Published in New Chan Forum, 1995, No12. 9-15
This paper was originally written in response to a
request for contributions to a book on Lay Zen.
The question of lay Zen may appear difficult
but it has a blindingly simple answer. Pay attention.
Paying attention is part of every practice
that I know of, whether watching the breath, repeating the Buddha's
name, or practicing bare awareness or mindfulness. My own practice is
little more than just paying attention, greatly illuminated, especially
in the early years, by John Crook's magic instructions "Let it through.
Let it be. Let it go.".
If the answer is so simple why do we need a
whole book about it? I would say because it is simple but extraordinarily
difficult. Zen or Ch'an seem at first to make outrageous demands. I
remember my reaction when I first met the idea of giving up desire -
what? What on earth would be the point of living without desire? Or
having no preferences! How could a sophisticated, well-educated Westerner
living in the 1990s seriously contemplate having no preferences? And
if you do take it seriously what do you get for your pains? Zen offers
no safe heaven to go to if you practice hard and do it well, no saviour
to comfort and forgive you if you get it wrong, and no promise of personal
survival to make it all worthwhile - quite the opposite. It even claims
that "you" are not the important, permanent, persisting creature
you thought you were. As far as Zen is concerned you really don't matter
very much at all. Life is suffering and the only way out of that seems
to be to give up the very things that made it just about bearable in
the first place. Great!
I don't see it that way now. It seems to me
now that Ch'an offers a well structured and fantastically clever set
of ways to cut right through the illusions that create all our pain
and confusion. The empty promises are terrifying but real. The techniques
really do work. There is no need of false Gods or false comforts. As
the mind begins to reveal its own nature the falling away of desires
and preferences and even self really is OK - in an ordinary everyday
Is there anything specially hard about our
90s Western life? I doubt it. I imagine the resistance to the ideas
and the clinging to everything that seems to make life fun is just the
same wherever and whenever you live. Perhaps we have specially sophisticated
ways of avoiding looking into our own minds. Perhaps our psychology
even makes it worse by giving us what appear to be more rational and
scientific ideas of the mind. Perhaps by having so many possessions
and such busy lives we make it harder but I doubt there is any really
fundamental difference. Ch'an just is hard and the mind fights against
it. But if we get on with it, it offers a way that is as appropriate
for us as it has ever been for any human beings.
It seems to me that this transformation can
come about by the simple expedient of paying attention. I would like
to take the opportunity John has given us in putting this book together
to explain what I mean.
Ch'an offers some very simple practices. On
a recent retreat John offered us a quick review of one approach. We
began by paying attention to the breath, after an hour or two we went
on to incorporate all feelings and bodily sensations, then we added
in sounds around us. Later on we opened our eyes and added sight and
finally we paid attention to all thoughts as well. In the end there
is a sense of sitting in a silent space which is full of all these things.
None grabs the attention any more than any other. All come and go in
the great space without leaving any trace. There is fullness, richness
and empty silence. All this comes about by paying attention equally
to everything. Instead of one's attention being grabbed by anything
and everything and the mind instantly shutting down onto whatever shrieks
loudest, the attention is freed. Practice at paying attention means
no longer being at the mercy of the grabbers of attention.
But this is only one kind of practice. Why
this one? Is it the best? Are all others somehow wrong? And why and
how did I choose this one? Was it just luck that I got the right one
first time? No. I don't think so.
I used to worry that there were so many practices
but I don't worry now. Within reason I don't think it matters much.
Some years ago I was asked to review a book called "Waking Up".
It was all about a method based on the teachings of Gurdjieff. The practice
involved constant self observation, separating the "owner of the
cart" or observer, from the driver and the horse. I thought this
stupid. After all there is no self and no observer, no driver and certainly
no ultimate owner of the metaphorical carriage. I wanted to argue against
this divisive approach. Yet I felt that I could not do so fairly without
at least trying the practice. So I decided to give it six weeks, instead
of my usual meditation, and note the results. It was long enough. What
began as a method of creating great structures, separation and mental
objects very soon, by persistent paying attention this way, gave way
to the dissolution of these very structures, leading to the same place,
paying attention. This took away some of my arrogance and confusion
about which is the best method.
