The last words of the Buddha.

Dharmacari Jayarava

The Buddha's last words were spoken to a large group of disciples in the Mallas's sāl-tree grove near Kusinārā. The text which recounts these events is the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta - the story of the great extinguishing.[ 1 ] The Blessed One (bhagavant) knew that it was time for him to die, or to pass into parinibbāna. He was on a tour of the main places where he had taught, accompanied as always by Ānanda and there was a kind of magic in the air as miraculous events occurred where ever they went. The tour came to an end when, after taking a meal with a lay supporter, the Buddha became fatally ill with food poisoning. Word went around and a great company of the Blessed One's disciples gathered to pay their last respects to him. He questioned them to make sure they had no lingering doubts about the teaching, but none of them did. Every one of them was at least a stream entrant, and had realised the Truth for themselves. And then the Sutta says:

Atha kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi - handa dāni, bhikkave, āmantayāmi vo: "vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā"ti. Ayaṃ tathāgatassa pacchimā vācā.[ 2 ]

Now the Blessed One advised the bhikkhus - Well now, bhikkhus, my counsel is: experience is disappointing, [it is] through vigilance [that] you succeed. These were the last words for the Tathāgata.

Buddhists have always had a particular interest in the words of the Buddha, have put a huge amount of effort into preserving them and interpreting them. His last words have a unique resonance, and special place amongst the corpus of Buddhavācā. In this essay I take a close look at these last words to see what they mean, and why they mean that. I will also explore along the way some of the complexities of translating a specialised technical jargon from one language to another.

The Buddha Addresses the Bhikkhus

But before I get to the last words themselves, I want to make an observation about the words translated above as "advised" (āmantesi) and "my counsel is" (āmantayāmi). Both derive from the verb āmanteti which means: "to call, address, speak to, invite, consult" and combines manta (Sanskrit mantra) with the "ā-" prefix which indicates motion towards. [ 3 ] Āmanta, along with its various conjugations and declensions, is a common enough word in the Canon. It is used in the sense of advice or counsel, especially the kind counsel that passed between a king and his minister, for instance.

However there are a number of verbs for speaking in Pāli, for instance: bhāsati (he says, speaks), vadati (he says), katheti (he relates, or tells), paññāpeti (he declares), vyākaroti (he explains), anusāsati (he advises, instructs - also used of ministers and teachers). Any of these could have been used instead, but āmanteti is used, and used twice in the same sentence in two different conjugations. I believe that the intention here is to "mark" these last words as significant. [ 4 ] The implication is that this was no a casual conversation. The Buddha was not speaking informally, or just talking to pass the time. He was not talking one friend to another, but as the sathā devamanussānaṃ, the teacher of gods and humans. [ 5 ] The use of āmanta indicates the solemnity of the statement, and the seriousness of the situation. Aware of his immanent death the Blessed One composes himself and composes his words.

The use of the verb āmanteti also reminds us of the status of the spoken word in the Buddha's day and in particular the status of the utterances of the Buddha. Important utterances were memorised and carried in memory rather than being written down. It helps to contextualise what comes next as a sacred utterance, something that we may take on the level of mantra. These are words to recollect, to contemplate, to reflect on, and even to recite.

The discourse

The last words come towards the end of the Sutta. The phrase contains only four words, but each has many possibilities of meaning. I begin by divining the meaning of each word individually, or indeed in most cases the parts of each word, and how they contribute to the overall meaning of the word. I then consider the words in the two pairs they naturally seem to fall into; and only then finally consider the phrase as a whole. By taking this bottom up approach I hope to be able to convey something of the depth and complexity of this four-word phrase. In the case of appamāda I take especial care to look at how the word is used before attempting a translation of it.


The word vayadhammā is a compound consisting of two words: vaya + dhamma. Vaya is firstly "loss, want, expense" and secondly 'decay'. [ 6 ] It is interesting that previous translators have adopted the secondary meaning when translating the Buddha's last words, but before we go into this we need to look at dhamma.

