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Thread: Zazen and Breathing

  1. #1

    Zazen and Breathing

    JUNDO NOTE: This rather long post is really just for anyone with a special interest in Soto Zen/Shikantaza perspectives on breathing. It is inspired by something I witnessed on a general Buddhist website, where I saw a student being given very limited or misinformation on breathing in Shikantaza. If you wish to skip the long version, the bottom line of what we recommend today, and in our Sangha, is as described by Shohaku Okumura Roshi in the quote at the very end of the post.

    Shikantaza Zazen is sitting in non-seeking, and the way of breathing instructed by Master Dogen and other early Soto Zen Ancestors according to the teachings which they have left us is breathing non-seeking. This non-seeking breath is a natural breathing. It is deep from the abdomen, from the area known as the “Hara” or “Tanden” (the region down in the belly, below the navel) and it is best if not a shallow breathing. That is simply for the same reason that anyone, from runners to opera singers to ordinary folks, should best avoid too shallow or rapid breathing not fully using lung capacity. It is simply healthful, allowing proper oxygenation of the body. However, there are many statements which indicate quite clearly that Master Dogen, and his immediate successors in the Japanese Soto Tradition, did not intend any additional technique or pattern with the breath beyond that.

    What the founders did also emphasize in their instructions on Zazen (because they are Zen teachers) was breathing which is transcendent of breathing: By this is meant breathing in which “long breaths are long, short breaths are short,” but at the same time one sits placing aside from mind all human measuring of “long vs. short.” Breaths come in and out, yet one also knows that they neither arise nor go anywhere, as out is in and in is out. Inside is outside and outside flows to in. As Suzuki Shunryu Roshi expressed it in a more modern Teaching (from Zen Mind, Beginners Mind):

    When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say”I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.
    https://www.dailyzen.com/journal/zen...beginners-mind
    The one instruction in which Master Dogen might possibly be interpreted as encouraging some manipulation or special use of the Hara/Tanden is the following, from his Eihei Koroku. However, as I will show, other comments by his immediate Successors (such as Masters Eijo and Keizan) and by Dogen himself show that he likely meant just allowing the breath to assume its natural rhythm, although deep from the belly. The words in the following translation in which Master Dogen speaks of “regulating” the breath (息を整へ / totonoe) may perhaps better be translated as “putting in order” or “settling” the breath, and seems to consist only of (1) deep breathing from the abdomen and (2) allowing a natural rhythm to be found. Such breathing is to settle into its natural rhythm, “allowing long breaths to be long, short breaths to be short,” but at the same time “neither long nor short” (by the dropping of such measures and divisions of source and goal in the mind of Zazen). Dogen wrote (Dharma Hall Discourse 390):

    In the zazen of patch-robed monks, first you should sit correctly with upright posture. Then regulate [put in order/settle] your breath and settle your mind (坐を正すを先とし、然るのちに息を整へ、心を致せ). In the lesser vehicle originally there were two gateways, which were counting breaths and contemplating impurity. In the lesser vehicle, people used counting to regulate their breath. However, the buddha ancestors’ engaging of the way always differed from the lesser vehicle. A buddha ancestor said, “Even if you arouse the mind of a leprous wild fox, never practice the self-regulation of the two vehicles.” (白癩の野干の心を発すといへども、二乗の自調の行を作す莫れ) The two vehicles refer to such [non-Mahayana schools] as the school of the four-part vinaya, and the [Abhidharma] Kosa school, which have spread in the world these days.

    In the Mahayana there is also a method for regulating breath, which is knowing that one breath is long, another breath is short. The breath reaches the tanden and comes up from the tanden. Although exhale and inhale differ, both of them occur depending on the tanden. Impermanence is easy to clarify, and regulating the mind is easy to accomplish.