Attention to What?
To what does one pay attention? This is a similar
question but we can look at it in a slightly different way.
Try it and find out. If you choose something
to attend to there is always the implied question "why this?".
If you ignore this problem, choosing anything for any reason and persisting,
the object of attention is sooner or later seen for what it is, ever
changing, impermanent, a part of everything else. Alternatively you
can refuse to choose and pay attention equally to everything. All the
myriad mental contents come and go and are seen to be fleeting and interconnected,
ever arising and falling away. The result seems to be the same whether
you begin by paying attention to just one idea or to all.
One strategy I have found very useful in ordinary
life is to tackle any problem by paying attention to everything equally
as I would in meditation. It is hard, though not impossible, to do this
continuously. An easier, and very useful, trick is to do it whenever
the attention is dragged away by something. Other tricks I have used
are always to do it on the toilet, or whenever I feel upset or every
time I see a certain object. I don't think it matters much what tricks
you use as long as they remind you just to pay attention.
Here is an example. I was walking along the
road one day when I saw a man walking in front of me, going where I
was going. I didn't like the look of him, even from the back, and began
to elaborate nasty thoughts about him. I could have gone on doing so,
or, more likely, have gone into self recriminations for being so horrid.
Instead something reminded me to pay attention. There was lots to attend
to - the trivial ever-changing thoughts, the emotions they stirred up,
the buildings passing, feet walking, golden squishy autumn leaves on
the wet pavement, glistening in the light of the street lamps. I paid
attention to all of them without singling any out. The thoughts and
judgments dissolved and everything was clear. It felt like dropping
into the present; a peaceful ever-changing present that is, after all,
always available in any moment of everyday life. The nasty thoughts
did not survive the light of attention.
Who Pays Attention?
I have said that "I" paid attention
but this might be misleading. When paying attention the self can come
under the same scrutiny as everything else. This way it too is seen
to be ever-changing and impermanent. With non-discrimination, or paying
attention to everything, it too dissolves. This is odd. It feels odd;
feeling but no-one feeling.
It may feel odd, at least at first, but we
may be encouraged by the fact that it sounds much like some of the things
the Buddha said about there being actions but no one who acts.
Who then is paying attention? I would say that
the ordinary, constructed or imagined self, is not but the whole organism
is. It is hard to drop the self this way. Yet the simple intention,
to pay attention to all, will do it.
This raises some awful questions for living
our lives. Without a solid self for the centre of our universe how do
we get on with everyday life? How do we think, make decisions, take
actions, plan the future or feel emotions? In my experience all these
questions take care of themselves in just paying attention. I shall
deal with each of these in turn because I think they are crucial to
the changes that Zen brings about in everyday life.
If thoughts dissolve on paying attention how
can we carry on all the thinking needed for everyday life? Surely I
need all this frantic thought don't I? How can I possibly get the children
off to school, get myself to work, give that lecture, write that paper,
go to that meeting, do that television programme, remember those letters,
collect the children again, cook their supper, tidy the house, remember
the note to the milkman, get to bed - all without thinking?
I am sure some thinking is needed to plan and
execute such complexities. However, the more I have paid attention to
my thoughts the more of them appear to be completely pointless and unnecessary
- it is no great loss when they are gone. In fact the necessary ones
are few and far between and do survive attention. A thought such as
"we need some more washing up liquid. I'll write it on the list"
or "I promised to ring so-and-so. I'll do it after six o'clock"
can pass through in a fraction of a second and lead to actions, leaving
barely a ripple. It is just another passing impermanent feature coming
into being and disappearing again. Remarkably little time is needed
for such thoughts. Instead of a constant overload of rambling thoughts,
there can be vast open spaces with the occasional thought passing on
its way in the light of attention.
Paying attention in this way does not make
useful thought impossible. Indeed it seems to enhance it by clearing
the mind of all the masses of utterly useless thoughts. The trouble
is that some courage is required to let go of all the familiar garbage.
