The Buddha's Hint in DN16

Hi all!

First time posting but have been checking out various threads here for a while. It seems like a wonderful and supportive community. I live in Ireland and I very rarely get to meet other practitioners, so online communitites like these are great!

Anyway, I have some questions regarding DN16 if anyone can help shed some light on the matter?

Approaching the end of his life, the Buddha said to Ananda:

"The Realized One has developed and cultivated the four bases of psychic power, made them a vehicle and a basis, kept them up, consolidated them, and properly implemented them. If he wished, the Realized One could live on for the eon or what’s left of the eon.”

This was a hint which apparently was lost on Ananda:

But Ānanda didn’t get it, even though the Buddha dropped such an obvious hint, such a clear sign. He didn’t beg the Buddha: “Sir, may the Blessed One please remain for the eon! May the Holy One please remain for the eon! That would be for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.” For his mind was as if possessed by Māra.

Later, when he learns that the Buddha will soon die, Ananda says:

“Sir, may the Blessed One please remain for the eon! May the Holy One please remain for the eon! That would be for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.”

In response to this, the Buddha refuses Ananda’s request and appears to admonish him for not picking up on this hint (a hint which the Buddha has dropped many times already):

“Ānanda, the misdeed is yours alone, the mistake is yours alone. For even though the Realized One dropped such an obvious hint, such a clear sign, you didn’t beg me to remain for the eon, or what’s left of it. If you had begged me, I would have refused you twice, but consented on the third time. Therefore, Ānanda, the misdeed is yours alone, the mistake is yours alone.”

I gotta say, I felt pretty bad for Ananda at this point!! I have only recently started reading the Suttas, so perhaps something is going over my head here, but this felt strange to me. I’ve pondered this for a while and can’t quite figure out what the Buddha’s intention may have been in dropping a hint about something so potentially seismic! Couldn’t he have been more up-front with Ananda? Why didn’t he just say it out straight and offer to stay around or, decide to do so for himself, if he felt that it would indeed be beneficial? And furthermore, I felt it was pretty harsh on Ananda, being told that it was all his fault that humanity couldn’t benefit from the Buddha continuing to exist for another eon. That’s gotta be a tough burden to carry!

Apologies if this comes across as being disrespectful. I know that I’m probably missing something and/or misinterpreting something, so I’m saying it like this to illustrate that point. If I have caused any offence then I apologise for that.

I would love to hear some thoughts on this if anyone would care to discuss it.

Thanks!

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I have a follow-up question: I recently read a different translation of this sutta and instead of “eon” the Buddha uses the word “century,” i.e. an extra twenty years. This sounds a bit more reasonable to me, and I wonder what the Pali readers think.

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Probably a late addition and/or not a truthful representation of the events… :man_shrugging: Maybe bhante @Brahmali could share his thoughts. I recall he recently talked about this in one of the sessions of the workshop on the topic of dependent origination he is giving in BSWA here in Perth. :anjal:

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I know exactly what you mean. That was precisely my feeling when I first read this. But before I go any further let me just get one issue out of the way:

This is taken from the commentary. But as Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, there is really no basis for this in the suttas. The Pali word kappa means eon, as in the evolution and devolution of the world, often understood as the expansion and contraction of the cosmos. In any case, it means a really, really long period of time.

Back to your question, @Brendan. I have learned from my friend Bhante @Sujato to read passages such as the present one in a mythological light. You will notice that DN 16, the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, is not really a discourse by the Buddha, but more like the story of his final days. It includes some discourse material, but it is not a discourse in an ordinary sense. Now, the stories or narratives found in the suttas were generally not spoken by the Buddha, but were added by his disciples at some point, in some cases probably decades after the Buddha passed away. By this time the mythologising of the life of the Buddha would have started, as it tends to do with all great people after their death. I think it is in this light that this passage needs to be understood.

When you consider the various suttas that deal with the Buddha’s life, you will find at least three different explanation for why the Buddha passed away:

(1) He was getting old and his body was falling apart
(2) He had food poisoning
(3) He deliberately gave up the life faculty after Ven. Ānanda failed to request him to keep on living for an eon.

