Why did the Buddha Enter Nirvana?
Lectures by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Shakyamuni Buddha said to all the Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas:
All gods, humans, and asuras in the world say that Shakyamuni Buddha now, having left the palace of the Pure Rice King and gone to a place about five miles from the city of Gaya to sit beneath the Bodhi tree to cultivate, became a Buddha after sitting there for forty-nine days.
Good men, I actually realized Buddhahood a long time ago. If you want to talk about how long it’s been since I became a Buddha, there’s no way to calculate the time. It was limitless, boundless hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of eons ago. All I can do is try to draw an analogy to give you some idea.
What is it analogous to? Suppose a person were to grind into fine motes of dust five hundred thousand myriads of kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeyas of three thousand great thousand world systems. Then, suppose he traveled to the east across five hundred thousand myriads of kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeyas of lands, and there he deposited one mote of dust. Suppose he continued in this way, traveling to the east, dropping one mote of dust every time he passed through that many lands, until all the motes of dust were gone. Would you say that was a great number of worlds? If you had the best mathematician and the most advanced technology, could you find the total?
I shall now explain this clearly for you. If all these numberless world systems, whether a dust mote were deposited in them or not–this includes all the worlds in which a dust particle was dropped, as well as the five hundred thousand myriads of nayutasof asamkhyeyas of lands where a mote of dust was not dropped–now, if all those many worlds were ground together and reduced to fine dust motes, and if each dust mote were counted as a great kalpa, the time that has passed since I became a Buddha would exceed even that by hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeyas of eons.
From that time on, I have always remained in the Saha world speaking the Dharma to teach and transform beings. I have been speaking Dharma to teach beings not only in this Saha world, but also in other worlds. In hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of asamkhyeyas of lands, I use all kinds of methods, not fearing suffering, not fearing difficulty, to teach and transform living beings. Meeting with living beings with all different kinds of faculties, I speak all different kinds of Dharmas for them.
Shakyamuni Buddha, uncountable great kalpas ago, had already become a Buddha. Therefore, the Bodhisattva disciples he has taken across are so many. They fill up empty space throughout the thr ee thousand great thousand world systems. The Buddha continued:
In the midst of that long period of time, I said, “At the time of Dipankara Buddha, my name was Good Wisdom. When I met Dipankara Buddha, he bestowed a prediction upon me. He said, ‘In the future, you will become a Buddha called Shakyamuni.'” I also said that at such-and-such a time, Dipankara Buddha would enter Nirvana. But to tell you the truth, I was just speaking expediently. I spoke of such events to accord with living beings’ faculties. You shouldn’t think it was actually the case.
Good men, if a living being comes to where I am, I contemplate his faculties and his causes and conditions. For the sake of those I should take across, no matter where they are, I will personally speak the Buddhadharma. What’s more, I will say my name, although the names by which I refer to myself are different. In America I’m called by one name. In China I’m called by another. In Japan I have another name. In Germany, France, in all the places I appear, I go by different names, but the person is the same in all cases. And my age may be older or younger. I appear in a body and speak the Dharma. I tell my disciples, “I am about to enter Nirvana.”
Actually the Buddha has no birth or demise. Within Eternal Stillness and Light, he is always speaking the Dharma. He employs various expedient devices, speaking the wonderful, inconceivable Dharma to make living beings happy. The Buddha observes the dispositions of living beings. Then he speaks the Dharma for them. When he sees living beings who like the Small Vehicle Dharmas, he teaches them the Small Vehicle Dharmas. If they like the Great Vehicle Dharmas, he teaches them the Great Vehicle Dharmas. People of scanty virtue will not be able to believe the Buddhadharma if you speak it for them. Those with heavy karmic obstacles won’t believe it either. One must have deep and thick good roots to believe the Buddhadharma. Shakyamuni Buddha continues:
To people whose foundations are shallow and whose good roots are scant, I speak expediently, saying, “I left home when I was nineteen. After I left home, I gained the Unsurpassed, Proper and Equal Enlightenment.” In truth, however, I became a Buddha a long time before that. The length of that time is as in the analogy I explained before. I’m using expedient methods to teach living beings, enabling all living beings to change from the deviant and return to the proper, to change evil into good, to turn from the small and go toward the great, bringing forth the Bodhi mind. It’s for this reason that I speak of having left home when young, having realized the Way, having spoken the Dharma, and having taught and transformed living beings.