    My late teacher Tiantong [Master Rujing] said, “Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. (息入り来たりて、丹田に至る。雖然、従り来る処無し) Therefore it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.” (所以に、長からず、短かからず。息、丹田を出で去く。雖然、去き得る処無し。所以に、短かからず、長から ず。) My late teacher said it like that. Suppose someone were to ask Eihei, “Master, how do you regulate your breath?” I would simply say to him: Although it is not the great vehicle, it differs from the lesser vehicle. Although it is not the lesser vehicle, it differs from the great vehicle. Suppose that person inquired again, “Ultimately, what is it?” I would say to him: Exhale and inhale are neither long nor short.
    https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/EiheiKoroku.pdf
    Apart from such simple descriptions, there is no special rhythm, pattern, focus or concentration on the breath described by any of the founders despite their otherwise very detailed descriptions of the position and use of the body and mind during Zazen. In this case, absence of such instructions despite otherwise detailed descriptions on what to do with the body during Zazen indicates quite clearly that such special manipulations were not being taught. Dogen’s meaning of “totonoe” as “putting in order” or “settling” the breath, and breathing from the “Tanden,” becomes a bit clearer when we look at some of his other writings.

    Dogen, in his guide to Zazen known as Fukanzazengi, simply instructs (Tanahashi):

    Rest the tongue against the roof of the mouth, with lips and teeth closed. Keep the eyes open and breathe gently through the nose. Having adjusted your body in this manner, take a breath and exhale fully, then sway your body to left and right. Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.
    In his Shobogenzo-Zazenshin, Dogen was quite critical of monks who write manuals of meditations emphasizing manipulative methods:

    The writings they have collected up are merely an outer show of ‘coming back to the Source’, or ‘returning to the Origin’, or convey useless methods for concentrating on one’s breathing or for focusing on tranquility.
    http://pvzen.org/fukanzazengi-eng.html
    Ejo Zenji, Master Dogen's faithful successor and “right hand man,” leaves us these instructions in his long and detailed ode to Zazen, “Absorption in the Treasury of Light” (Komyozo):

    Plunging body and mind into the great treasury of light without looking back "sit gradually under the eaves" without seeking enlightenment, without trying to to get rid of illusions, without aversion to the rising of thoughts, and yet without fondly continuing thoughts. If you do not continue thoughts, thoughts cannot arise by themselves. Like an empty space, like a mass of fire, letting your breathing flow naturally out and in, sit decisively without getting involved in anything at all.
    https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/Ejo...y-of-Light.pdf
    In the 3rd Generation after Dogen, Keizan Zenji wrote (Zazen Yojinki):

    Sometimes when you are sitting you may feel hot or cold, discomfort or ease, stiff or loose, heavy or light, or sometimes startled. These sensations arise through disharmonies of mind and breath-energy. Harmonize your breath in this way: open your mouth slightly, allow long breaths to be long and short breaths to be short and it will harmonize naturally. Follow it for awhile until a sense of awareness arises and your breath will be natural. After this, continue to breathe through the nose.

    Sit straight without leaning to left or right, front or back. Ears and shoulders, nose and navel should be aligned. Place the tongue on the palate and breathe through the nose. The mouth should be closed. The eyes should be open but not too wide nor too slight. Harmonizing the body in this way, breathe deeply with the mouth once or twice. Sitting steadily, sway the torso seven or eight times in decreasing movements. Sit straight and alert.
    https://wwzc.org/dharma-text/zazen-y...be-aware-zazen
    What the founders did also emphasize in their instructions on Zazen was breathing which is transcendant of breathing: By this is meant breathing in which “long breaths are long, short breaths are short,” but at the same time one sits placing aside from mind all human measuring of “long vs. short.” Breaths come in and out, yet one also knows that they neither arise nor go anywhere, as out is in and in is out. Inside is outside and outside flows to in.

    Furthermore, the early Japanese disciples of Dogen emphasize Zazen with a radical “non-gaining” idea. Any manipulation of the breath to attain some special effect or state risks introduction of the gaining mind. This becomes clear when we look at other descriptions of Zazen and surrounding words by Ejo in his Komyozo:

