In a passage titled the Kingdom of Heaven in Heart at Work by Jack Canfield and Jacqueline Miller, Thich Nhat Hahn says: “We do not have to die to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, we have to be fully alive. When we breathe in and out and hug a beautiful tree, we are in Heaven. When we take one conscious breath, aware of our eyes, our heart, our liver and our non-toothache, we are transported to Paradise right away. Peace is available. We only need to touch it. When we are truly alive, we can see that the tree is part of Heaven, and we are also part of Heaven. The whole universe is conspiring to reveal this to us, but we are so out of touch that we invest our resources to cutting down the trees. If we want to enter the Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath. When we touch peace, everything becomes real. We become ourselves, fully alive in the present moment, and the tree, our child and everything else reveal themselves to us in their full splendour. The miracle is not to walk on thin air or water, but to walk on Earth.”
Hahn puts it beautifully. Most of us live through life as though we are asleep. Somnambulists – that is what we are. And that is why our life is so dull, so mechanical and empty. That is why we find so little satisfaction from living. Our eyes may be open, but we do not see. Our ears may be open, but we do not hear. And we do not taste, we do not touch, we do not smell.
A young man was once on a trip to the Himalayas. Someone in a family he was close to learnt about the trip, and she told him to look for brahma-kamal flowers in the Himalayas. She told him it is a very rare sacred flower and gave him a description. He spent two months in the Himalayas, staying in an ashram on the Varanavat mountain associated with the Pandavas. He took long walks almost daily, exploring the nearby mountains all alone, and sometimes just walking along the Ganga. Since he loved to walk, the walks usually lasted three or four hours each morning, and sometimes stretched to longer periods. He searched for brahma-kamals everywhere, and he couldn’t find any. He asked a lot of people about brahma-kamals, but no one in Uttar Kashi, at least no one that he met, had seen them. Some people pointed out to him a flower called the sthal-kamal. He decided this was perhaps what the lady had meant and on his way back brought back a small sapling of it. It was a difficult job – he had to bring it all the way down from Uttar Kashi by bus to Rishikesh, look after it in Rishikesh during the couple of days he spent there, then bring it by bus to Delhi, where too he spent a day or two, and then bring it by train to the eastern city where he lived. All the time he had to keep it watered so that it did not die.
The sapling was alive when he neared his residence and he was happy and proud of the fact. But the next moment all joy was gone. As he stretched out his hand to open the gate, his eyes fell on the thick bush growing just inside his gate in his garden. It had some twenty flowers in bloom on it – beautiful pink flowers! And he recognised the bush instantly with a shock – sthal-kamal! The sapling that he had brought all the way down from the Himalayas with so much difficulty had been growing in his own garden and he hadn’t noticed it!
This is true of the majority of us adults and has been so for a long time. But the frightening reality of our times is that it is it is becoming increasingly true of our children too.
I once conducted an experiment. I was then running a long experimental workshop called Creativity Theatre for senior school children. The children had spent around ten to twelve years in their school and the school had uniform grills on the windows in every classroom. I asked the children not to look at the grills and without once looking at them, draw their pattern on a sheet of paper. There were around forty children in the workshop at that time. And not one of them was able to reproduce the pattern correctly on paper! And they had been looking at the pattern for eight to ten years, seeing it every school day for hours!
In the modern Zen classic The Three Pillars of Zen, Roshi Philip Kapleau reproduces the following story from Zenso Mondo [Dialogues of the Zen Masters]:
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?”
And Ikkyu answered gently: “Attention means attention.”
Attention is all that we lack in our life. Attention is all we need to make our life heaven on earth.
To pay attention is to be conscious of.
Consciousness is life. Unconsciousness is death. Consciousness is heaven. Unconsciousness is hell.
Consciousness is what India calls jnana, mukti, moksha – knowledge, liberation, freedom – and unconsciousness what India calls, ajnana, bandha, samsara – ignorance, bondage, misery.
When you are conscious, when you pay attention, you see life as it is. When you are conscious, when you pay attention, you see the world as it is. Bathed in beauty. Bathed in glory.
There is a beautiful passage in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha which talks of an experience of awakening that Siddhartha had:
Siddhartha opened his eyes and looked around, a smile filled his face and a feeling of awakening from long dreams flowed through him from his head down to his toes...
He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical, and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through the eyes, was no longer a spell of Mara, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer a pointless and coincidental diversity of mere appearances, despicable to the deeply thinking Brahman, who scorns diversity, who seeks unity.
Blue was blue, river was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha, the singular and divine lived hidden, so it was still that very divinity’s way and purpose, to be here yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest, and here Siddhartha. The purpose and the essential properties were not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in everything.
“How deaf and stupid have I been!” he thought, walking swiftly along. “When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters, I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened, I have indeed awakened and have not been born before this very day.”
When we pay attention, when we are lead by awareness, by light, beautiful things happen to us. Attention, consciousness, is like a lamp that shows us things as they are, without distortions. And when we live without its light, we make errors.
A young boy was going out one evening. His father asked him, “Where are you going?”
“On a date, Dad” the boy said. “I am meeting a new girl.”
“Why are you taking the torch,” asked the father. “I never took a torch when I went courting.”
“That figures,” said the boy looking at his mother. “Look what you got.”
It is not only in marriage that we make mistakes when we do not pay attention. We mess up our whole life.
The world is meant to be heaven. It’s Her leela, Her krida, Her sport. And it should be fun. Life should be a celebration, a festivity. But look at what we have made of it.
Because we do not pay attention.
Jesus’ words are beautiful: the kingdom of heaven is within us. Thich Nhat Hahn is right: heaven is on earth. Zen master Ikkyu puts it precisely. The only thing that matters is: attention, attention, attention.