However, with paying attention it just gets easier as time goes by.
Patterns of thought that once seemed indispensable to one's existence
can soon be let go of with relief. Something similar is so of decision
The Buddha's ideas on self have some terrifying
implications for decision making. I look at it this way. If there is
no solid, permanent, or persistent self then "I" cannot really
be making the decisions. This sounds ridiculous. All my life I have
struggled to take the right decision, to make the right choice. I have
agonised more about this than anything else in life. What do I want
of my career? Should I apply for that job? Shall I get married? Do I
want children? Was this all illusion?
The implication of everything I have said so
far seems to be that I shouldn't fool myself into thinking I decide
anything. Really? Is this really what Ch'an means?
Yes, really. I have gone about this in two
ways, by intellectualising about it and persuading myself that this
has to be so, and by paying attention. When paying attention I see decisions
have to be made but "I" no longer agonise over them. In the
present moment all those agonies of indecision are just more thoughts
amongst all the others. Paying attention equally to everything there
is no self making a choice. If decisions are to be made "I"
am not making them, the whole organism is, indeed the whole universe
really is, of which this body is just a part.
Suppose I have to decide whether to go to a
meeting or not. The simple fact is that either I will or won't go. Paying
attention is hard work. It will include considering the factors involved,
the cost, the need to get a baby-sitter, the comfort of sitting at home
instead and so on. The necessary thinking goes on but it need not take
up much mental space. Sooner or later the decision is made. Presumably
it depends on a whole host of factors both internal to me and external,
from my past experience and the present situation, both conscious and
unconscious. It is really ludicrous to say that "I" make it
independently. So, by paying attention, it gets made one way or the
other. At the meeting, or at home, paying attention goes on, to the
continuing, peaceful, ever-changing, present moment. It goes on afterwards
too. Regret doesn't seem to get a look in. When the present is fully
attended to all those might-have-beens lose their power and are seen
for the chimera they are. Also, without the worry of possibly regretting
any outcome, making decisions is less painful.
Let me give a simpler example - the first in
which I noticed what was happening. I used to have two possible routes
home, the main road and the prettier but slower lanes. As I drove up
to the traffic lights I was often torn by indecisiveness. How could
I rationally decide? Which would I enjoy most? Which would be best?
Actually it really didn't matter much but this only made it worse. As
my practice went on I suddenly realised one day that I didn't have to
decide. If I just kept paying attention I would drive one way or the
other. I certainly never went straight on into the bollards or bang
into another car. And whichever way I went was fine. It wasn't, after
all, such an important decision. As time went on I found that more and
more decisions were like this. It brought a great sense of freedom to
let so many decisions alone.
It sounds paradoxical, making decisions and
yet not making them myself. Yet in my experience giving up making decisions
leads to becoming more decisive. It is the dithering and fear that is
gone. Decisions have to be made because nothing stands still. They are
better made in the light of attention and without the illusion of a
self who is making them.
People often complain that the Zen way appears
to be passive or inactive. It is not. Paying attention to the present
is the same when the present is sitting at the wall, hanging out the
washing or running to catch a train. Attention does not stop action.
It is only the actor who dies. This seems frightening in prospect but
in actuality it is fine. In the light of attention much of the agonising
and preplanning of actions dissolves away. Yet it even seems as though
the actions themselves are more direct and appropriate. Somehow, from
somewhere, more energy for life and activity seems to appear. The person
who pays attention just seems to be more alive and more, not less, able
Planning the Future.
How can you plan the future while only paying
attention to the present moment? This used to bother me greatly. Would
I have to give up having career plans, thinking about my next book,
even planning things to do with my children? I once met Baba Ram Dass
and asked him "How can I be in the present moment when I'm trying
to work out whether to accept that job or not?" "Where else
could you possibly be?" he infuriatingly replied. Years later his
answer seems quite appropriate. The few thoughts needed to weigh up
that choice are present and then gone, part of the ever-changing present.
