The main account of the Buddha’s final months is given in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (sutra). Having taught for about forty-five years, and in his eightieth year, the Buddha’s body was frail and weak. He and his monks/students were staying in a village in north-east India during the monsoon retreat. He is reported to have asked all the other students to leave, with only his cousin and close companion, Ananda, staying on to look after him. At some point he indicates to Ananda that he only has three more months to live. Ananda is understandably upset and greatly saddened by this news.
It is at this moment that Ananda asks the Buddha if he will give some last instructions to his students before he passes away. The Buddha replies by asking, what more do his students want from him? He has spent a lifetime teaching and a few more words aren’t going to make much difference. Surely, his students (the sangha) know better than to be dependent on the Buddha for leadership and guidance? He continues: “Therefore, Ananda, you should live with yourself as an island, yourself as a refuge, and with no other refuge; with the Dharma as an island, the Dharma as refuge, and with no other refuge.” [I have suggested elsewhere a way to reconcile these apparently contradictory statements – see: Topics – Learning from Experience page.]
Three months later, having brought together his students once more and continuing to teach, the Buddha again says to Ananda that “you or the other students should not think that without the Buddha you will have no teacher, for the method and discipline you have learnt will be your teacher.” He asks if any of the students have any further questions, to which no-one replies. The Buddha then says a final few words. The most famous English version of these last words, are by the early Pali translator, T.W. Rhys Davids: “Work out your salvation with diligence.” A somewhat Biblical phrasing.
Stephen Batchelor* offers a slightly different rendering: “Conditions are subject to decay. Work out your salvation with care.” However, as Batchelor points out, there is no suggestion of the idea of salvation in the original Pali text. A more appropriate rendering might be: “Conditions are subject to ceaseless change, strive onwards with care.” That is: strive for awakening and wisdom with care.
The last word, ‘care’, is a translation of the Pali word, appamāda. Batchelor, follows Asanga, the fourth century Buddhist scholar, in defining appamāda as “that which energetically cherishes the good and guards the mind against what gives rise to affliction”. That is, taking care, and caring for, all that surrounds us and with which we are interdependent. In other words, minding, being mindful of where we are, how we are and what we do in the world – such that, we do good rather than harm, reducing suffering rather than increasing it.
So, in his final months, the Buddha emphasises the importance of learning from our own experience, not being reliant on others – least of all one teacher in whom one has blind faith. And, being ever vigilant, mindful and caring, within a world that is ever-changing. Mindful meditation plays a central role in this, but within the context of an ethical structure that values kindness and the reduction of suffering above all else.
* Stephen Batchelor at: https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/the-buddhas-last-word-care/