When Shakyamuni Buddha first turned the wheel of the Dharma, he saved Kondannya and did so also for Subhadra during his last Dharma teaching. After having liberated all people who should have been liberated by him, he was ready to realize Parinirvana among four sala trees. It was just midnight and perfectly quiet as he began his last teaching.
“Monks, after my death, you must respect and carefully observe the code of precepts known as pathimokkha. It is like a person who sees a light in the darkness or a poor man who receives treasure. You must clearly know that this is your great master. It is no different than myself surviving. A person who wishes to observe these pure precepts must not be engaged in trade or exchange, maintaining field or houses, keeping tenants, servants or domestic animals. Stay away from any kind of seed, plant, treasure, or property as you would avoid a pit of fire. Don’t cut grasses or trees, nor cultivate fields or dig ground, nor make medicine or divine fortunes, nor calculate stars and planets, nor read calendars, nor make any kind of commercial enterprise. All of these are not good. To sustain yourself purely, be moderate and eat at the proper time. Do not get involved in worldly affairs, nor convey messages, or make sorcery or wizard’s medicine, nor be on intimate terms with the nobility. None of these are proper deeds for a monk. You must truly seek for liberation with a pure and sincere heart. Neither hide defects nor express disharmony nor mislead other people. Know the proper amounts of the four kinds of offerings and be content with them. Just receive what you need, and don’t preserve it. This is what a monk who observes pathimokkha must be like. Pathimokkha is the basis of true liberation; therefore it is called pathimokkha. If you entrust yourself to this, you will acquire all kinds of samadhi and wisdom to destroy all suffering. Therefore, a monk must observe the pure precepts and neglect not one of them. If a person can properly do so, the true Dharma is with him. Without the pure precepts all good merits will not grow. For that reason, you must know that to live within the precepts is the safest, most peaceful place.
“Monks, you already dwell in the precepts, so you must properly control the five senses. Do not indulge in the five desires. Control yourself as a cattle keeper controls cattle with a stick so as not to allow them to freely invade other people’s seed beds. If you indulge in the five senses, not only will the five desires become limitlessly uncontrollable, but like fierce wild horses they will surely drag a person into a pit. The damage done by the horses affects only this life, but the suffering caused by the robber-like five senses will affect many, many lives. The disaster would be terrible. Therefore, a wise person never follows after them even after having restrained them. Even if you indulge yourself in them, after a short while they will die. These senses come from the mind, so for that reason you must control the mind. The mind is more fearsome than a poisonous snake, savage animals or vicious thieves. Even fierce fire is not a sufficient metaphor. It is like a person carefully holding a pot of honey; because of his attachment to it he doesn’t see the deep abyss in front of him. The mind is like a mad elephant without a hook, or like long armed monkeys running and jumping among the trees, impossible to control. Control the mind immediately and never let it free. If you allow it to go unrestrained, you will miss all good things. But if you master it at one point, you can achieve anything. Therefore, you must make great efforts to subdue your mind.
“Monks, when you receive any kind of food or drink, you must take it as medicine. You must neither increase it nor decrease it according to your likes or dislikes. Take only enough to sustain your body and to keep away hunger and thirst, just as a bee takes nectar from a flower without damaging the color or its fragrance. Accept just enough of another’s offerings to keep away anxiety. But don’t demand so much that you spoil the donor’s good will. Be like a cattle keeper who never exhausts the power of his cattle by overloading them.
“Monks, you must diligently practice the true Dharma all day long. Never stop in the early or late watches of the night. At the middle watch, you must chant sutras and use the teaching to reflect on yourself. Do not let sleep be the reason that your whole life ends in vain. Realize that the fire of impermanence burns the whole world. Quickly seek for your liberation. Do not sleep. All the robber-like passions of delusion are much more fearful than any enemy that chases and murders a man. Why don’t you warn yourself not to sleep? The poisonous snake of deluding passions nests in your mind just as if a black viper were sleeping in your room. You must take it out quickly with the hook called the precepts. After the snake is out of your room, you can sleep soundly. But if you sleep without taking it out, you are a shameless man. Of all the many virtues, shame is the most important. Shame is like a hook which controls our unlawfulness. Therefore, a monk must feel shame and not forget it even for one minute. For if he doesn’t, he will lose all good virtues. The true Dharma is with a person who feels shame, but a shameless person is no different than a wild beast.
