Death & Legacy

Today, Kushinagara is revered by pilgrims as the place where the Buddha finally left the world of endless suffering. It was in Kushinagara where he grew weak, and asked to be laid on his side in a quiet grove of sal trees. As he neared the end, his disciples began to weep, stricken with grief. But the Buddha reassured them:

Pilgrims at Kushinagara
Pilgrims at Kushinagara
David Grubin Productions
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“All things change. Whatever is born is subject to decay.”

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "He’s saying this is a natural process. He tells his disciples, use this time, use the energy here, even this for your own awakening. So he used even his own death and their sadness as a time to remind them of what their real task was. What he’s actually doing is inviting those who are close to him into the experience. I don’t think the Buddha’s teaching in any way argues against grief or sadness or loss. The teachings, if they make any sense, have to make sense in ordinary circumstances, in ordinary lives, and in ordinary lives we grieve when we lose. We grieve. When it hurts we say, 'Ouch.'"

W.S. Merwin, poet: "Buddhism is trying to look at things the way they are. The way it is, just as it is. It hurts. This is life. This is our life. And our relation to life involves losing it too. You don't get beyond these things. You don't get beyond them."

Jane Hirshfield, poet: "It’s all right to feel what human beings feel and we are not supposed to turn into rocks or trees when we practice Buddhism. Buddhas laugh, cry, dance, feel ecstasy probably even feel despair. It is how we know the world. It is how we live inside of our hearts and not dissociated from them."

The Buddha had always been saying goodbye. Now, he prepared to leave the earth forever. He would never be reborn, never die again. The Buddha told his disciples:

Death of the Buddha
Death of the Buddha
Art Resource, Inc.
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"It may be that after I am gone that some of you will think, ‘now we have no teacher.’ But that is not how you should see it. Let the Dharma and the discipline that I have taught you be your teacher. All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly."

These were the Buddha's last words.

He died peacefully. His head was pointed to the north, his face to the west. The stories tell how the earth shook, and the trees suddenly burst into bloom, their petals falling gently on his still body, falling out of reverence. Divine coral flowers and divine sandalwood powders fell from above on the Buddha's body out of reverence.

Hirshfield: "His disciples were quite upset. What are we going to do without our teacher? We will be lost without our teacher. But his instruction was so simple and so clear. 'I am not your light, I am not your authority. You’ve been with me a long time now, be your own light.'"

Merwin: "The Buddha saw death and life as inseparable. These are two sides of the same thing. Death is always with us. Death is part of the whole large unknown and if we are unable to smile at the idea of the unknown, we're in real trouble. That's the realism that the Buddha was talking about, trying to come to terms with reality"

When he was twenty-nine and still Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha had left his wife, child, and family to try and understand the nature of suffering. He had attained enlightenment, shared what he had learned, and left a path for others to follow.

Now he was gone. But before he died, he had asked his followers to remember him by making pilgrimage to the place of his death, to where he gave his first teachings, where he achieved enlightenment, and where he was born.

D. Max Moerman, scholar: "Those four places mark out a sacred biography. And in tracing that pilgrimage route, you're learning the story of that life. At places of pilgrimage, temples were built, images were installed, and relics were enshrined."

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Millions of people get immense inspiration. Buddha’s spirit always there. But real Buddha’s holy places is in one’s self. That’s important. So real Buddha’s sacred place must build within ourselves. We must build within our heart."

Although the Buddha had predicted that his teachings like everything else would in time disappear, Buddhism flourished in India for 1500 years, spread into Sri Lanka, Central and Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, and in the 20th century, to Europe and the Americas, adapting different forms and shapes wherever it took root, attracting many millions of men and women, who practice the Buddha’s teachings both within and outside the monastic community.”

But everywhere, and in every age, the essence of the story remains the same...

Epstein: "Buddha said that 'we’ve turned this world into a painful place, but this world does not have to be a painful place, this world can be a world inhabited by Buddhas. But it’s up to each one of us to turn ourselves into a Buddha. That’s the work.'"

Merwin: "If the Buddha is not you, finally the Buddha is of no interest to you. The Buddha is of such interest to you because you are the Buddha."

Dalai Lama: "Every sentient being, even insect have Buddha nature. The seed of Buddha, that’s the seed of enlightenment. So therefore there’s no reason to believe some sentient beings cannot become Buddha. So like that."

Hirshfield: "I know that there are supposed to be preserved footprints of the Buddha which are kept in one of the sacred places in India or Nepal and you know you can stand in them, and if you stand in them maybe you realize 'Ah, ten toes. Me too.'"

There is a story of a Brahmin who one day found the Buddha under a tree, calmly meditating. The Buddha’s mind was still. He radiated such power and strength that the Brahmin was reminded of a tusker elephant. The Brahmin asked him who he was. The Buddha replied:

The Awakened One
The Awakened One
Asian Art Museum
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“Imagine a red lotus that had begun life underwater but grew and rose above the surface until it stood free. So I too have transcended the world, and attained the supreme enlightenment."

"Who are you, then?" the Brahmin wondered. The Buddha said:

"Remember me as the one who woke up."


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.