Dhamma is one of those words that almost defy definition or translation. PED devotes 7½ columns to it. In its most literal and fundamental sense dhamma means something like "nature". It comes from a Sanskrit root dhṛ which means to hold, or support: the foundation. English words such as form and firm come from the same Indo-European root. The sense of it in Buddhist contexts covers a number of areas: as "nature" it refers to the underlying order of the universe, the ethical order in which actions have consequences, and even the constraints which that order places upon us (dhamma-niyama). Dhammā (plural) are the elements of experience, i.e. phenomena. Dhamma can also mean the teachings and texts that contain the words of the Buddha, and the path which Buddhists follow.

In this case dhamma is used in its fundamental meaning of nature, and corresponds to something like the English suffix '-able' as in perishable. So we could say that vayadhamma is being taken to mean, "decays by nature", or "having decay as it's nature". And in fact perishable would work as a translation if we had to choose a single word, since it has more or less the same semantic field.

For vayadhammā Rhys Davids translates: "decay is inherent...". Walsh has the awkward phrase "of a nature to decay" in his translation of the Sutta. [ 7 ] Bhikkhu Bodhi uses "vanishing nature" for vayadhamma where it occurs in his Majjhima Nikāya translation. [ 8 ] However as noted the first meaning of vaya is "loss, want, expense", and vayadhamma could therefore be taken as meaning "of the nature of loss, want or expense", which we could straightforwardly render as "disappointment", or as an adverb: "disappointing". The implications of this become more clear when we take vayadhamma with the noun it relates to, so let us move on.


Saṅkhārā is another tricky term to translate. There is no single English word which precisely matches it. PED says it is:

"One of the most difficult terms in Buddhist metaphysics, in which the blending of the subjective-objective view of the world and of happening, peculiar to the East, is so complete, that it is almost impossible for Occidental terminology to get at the root of its meaning in a translation." [ 9 ]

The prefix "saṅ-" roughly matches the English prefix "con" and means "together", while khārā is from a Sanskrit root kṛ which means "to do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, undertake". [ 10 ] So the literal meaning of saṅkhārā is something made together or put together. The closest single English word with this meaning is "confected", but this has connotations that make it unsuitable as a translation. "Compounded" is very close, and is a useful rendering. Thanissaro's use of "fabrications" has the added value of indicating that the objects of the senses are not real in any absolute sense: they are "made up". However fabrications is a bit awkward to my ear.

In Buddhist usage there are several senses of the word Saṅkhārā:

In this case saṅkhārā appears to be used in the sense of "all things" especially "all compounded things". Saṅkhārā is in the nominative plural case hence the long '-(' ending, and vayadhammā as an adjective or adverb follows it as to case and number. Since compounded things are made of dhammas, vayadhammā saṅkhārā can be seen to be something of a word play.

How we choose to render vayadhammā saṅkhārā into English will depend on which of the possible meanings we think were intended by the speaker/author. The usual principle is to choose one concept, and translate it as one word. In many cases these one-for-one translations have become standardised through repetition and convention, and an English word is now the "accepted" translation. The result has been called Buddhist Hybrid English [ 15 ] and is in many cases deeply unsatisfactory since the underlying complexity is hidden beneath an English word which may have a significantly different semantic field. Communicating in words often involves a sophisticated use of ambiguity and polysemy to imply shades of meaning. Translation always results in a loss of some information, but unhappily can also result in the substituting of misinformation such as when early translators settled on Law for dhamma.

When working with a Pāli text it is useful to consult the traditional commentaries. These have not been translated into English except in a very few cases. The commentary often gives a gloss of the word, along with a few synonyms. This is helpful in establishing what Buddhaghosa understood by the word. Unfortunately the commentary is silent on vayadhammā saṅkhārā in this phrase. Perhaps it was a well established usage, or had been explained in other places.

Most translators of this phrase seem to have opted for some variation on "all conditioned things are of a nature to decay". Underlying this is the Buddhist doctrine that because "things" depend on causes and conditions - a corollary of their being composite - and because everything is always changing things are liable to fall apart, to cease, to decay and die. This rendering emphasises the objective pole of experience - the putative world "out there", made up of elements, and whirling around us.

The other sense of vayadhammā - i.e. disappointment - would lead to a rendering that emphasised the subjective pole of experience. All conditioned things are disappointing. Dhamma also has a subjective aspect. Dhamma as phenomena are the elements of mental experience, they relate to mental states rather than phenomena out there. And saṅkhārā in this case refers not to "things" in any concrete sense, but to experience. So another translation emerges which we might render: "all experiences are disappointing", with the caveat that experience here is experience of conditioned dhammas, not unconditioned. Experience of unconditioned dhammas is by definition not disappointing.

