The Buddha’s final weeks of life are recorded in some detail in the Pali canon’s Mahaparinibbana sutta. Here we find him old and sick, but as lucid as ever. His very last words, spoken to his closest followers who surrounded his deathbed, were these: Things fall apart; tread the path with care. Given the occasion, this admonition is of critical importance for dharma practitioners, even down to our own time.

Things fall apart. Few of us would quibble with this statement or its translation. We ourselves and everything in our world arise and pass away because the conditions supporting our existence are constantly changing. So things obviously manifest and then fall apart—parents and other people close to us die, our pets die, the very skin that envelops us begins to sag and be mottled. That’s basic dharma, and these days it is basic science. Responding to the vulnerability and mortality that this truth implies comprises the core of our dharma practice.

But what about tread the path with care? Many Buddhists will find this translation unfamiliar. The last word, appamada, is conventionally translated as something like “diligence” or “vigilance.” Or the last clause is rendered as “strive on untiringly,” as in Maurice Walshe’s version. The familiar translations convey a monastic or militant tone, true to the spirit of the first English-language translations of excerpts from the Pali canon by scholars steeped in 19th-century Christian religious rhetoric.

In his recent book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Stephen Batchelor has translated the Buddha’s last utterance afresh, imbuing it with a different orientation, which I’ll apply here. His starting point is the Pali original of that critical last word, appamada, which Batchelor shows is best translated as “care.” When the Buddha means “diligence”—as he does, for instance, in his discourse on the focuses of awareness (Satipatthana sutta)—he uses an unrelated word, atapi.

Pali is a curious language, as it often expresses the most positive values in negative form. For instance, literally speaking, our practice is directed toward cultivating noncraving, nonaversion, and nondelusion. Together these values add up to nonreactivity, which is nirvana, or “ceasing.” So it is with appamada, which is also negative in form. Directly translated, it means, variously, nonnegligence, nonindifference, noncarelessness, nonnonchalance, nonheartlessness. We can perhaps stretch it to nonmindlessness, nonapathy, and noncynicism.

There’s method in this Pali madness of expressing positive values in negative form. The vocabulary indicates what we need to leave behind in order to cultivate these values. In spite of its Pali negative form, the Buddha clearly saw care not only as a positive term, but in fact as the ultimate dharmic virtue. On a much earlier occasion, he told his friend King Pasenadi of Kosala that care is the one thing that encompasses all the virtues. “Just as the footprints of all beings that walk fit into the footprint of an elephant, so care is the one thing that secures [all] kinds of good” (Samyutta Nikaya 3.17). He reiterated this point to his own mendicant followers, returning to the analogy of the elephant’s footprint and then spelling it out: “So too, whatever wholesome states there are, they are all rooted in care, converge on care, and care is considered the chief among them.”

We can see why. The four divine abidings—commonly known as the four immeasurables, or emotional tones of the awakening mind—all have their roots in care: the universal friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity we need to make our care effective. We can’t live ethically without caring about ourselves as well as others. And we can’t be mindful without caring about what is happening here and now. Care underpins the radical attention that dharma practice accentuates.

So the Buddha’s emphasis on care is striking. It’s a pity, then, that conventional translations of appamada use words like “diligence” instead of “care,” thus robbing care of its true place in dharma practice. A lawyer or an accountant might be diligent, but that quality does not need to have anything to do with the virtue that the Buddha is evincing.

As English speakers, we honor the deep human importance of care in the myriad ways in which we deploy that small word. We take care of ourselves and those closest to us, we care for those we love, we care about still others—humanity as a whole, as well as other species and life forms, not to mention this planet, our only home. In old-fashioned English, “I care for you” was traditionally a significant declaration of love, maybe the prelude to a proposal of marriage.

We also have expressions of strong disapproval that denote absence of care: uncaring, careless, failing in a duty of care, and so on. And so did the Buddha. In the Dhammapada, we find these well-known lines:

Care is the path to the deathless;
Carelessness is the path to death.
The caring do not die;
The uncaring are as already dead.

“The deathless” here refers to being fully alive, awake, and responsive. “Death” refers to being under the thrall of Mara, the lord of death, and in particular being imprisoned by craving, aversion, and ignorance; that is, not being fully and consciously alive, but instead being caught up in a habitual, unreflective existence.

Some modern commentators on Buddhist thought such as Batchelor point to an affinity between the dharma and the modern philosophical school of phenomenology, which rejects the distinction between experienced phenomena and some supposed underlying “objective” truth. One of the points at which the two schools converge is precisely the crucial place of care in leading an authentic life. Phenomenology’s most prominent contributor, Martin Heidegger, in his classic Being and Time, replicated the Buddha’s conception of the human person as not so much a fixed entity as a process: a dynamic interaction between the physical being and its environment, one which he called “being-there” and “being-in-the-world.” “Care” (Sorge in the German original) is precisely what drives this process, as well as the closely associated terms “solicitude” (Fürsorge) and “concern” (Besorgen).