While paying attention "I" am not swept up in a tide of useless
speculation, wishing, regretting, or pretending. With practice it seems
to me that planning the future takes remarkably little time and effort.
It hardly disturbs a clear and attentive mind.
Minding and Feeling
In talking about paying attention and decision
making I have almost implied that it doesn't matter what the outcome
is. In paying attention to the present moment, any present moment is
OK. So does one entirely have to give up having preferences and just
accept what is, completely passively? Does one stop having positive
and negative emotions or minding about anything? For this seems incompatible
with our everyday life. I think the answer is that it isn't like that.
I woke up yesterday morning feeling awful -
lethargic and down. I might have ignored this and struggled on, convincing
myself that I was really happy - after all, in our culture it is almost
required that good people are happy all the time. Paying attention made
the pain, slight though it was, at once both obvious and unimportant.
It was very short lived. Paying attention has an odd effect on emotions.
Nearly ten years ago a Tibetan Buddhist, Chogyam, told me about "staring
into the face of arising emotions". I first tried this a few days
later when a neighbour pulled up almost all my runner bean plants and
I was angry. Staring into it the anger was just that - a great fire
that raged up with an almost visible face and sank quickly away again.
I told my neighbour how I felt and he apologised. There was nothing
more to be done. By paying attention the emotions had not been ignored,
indeed it was more obvious and immediate than ever, but it was also
gone without trace. The real difference was the loss of all that extra
trouble - the thoughts about the emotions, rejecting them or feeling
guilty about them, encouraging them, wallowing in them or running from
them. None of that. It was just anger, brief, effective and gone.
There is a tricky paradox here that has caused
me some trouble but ultimately becomes clear. This is, that it is easy
to abuse the practice by using it to let go of emotions that actually
are needed. For a long time I stayed in a relationship that had gone
badly wrong. I tried to accept the emotions and use meditation to cope
with them. I tried to "not mind" whatever happened. The result
was only that I got more and more unhappy. The answer is not to try
to do anything, certainly not blindly to accept or to ignore emotions.
Paying attention may appear superficially to have the same effect -
for you do not mind emotions so much when they are clearly experienced
in a great open space. Nevertheless there are positive emotions and
negative ones and there is nothing wrong with that. It is human nature.
The difference is this. Not paying attention, being distracted by every
passing thought, there is constant turmoil, turning things over, bewildered
by thoughts and agonies of indecision. Am I a bad person for feeling
this way? Should I do this or that? Is it my fault? Could I have done
better? Paying attention there is just the pain, or the delight, or
the anguish or the joy. Appropriate action follows without further effort.
I have a long way to go with this one. It seems
to me to be the hardest of them all at the moment. But still, paying
attention seems to be the way to live fully the emotional ups and downs
of life without getting swept away or imprisoned by them.
Having and Not Wanting
It is many years since I first heard of the
outrageous idea of being without desire. It seemed awful - truly lifeless
and pointless. How could anyone be human and alive and fun and happy
if they had no desires? Also how could they own things? Wouldn't it
be impossible to own a dishwasher and a thousand books, a new CD player
and a fax machine, a nice garden and an electric lawnmower without desiring
I can understand the monastic route - giving
up all ownership as a way of dealing with desire but it is not the way
for we Western Zen practitioners. We do have dishwashers and fax machines,
gardens and cordless hedge trimmers.
I recently began to learn a new trick as far
as desires are concerned. I fell in love. It was wonderful and exciting
and full of delight and happiness and pleasure. But my new lover lived
a long way away and I was often without him. I longed for him. I wanted
I paid attention to this and what did I find?
Of course I found that all these desires were just more mental contents,
just other thoughts and feelings to add to the many in that great space.
There were aches in the region of the heart, twitches in my limbs, an
emptiness and yearning between my legs, an insatiable desire to write
letters to him. But they were all just more of the same - all part of
the feelings, sounds, sights, and thoughts to be attended to equally.