I find this approach more felicitous as it is in the mental sphere that we mostly work in Buddhist practice. We can say that conditioned things, the complex sense and mental impressions that make up experience, are disappointing because they are impersonal (anatta) and impermanent (anicca). We interpret them as personal and permanent and this sets up false expectations and assumptions, which inevitably lead to disappointment, and even perhaps to madness:

Anicce niccasaññino, dukkhe ca sukhasaññino;
anattani ca attāti, asubhe subhasaññino;
micchādiṭṭhihatā sattā, khittacittā visaññino.

Perceiving permanence in the impermanent, and pleasant in the painful
And self in the impersonal, and beauty in the repulsive
Beings are injured by wrong-views,
minds unhinged, they go mad. [ 16 ]

We can therefore translate vayadhammā saṅkhārā as: "all things are perishable" or "all experiences are disappointing". Either one implies the other, but the implication is more clear, I think, in the latter.


Appamāda is an interesting word made up from a root, two prefixes, and a case ending. Broken into its constituent parts it is: a + (p)p + mada + ena.

The root word is mada, which means 'intoxication', and is thought to relate to the Greek mastos = breast, and to the Latin madeo = to be wet; originally it meant "drip, be full of liquid or fat". [ 17 ] There are a series of related words like majja (intoxicating drink), majjati (to be intoxicated, to be exultant, to be immensely enjoyed or elated), matta (intoxicated (with), full of joy about, proud of, conceited). The PED gives two senses for mada: 1. intoxication, sensual excess; 2. pride, conceit. [ 18 ]

Pa is "direction prefix of forward motion, in applied sense often emphasising the action as carried on to a marked degree or even beyond it's mark". [ 19 ] So if mada is drunk, then pamāda is blind drunk. The dictionary gives carelessness, negligence, indolence, remissness. To my mind these do not carry the weight of the etymology of the word. Someone blind drunk is not simply remiss or careless, they are likely to be delinquent, to behave reprehensibly, and to be a danger to themselves and others. In the Pāli Canon drunkenness is also associated with madness. In the Vipaka Sutta the Buddha is discussion the results of breaking the precepts and says:

Yo sabbalahuso surāmerayapānassa vipāko, manussabhūtassa ummattaka- saṃvattaniko hotī"ti. [ 20 ]

The most trivial result of men drinking alcoholic liquor is that it leads to madness.

Pamāda or drunkenness then, is like madness. In Buddhist terms it is the madness described above, of one who understands experience incorrectly.

'a' is a negative prefix which makes the word have it's opposite meaning, and in this case causes the 'p' to be doubled. The dictionary defines appamāda as "thoughtfulness, carefulness, conscientiousness, watchfulness, vigilance, earnestness, zeal". Appamāda is the opposite of blind drunkenness, or being completely 'out of it'. What is meant here is the sort of thoughtfulness that one might have if confronted by a large poisonous snake, or a hungry tiger. It is a very vivid, very clear awareness, with no distractions.

'-ena' is the case ending for the instrumental case, so it indicates 'by means of, through, with'.

Appamāda is one of three terms that refer to various qualities of attention or awareness which are frequently subsumed under the English word mindfulness. The other terms are sati and sampajañña. Sati comes from a root word that suggests memory or recollection; while sampajañña suggests a focused and concentrated attention. Etymology gives us a sense of appamāda, but in order to fully appreciate its distinctive meaning we need to look at how it is used in context.

