T, XLIV, p. 23S–5–3 ff.

21 For elaboration of these points see de La Vallee Poussin, Louis, Nirvāṇa, Paris, 1925, 7 ffGoogle Scholar.

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