This completely transformed the desires. They did not go away. I did
not lose desire for my lover but neither did I need gratification right
now. Instead of feeling that unless I saw him now I had to be unhappy,
I just found myself sitting with desire. It was fine. Even this whopping
great longing was just another ever changing moment.
The same is so for all desires. I want another
helping of chocolate pudding. In fact there either will or won't be
enough left for me. The desire will or won't be gratified. When it happens
one way or the other I will go on paying attention either to the full
tummy, yucky with chocolate or to the slightly emptier one with only
one helping. Either way will be fine. The funny thing about paying attention
is how everything really seems to be fine whether the desires are fulfilled
Gradually this approach to desires transforms
them. They don't go away but they stop driving you. It is as though,
simply by paying attention, they lose their force. And you don't feel
less alive but more so.
Altruism and Compassion.
Are we supposed to be altruistic and "good"?
I don't even know what it means to be altruistic. When selves are empty
and ephemeral how can one self act in the interests of another? Yet
what good is all this practice if we don't become better people? This
may be really radical but I think we have to drop the idea of ever becoming
better, or more altruistic or less selfish. All such desire is self-centred.
Again I turn to paying attention. If I walk
through the college car park preoccupied with frets and worries of my
own I probably won't see one of my students, leaning on her car, looking
tearful. On the other hand, if I am there, paying attention, the mind
is clear and spacious. There are only cars and dead leaves, grey sky
and a chill wind. I see a face. Without concerns of my own I feel the
pain in that face. Without even thinking "what shall I do?"
I am asking "You OK?". No. She is sobbing on my shoulder.
If I don't have time to stay I shall have to leave. If I do I can stay
and listen. No need for agonising or judging the actions. They did themselves.
Is this compassion? I don't think it is altruism.
It seems to me that in dropping self concern through paying attention,
compassion, or feeling with others, seems to arise spontaneously - as
though it is the natural way to be when it isn't obscured by all that
Being Different and Being the Same.
I have talked a lot about transformation and
change. Paying attention changes you. You are no longer the same. There
are paradoxes lying here too. It is easy to set out and think "I
want to be different. I want to be a better, more compassionate person.
I want to be a good Buddhist." But this won't work. It aims to
make "me" a better person. Yet if I am not a persisting thing
at all this is clearly ridiculous. It just boosts the craving self and
increases rather than decreases desire.
Paying attention circumvents all this. It is
done right now. It is not planned for the future or referred to anywhere
else. It is paying attention right now to whatever right now is. That
is all. Any transformation that occurs takes care of itself. This is
why it is so terrifying for there truly is nothing to hang onto. There
is only this present and it is already gone. However, paradoxically,
it is also the way to losing fear. With practice at paying attention
comes the confidence that there is always a now to attend to. All pasts
and futures are mental constructions. If I think about them they become
thoughts in attention. If I don't they do not exist. When all present
moments are bearable, when there are no obstructions to thought because
I have learned to pay attention to everything, then there really need
be no fear. Any "now" that the world throws at me will be
This confidence means you can be more open
to others and less concerned for self. There is no need to want to be
a better person or to try terribly hard to do good things for others.
Indeed this would only be feeding the opposites of good and bad and,
as we are reminded by that little scrap of paper on the wall at the
Maenllwyd, "When the opposites arise, the Buddha mind is lost".
Paying attention means being right there if someone needs you. I suspect
this is a surer way to compassionate action than any amount of wanting
to do good.
And here I stop for I become less sure. There
appear to be myriad complexities here which can easily confuse me if
I try to think them through. I have based what I have said on my own
limited practice and I really don't know what there is to be learned
next. I can only say that it seems to me that paying attention, as we
are taught in Ch'an, is worth all the hard work and worth all the terror
it inspires. Paying attention is the hardest thing I know of, yet it
is not even me who does it. For when there is really clear attention
there is no self there. Yet there is no incompatibility between this
teaching and living our complex Western lives. Ch'an is an inspiration
for living and I am deeply grateful for having come across it. For now
I will just carry on paying attention for I suspect there is nothing
else to be done.
Back to Publications