“Monks, even if a man comes to you and cuts you up limb by limb, you must still keep your mind settled and refrain from anger. Just keep your mouth closed and do not abuse other people. If you lose control and get angry, you will disturb your own practice and lose the benefits of all your virtuous deeds. Of all the precepts or any kind of ascetic training, nothing can match the virtue of forbearance. One who can really persevere and is patient is called an enlightened man. A person who cannot drink the poison of insult with joy and forbearance does not deserve the name of ‘wise man of the Way.’ This is because the damage caused by anger destroys the true Dharma as well as the reputation of the Sangha. No one of this life or future lives wants to meet anger. You must know that anger is worse than ferocious fire. Be careful to protect yourself from it; don’t give in to it. Anger devastates virtue more than anything else. Even a white robed, desirous man, who doesn’t follow the Way or live according to the Dharma, must soothe anger. It is impossible then, that a monk, a desireless man of the Dharma, could get angry. Just as it is impossible that thunder and lightning could burst forth from a pure white cloud.
“Monks, you must remember that your head is shaved. Already you have renounced decoration and ornaments, put on robes, carry a bowl and sustain yourself with begging. This is your appearance. If you are still proud, then get rid of that pride immediately. Even for an ordinary person, it is not good to inflate one’s pride. How, then, could it be possible for a monk who humbles himself and practices begging for the purpose of liberation?
“Monks, the mind that flatters is different from the Way, therefore you must be straight-forward and sincere. Just know that in the end flattery is deceitful. For a monk it is impossible. Therefore, you must always be honest and upright.
“Monks, you must know for certain that a person with many desires suffers much because he seeks fame and profit. Since a person with few desires seeks for neither of these things, he has no anxiety. You must practice if only to have few desires. Furthermore, this virtue can produce many kinds of merit. A person with few desires never seeks other people’s approval through flattery, nor is he tempted by the senses. One who practices having few desires is always peaceful and has no fear. In any situation, he finds he has enough and is never lacking anything. Having few desires, he is in Nirvana. This is called ‘having few desires.’
“Monks, if you want to be free from all suffering, you must know contentment. The dharma of contentment is the realm of riches, comfort, peace and tranquillity. A contented person is happy even if he sleeps on the ground, while a discontented person is unsatisfied even with a heavenly palace. A discontented person is poor even though he has much money, while a contented person is rich even though he has very little. A contented person pities a dissatisfied person, for the latter is enslaved to the five desires. This is called ‘knowing contentment.’
“Monks, if you want the peace and comfort found in the tranquillity of non-doing, you must keep away from disturbances and live in a quiet place. A person who lives in a quiet place is respected by both King Sakrenda and the celestial beings. Therefore, abandon attachment to yourself and to other people, live a solitary life and contemplate the way to eliminate suffering. If a person wishes for the company of many people he will suffer from it, just as if many birds were to perch on a branch, the branch would wither and break. People drown in the sufferings brought about by the bondage of worldly involvement, just as an elephant drowns in the mud because he can’t get out by himself. This is called ‘living in solitude.’
“Monks, if you make diligent effort, nothing will be difficult for you. Therefore, you must practice diligently just as water flowing constantly can eventually wear away rock. But if your practice is lax, it is like trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together; if you stop before the wood gets hot, you cannot start a fire. This is called ‘pure and relentless endeavor.’
“Monks, when you seek for good help and a good master, nothing is more important than continual awareness of the true Dharma. With this awareness, the thief-like multitudes of deluding passions cannot break in. Therefore, you must always bear this in mind, for if you lose it, all sorts of merits and virtues will be lost. If this awareness is strong and firm, just as an armored warrior you will not fear the enemy. This is called ‘continual awareness’ of the true Dharma.
“Monks, when a person’s mind is unified, he is in samadhi. When the mind is in samadhi, the nature of the world of birth and death is understood. Therefore, you must practice diligently and cultivate all kinds of samadhi. When you attain samadhi, your mind will not be scattered, just as those who value water maintain it carefully with a dam. This is also true of practice. To maintain the water of wisdom, cultivate samadhi well to prevent it from leaking out. This is called ‘samadhi.’
