Ananda, Thomas Merton, Polonnaruve, Sri Lanka, twelfth century
Ananda, Thomas Merton, Polonnaruve, Sri Lanka, twelfth century

THE TWELFTH-CENTURY stone carvings at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka of the dying Buddha attended by his favorite disciple, Ananda, are among the most luminous works of Buddhist art. Monumental in all senses of the word, the Buddha image is more than forty-six feet long, the image of Ananda nearly twenty-three feet in height. Perhaps surprisingly, the visitor doesn’t feel that the makers of this vast ensemble—the patrons and artists who wished and labored here—were pointing to themselves. The conception and workmanship are immensely refined. The scale of the figures creates an encompassing environment, permitting one to enter into the moment and meaning of the Buddha’s death; it also “places” one as very small indeed. And then, much like Piero della Francesca in another era, the artists of Polonnaruwa understood the tranquility of simple geometries, the eloquence of emptiness, the subtle suggestion of spiritual energy through flowing pattern, the dignity of the human body when mindfully inhabited. These aesthetic and spiritual values, coinciding, set this ensemble apart as one of the most memorable signs of the abiding ethos of Buddhism.

Excerpted from the narrative of the Buddha’s Great Extinguishing (parinibbana) and presented iconically without turbulence or grief, these images could lead us to believe that in the last days of the Buddha no one wept, that the stoicism implicit in the teaching on impermanence prevailed over natural feeling. According to the earliest account, the Buddha’s companions and certain heavenly observers reacted in two wholly different ways to his last illness and death. There were, of course, many austere souls in the community around him. Faced with the mortal illness of their master, they bore up without loss of composure:

Impermanent are all component things! How is it possible that they should not be dissolved?

Marked with the abstraction and passion that characterize so much ancient Buddhist rhetoric, these words steadied many of his followers at the worst of times.

But there were others, among them Ananda. Despite his illness, the Buddha tried to teach Ananda how to be. They were in a grove of flowering trees near the modest town of Kusinara. An old and trusted disciple was standing in front of the Buddha, fanning him, when the Buddha firmly asked him to move aside. This seemed to Ananda a curious instruction, and he at once inquired: Why did the master wish this good man to stand aside? The Buddha explained: “In great numbers, Ananda, are the gods of the ten world-systems assembled together to behold the Tathagata [an epithet, “Thus Gone,” used by the Buddha to refer to himself]. And the spirits, Ananda, are murmuring: ‘This eminent brother stands in front of the Tathagata, concealing him.” Ananda entered more deeply into the teaching trap laid by the Buddha. He asked what sorts of spirits. “There are spirits, Ananda, in the sky, but of worldly mind, who dishevel their hair and weep, who stretch forth their arms and weep, who fall prostrate on the ground and roll to and fro in anguish at the thought: ‘Too soon will the Blessed One die! Soon will the Light of the World vanish away!’ But the spirits who are free from passion bear it, calm and self-possessed, mindful of the saying which begins, ‘Impermanent indeed are all component things.”

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