    Monks, do not all of the strategies of cultivating something or of mystical principles or subtle states all fall within either thinking or not-thinking? Since it is not a matter of thinking or not-thinking, right now, give up on deluded views of attaining or rejecting. … From the very beginning, seeking concentration states and viewing practice and realization as two different things is different from the realised-practice of the harmonies and vast activity of the Transmission of luminosity. …However, looking around at monks these days, because they base everything on their own narrow views although they polish it day and night, they are just trying to rub through to get to something. Others try to swat away wandering thoughts, hoping to clear things up by beating out the flames, so that some mysteriously silent light will shine. If you think it is just a matter of stopping thoughts then don't wood, stones, and mud already do it better than you can? …I feel a great respect from the depths of my compassion for you who continue the practice of zazen in the state of mind that I will now describe: without grasping anything [without being pulled around by states or objects] or having any goal … Do not seek satori enlightenment. Do not try to hide or be rid of illusion. Do not hate the thoughts that arise, do not love them either and above all, do not nourish them, without aversion to the rising of thoughts, and yet without fondly continuing them. In every way, you must practice the great sitting, here and now. If you do not nourish a thought, it will not come back by itself. Like an empty space like a mass of fire, letting your breathing flow naturally out and in, sit decisively without getting involved in anything at all. If you have no expectations about what you are doing and refuse to consider anything, you can cut everything off through zazen alone. … Breathing in, breathing out, hearing, touching, without thoughts of separation, is just the silent illumination of luminosity in which body and mind are single. Thus, when someone calls, you immediately answer …Thus, from breath to breath, your profound nature, like your sensory nature, will unconsciously, naturally become non-knowing, non-understanding. From that point, everything can naturally become calm, the radiance of komyo in the unity of body and mind. …
    At various times in the history of Soto Zen in Japan, some have sort to introduce artifical practices to manipulate the breath in various way, probably due to the influence of various esoteric (Tendai/Shingon) Buddhist practices, Rinzai/Obaku Zen contacts, Daoist/Nativist beliefs, and Chinese traditional medicine concepts which were introduced into Japanese Soto in later centuries, an age when the Teachings of the early founders in Japan were neglected if not forgotten. Such special techniques of the age of “Kirigami” (secret esoteric practices introduced into late medieval Soto from such outside influences) represent the infiltration of “gaining mind” into Shikantaza Zazen Practice, turning it into a form of meditation aimed at realizing special states and mystical sensations and interpretations. These ideas carried over into later centuries as well, even into the modern day, resulting in even some modern teachers who confuse these later infiltrations of ideas and practices with original Soto Practice. One example is the rather eccentric, yet brilliant, 19th Century Soto Zen priest Hara Tanzan, who was also a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, and an advocate of a rather unusual theory of bodily systems (“He claimed both bodily illness and mental suffering were the product of a kind of mucus called Dana which he thought was running up from the hipbone through the spinal column up to the brain. According to his theory, if this flow of mucus were to be shut up by the power of Zen, brain would be cleared away and complete health would be gained.” https://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110007154619) It is true that he recommended various special breathing practices as part of his quaint theory of “Dana” mucus.

    The founders each cautioned against such an attitude, reminding us that the most special of special state and sensation is simply liberation from the hunger and need to manipulate, to attain, to change.

    These days, sometimes modern students come seeking advice on breathing in Shikantaza and the Soto tradition, and are denied all the history. Unfortunately, sometimes the advice given them is based on limited information which confuses various esoteric, Rinzai Zen, Chinese medicine and other mystical “Kirigami” interpretations with traditional Soto ways as advocated by Dogen and the early founders. (At the other extreme, they are often presented nothing more than following or counting the breath to become centered or as a relaxation technique, not true Shikantaza). That is a shame, and anyone who fails to present the complete picture, and wider information to the student, may be merely introducing their own narrow biases favoring their own teachers and traditions, and guilty of intentional manipulation themselves. It denies the student the right to all relevant information.

    (I would simply add one final note: In this Shikantaza Practice, we sit radically with "what is," dropping all resistance to how we would change and manipulate life to be "as we think it should be." By doing so, we realize the peace of the dropping of all division and friction with life conditions, thus the dropping of desire, anger, divided thinking in ignorance. Thus, in those cases where the body does not allow ... for example, for someone with pulmonary issues such as asthma or lung cancer ... one then sits Zazen just breathing as one can breathe, all "should be's" dropped. Then, even one's huffing and wheezing from high up in the chest, if that is all one can muster, is beyond deep or shallow, good or bad, and from the heart of the universe's own breath).

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS - Another respected modern Teacher, Shohaku Okumura, presents this explanation of the breath in Zazen, the kind of information that such an inquiring student should hear ...