So which one is correct? Because of the tendency by later generations to mythologise the life of the Buddha, I always prefer naturalistic explanations, in other words, either (1) or (2) above. As for the second one of these, it is not found in all traditions of Buddhism, and so it may not be a part of the earliest tradition. For this reason, I think (1) above is the most likely to be true. To me this fits perfectly with the general sense of the Buddha in the early suttas. He was spiritual “genius”, yet quite clearly a human being nonetheless. He had a physical body, and the idea of a physical body lasting for an eon is ridiculous.

What, then, is this whole business with Ānanada forgetting to ask the Buddha? I think it is reasonable to think that, after the Buddha died, the Buddhist community was not comfortable with the Buddha having died just like any other person. “Surely, the Buddha didn’t just die of old age at the age of eighty. That’s what ordinary people do and the Buddha was special!” There would probably have been great pressure to hagiographise (apparently it is a word!) the Buddha’s biography, so as to make it fit better with people’s growing image of someone semi-magical. For this reason, I think the whole passage - starting with Māra asking the Buddha to pass away and ending with Buddha blaming Ānanda for not asking him to stay on for an eon - is a late elaboration added by overly faithful disciples. The whole passage contains a number of anomalies and strange events that are difficult to make sense of and square with other suttas.

I must admit I do think it is a shame that over-zealous disciples found it necessary to do this sort of thing. To me the greatness of the Buddha is precisely that he was a human being who was able to overcome the human condition. If we add too many unreasonable marvellous - even miraculous - events, the Buddha is diminished. We can on longer relate to him, which makes his teaching less relevant to our lives. So when we read the suttas, we need to try, if we can, to distinguish myth from authentic teaching.

Please carry on enjoying the suttas!

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Doesn’t this ignore the principle of lectio difficilior potior? I was under the impression that odd details (“pig’s delight”??) are considered more likely to retain an echo of the original, even if it isn’t found in every recension.

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Wow, that is a fascinating insight! And makes a lot of sense. Am I right in saying that Ananda is believed to have attained Arahantship after the Buddha passed away? In this case, perhaps it could be said that this fact further singled him out as a “scapegoat” for the Buddha’s passing? I.E. that he could have been perceived as being fallible and not Perfected. Poor old Ananda!!

I will, absolutely! I’ve been working through the suttas referenced in Bhante @sujato 's reading guide for the Majjhima Nikaya and really enjoying the journey so far.

Thank you for the replies everyone :slight_smile:

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Well, at the same time bhante, a “more difficult reading (lectio difficilior)” would be that the Buddha had the 32 marks of a great man and sometimes people just didn’t spot them when he appears to be mistaken for a regular monk. That is a “more difficult reading.” A similarly “more difficult reading” would be that Ven Sariputra came back from the dead (we assume briefly) to witness the Buddha’s parinibbana. So although lectio difficilior potior is a metric, it is not an infallible metric always applied.

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Well stated, Bhante. And similarly, why do we need unicorns? Birds, narwhals, and horses separately are magical enough.

Tangentially related question: we are to take hell realms, heaven realms, and devas literally, correct?

Edit: after writing this I picked and read a random Sutta and it was all about dragons!? :joy:

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Nāgas … It’s more humorous to think of them keeping the sabbath to be reborn in heaven like humans would think. Naga is a complicated word, actually, as it refers to serpents, some ordinary and some supernatural, to particularly large elephants, and also to mythical beings that inhabits bodies of water and have some power over whether it rains or not. The Eastern dragon that’s usually more serpentine than the western dragon is probably inspired more directly by these nāgas of the Indo-European mythology. The magical ones do breath fire (or, spit fire) in Buddhist stories, so that probably goes way back into the annals of Indian mythology, too.

