Meditation on the Buddha’s final words

This article shares what I learned while meditating on the Buddha’s final words, while backpacking the route of his life from birth to death, from Nepal to India.

Beggars shouted at me and tugged my backpack as soon as I walked across the border from Nepal into India. Several crippled men were dragging themselves across the dirt road to join a man without legs clutching my pants as he begged for money. Healthy men shouted that they worked for the passport agency or bus company so I should pay them to get through the border and on a bus out of town.

I saw the border-control office and choose to quickly get there by stepping over the crippled man, shaking my leg free from his hand. Don’t judge: witnessing poverty is different than reading about it. The most compassionate of us make hard choices in these situations, especially when those choices are made quickly in an unfamiliar setting.

It took a few hours to get my passport stamped, then I took the first bus going somewhere else. Our bus broke down several miles away from the border, which was, technically, somewhere else.

For the next five hours several passengers and I tried to repair a tire that had already been repaired multiple times. The inside looked more like a quilt of thin rubber patches than something you’d want between you and the road. We removed multiple tires, looking for ones with the least damage or thickest patches, and tried making new patches from salvaged scraps.

I started a game of Frisbee so groups of us could alternate between prying tires and playing. It was the first time they had seen a Frisbee, and learning to play distracted us from the dirt and heat of changing tires.

If forced to choose, I’d keep my passport, money, and Frisbee rather than my bag of clothes. I can buy new clothes, but Frisbees are unavailable in most of the world and have opened more opportunities for me than money. Sharing a fun moment leads to friends who help you along your way.

People began abandoning the bus to find a ride anywhere else. I decided that anywhere else would be better than my current location of somewhere else, so I ended up hitchhiking and caught a bus that took me to a train station, where I boarded the first one headed in the general direction of Kushinagar, India.

I attracted attention on the train for similar reasons that I attracted attention at the border, so I moved to a seat at the top row of three seat levels that allowed me to quietly observe India through my window. At each stop, I would look down and observe the beggars and vendors who poured onto the train to earn a living.

The vendors dressed according to local traditions and prepared foods that reflected their cultures. I sampled cuisine from across northern India on a single train ride.

I started to relax, enjoying the journey without worrying about the destination. After a bike-taxi and bus ride I arrived in Kushinagar, a small village on the banks of a river. The Buddha had arrived in Kushinagar 2,500 years ago and summarized 45 years of his teachings with a few words before he passed away. What the Buddha taught would become the world’s 4th largest religion despite the Buddha repeatedly stating that he was human and that he only relayed what anyone could do if they practiced with diligence. For me, Kushinagar provided one of the most meaningful learning lessons from this trip.

I had arrived late at night, but fortunately met someone who led me to a monastery that hosted guests, one of several funded by Asian countries so their citizens can take pilgrimages to Buddhist sites in India. The next morning, I grabbed my yoga mat and walked to the river where the Buddha chose to be cremated. I had read that the site was marked by a ghat, a concrete platform and stairs that Hindus use to access holy rivers. I was tired and sore, with a throbbing headache and spasms between my shoulders, and looking forward to unwinding and re-centering with yoga and meditation at the Buddha Ghat, which I imagined would be as peaceful and serene as the story behind it.

Thick fog prevented me from seeing the ghat until I was standing above the river. I could smell rotting organic material as I approached, and when I was close enough I saw that the ghat was littered with trash, rotting food, and human feces. The river was dark brown, with rubbish slowly floating downstream and sometimes collecting in pools at the ghat’s base. Teenagers shared a cigarette on the steps while blaring loud music, and a woman walked along the river carrying a basket of vegetables. A shirtless man, his aging body painted with Hindu symbols, was washing a small temple dedicated to Shiva. Otherwise, I was alone, reacting to what I saw.

I had read the oldest records we have of what the Buddha said and taught. One of the strangest concepts to me until later that day was his emphasis on not being attached to anything, positive or negative. I couldn’t understand why someone should not be attached to positive things. But, at the exact spot he told his followers he was dying, I almost found myself focused on avoiding plastic trash bags and human turds rather than enjoying myself.

