Attention, Attention, Attention
There is a Zen story that goes like this (according to Zen Teacher Philip Kapleau in The Three Pillars of Zen):
One day a man of the people said to the Zen master Ikkyu: “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?” Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?”
Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.”
“Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.”
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.”
Half angered, the man declared: “What does that word attention mean anyway?”
And Ikkyu answered, gently: “Attention means attention.”
Taking a litte bit of poetic license*, I would like to discuss this term attention. In the abhidharma literature, attention is defined as an engagement of the mind and it functions to hold the mind to the object of observation. Clearly when there is a lack of attention, the mind does not stay put with a particular object and starts to roam around, which is also how we normally understand inattention to be.
Why is attention so important? We need to pay attention in order to gain knowledge about anything. Without the ability to sustain the engagement of our mind with a topic, a conversation, a text and so forth, we can’t go deeper into the subject matter and there is no way of deepening our understanding. Likewise, without the focus of attention on a goal or objective, we find ourselves constantly distracted by other things, wasting our mental and physical energies in activities that do not contribute to bringing us closer to our goal.
This is especially true on our spiritual journey. When we fail to pay attention, we are not able to learn new knowledge from our spiritual teachers. We do not focus on reflecting and deepening our understanding of the topic. We will also do not follow through with our practice to assimilate this new information to bring about positive change in our habits.
For example, I have spent two decades studying Buddhism, attending teachings, meditations, or retreats. It does seem like I have learnt a lot, practice quite a bit and I definitely have done many things spiritual sounding, like pilgrimage, retreat, etc. However, the actual transformation of my mind is not as spectacular as my listing of completed retreats/courses/mantra counts.
One possible reason has to do with focused attention. We mere ordinary mortals need to factor in the need of a lot of time and attention on a single dharma topic in order to bring about true, long-lasting transformation of our mind and heart. Even a practice as seemingly simple as mindfulness of breathing requires a lot of continual attention in order for us to appreciate its depth and profundity, and to allow it to work its magic on our stubborn mental and physical habits.
So, I would suggest the next time when we wonder why we have yet to become that wonderfully enlightened person, we can take stock of how much focused attention we have paid to our study, reflection and meditation on the Dharma. And we can put this maxim into practice right now: attention, attention and more attention.
Note: * Strictly speaking, the Japanese/Chinese character translated as “attention” here should be more accurately rendered with “mindfulness”. But I want to talk about attention here, not mindfulness, and this story is a good way to start the discussion. Hence, I am going to ignore the actual meaning and stick to attention. More on mindfulness in another post.
Published on August 4, 2011.
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