by Evan Edwards
There’s a zen koan about master Nan-in and a younger monk, Tenno, who had been studying with his teacher for ten years. Tradition went that a student had to study this long before they were qualified to begin teaching, and Nan-in had invited Tenno over for tea to celebrate his pupilship coming to an end. Since it was raining that day, Tenno wore clogs and brought an umbrella, and left them by the door when he entered Nan-in’s home. After his guest had sat down, Nan-in asked Tenno, “I assume that since it is raining, you brought an umbrella. Correct? And did you put it on the left or the right of your clogs?” When he didn’t have an immediate answer, Tenno stood up and returned to the monastery in order to continue as a student for six more years.
The story is usually interpreted as an illustration of the value of attention and, more importantly, what we might call ‘awareness.’ Because Tenno was unable to recall the position of his umbrella, or perhaps better, because he was unaware of how he had arranged his things in the other room, he was not practicing “every-minute zen.” In other koans, the theme of the significance of attention and awareness return again and again. A student asked Master Ichu to write him something of great wisdom. Ichu took up his pen and wrote “attention.” The student asked Ichu what “attention” meant, and he responded that “attention means attention.” This theme seems to be so recurrent because, as individuals in the Vipassana school argue, nirvana, as a kind of “Budda-consciousness,” has to do with a particular state of vijnana, or “consciousness.” This kind of consciousness is a state of perfect awareness.
Certain strains of ecology and western environmental philosophy, also, stress the importance of awareness. In the work of Henry David Thoreau, we see an intense attention to nature that has been described by several commentators as an attempt to integrate himself more fully, and therefore live more authentically, within the web of life. Read more »