Buddhism and Philosophy Part IV - Practices of Attention

Friday December 30, 2005


This should by my final article in this series of reflections on Buddhism and Philosophy. The first three can be found here:

Buddhism and Philosophy Part I
Buddhism and Philosophy Part II
Buddhism and Philosophy Part III

I’ll begin this article with a Zen story that I love. As is usual, I have forgotten the source of the story, so if anyone knows the reference, I’d be very pleased to be pointed that way. The story concerns an earnest student who comes to a master and asks for the highest and most secret teaching on the dharma. With one deft move the master picks up a brush, dips it in some ink and writes the word ‘Attention.’ Dissatisfied by this answer, the student presses for another, deeper teaching. The master takes up the brush again and writes ‘Attention. Attention.’ The student is highly unimpressed. ‘If you are a master, you should be able to give me more than that,’ he says. So the master sighs, and then he writes ‘Attention. Attention. Attention.’

Attention! Could this be the deepest, most secret of teachings? Ayya Khema makes the point that Buddhism is built upon experience rather than belief, and that to experience we need to pay attention. Mindfulness, or attentiveness, is the opening of the path. To pay attention is not to think about something. It is simply to be attentive to what arises when it arises and what passes away when it passes away. Sitting in meditation, how often do I find myself caught in whirlpools of beliefs and ideas and opinions and judgements? But underlying this frenzy there is the simplicity of uncontrived experience, the pressure of my buttocks on the cushion, the touch of my hands together before me, the flickering of my closed eyes behind their lids, the cold breeze coming through the gaps in the window frame. Insight meditation is a way of dwelling in this immediacy of experience, letting go of what the ancient texts call papañca, or mental proliferation, and returning to what is real. Perhaps as I am sitting in meditation one morning, I am furious with a friend for having said a word out of turn; but beneath all my ideas about my friend and what they should have said, and how gravely I have been wounded, there is the simple fact of bodily experience, the tightness in my chest, the agitation, the sensation of my eyes already filling up with unwanted tears.

One of the famous of all Buddhist texts, the Satipatthana Sutta begins thus:

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the four foundations of mindfulness. What are the four?
Herein (in this teaching) a monk lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.

I want to suggest here that both the practice of philosophy and the practice of Buddhism can act as practices of attention, that is to say that they both bring us to a more vivid and close relationship not with some abstract idea of truth, but with the richness of the world. The benefits of meditation in developing attention are fairly well established, but when it comes to philosophy it is hard not to suspect that it might be the enemy of attention. Surely philosophy is just another kind of papañca, mental proliferation that removes us from the world into realms of bloodless abstraction? Or is it?

This is partly a matter of language, for philosophy is always expressed in language and language can often enchant us, feed our delusions, lead us away from the reality of experience into realms of lifeless abstraction. Papañca is at least a partially linguistic phenomenon. Nevertheless, it would be premature to assume that we should abandon language for some kind of wordlessness. The Buddha recognised that, pragmatically, language is useful: for all of its limitations, it nevertheless allows us to communicate effectively if it is utilised “without grasping” (See A History of Buddhist Philosophy by David J. Kalupahana p. 63). The Buddha took a position in strong contrast to Brahminical theory in which the Vedas were seen as revealed texts, the words and syllables of these texts themselves being objects of reverence and, essentially, untranslatable. The Buddha taught in the vernacular, and encouraged his followers to translate his teachings into other languages. He recognised that language is essentially changing, contingent and fluid. By ‘grasping’ in relation to language I understand two things. The first is assuming that knowing the word allows us to ‘get hold’ of the thing itself; and the second is assuming that this or that usage is ‘correct’ and all others are wrong, denying the fluid nature of the medium of our communication.