Firstly appamāda is praised is the highest terms: for example appamāda is the wise man's "foremost treasure". [ 21 ] It is described as securing both good in ones present life, and in any future life. It bestows long life, health, beauty, and noble birth. [ 22 ] It is through appamāda that all other positive mental states are cultivated. In the Tathāgata Sutta it says:

"… whatever wholesome states there are, they are rooted in diligence [i.e. appamāda] converge upon diligence, and diligence is declared to be chief among them. When a bhikkhu is diligent, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path". [ 23 ]

Other suttas tell us that various qualities are developed and cultivated through appamāda, for instance the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, [ 24 ] and the five faculties. [ 25 ] appamāda causes unarisen wholesome states to arise,[ 26 ] and the Buddha declares that it is through appamāda that he won enlightenment.[ 27 ] The appamādavaggo chapter of the Dhammapada is essentially a eulogy to appamāda in similar terms.[ 28 ] The Mahāmaṅgala Sutta mentions appamāda as one of the many qualities that are the highest blessing (maṅgalamuttamaṃ).[ 29 ]

Clearly appamāda is a very important quality for the Buddhist, but what actually is it? In the saḷāyatanasaṃyutta a sutta tells us that appamāda is associated with the quality of restraint:

"If one dwells with restraint [saṃvuta] over the eye faculty, the mind is not soiled among forms cognizable by the eye. If the mind is not soiled, gladness is born. When one is gladdened, rapture is born. When the mind is uplifted by rapture, the body becomes tranquil. One tranquil in body experiences happiness. The mind of one who is happy becomes concentrated. When the mind is concentrated, phenomena become manifest [dhammānaṃ pātubhāvā], one is reckoned as 'one who dwells diligently'." [ 30 ]

Appamāda is synonymous with "guarding the gates of the senses", but also with a concentrated mind through which Insight can arise. It enables us to enter the successive states - pāmojja, pīti, passambhati, sukha, samādhi, dhammā pātubhavā - that lead in a progressive fashion to liberation. [ 31 ] I take dhammānaṃ pātubhāvā to be synonymous with yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana, the knowledge and vision of the [true] nature of things.

In the Devadaha Sutta the Buddha explains that not all bhikkhu have work to do with appamāda, only those who have not Awakened. The work one does with appamāda is to train so that agreeable and disagreeable sensations "do not persist obsessing [pariyādāya] one's mind even when they are repeatedly experienced". [ 32 ] And:

"When the mind is not obsessed, tireless energy is aroused, unmuddled mindfulness [sati] is set up. The body becomes tranquil and untroubled, the mind becomes concentrated and one pointed" [ 33 ]

Pariyādāya here means "exhausting, overpowering, enticing, taking hold of; and losing control over, giving out". [ 34 ] Clearly this is closely related to the conception of drunkenness and intoxication with the objects of the sense.

Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.116 describes four occasions for appamāda that relate to ethical conduct. Bhikkhus are told that they should be diligent in giving up bad conduct of body, speech or mind, and in giving up wrong views and cultivating right views. Having done this they are told that they "need not fear death in a future existence", which is to say that they will attain the Deathless or Awakening. [ 35 ] In Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.117 appamāda plays a role in guarding the mind from "harbouring lust for anything inducing lust…[and being] infatuated by anything inducing infatuation [madanīyesu]". Anyone guarding their mind in this way "will not waver, shake or tremble, he will not succumb to fear, nor will he adopt the views of other ascetics". [ 36 ]

So appamāda is the opposite of the qualities of intoxication (pamāda), obsession (pariyādāya), or infatuation (madanīyesu), with sensory experience. Positively it is state of non-intoxication or sobriety which results in a calm body and concentrated mind, and this enables one to see things as they really are, and to be liberated from suffering. Translating this is difficult because there isn't really an English word that corresponds to this concept.

Walsh opts for "untiringly" is his translation that doesn't seem right. Rhys Davids and Bhikkhu Bodhi translate appamāda as "diligence" which is a better, but sounds a bit flat to my ears, and doesn't quite catch the quality that I read in the texts. Woodward used both "seriousness" and "earnestness" in his translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. None of these seem to convey anything like the idea of appamāda. If forced to choose one word I suggest that 'vigilance' has more of the quality of careful attention, and of guarding the mind, combined with a vigour quality. However it is clear that a single English word is hardly sufficient to convey the subtleties of the Pāli.


sampādetha is the second person plural of the verb sampādeti meaning firstly: 'to procure, to obtain'; and secondly 'to strive, to try to accomplish ones aim'. Sampādeti is itself the causative of sampajjati for which the PED gives "to come to, to fall to, to succeed, to prosper". Warder says the purpose of the causative is:

"to cause someone or some thing to do the action of the root, to have something done" [ 37 ]

So sampādetha means "to cause to succeed, prosper, or obtain", with the implication that success is reaching nibbāna, and liberation is obtained. Related words are sampādaka "one who obtains [the goal]"; and sampādana "effecting, accomplishment". In the text the word is immediately followed by the close quote marker iti, which condenses to ti and lengthens the last vowel: sampādethā"ti = sampādetha + iti.

