Mahaparinirvana: The Great, Ultimate Extinction

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto


Our major service observed in February is Nirvana Day, the memorial for Siddartha, the Sakyamuni Buddha. The memorial date is generally accepted as being February 15, and we usually observe it on the closest Sunday to that date. This year, we are fortunate to be having our service on that date. We are also going to be fortunate in having Dr. Scott Mitchell from the IBS as our speaker for this service.

As clear cut as this service seems to be, there seem to be many areas of confusion and misunderstanding regarding this service and most of the misunderstanding stems from the term, nirvana, itself. This seems to be due to the popular belief that nirvana is synonymous with enlightenment. Many people seem to mistake the reason for this service or try to equate death with enlightenment.

One of the first things that should be pointed out at this time is that we have constant reminders about Siddartha’s Mahaparinirvana on our altar. The two small vases on the small table directly in front of the statue of Amida Buddha is symbolic of the twin I trees, under which Siddartha was said to be laying when he passed away. The twin trees are often a symbol of his death in Buddhist art, as the mandarava tree is a symbol of his birth since it was said that his mother was reaching for a flower when he was born and the bodhi tree is a symbol of his attainment of enlightenment.

There are many other traditions and customs that surround this observance and these often cloud the true significance of the event. Many temples in Japan have elaborate tapestries depicting the death with many major disciples and/or animals (often from the Asian zodiac) surrounding him as he passes away. These are displayed around the memorial date and people flock to see these. However, as beautiful and impressive as these are, they often cause confusion as to the term nirvana.

Nirvana literally means extinction. In the sense that we are to extinguish the flames of passion and desire, it can be considered to be the same as enlightenment. However, the total extinction of all passions and desires would necessitate total extinction, the great, ultimate extinction, mahaparinirvana (maha – great, pari –ultimate, nirvana – extinction). This is why the Sakyamuni Buddha is said to have entered into Mahaparinirvana on this date when he passed away surrounded by his disciples and others under the twin sala trees.

Enlightenment comes with the extinguishing of the flames of passion and desire, but those flames are not totally extinguished while the physical needs of an individual continue. As long as a person continues to be physically alive, those flames cannot be extinguished. Both meanings of nirvana, death and enlightenment, are correct, but the two are not the same. This is one of those cryptic answers that one often finds in Buddhism and in life. However, with a little thought, one can see the truth of this statement.

In any case, the extinguishing of our passions is considered to be beyond our capabilities in our tradition because our passions are so deeply rooted. We may justify our actions as being selfless and as being for the good or the sake of others, but close examination will reveal our own self-centered motives for such acts. They are usually so deeply rooted and hidden that we cannot see them ourselves. We require the compassionate light of Amida to be shown this reality. Even then, we try to ignore it.

The Sakyamuni Buddha dedicated his life to ultimately give us this teaching. For this reason, we gather to observe his life and teaching on the date of his death. Please join us for this important service.

© February 25, 2015