There is a story in The Little Zen Companion about a Japanese Zen master, Ikkyu Sojun, of the 15th century. One day, a man approached him and asked him to write “a maxim of the highest wisdom” for him. The story goes as follows:
Ikkyu took his brush and wrote: “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man.
Ikkyu then wrote: “Attention, Attention.”
“Well,” said the man, “I really don’t see much depth in what you have written.”
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”
Half-angered, the man demanded, “What does that word ‘Attention’ mean, anyway?”
Ikkyu gently responded, “Attention means attention.”
Our Master urges us to concentrate our attention at the eye centre and we say, “Yes but would it be better for us to sit in meditation after taking a bath or a shower?” Master gently advises us not to worry about these things. He urges us to just do our meditation, do our bhajan and simran, concentrate our attention. So we ask, “Yes, but should we do our meditation in the morning or the evening? Should we sit on the floor or on a chair? Should we …? Should we …?” And the Master responds again and again with supreme patience that it doesn’t matter, just sit, just attend to meditation.
All these questions that our mind keeps coming up with just keep us confused, keep us away from doing the one thing that our Master is asking us to do: just sit, close our eyes, look into the darkness, do our simran, and try to concentrate our attention at the eye centre. Attention is, in fact, the “maxim of the highest wisdom” that the man in the story was looking for. Attention at the eye centre takes our mind and soul inside to the spiritual realms where we contact the Shabd and begin our journey home. Maharaj Sawan Singh says in Spiritual Gems, “It may be said safely that if any earnest student should hold his attention fully upon the given centre for three hours, without wavering, he must go inside.”
Great Master is not talking about the kind of attention that rises and falls as our mind runs out after some stray thought. The level of concentration that we need is three hours of unwavering attention! That is the kind of concentration that a Master has. Is this possible for us? Three hours of concentrated attention? Yes, but we have some work to do. Another Zen story adapted from Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours illustrates the challenge we have ahead of us when we take up this path in earnest.
A skillful archer challenges a Zen master who is also skilled in archery to prove which of them is the better. The young archer goes first and hits a bullseye on a far-away target with his very first arrow and then splits his first arrow with his second. “See if you can match that!” he says to the Zen master.
In response, the master silently motions to the young man to follow him up the mountain to a deep gorge spanned by a flimsy, shaky log of wood. Stepping out onto this “bridge” the Zen master aims at a far-away tree and fires a clean direct shot into it. “Now it is your turn,” he says.
Peering down into the seemingly bottomless ravine, the young archer, terrified, cannot bring himself to step onto the log, never mind shoot an arrow from it.
Understanding his opponent’s dilemma, the Zen master turns to him and says: “You have much skill with your bow, but you have little skill with mind that lets loose the shot.”
Like the archer in this story who has great skill and accuracy, we may be experts in leading the Sant Mat way of life: keeping the vows, doing seva, attending satsang, reading the books, and doing simran as much as possible during the day. But if we have not concentrated our mind during meditation, we are in the same position as the young archer who has learned the mechanical skills of archery but is terrified to stand on the log over the deep ravine. Without a focused mind, neither of us can achieve our goal.
Masters don’t whitewash the path. They tell us it will take effort to achieve our goal. It will take time. But they also say it is possible. Great Master continues the quote above in Spiritual Gems:
But [holding our attention at the eye centre] is not so easy without long practice. However, by and by, the mind becomes accustomed to staying in the centre. It rebels less and less, and finally yields to the demand to hold to the centre. Then your victory is won.
If we keep practising our meditation and doing our simran throughout the day, the mind will become accustomed to being at the eye centre. Then we will have won the battle. Everything we do in life should be directed towards achieving this goal.