On Friday, we commemorated the passing –Parinirvana – of the historical, flesh-and-blood Buddha, Prince Siddartha of the Shakya tribe. The word “nirvana” translates literally as “blown out,” and is often likened to a metaphorical candle. But that would be to miss the point of our true being. What is blown out in nirvana is not light, but heat, the heat of passions. Our Nepalese prince was one of the few known historical cases of a person who survived the extinction of greed, hate and delusion and lived to tell about it. Most of us just go on to the next karmic classroom, to again graduate or flunk.
So, the physical body of the prince succumbed to death, the ultimate impermanence. So what? The real lesson of Parinirvana is that 2,500 years later, the understanding – the enlightenment – of that prince is very, very much alive in every single person who makes any effort whatsoever to reduce suffering and to be kind, compassionate, joyful and tranquil, even for one second every day.
To say that the Buddha is dead is silly. Of course the body isn’t sustainable – “all conditioned things are of a nature to decay.” And there will come a time for all of us when the light fades and we know it won’t come back on. What to do then? The Buddha, in his last breath, was direct and clear on this point: “Be a lamp unto yourself. Strive on untiringly.”