25 February 2006

The Last Words of the Buddha

Image of a group of FWBO and TBMSG people on pilgrimage in front of the Parinibbana Stupa and Temple in Kushnigar
This blog post summarises a longer
essay on the Buddha's Last Words.
Last week we celebrated the Buddha's Parinibbana - his final death. The tradition tells us that nothing can be said about the existence or non-existence of the Blessed One after death. The cycle of birth and death, of suffering, has stopped for him. An account of the last days of the Buddha is contained in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Towards the end of the sutta the Buddha brings together any disciples in the area, and asks them if they have any doubts. None do. Then the Buddha gives them, and us, a final message:
vayadhammā sankhārā appamādena sampādethā
all things are perishable, through vigilance Awaken!
The full explanation of my translation is too long for this article, but I would like to look at one part of it: the word 'appamaadena'. This word is in the instrumental case so indicates the means by which an action is to be accomplished. It is by appamāda that sampādethā (from a verb, sampādeti, meaning firstly ‘to procure, to obtain’, and secondarily 'to strive'). Appamāda is translated in various ways but 'vigilance' seems to have become standard. However vigilance is not a perfect fit.

Appamāda has three parts: a + (p)p + mada.

The Pali English Dictionary gives two senses for mada: 1. intoxication, sensual excess; 2. pride, conceit. I'm going to focus on the first sense in this article.

Pa is a prefix which indicates forward motion in applied sense often emphasising the action as carried on to a marked degree or even beyond it’s mark. So if mada is drunk, then pamāda is blind-drunk! (the extra p is a common artefact in Pali compound words)

A is a prefix which makes a word mean the opposite.

So appamāda is not-blind-drunk. If you look through the Pali suttas you will see that appamada is used in connection with the objects of the senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, and thoughts. So in practice appamāda means not-blind-drunk on the objects of the senses. Isn't it true that we are easily intoxicated by the objects of our experience? Aren't we in fact mostly caught up in this world of our senses? Or a lot of the time aren't we caught up in the world of our thoughts? So the Buddha's final message was, sober up with regard to the senses and thoughts - don't let yourself get carried away. That's the way to strive, to obtain the goal, to Awaken!

Before we have much familiarity with spiritual practice it can hard to grasp that there is experience which is not centred on the senses. If we eliminate the five physical senses, and the mental sense which comprehends thoughts: then what is left? Nothing? We live in hedonistic times when it can seem that the pleasures of the senses is what makes life meaningful. Or we might spend our time avoiding sensations which we don't enjoy. The Buddha's final message is pointing away from the senses, but towards what?

In meditation we can take two basic approaches to the senses. We can just sit and watch the play of experience, and try not to get get caught up in it. This approach is sometimes likened to watching clouds drifting about the sky. One just sits and watches them coming and going, and doesn't invest any energy in them. Another approach is to actively withdraw from sensual experience through concentration on an object - frequently the breath. Doing this we find that in withdrawing from sense data our experience is blissful, and more satisfying. We may lose the sense of having a body, even lose the sense of having thoughts. The experience of meditation shows us that there is an alternative to being drunk on sensual data.

Both of these approaches to the senses open up all kinds of new possibilities to us. This is not easy to put into words, especially in English because we simply don't have the vocabulary. Pali and Sanskrit terms can help, but they are unfamiliar to people outside Buddhist circles. The Pali word jhana (sanskrit dhyana), for instance, is one that has been used for these states which go beyond the world of the senses. There are texts which describe the experience - often using similes. But the experiences are quite accessible, to some extent at least, for most people who are willing to meditate regularly.

So there is experience which is not mediated by our senses. But why does the Buddha use his last words to direct our attention towards this experience? Bliss is all very well, but is that really all that spiritual practice is about? The answer comes from the first part of his statement. It is because the nature of all things perceived by the senses (sankhārā) is to perish (vaya). Another possible translation of vayadhamma might be 'guaranteed to disappoint'. The objects of the senses as fascinating as they are, do not satisfy us. They are transient. By being focused on them we are constantly being disappointed, constantly let down, and it's a real drag isn't it?

So to sum up: if we want happiness (and we all do), then we need to free ourselves of addiction to intoxication with the objects of the senses, including thoughts, which are guaranteed to disappoint us. The reality of spiritual practice for most of us is that we can only slowly untangle ourselves from the senses, from thoughts. It's not easy because from the first we are totally immersed in this experience. But it is possible, and definitely worth it.

See also: my calligraphy of the Buddha's last words on visiblemantra.org.
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