“Monks, when you have wisdom, you are without greed. You must always reflect on yourself and never lose this wisdom. In so doing, you can attain liberation in the Dharma. Those who do not are neither people of the Way nor lay people. A person with true wisdom is like a sturdy ship sailing across the sea of old age, sickness and death; like a brilliant torch in pitch black ignorance; like a sharp ax used to cut down the tree of delusion. Therefore, you must hold onto and increase this wisdom which arises from listening, reflecting and practicing. If a person has the light of wisdom, he can see the truth with his naked eye. This is called ‘wisdom.’
“Monks, when you engage in various kinds of idle talk, your minds are disturbed. Even though you have already left your home, you still are not liberated. Therefore, you must quickly abandon mind-disturbing idle talk. If you wish to attain the joy of the extinction of suffering, then simply extinguish the affliction of idle talk. This is called ‘avoiding idle talk.’
“Monks, in practicing all virtues, you must avoid self-indulgence just as you would stay away from a vicious thief. All the benefits and merits of the great compassionate Buddha’s teaching are perfectly complete. Practice them precisely wherever possible, in mountains, empty valleys, under trees, in silent places or quiet rooms. Never forget the Dharma which you have received. Always practice with diligent effort. If you don’t, you will die in vain. I am like a good doctor who prescribes medicine for your sickness. Whether or not you take the medicine is not the doctor’s problem. Or I am like a guide who shows people the right way. It isn’t the guide’s fault if they don’t go in the direction they have been shown.
“Monks, if there is any question about the Four Noble Truths, you must ask me immediately. If you harbor any doubts, there will be no resolution possible.” The Buddha repeated this three times, but no one asked because they had no questions. At that point, Anuruddha observed the monks’ minds and said to the Buddha, “World-honored One, even if the moon was hot and the sun was cold, the four Noble Truths as you expound them would not be false. The truth of suffering is really suffering; it cannot be pleasure. The five aggregates are in fact the cause of suffering; there is no other cause but this. If the suffering disappears, then the cause disappears, and thereby the effect disappears. The Way of extinguishing suffering is indeed the true Way; there is no other. World-honored One, all the monks are sure of the Four Noble Truths and have no doubts. If there is one who hasn’t achieved what he must do, he will be sad with the Parinirvana of the Buddha. If a person enters the Dharma for the first time, on hearing the Buddha’s teaching he will attain liberation. He is like a traveler in the night who sees the way with the flash of lightning. A person who has already finished what he must do and crossed the sea of suffering will not be disturbed by the Buddha’s Parinirvana.”
On hearing the words of Anuruddha, all people understood the meaning of the Four Noble Truths. Still, the Buddha spoke again with great compassion to make all the people certain in their minds. “Monks, you must not be sad or anxious. Even if I were to stay in this world for a whole kalpa, people who meet must in the end leave each other. It is impossible that a meeting has no end. The Dharma which benefits oneself as well as others is perfectly complete. There would be no benefit from my staying longer in this world. I have already liberated all people and celestial beings that I should liberate. Even for the people who are not yet liberated, I have sown the seeds of liberation. From this time on, my disciples, repeatedly practice this and the Dharma body of the Tathagata will survive and never perish. Therefore, you must know that everything in the world is impermanent. All the people who have met each other must in the end depart from each other. Do not be worried about anything. This is the real condition of the world. You must make pure and relentless effort to achieve liberation, and dispel the darkness of ignorance with the light of wisdom. The world is in truth fragile; there is nothing which is permanent. I will cast off my body just as if it were a disease. This condition, temporarily called a body, must be abandoned. It will submerge in the sea of old age, sickness, birth and death. A wise man is extremely happy to get rid of it, just as a man would kill a robber.
“Monks, you must always seek earnestly for the Way. All worldly things, whether movable or immovable, are subject to destruction and decay. Stop thinking for awhile. Stop talking, too, for time is slipping away and I am about to enter Parinirvana. These are my final words.”
Translation by Shibuya Koun and Daigaku Rummé