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Buddha’s Words About Attention

Buddha blessing“Attention leads to immortality. Carelessness leads to death. Those who pay attention will not die, while the careless are as good as dead already” (Dhammapada 21).

“Attention”–appamada in Pali–literally means “non-infatuation,” but is usually interpreted as the result of such freedom from infatuation. Narada Thera says it has the connotations of “ever-present mindfulness, watchfulness, or earnestness in doing good.”

If loose lips sink ships, then lax and unaware minds sink lives. This is important for us to comprehend, since we often think that spiritual life is charging ahead in some kind of inspired enthusiasm that precludes any intellectual application or plain good sense, that somehow our sincerity and aspiration will ensure success and safety.

It is as silly as that terrible and criminal debacle known as the Children’s Crusade. At this time in history we are equally appalled and astounded that any sane human being could possibly believe that the sight of little barefoot children coming in innocence and trust would conquer the minds and hearts of murderous plunderers–who were actually no worse than those who engineered such a monstrous folly as a kind of “spiritual” trick on them. As Will Cuppy pointed out, it is useless to appeal to the higher nature of those who have none.

(If you do not know about the Children’s Crusade, see The Children’s Crusade online, or read about it in Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Volume III, pp. 139-144.)

Tarzans of the Light

For those of us who have wandered through the tangled jungle of world scriptures–each one usually claiming to be the sole truth–that are compounded of revelations, exhortation, cajolings, threats, mind-boggling assertions, and supposed profundities that can never be either proved or disproved, the rational and practical teachings of Buddha found in the Pali scriptures come as a shock. So much so that, conditioned by prior study, we may disregard them.

After all, where is the esoteric wisdom, the secrets meant for only the select few? Where are the symbols and the mysteries? Above all, where are the irrational formulas of “truth” that demonstrate how ignorant and limited we are in our inability to make any sense of them because they are above all sense? And where are the mystic techniques that will open the universe to us and reveal all mysteries and bestow all knowledge and power?

We are so used to religion being either a magic shop or a launching pad to higher worlds, that Buddha’s uncompromising good sense and insistence on freedom from all that binds us right here and now disorients us.

And his assertion that we must look at all things and see their truth (or untruth) and act honestly regarding them is a real comedown for us who prefer to leap and swing from tree to tree in life’s jungle, happy carefree Tarzans of the White Light to whom Everything Is God, So Why Worry? “What is there to do, and where is there to go?” is our way of saying: “I won’t” in response to Buddha’s urging to real happiness and freedom from care. But eventually we begin to get the idea, and then every word of Buddha is a key to liberation.


“Attention leads to immortality.” The Pali word translated “immortality” is amata, which literally means “deathlessness.” Venerable Narada Thera says that amata is a synonym for Nirvana, and comments: “As this positive term clearly indicates, Nirvana is not annihilation or a state of nothingness as some are apt to believe. It is the permanent, immortal, supramundane state which cannot be expressed by mundane terms.”

It must be noted, though, that immortality is a state, not eternal embodiment–in this or some other realm–and consequently identified with “I am this, I am that.” To transcend both birth and death is immortality, is eternity.

Since it leads to immortality, attention is definitely more than simple awareness or even insight. It is “earnestness in doing good,” in pursuing the sole good: liberation. Naturally, a great deal more than attention is needed, but Buddha mentions it because without its dynamic all the other requisites are worthless, like machines without the energy to run them.


Again, death is not divestment of a body, but immersion in the relative world of samsara and its bonds. It, too, is a state, even though external conditions necessarily follow and mirror its presence. “Life” in any relative condition is really death, because it shrouds the truth of our essential being.

“Carelessness” is the opposite of attention, and is the way we all lead our lives, physical and psychological. If that were not so, none of us would be here. We neither see nor deal with anything in a realistic manner. Frankly, we are profoundly delusional, and our only hope is the correct pursuit of ultimate reality–which is ultimate freedom. Consequently we pray: “Lead me from death to immortality.”

Further Reading:

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