Today is Parinirvana Day when Buddhists mark the death of the Buddha. The body’s impermanence calls us to be mindful and alert

Thought for the Day 15/2/2017

Today Buddhists mark the death of the Buddha in a festival called Parinirvana Day. Aged 35, 4 or 500 years before Christ, Buddhists believe that the man history knows as Gautama attained ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’. For the next 45 years he travelled continually across the Ganges Valley meeting people and sharing his understanding of life. He gathered a large following and was widely revered for his wisdom.

But even Enlightenment doesn’t stop the body’s decay. Aged eighty, the Buddha remarked that he was falling apart, like an old cart that was barely held together by straps. He embarked on a final teaching tour, and a lengthy Buddhist scripture offers a detailed account of his daily life, the talks he gave and the people he met. Eventually, he arrived at a provincial town called Kushinara where he contracted food poisoning. Feeling his strength ebbing away, he lay down in the open air. Some of the most impressive Buddhist images depict the Buddha at this time: lying on his side, propping up his head with one hand and surrounded by his disciples.

It is a scene of both banality and grandeur. The Buddha is an old man suffering an undignified illness. His body is rotting away. And yet he continues teaching and meditating: composed, dignified and sensitive to the needs of the people around him. Then come his last words: ‘Everything we experience is subject to decay,’ he said. ‘Practice with heedfulness and you will succeed.’

Buddhists differ on whether the Buddha’s passing really was the end for him, or if what he had attained somehow went beyond death. But we all agree on the importance of his open-eyed embrace of impermanence. We make it a practice to remind ourselves that one day we will die. That isn’t good or bad, it’s just the truth. As the Buddha said, ‘Everything we experience is subject to decay.’

Heedfulness, for Buddhists, accompanies this awareness of impermanence and death. It’s an aspect of mindfulness that means taking care in our actions and carefully considering their likely consequences. It means recalling that everything that’s truly important requires steadfast effort. Knowing that our time is short means realising that it’s precious.

The Buddha’s last words remind me to keep a sense of balance, however bad the news may be. Know what’s right and true, I hear him saying, and cleave to that patiently and mindfully. Keep going; keep caring; keep practising – whether this is a day like any other or the last you will know.