Buddha’s Last Words

January 7, 2011

Buddha’s Last Words

Stephen Batchelor has recently written a particularly interesting book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.  In it, he tells his own story of embracing, then rejecting, both Tibetan Buddhism and Zen.  He weaves in his interpretation of the life story of the Buddha.  He attempts to strip out all the elements that Siddhartha would have received from his culture, to shine a light on what may have been truly unique about his realization as a Buddha.  I find Batchelor a bit too much of a rationalist for my taste, but his critical framework is interesting and useful as a starting point.

For more, check out his recent interview with Tami Simon.

Batchelor examines the Pali Canon in detail to learn what we can most reliably say about the life of the Buddha, based on the earliest records that were written down.

What emerges is a very human portrait.

This Buddha rejected his own kingship. He lived in the woods. He rejected all credentials other than his own intelligence, and the wisdom of the Earth herself.  After enlightenment, he dealt with the politics of the day, but never assumed any kind of temporal power or wealth.  He taught, he gathered a sangha, but did not appoint a successor.

When his time came to die, his last words were very simple.   There are a number of translations of the Mahaparanibbana Sutta out there, but here is a well-researched favorite:

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.

Other translations place more emphasis on sosotharpa – individual liberation – such as translating the bit about vigilance as “work out your salvation with diligence”, emphasizing the need to, in the end, practice mindfulness and do it yourself.  Also, most other translations make the first statement more objective and philosophical, e.g., “Decay is inherent in all component things”. But there’s something much more powerful in the more subjective and psychological statement ….

“Experience is disappointing”.

Most of us reading this site likely feel that Buddhist view and practice has had a tremendous positive impact on our lives.  At the same time, there is much concern about the relevance of some elements of the Tibetan cultural and political overlay that has developed around Buddhism over the past thousand years.  Some of these elements are at best distracting, and at worst corrupting, when held up against the values of fairness, equality, scientific logic, democracy and transparency that characterize the West.

Some of these elements might include:

  • The tulku tradition
  • The myth of Shambhala
  • Theocratic government
  • Shamanistic elements, such as protectors
  • Reliance on and devotion to a Lama

At the same time, is there something unique and valuable about Vajrayana, as it has been practiced in Tibet, that sets it off from what the Tibetans have tended to disparage as the Hinayana (Theravadin) and Mahayana (Zen) schools?

How much is essential and how much is merely cultural?

And how do we know the difference?


Dan Montgomery began studying with Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972 at the tender age of 19. He lived in Boulder for a number of years, obtained a degree in Master’s in Buddhist and Western Psychology from Naropa University, and moved to Halifax in 1989.  After a number of years of progressive cognitive dissonance, he dropped out of the Shambhala sangha and left Halifax in 2005. Today he lives near Boulder. His practice focuses on yoga and body-centered meditation approaches, including study with Yogi Amrit Desai, Geshe Tendzin Wangyal, and Reggie Ray.  In his workaday life,  he obtained an MBA and works as a management consultant.