The Meditative Art of Attention

Following is an exerpt from a teaching by Australian Bhikkhu Ven. Pannyavaro – who will be visiting Bangkok in May. We have a Dhamma Talk, a meditation workshop, and a weekend retreat booked with him (details of all these will be announced soon).

The Meditative Art of Attention

Meditative attention is an art, or an acquired skill which brings clarity and an intelligence that sees the ‘true nature of things’. Among the variety of techniques in Buddhist meditation, the art of attention is the common thread underpinning all schools of Buddhist meditation: Mahamudra in the Tibetan tradition, Zazen in Zen Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in Theravada. Its ubiquitousness is illustrated by this Zen story: A monk once asked his teacher, ‘What is the fundamental teaching in Buddhism?’ the Master replied ‘Attention’. The student, dissatisfied with the answer said, ‘I wasn’t asking about attention, but was wanting to know the essential teaching in Buddhism’. The Master replied, ‘Attention, Attention, Attention’. So, it can be appreciated that the essence of Buddhist practice is to be found in the word – attention!

But how to do it? What is the practice? Vague advice to an aspiring meditator, such as ‘be mindful’ or ‘be attentive’, while offered with good intention, is unlikely to be effective. It is like the rulers in Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island who taught mynah birds to repeat ‘attention’ in the hope of training the island inhabitants to be attentive – it just didn’t work. To recognize the fact that most of us tend to function in a rather inattentive, unfocused way, which results in a rather superficial experience of life, is to see the necessity for training the errant attention in a systematic way, under guidance. This trained attention has the effect of uncovering, or laying bare, things as they really are. It is the ‘primary’ attention that sees through the ‘content’ mind to the underlying processes. In laying bare the reality of psychophysical phenomena, the salient characteristics are revealed without interfering with them. The art of this ‘bare’ attention is to simply register the predominant object in one’s experience as it arises without preference or interference, as a witness. That is, just registering or noting the changing phenomenon without reaction – be it sensation, sound, thought or a mind-state. However, if there is a reaction during the observation, as is natural for the untrained mind, then that too must be noted. This way of seeing has the potential to uncover the true nature of the phenomenon observed and thus a non-reactive, unconditioned awareness is acquired that brings liberating ‘inseeing’ or insight knowledge.

About Ven. Pannyavaro . . .

Venerable Pannyavaro is an Australian Buddhist monk who has devoted his life to the meditational aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. During his meditation training he practiced under several meditation masters in Sri Lanka and Burma including Venerable Sayadaw U Janaka of Chanmyay Meditation Centre, Rangoon, who is the foremost disciple of the renowned Burmese meditation master, the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.

Pannyavaro was involved in the beginnings of a number of the very early Buddhist communities in Australia. He later received full ordination at Wat Borvornivet in Bangkok under Venerable Phra Nyanasamvarva, the Sangha Raja of Thailand.

For the past thirty years, he has studied and practiced meditation in most of the major Theravada Buddhist countries, including long periods of intensive practise of Satipatthana-Vipassana meditation at the Mahasi Sayadaw centres in Burma.

As a Western meditation teacher, Ven. Pannyavaro naturally empathizes with the concerns and needs of meditators in their own culture. His long training and life experience combine to bring a practical in-depth approach to the teaching of insight (vipassana)meditation in contemporary life.

Pannyavaro was the resident teacher with the Buddha Dharma Education Association Centre, Sydney and gives retreats from time to time at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, Medlow Bath. Most recently he has set up Bodhi Tree monastery and retreat centre in Eastern Australia:

He is perhaps best known however for setting up and maintaining probably the internet’s most comprehensive resource on Buddhism :