Death & Legacy

War was endemic in the Buddha’s age, ravaging northeast India again and again. Violence, the Buddha taught, always leads to more violence:

A king and his entourage kneel before Buddha
A king and his entourage kneel before Buddha
Art Resource, Inc.
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"To the slayer, comes a slayer. To the conqueror comes a conqueror, he who plunders is plundered in turn."

Although kings and their ministers sought his council, the Buddha offered no grand political vision. He was powerless to stop the killing and the fighting. Even the men, women, and children of his former kingdom were massacred by a marauding king, forced into pits and trampled by elephants.

It was said that the Buddha received the news in silence.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Hundreds of them killed. So that day the Buddha was sad. Buddha is human being. So he acted like a human being. So sometimes he also you see failed. He failed to perform miracle. The Buddha failed, but we, as the Buddha, fail constantly, and part of our suffering is our failure, our recognition of our failure."

Jane Hirshfield, poet: "Buddhism doesn’t argue with reality. There will always be both the potential for awakening at any moment and the potential for incredible damage at any moment, and if we fool ourselves into thinking we’re past that we will do incredible damage."

"Change", the Buddha said, "must come from within."

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "The Buddha starts always with the mind and talks about the violence in the mind, and says that violence in the world is a result of violence in the mind."

Hirshfield: "A tree lives on its roots. If you change the root, you change the tree. Culture lives in human beings. If you change the human heart the culture will follow."

For decades, the Buddha shared his teachings all across northeastern India. He taught:

"Let all beings be happy. Weak or strong...great or small. Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child!"

Barefoot in his robes, he was still walking the roads when he was eighty, but old age was upon him. His back hurt, his stomach was often in pain. He told a trusted disciple:

The Buddha in old age
The Buddha in old age
Cleveland Museum of Art
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"I am old, worn out like a dilapidated cart held together with thin straps."

The world is so "sweet," he said, that he could understand wanting to live for at least another century. But he was frail and exhausted. He became ill near Kushinagara—a remote village near the border of Nepal—when he was offered a meal which would prove deadly. The food was spoiled.

Epstein: "He ate what was offered to him, and it is said that it was bad but he took it anyway because it was offered and didn’t want the person who offered it to feel bad. It was his time."


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.