“Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts”

Someone recently wrote and asked about a quote he obviously had his suspicions about:

I’ve tried to track down the source of the quote “Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts” which circulates on the internet, but was not able to. Do you have any clue?

Although this turns out to be a quotation from the Dhammapada, my correspondent was right to be suspicious. As I wrote in reply,

“Negative thoughts” is not an expression the Buddha would have used. It’s possible, though, that this is a paraphrase of “unskillful thoughts” or even “evil thoughts.”

It turns out that this is from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada. It’s part of verse 327, which is literally “Be devoted to (or take delight in) conscientiousness. Guard your own mind.”

Thanissaro has “Delight in heedfulness. Watch over your own mind.”

Buddharakkhita has “Delight in heedfulness! Guard well your thoughts!”

There’s nothing in here (or in the original Pali) about “negative thoughts,” so Eknath’s translation isn’t very literal. It’s true that in modern parlance it’s negative thoughts (and emotions) that we have to guard against, but since this isn’t terminology that the Buddha would have used I don’t think it’s appropriate to use it in a translation.

Eknath also misses out the element of “delighting” (or being devoted to) heedfulness, which is another distortion introduced into his translation. It does seem a bit sloppy.

Anyway, it’s kind-of-genuine; a not-very-good translation. It’s in the gray area where it’s not so outrageous that it’s definitely fake, but not quite faithful enough to the Pāli for me to consider it as completely genuine. One saving grace is that it’s not terribly misleading. Modern Buddhists, myself included, tend to talk about “negative thoughts” in place of the more traditional “unskillful thoughts” (which requires a bit of explanation to newcomers to Buddhism) or “evil thoughts” (which is a bit offputting!). Presumably Easwaran was simply trying to make the same attempt to use contemporary language, which is a reasonable aim. So I’m giving this one the benefit of the doubt and classifying it as “not fake.”

Incidentally, the “heedfulness” or “vigilance” being encouraged here is “appamāda,” which the PTS Pali dictionary gives as “thoughtfulness, carefulness, conscientiousness, watchfulness, vigilance, earnestness, zeal.” Appamāda is the opposite of pamāda, which means intoxication or heedlessness.

Appamāda is similar to mindfulness (sati), but where sati suggests lucid and receptive awareness, appamāda suggests both that and an active quality of protecting the mind. In the Appamāda Sutta, the Buddha said “Heedfulness is the one quality that keeps both kinds of benefit secure — benefits in this life & benefits in lives to come.” In terms of the Eightfold Path, it seems to combine both Samma Sati (Right Mindfulness) and Sammā Vāyāma (Right Effort), and arguably Sammā Diṭṭhi (Right View) as well.

The Buddha’s last words were an exhortation to practice appamāda, so he must indeed have considered it to be a crucial spiritual practice or faculty.

2 thoughts on ““Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts”

  1. Words like “heedfulness” is also quite a mouthful and not really popular in modern language also- hope there are better translation that communicate to the modern world better.. What is the exact word for delight? Can it be translated as “be happy”, or “rejoice”? Am I wrong to say “Rejoice in earnestness. Watch over your mind.”? Just try to make it less regimental?

    • The word for delight is rata, the past participle of ramati, which can mean to delight in or to be devoted to. To me “rejoice in heedfulness” sounds a little distant — like you’re seeing heedfulness happen over there and think it’s a good thing. But maybe that’s just me.

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