“With mindfulness, strive on.”

This one is exceedingly popular in the Triratna Buddhist Community, of which I’m a part. Sometimes it’s found as “With mindfulness, strive on” and sometimes simply as “With mindfulness, strive.”

Sangharakshita, the late founder of the Triratna community and the Triratna Buddhist Order (he passed away just over two weeks ago), says in his book “Living With Awareness,” “The Buddha’s last words, we are told, were appamādena sampādetha – with mindfulness, strive.”

Triratna Order member Maitreyabandhu, in his “The Journey and the Guide,” wrote, “And [the Buddha’s] last words were ‘All conditioned things are impermanent. With mindfulness strive on.’ ”

Another Order member, Vajragupta, in his book, “Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life” has “In the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s life, we see him time and again teaching his followers how to develop mindfulness and exhorting them to maintain it at all times. His very last words were, ‘With mindfulness, strive on.’ ”

Believe me, there is no shortage of examples. It’s a bit embarrassing that my own lot are so wedded to this mistranslation.

It isn’t entirely unique to Triratna. Lawrence Khantipalo Mills, in his 1983 book, “Pointing to Dhamma,” says, “Having comforted them Lord Buddha uttered his last words, an exhortation to persevere: ‘Listen well, O bhikkhus, I exhort you; Subject to decay are all compounded things: With mindfulness strive on.’ ” But Khantipalo, perhaps uncoincidentally, studied and practiced with Sangharakshita in Kalimpong, India. They may both have picked up this mistranslation from the same source, or Khantipalo may have picked it up from Sangharakshita.

The latter appears to have used “With mindfulness, strive on” as early as 1961, in an essay in Volume 69 of the Maha Bodhi Journal. At least I assume he wrote the article: although I can’t see the whole thing on Google Books, the wording in the essay is identical to that found in a passage in Sangharakshita’s “The Three Jewels,” first published in 1967.

The problem with translating appamādena sampādetha as “With mindfulness, strive on” is that appamāda is not mindfulness. As I wrote in another article:

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.” There is no one word in English that can adequately translate appamādena.

Obviously self-control and mindfulness are related to each other, but they are distinct terms. Mindfulness in Pali is sati, which has the primary meaning of “memory” or “recollection.” The English word “recollected” has both the sense of “remembered” (“I recollected meeting him”) and of mindful presence (“He recollected himself.”)  Appamāda is a more dynamic and energetic quality than mindfulness. Mindfulness notices; appamāda (I’m going to call it “self-control”) protects.

In the article I just quoted from above, which explores another mistranslation of the Buddha’s last words, I noted that various translators had variously rendered appamādena sampadetha as “Persist with diligence,” “Strive on with heedfulness,” “Bring about completion by being heedful,” “Strive with earnestness,” “Strive on untiringly,” and “Strive to attain the goal by diligence.”

No serious translator renders appamāda as “mindfulness.”

4 thoughts on ““With mindfulness, strive on.””

  1. According to the commentaries on the Digha Nikāya (DA I.104) and Dhammapada (DhA IV.26), “appamāda” is defined as “satiyā avippavāsa”, or loosely translated “attentive/eager/not neglectful mindfulness”. So in this case, it could be considered synonymous with mindfulness.

    That said, like you, I prefer the other translations

    1. Appamāda is obviously related to mindfulness; without mindfulness there are no other spiritual faculties. It’s even an extension of mindfulness; I’d suggest it’s mindfulness, plus effort, plus right view working together, as described in MN 117. But because appamāda always seems to be described as having some extra quality in addition to mindfulness I don’t think they’re true synonyms. And none of the most respected translators, who know far more than I do, seem to treat them as such.

  2. Hi bodhipakṣa

    I agree. I approach it like this: the māda part of the word means “intoxicated, drunk”, with the contextual implication that we are intoxicated by sense experience. The pra- suffix is an intensifier in this case, so pramāda “blind drunk”. And finally the a- negates the adjective. Appramāda “not blind drunk”.

    The Buddha first reminds people of the nature of experience (sankhārā), i.e. that it is perishable or vaya-dhamma (that is has a vaya nature). The Pāli vaya has the same connotiations as perish, i.e. both decay and death.

    If we look at the verb sam√pad in fact it means “attainment, success, accomplishment” etc. The form sampādetha is a second person imperative of the causative. “Strive” kind of gets close to it, but the Pāḷi word goes a bit further than just striving and includes actually attaining success. Sv. sampādeti PED has “to procure, to obtain”.

    So what the Buddha is portrayed as saying is, “you should obtain the success that comes through sobering up from your blind intoxication with perishable sense experiences.” i.e. “Wake up, you drunks!”

    1. Thanks, Jayarava. Much appreciated. Although I’m sure there’s no one word that can translate appamāda adequately, I’m curious what you think about “self-control” as an attempt. It seems to me that that’s what appamāda’s essentially about (knowing what’s at stake ethically, and remaining vigilant and ready to make wise choices), while drunkenness is essentially about putting oneself in a situation of diminished self-control.

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