This is a slightly expanded version of a presentation for the 2016 Spring Equinox Celebration at La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology. It was published on the “It Is What It Isn’t” blog (April 7, 2016) at http://www.changingsunspress.com/it-is-what-it-isnt.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept that is expressed in Pali as appamāda and in Sanskrit as apramāda. It’s a very challenging and thought-provoking concept. I’d like to offer some quotations that I found explaining the concept and a few further thoughts about its significance. As I explored the concept of appamāda, I began to think that it might, in fact, be one of the best means of expressing the ethos that we hope to create for our project here at Bayou La Terre.
Appamāda is a very prominent term in Asian philosophy, religion and spirituality, above all because it was part of the last phrase that was, according to legend, spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha. The original Pali reads:
These words are often translated as “All conditioned things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence,” in which appamāda is translated as “diligence.” It is thus literally “Buddha’s last word” in the translations. But the final phrase can also be translated as “Live a life of care.” Or in a great many other ways. I looked up a variety of translations of these “famous last words” and found that appamāda has been be taken to mean “alertness,” “attentiveness,” “awareness,” “care,” “carefulness,” “concentration,” “concern.” “conscientiousness,” “conviction,” “diligence,” “discernment,” “earnestness,” “heedfulness,” “mindfulness” “non-laxity,” “perseverance,” “persistence,” “tirelessness,” “thoughtfulness,” “vigilance,” “watchfulness,” and “zeal.”
The term for what is usually translated as “mindfulness” is smrti in Sanskrit and sati in Pali. However, the power of the term appamāda comes from its fusion, or dialectical synthesis, of concepts related to both mindfulness and care. We often think of mindfulness as being intensive and focused on what is immediately present and care as being extensive and reaching out to what is around us. The concept of appamāda directs us to the inseparable interconnection between the two.
Stephen Batchelor, in his article “The Buddha’s Last Word: Care,” (1) says that he translates appamāda as “care” because it is a “more embracing term” than many other possibilities and because it refers to “something that holds the whole thing together.” This is an appealing idea. In an era in which, to use Achebe’s famous concept, “Things fall apart,” and in which, as someone else described it, “All that is solid melts into air,” it seems worthwhile to think about what might “hold the whole thing together.” “Holding” is, by the way, one of the most important terms in contemporary feminist care ethics, and especially eco-feminist care ethics, the tendency in moral philosophy that focuses most directly on concern for the good of all beings.
Batchelor explains that “appamāda is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.”
This is where the implications of the concept become really interesting, I think, in a very practical way. It shows the close interconnection between mindfulness, or awakened consciousness, and care for what we discover to be intrinsically good and valuable when we have an awakened mind and are truly mindful of beings in the world. Awakened consciousness is not only intentional consciousness but engaged consciousness. We can truly vow to save the infinite multitude of sentient beings to the extent that we are truly aware of and truly care for their mode of being, unfolding, and flourishing.
I was surprised and pleased to discover recently that there is a Zen group in Austin that adopted the term appamāda as its name. It quotes Stephen Batchelor’s explanation of the term on its blogs. On one of these blogs, Resident Teacher Peg Syverson reflects on the connection between mindfulness and care. (2) She notes that the kanji over the altar in the group’s Zendo is the term “nen,” and observes that this is “the Japanese representation of appamāda.”
The kanji, she says, has two characters. The top one “looks like a peaked roof, or a mountain” and means “now, today, this present era, this moment.” The bottom one (which I imagine as looking like a river delta) means “heart, mind, intelligence, soul.” She concludes that “this whole kanji actually represents bringing your whole heart, mind, intelligence, and soul into this very moment, into right now, and into this modern era. Being in present moment awareness is a protection (a roof) or a stable foundation (a mountain) for our heart, mind, intelligence, and soul. In turn, this liberates us to be a benefit in the world, through our energetic, mindful, care.”
Appamāda means being both now-minded and now-hearted. I think of it as being closely related to what my friend scott crow calls “emergency heart.” (3) I would only add that the Zen or Daoist mountain also symbolizes the primal and the wild as opposed to the tamed and civilized, and a more expansive perspective that is liberated from the biases and limitations that result from our domestication. (4) The mountain frees us from the need for the firm foundations of ideology. It shows us that the only foundation we need is the Earth, which is founded in nothing other than its own and our own foundationless nature.
(1) Stephen Batchelor, “The Buddha’s Last Word: Care” in Insight Journal (Spring 2005); online at https://www.bcbsdharma.org/article/the-buddhas-last-word-care/
(2) Peg Syverson, “Mindfulness” on Peg Syverson’s Blog; online at http://appamada.ning.com/profiles/blogs/mindfulness-1
(3) scott crow, Black Flags and Windmills (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014).
(4) See Gary Snyder, “The Etiquette of Freedom” in The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990); online at http://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/The-Practice-of-the-Wild-by-Gary-Snyder.pdf