After a long and fruitful life, the Buddha is now 80. For 50 years after his Enlightenment he has been walking the hot, dusty roads of North Eastern India with just robe and bowl, tirelessly and selflessly teaching and inspiring. He knows death is approaching.
This is the background to the Mahā-Paranibbāna Sutta, the original account of the Buddha’s last months. It is extremely moving because it is so personal, detailed and vivid. Though exhausted and ill, he continues to explain and advise, reviewing his ‘dhamma’, his teachings, to ensure that although he will no longer be around, future generations will benefit from his experience. Attended faithfully by his long-term companion, his cousin Ānanda, the Buddha treads the final dusty road to Kusinara where, ‘lying down on his right side between two sal trees’ he prepares to leave the world and attain his ‘paranibbana’, the final extinction.
This Sutta – perhaps the most famous in the Pāli Canon – has an immediacy which far belies its age of 2,500 years. We are placed in the political context of the time, with intrigue and threats; we are faced – as were the monks and lay-followers of the time – with the inevitability of the Buddha’s death; we see how different individuals respond to the event. But above all we are moved by the continuing compassion, underpinned always with clarity and perception, of the Buddha himself as he prepares to depart – and even on his deathbed, wracked by pains, he finds the energy to teach for the last time.
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Vajira (1928-1991) was born in Hamburg, Germany, and first came across the teaching of the Buddha when she was 21. She went to Sri Lanka and was ordained a ‘ten-precept holder’ nun in 1955. Having been a teacher in Germany, she found it difficult to spend a life in meditation, learned Pāli and began translating. Her translation of the The Mahā-Paranibbāna Sutta (The Last Days of the Buddha) was first published by the Buddhist Publication Society in 1964. A revised edition (with Francis Story) was published in 1988 with a further revision in 1998. Vajira returned to Germany in 1962 and died in Maschen in 1991.
Francis Story (1910-1972) (Anagarika Sugatananda) was born in England in 1910 and became acquainted with Buddhist teachings early in life. For 25 years he lived in Asian countries — India, Burma, and Sri Lanka — where he studied deeply the Buddhist philosophy of life. With that background and endowed with a keen analytical mind, he produced a considerable body of writings, collected and published in three volumes by the Buddhist Publication Society.
The Buddhist Publication Society
The Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) is today one of the world’s major publishers of literature on Buddhism. It was founded in 1957 when Mr S. S. Karunaratna, ‘a devout Buddhist gentleman of Kandy’ printed a small booklet on Buddhism in English. As it was going to press, he decided to start a series of small booklets, paper-bound, principally for distribution abroad. Further discussions with a friend, Mr Richard Abeyasekera and the German-born Buddhist monk, the Ven Nyanaponika Thera, and these three started the Buddhist Publication Society, formally launched on New Year’s Day 1958. The series of concise paper booklets on key Buddhist topics transformed Buddhist publications and played a considerable role in explaining and propagating the Buddha-Dhamma throughout the world. The publication programme expanded to take on more ambitious projects. In 1984 by the American monk, the Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi became the editor of the English-language publications and he was succeeded, in 2005, by Bhikkhu Nyanatusita took over this role.
BPS publications represent the standpoint of Theravada Buddhism, whose Pali Canon is generally regarded as the oldest complete collection of Buddhist texts to survive intact. Titles published by the BPS include over fifty full-size books ranging from basic introductions to Buddhism to advanced works on the finer points of Buddhist doctrine and practice. Among its basic books are such classics as Narada Mahathera’s The Buddha and His Teachings, Piyadassi Thera’s The Buddhist Ancient Path, and Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s Life of the Buddha. The BPS publishes erudite yet readable translations of some of the most important works of the Pali Canon, such as the complete Digha Nikaya and Majjhima Nikaya, the Dhammapada, the Udana and Itivuttaka; a major contribution too is a series of detailed studies of individual suttas along with their commentaries. Since 1975 the Society has been honoured to maintain in print Bhikkhu Ñanamoli’s outstanding translation of the Visuddhimagga, entitled The Path of Purification, and for more specialized interests the BPS publishes the important A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma.
The BPS is perhaps best known for its two series of booklets—the Wheel and Bodhi Leaves—which used to be issued to all its associate members. The Wheel consists of substantial tracts covering a wide range of topics, from meditation to Buddhist perspectives on the ecocrisis; the series also includes translations from the Pali Canon. Bodhi Leaves consist of a series of shorter essays, more informal in tone, expressing personal insights into the Buddha’s Way. A Sinhala counterpart of the Wheel called Damsak used to be issued for our Sinhalese readers.