Back to Articles Home
On Divine Attention
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human
mind, which in different places and ages hath had different
names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It
is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor
excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.
In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what
nation soever, they become brethren.
— John Woolman,
"Considerations on Keeping Negroes," 1746
After thou seest thy thoughts and the temptation, do not
think but submit, and then power comes. Stand still in the
Light and submit to it ... and when temptations and troubles
appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be
hushed and fly away. And earthly reason will tell you what
ye shall lose. Hearken not to that, but stand still in the
– George Fox, Epistle 10
“Be still and know I am God.”
Recently I have been revisiting my interest in Quaker spirituality. The reason for this is simply that, though a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, I remain intrigued by a special connection and some extraordinary similarities between these two ostensibly divergent faiths. I remember the times when I lived in communities without any Buddhist temple nearby and I gladly attended the Quaker services because I felt here was a connection to the deepest feeling I received in Buddhism that has led me through several of its grand traditions. Actually, this feeling has little to do with forms of any kind, thus I have felt equally at home in Muslim mosques, Hindu temples and the rich Orthodox Christian churches. All retain that feeling I speak of and all possess the power to draw me inward and to hold me in that warm embrace of silence that forces me to become more attentive to who I really am.
It is this aspect of silence, and its importance to what I believe the true beginning of spirituality, attention, that has been engaging me of late and might be of some relevance to those journeying on the Fourth Way.
In the Quaker tradition, silence is the heart of church services and a place of unique, and powerful, spiritual practice. When, in the midst of a deep quiet a “testimony” begins, a beautiful and moving, spontaneous “sermon” often greets us. These are neither rehearsed nor written and yet I have heard on occasion some of the most inspiring talks emanating as it were, from Spirit itself, from the most “ordinary” of people.
As most Fourth Way students recognize, the proprioception, or sensing exercises have a power beyond the limitations of the bodily area focused upon, or the articulateness (or not) of the exercise. Conducted in silence, they seem to energize the practitioner in spiritually powerful ways. We move away from the practices revitalized, energized in our Being, creating for many, the first feeling of truly being alive.
In “Lost Christianity,” Jacob Needleman, he a noted Fourth Way practitioner, relates the story of Father Sylvan who speaks eloquently for the vitalizing power of deep attention to oneself and emotions as a necessary precursor to developing true Christian feeling. It is only in development of this attention in us that we begin the creation of a “soul,” from which only then are we able to be Christians in more than name only.
In Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism, the main “practice” is deep hearing or monpo, or and is related to “hearing the Light” (monko) of Amida, both characterized by a deepening of faith in Amida Buddha, whose very Name refers to Infinite Light and Infinite Life. We return again and again to hearing the Light of Amida shine in our deepest beings, offering us rest in the Pure Land that exists not only in the Time beyond Time after our death, but in the ever-present Time of the Present, a now in which the working of his vows extends even to the weakest “sinner.” This we receive as a gift of faith through the power of his Name, Namo Amida Butsu.
What happens to us when the effulgence of Being is given a place to reveal itself through the stilling of our body, mind and feelings in that moment, so often called, the Eternal Now? Why is it that so many mystics of so many traditions characterize this experience with words like timelessness, and illumination? For example, in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition, luminosity and energy are two of the basic and generally unrecognized aspects of the Mind. As well, the intensely personalized Japanese Amida is a Buddha whose two defining traits are his immeasurable Light and his immeasurable Life. (Amida, as a contraction of Amitabha and Amitayus means simply, “immeasurable, endless, or infinite”. Amida Buddha therefore might be translated as: “The Awakened One of Immeasurableness.”) [Note: How close is this to Gurdjieff´s characterization of God as “His Endlessness”?] Are these words not merely representations of the same ineffable things?
What is this Endlessness but the timeless luminosity reflective of the universe’s beginnings, enfolding “me” before I was born, re-enfolding me after my death? In fact, this Life I call my life is merely the “gap” between the dark vastnesses from which I once arose and to which we all return. I say “dark” only insofar as it is unrevealed to us completely. For example, how many of us remember the period before we were born? Yet we may rest assured that that phase, that period existed, as surely as we now know we exist in the present, and that that Time will continue after we are gone. That “time”, that state, existed in some great Mysterious past. Then we come, shining our own reflections of Divinity so weakly in the face of what we arose from and what we must inevitably return to. And yet that little shine of ours is the stuff of our awareness, the realm of our civilization, the grand container of all humanity’s dreams and Time-bound culture. We are merely a fluttering, fiery gap between the numinal darkness that contains, as a womb, the Creation of all.
Into this gap that is our life, what can we offer but silent, humble recognition of the vastness of the unimaginable before us and acknowledgement of the unknowable vastness before “I” was? In this time, in which we see our “whole” Life, we may enter those moments of luminous awareness, stretching into a present that we sense is much greater than the linear present in which we normally live. What is this moment but an intimation of those two grand bookends that enclose this little life of mine? We, who are but little flickers of light bookended by eternity have a choice: to burn with radiant depth, or to sparkle a bit and then dissolve back into those depths from which we originated, and to which we must all return. It is our attentiveness to this Life, this gap between the Great Timelssness that gives birth and that Great Timelessness which receives us once again, that determines if we truly “become.” And can there be any more noble goal than to truly become?
What do we see in those moments of attention but the luminous vibrancy of atomic energy bouncing in embodied, pulsating forms we call Life, solid but for a few infinitesimally tiny moments, we call a human life? It is in these moments that we are made greater than we normally are for we join both those dark ends into this radiant, linear middle. But aren’t I a collection of atoms that never die, merely changing form and returning into the womb of nascence I once arose from? Into those moments, I am given a vista beyond any previously imaginable with eyes still attached to believing these 80 or so years as the sum of my “life”. And from this vista, I am, if I am attentive enough, given a chance to Be and to witness all Being in its multifarious diversity.
Though perhaps counterintuitive, therefore I can love more, not less, the greater my “distance” is to the observed, whether that be an emotion or a child. For when my nervous attachments are removed, my habitual reactions and less-than-enlightened way of relating are abandoned; I am open to this newer, and “higher” view. For then I see, even more clearly, the terrible fragility of humanity, the delicate softness of Being itself and allow the automatic outpouring of compassionate concern for the vulnerable beings we all truly are to flow out from me. I think this is what is truly meant by the Buddhist “non-attachment,” for the more I can “see” the bigger picture, the more tenderly I regard the objects of my vision and the more ready I am to forgive or understand, despite the inevitable intrusions of habit.
The deep, indeed, Divine Attention I pay to the inner movements of my interior life, to those Divine moments I give my self over to, directs me to a higher awareness that seems to be far beyond myself, grander and quite set apart from the day-to-day personality I call my waking self. At such times I notice that the insight attained is really a gift, nothing that appears to come from me, but appears to come from outside of me, granting me a vision of things as they really are, enabling me to take in the entire range of Creation at once, teaching me to see, so to speak, with God’s eyes.