The Buddha spoke the Sutras, setting forth the Dharma-doors, in order to save living beings. Living beings have 84,000 varieties of afflictions. The Buddha taught 84,000 Dharma-doors to counteract those afflictions. The Buddha works like a physician curing illnesses. If someone has a headache, the doctor prescribes a certain kind of medicine. If someone has a sore leg, he prescribes another kind of medicine, and someone with the flu gets yet another prescription. In the same way, the Buddha “prescribes” Dharmas.
To living beings plagued with much greed, he prescribes the contemplation of impurity. He encourages them not to be greedy, and he points out the impurity of desire. To living beings with big tempers, he recommends the contemplation of compassion. To stupid living beings, he prescribes the contemplation of causes and conditions. He uses these various methods to cure the illnesses of living beings.
He may speak of his own deeds or of the deeds of another Buddha. He may manifest his own body, to personally guide living beings, or he may manifest a body of someone else as a guide. He may talk about his own deeds from this and former lives, or he may relate the causes and conditions of other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Hearers, or Arhats, as an inspiration to living beings. But all that he says is true. There is nothing false in it whatsoever.
The Buddha’s knowledge and views accord with truth and principle. On the Buddha’s part, there is no birth or death, no retreating or advancing. There is no retreating into the triple realm and no transcending of the triple realm. On the part of the Buddha, there is no existence in the world or passage into extinction; there is no birth or death. Common people see the three realms as real. Whatever common people see, they take it as true. Even the false they consider to be true.
Those of the Two Vehicles contemplate all dharmas as empty marks. They see the three realms as flowers in space, that is, as unreal, nonexistent, and empty. Common people take the three realms as real; those of the Two Vehicles take the three realms as unreal. To the Buddha there is nothing real or unreal, just as all things are contained within empty space but do not obstruct empty space. Empty space does not obstruct the myriad forms of existence, and the myriad forms of existence do not obstruct empty space. This is the same principle as True Emptiness not obstructing Wonderful Existence, and Wonderful Existence not obstructing True Emptiness.
The Buddha is not like ordinary living beings who view the triple realm as something they must transcend. Having become one with empty space, there is neither oneness nor difference for the Buddha. The Buddha, unlike living beings, does not see the triple realm as the triple realm. To the Buddha, there is no birth, no death, and no triple realm. The Thus Come One is one who is truly awakened to all dharmas and who makes no mistake in what he sees.
Each living creature has its own nature. Each person has a human nature. Each person also has a Buddha nature, a Bodhisattva nature, a Hearer nature, and a Pratyekabuddha nature. And so a human being has the nature of a sage and a common nature–a wisdom nature and a stupid nature. Living beings also have various ideas, thoughts, and discriminations. Wishing to lead living beings to produce the roots of goodness, the Buddha employs diverse causes and conditions, analogies, and expressions to explain the various dharmas, carrying out the Buddha work without respite, day after day, month after month, year after year.
The Buddha’s life span knows no birth or death. For limitless and boundless nayutasof asamkhyeyas of eons, he has been dwelling constantly in the Pure Land of Eternal Stillness and Light, neither produced nor extinguished. The Buddha says:
It has been such a very long time since I became a Buddha, yet the life span I realized when formerly practicing the Bodhisattva path is even longer than that. As I now proclaim that I am about to enter the stillness, I am not really passing into the stillness. I manifest entering the stillness only as an expedient to teach and transform living beings.
Why does the Buddha, although he does not become extinct, still announce his extinction? Why does he manifest production and extinction when for him there is actually no production or extinction?
If the Buddha were to stay in the world a long time, remaining long in the world and not entering Nirvana, those of scanty virtue who do not plant good roots would become even more lazy. Those with heavy karmic obstacles would not plant good roots. They would grow dependent on the Buddha, thinking, “The Buddha’s here. I don’t need to plant good roots right now. I’ll get to it later.” They would wait around. That is why the Buddha manifests as entering the stillness. Once he has entered Nirvana and people see that they have nothing to rely on, they will get busy and plant some good roots. This is a very obvious principle.
When I was in Manchuria, I had a lot of disciples. I taught them how to cultivate, yet they didn’t cultivate. Some said they wanted to take their time. Others said, “I don’t have time right now.” After I left Manchuria, I started to get letters that said, “So-and-so, your disciple in Manchuria, didn’t cultivate before, but now he is cultivating because his teacher isn’t here. He’s working very hard now.”
When I was in Hong Kong, my disciples were pretty relaxed about their cultivation. After I left, they realized how hard it is without a teacher, and they all wrote letters to me asking me to come back. I didn’t pay any attention to them, however. People are like that. If you see something every day, you don’t think it’s important. When it’s taken away from you, you realize how important it is. So the Buddha doesn’t remain in the world for a long, long time, because if he did, people of scanty virtue would fail to plant good roots. They would just choose to wait instead. But those who do not plant good roots or make offerings to the Triple Jewel remain poor and lowly, and they covet the five desires—wealth, form, fame, food and sleep.
