The practice that epitomizes the path of awareness in daily life is mindfulness. Common to all streams of Buddhism, mindfulness combines wholehearted involvement in the here-and-now, steady attentiveness to the task at hand, and a tolerant openness to the elements of inner and outer experience.
We are trying to pay attention to what we are actually doing moment to moment. The instructions are simple, but the practice is very difficult. The mind is so naturally slippery, so deftly agile, so quick and ready to dart off in any new direction. Stephanie Kaza
Zen master Ikkyu, in fifteenth-century Japan, thrust this advice at a questioner:
One day a man of the people said to Zen master Ikkyu, "Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?"
Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word: "Attention."
"Is that all?" asked the man. "Will you not add something more ?"
Ikkyu then wrote twice running: "Attention. Attention."
"Well," remarked the man rather irritably, "I really don't see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written."
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: "Attention. Attention. Attention."
Half-angered, the man demanded, "What does that word 'attention' mean anyway?"
Ikkyu answered gently, "Attention means attention."
Ikkyu's determined repetition of the word "attention" is a demonstration that reinforces his point, because true attentiveness is sustained, not sporadic. What we know of Ikkyu's life adds a dimension to this anecdote that is pertinent for engaged Buddhists. Though a monk, Ikkyu deliberately immersed himself in the world, so his own practice of mindfulness did not depend on the disciplined atmosphere of a monastery.
Mindfulness is a fitting practice for a newcomer, but this first practice is also a lifetime discipline for novices and adepts alike. Zen teachers use eating as an example. When we eat, we usually do something else at the same time: talk with friends or family, watch television, read, listen to music, and so on. Or we become lost in thought about something completely unrelated to the eating. Then we wonder why we become hungry again so soon after a meal.
The Wheel's image for this path, a hand holding a glass, stands for any activity performed mindfully. The practice of attention does not require solitude, the refined atmosphere of a Japanese tea ceremony, or any other special conditions. Is an ordinary glass of juice too humble to express the grandeur and gravity of the Way? Not at all. The highest truth is nowhere else than in that glass, and nowhere juicier.
Japan's greatest haiku poet, Basho, repeatedly demonstrated the true spirit of mindfulness practice. Compelled one night to sleep in a stable, he did not fail to pay attention:
the horse pissing
near my pillow.