Why did the Buddha Enter Nirvana?

Lectures by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

The Buddha then brings up an analogy: It is as if there were a good physician, wise and intelligent, who can cure all illnesses. He is well-versed in the medical arts and skillful at healing the multitude of sicknesses. The man also has many sons--ten, twenty or even a hundred. "Ten" represents the Bodhisattvas of the Ten Grounds. "Twenty" represents those of the Two Vehicles--the Hearers and the Pratyekabuddhas. "A hundred" represents the Ten Dharma Realms times the Ten Suchnesses.

The excellent physician is called away on business, and he travels to a far-off country to heal someone, or on tour. Meanwhile, the children are not yet grown. It's a physician's home, and there are many medicines in it. The children get hold of some poisonous concoction and drink it, thinking that it is a sweet-tasting drink. Children don't know any better. They can't tell the difference between poison and something good to drink. They think it's a bottle of some kind of juice, and they drink it up. When it takes effect, the pain, which is unbearable, causes them to roll on the ground in delirium.

Just then their father, the good doctor, finishes his business and returns home. Because they drank the poison, some have lost their senses and are totally oblivious. Some of them still have some sense and recognition left. Seeing their father at a distance, they are all delighted. They bow to him, kneel, and inquire after him. "Welcome back in peace and safety. We are really fortunate to be able to see our father again." Those who have not completely lost their senses speak up and say, "In our foolishness, we took some poison by mistake. We thought it was syrup or apple juice or cola or something, and we swallowed it." Those who like to drink alcohol see the poison as alcohol. Who would have known it was poison? "We pray that you will rescue and heal us, and will restore our lives to us. Father, will you save us, so we can live for a while longer?"

Above we said this was an analogy. Who is the good doctor? The Buddha, of course. The children are all living beings. Maybe these living beings live at a time when the Buddha is not in the world, or maybe the Buddha was in the world but has already entered Nirvana and gone to some other world. The father's leaving refers to the Buddha's entering Nirvana, so beings have no chance to meet him. When the Buddha goes away, living beings are not careful about "what they eat." It is said, "Living beings take food as heaven." It's also said, "Food and sex come naturally." Children start drinking milk from the moment they are born. They don't know very much, but they know how to eat. They suck their thumbs or suck their fingers; whatever you give them they put in their mouths. And so, acting on this instinct, the children here managed to poison themselves.

What is the poison? The poisons are the deviant sects and cults and externalist ways, the teachings of nonultimate religions. If after the children have taken the poison, they know it is poison, then there is a chance they can still be saved. But if they've taken a lot of it and don't even realize that it's poison, thinking they have taken the nectar of immortality or something, they are hard to save. Having taken it, they are senseless, but they think they will never die. They think they have been born into some heavenly paradise. They are so deeply immersed in their confusion that they don't even know they have been poisoned. The poison has penetrated all the way to their bones and marrow. So some have lost their senses, that is, they don't recognize true principle. Others have not lost their senses, and they are still receptive to understanding the truth.

The doctor's returning is an analogy for the Buddha's appearing in the world. The Buddha, having finished his work of teaching and transforming living beings in other worlds, comes again to this world to teach and transform living beings. He sees that these living beings have been poisoned by adherents of deviant cults and outside ways, and are almost beyond help. Some of them, however, are fairly intelligent. When they see the Buddha, they are very happy. They bow respectfully to the Buddha and say, "We living beings are too stupid. Please be compassionate, Buddha, and give us some medicine to countera ct this poison. We want to live a bit longer and don't want to die."

Seeing how pitiful living beings are, the Buddha uses various kinds of "medicines" to counteract their respective poisons. Some of them are happy to take the medicine, and they get well; they get rid of their deviant knowledge and deviant views. Others, however, do not wish to take the medicine. They do not expel the poison, which causes them not to believe in the Buddhadharma.

The Buddha is likened to a good doctor. But there are inept doctors who kill people. Good doctors save people. The quacks represent the leaders of deviant cults and sects and externalist ways. They may say they are Buddhists, but they don't act like Buddhists. Or they may say they are Taoists, but they don't act like Taoists. They may claim to be Confucianists or Brahmans or any one of the ninety-six externalist sects.

The good doctor sees that his children have taken poison. Seeing his children delirious and in such agony, the father consults his medical texts, which describe the properties of different medicines, and then searches for wholesome herbs possessed of good color, aroma, and flavor--not bitter, but actually very sweet--perfect in all respects. He then pounds, sifts, and mixes them together. This represents the Buddha using various Dharmas to teach and transform those of the Two Vehicles. Having passed through the Agamas and Vaipulya periods, arriving at the Prajna period is likened to "pounding, sifting, and mixing."

