Buddha Nature: Living in Attention
Writings | Awareness

Discomfort is the stimulus for creativity. Or, as Joseph Goldstein says, “We move only when we are uncomfortable.” The first noble truth, “There is suffering,” implies that there should be a lot of creativity in the world.

This creativity can be one of two types. The first is an active reaction to suffering, seeking to avoid it in the most immediately efficient manner (as opposed to a passive reaction which just results in tension). The second is a response to suffering and opens to the experience of suffering and acts on its implications, just as Buddha Shakyamuni did 2,500 years ago.

The difference between the two types is the matter of attention. Without attention, no matter how brilliant and ingenious the creation, it’s still a product of reaction, avoids actual experience, and reinforces conditioned patterns. With attention, there is the possibility of responding to what arises, experiencing it fully and having that understanding pervade our future experience and contribute to others’ understanding.

Personal history

When I look back on my first years of Buddhist practice, let’s say the first ten to twelve years, my practice was essentially a reaction to suffering. Most of the time I didn’t know what I was reacting to. I put a great deal of effort into practice, into study, into serving my teacher. I learned a great deal. But it didn’t ease anything inside me.

It wasn’t until much later that I began to appreciate in a very different way what Kalu Rinpoche had attempted to teach me, what Buddha originally taught, and what practice might mean. Initially, I regarded meditation and practice as the solution to all problems. To be fair, that attitude is easily formulated in the face of the poetic-mythical descriptions of enlightenment that enrich the sutras and tantras. But it breaks down for most people with the pressures and demands of their daily lives. Enlightenment can seem a bit distant when one is late for an appointment and is stuck in the middle of a freeway with no cars moving.

Strangely, it was precisely this demanding world and my difficulties in meeting it that led me to feel a real resonance with Buddha Shakyamuni. I returned to some of the basic teachings and read them with a more receptive mind. What emerged for me was the importance of attention as an underlying principle of all Buddhist practice. I re-examined all the practices that I had done in retreat, meditations on different qualities of mind, examination of different aspects of reality, complex visualizations and identification with deities, demanding methods of internal energy conversion, the simplicity of presence techniques such as mahamudra, the color and fury of protector practices. And, through the lens of attention, the intention, structure, principles and intelligence of all these practices became much clearer.

Without going into details, it seems to me that the intention of all these practices is to cultivate attention, either by practicing attention directly or by removing what prevents attention from developing. Once attention is present, appropriate action, skillful means, bodhicitta, everything else flows quite naturally. There is no need for minute dissections of Buddhist ethics or philosophy. The phrase “Be there or be square” acquired a new meaning for me. Very simply, attention reveals buddha nature and enables it to manifest in our lives. This principle is present in every tradition of Buddhism.

Encountering problems

Perhaps most significant for me was the insight that emerged about the way to approach problems in my practice or in my life. I noticed, with a certain wry amusement, that the change in how I related to problems in either area followed the five stages in dying that Kübler-Ross outlined in the early ’70s.

First, I denied that there was any problem. My attitude was that the technique itself would do the job. All that was necessary was to plow through. It didn’t matter that my body was falling to pieces, that I had blinding headaches much of the time, that my digestive system shut down, that I was unable to be civil to my companions, that I spent much of the time in a dull depressed state. Nothing was wrong, just keep pushing. When things got so bad that I had to admit that something wasn’t working, I was angry. The first phase of this was blaming, blaming the conditions, the teaching, the teachers, you name it. While there was a certain validity in some of my criticisms, the anger was essentially a reaction to problems that I still wasn’t prepared to face. When I ran out of specific factors to rage at, the universe, the world, whatever became my focus.

Eventually this stage ran its course and I started bargaining, trying to manipulate the conditions of my life, making trades here and there, in order to continue plugging away at the practice as I thought it should be done. Short term gains were the rule, but one after another, the various ploys failed to produce sustainable results and eventually I had to give up trying to manipulate my world.

That letting go opened the door to depression. Nothing worked. It was hopeless. I remember being greatly inspired by the story of Trungpa Rinpoche opening one of his talks with the single word “hopeless” repeated at five or ten minute intervals with silence in between. It seemed to me that he was right on! I’ve always found depression to be one of the most difficult states to work with in meditation. Perhaps because the dynamics are so similar, it’s easy to slip from the practice of awake acceptance into a state of passive self-absorbed despondency. Essentially, I had to let go of practice as I had understood it up to that point and walk into the dark.

The dark lasted longer than I wish to recall. It was in the dark that I had to accept that there were deeper problems here than I had wanted to acknowledge. There was no use raging about them: these were the cards that had been dealt to me. Bargaining was useless: there was no thing and no body that I could trade my position with. Gradually, the now all too obvious conclusion dawned: something was demanding attention. So I started, using the manifestations of the problem as the trail that would lead me to the problem itself.

Opening of doors

Once I shifted my effort to paying attention to what was arising, doors started to open. I began to see a little more clearly what was going on. I’d had to let go of old ways of looking at things, some that I had learned in the course of my training, others going back much further to family patterns. The patterns became apparent. The function and purpose of the patterns also became apparent.

The next phase brought with it an unexpected pain. In Eliot’s words, “the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done and done to others’ harm which once you took for exercise of virtue.” Here was the insight into the true function of these patterns. They had no use for the world or for others. They were solely concerned with protecting and maintaining a particular sense of self. I began to appreciate how things were.

What then? Gone were the justifications, gone were the rationalizations, gone were the convenient explanations (and I was very good at those!) The test of practice became action. Was anything actually going to change? So it became necessary to let go, completely, of what the patterns were trying to maintain, and to learn to live another way. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the Buddha’s teachings in yet another light.The way was the way of attention. Bring the attention to what is arising and we know, directly, what needs to be done. This changed not only my own practice but how I tried to teach others. The source of that knowing is buddha nature. And the practice is very simple in principle: strip away whatever prevents it from manifesting.