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Barbara O'Brien

Buddha's Last Request

By August 15, 2012

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According to what seems to be a western Buddhist urban legend, before he died the historical Buddha requested that his teachings not be turned into a religion. I run into this a lot on Web comment threads. It usually is followed up by some clucking about how his followers didn't follow the Buddha's request.

I don't believe the Buddha ever said that, exactly. If you know of where he actually said this speak up, but I can't find it.

Of course, he told his followers to not believe any teaching on faith, which to some people might seem like a warning to stay away from religion. But really, throughout his teaching years he called on his followers to maintain and follow the path (magga) and the dharma (or dhamma in Pali). He didn't say, just go out and do your own excellent thing.

And I don't believe there is a word in Sanskrit or Pali that means "religion," exactly, as today's English-speaking westerners understand "religion." I understand that the closest word to "religion" is dharma, and certainly the Buddha never said "don't turn my dharma into dharma."

Just looking through the Buddha's last few days of life, as recorded in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, I am not finding anything that might be construed as "don't turn my teachings into a religion." Indeed, this sutta has him telling his disciples to go on pilgrimages to the places of his birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death. He spoke at length about maintaining the discipline of the monastic sangha to encourage its growth. He repeatedly asked if anyone had any questions.

I don't see anything that could be remotely interpreted as "don't turn my teachings into religion." And, anyway, what most westerners would define as "religion" is a relatively recent western conceptual construct, I believe, that would have been alien to the culture of the Buddha's day.

If you are curious, about the next-to-last thing he said was,

"It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: 'Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.' But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.

And the very last thing was,

"Behold now, bhikkhus [monks], I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish [or decay]. Strive with earnestness!"

August 16, 2012 at 7:36 am
(1) Hein says:

I agree that the phrase “religion” is a western concept. At least the English version seems neutral, but in my home language (Afrikaans, which is derived from Dutch and German) the phrase used to refer to religion is “godsdiens” (literally “service to God”). One is therefore unable to use the “godsdiens” when referring to Buddhism. And as far as I know; the Buddha never said there should be a “service to the Buddha”. So from my perspective it is easy to declare that Buddhism is not a “godsdiens”, but also more than a mere philosophy.

In respect of the question: I also know of no sutra or sutta where the Buddha said his teachings should not be turned into a religion. Even amongst the Chinese/Taiwanese people (where I do most of my practice) I have never encountered a statement like that.

August 16, 2012 at 9:38 am
(2) Mila says:

Seems that folks who make this claim (that the Buddha requested that his teachings not be turned into a religion) often cite the “be a lamp unto yourself” passage.

But, understood in the context of the teachings as a whole, that instruction would seem to point to how the light / luminosity of Dharmakaya (Truth-body) shines through our human bodymind, when we’ve realized no-self.

And how do we realize no-self? For some it may be more-or-less “spontaneous,” but for many if not most it requires following a path, i.e. the teachings that Shakyamuni so kindly provided …..

August 16, 2012 at 10:44 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mila — you probably are right. What they miss is that the Buddha spent 45 years explaining how people could be a “lamp unto oneself,” and that how is the religion.

August 16, 2012 at 10:55 am
(4) Mila says:

yes indeed :)

August 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm
(5) Dana says:

The wonderful (and wondrous) thing about the teachings of the Buddha as found in The Threefold Lotus Sutra, is that such “arguments” are swept away. As taught by Nikkyo Niwano in his brief biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, his last words were to Ananda who wanted to know what they should do after the Buddha’s extinction:: “You must not depend upon me after I’m gone. Make the Law your life, make yourself the light.” In meditative practice and in following the teachings of the Buddha (the Dharma), what greater advice can be given? Whether Buddhism is a religion or not seems to me an unnecessary discussion. Of course, the Buddha did not teach “Buddhism” – he taught the Dharma, centered in the Profound Law of the Void. When you master this teaching, you’re getting somewhere in being in the world as a person of true compassion.

August 16, 2012 at 5:52 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Dana — the Lotus Sutra is a very powerful work. However, if we’re discussing what the historical Buddha might have said during his life, 25 centuries ago, the Lotus Sutra isn’t quite what you want for an authoritative source. It was probably written about 7 centuries after the Buddha had passed on. The Lotus Sutra is a Mahayana later-wheel-turning work.

Whether Buddhism is a religion or not seems to me an unnecessary discussion.

It is an unnecessary discussion, yes. Yet people keep discussing it.

August 16, 2012 at 10:25 pm
(7) Mahesh says:

I join you ,Barbara, in full hearted support of Mila. But, Hein’s post ” So from my perspective it is easy to declare that Buddhism is not a “godsdiens”, but also more than a mere philosophy. ” I have a gut feeling that Budhism is ‘Godsdiens”. Only, one has to explain ‘God’ in a bhudhist way if we are not to remain stuck up in semantics to understand ‘Religion’ “God” and drift away from the core meanings. Barbara you have nicely explained ‘Religion” could you please also devote some thought to ‘God” to explain the core meaning. Then, Hein’s “Godsdiens” would be as acceptable as “Religion” to us

August 16, 2012 at 11:01 pm
(8) ArunChikkop says:

“I wont answer that.”

These kind of words were used by Buddha many times over his life when he felt the questions or topic drifted from the core dharma (teachings).
He may have no told the words as “Don’t make Buddhism a religion”, but many times over and always he impassioned on the teachings and not on any religions aspect, his disbelief in religion being as a wall to stop enlightenment itself proves his view on religions and it’s aspects.

I love reading all your articles. Thank You so much for sharing.