The good doctor says to his children, "This is an excellent medicine. It looks good, smells good, and is very sweet to the taste.It is exceptionally fine medicine.Quickly take it, children, and you will get better and all your pain and suffering will be relieved."

Among the children are those who have not lost their senses, but are relatively alert. Seeing the wholesome and aromatic medicine, they immediately take it and their sickness is completely cured. After the Prajna period comes the Dharma Flower/Nirvana period. The Wonderful Dharma of the Dharma Flower Sutra is called "excellent medicine." The children's sickness being "completely cured" means they have broken through the delusions of views, the delusions of thought, and the delusions of ignorance. Having done that, they gain enlightenment and have no more illnesses.

Although the others who were badly poisoned and who have already gone crazy rejoice in their father's arrival, inquire after his well-being, and seek to be cured of their illnesses, they refuse to take the medicine. The Buddha speaks the Dharma Flower Sutra, but they do not believe it. They are unable to believe, accept, and practice it.

What is the reason? The poisonous vapors have entered them so deeply that they have lost their senses. They are muddled and confused, and so they say that the medicine with good color and aroma is not good. They profess that if they take the medicine, they will not gain any advantage. They don't believe the Wonderful Dharma.

The Buddha, like the good doctor, speaks the Wonderful Dharma for living beings. He uses the most magnificent Dharma to try to teach and transform living beings. But if living beings d o not believe him, the Buddha has no way to force them to believe.

The father then thinks, "How pitiful are these children. The poison has entered too deeply and has confused their minds, and they are unclear. Although they rejoice to see me and ask me to rescue and cure them, still, once I give them this excellent medicine, they refuse to take such good medicine as this. I should now set up an expedient device to induce them to take this medicine."

Immediately he says, "You should know that I am now old and weak, worn out, and my time of death has arrived. I will now leave this good medicine right here for you to take. You children who have ingested poison can use it. Don't worry about not getting well. Just take the medicine, and you shall certainly recover." Having instructed them in this way, he then goes away to another country and sends a messenger back to announce to the children, "Your father is dead."

The Buddha's manifesting entry into Nirvana is also like this. The Buddha prepared all these Dharmas to be good medicines because he sees that living beings are so severely poisoned that they are unable to believe in the Buddhadharma. For that reason he sets up the expedient Dharma-door of entering Nirvana. In reality, the Buddha does not undergo production and extinction. The Buddha's state is one of no production and no extinction, no defilement and no purity, no increasing and no decreasing. His entering Nirvana is an expedient device for the sake of saving living beings.

When the children who have been poisoned hear that their father, off in some other country, is dead, their hearts are struck with grief. Although they have lost their senses, they understand that their father has died, and they are extremely distraught. And they think, "If our father were here, he would be compassionate and pity us, and we would have a savior and protector. He really cherished us. He was so good to us. He would have saved us from our sickness. Now, he has forsaken us to die in another country. He left us and went somewhere far, far away. Now he is dead, leaving us orphaned with no one to rely upon. No one will save us now. No one will offer us support and protection."

Constantly grieving, their minds then become awakened. They understand that the medicine their father offered them when he was alive has good color, aroma, and flavor. They take it immediately, and their poisonous sickness is completely cured. They believe in the Buddhadharma and no longer believe in the dharmas of externalist ways. As soon as they came to believe in the Buddhadharma, they got rid of all their deviant knowledge and deviant views.

The father, who really hasn't died, hearing that his children have been completely cured, then comes back. All the children who had previously been poisoned see their father.

Perhaps someone will say, "This good physician has committed the offense of false speech. He didn't tell the truth."Now, could anyone rightly say the good doctor has lied? The Bodhisattva who had been questioning the Buddha replied, "No, World Honored One." Shakyamuni Buddha said:

I, too, am like that. The Dharma I have spoken is that way as well. I spoke the Agamas, the Vaipulya teachings, the Prajna teachings, and then the Dharma Flower/Nirvana teachings in the same way, just like the good doctor. I realized Buddhahood limitless, boundless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeyas of eons ago. For the sake of living beings, in order to teach and transform them, I speak expediently, bestowing the provisional for the sake of the real, and say that I am about to enter Nirvana. This is like the doctor going to another country and then sending back the message that he has died. And no one can say, "Oh, the Buddha was lying."

I attained Buddhahood limitless hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of asamkhyeyas of eons ago. During all those uncountable eons, I always speak the Dharma in different lands and countries, to teach and transform countl ess millions of living beings, so they enter the Buddha-Way.