The Buddha is claiming to be a person of integrity, a true person, not an omniscient seer who has penetrated the secrets of the universe.

For the Buddha, dharma practice, based as it is on an ethic of care, involves going against the stream and so becoming what he called “a true person,” a description he bestowed on the physician Jivaka, at the court of King Bimbisara of Magadha (Anguttara Nikaya 1.256). Despite living and working in an intensely hierarchical milieu, Jivaka treated all his patients, high and low, with equal care. Similarly, for Heidegger, to resolutely pursue one’s concernful projects in the world and thus live authentically, one has to stand against the stream of social expectations, which he called “the they” (das Man).

The convergence with phenomenology hardly exhausts Western resonances with the dharma on the issue of care. For the prominent existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, true religion had little to do with beliefs and more to do with “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern,” what one cares about most deeply. And for the Canadian moral philosopher Charles Taylor, to be authentic moral agents we have to be able to identify, and prioritize in practice, what we care about most fundamentally. That is, those values we recognize as making the heaviest claims on our loyalty: what we care about most.

As we’ve seen in the case of Jivaka the physician, someone who cares, and who cultivates the other virtues that depend on care, earns the accolade of a true person (a person of integrity) from the Buddha, an expression very close to Heidegger’s notion of authentic being (with “being” understood as a verb rather than a noun).

The Buddha often used the word for truth, sacca, as well as that for care. But he didn’t use it in the sense of aligning with reality, or to mean an accurate statement of the way things are. On the contrary, truth is an ethical quality. It points to the virtue variously described as honesty, transparency, consistency, loyalty, and commitment. We retain this sense of truth in English when we use expressions such as “a true friend” or “my own true love.”

The religification of the dharma since the Buddha’s death has largely reworked it from an ethics-based practice to a metaphysical doctrine, a central theme in Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism. We have an example right here, in treating sacca as referring to metaphysical truth rather than ethical virtue.

In the suttas we often find the Buddha referring to himself as the tathagata, which is usually left untranslated, or literally and unhelpfully translated as “the thus-gone one.” But the contexts in which he uses this expression indicate that he is claiming to be a person of integrity, a true person, not an omniscient seer who has penetrated the secrets of the universe. The ultimate aim of practice is to become just like that: committed to dharma practice, caring and ethically virtuous, deeply aware of conditioned arising, and maintaining a nonreactive mind-state as our base tone.

The Authentic Life

The whole point of meditation is to develop into this sort of authentic human being. As the Zen master Yamada Roshi put it, meditation is about the perfection of character. It has nothing to do with training in some sort of technical skill or gaining crucial esoteric knowledge that cannot be attained any other way. Nor has it anything to do with transcending the human condition.

It is about bringing forth positive qualities in us that will see us living meaningful and dignified human lives. And it all starts with remembering the Buddha’s last words and cultivating our ability to care. But where do we go from there?

One starting point is the traditional Buddhist practice of the three death contemplations, the three questions we can pose each and every day, on the cushion, stopped at a traffic light, or washing the dishes: Is death inevitable? When will it come? What will be meaningful at the time of death?

The answer to the first question—yes—is obvious, but often forgotten in the onward rush of a complex life. The answer to the second question ought to be equally obvious: anytime, starting right now. But most of us conduct our lives based on the delusion that at the earliest we’ll die only when we reach the statistical life expectancy for our gender and ethnicity. That should leave us plenty of time to put our lives in order down the line. We have such sophisticated defenses against the ever-burning issue of our vulnerability and mortality!

But they don’t really work—for those of us who imagine we’re leading examined lives—against the third question: What will be meaningful at the point of death? At that point it will be too late to pose the question. We have to pose it now, while we still have options that the dharma can help us clinch.

So let me suggest, as a further exercise to the three contemplations, that we go more deeply into that third question by breaking it down into two parts. First, to pick up on Charles Taylor’s point: what do I care about above all else? List as many things as you want. There are no correct “Buddhist” answers; the answers need to be found in the deepest recesses of our own hearts. Don’t write yourself an essay about it—just let each answer percolate to the surface. They could range from being the best life partner or parent I can possibly be, to relieving suffering in my own neighborhood, to the wonderful Jewish aspiration to help repair a flawed world (tikkun olam) in the most effective way my opportunities and talents permit.

The second part of the contemplation I’m suggesting poses the question: given the way I’m living right now, what exactly am I giving priority to in practice? Again, limit yourself to a list of four (or fewer or more if you so choose). Typical answers will include everything from riches, fame, and sexual success, to insulating ourselves from all those disturbing realities beyond the front door. To be entirely honest in this inquiry, we have to lay aside self-loathing. This is not the occasion for beating yourself up.

Unless you’re a saint, you’ll notice a more or less striking mismatch between the two lists. We need to reflect on this mismatch and its degree. It’s the degree to which our current way of life is not authentic, not on track, and in need of self-compassionate adjustment. Dharma practice is an ethical path that leads into that gap between aspiration and habit; pursuing the ethic of care will gradually close it.

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