45) Now in the short time remaining I shall put the final question:
45) “What were the Buddha’s last instruction to us?”
AS EVERYONE KNOWS, a person who is about to die usually makes out a will, a set of last instructions. When the Buddha was on the point of dying, he said these last words: “All compounded things are subject to decay. Be well equipped with heedfulness!” All things are nothing but a perpetual flowing-on, that is, they are empty (of selfhood). All things are anicca, they change incessantly, they flow on endlessly. That perpetual flux is devoid of any self or of anything belonging to a self. Be vigilant and well prepared. In other words, don’t be foolish, don’t become infatuated with things, and don’t regard anything as worth grasping at and clinging to. Don’t mindlessly attach to anything. This is what he meant by heedfulness. With such heedfulness we must always be well equipped.
Now young people are a problem. Look how completely heedless they are. They regard all sorts of things as thoroughly desirable, as worth grasping at and clinging to. Attaching to things as either desirable or hateful is ultimately a source of distress to oneself and to others. Such people are not carrying out the instructions given in the Buddha’s will. They are wasting the benefit of having been born a human being and of Buddhist parents. They are not carrying out the Buddha’s last wishes.
All of us, young and old, are in a position to carry out the Buddha’s last instructions. Let us not be heedless or mindless. Let us not go thoughtlessly regarding things as worth grasping at and clinging to. Let us always view the world as devoid of any self or of anything belonging to a self. Our minds will be free of grasping; lust, hatred, and delusion will not arise in them. Thus we will accomplish the highest thing which is possible for humanity. In other words, all problems will cease, and that’s all there is to it.
The Buddha gave another final instruction: “Go forth and preach well the doctrine, splendid in its beginning, middle, and end.” I like to interpret this as enjoining us all to teach non-grasping and non-clinging on an elementary level to children, on an intermediate level to adults, and on the highest, most advanced level to those who are heading for the Supreme State and for whom nothing else matters. The Buddha taught only non-grasping, nothing more. It can be taught on different levels to children, to people of middle age, and to old people. Or it can be taken in another way. Teach Dhamma for the benefit of people living in this world, on a low level; for benefits in other worlds, at an intermediate stage; and then for the sake of the highest benefit, which transcends all worlds.
The whole essence of the teaching can be summed up as freedom from suffering through non-attachment. Hence this non-grasping and non-clinging, this absence of any idea of self or of anything belonging to a self, is the most important teaching. So please, every one of you, bear well in mind one word, the one single word that reveals the entire Dhamma, the single syllable waang (empty, void, free), which in Pali is su..atā — the core and essence of Buddhism. People break the moral precepts because they lack cit waang (mind free of the self-idea). People lack concentration because they do not have cit waang. People have no insight because they do not have cit waang. The Buddha had cit waang. Cit waang is just what Buddhahood is. The Dhamma is simply the teaching of cit waang, the practice that leads to cit waang, and the fruit of that practice, which is cit waang and ultimately nibbāna. The Sangha consists of people following the Buddha’s system of practice in order to attain cit waang. Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are summed up in the word waang (free, void, empty). One succeeds in keeping the moral precepts through abstaining from grasping and clinging, and through being free of the mental defilements, free of grasping and clinging. When cit waang has been attained, the defilements are absent and concentration is at its best. When one has come to see things (the world) as empty, one doesn’t grasp or cling to any of them and one has full insight. The Path and Fruit of Nibbāna consist in knowing emptiness and in successively gaining the fruits of emptiness right up to the very culmination. Charity, morality, taking refuge (in Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha), concentration, insight, Path and Fruit, and nibbāna — all these are summed up in the single word waang (empty).
This is why the Buddha said, “Emptiness is what I teach. A teaching that does not treat of emptiness is someone else’s teaching, an unorthodox teaching composed by some later disciple. All discourses which are utterances of the Accomplished One are profound, have deep significance, are the means of transcending the world, and deal primarily with emptiness (su..atā). “This was spoken by the Tathāgata. On the other hand, “A discourse of any kind, though produced by a poet or a learned man, versified, poetical, splendid, melodious in sound and syllable, is not in keeping with the teaching if not connected with su..atā. “There are these two kinds of discourses. Those dealing with su..atā are utterances of the Buddha; those not dealing with su..atā are utterances of later followers.
So the Buddha considered su..atā and discourses dealing with su..atā to be real essence of Buddhism. This is why he said, “When the teaching of su..atā had died out and no-one is interested in it any longer, then the real essence of the Dhamma will have been lost.”
It is like the drum owned by the Dasāraha kings in ancient times, which was handed down from generation to generation. As it became worn out and dilapidated, it was patched and mended time and time again, over a long period, until eventually consisted of nothing but new materials. The real substance of it had completely disappeared.
When the time comes that bhikkhus no longer are concerned with studying and listening to topics relating to su..atā, which is the subject that they ought to be studying and practising, at that time it can be said that the original substance of Buddhism has been lost completely and that nothing remains but new material, utterances of later disciples, just as happened with the drum. Think it over! The Buddha urged us to teach the Dhamma, splendid in its beginning, middle, and end, in terms of non-grasping and non-clinging. But what is the condition of Buddhism at the present time? Is it like the original old drum or does it consist of just new material, just patches? We can find this out for ourselves by simply examining it to see whether or not people are interested in su..atā and practise su..atā.
These were the Buddha’s last instructions to his disciples: to practice heedfulness of this teaching, to proclaim this teaching and to restore the decayed material to fresh and good condition by studying su..atā. This is to be done by digging, probing about, studying, and discussing until such time as the understanding of this teaching has been revived and it can be said that the genuine material has been restored to its original condition.