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Yoniso Manasikara - Wise Attention

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

Tan Nisabho of Clear Mountain Monastery in Seattle, WA offered a zoom retreat on this topic in January 2022. He gave three Dhamma talks.

Session One

"The warmth of a gaze can change the object of the gaze. What we're cultivating is the ability to direct our gaze and see past our own projections and stop looking to others to nourish and support us but rather look to others in a way that let's us bless them as much as we are able with our own goodwill. And that takes a solidity of heart cultivated in meditation and a skill and agility in practice and the inner wealth that we gain through this Path that lets us just enter the world in a way where we wish to give. What people need more than anything is to be truly seen and heard."

This statement by Tan Nisabho in his third Dhamma talk gives a beautiful and warm introduction to this important quality of Wise Attention. Wise attention is the nutriment, the substrate for all of our bright qualities, for the Factors of Awakening, for the Noble Eightfold Path. And the good thing about Wise Attention is that, unlike some more abstract concepts, is easy to cultivate.

"Yoniso Manasikara is the most basic act of kamma one can create."

The qualities of Manas, which means intellect are:

  • vedana

  • perception

  • intention

  • contact

  • attention

All these qualities go out and grasp objects and press them into the citta, the heart/mind, the subjective quality of experience. The citta is what intends and yearns and is ignorant and also what becomes Awakened. So Manasikara is this grasping of objects in the world and pressing them into our heart/mind to taste/experience.

Yoniso means womb. Yoniso Manasikara is attention that goes to the core of things....but it's more. What we give attention to is what builds our world. The world we live in is largely where we put our attention. And the world we live in determines who we are or what our heart's quality is.

Most people believe the world we live in is dependent upon external conditions and that our reactions and experiences are largely dependent on that world. The most significant step at the beginning of this Path is to understand that we, through the tools the Buddha gave us, can carefully and intentionally direct our attention and determine the world we live in and therefore determine the qualities of our own hearts.

Thus Yoniso Manasikara is our ability to give birth to a world that is bright and loving.

Yoniso Manasikara can truly change our world to a great extent. Ven. P.A. Payutto, in his book "Buddhadharma", has collated from the teachings of the Buddha 10 different uses of Wise Attention. These are:

  1. Analyzing things by causes and conditions

  2. Analyzing things into component parts

  3. Analyzing things in terms of the three characteristics

  4. Analyzing things in terms of the Four Noble Truths

  5. Analyzing things in terms of the connection between practices and their underlying principles

  6. Analyzing things in terms of their true and false benefits

  7. Analyzing things in terms of their drawbacks, advantages and escape

  8. Analyzing things in terms of a way to arouse wholesome mental states

  9. Analyzing things in terms of remaining in the present moment

  10. Using Yoniso Manasikara in the service of analytical conversations: i.e. conversation dealing with any of the previous nine categories.

Tan Nisabho discussed each of these categories in his three Dhamma talks.

1. Analyzing things by causes and conditions

Present moment experience is composed of the fruits of past intention and our current intention and the fruits of our current intention. i.e. it's complex!

We are surrounded by an unstable sea of conditions. This chaos has two salient qualities:

a) scale and variance i.e. patterns that manifest on a small scale also manifest on a large scale. So kammic patterns manifest in a small way during meditation and also in a broad way in our lives.

This is the importance of meditation. We get to see these patterns of suffering and unskillfulness play out in the microcosm of our meditation. Then we see how that pattern happens to be the pattern that dominates our whole life. When we look into the causes and condition of these patterns that show up in meditation, we can alter them in the larger scope of our life as well.

This analysis helps us accept the world in its reality because we have some understanding of how it came to be. So this helps us to stop shooting ourselves with the second arrow i.e. fussing about what is. What binds us all is a fundamental suffering and ignorance.

2. Analyzing things in terms of their component parts

There are many ways to do this. Some are:

- five aggregates

- six sense bases

- Four Noble Truths

- four types of attachment: to rites and rituals, view, sensual craving, self

- bright and dark qualities

- craving: for sensuality, for becoming, for annihilation

- the nutriments of awareness: contact, intention, consciousness

A read through the Samyutta Nikaya will alert one to many more ways to divide things into component parts.

