The door to infinity

by Flora Courtois


Vol. 15 No.2 Summer.1990


Copyright by Parabola

AT THE HEART of Zen practice there is a kind of radically intimate attention. This absolutely firsthand quality of experience characterizes the beginning of our lives and, if we are not drugged, the end. No "other" mediates between us and the intimate aloneness of birth. No memories, no thoughts, no plans invade this pure innerness with their shadowing images. So, too, in the spare simplicity of our deaths. Here attention is reality and reality attention. But in the days and years of our living somehow we lose touch with this clarity and think to possess ourselves in images. In so doing, we fall into a bad case of mistaken identity. We think our living instead of living our thinking. In the language of koan study, we miss the point of life and so live at second, third, and fourth hand. Yet the opportunity to be restored to our original, unborn, divine condition is always immediately at hand. There are no real or absolute contingencies. Every moment lived in absorbed attention is simultaneously a beginning and an end, at once a birth and a death. In such attention we are radically open to the unexpected, to letting life live us. Any event, however small or seemingly trivial, properly attended, opens the door to infinity. In Basho's famous haiku, the plopping sound of the frog jumping into the clear still pond rises whole, perfect, and infinitely mysterious. No time here for meaning to be added or we'll miss the next plop as it comes. There's a bit of Faust in us all, believing as we do that the more we learn about something the closer we are to it. Not so. Any event, fully attended, uproots all our knowing at the source and carries inexhaustible surprises. To use the language of instrument design, we may say that when we quiet all the interfering noises in our system we then maximize the information in the messages we pick up and transmit. Yasutani Roshi said that shikantaza (just sitting) is like standing in a clearing in a deep forest, knowing danger is about to strike but not knowing from what direction. If we focus too much ahead we will miss it if it comes from below and so on. Total, uncluttered readiness for the unexpected is what we need. If we think we've got it at one moment we may lose it the next. THE POINT IS that all phenomena, all dharmas, whether seen or heard or felt or whatever and whether pleasurable or painful, it matters not, all without exception, open us to reality if we give ourselves to them. "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" wrote William Butler Yeats. Zen says the whole universe is art and we are the artists. "God," wrote Meister Eckhart, "has left a little point where the soul turns back upon itself and finds itself." At another time he described God's little point this way, "The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same." "To have satori," wrote D.T. Suzuki, "is to stand at Meister Eckhart's little point, where we may see in two directions at once, God's way and creature's way." "Attention, attention, attention," wrote Zen Master Ikkyu many centuries ago when asked to write down the highest wisdom. "But what does attention mean?" asked his questioner. Master Ikkyu replied, "Attention means attention." Surely Meister Eckhart's eye, which is simultaneously God's eye, is the inner eye of immanent, transcendent attention. Quieting the busy surface of our minds, we free our inner eye to find that little point which penetrates right to the heart of things: No need to look for vast, cosmic fireworks or for a great big impressive way to enlightenment if we enlighten each moment with attention. TRUE ATTENTION is rare and totally sacrificial. It demands that we throw away everything we have been or hope to be, to face each moment naked of identity, open to whatever comes and bereft of human guidance. Nor is the potential for pain to be underestimated. Now we come face to face with the radical fact that there is nothing, however dear, that cannot be taken from us from one moment to the next; nothing, however sinister or horrifying, from which we will be permitted to recoil or separate ourselves. All the dreadful, mute suffering from which inattention shielded us will now be seen and heard. Another name for such full attention is love. In Christian terms, surely in God's presence the appropriate behavior is to be quiet and listen. The essence of prayer is attention. To pray is to go directly to God, without intermediary, and to say nothing. To be absorbed in emptiness is not to know at all. In the radical unknowing of pure attention we sacrifice ourselves and discover our original wholeness. Although we sacrifice our very lives for the good of all humankind, if self-images distract our attention we become separated from the true reality of our living and dying. For the ultimate revolutionary act is not giving up our lives literally but direct, immediate seeing which is our own true nature. Such radical seeing is the heart of Buddhism and Zen practice. So let us keep a "beginner's mind." Only so will we continually discover "the dearest freshness deep-down things." . PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): From Not Mixing Up Buddhism edited by the Kahawai Collective (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press, 1987).