I was disappointed at the ghat but when the bus had broken down I had fun. Something about my expectations for each event created physical connections in my brain that affected how I reacted. I knew this intellectually, and my intellect would chose to always have fun, which is why I starting thinking about what happened in my mind that overrode my intellect, especially the subtle physical sensation I felt from disappointment.

Does the name Pavlov doesn’t ring a bell? (ha!) Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a dinner bell, even when there was no dinner, showing how our minds condition physical responses. More recently, brain-imaging has shown that our bodies react micro-seconds before our brain evaluates a situation. In other words, attachment to happens before thoughts develop.

I wanted to analyze where my attachment began, which requires concentration. It’s easier to concentrate on something external, such as working, watching a movie, or reading a book, than it is to concentrate on your mind. I wanted to understand the phenomenon so I laid out my yoga mat and did about 30 minutes of yoga before meditating.

Meditation according to eastern philosophy isn’t what most people in the western world envision. In the Buddha’s language meditation was a concept that combined concentration, analysis, and mental development. To meditate is to concentrate on one thing and analyze it, developing your understanding on a level deeper than words can express. Meditation is related to mindfulness, being aware of your mind and body sensations without judgement or attachment, seeing them on a deeper level than conditioned thoughts.

Try it for ten minutes. Be neither full nor hungry, tired nor restless, and sit in a comfortable position so there’s no reason to want to move. Be completely relaxed. Can you concentrate on your breath or body sensations for ten minutes without a single thought popping into your head? Five minutes? One minute? I was surprised by how hard it was when I first started practicing.

After 20 to 40 minutes of meditating near the plastic trash and human feces I saw the moment with more clarity and it was beautiful. I’m not saying I saw the trash and turds as beautiful, I saw the moment as beautiful. I couldn’t have seen that beauty with attachment to anything, even something perceived as positive. That statement makes more sense in my head than in words because I don’t have the words to describe it. But, I can list a few things and try to paint a picture of the experience.

I felt relaxed, without expectations, and wasn’t looking for anything therefore I noticed more. Not just the things I’m describing but things I don’t know how to express in words

Across the river, a family brought their herd of goats to drink as their children played near the water, creating a mirror image thanks to the murkiness of the water.

The teenagers drove their motorcycles to a bridge and chased each other through the small waterfalls formed under the bridges support columns, laughing and enjoying their moment unaware of the ugliness I had seen earlier.

A kingfisher bird darted between a tree branch and the water surface, snatching his dinner from the murky water and flashing his bright underbelly and tail feathers each time.

Lotus flowers emerged from the murky water, perfectly clean, brightly colored. Without words I remembered when I first learned about lotus flowers, when I noticed that the tops of temples in Egypt were lotus flowers, a symbol used since pre-written history around the world.
A lotus plant grows through dirty water but when the flower blooms it’s unblemished, clean, and brightly colored. When dirty water splashes on a lotus flower it remains unblemished, clean, and brightly colored. That’s how Buddhists describe enlightenment; thoughts and feelings roll off your well-being like beads of dirty water. The lotus is a symbol of rebirth, and you can be reborn every moment, with every breath, if you’re free from conditioned bias, from things created by your mind that are not reality.

Lotus petals have an electric charge that makes them hydrophobic. In other words, water is repelled from their surface by electrical force. It gets better… the petals are micro-textured with the size and spacing necessary for water to bead up, scraping away dirt as it forms a ball and rolls off the hydrophobic surface, leaving a brightly colored flower. From an evolutionary standpoint this is brilliant (ha!) because it maximizes energy from sunlight, and bright flowers attract more insects that help the lotus plant propagate. The lotus flower has been on Earth for millions of years, so our ancestors would have noticed the phenomenon and attributed it to mysticism or used it as a metaphor.

I’ve seen lotus flowers used in temples of India, Asia, and Egypt to communicate concepts before humans developed written languages. Since the invention of writing, Hindus in India have written about the lotus as a metaphor of the intention behind their religion.

“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water.” – Hindu text from the Bhagavad Gita, ~ 200 BC.
As I meditated I observed my mind’s reactions. I saw that my perceptions were immediately followed by attachment to “pleasing” or “unpleasant,” which led to desiring more of something or desire to avoid something, and both prevent me from experiencing what is.