The affairs of the world are just that strange. The “have-nots” are greedy, and those who have everything can’t put it down. Shakyamuni Buddha, as a crown prince, had a surfeit of all the five desires, but he put them all down. People who haven’t had their fill of the five desires are greedy for them. Whether a person “has” or “has not” is a matter of karmic retribution. If you don’t have good roots and do no good deeds, you won’t have a good reward. How can you get a good reward? Plant good roots and do good deeds, then you will reap a good fruit and gain a good reward. The poorer people are, the greedier they are. People who have a little money aren’t as greedy.
People who are wealthy and are still greedy might as well be poor. It’s said, “Good people don’t hate others; hateful people are not good. Noble people don’t get angry; those who get angry are not noble.” Sometimes sages get angry, but not really. It’s just something they manifest according to certain circumstances. People who get angry are stupid. Rich people don’t grab for bargains. People who like bargains are poor people. Poor people are always looking for a deal, hoping to benefit themselves.
Because they don’t plant good roots, they are poor, lowly, and greedy for the five desires: wealth, form, fame, food, and sleep or forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects. Being greedy for the five desires, they are always plotting about how they can appropriate something they want or how they can hold on to something they have. They are opportunistic and take advantage of situations, using wrong knowledge and views. These schemes and false views are like a net that covers up one’s genuine wisdom.
Seeing the Thus Come One constantly present and not entering the stillness, they would become arrogant and lax. They would not follow the rules, and they would act indifferent. If they see the Buddha every day, all the time, and the Buddha does not enter Nirvana, they get tired of him.
This is similar to how, before you came to the Buddhist Lecture Hall, you thought, “I must quickly go and study the Buddhadharma.” But once you’ve been here for a few months or a year, you run away. “Studying the Buddhadharma isn’t that great,” you decide. “It’s kind of boring. I’d rather go where I can be free and not have to listen to lectures every day. It’s too hard getting up so early and not resting until late.” Before you came here, you were really looking forward to it. Once you have been here studying for a while, you become dissatisfied with the lifestyle, and you get lazy. Perhaps when you first arrived here, you were more vigorous than anyone. You got up earlier and went to bed later than anyone else. You listened to the Sutras regardless of what else was going on. In all respects you were vigorous.
But after a while, because you are constantly surrounded by it and are always studying here, you are unable to think, “It’s really difficult to encounter the Buddhadharma, especially now in the West. No one here in the West has ever really had a chance to study the Buddhadharma. How could I be so fortunate? Here I am so young, and I have met the real, true Buddhadharma. It has come here to the West! This is incredibly rare. I don’t care if I eat or sleep, but I am certainly going to study the Buddhadharma–not for just a day or a week or a month or two, but always, year after year, remembering always how rare it is. If I were dead I couldn’t study the Buddhadharma. Now, while I am still alive I am certainly going to study it.” Keep in mind how rare it is to meet with the Buddhadharma.
Think of your grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors for generations back who never had a chance to study the Buddhadharma. Now, all of a sudden, you have the chance! This is called “transcending your ancestors.” Your ancestors never understood the Buddhadharma, but you are now studying the Buddhadharma.
You shouldn’t let the Buddhadharma that you are studying pass by like wind blowing in one ear and out the other. You should make an effort to remember it, not like the verse I taught you during the Shurangama Sutra session that none of you remembered:
Hidden virtue leads one along the path of intelligence.
Failing to do good deeds in secret, thinking yourself smart,
You end up outsmarting yourself.
If you cannot remember it, you are wasting your time. You should review it every day. Go over your lessons each day. For example, before you go to sleep you can reflect, “The Shurangama Sutra lessons–The Youth Moonlight, what samadhi did he study? Was it the water-contemplation samadhi?” And also review your new lessons. Granted all this is false thinking, but this kind of false thinking is helpful in the elevation of your Dharma body and wisdom life. The superior person takes the high road.
Don’t review your bad habits, thinking, “I used to smoke marijuana. Should I try it again?” If you do, you have entered a demonic state; you have retreated. Don’t have false thoughts like that. The things that you did wrong before, you should change. Once you have changed, don’t slip back and do them again.
Consider how difficult it is to meet the Buddhadharma. Young people who have been through traumatic experiences should especially bring forth real sincerity and consider how hard it is to encounter the Buddhadharma. Not only have you transcended your ancestors with your good roots, but in hundreds of thousands of ten thousands of great eons, it’s not easy to meet the Buddhadharma.
