Vayadhamma sankhara. Appamadana sampadetha.
All conditional things are of a nature of decay. Strive on untiringly.
Mahaparinabbana Sutta, Digha-Nikaya
One of my favorite passages from the Pali Canon suttas comes from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the last teaching of the Buddha. It is his final utterance to the sangha, his death poem.
In his last moments, the Buddha, in this single phrase, expressed the essence of the entire teaching of his forty-five-year mission. It is in the nature of all the elements of being to dissolve and pass away. They do not last. Therefore, we must use our time wisely. The Pali word appamada means to aim one’s aspiration and effort toward freedom with continuous presence of mind: “Strive on untiringly.”
It is this call for continuous presence of mind that I am most touched by. Whatever is happening, if we are present, we are at that moment living from the depths of our being, utterly free.
The last words of Zen master Suzuki Roshi were “I don’t want to die.” No denial there. He simply said it as it was, from the depth of his being, honest and very present in the moment. Another Roshi attending his death moment said in respectful response, “Thank you for your great effort.” His Holiness the Karmapa, one of the great teachers and leaders in the Tibetan tradition, also spoke a powerful death poem as his final teaching. Like Suzuki Roshi, he was dying of cancer surrounded by sangha members. One of them, a Western teacher, was growing increasingly anxious, upset and sad. Then, at just the right moment, the Karmapa looked deeply into his eyes and holding the young Westerner’s gaze said, “Relax, nothing happens.”
Of course, things seem to be happening all the time. But this is merely the appearance, the surface reality. All the elements of existence are transitory like bubbles bursting in the breeze. So at the same time, nothing is happening. Just mind moments arising and passing.
The aim of the Buddha’s teaching is understanding, not coming to conclusions, collecting more information or more opinions. “I don’t want to die;” “All conditioned things are of a nature to decay;” “Relax, nothing happens.” There is really no problem. These death poems and last teachings are simply showing us how to be utterly honest and present in every moment.
“Strive on untiringly.” Appamada dhamma is a selfless striving or effort to try to be continuously in the moment with presence of mindfulness. It is the path to selfless love and wisdom, the path of freedom.