The fog lifted, literally, (ha!) and I stood up to leave. For the first time, I saw a rock building towering above the trees, and realized it was the stupa encasing ashes of the Buddha. I walked around the fenced compound and entered the pristine gardens, joining several groups pilgrims and monks in meditation.

The stupa and setting was as serene as I had imagined earlier that morning, but I believe I experienced a deeper understanding of what the Buddha taught when I was between the turd and kingfisher. Or, to make an analogy from the metaphor, seeing the beauty behind me was possible when I stopped looking for it.

I slept at the monastery again, waking up early to explore more of Kushinagar. I found a small temple with a 1,500 year-old statue of the reclining Buddha, depicting when he said his final words before passing away.

I sat quietly as people trickled in to meditate near the statue, which had a calming effect that’s difficult to share with words, like many experiences I had on this trip.

Pilgrims from all over the world would come and go. I sat cross-legged for several hours, observing while meditating. I saw groups from two countries show up and share the experience rather than focusing on what they expected. The groups evolved into a chant despite not speaking the same language. I listened to their voices resonate for an hour.

My travel-camera is tiny and strapped to a small backpack with water, a jacket, and a Frisbee. I often push a button without framing photos or interrupting the moment.
The photo below is one of my favorites; see if you can count how many monks appear to be meditating but looking at phones hidden in their robes.

In all fairness, it’s challenging to concentrate on meditating, even for monks on a pilgrimage. Maintaining concentration requires diligence, and all of us are at different levels of practice.

Six months after leaving Kushinagar, I consider turds on the Buddha Ghat a metaphor for ourselves and our choices. Physically, when I desire relief from pain I become attached to that desire and reduce my ability to perceive pleasure. Not that I don’t work towards physical health, but I’ve experienced lack of joy for long periods of time when my physical pain didn’t match my expectations. Similarly, I’ve made difficult choices, such as leaving the boy on the street in Lumbini and stepping over a crippled man to get my passport stamped, or many things in San Diego where I could be doing more to help others but chose otherwise. I’m a mixture of turds and kingfishers. To see what is wrong is to suffer and to not see what is right is to suffer. To be attached to wrong or right, ugly or beautiful, leads to a form of suffering.

I slept at the monastery for one more night, then early the next morning I walked through a thick fog, both literally and figuratively. I stood in the fog with my backpack, waiting for a bus by the same highway where I had been dropped off a few days prior. I knew the bus and trains would lead to physical discomfort. I saw a hint of attachment to hope that things would improve and smiled at how quickly old habits can return. Conditioned behavior is a habit than can be unlearned by mindful meditation.

This is a good time to share the Buddha’s final words. It’s more of a story than a sentence, with him ensuring the person who cooked his last meal knew the food was unrelated to his death, and emphasizing that he was only human and that they had everything they needed to continue without him. He asked if anyone had doubt about his teachings in a way that ensured no one would be embarrassed to speak out. Hundreds of monks replied that they had no doubt, and the Buddha spoke his final words.

His final words don’t translate to English well. He used the Hindu concept dukkha, which is approximately translated to “suffering” from obvious causes such as death, disease, and sadness but includes includes worry, anger, disappointment, impatience, judgement, or any unrest of the mind. Dukkha is anything other than experiencing a moment for what it is, remaining unblemished like a lotus flower shedding dirty water.

My paraphrasing of the Buddha’s final words is:

“All I’ve taught is that there is dukkha, the cause of dukkha is desire, the end of dukkha is eliminating desire, and the way to end dukkha is the middle way.
All things created by the mind are impermanent. Practice your aim with diligence.”
My next travel blog will probably be Varanasi and Sarnath. Subscribe for updates every few months, or follow on Linkedin for professional blogs that can be dry but are important; they are kingfishers among my turds. I help companies comply with international regulations allowing medical devices to reach more people, help teachers teach kids design and entrepreneurship, and coach on life/work harmony so that executives with access to corporate social responsibility can help more people than I could on my own.