When life feels complicated, simplify it into components eg. sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, thoughts. When we get stuck on something, we can ask, "What else is true right now"? This helps us to not become too fixated with one part of experience. When angry we can ask, "Which way of attachment is being challenged"? When judging another, if we can see them with bright and dark qualities just as we have both, helps us understand we're all a mix so we can soften our judgmental mind.

Why do our minds wander and proliferate so much during meditation? It's because the nutriment of contact has been cut off. So what is left is intention which is what all these fantasies and becoming that arise while in mediation really are. The mind is trying to feed itself and is leaning on the nutriment of intention, which is basically becoming. So it's good to start with an active mediation techinique such as Bhikkhu Thanissaro describes in his book, "With Each and Every Breath". Moving energy/awareness through the body. Play with breath energy. Or do one of the Recollection meditations or active metta. Do this until joy arises and now the nutriment of contact is being fed by joy.

Session one ends with instructions on walking meditation.

Session Two

This Path is a bright one. Paradoxically when we turn towards suffering we also turn towards the brightness that lies just beyond that suffering.

By happiness one achieves happiness.

3. Analyzing Things in terms of the three characteristics: impermanence, suffering and not self.

Doing this leads to equipoise. The proper response to annica (impermanence) is composure and commitment.

Composure is equipoise, the most refined mental state. It's the ability to step back when we realize there is nothing we can do in that exact moment, and acknowledge the limits of your control and capacities. And to acknowledge the imperfection of the world and the people we live with. We step back and wait for the moment we can do something.

Realizing we are all flawed is dukkha (unsatisfactoriness/suffering). Look at relatives not as relatives but as friends in birth, aging and death and let them have their freedom to be who and what they are.....that's real love. This applies to the world as a whole. We try to effect change as we're able but realize this is samsara and we'll never be able to perfect it completely. This lets us be in this imperfect world without suffering.

Annica, dukkha and annata are great gifts....they are the Divine Messengers. Our greatest danger is heedlessness. Thus the Divine Messengers are the world just trying to make us turn towards something more worthy of us. The world is falling apart in its eagerness to show us what lies underneath. It's not a painless process. The Path is slow but the changes that happen are profound.

We have to be burned by the world again and again to stop holding onto it so tightly and to give it some freedom. Ajahn Chah said, "80% of the practice is knowing we need to let go of something and not being able to".

What we're moving towards is a transcendence of the heart. We can only see annica, dukkha and annata clearly if our heart/mind feels it has something else to rest on. This is why we cultivate morality, a sense of well-being for meditation, spiritual friendship. And it's important to visit beings who have progressed far along the Path so we can glimpse what the transcendent heart looks like.

The process of refining the mind is initially one of using quite course mental objects to focus the mind and then seeing, as the mind becomes more refined, how those objects feel too course. If one is agile enough and attuned, one lets go of the course object and moves to a more refined object.

4. Analyzing things in terms of the Four Noble Truths

Each Truth has a task:

  1. Suffering - our task is to comprehend it

  2. Origin - our task is to let go of craving

  3. Cessation - our task is to realize it

  4. Path - our task is to develop it

We MUST comprehend our suffering before moving on to the other tasks. If we don't, these tasks become a means of "spiritual bypass". For example, before sending out metta to others, spend some time acknowledging our own bruided hearts. Doing this allows the other three Truths to open up.

Compassion can be accessed by tracing back a broblematic behaviour to the initiating wound.

5. Analyzing things in terms of the connection between practices and their underlying principles

The principles refer to those underlying Awakening. And the purpose is Awakening. Use Wise Attention to look at every aspect of the Path as a means towards something else. This prevents us from holding any aspect in balance it against others and make sure it's according with the underlying principles of the practice as a whole. As the Buddha said, "....all my teachings have one taste, that of freedom".

If, while practicing, we find ourselves becoming constricted, harsh, knotted, we know we've gone off the Path because we're not in line with the underlying purpose/benefit.

For example: restraint is for the sake of freedom from remorse,

which is for the sake of joy

which is for the sake of rapture

which is for the sake of tranquility

which is for the sake of samadhi

which is for the sake of knowledge and vision of the way things are

which is for the sake of release and the knowledge and vision of release.

