The frail Buddha Shakyamuni, known as Gautama Buddha and the Historical Buddha, had reached the end of his physical life and long teaching career. He and his close disciples decided on his final resting place under the twin sala trees in Kushinagar, the republic of Malla in North Eastern Ancient India. There he lay on his side surrounded by many dignitaries and enlightened monks who had gathered to say farewell to him, (c. 563 or 480 BCE). Among them, there was a deeply devoted lay follower named Cunda (Chunda). He was the son of a blacksmith from the nearby area of Kushinagara castle who had come of his own accord to pay his respects to the great Buddha, bringing with him 15 of his friends.
To show his devotion, Chunda had discarded his daily work clothes and put on a simple robe, bearing his right shoulder in the traditional way of monastics. He knelt on his right knee and bowed at the feet of the Buddha. He then made a speech confidently and sincerely which was to change the future course of Buddhism.
As all those attending had done, Chunda implored the Buddha to accept the simple customary offerings of homemade food he and his friends had brought. All the distinguished members of the congregation had already offered luxurious gifts of precious commodities like livestock and gold, but the Buddha had refused to accept everything until this point. Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Chunda’s modest offerings were accepted and he proceeded to eloquently express his deep sadness of himself and his 15 friends at the prospect of losing the Buddha. He hoped that the simple food would prepare him for entering Parinirvana, the highest state of the ceasing of all craving, and that all sentient beings would not suffer from spiritual poverty after his decease.
In ancient India, and to a certain extent there today, the rigid caste system rejected people such as Chunda because he did not fit into any of the four main castes: He was not a clergyman or scholar, not of the nobility or a warrior, not a merchant or farmer, or a general labourer or servant. But he had confidence that all humans, despite their caste imposed at birth, were equal, and that when the Buddha left them, they would all be equally spiritually destitute. He said:
O World Honoured One! My situation is like that of anyone among the four castes who, because of poverty, has to leave his country to find work and then buy domesticated cattle and fertile fields. After removing the stones and weeds and tilling his land, he has only to wait for the rain to fall from the sky. (Chapter 2, Mahaparinirvana Sutra)
His words displayed great wisdom despite his lack of formal education or spiritual training. He knew that all living beings needed simply the rain of the Dharma to make them spiritually fertile, and that the Buddha, the truly awakened one, the Tathagata, could bring such rain into the human world of suffering (samsara). The Buddha was delighted and immediately conferred eternal life and connected him to the ever-presence ( Skt.; dharmakaya). In other words, he was enlightened on the spot.
During his ministry the Buddha had insisted that his disciples should leave their ordinary life and become monastic practitioners, learning strict moral discipline (Vinaya) and upholding monastic rules. The assembled disciples who had reached the pinnacle of all spiritual training were looking on as Chunda, a lay person and an ‘untouchable’ – a person outside the caste system - became immediately enlightened with no training and therefore supposedly little virtue. Chunda became the exception that was to be a crucial part of the Buddha’s last will and testament as he moved back to the spiritual source.
There were two ways in which this moment in the history of Buddhism brought fundamental changes to the aspirations of Buddhists. Firstly, this unprecedented enlightening of Chunda, a lay person and householder was to open the path for all beings, no matter what their caste, whether lay or clerical, to aspire to reach Nirvana (or enlightenment). It is easy to imagine just how radically this changed the course of Mahayana Buddhism because now anyone could become enlightened and many lay Buddhist orders emerged later.
Secondly, Chunda became enlightened within his own lifetime as a relatively young man. He did not have to work hard to accrue merit and virtue in order to become enlightened in a future lifetime, which was the prevailing Brahmin belief at the time. The Buddha’s acceptance of humble Chunda’s offerings was symbolic of the fact that all sentient beings are endowed with Buddha Nature, and that when the rain of Dharma waters the seeds of Buddha Nature, they will ripen, cutting away all negative karma and human suffering. By bringing so many of his friends in a sincere gesture of reverence to the Buddha and by having the confidence to make his offering in front of all the dignitaries and esteemed disciples, he had exhibited the spirit of a Buddha, without training or privilege.
In appreciation of the Buddha’s acceptance of his humble offerings, Chunda said,
It is hard to be born a human being, and harder still to encounter a Buddha. It would be like a blind sea turtle encountering a floating log with a hole in it and poking its head through. (The Great Parinirvana Sutra)
This comment prompted the Buddha to leave his final instructions before shifting into Parinirvana. His final teachings known as the Dharmakaya focused on impermanence and detachment followed. He left them in place of his physical body, assuring the grieving congregation that he would always be with them embodied in the last teachings and that these final teachings would exist for all eternity because they were indestructible.
Chunda is also reputed to have described the rareness of meeting a Buddha in the Sala grove as follows:
An udambara (a flower said to bloom once every 3000 years) can rarely be seen, and so is it to encounter a Buddha…who can nurture the faith of all sentient beings and…extinguish the suffering of death and rebirth. (The Heart, Diamond and the Lotus Sutra)
A recent sculpture of Chunda in the Sala Grove with his 15 friends executed by a modern Japanese sculptor is an inspiration for Japanese Buddhists of Shinnyo Buddhism whose principal belief is that all beings are capable of polishing their Buddha Nature and reaching Nirvana.
Chunda’s deep humility and sincere heart radiated out beyond that of the advanced practitioners and enlightened who had perhaps become arrogant or complacent. This indicates that practising as a true Buddhist of the heart is not about worldly success and reputation, but about humility, sincerity, and simple but total belief in the power of loving goodness and pure faith in the world. The character of Chunda marks the beginning not only of lay Buddhism but also a prevailing feature of the Mahayanas of Buddhism (2nd century CE onwards), the Bodhisattva who achieves enlightenment for the sake of all other beings and vows to postpone his own enlightenment until universal enlightenment is reached.