Death of the Buddha (Nehan)
Muromachi period (1392–1573)
Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk
Image: 74 x 43 5/16 in. (188 x 110 cm)
Overall with mounting: 114 1/2 × 56 in. (290.8 × 142.2 cm)
Overall with knobs: 114 1/2 x 59 1/2 in. (290.8 x 151.1 cm)
Gift of Susan Dwight Bliss, 1944
Not on view
The story of the Buddha's death and final achievement of enlightenment is filled with both lingering sadness and joy. Having reached old age, he had his young disciple Ananda prepare a place for him between twin sala trees in the grove in Kushinagara. He then lay down on his right side with his head facing north, and his followers, along with a variety of supernatural beings, birds, beasts, and even his mother (descending from heaven at the upper right), gathered around him. They all grieved: "The light of the world is now put out." Even the plant kingdom was affected—the sala trees bloomed out of season and the forest was strangely silent. The Buddha addressed his followers:
Grieve not! The time is one for joy; no call for sorrow or for anguish here. No more shall I receive a body, all future sorrow now, forever, done away; it is not meant for you, on my account, forevermore, to encourage any anxious fear (Buddhacharita 1948-67).
And then he peacefully passed into nirvana.
In Japanese temples, the death of the Buddha (Nehan; Parinirvana in Sanskrit) is marked annually, in the middle of the second lunar month, with special rites and the hanging of large, tableau-like paintings, such as this fifteenth-century example. Here, Buddha's divine nature is represented by his large size relative to that of his attendants. The vivid portrayal of grief-stricken animals is unique to Japanese paintings of this event and reflects a particular sensitivity to nature's all-encompassing quality.
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