Strive onward with care

By Greg Wolk

Just after the Buddha became enlightened, he walked past some people who were very impressed with his presence. Knowing he was special but not knowing why, they asked if he was some sort of angel or god? He said no. They kept asking him questions. Finally, they asked him, “Well, what are you?” He responded, “I am awake.”

Those three words acknowledge that he had awakened to the nature of life and death and the world. The Buddha (which means the awakened one) then explained to his audience the nature of living and the path to becoming awake.

The Buddha spent the next 45 years teaching. He taught anyone and everyone, regardless of caste or social status. He taught meditation, the nature of self, the law of karma, the truth of impermanence and suffering, and how understanding these truths, and engaging in virtuous acts and thoughts, as well as meditation, will lead one inexorably to wake up.

This is a path that we offer at the Shambhala Center – to help you gain an understanding of yourself so well, that you can become completely awake to who you are fundamentally. Indeed, the purpose of practicing meditation is not to become a meditator, or experience a state of mind, it is to realize this capacity we have as humans to awaken.

As he was preparing to die, the Buddha offered one last opportunity to his students and followers to ask any questions. When no one responded, he implored them to share any doubts or hesitations: he wanted them to understand this was their last chance to ask him any questions. When still no one responded, he said that if you are embarrassed to ask, have the person sitting next to you ask on your behalf. Still the gathering was silent.

After 45 years of teaching since his enlightenment, the Buddha then spoke his final words: “Conditions are subject to decay. Strive onward with care.” This is a translation from the Pali language the Buddha spoke. The first sentence is a reminder that everything in the phenomenal world is impermanent. The second sentence appears to be a learning exhortation from teacher to student – to practice hard and with care.

The term “care” is translated from the Pali term, “appamāda.” That term actually reflects the negation of the word pamāda, which in turn means to be negligent, unaware, lazy, or indolent. It is the opposite of being inspired or energized in a healthy manner.

So, the Buddha‘s last words could be translated as follows: strive onward with the intention that inspires you and energizes you to do what you regard as good. This is remarkable advice for how to live in the moment, with complete appreciation for yourself and everyone around you.

Interestingly, the Buddha’s last words, to strive with appamāda, appears to be a reformulation of his first words after attaining enlightenment, “I am awake.” This is because the practice of appamāda, of taking care, is to be continually on our guard about the loss of consciousness. Then instead of consciousness being just a series of moments separated by gaps of unconsciousness, our lives become more and more present, alert, attentive, here, mindful, rather than the opposite.

So what this means for us is that meditation is not to attain some state of mind — they don’t stay and you can’t get them to stay — but to come to each moment with awareness — striving with care. Your job in meditation is to start to see things as they are; light and dark, pleasant things and painful things; to open to them, to start to pay attention to all of what makes up our reality. We sit to awaken, and we awaken by appreciating our bodies and our senses, and we start to see the laws which govern life so we can come into a wiser relationship with it. You are encouraged to experience and embrace all that occurs, from virtue and joy to standing up against injustice and oppression with compassion.

Clearly, the Buddha wanted so much for us to awaken to the truth of ourselves. As we learn this truth, we can help create a better world, just by being present, and striving with appamāda.

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