Tread with care: a secular Buddhist’s approach

July 9, 2023


Over the years, whenever I’ve found myself in a social gathering where everyone is invited to share something unique about themselves, my go-to reveal has usually been that I do a quick scan of the New York Times obituary pages on a daily basis, and often take the time to read one or more of the entries in their entirety.  While some might interpret this habitual practice as indicative of a somewhat morbid fascination with death, for me the attraction in reading these brief biographical sketches has always been in recognizing the significance of the life that was lived, not the death that ended it. 

But lately, with my 74th birthday only weeks away, the experience of consulting the obituaries every morning has started to bring a more personal response.  Invariably these days, I find myself taking special note of the reported deaths for individuals aged 74 or younger.  My lifelong curiosity about how other people have lived their lives seems to be morphing into a curiosity (and perhaps an anxiety) about how much longer this life of mine is likely to last.

This growing awareness of my mortality reinforces, and in turn is being reinforced by, the natural affinity I’ve long felt for secular Buddhism’s emphasis on the impermanent nature of the one and only life each of us gets to lead in this ever-changing contingent world we all get to share.  My newfound concern about the ever-shrinking amount of time left to me could very well strike some as a kind of morbid preoccupation, just as my daily obituary reading habit could.  But for me, quite the opposite is true.  Rather than brooding over the inevitable approach of death, this deepening sense of time as a finite and precious phenomenon is actually enhancing my awareness of, and appreciation for, the life that I still have left to live.

Reflecting on impermanence and mortality, as I now so frequently do, often brings to mind what is purported to be the last statement uttered by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, as he lay dying surrounded by his followers: ‘Things fall apart. Tread the path with care.’

The first half of this statement – ‘things fall apart’ – scarcely needs elaboration, as it concisely captures one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, the impermanence of all things, most especially our frail physical bodies. There’s nothing like reading the obituary page every day to keep that core truth fresh in mind!

It’s the second half – ‘tread the path with care’ – that invites further consideration, given the two distinct ways of reading the phrase ‘with care’. If we take it as an adverbial clause, the admonition can be interpreted as ‘Tread carefully on the path’, i.e., carefully monitor your personal adherence to the traditional eightfold path of wise, ethical, and mindful behaviors prescribed therein. But if, instead, we take it as a prepositional clause, then the more appropriate interpretation would be something like ‘As you tread the path, extend care to all those you meet along the way’.

When I first came upon this deathbed admonition from the Buddha, as a fairly novice practitioner of vipassana-style mindfulness meditation, I interpreted it in the former sense.  By attending to the teachings implicit in this eightfold path (by treading it carefully), I hoped to become a more mindful person, a more skillful meditator, a more knowledgeable Buddhist.  Worthy enough aspirations, but what I failed then to take sufficient note of was how these intentions were inadvertently limiting my focus to very little beyond my own self.

As I’ve become more engaged in recent years with secular Buddhism and its emphasis upon Buddhist ethics, I’ve been drawn more and more to the latter interpretation of Buddha’s advice.  Treading the path with care, I’ve come to think, calls on us to maintain a constant awareness of our interconnectedness with every other being.  It asks us to think rigorously about how we’re living our one and only life, and especially about how we’re interacting with all those we meet along our path.

A life marked by caring for others, rather than simply being careful for oneself, seems more in tune with Buddhism’s exhortation to its practitioners to respond with all the compassion we can muster to the suffering we observe all around us. So, as I read those obituary pages every morning, and contemplate how I ought to be spending whatever time I have left before ‘things fall apart’ for me, I remind myself to do my best that day to ‘tread the path with care’ for others. I can’t think of a more ethical – or a more meaningful – way to go.


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14 Replies to “Tread with care: a secular Buddhist’s approach”

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Enjoyed reading this, Tom. It brings to mind Martine Batchelor’s revision of the standard translation of “samma” in the 8-fold path factors—eg ‘right’ mindfulness, ‘right’ effort…—to be instead “caring and careful” mindfulness (dharmaseed talk “Mindfulness in all its aspects”). Also, Stephen Batchelor’s long past article on the term “appamada” titled “The Buddha’s Last Word: Care” (BCBS Insight journal 2005). Your essay affirms that, after all, care is the elephant’s footprint.

Thanks for your comment, Anne-Laure. I’m especially grateful to learn of Martine’s compound term “caring and careful”, which strikes me as a most useful integration of the two differing interpretations of “tread with care” that I explored in my essay.

Colette

Thank you Tom for your most beautiful and heartfelt piece. It is written with the clarity of wisdom and the warmth of a compassionate heart. It reflects what is truly essential in our practice: living each day with a kind and generous heart for all. Wishing you many more fruitful years Tom.

Thanks so much for your kind words and good wishes, Colette! I couldn’t agree more with your definition of what’s essential in our practice, “living each day with a kind and generous heart for all.” The sum of Buddhist ethics, all in one perfect concise phrase.

Thanks for this piece. I am a 71 year old C4 paraplegic man. When I am not in bed I have an electric wheel chair to use. I am probably non-Mahayana and think of nibbana as a liberated attitude to life in this life.
Best Wishes David

Thanks for your comment and good wishes, David. I really appreciate, and agree with, your notion of nibbana as “a liberated attitude to life in this life.” I wish you all the best.

Lily Marlene Romano

I really enjoyed reading this article, many thanks indeed. As I get older, ie in the last chapter, I am encouraged by your words. Re-focus and re-focus again.

I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Lily. I really like your summation, “re-focus and re-focus again.” While I hadn’t thought of it in those exact words, that is exactly what I was getting at.

David Dane

I too am reaching that age when reading obituaries is something I do. Partly a reminder of one’s own mortality but also to live with more care and try and be there for others.

I couldn’t agree more with your comment, David. For me also, reading the obituaries leaves me equally aware of my own transient existence and of that same transient existence every other being on the planet is subject to.

Dear Tom, I finally found time to read your insights today (after having the link page on my laptop open for almost a month! This tells me exactly what you are saying, ‘tread the path carefully’ – in other words, so often, business overwhelms, and it takes so much more deep meditation and lifestyle changes in order to experientially know impermanence. Decades and decades of practice which I know I cannot hope to achieve by waiting for retirement age – yet I procrastinate 🙂 My only solution then is to integrate treading the path with work environment, says everyone. Doing the work. I really love your article.

Dear Cedar, In the same spirit with which you’ve acknowledged your procrastination in reading my post, please accept my acknowledgment of, and apology for, the lapse in responding to this thoughtful comment you offered nearly two months ago. I have no good excuse for my oversight, as I receive an email notification for each new reply that is submitted in response to this post. Somehow I missed, or (more likely) inadvertently deleted, the notice of your comment. Too often I find myself scrolling through my inbox without paying sufficient attention. Anyhow, while it’s taken close to three months for us to complete this exchange, I’m glad to be finally reading and responding to the kind words you wrote. Wishing you success in continuing your efforts at “doing the work”, and promising on my part to do the work of being more attentive to the contents of my inbox!

Pedro Bellora

Such a beautiful and important article! Thank you so much for sharing!! I find your idea of reading obituaries similar to the “memento mori” that is present in stoic philosophy, which is a fascinating concept. Thanks again!

Thanks for your comment, Pedro. First of all, I’m happy to meet a fellow obituary-reader! Secondly, I really appreciate your pointing out the relevance of the “memento mori” concept to what I wrote about in this post. I’ve long been interested in stoic philosophy, and I have some awareness of the parallels between Stoicism and Buddhism, but I haven’t yet found the time to delve deeper into it. Hopefully now, I’ll make the time!

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