In our practice. we sit on cushions. We sit still, and we bring our attention to various things. That is not all we do, but its a central part of what our practice is made of. When I began sitting some ten years ago, I was tortured by the notion that limitations in focus and attention were holding my practice back. I held on to a fantasy that those would increase in time, and perhaps they have, but I notice I still carry a story that my concentrations isn't good enough. And, like any good human, I punished myself for failures at this.
I think I come by that honestly. If you sit in Zen circles, you will hear the myth of Bodhidarma, the gentleman who reportedly walked from India to China and brought buddhism East. He was reputed to have sat in a cave for 8 years, staring at a wall, until he awakened. This story smacks of machismo horseshit to me (was there a toilet? Didn't he eat?), but none the less, it clearly points the listener to correlate motionless attention with good practice and awakening. And lord knows the culture of Zen seems littered with images of men and women, sitting motionless, hour after hour, minds calm as a placid lake. Staring at candle flames. Knowing only Mu. Following their breath. Its a story, but its a story with some serious marketing power behind it, and I am a buyer whether I want to be or not.
Then there is the concept of Joriki - force of concentration. The fact its a thing, and a thing that is highlighted, leads me to the conclusion that great and long attention is recommended for a good proactive. Attention is an interesting thing too in and of itself. Its a practice of intimacy with a moment, but its also a physical thing. Best I understand, its processed in the pre-frontal cortex, and relies on dopamine to potentiate it. Without sufficient dopamine, we experience inattention and insensitivity. And here is another thing- some people, through the vagaries of genetics, are naturally predisposed toward it. They have more sensitive receptors, a better transport system, or manufacture more of the hormone. Others, through the same DNA couplings, end up with naturally short attention spans and a tendency toward racing thoughts and boredom. Well- WTF? Sucks if you are on the short end of that, right? Does that mean you practice is ever going to be inferior? Should we give up? Are all the Zen masters we know just people who are gifted in attention to begin with? Does one need to overcome this deficiency? Do we just throw ourselves at the wall of focused attention, resigned to failure? Does that mean those of us with a shitty attention span won't find enlightenment?
Weeeeeellllll, deep breat.
I doubt it, and if Zen were a gate through which only long attentioned people could walk, then its not really for me and to hell with that anyway. There are other images and examples available. One I like is, the story of the practitioner who, questioning if his own resolve was enough, approached Huang Po to ask him how long he sat - hoping to take inspiration from the great master. At the question, Huang Po lept up, stamped on his cushion, spun and left the room. The practioner was aghast- had he insulted the master? Perhaps Huang Po was furious for having wasted his time and taken him away from his own silent sitting. So he returned to the hall, doubled his efforts, but after a week was so miserable that he dared return and ask for another interview. He waited in Huang Po's room, and waited, and waited for the Master to return. Finally, thinking he would never get his answer, he looked at Hung Pos cushion and noted the outline of Hung Po's massive foot. Get it? Huang Po hadn't sat there in a week. Perhaps he didn't sit at all. A former teacher of mine once confided that despite 6 years in a monastery, he didn't care for zazen at all, and didn't sit much outside weekly practice.
So, we sat. We sat with the following Koan:
Jingqing asked a monk, “What is that sound outside?”
“Dripping rain,” replied the monk.
Jingqing said, “Ordinary people are upside down, falling into delusion about themselves, and pursuing things outside themselves.”
“What about yourself?” asked the monk.
Jingqing said, “I am on the brink of falling into delusion about myself.”
The monk asked, “What do you mean, on the brink of falling into delusion about yourself?”
Jingqing said, “To attain the world of emptiness may not be so difficult, but to express the bare substance is hard.”
Then we played a game. The game investigated whether there are different types, flavors, or attention, and how do they feel and do we find an affinity for one over the other?
So we sat. About 15 minutes I would guess. For the first 5 minutes, everyone was instructed to find a single point of focus and to determinedly remain there - the light of the candle, a mantra, the feeling of our breath, a count, a place in our bodies. To exclude other thoughts and awareness, and return our attention, again and again, to our single point.
After five minutes, we were instructed to broaden that attention, as much as possible, until we were aware of our bodies, all the sounds, our thoughts and anything else in our awareness and to keep letting it in. When we found ourselves captured by one thought, or or thing, just relax our attention to let it open up further and further.
For the last five minutes, we were invited to let our mind notice whatever it noticed, and when we noticed it noticing, to hyperfocus there on that thing until there was no separation whatsoever. And when that faded, let it fade, let our attentions wander until we noticed noticing again.
So, there are three ways to pay attention. People noted that the first made them feel calm and quiet, but over time, it felt rigid and cold. Interestingly, some people for whom this was their primary practice, noticed that it felt restrictive. The broader attention, people noticed how free they felt, how open. Some even had an affinity for the latter - saying how completely they could feel a thing. How unseperate.
so, I guess the point was that despite our stories, we are sufficient the way we are. It is not about fitting ourselves to our practice, but fitting our practice to our aspirations. Noticing who we are, and how our minds and bodies pass through this world and kindly accepting that, beginning our practice from that place. We can find confidence what whatever we can bring, is enough. Not just enough, but its the right step on our patch. And no matter what we think Zen has to look like, what meditation has to look like, we are wrong. Its infinite in its possibilities.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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