Translations And Musings On The Last Words Of The Buddha

Not due to its prevalence of distortion, but due to the number of misattributed Buddha quotes (to name one reason in particular) it seems prudent to take a closer look at perhaps one of the most important utterances of the historical Buddha: the Tathāgata’s last words passed down in Pali as:

“vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā”

Collected here are various translations, similar utterances, suttas, passages, articles and the like exploring what is my own hobbled together translation at the moment:

“Conditions and all compounded things break apart and disappoint. Reach successful consummation through care and heedfulness”

Translations of ‘vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā

“Conditions are subject to decay. Work out your salvation with care.” (A slight yet significant change from “Work out your salvation with diligence.”  — Rhys Davids)

The Buddha’s Last Word: Care (appamāda)

“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.”

‘His final sentence was appamadena sampadetha: Reach consummation through heedfulness’’sLastWord.pdf

Then the Buddha said to the mendicants:
Atha kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi:

“Come now, mendicants, I say to you all:
“handa dāni, bhikkhave, āmantayāmi vo,

‘Conditions fall apart. Persist with diligence.’”
vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā”ti.

These were the Realized One’s last words.
Ayaṁ tathāgatassa pacchimā vācā.

Long Discourses 16
Dīgha Nikāya 16
The Great Discourse on the Buddha’s Extinguishment

Confusions with: lamp, light, truth, island, refuge?

Maybe it is just me, but until I looked all this up I was unsure whether the general notion above were the last words or there were somehow (also) mentions of lamp, light, truth, island and/or refuge as some of the quotes below show up from time to time in spiritual circles.

Turns out most of these translated word choices actually seem to be derived from the same textural source the Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 16) but are spoken to Ananda before the last words:

So Ānanda, live as your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge. Tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.

And how does a mendicant do this Kathañcānanda, bhikkhu attadīpo viharati attasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo, dhammadīpo dhammasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo?

It’s when a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world. Idhānanda, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati atāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

They meditate observing an aspect of feelings
Vedanāsu …pe…
mind …
citte …pe…
principles—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world. dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

That’s how a mendicant is their own island, their own refuge, with no other refuge. That’s how the teaching is their island and their refuge, with no other refuge.
Evaṁ kho, ānanda, bhikkhu attadīpo viharati attasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo, dhammadīpo dhammasaraṇo anaññasaraṇo.

Whether now or after I have passed, any who shall live as their own island, their own refuge, with no other refuge; with the teaching as their island and their refuge, with no other refuge—those mendicants of mine who want to train shall be among the best of the best.” Ye hi keci, ānanda, etarahi vā mama vā accayena attadīpā viharissanti attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, tamatagge me te, ānanda, bhikkhū bhavissanti ye keci sikkhākāmā”ti.

[definition(s) for the compounded dhamma saraṇa:]

dhamma masculine (& neuter)

  1. how the world of experience works, the processes by which it works and is explained (especially as formulated in cattāri ariyasaccānī and paṭiccasamuppāda), and the possibility and way of transcending it, as understood by the Buddha and taught by him (so that knowledge and understanding of it might bring awakening, arhantship, to others)
  2. the (stages to) freedom from the world of experience, culminating in nibbāna
  3. (singular) the behavior, conduct, practice required to realize and understand the way the world of experience works; the way to arahatship
  4. (plural) a quality or element of behavior or practice according to the Buddha’s dhamma; a constituent of prescribed practice; an element of the teaching; a doctrine; appropriate and beneficial practice
  5. the substance of the teaching of the Buddha; the teaching as collected in the canon; the texts
  6. a constituent of experience; an aspect or quality of existence; physical sensation; a mental state or quality (good or bad); (sometimes merely) thing, phenomenon, matter; the nonindependent, conditioned constituents of processes and events, progressively more and more minutely analyzed into fundamental types of event or fundamental regularities
  7. mental constructs, concepts, ideas, what is to be cognized by the mind, that which is the object of mental activity
  8. for the sangha: a rule; the offense against that rule; the punishment or reparation for that offense; a procedure; ~ especially the special requirements (garudhammā) imposed on bhikkhunis
  9. an interpretation of reality of other religious teachers or philosophers; their teaching; a non-buddhist doctrine; a theory
  10. the way things are; a natural law, custom, tradition; the essential nature, the way, of men or animals
  11. the way things ought to be; the way one should act (depending on who one is); right, appropriate conduct; duty; what is right; law, justice
  12. good practice; a good quality or characteristic or attainment
  13. a quality or characteristic; any element of behavior or practice or attainment

saraṇa neuter

  1. protection; help; refuge; a shelter
Selection (with definitions) from:
Long Discourses 16
Dīgha Nikāya 16
The Great Discourse on the Buddha’s Extinguishment

Another translation of the key part:

Tasmātihānanda, attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.

Dwell making yourself your island (support), making yourself your refuge, and not anyone else your refuge.

Literal translation by Walpola Sri Rahula from ‘What The Buddha Taught’

But then the following translations seems, at least to me, to add on the words truth, light, lamp, shelter and/or mix both the last words and what was told to Ānanda:

“Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge. Make truth your island, make truth your refuge; there is no other refuge.”


“Be your own light, be your own refuge, the Dharma is your light and refuge. Things naturally decay: win through by mindfulness!”

Be your own lamps. Be your own shelters. Hang on to the truth as a lamp. Hang on to the truth as a refuge.

On the positive side these three kind of combine helpful elements to get the most bang for the buck. Conversely though they may cause confusion if and when used for deeper study, accuracy and context. (Also “hang on” seems a bit too clingy.)

Then there’s the more common occurrence throughout the pali cannon itself — multiple similar utterances throughout different texts, sometimes exact, sometimes with differences:

So karohi dīpamattano!
Khippaṃ vāyama paṇḍito bhava!
Niddhantamalo anaṅgaṇo,
na punaṃ jātijaraṃ upehisi.

Make an island unto yourself!
Strive hard and become wise!
Rid of impurities and cleansed of stain,
you shall not come again to birth and decay.

Dhammapada 18.238 via [mp3]

Finally a poem to get more to the heart and spirit of all this:

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

From: House of Light

Copyright ©: Mary Oliver

Published by josh dippold

One thought on “Translations And Musings On The Last Words Of The Buddha

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: