A path of care


~ Winton Higgins • wintonhiggins.org


The last days of Gotama, the Buddha, are recorded in some detail in the Mahāparinibbāna sutta. Here we find him old and sick, but as lucid as ever. His very last words, spoken to his closest followers, are: ‘Things fall apart; tread the path with care.’ Given the occasion, we can appreciate how this admonition enjoys critical importance.

We ourselves and everything in our world arise and pass away, because the conditions supporting our existence are constantly changing, pulling the rug from under us. So things obviously manifest and then fall apart the whole time. That’s basic dharma, and these days basic science. The word that bears most weight in these famous last words is the last of them: appamāda – best translated as ‘care’.

Pali is a curious language, as it often expresses the most positive values in negative form. For instance, literally speaking, our practice is directed towards cultivating non-craving, non-aversion, and non-delusion. Together they add up to non-reactivity, which is nirvana – or ‘ceasing’.

So it is with the Buddha’s word for ‘care’, appamāda, which is also negative in form. It means literally (and variously) non-negligence, non-indifference, non-carelessness, non-nonchalance, non-heartlessness, perhaps even non-mindlessness, non-apathy and non-cynicism.

However, the Buddha clearly saw it not only as a positive term, but in fact as the ultimate dharmic virtue. On another 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.’

He reiterated this point to his own mendicant followers, even 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’ – a.k.a. ‘the four immeasurables’, or emotional tones of the awakening mind – all have their roots in care: universal friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

We can’t live ethically without caring about ourself and others. And we can’t be mindful without caring about what is happening here and now. Care underpins the radical attention that dharma practice is all about.

So the Buddha’s emphasis on care is striking. It’s a pity, then, that conventional translations of appamāda use words like ‘diligence’ instead of ‘care’, and so rob care of its centrality and dignity in dharma practice.

A lawyer or an accountant might be diligent, but that has nothing to do with the virtue that the Buddha is referring to. When the Buddha just meant ‘diligence’, he used a more suitable word, ātāpī, as he does (for instance) in the foundational text on insight meditation, the Satipatthāna sutta.

As English-speakers, we honour the deep human importance of care in the myriad ways we deploy that little word. We take care of ourselves and others, we care for those we love, we care about still others – humanity as a whole, as well as other species and life forms. We care about this planet, our only home. In old-fashioned English, ‘I care for you,’ is a significant declaration of love, maybe the prelude to a proposal of marriage.

On top of that, we have expressions of strong disapproval that denote absence of care: uncaring, careless, etc.

And so did the Buddha. In a well-known verse of the Dhammapada, we find:

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 awake and alive. ‘Death’ refers to being under the thrall of Mārā, the lord of death, and especially of craving, aversion and confusion. That is, not fully and consciously alive.

One of the many points at which the dharma and modern phenomenology converge is precisely the crucial place of care in leading an authentic life. This school’s most prominent contributor, Martin Heidegger, replicated the Buddha’s conception of the human person, as not so much an 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’. What drives this process is precisely care (Sorge) and the closely associated terms solicitude (Fürsorge) and concern (das Besorgen).

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 his friend, the physician Jīvaka at the court of King Bimbisāra of Magadha, among others. 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 (1886-1965), true religion has little to do with beliefs, but with ‘the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern’, what one cares about most deeply.

For the moral philosopher Charles Taylor, to be authentic moral agents, we have to be able to identify what we care about most fundamentally – those values we recognise as making the heaviest claims on our loyalty. That is, what we care about most.

In passing, I’d like to propose that you take this basic question up as a contemplative exercise, something to feel out next time you meditate, or when you’re tucked up in bed waiting for the sandman. ‘What are the four values in my life that I care about above all others?’ you might silently ask yourself. There’s nothing magical about the number four: your list can be shorter or longer if you want. The important thing is to identify our ultimate priorities. Don’t write yourself an essay about it – just let the answer percolate to the surface.


On being a true person

As we’ve seen in the case of Jīvaka the physician, someone who cares, and 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.

The Buddha often used the word for truth, sacca. But he did not do so in the sense of aligning with reality, or being an accurate statement of the way things are. On the contrary, truth is an ethical quality, it’s about 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: reworking the dharma from the ground up. The slippage from the original four great tasks to the later ‘four noble truths’ is one example of this development. We have another example right here, in treating sacca as meaning metaphysical truth rather than ethical virtue.

When the Buddha referred to himself as the tathāgata, he was claiming to be a person of integrity, a true person, not an omniscient seer who’d penetrated the secrets of the universe. The aim of practice is to become just like that.

Let’s get back to Jīvaka, a busy man of the world rather than a monk, yet a role model with the Buddha’s seal of approval. He enjoys the six qualities of an authentic dharma practitioner: he has lucid confidence in the Buddha, ditto the dharma, ditto the community of practitioners; he is ethically virtuous, he understands conditioned arising, and he has tasted liberation.

A related category of people that received bouquets from the Buddha were ‘stream entrants’ – those who cared deeply about awakening, about dharma practice and about creating and sustaining a spiritual community.

Care is very much a relational virtue – it draws sustenance from a network of relationships with likeminded and like-caring people. In every aspect, including meditation, dharma practice is a communal concern. No community – no stream entry.


So what’s the point?

The whole point of insight meditation is to develop into an authentic human being. As one Zen master put it, meditation is about the perfection of character. It has nothing to do with training up some sort of technical skill, or gaining crucial esoteric knowledge that cannot be gained 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 lives. And it all starts with remembering the Buddha’s last words and cultivating our ability to care.


• This talk was given to the Association of Engaged Buddhists in Sydney in August 2016. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.