History tells that when Shakyamuni Buddha, at the age of 80, was on a journey of propagation with his disciple Ananda, Shakyamuni taught the Dharma to a blacksmith named Chunda.
Greatly inspired, Chunda invited them to a feast as an offering. However, Chunda’s meal was unsuitable, given Shakyamuni’s health.
After the meal, Shakyamuni suffered from severe diarrhea and a hemorrhage, but he continued on his journey. Shakyamuni, assuming how it might be his last day of his life, stopped at the Kakuttha River to rest. While resting, Shakyamuni told Ananda to never criticize Chunda’s offering to others.
To paraphrase from the Mahapari-Nirvana sutra, Shakyamuni said to Ananda:
“People would say that because Shakyamuni died from eating Chunda’s meal, he lacks virtue. But that is not true.
“I selected his meal as my last meal.
“I have received two great offerings in my life and both offerings were equally full of virtues.
“One from Sujata and the other from Chunda. After Chunda's offering, finally I am able to enter Nirvana, so his offering was indeed virtuous.”
Shakyamuni said that one great offering was from Sujata, who was a village girl who offered a bowl of goat milk to Shakyamuni when he was in pain after six years of practice of austerities that almost killed him.
After recovering with the help of Sujata’s offering, Shakyamuni sat under the Bodhi tree and eventually awakened to the truth. So if it were not for Sujata, Shakyamuni wouldn’t have experienced enlightenment.
Shakyamuni says that Sujata’s offering, which led him to enlightenment, was equal to Chunda’s offering, which led him to his death.
I think this is an important point that we should not overlook because this shows how Shakyamuni saw death and enlightenment, which seem to be opposites, as one.
This means death for Shakyamuni was not something negative or full of despair as we usually think of it but as enlightenment, it was something valuable and natural.
Moreover, Shakyamuni referred to death this way because he saw it as Nirvana, which is when all sufferings are extinguished and one achieves peace.
That is why Shakyamuni said Chunda’s offering was as virtuous as Sujata’s offering.
Of course, this does not mean that we should then die so that we can attain Nirvana. It rather means Nirvana is normally attained when we shed our physical forms. In fact, Shakyamuni taught to his followers until his last breath.
My point is rather that Shakyamuni did not see death and enlightenment as two separate things, but as one.
Shinran Shonin also had the attitude of seeing two opposites as one.
Shinran taught: “Enlightenment is attained without severing defilements.”
Rev. Tetsuyu Chikuda of Hongwanji’s seminary school says that usually defilements and enlightenment are seen as two opposing things, so to avoid contradictions, most understand that it is by extinguishing our defilements that we reach enlightenment.
However, Shinran embraced the contradiction as is. Shinran saw defilements and enlightenment as one.
This is especially so because enlightenment is based on defilements and without defilements there is no need to aspire to enlightenment.
The Lankavatara sutra states: “Enlightenment cannot exist apart from ignorance, nor ignorance apart from enlightenment. Since things do not differ in their essential nature, there can be no duality.”
Thought in this way, enlightenment symbolizing Buddha and defilement symbolizing us are not separate. In other words, Buddha is not outside of ourselves, but is within. So it might not be appropriate to set Buddha as an entity that is an object of worship, which is nothing more than making a separation.
A devoted Shin Buddhist, Saichi, wrote a poem that said:
“Saichi, where is Buddha? Buddha? I, Saichi myself, am Buddha.”
Saichi was someone who deeply recognized his defilements, so of course, he is not saying that he himself is Buddha. He rather saw himself as the opposite of Buddha.
However, Saichi saw himself and Buddha as one.
Thus, Saichi was able to accept his defilements without deceiving himself because there was the potential of Buddha living in him.
This is the value of embracing two opposing things as one, which opens up our narrow view and enables us to see and accept ourselves as the way we are.