And from the time I attained Buddhahood until now, throughout these limitless asamkhyeyas of eons, in order to teach and transform living beings, I expediently manifest Nirvana. This is like the doctor who went to another country and sent back a messenger to tell his children he was dead. When his children heard that, they no longer relied upon their father, but took the medicine instead. Thus I expediently said, "The Buddha is going to enter Nirvana. All of you should ask whatever questions you have. Hurry up! If there is something you don't understand, get it cleared up right away." But in truth I do not really enter Nirvana.

I remain here always speaking the Dharma, teaching and transforming living beings. I always stay right here on Vulture Peak in the Saha World and, using the power of spiritual penetrations, I cause inverted living beings, although near me, not to see me. That means that even though I do not really enter Nirvana, I make it so they don't have an opportunity to see me. Although they are right b eside me, because they are upside down, they do not see me.

The multitudes see me as passing into extinction, and they extensively make offerings to my sharira. At this time, they all start thinking about how much they long for and admire me, and their hearts look up to me in thirst. They long to see the Buddha.

Living beings are then faithful and subdued, straightforward, with compliant minds. They are not stubborn any longer. They just single-mindedly wish to see the Buddha. "Now the Buddha has gone to Nirvana! Oh, if we could only see the Buddha once again!" They realize how rare the Buddha is and how difficult it is to encounter him. If they had to give up their very lives, they would do so without regrets.

When you seek the Buddha-Way and take the precepts, you burn some incense scars on your head. This represents that you are willing to give up your life for the sake of the Buddhadharma. If you still care for your own life, that burning will cause unbearable pain, and you won't be able to go through with it. To burn the body as an offering to the Buddha represents that you are willing to give up your life for the sake of the Dharma.

Why does the Buddha say that he doesn't actually pass into extinction? The principle works like this: For those who are enlightened, there is no extinction. Those who are unenlightened think that the Buddha enters extinction. If one is enlightened and has the Three Bodies, the Four Wisdoms, the Five Eyes, and the Six Spiritual Penetrations, then one is with the Buddha at all times; one is always right next to the Buddha. That is called "always seeing the Buddha."

If you have not attained that state, then although the Buddha is actually right beside you, you cannot see him. The Buddha says he does not pass into extinction because he is always present for those who have been certified to the attainment of the Five Eyes. Those without the Five Eyes cannot see the Buddha, and they conclude that he has become extinct. Actually, the Buddha does not become extinct.

When people get to the point that they do not even care about their own lives as they seek the Buddhadharma, there is a response of the Way because of their extreme earnestness. At that time, Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sangha assembly of Bhikshus and Bhikshunis all appear together on Spiritual Vulture Mountain. Thus Great Master Zhi Zheof the Tiantai School entered the Dharma Flower samadhi when reciting the Dharma Flower Sutra, and he personally saw the Dharma assembly on Spiritual Vulture Mountain still taking place--it had not dispersed. He obtained the "Dharani of a Single Revolution."

That proves that even now the Buddha is still present on Spiritual Vulture Mountain, speaking the Dharma, teaching and transforming living beings. He has not passed into extinction. But using clever expedient devices, he manifests "extinction" and "nonextinction." He speaks of and manifests birth and passing into extinction, but they are not real. For living beings in other lands, those who are reverent, faithful, and longing to see the Buddha, he speaks the supreme Dharma. The Buddha says:

All of you have not heard this doctrine, and you think I entered extinction. For me there is no production or extinction, although I speak of it. I see living beings in misery, drowning in the five desires: wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep. Since they are greedy for the five desires, I refrain from manifesting for them. I do not manifest and speak the Dharma for them, because I want to cause them to look up in thirst. Then, when living beings are filled with longing, I emergeand speak the Buddhadharma for them.

Why is it that some living beings see the Buddha and others do not? Why is it that the Buddha says he is entering extinction and then does not? These are all transformations worked by the power of the Buddha's spiritual penetrations. So we say, "There is production and yet no production. There is extinction and yet no extinction. Those who have affinities with the Buddha can see him any time; those lacking affinities never get to see him."

You say, "If I have no affinities with the Buddha and cannot see him, then what should I do?" Plant good roots, create affinities with the Buddha by making offerings to the Triple Jewel--the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. If you cultivate merit and virtue before the Triple Jewel, after a while you will naturally have affinities with the Buddha. If you do not plant good roots, you will never have affinities with the Buddha. So you ought to plant good roots.

When people who have taken refuge with the Triple Jewel visit other temples or monasteries, they should not think they can get a good deal by staying there without paying. As laypeople, whenever you go to a Buddhist temple, you should wish to make offerings to the Triple Jewel, not ask that the Triple Jewel make offerings to you. If you ask the Triple Jewel to support you, you will be bound to fall lower in each successive life. Why are some people so wealthy? They made offerings to the Triple Jewel. People who do not make offerings to the Triple Jewel become poorer and poorer in each successive life. Those of you who have taken refuge with me should always bring forth the initiative to make offerings at any temple you visit in the future.