    Next I will explain how to breathe in zazen; breathing is one of the most important points in any kind of meditation practice. When your posture is stable, first exhale from the mouth completely, letting the air inside your body completely out. When you have completely exhaled, you close your mouth, place your tongue on the roof of you mouth, and inhale through your nose. When you do this, you will feel the fresh air come in through your nose. Also, when you sit in meditation, breathe abdominally. Keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth, breathe easily and naturally with the air coming into your body through your nose and down to your abdomen,. When we breathe in this way, the belly moves as the air comes in and as it goes out. Keep the breath deep, smooth, and peaceful. It is best if the exhalation is longer than the inhalation in zazen. Just slowly and completely exhale all of the air, and then air will naturally come back into your lungs. It is not necessary to make any special effort to regulate your breathing; just keep breathing naturally through the nose, so naturally that you forget about breathing. In some traditions, sometimes even in the Zen tradition, some teachers teach the meditation technique of counting the breath. In this method the practitioner counts the breaths from one to ten, repeating the count over again after each series of ten breaths. Some teachers also teach watching the breath – paying special attention to the air as it comes in and goes out of the body. In my tradition we don’t count or watch the breath, we just breathe naturally, deeply and quietly.
    http://antaiji.org/en/dharma/okumura-mind-and-zazen/
    Last edited by Jundo; 04-03-2018 at 10:46 PM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  2. #2
    A wonderful and vital reminder Jundo, thank you. =)

    Gassho
    Shingen

    Sat/LAH #naturally breathing
    RINDO SHINGEN
    倫道 真現

  3. #3
    This is great but I must confess I've always been a little confused about how to breathe during zazen. I watched a video by Taigen Shodo Harada Roshi who recommended an exhale should be about 8-10 seconds. I can do that but for me when I am typing these words an exhalation takes about 2.5 seconds. 8-10 seconds is more of a deep breath. 2.5 seconds is normal breathing. Which would be best suited to our Shikantaza practice?

    Gassho
    Sat Today / LAH
    James

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by James View Post
    This is great but I must confess I've always been a little confused about how to breathe during zazen. I watched a video by Taigen Shodo Harada Roshi who recommended an exhale should be about 8-10 seconds. I can do that but for me when I am typing these words an exhalation takes about 2.5 seconds. 8-10 seconds is more of a deep breath. 2.5 seconds is normal breathing. Which would be best suited to our Shikantaza practice?

    Gassho
    Sat Today / LAH
    James
    Harada Roshi is a wonderful Teacher in the Rinzai school, and they have their own ways.

    Here, just breath naturally, from the diaphram but nothing unusual. Just do as Okumura Roshi recommends at the end of the post above. He say that out breaths should be longer than in, which is ordinary for human respiration. No need to hold a stop watch to it.

    Gassho, Jundo

    SatTodayLAH
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  5. #5
    "Let long breaths be long and short breaths be short" always struck me as the most straightforward advice. Basically says breathe naturally and don't be forcing your breath to be something unnatural.


    Tairin
    Sat today
    Last edited by Tairin; 04-05-2018 at 10:53 PM.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    Harada Roshi is a wonderful Teacher in the Rinzai school, and they have their own ways.

    Here, just breath naturally, from the diaphram but nothing unusual. Just do as Okumura Roshi recommends at the end of the post above. He say that out breaths should be longer than in, which is ordinary for human respiration. No need to hold a stop watch to it.

    Gassho, Jundo

    SatTodayLAH
    Well that settles it then. Many thanks, Jundo.

    Gassho
    Sat Today /LAH
    James

  7. #7
    Thank you for the teaching Jundo.

    Gassho, Shinshi

    SaT-LaH

  8. #8
    Member Seishin's Avatar
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    Thank you Jundo, a timely lesson as I have been "struggling" with breathing during some recent sits and I've now become more conscious of it again. Hopefully this will help me get back to just sitting.


    Seishin

    Sei - Meticulous
    Shin - Heart



    Sat Today / lah

  9. #9
    Thank you for laying out the Soto approach with reference to noted teachers.

    This is a great resource, Jundo.

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  10. #10
    Thank you Jundo. I have been mulling over the quote from Ejo's Komyozo at the beginning of the thread. I admire his practicality in cutting through the attainment of mystic or subtle states and just sitting.

    Gassho, Rendulic
    Sat Today

  11. #11
    Thank you. I only got to 10 once or twice in my life so I stopped counting.

    Doshin
    St

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Doshin View Post
    Thank you. I only got to 10 once or twice in my life so I stopped counting.

    Doshin
    St
    I got to 20 once ... that is cause when you crossed your legs, you have your toes to count too.