Subscribing wholesale to this or that philosophy or system of language – even Buddhism itself – is ultimately the enemy of true attentiveness, because in the end everything you see is just a reflection of that system and there is nothing new under the sun. In Buddhist terms, for example, it is possible to fall into the trap of continually parroting Buddhist pieties, constantly turning every observation, thought or idea into a standard, off-the-peg Buddhist teaching, hence effectively neutering it and absolving oneself from the responsibility of thought. But a closer attentiveness to the relationships between language and thought can help free us up, can turn our somewhat rigid frameworks liquid once again. To immerse oneself in the serious study of various philosophies and systems – the different flavours of Buddhism and their various disputes, the gaggle of conflicting voices from ancient Greece, the curious, the out of the way, the well known… – is not so much a way of discovering which of these is ‘right’, but more a way of gaining the resources to look afresh at the world once again, to attend to the world, to oneself and to others more closely. To study the roots of thought and the diversity of thought can lead to a greater appreciation of the myriad ways there are of seeing and talking about the world, the many modes of attention there are available to us, so that we might not grasp to any one too closely.

Speaking personally, the study of philosophy has allowed me to move more fluently and sensitively through the realms of thoughts, ideas and language, through the thousand thousand dharmas that make up this world. Rather than providing an ‘answer’ to the questions of existence, it has given me many pathways along which it may be possible to become more attentive to the dharmas that surround me, that constitute me, in which I am immersed. Here’s another lovely passage from Serres

If you seek to create, love springs, fountains, precious stones, the high summits of mountains, the layers of the onion, the leaves of the artichoke, the look of the sea lion, germinal cells, children, all filled to bursting with information like blue supergiants, and flee the spendthrifts that waste information: newspapers, what’s called news, spreading rumour. (95)

Philosophy, freeing up thought, liberates us from ideas that are stale, fixed and dogmatic; it calls us to resist the thickets of opinion and ideas, to resist the illusion-weaving that goes on around us, and to return with a fresh attentiveness – to use a phrase from another philosopher, Edmund Husserl, but taken out of context – to the things themselves. Creativity – true creativity, informed by love and by wisdom, what might be called, whether we regard ourselves as philosophers or not, a philosophical creativity – is born from this attention.

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#1 · Curt Kastens

9 August 2009

When I read what many people right about many different subjects I often think that they do not understand what is relevant and what is not to the subject they are writing about.
So I have to ask when we are attentive to the pain in our buttocks, or the tightness in our chest, or how the breeze rustles the leaves on the trees and it sounds like a waterfall, if we are not being indulgent. There are of course times to relax and notice these things
but I would hope that people would spend more time thinking about their goals, the goals of their families, businesses, clubs, churches, political parties, and countries and whether or not such goals are are worthwhile, and how these goals fit in with a larger picture. This last part is especially difficult because a person would have to know about many different things going on in the world to understand the interactions.
Also if the means to achieve these goals are appropriate for the goals and how the relationships of people within the institution are leading to the the decisions about which goals to pursue and what means to use to achieve these goals.
That is an enormous amount of important things to think about. A single individual is like just one cell of a brain. All the cells need to be turned on for a society to reach its potential. Get started.

#2 · Will

11 August 2009

Relevance is, to some extent, a matter of perspective. But I certainly agree that having a sense of the future, and how one can act within society and within relationship with others to realise particular goals, are important things. Which is why I talk about looking afresh at our relationships with others and with the world. I am not talking about disengagement, but about a certain fluidity of thought that comes from attention.

The apparent dichotomy between social action and practices such as meditation is, I think, precisely that: merely apparent. If meditative practices are only means to personal ends, separate from a concern with the rest of the world, then they are, as far as I am concerned, not very interesting or very useful. So the question are these: Why are these practices not indulgent? How do they serve wider ends? These are, no doubt, big questions. But a brief answer might be that many of what I have called the “whirlpools of beliefs and ideas and opinions and judgements” in which we are caught may lead to unhelpful actions in the world. If nothing else, meditation is a way of realising that these beliefs, ideas and judgements are mind-made, so that it might be possible to hold them more as hypotheses than as certain truths, and to be therefore more open to their modification whilst engaging with the world.

All the best,

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