In ancient China, the emperor’s minister was troubled and so went to visit a renowned Zen master to seek advice. He said, “Master, the people are unruly and difficult to govern. Please give me a word of wisdom to help govern them.” The master picked up his brush, dipped it in ink, and wrote the symbol for “Attention.”
The minister became angry. “I asked for wisdom and you give me just this! I demand you give me a word of wisdom!” The Master then wrote “Attention, Attention.”
What does this story mean? Why does “attention” provide “wisdom?” How does it help govern the unruly?
In life, many things ask for our attention. First, there is the attention we must give to the requirements of living our everyday life. And, as our teaching tells us, when we give our attention completely, we come to understand how things really are in the phenomenal world, the temporary world of shape, form, color, and sound. Giving complete attention enables us to see the true nature of all things and to see that all share the same fundamental qualities, without exception.
Usually, we think we humans are the highest form of life, and so are entitled to have special privileges over other species. We think this way because of our unique mental and physical skills and capacities. Yet all things have the same fundamental quality and when we pay careful attention to all life, we can understand this truth. We understand how even a blade of grass is no different from our self and how we and a blade of grass are not different than Buddha inherently, not through transformation or magic. All things share the same Buddha nature.
Second, in addition to the material things of the world, we must pay attention to the people in our lives. If we observe and reflect carefully, we see how they are the same and we see how they are different. We see how they react, how they create, how they take comfort, how they cooperate, and how they suffer. Through careful attention, we can know how to be in harmony with each other.
Third, we need to give attention to our self, to our own mental and emotional activities, to the ways we do things, especially when we are clumsy or make a mistake. With attention, a mistake is able to show us – to awaken us: “I did not pay attention to what I was doing.” And we should pay attention to the feelings that appear when we make a mistake. Painful feelings can arise when we are clumsy. That pain can inspire us to sharpen our awareness. In that way, mistakes are helpful. So when we fall down, we should pay attention to how we stand up, not to why we fell down. We should consider, “Am I paying attention to what I should do in the next moment – to how to stand up – or am I stuck on the past, to how I fell down?”
When we give our fullest attention to our life, we feel the joy of our unity with all things and people, the awareness of a single, complete presence. This joy gives us the motivation to pay attention, to continue our practice. With continued practice, we learn to practice for its own sake, beyond ideas of gaining something, such as relieving stress or attaining happiness. Then our days will be filled with calm attention, and we will understand what is meant by Buddha mind.
Usually, we are concerned with the attention that we give to things, to people, and to our self. But there is another concern that arises, the attention that we want to receive from others, when we feel the need to be noticed, to be accepted and admired, to feel important in the minds of others. This desire for attention is a deep form of suffering, the activity of the hungry ghost. It takes us far from our original self.
How can we resolve this suffering? How do we let go of the attachment of gaining attention for our self? We can do it by practicing the giving of attention. That way we can change the desire from gaining attention for ourselves to putting our attention on the succession of present moments, to orienting our mind away from desires.
But the most important aspect of attention is to pay attention to how we pay attention. So the ancient Zen master wrote, “Attention! Attention!”
When we sit in zazen, we develop the capacity to notice when and how the mind wanders, when we have stopped paying attention to the breath. We recognize that the mind is paying attention to its desires rather than to our body’s breathing and as a result has become unruly. With attention to attention, we return to our breath, or to any activity during the day, when we notice the mind has wandered.
Giving full attention to things and people as they appear is like keeping a large pot of soup on the stove for them to help themselves. But if the temperature is too hot, they won’t eat, even though the soup is nourishing. And if it is too cold, they won’t eat. We need to maintain the right temperature to nourish our life and the lives of others. So we pay attention to our temperature: am I too hot, am I too cold? With the right temperature everyone will be nourished.
Zazen can sometimes feel discouraging – sometimes we lose our way. But even if we feel discouraged, we should not give up practice. This is the key point. We continue practice beyond ideas of success or failure, good or bad. We simply continue paying attention to things, to people, to ourselves, and especially to our attention. This is the best way to govern our lives.