August 17, 2012 at 6:58 am
(9) Hein says:

There is a need to clarify my view: the phrase “godsdiens” (“service to a God”) is very limiting and does not encompass the broader spectrum of religion. That phrase should never be used when referring to Buddhism. The reference to the phrase “godsdiens” is to show the difficulty I have in my home language to refer to Buddhism as a “religion”. My language which is totally ingrained in Christian theism does not have a broader term similar to “religion”. And in my view “service to a God” (“godsdiens”) is something totally different from the Dharma (“the practicing of the Buddha’s how”). So in everyday language (when using my home language) I would tell people that Buddhism is the practice of the Way of the Buddha (“Die Weg van die Boeddha”) or “Dharma”. I tend to avoid phrases like “godsdiens” or religion as it can be misleading, because Buddhism have nothing to do with “service to a God”. With people really interested in what Buddhism is one is able to engage meaningful. The rest a reply of “I won’t answer that” or to simply keep silent on the subject is sufficient for me.

August 17, 2012 at 9:08 am
(10) George Deane says:

Frankly, I think it’s a moot point what historical projection the Buddha intended of his teachings. The important point for me is what he did – and what he did was to formulate, definitely as far as I am concerned, the most acute analysis of the existential quandary of human existence . I would have been almost enough had he clearly stated the problem but that he offered an in-depth solution is extraordinary. I look no further than the Buddha for his statement of the problem and dissolving its effects. Let the puerile debate of whether he intended to establish a religion or not be relegated to back room small talk.

August 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm
(11) facethemusic says:

I heard a different translation of Buddha’s final instruction:

“All aggregates dissolve. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

August 17, 2012 at 6:29 pm
(12) John says:

The idea sounds like it might be from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

August 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm
(13) TFitz says:

This is a valid subject for discussion but if it magically went away I would be happy with that. it is not possible to take our concept of religion and compare it with India of 2500 years ago. Our concept is so dualistic, even more so than 2000 years ago in the middle east or even Europe in the middle ages. It does speak to the muddled view of reality that all of this drastic change we have experienced has left us over the past 200 or so years. Perhaps we should throw out the whole concept as flawed and start from scratch. I know how you feel about this Barbara but it is just not necessary. It is necessary to discuss it though. I think,

August 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

TFitz — I’ve been more or less arguing that the whole concept of “religion” as the west understands it needs a total overhaul, and not just for the sake of Buddhism. We’re allowing the word to be defined by the most reactionary, anti-modern elements of Christianity, and I think this is slowly strangling Christianity and other traditions as well. What is it to be religious in the modern world? The Abrahamic religions are really struggling with that.

I tell people interested in Buddhism that if the “R” word gives them cooties, they could think of it as a “spiritual discipline.” That’s more accurate than”philosophy,” IMO. But centuries ago, even in Christian Europe, “spiritual discipline” was a pretty good definition of “religion.” The definition of religion as primarily about unquestioning belief in a set of unverifiable doctrines is relatively recent.

August 19, 2012 at 6:45 am
(15) Sanjay Vaswani says:

Hello ms Barbara
this is sanjay and I am from india I work at Ajanta caves and I am a regular reader of yours I really likes what you wrote about “religion” as understood in the western context what I believe in india the conversions were not known there were “margas” or maggas different ways or routes to attain moksha so the concept of religion if there was, would have been totally different
thankyou again for everything keep it up

August 21, 2012 at 5:22 pm
(16) danny says:

[Comment deleted. Dude -- I cannot begin to tell you how pathetic you sound. Christians who cannot stand it when someone is not-Christian come across as something like a religious Borg Collective. Chill. Many of us, me included, were raised Christian, and I even studied Christian theology in college, and so I understand it pretty well. And I've heard the "Jesus saves you" line all my life. And while I respect Christianity, practice of the Buddha dharma is, for me, liberating in a way that Christianity was not. So, have a nice life, but please don't attempt proselytizing here again. -- Barbara]

August 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm
(17) Locker says:

The Buddha taught his students the true path. That is, to learn and understand by experiencing for themselves the true way of the world.

This in one of the best if not the best Buddha quotes. It sets the tone for what Shakyamuni is really saying.

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances.”

“Do not give up your authority and follow blindly the will of others. This way will lead to only delusion.”

“Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real. Discover that there are virtuous things and there are non-virtuous things. Once you have discovered for yourself give up the bad and embrace the good.”

- The Buddha

August 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

Locker — Your quote is from tha Kalama Sutta. Have you ever read the entire Kalama Sutta? There’s a good translation online here.

After explaining to the Kalama people that they shouldn’t believe things just because an authoritative person says them, he went on to explain at some length how people might arrive at the truth. People familiar with the Buddha’s teaching recognize that he’s touching on several other doctrines, in particular the source of evil/suffering from the Four Noble Truths.

Westerners just love to swap around some version of that one little section of the Kalama Sutta to “prove” that the Buddha wasn’t establishing a religion, but those who are more familiar with the source material see it otherwise.

And, one more time, the notion that “religion” is some kind of supernatural belief system is a peculiar to the West and relatively recent.

September 23, 2012 at 1:50 am
(19) SAYLI says:

Barbara O’Brien- Before Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana(eternal sleep) he told ananda dat let the dhamma go n spread (dhamma means religion but buddha ignored religious belief. Actually Buddha’s version of dhamma means nature or cycle of life by doing good deeds). After Buddha Mahaparinirvana the monks were divided into 2 yanas(wheels of teaching dhamma) Hinayana(theravada teachings) and Mahayana. And as n wen Buddhism started spreading towards the eastern Asia another new cycle Vajrayana was introduced. According to all the 3 yanas(wheels of teaching) the life of Buddha is interpreted into many different ways or style u can says. If u want to know Buddha’s teachings including his life in theravada i would like to advice u all to read the book “Lord Buddha and His Dhamma” by Dr. B.R.Ambedkar.

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