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Buddha Nature: Living in Attention

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.

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