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This principle applies when you have parallel readings of the same word or passage, not when the entire word or passage is missing. For instance, if one of the other versions had an unambiguous name for a food, then sūkaramaddava might be considered the preferred rendering. But even this is far from clear, since the names of foods are hardly critical to our understanding of the suttas. In other words, this principle has more force if we are dealing with obvious doctrinal categories.

Yeah, I think this is a reasonable supposition. It would have been more difficult to explain how an arahants’s mind could be possessed by Māra. But even more important is probably Ānanada’s proximity to the Buddha. He was the Buddha’s ever-present attendant, who learnt all the discourses by heart. No-one knew the Buddha better than Ānanda. He was the obvious candidate to intervene.

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From Mission Accomplished: A historical analysis of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon chapter 8 “Traces of Docetic Elements”, it is said:

Now as mentioned in both the works, namely in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta and in Cullavagga Pali, had Ananda entreated the Buddha at the proper time to live for an aeon, the Buddha would have consented to live for an aeon as He had already cultivated and developed the four paths of psychic powers. So it has been argued, interpreted and explained that it was because of Ananda’s negligence that the world had been deprived of the Buddha at the age of eighty. Otherwise, He would have lived for an aeon or for that portion of the aeon which He had yet to run.

How far does this record tally with the physical condition of the Buddha as revealed in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta itself? Moreover, how do we account for the concept of living for an aeon with a human body, contrary to the fundamentals of the teachings of the Buddha?

[…]

After the demise of the Buddha, the disciples did not like to accept the fact that He underwent a natural death. They were so moved by the loss of their beloved Teacher who was then no more. So they began to refuse to accept that the Buddha had passed away. The necessity of an alternative to satisfy their psychological need must have been strongly felt. […]

The Buddha was no ordinary man. His life and deeds reveal His super-human qualities. He is extraordinary and unique. He diverted the course of human history to a different direction, but He also died as anyone else. The difference lies in the way He faced death. He bore the pain of death and calmly attained emancipation of His heart just as a flickering flame is blown out. Nevertheless, many of the devoted disciples who survived the Buddha’s demise did not like to observe this event in such a simple way. The thought that it was a result of the negligence on the part of the disciple who was always with Him as His shadow, was a consolation for them. In other words, if not for Ananda’s slackness, they imagined, the Buddha would have lived for an aeon. Furthermore, the Buddha had not appointed anyone but the doctrine to succeed Him. This fact too might have motivated the disciples to look at the Buddha from a docetic angle.

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Hmm… how to see it from scientific/ science fictional point of view…

Say, the Buddha, using his knowledge of past lives, knows of advanced tech societies which had discovered the technological means of extending the lifespan of the biological body.

He uses psychic powers to create bionanobots which can repair his body, reversing aging, repairing the telomerase and the Buddha becomes young again, showing a miracle. He continues to do this until society develops the science for it to be widely available if needed, for sometimes, he would accept prosthetics replacements for his body parts which are not longer repairable via nanotech methods.

He could then potentially live to millions of years.

It’s problematic to go further as many future visionaries imagine that the mind can be uploaded to robot bodies for immortality. Yet, if the Buddha does that, does it mean another rebirth? It’s a tricky thing. Maybe the procedure of nanobots can reverse the entropy of the body indefinitely, until the physical universe dies.

This would spell trouble for the coming of Maitreya. No two Buddhas can be on the same earth at the same time, so… would Maitreya take a step back and appear in the next universe cycle?

So maybe it’s better to view this part as later, inconsistent additions (because of Maitreya, not because of living long life, that seems relatively easy given the powers of the Buddha)?

Actually, I cheered for Ananda here.

Here, for the very first time, Ananda realizes impermanence. And the Buddha absolutely drives that home and hammers the understanding of impermanence indelibly into Ananda in one of his last acts of compassion.

And because of that very act of compassion, Ananda got serious, buckled down and devoted his remaining life to becoming an arahant right there and then. Without that act of compassion, the Dhamma transmitted would likely have been much weaker.

Go Ananda! Go Ananda! Go Ananda!
:man_cartwheeling: :man_cartwheeling: :man_cartwheeling:

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