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.”

And so the lesson was delivered: Ananda had his choice laid before him. It would not be easy: there was grief even in heaven, where the spirits presumably enjoyed certain advantages. Ananda, to whom so much of the Buddha’s conversation was directed, stole away.

Time passed. The Buddha called for him. “Where is Ananda?” he asked.

In a meeting hall at some distance from the grove, Ananda was leaning against the doorpost, weeping. The ancient text records his thoughts: “Alas! I remain but still a learner, one who has yet to work out his own perfection. And the Master is about to pass away from me—he who is so kind!”

The Buddha asked for a certain disciple, not just anyone, to come before him: “Go now, brother, call Ananda in my name, and say, ‘Brother Ananda, the Master calls for you.”

Upon receiving the message, Ananda collected himself and returned to the Buddha’s side, where he bowed and “took his seat respectfully.” The Buddha comforted him: “Enough, Ananda! Do not let yourself be troubled; do not weep! Have I not already told you that it is in the very nature of all things most near and dear to us that we must divide ourselves from them, leave them, sever ourselves from them? For a long time, Ananda, you have been very near to me by thoughts of love that never varies and is beyond all measure. You have done well, Ananda! Be earnest in effort, and you too shall soon be free from the great evils.” You will recall that, while Ananda was the favorite, he was not the most advanced, not an arhatta who had fully lived the Buddha’s path and become, like the Master, awakened.

Ananda was not through contending with fate. He laid a trap of his own for the Buddha: “You know,” he said, in effect, to his master, “the little town near this grove is nothing special. It seems inappropriate for the Blessed One to die here. Wouldn’t it make better sense to wait until we reach one of the great cities of the realm, Kampa or Kosambi or Benares, so that the local priests and nobles and believers will pay proper funerary honors?” The Buddha’s response reminds us that he was once a prince and well tutored. He pointed out that Kusinara might not be great today, but that it had an illustrious history fully worthy of the event now thrust upon it. “Even so, Lord,” said Ananda.

The Buddha continued to teach, although his final illness was upon him. Resuming his caretaking role, Ananda cunningly arranged things to spare his master’s energy—for example, grouping certain visitors by family and clan, he introduced them to the Buddha en masse rather than one by one.

But the time came for leave-taking, which the sutta evokes as a voyage among
levels, a successive abandonment of perceptual frameworks until Lord Buddha seemed to be gone, wholly gone—at which moment Ananda turned to an older companion: “O my Lord, O Anuruddha, the Blessed One is dead!” He was not moved by doctrine, not constrained by a code of attitude; he spoke from his heart. The older disciple corrected not his attitude but his thought: “No, brother Ananda, the Blessed One is not dead. He has entered into that state in which both sensations and ideas have ceased to be.”

The Buddha continued the voyage among levels until he reached “the last stage of deep meditation” and expired. The earth quaked, thunder rolled in the heavens. Each of three gods spoke from on high the curious, formal benedictions of the ancient rhetoric: “the aggregation of mental and material qualities,” “growth is their nature, and decay,” and so on. Ananda, no. Thus spoke Ananda:

Then there was terror!
Then one’s hair stood on end!
When he, endowed with every grace,
The supreme Buddha, died!

There were those who wept on earth and in heaven, and those who contained themselves. Anuruddha had the authority to call the disciples to order; peace gradually settled over the grove. He and Ananda “spent the rest of that night in religious discourse.” By dawn Ananda was ready to play his role.

In the twelfth-century sculpture he stands wholly collected, ever in attendance: the vertical embodiment of his fallen master’s teaching.

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

We learn so much from scripture and image—but not everything.

Editor and biographer of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Roger Lipsey most recently published An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. He is currently working on a reinterpretation of tales of the Delphic oracle for Harper San Francisco.

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