Quick Facts and Stats
- Summary: Festival marking the death of Buddha, his achievement of Parinirvana, final enlightenment.
- 2021 Date: 15th February
- Celebrated by: Buddhists, particularly Mahayana Buddhists
- Linked Holidays: Vesak
Background and Theological Significance
Nirvana is the ultimate aim for a Buddhist. Buddha himself is seen as the first to have achieved it, at around the age of 29. He chose to remain on earth and help others to follow in his footsteps and achieve nirvana as well. Parinirvana refers to his physical death and therefore complete accomplishment of nirvana, letting go of all attachments.
The term Nirvana reflects this well, it is perhaps best defined as “to Extinguish”. The belief is that life is best represented by the image of a burning flame. The fire purifies and releases the trapped fuel that then takes its true form as part of the heavens. In Buddhism this takes on a new meaning as nothingness is at the base of reality and everything that we experience is an illusion. In this way the flame itself gives the illusion of existence, and the final extinguishing is a more accurate representation of the true nature of things. Buddha’s death, his life being extinguished, is his final release from the illusion.
Parinirvana day is the time when this should be properly contemplated. It is the time to contemplate our own mortality and the mortality of those around us; realising that it is not something to fear or to rage against.
The Buddha died sometime between 410 and 370 BCE, but it is unclear exactly what date, and the conclusion that you come to will no doubt depend on the records that you rely on. The Theravada school of Buddhism, which relies on the Pali Canon, unifies their celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment (Nirvana), and death (Parinirvana) together at the festival of Vesak in the month of May. However, Mahayana Buddhists, working from their own tradition of Sutras in Sanskrit, separate the celebrations, placing Buddha’s Parinirvana in February, usually on the 15th.
The Buddha apparently knew that his death was coming. In some accounts he died of food poisoning, but that is quite difficult to know for certain. He was 80 years old at the time of his death. As his death approached he gathered his followers, and reminded them of his teachings. According to legend he reassured them that he hadn’t withheld any teachings from them. He told them that they had simply to maintain the path that he had laid before them. His last words are said to be the following: “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive for liberation with diligence.”
Parinirvana day is marked by many people travelling to Holy Sites, either local temples, or traveling greater distances on pilgrimages to the sites that are connected to the Buddha’s life. Particularly important are numerous sites within the city of Kushinagar. Various Temples and Stupas become crowded as people congregate to mark this special day.
Those who observe Parinirvana day take the time out to peacefully meditate. Often this meditation is focused by reading the Nirvana Sutra, which chronicles the last days of the Buddha on earth. The main focus for this festival is death, and so this is often taken to be the proper object of focus during this time. Buddhists who mark Parinirvana day will focus not just on their deaths but those of their loved ones and the people around them. It is through this focus that the impermanence of life and how death fits with a greater cycle of life and suffering is realised. Acceptance of this flow, and the Buddhist aim to achieve liberation from this cycle as the Buddha himself did around 2400 years ago.