    Gassho
    Shingen

    Sat/LAH
    RINDO SHINGEN
    倫道 真現

  13. #13


    Gassho,
    Jakuden
    SatToday/LAH
    清 道 寂田
    SEIDO JAKUDEN
    I am a novice priest. Any resemblance my posts may have to actual teachings about the Dharma, living or dead, is purely coincidental (and just my attempt to be helpful).

  14. #14
    Member Seishin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Doshin View Post
    Thank you. I only got to 10 once or twice in my life so I stopped counting.

    Doshin
    St

    When I first started counting and then following years ago, I thought what could be so difficult about counting to 10 ? I could not believe how hard and almost impossible it was, even to get to 5 or 6 to start with without "where was I?".

    Now I know there is no good or bad zazen but since reading Jundo's post but returning to these simple practices, has some how made my last few sits feel more relaxed, with a more calmer mind. Hey could be just coincidence but I'm starting to forget about my breaths after a few minutes or so, so that's got to be good / not good thing.

    Thank you again.


    Seishin

    Sei - Meticulous
    Shin - Heart



    Sat Today / lah

  15. #15
    Thank you Jundo, this is so helpful.
    As a Yogini I practice lots of Pranayama, which I love, and I always have to remind myself of letting go of manipulating the breath when I sit Zazen, and I love that too !

    Gassho,
    Jyúkatsu
    sattoday
    柔 Jyū flexible
    活 Katsu energetic

  16. #16
    Thank you Jundo. Lots of good information here, I will be sure to go back to this post.

    I was originally taught to count the breath by a Ch'an teacher years ago. I just couldn't do it, drove me crazy. Later, after doing other stuff for a while, watching the breath became easier, but I probably would've given up if I tried to persevere with the breath at the beginning. I've heard similar things from other people. It seems like watching/counting the breath is a good way to start out for some, but for others it's better to keep the attention wider and let the mind calm down on its own. If they choose to, they can experiment with watching the breath and developing concentration states later.

    I'm wary of making a concentration practice my primary thing, because it does have a gaining/striving element at work within it. But it's important to keep some perspective. Jhanas can only be cultivated by letting go. If the mind starts to get excited ("yes, here we are, I've been with the breath for ages/The breath is subtle now, Jhana is close, keep going, nearly there") then concentration is lost and the meditator needs to go back to the start. So, yes, there are goals, but the goals can only be achieved in practice by dropping gaining mind and non-judgementally watching the breath. As the suttas say, this process of letting go and returning to the breath trains the mind to let go of unwholesome habits and attachments. It is the "pleasure borne of non-attachment", or something like that.

    Either way, we end up at goallessness and being with things as they are. Zen really foregrounds the significance of non-striving and emphasises this from the beginning. Other schools take people towards this goal in phases. Whichever road we take, in the end there is only this moment, and everything we've been looking for is right here.

    If someone wants to watch the breath and explore these states, it's certainly a lot better than many other activities they could be doing. It will probably have some indirect benefits on their Zazen and life in general. But, at some point, they'll need to drop the desire for concentration/pleasant states arising therefrom, and abide in the here and now.

    It's impossible to really meaningfully say that one method or approach is truly "better". Sometimes Shikantaza seems like a refinement of earlier meditation styles. Starting at the end, in a way. But all I can be sure of is that it feels like home to me.

    For me there is nothing I need to do or focus on. It's all right here if in the awareness that includes everything; breath, thought, non-thought, noise, intention, attention, pain, bliss and silence. Like Dogen said, Zazen is a process of constant returning. We return to what's here again and again, billions of times. But, after a while, it seems to stick more and more and become our natural state. Nothing to do or gain, it's all just here and now. I've got a long way to go, but this process involves deeply realising that there is really nowhere to go and nothing to do, and it seems clearer every day. I'm sure this feeling, paradoxical as it is, is something you all relate to.

    All of the roads lead to the same place, but I connect with the non-linear, we-are-already-here, nothing to be done approach of Zazen. Recently, on the cushion, the sense that "nothing needs to be done" has been taking on deeper and deeper significance.

    But, again, what is good for me isn't the best thing for everyone.

    Gassho,

    SatToday,

    Chris
    Last edited by ChrisMa; 04-16-2018 at 03:19 PM.

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