#10.The last words of the Buddha (624-544 BCE). Dharma talk 25oct13. edited 2feb15.

(Excellent bio about the Buddha: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha)

In May 544 BCE in Kushinagara, India the Buddha (“the awakened one”) whose real name was Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni (the name of the family clan) was lying down peacefully waiting to die. Ananda his cousin and faithful disciple asked him to teach one more time. Around them were 500 monks and lay people already mourning. The Buddha replied without hesitation in Pali language:

 “Vayadhammā sankhārā appamādena saṃpadethā”: Sanskrit phonetic translation that means:

“All conditioned things (living beings) are perishable (transient); with vigilance (concentration/mindfulness/attention) strive (work hard) to succeed (to achieve) your own salvation & to realize your enlightenment”

NOTE: Words in () are from various translations.

The Buddha’s last words summarize beautifully the core of his daily teaching during 50 years: Impermanence, salvation, vigilance and hard work.

What is the meaning of these 4 words?

1) All living beings are transient: this is called impermanence.

A very important statement repeated million of times by Buddha since his enlightenment or awakening. Think about it and look around yourself. Nothing has lasted, nothing last, nothing will last, absolutely nothing.

This talk is transient. Today is transient. Tomorrow will be transient. The sun is transient and will die in about 5 billion years. The weather is transient. Flowers are transient. The universe is transient. We are transient.

All living creatures are transient changing continuously from one state or manifestation to another. Look at an old picture of yourself. Your body at 10 years old is dead. Your current body is transient, changing and dying continuously every day. A caterpillar is transient and will become a butterfly. A seed is transient and will become a tree or a fruit or a flower. The tree is transient then becomes carbon sediment.

Any non- living form is also transient. A cloud appears then changes in shape and color then disappears. A wave appears then changes in shape then dies on the shore. Boiled water disappears to become vapor and heat. Dead bodies become carbon, carbon becomes oil and oil becomes gas, gas becomes C02 and many other organic molecules.

And so on and so on. Nothing lasts. Everything changes inside a perpetual giant circle. Beginning is end and end is beginning over and over and endlessly.

Anything other than physical form is also transient. A thought appears then dies. Positive and negative emotions such as joy, envy, fear, anger, worries appear then die all the time.

Impermanence have been criticized by many for being too pessimistic too gloomy. Not so, in fact this is the opposite! Impermanence does not mean end or death of something but simply an ongoing change from one state or one manifestation to another endlessly. Water has many states such as cloud, rain, river, and snow. Each of them is transient but water remains.

In fact life and evolution would not be possible without impermanence. If an acorn remains an acorn there will be no oak tree. If a human sperm remains a sperm there will be no human. If a cloud remains a cloud there will be no rain and so on. Life and evolution are possible only when “something” ends (death) to become “something” else (birth). No other way. There is no gloom /doom here just the opposite.

All negative emotions such as anger, sadness, grief, jealousy, and fear are transient and will eventually disappear. Positive emotions could also disappear if we do not learn how to maintain them.

Impermanence is part of the interconnection among things and living beings so important for Buddha. Think about this. Nothing has a permanent, separate, specific, independent and unique self-entity.

 As a human being are you a unique and separate entity?

If you think so you are wrong since you cannot live without the oxygen of the trees and oceans, the food and water from the soil, the work of others to bring you electricity, education, home, cars, etc. You and we depend on them all the time.

In fact everything including living beings is a compounded, interrelated manifestation changing continuously from one stage to the next one without beginning and without end.

If we do not understand nor accept this we are deluded and ignorant. If we accept this our mind becomes clear and serene toward salvation.

2) Salvation:

This word is used and misused in many religions and all spiritual leaders are using it in their teachings. According to its specific context salvation could have several meanings such as deliverance, liberation, escape, freedom, paradise. Simply put salvation is to be free from something or to get rid of something that is trapping us emotionally and/or physically.

What is the meaning of salvation in Zen? What is the Buddha trying to convey to his disciples in using the word salvation?

Probably Buddha is using the word salvation to express the key point of his lifelong teaching: Salvation in Zen Buddhism means:

  • To get rid of or at least minimize our own ego-self and discover and experience our “True Nature” which is by definition perfect. Only practicing daily meditation since meditation is the only way to deliver us from our deceptive ego-centered min also called in Zen “little mind” or “monkey mind” can achieve realization of our True Nature.
  • To be mindful moment-to-moment to what is real and not to be deluded by what is not.
  • To see and accept life as what it is and not as what we want it to be.

Why then is it so important to get rid of our ego-centered little mind?

Because our deceptive little mind is mostly ego-centered:

  • Many of our thoughts are also ego-self centered.
  • Our ego-self is the source of our desires, attachments, anger, fear, etc.
  • Desire and all negative emotions are the essence of our suffering and dissatisfaction.

We are, therefore, the main cause of our sufferings. When our little mind is under control our ego-self is minimized leaving room to a “no-self” state. This no-self state opens the door to our True Nature also called True Mind. This is the awakening or enlightenment.

As you can see salvation can be found inside self and not outside (God). This is a major difference with all other religions. When we experience our True Nature everything is one: our self, others, our environment and the Universe indefinitely. Nirvana is reached where self and suffering are gone.

How can we get rid of our deceptive ego-centered mind and discover our True Nature?

Beside Impermanence and Salvation Buddha is using 2 more key words: vigilance and hard work.

3. Vigilance:

To be alert, in control and cautious against possible dangers, temptations, delusions and illusions. Vigilance also means also to be mindful moment to moment to what we see, touch, smell, hear, taste; to what we do; to what is real around us.

4. Hard work:

Practicing Zen Buddhism and succeeding in our goals requires time, patience, discipline, perseverance, trust and above all daily solo meditation and weekly group meditation. Practicing meditation without judging its quality is a very big challenge. Since your meditation always will have its up and down it is very easy to fall in the trap of giving up. Just do it without judging.

Finally the last word Looking for a quick fix by practicing Zen meditation will automatically end up with a huge delusion.

Thank you.


Ven. Ji Gong Sunim. Oct 25th 2013