February 15th on the solar calendar¹ marks the passing of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha (a.k.a. Siddhartha Gautama):
Buddhist holidays vary quite a bit, but generally all agree on commemorating the final death of the Buddha in some manner or another. According to tradition, the Buddha died at the age of 80 from illness, possibly from eating food that was tainted, yet which he did not refuse out of kindness to the man who offered it.
Further, according to tradition, the Buddha lay on his right side between two Sāla trees, provided final instructions to his followers, entered into deep meditation and then finally breathed his last. In Sanskrit, this is called parinirvāṇa (परिनिर्वाण) which can mean something like “final nirvana” or “final unbinding”. In Japanese Buddhism this is called nyūmetsu (入滅) which means to “enter destruction [of a conditional, physical form]”.
This scene is frequently depicted in Buddhist art throughout the world. In Japan, these images are often called nehanzu (涅槃図). These paintings are often quite detailed because they show the reactions of various beings, humans, bodhisattvas, celestial devas, animals, etc.
As you can imagine, many such beings are distraught and crying at the sight of the Buddha’s death, and yet (hard to see in this image), you can also see some of the bodhisattvas and disciples with a peaceful, beatific expression on their face. Why is that?
I think that these disciples of deep insight recognize that the Buddha is now totally free. He is no longer subject to the endless cycle of birth and death. The conditional, tenuous existence that beings normally undergo lifetime after lifetime ad nauseum no longer applies to the Buddha. He has gone completely beyond.
The Buddha himself described Nirvana as follows:
…Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise….Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata [the Buddha] is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea.”
–MN 72, The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta
I like to imagine that these disciples may also be in awe at the profoundness of the moment too.
In any case, Nirvana Day is not necessarily a dreary, mournful occasion. It is a reminder that there is so much more out there if we only take the first steps. The Buddha’s life and death are a powerful testimony to this.
So what does one do on Nirvana Day? Like all Buddhist holidays, it is a chance to pause and reflect, to renew one’s committment and to appreciate life (as well as death). Nirvana Day in particular is often a day for Buddhists to be vegetarian too. Even if such people are not vegetarian for the rest of the year, people often do this on Nirvana Day out of respect for all life.
So a peaceful and joyous Nirvana Day to everyone!
¹ Many Buddhist sects still track Buddhist holidays according to various lunar calendars. So the actual date can vary quite a bit.