Gautama Buddha was eighty, and he was feeling his age—he compared his body to an old cart that will move only if held together with straps. But through entering into “the concentration of mind that has no outward characteristics,” he could remain comfortable.
He had decided some months earlier, at Vulture Peak, to travel back to his home in Kapilavastu, where he spent the first twenty-nine years of his life. This was a journey of some 200 miles, on foot. Now he was in the city of Vaiśālī (Vesālī), a place he had stayed often during his travels.
The next morning, Gautama rose early to beg for alms. After he had eaten, he “turned his body to the right and [while turning,] looked around in every direction with his elephant’s gaze.” He said to Ānanda, “Ānanda, this is the last time I will look upon Vaiśālī.”
Gautama is saying goodbye to places he has appreciated during his life. He feels a nostalgia that many people feel as the end of life approaches. Some scholars are critical of this passage, stating that these are not the sentiments of an enlightened being. (One wonders how they would know.) Their objection makes sense only if being free of emotion, that is, feeling nothing, is a Buddhist value. I think this is an error. Buddhists are not striving to become robots; emotions are a fundamental part of who we are. Gautama was a human being with human feelings—but he was not bound by habitual patterns of reaction.†
*Quotations and descriptions are taken from Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, vols. 1 & 2, by Hajime Nakamura (Gaynor Sekimori, transl.) (Kosei Publishing Co., 2005). This is a scholarly work that uses a variety of sources and Buddhist texts. It’s currently out of print.
†For one discussion of emotions in Buddhism, see “Buddhist Insights for Accepting and Respecting Our Emotions,” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Huffpost, 06/04/2010. Click here.)