Walsh translates appamādena sampādetha as "strive on untiringly" [ 38 ] though untiringly is entirely wrong. Rhys Davids opts for "work out your salvation with diligence" which is closer to my understanding of the terms. Bhikkhu Thanissaro uses "bring about completion by being heedful". [ 39 ] Another version from the Access to Insight website has "Strive with earnestness" [ 40 ] which has the same faults as Walsh. It is common to hear "with mindfulness, strive on": I have not located the source of this rendering but it too is not fit for purpose.

If the primary sense of sampādetha is "to cause to succeed", then those translations which opt for "strive", without conveying the idea of what one is striving for, or that one should succeed, are missing an important aspect of this statement. However the others seem a little awkward and pedestrian. They lack the poetry of the original, the directness and density. Now, we know quite a lot about the goal of the Buddha's teaching, sometimes called nibbāna, 'the deathless', awakening, the "highest bliss". It is for nibbāna that the Buddha is exhorting us to strive and a translation should reflect this.

The Pāli commentary does not have much to add. Glossing appamādena sampādethā it says "sati-avippasvāsena sabbakiccāni sampādeyyātha" [ 41 ] or with mindfulness [sati] and attention [avippavāsa] you should perform all your duties. Sati is mindfulness with a connotation of recollection or memory. Avippavāsa means "thoughtfulness, mindfulness, attention". It seems as though the commentator is over looking, as do most translators, the association with restraining the senses.

The clear sense of appamādena sampādetha, then, is that appamāda is the means by which one is caused to succeed. Hence I have chosen to translate it as "[it is] through vigilance [that] you succeed".


Bringing all of this information together we can now attempt a translation of the phrase, the Buddha's sacred last words:

vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādetha

All compounded things, all experiences (mental and physical), all phenomena by their very nature decay and die, and are disappointing: it is through being not-blind-drunk on, obsessed by, or infatuated with, the objects of the senses that you succeed in awakening, or obtain liberation.

Or more succinctly:

All things are disappointing, [it is] through vigilance [that] you succeed.

After speaking the now familiar words, the Buddha spoke no more, but is said to have passed into meditation, and ascending through the jhanas, to have passed beyond our comprehension. Two frequent epithets of the Buddha were Tathāgata and Sugata. Gata means gone so the two epithets mean the "thus gone", and the "well gone". A Tathāgata is said to be trackless, he leaves no signs behind, produces no more kamma-vipaka. His state is ineffable since it is incorrect to say that he is reborn, and it is incorrect to say he is not reborn. Fortunately he did leave behind his words, or at least we feel reasonably sure that these are his words. Walsh says of the Mahāparinibbāna sutta that it: "No doubt contains the basic facts about the Buddha's last days, but various late and more than dubious elements have been incorporated into it".`[ 42 ] More doubt creeps in when we consider that the Pāli canon was not originally in Pāli and has already been translated at least once. If the original language was, as we think, more closely related than Pāli and English, then those translators may not have encountered the very great difficulties that we have, and we can only hope that not too much was obscured, and not too much added in the process.

The Buddha said his dhamma was ehipassiko an invitation to come and see for yourself. So even if his words have undergone massive changes and contortions there is always this last test: what happens when we guard the gates of our senses, when we sober up from our long intoxication with experiences, and we allow our bodies to become calm, and our minds to become concentrated?

Appendix: various translations of the passage.

T.W. Rhys Davids

"Then the Blessed One addressed the brethren, and said, 'behold now, brethren, I exhort you, saying, "Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!"'. This was the last word of the Tathāgata. [ 43 ]

Maurice Walsh

Then the Lord said to the Monks: Now, monks, I declare to you: all conditions things are of a nature to decay - strive on untiringly. These were the Tathāgata's last words. [ 44 ]

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Then the Blessed One addressed the monks, "Now, then, monks, I exhort you: All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful." Those were the Tathagata's last words. [ 45 ]

Sister Vajira & Francis Story

And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness! [ 46 ]


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