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Nirvana Day, February 15
The Sanskrit term “Nirvana” literally means “extinction, the extinction of the worldly illusions and passions.” Wherever the extinction of illusion and passions is being achieved, there will be a calm and peaceful Nirvana, but the term which applies to this particular day means the death of the Buddha Sakyamuni.
On the full moon day of February, knowing that his end was near, the Buddha came to Kusinagara, located about 100 miles from Benares. He had his bedding spread with his head toward the north between two Sala trees and he lay upon facing the West. After giving his last instructions to his disciples, he entered into the fourth meditation and passed away.
Arthur. S. Yamabe, BCA Nirvana Day Trifold
Death and Dying
The Poison Arrow parable taught Shakyamuni Buddha is included in Kyoshiro Tokumaga’s “Is Buddhism a Religion?” below. That is one parable. Another is of the young monk walking alone along a path and comes face to face with a ferocious hungry tiger. He runs away, but to a lone pine tree with a vine hanging down over a cliff edge. He jumps and hangs onto the vine, safe from the tiger but then looks down to a roiling sea and three hungry sea dragons waiting for him to fall. Yup, it gets worse – he sees two mice, one black, one white, on the tree limb nibbling away at the vine holding him. But then something wonderful happens. He spots a berry growing within reach on the side of the cliff. He plucks the berry with one hand. How delicious is the berry…
Buddhism’s focus is on this life, the right here and the right now. When we accept the inevitability of death we live this life more fully. You might say death is a way of reminding us that right now, this very moment is what we have. This breath, the one I, you and all others are breathing at this moment is all we have. Will we have another? I don’t know. Will I have time to organize my files, finish my book, and put my finances in order? Clear the clutter out of my home, my garage, my life? Will I have time to say what I want to say? This breath is it. No guarantees for the next.
Why not leave the mystery of life to philosophers and those who have enjoyed grappling with this unanswerable question since the dawn of time? We eat and enjoy the berry now. We pull out the poison arrow with no questions asked. This life is the reality we have to live, this breath is all we are certain to have, this is the life we don’t want to let slip away unnoticed.
“Is Buddhism a religion?” In the course of my talks on Buddhism to non-Buddhists, I have been asked this question many times. The question seems to arise partially because of the manner in which I present my talks, but mainly because of the fundamental difference in the idea of God and the concept of Buddha.
People who have been brought up as Christians have a set idea that to be a religion is to have an idea of a personal creator God that rules the world in accordance with his will. There are many who, even today, observing the outward form of Buddhist worship, collect a primitive idolatry. These erroneous views stem from the lack of acquaintance with Buddhism and also from their misconception about the nature of religion itself.
Western people on the whole tend to believe that the object of religious worship must be an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God who made this world and is, therefore, the mastermind that moves every part of the universe with precision of a clock mechanism. Moreover, God rewards or punishes humans according to whether or not they obey the master’s will. And, since Buddhism does not mention creation nor the creator, they hastily conclude it as non—religious. This has been the prevailing view of Buddhism in the West until very recently.
However, more and more Western thinkers are now altering their definitions to make it broad enough to include such religions as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism-religions without personal creator God.
Religion, in short, need not be theistic as long as it is our effort to relate ourselves as a whole person to the world. Defined in this manner, Buddhism is very much religious. In fact, it is one of the most ideal. Buddhism is based on the rational grounds. Its worldview, its explanations of becoming, and its analysis of mind are amazingly rational and scientific in approach. The second faculty of humans, feeling, is used to its fullest degree in its intuitive methods while we see abundant evidences of the practical aspects of Buddhism in everyday life attitude.
After our talks on the Buddhist concept of Buddha, they invariably ask: “If Buddha is not the creator God, how do you explain the beginning of the world?”
Answer to this is the parable of “The Poisoned Arrow.” Briefly, the story runs like this:
A man was shot with a poisoned arrow. He fell. His friend came to his rescue and tried to pull out the arrow. The man said, “Wait! First I must know about the arrow. Where did this arrow come from? What color is it, and what materials is made of? Who made it? And, when was it made? All these questions must be answered before the arrow is pulled out.”
One can readily see the foolishness of this man. He will surely die of poison while these unnecessary inquiries are being made. This parable was given by the Buddha to Malunkya–putra, one of his disciples, who asked the Buddha some metaphysical questions as to the beginning of the world and the end of the world. The Buddha’s intention in giving this parable was to make the questioner realize the futility of asking such questions. Philosophers have been arguing about these for millennia, even before the Buddha, with no satisfactory answer.
The Buddha urged that, instead, one must concentrate on questions more pertinent to life. “What am I going to do about these perpetually occurring thoughts that disturbed my mind - the pains and unpleasantness that I cannot ignore or dismiss by saying that I will not think about them.” These are real problems that must be attended to first.
Today, we “enjoy” modern conveniences such as the automobile, airplane, television, washer and a host of other gadgets and machines. But are they really making our life “enjoyable?” Are we any happier than the people, say, a century ago when they did not have these devices? Medical science has advanced, true. But, while one diseases is conquered, another crops up. There are many ailments today, mental and physical, that people before did not know.
What the Buddha was concerned with more was the real and immediate problems. Metaphysical questions could be put aside. The actual life is being lived by each of us was the Buddha’s focus.
What is my life about?
What is the goal of my life?
Where am I going?
What can I do to make it meaningful?
We usually ignore these more important questions. Strangely, we seem to know exact the why and what of the little things in our life. When we get in our car, we know where we are going and the purpose of the trip. But when it comes to more important and basic questions of our own life, we do not even ask.
It is the answers to these questions that comprise the Buddha’s teachings which we call Buddhism.
My purpose in writing these pages is to offer some acquaintance with the essentials of the teaching so that you will someday pick up a more worthy book to deepen your knowledge.
Adapted and excerpted from The Light Burns On – San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Women’s Association. 1973