Zen: Showing Up for Work
April 13, 2020
When Ikkyu was abbot of Daitokuji, a layman approached him and said: “Master, you are renowned both for your wisdom and the beauty of your calligraphy. It would be a great honour for me if you would write down some words of guidance which I could hang on my wall and reflect upon.”
Ikkyu took up his writing brush and, with a flourish, wrote the single word Attention on a sheet of paper.
“Attention?” the layman said. “Could you elaborate?”
Ikkyu wrote a second time, Attention.
“That’s not much,” the layman said, wondering if Ikkyu was trolling him.
Ikkyu wrote one more time, Attention.
“But what does attention mean?”
“Attention,” said Ikkyu, “means attention.”
In the 1960s, my friend Tom McGrath was living in London and was addicted to heroin. In desperation, he went to Samye Ling to see Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and ask for advice. Trungpa said, “You need to learn how to breathe.”
McGrath was disgusted. He'd come all the way to the monastery just to be told he needed to learn how to breathe? He'd been breathing all his life! He went back to London.
He got to know RD Laing, and asked him for advice. Laing said, “You need to learn how to breathe, man.”
Hearing the same advice from two very different and unrelated teachers, McGrath — who had asthma — realised there might be something to it.
Caught up in our stories, how often do we experience life as it is? No matter what's going on, no matter how frenzied our day, we can interrupt whatever story we're tormenting ourselves with and just be aware of the air we inhale, that keeps us alive, or the clothes that keep us warm, or the ground under our feet, right here, right now. We can turn our attention away from what is not, and bring it to what is. It probably won't solve any of our problems, and it certainly won't cure drug addiction, but it brings us to the work of living our lives.
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