For countless asamkhyeyas of eons, Shakyamuni Buddha constantly speaks Dharma for living beings at Spiritual Vulture Mountain, as well as in other lands. Living beings may see the calamities of wind, water, and fire, or the eight difficulties, but Vulture Peak and all the other places where the Buddha is present are peaceful. They cannot be harmed by the three calamities but are always filled with fine gardens and groves, a nd halls and pavilions adorned with the seven treasures. In the adorned Bodhimanda of the Buddha, the beings wander happily.

The heavenly beings throughout the Three Realms make the heavenly drum resound throughout space, making music for the Buddha. And mandarava flowers, flowers which "accord with one's intent" and make people extremely happy as soon as they see them drift down, are scattered on the Buddha and the great assembly.

The Buddha's Pure Land of Eternal Stillness and Light will never be destroyed. But living beings with their afflictions see it being burned entirely, and they become worried, terrified, and miserable. They are miserable because of all their evil views. All these beings with offenses, because of their evil karma, pass through boundless, uncountable eons without hearing the name of the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Sangha.

Before the Buddha appeared in the world, no one knew about the Buddhadharma; no one had ever seen the Buddha or heard the Buddha's name before. When the Elder Sudatta heard the word "Buddha" all the hairs on his body stood straight up on end, although he did not know why. That was because he had never heard the names of the Triple Jewel before.

People who have practiced merit and virtue and planted good roots, who are compliant, agreeable, and honest--not crooked--will all see the Buddha. People with offenses cannot see him; they cannot even see a Buddha image. If you can see a Buddha image, it will lessen your offense-karma. In order to see the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Sangha, you must have merit and virtue. To those with good roots who always see him, the Buddha speaks of the length of the his life span. If it were not this way, how could they see him? For those who pass through long, long periods of time before they get to see the Buddha, he speaks about how the Buddha is difficult to encounter. Such isthe power of his wisdom.The Buddha's wisdom light shines throughout limitless worlds, and limitless living beings bring forth the Bodhi mind.

The Buddha's life span of limitless eons was attained through long cultivation and work. The Buddha did the good work of liberating life. If you want to have a long life, you should liberate life. The more life you liberate, the longer your own life will be.

Those of you with wisdom should not have doubts about what the Buddha has said. Cut them off entirely and forever.Do not have doubts about the Buddhadharma. Get rid of them, for the Buddha's words are real, not false.

They are like the clever expedients of the physicianwho isknowledgeable about the different kinds of medicines--cool, hot, warm, and neutral--and who, to cure his insane children who had been poisoned, says he is dead, although he is actually alive. When the children think their father is dead, they finally take the medicine.

The Dharma spoken by the Buddha is like good medicine. As long as the Buddha remained in the world, living beings thought they would take their time about studying the Dharma; they were not eager to study it. When the Buddha entered Nirvana and they no longer had access to him, they decided to study the Buddhadharma and lecture the Sutras. As long as the Buddha was in the world, they could just listen to the Buddha, but they did not care to have Sutra lectures. So no one can accuse the doctor, who expediently tries to save the lives of his children by saying that he is dead, and say that he has committed an offense of false speech. The Buddha says:

I, too, am a father to the world, saving all living beings from suffering and woe. Basically, I do not enter Nirvana, but because living beings are confused, I say I am entering Nirvana. I say this because if living beings saw me every day they would grow arrogant and sloppy.They wouldn't follow the rules and cultivate according to the Dharma. They would be attached to the five desires of wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep, or else to forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects, and then they would tumble into the three evil paths of the animals, ghosts, and hell beings.

I keep track of all the thoughts in the minds of living beings. I know what they are thinking, and whether or not they are practicing the Way.

As for those of you who have taken refuge with me, I also know whether you are practicing the Way or not. I know very well whether or not you follow the rules. Those who follow the rules come to the Sutra lecture every day, while those who don't go out every day. It's also this way in the Summer Session. Good students obediently attend every class, while unruly ones find other things to do during classtime. You should seriously apply yourselves to studying the Buddhadharma. Don't be casual about it. You shouldn't think it's such a simple matter for me to lecture on the Sutras. It takes a lot of energy.

If a person can be saved by means of a Buddha body, the Buddha appears as a Buddha and speaks Dharma for that person. If a person can be saved by means of another kind of being, the Buddha will take the appropriate form and save that person. The Buddha is always thinking, "How can I cause living beings to realize the supreme Way and to quickly attain the Dharma body of a Buddha?"


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