This is important for when we lose our way.

So if you get knotted during sitting practice you know you have come out of tune with the other aspects of the Path. So then it's important to cultivate the bright aspects: faith, giving (renunciation), community (kalyanamittas) and sila.

Instead of looking at kamma as unfortuneate circumstances you have to muddle through, think of kamma as lessons the universe is meaning to teach you.

Aligning our life with the deeper purpose of Awakening: purifying the heart and healing the world as much as we can.

6. Analyzing things in terms of their true and false benefits

This is basically the same as #5. There are counterfit benefits constantly rising up to distract us. The real benefits are the underlying principles.

Tan Nisabho ends this session answering a question about walking meditation and a question about nutriment, to which he gives a detailed answer.

Session Three

Yoniso Manasikara is also translated as Mature Attention. It goes to the core of things. It brings into being the world we live in and that gives birth to us and the quality of our own hearts.

Tan Nisabho spoke of a book called, "Peace Pilgrim". It is about a woman who walked across America several times over the span of a couple of decades, spreading the message of peace. She saw the best in people and it changed them immediately.

Realizing what a gaze of goodwill can do to someone, our role as practitioners is not to punish or judge but to love people as much as we can and to provide that gaze for everyone. We still need to set boundaries and draw back from popele who are not wholesome for us, but still see people as flawed but utterly worthy of love and see the transcendent in them. The more we see it in ourselves the more we can see it in others.

7. Analyzing things in terms of their drawbacks, advantages and escape

This is called the Gratification Triad. Use this for the negative states of our minds. We know the drawback of these states but we can't let go of them because we haven't looked at what attracts us to them....What are we getting from it?

Meditation allows us to examine these mind states in a safe environment where we can really taste them carefully. Once we see the disadvantage outweighs the advantage (wisdom) we can let go. That's the escape. We become disenchanted with the negative mind state and instead become enchanted with the Noble Eightfold Path, with kalyanamittas, with having a real purpose. This allows us to let go.

Tan Nisabho quoted Ajahn Passano: "Wisdom will take you to the edge but only faith lets you jump". Frequently the escape is surrender to something that we haven't stepped into before eg. make an adhitthāna (a determination) to do/not do something, talk to a kalyanamitta, go on retreat at a monastery or move to a more refined mental state.

8. Analyzing things in terms of a way to arouse wholesome mental states

This way of using Yoniso Manasikara aligns with Satipatthana's fourth focus of mindfulness: mindfulness of Dhamma Categories which boil down to the Factors of Awakening and the Hindrances.

SN 46.51 Āhāra Sutta is about how we feed the Factors of Awakening and how we starve the Hindrances. The Awakening Factors are divided into active and calming factors. The active factors are:

  • investigation

  • energy

  • piti (rapture)

The calming factors are:

  • tranquility

  • samadhi

  • equanimity

The fulcrum factor is mindfulness. It's always useful. Depending on our state of mind we need to employ either calming or invigorating factors. If one's practice is becoming dry it's helpful to listen to a new teacher, try a new technique. And it's very important to go on a retreat once a year, if at all possible.

9. Analyzing things in terms of remaining in the present moment

This way of using Yoniso Manasikara aligns with Satipatthana's first, second and third focuses of mindfulness: the body, vedana (feeling tone) and mind states. We are just tracking present moment experience in one of these categories. When tracking our mind states it's important to be aware of what is repeatedly drawing us away from our meditation object.

10. Using Yoniso Manasikara in the service of analytical conversations

This is talk in line with the above nine ways to use Yoniso Manasikara. There is such joy in talking about Truth. And there are so many ways to talk about it.

In the Q+A period Tan Nisabho answered a question about how to use the Sound of Silence as a meditation object. There followed a discussion of this topic.

Summary: For Memorization

Uses of Yoniso Manasikara - Wise Attention

Analyzing things in terms of:

  1. Causes and conditions

  2. Component parts

  3. Three Characteristics

  4. Four Noble Truths

  5. Connection between practices and underlying principles

  6. True and false benefits

  7. Drawbacks, advantages and escape

  8. Arousing wholesome mental states

  9. Remaining in the present moment

  10. Using YM in the service of analytical conversations

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