Thursday, May 1, 2008

Vesakha


This month is Vesakha, the second month of the ancient Indian calendar. Vesak, the Sinhalese pronunciation of Vesakha, has become more widely used in the West than the original Pali and Sanskrit. According to the earliest Buddhist tradition, Siddhattha Gotama was born, became enlightened and passed away on the full moon eve of the month of Vesakha, although this is not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka itself. In fact, the Tipitaka says almost nothing about Prince Siddhattha’s life before he renounced the world and what is said is probably legendary. There is no evidence of when the Buddha became enlightened and it is only in the references to his passing that we get some evidence of chronology. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, while the Buddha was staying at Vesali he said that he would pass away in three months time (ito tinnam masanam, D.II,114). As he did not leave Vesali until the end of the rainy season (mid-October) this means he would have passed away no later than mid-January. The distance between Vesali to Kusinara, is about 190 kilometres and so we can calculate that the Buddha would have walked an average of 2 kilometres each day. He stopped in several places along the way, although for how long we don’t know, so he probably actually walked more than that. Either way, such a trip would have been tiring given the Buddha’s age, the state of his health and the weather.
When the Buddha arrived on the outskirts of Kusinara he lay down between two sal trees and gave his final instructions to his disciples. We are told that he passed away during the third watch of the night (rattiya pacchime yama, D.II,147). In ancient India the night was divided into three watches - pattama, majjhima and pacchima - starting at sunset, finishing at sunrise and each being of equal length. So if the information given in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta contains historically accurate information, and I think it does, we can say that the Buddha passed away some time in January between about 3 A.M. and sunrise.
When the Chinese monk Hiuen Tsiang was in India during the 7th century he found that while most Buddhists celebrated the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing on the full moon of Vesakha, some sects did so at other times. He wrote: “According to the general tradition, the Tathagata was eighty when, on the fifteenth day of the second half of the month of Vesakha, he attained final Nirvana…But the Sarvastivadins say he died on the eighth day of the second half of the month of Kattika.” “The Bodhisattva was born on the eighth day of the second half of the month of Vesakha…But the Savaka school say that it was the fifteenth day of the second half of Vesakha.”
Whatever day or time the Buddha was born, became enlightenment and passed away, may this Vesakha reawaken or enhance within my readers reverence for the Buddha and the desire to practice and realize the Dhamma.

2 comments:

saltwetfish said...

Dear Bhante,

Thank you very much for continue writing on your interesting blog. There is always new things to learn from reading your blog.

One thing that interests me is your mention that Buddha's life before his enlightenment was not mentioned in the tipitaka. I had always thought that this was recounted to his disciples during one of the sermons.

If so, do you know where is this source of text (outside the tipitaka?) that describe his life before enlightenment?

The most closest I can come to is this url: The Buddha-Carita or The Life of Buddha
by Aèvaghoùa (http://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Texts-and-Translations/Buddhacarita/index.htm)

Anandajoti said...

Dear Ven Dhammika,

One thing is the Mahaparinibbanasutta doesn't say that the Buddha left Vesali after the Rains Retreat and so the dating you give is not accurate according to the information we have. I will have a long note on this problem in my new text and translation of the sutta which will be published soon.

Dear saltwetfish,

The Buddha does talk about his life as a Bodhisatta in the Ariyapariyesakasutta on Majjhimanikaya (MN 26), but that concerns his struggle for Awakening not his early life which is what Ven Dhammika was meaning.