Shakyamuni Buddha’s realization of Buddhahood actually took place uncountable eons ago. And you should know that we have been ordinary beings for an equally unreckonable period of time. Think about how long you have wandered in a human body.
Although the situation in becoming a Buddha is, of course, not the same as continuing an ordinary existence, the time factor is similar. Although it has been such a long time since you met the Buddhadharma, consider this: In this world would you say that there are more people who encounter the Buddhadharma or more who do not? Figure it out for yourself. Even in Buddhist countries, many believe in Christianity, right? Even in Buddhist countries not everyone understands the Buddhadharma. Think about how many people don’t understand it. They may appear to understand it, but they haven’t penetrated the doctrines at all. It’s not easy to meet the Buddhadharma. You should consider how rare it is to encounter. You should pay reverence to the Triple Jewel.
If the Buddha remained long in the world, people wouldn’t think of the Buddhadharma as rare, and they wouldn’t be reverent. Seeing that living beings weren’t being reverent toward him, the Buddha said, “It’s time to go. I’m entering Nirvana!”
Hearing that, someone is thinking, “Being a person and becoming a Buddha take the same length of time.” They are happy and say, “That’s not bad. I may not get to be a Buddha, but if I can be a person for such a long time, life after life, then I don’t need to become a Buddha. I’ll just be a person, eat some good food, wear some nice clothes, live in a fine house, buy a good car, a plane–or if I’m really rich and rocket technology develops to that point, I’ll go for a vacation on the moon! That won’t be bad at all.”
That is a fairly intelligent plan, but you cannot guarantee that it will happen; there is no way to know with certainty if you can do it. I said that we have been people for a long time, but that was just an estimate. Actually, during all this time, not only have you been a person, but you’ve been everything else as well. You’ve been up to heaven and met God, and entered the earth to see one in charge of the earth. You’ve also roamed among human beings, meeting the leaders. You’ve been all around. In fact, you went to the moon a long time ago, too. But you forgot, just as you have forgotten a lot of things you did as a child. There are even times when you forget the things you do from one day to the next. In fact, sometimes by one o’clock in the afternoon you can’t remember what you did at noon. If you forget the things you do in this life, how much more likely are you to forget the things you did in your previous lives.
We say that the Buddha does not change but accords with conditions, and accords with conditions but does not change. He is forever unchanging. But as a person, you can turn into something else anytime. You can turn into a cat, a dog, a little bug crawling around, or a pigeon flying through the air. Take, for example, the article in yesterday’s paper in which people wanted to become animals–cats, dogs, tigers, lions, eagles, frogs, mice, and so forth. Everything is made from the mind alone; you become what you want to be.
“Well, I want to become a god. Can I do that?” you ask.
Yes, you can. You can be whatever you want. Because you have a wish and an intention, you can arrive at your aim. Based on this principle, if we want to become Buddhas, we can do so. If you don’t want to become a Buddha, you won’t. Being a person is very dangerous. Being a Buddha is very peaceful. If you like danger, then do dangerous things. If you prefer peace and quiet and happiness, then do peaceful and happy things.
For that reason, because of the doctrines just discussed, the Thus Come One uses skill-in-means in speaking the Dharma for living beings. You should know that it is difficult to encounter a Buddha appearing in the world. In a hundred million eons, a Buddha may not appear in the world even once. What is the reason? Those of scant virtue, who do not have good roots, may pass through limitless hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of eons–such a long time, so many great kalpas–during which time they may see a Buddha or they may not. If they have good roots, they may see a Buddha. If they don’t, then throughout all that time they will not encounter a Buddha. Consider how difficult it is! Because of that, I tell them that the Thus Come One is difficult to get to see. Those of few good roots and little virtue cannot see the Buddha.
All these living beings, listening to the Buddha’s words, will realize how difficult it is to get to encounter the Buddha. They will long to meet a Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. And so when they encounter the Buddha, they are extremely happy. When they meet the Dharma and the Sangha, they are also exceptionally happy. They were as if thirsty, and upon gazing at the Buddha, had their thirst quenched.
They will then, simply by virtue of cherishing that thought of longing and thirst, plant good roots. That is why the Thus Come One, although he does not really become extinct, still speaks of passing into extinction. In reality, the Buddha is presently on Vulture Peak speaking the Dharma. Not only does Shakyamuni Buddha speak Dharma in this way, all the Buddhas speak in this way. For the sake of teaching and transforming living beings, they speak such Dharma, which is entirely true and not false.