When Michael O’Connor wrote asking about this one I was stunned to find that I hadn’t already written it up. Perhaps I did: a few years ago the site was badly hacked and I lost a few articles.
Anyway, I’ve seen “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence” numerous times over the years. The second part, “Strive on with diligence” is pretty much OK (I realized that I also have to write up the mis-translation “With mindfulness, strive on”). The wording of the first part is very odd.
This quote is supposed to be the final words of the Buddha before he died, or had his “parinirvana,” as it’s often called (although, rather ridiculously, it’s often said that he “went to parinirvana,” as if it’s a place you can go to). It purports to come from the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, “parinibbana” being the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit parinirvana.
In Pali the Buddha’s final words were: “Vayadhammā saṅkhārā. Appamādena sampādetha.”
This can, like anything in a foreign language, be translated in various ways:
- Sujato: “Conditions fall apart. Persist with diligence.”
- Anandajoti: “[All] conditioned things are subject to decay, strive on with heedfulness!”
- Thanissaro: “All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.”
- Sister Vajira & Francis Story: “All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”
- Maurice Walshe: “All conditioned things are of a nature to decay—strive on untiringly.”
- Bhikkhu Bodhi: “Formations are bound to vanish. Strive to attain the goal by diligence.” (From a parallel passage in the Samyutta Nikaya.)
As you can see, there’s a lot of variation.
The First Sentence: Vayadhammā saṅkhārā
Each of the two sentences in Pali has two words. The first sentence is Vayadhammā saṅkhārā
Vayadhammā is a compound of vaya and dhammā.
1. loss, want, expense
Dhamma is an astonishingly broad term, although its many meanings relate to the Sanskrit root dhṛ, which means to support. In this particular context it means something like “nature,” not in the sense of wildlife, but in the sense of having a particular character.
So vayadhammā is “having the nature to decay.”
The second word in the sentence is saṅkhārā. It too has two parts: saṅ- is a prefix that, like the Latin com- means “together.” The khārā part is related to the verb karoti, which is to make, do, form, or build.
So saṅkhārā means “put together” — hence the various translations of “conditioned things,” “compounded things,” “fabrications,” and so on.
So the first sentence has the sense, “Things that are put together fall apart.”
Saṅkhārā can also refer to mental states that we conjure up (or fabricate) in the mind, and which cause us suffering. So this sentence could also be: “All fabricated mental states [that cause suffering] pass away.” This is encouraging because it’s showing us that the mind is capable of being purified so that we can attain peace. This is probably not what the Buddha meant, but his words could, I think, be interpreted in that way.
The translation “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things” is a bit odd—specifically that word “chaos,” which means “disorder and confusion.” Let’s come back to the quote at the end.
The Second Sentence: Appamādena sampādetha
Again we have a simple two-word sentence.
Appamāda is the opposite of pamāda, which means heedlessness, carelessness, negligence, or even literal drunkenness. As well as being translated as heedfulness it’s also rendered as diligence, earnestness, and so on. There’s an entire chapter of the Dhammapada on the topic of appamāda, which gives you a sense of the flavor of the term. It’s very much to do with moral restraint and self-control in the face of temptation.
The -ena ending indicates the instrumental case — “by means of” — so that the word appamādena means “by means of diligence” or “diligently.” It could also be translated as “with self-control.” Walsh’s translation “untiringly” is a very poor effort.
There is no one word that can adequately translate appamādena.
1. to procure, obtain
2. to strive, to try to accomplish one’s aim
It’s the secondary meaning that’s important here. All of the translations above use “strive,” except for Thanissaro’s. He has “bring about completion,” which focuses more on the “accomplish one’s aim” part of the definition, but also ties in the primary sense of sampādetha, which is procuring or obtaining.
Translating sampādetha as “strive” isn’t wrong, but it misses the element of the striving being directed toward a goal, which in the context of the Buddha’s final words is the goal of spiritual awakening.
So the second sentence means something like “With diligent self-control, strive for the goal.” Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “Strive to attain the goal” captures this perfectly.
Anyway, “chaos” just feels wrong. The Buddha said that things fall apart, not that they are chaotic. The “chaos” quote is the result of someone (almost certainly in the early 21st century) messing around with a more legitimate version.
The earliest version I’ve found, which I think is the original, dates all the way back to 1881! It’s in Volume XI of the series “Sacred Books of the East,” (page 114) edited by F. Max Müller. The translation is by Thomas William Rhys Davids, founder of the Pali Text Society.
Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!
Note thatRhys Davids used “component things” rather than “compounded things.”
AsRhys Davids’ translation has been passed on, it’s evolved. Sometimes it’s found as
Decay is inherent in all compounded things; strive on with vigilance.
And also as:
Decay is inherent in all compounded things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.
Notice here how “your” has become “your own.”
The final mutation, by some as-yet unknown person, was to change “decay” to “chaos,” which is inaccurate enough that I feel OK about categorizing this one as fake.