Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 16
Three questions

For the next couple of months, I want to concentrate on the practice of upright sitting. I want to start with my answers to three questions that were sent to me by e-mail quite some while ago. The questions basically are:

1. What shall we do on the cushion - and how should we breath?
2. What shall we do outside of zazen - how can we keep mindful?
3. How can stiff people sit in zazen?
In short, there is only one question: How do we practice with body and mind?

Let's start with the first question:
"During zazen, when we follow our breathing, how much should we concentrate on it? In other words how closely should we follow it? When I totally concentrate on the breath going in and out at the expense of everything else that is going on around me, I tend to get sleepy. On the other hand when I choose to follow my breathing from a distance (for the lack of a better term) and am also aware of what's going on outside (without dwelling on it) I tend to get more easily distracted by internal thoughts. Is there a balance point?"

You talk about breathing. There are many different approaches concerning the breathing.

In the "Zazengi", Dogen Zenji explains about the posture in some detail and then simply says: "Having adjusted body and mind in this manner, take a breath and exhale fully. Sit solidly in samadhi and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking! This is the heart of zazen." There is no mention of the breathing, except "take a breath and exhale fully"! In the "Fukanzazengi", there is just a little bit more advice: "You should breath gently through your nose."

When we read this, we hope for more information:

How, exactly, are we supposed to breath? Should we concentrate on the breath? Should we concentrate on something else? How do we get into "samadhi"? What exactly is "non-thinking"?

Dogen does not tell us. At the heart of his instruction in the "Zazengi" is the bodily posture.

Now, what we experience in our daily zazen practice is a mixture of feelings: "sleepiness, random thoughts, pain, dizziness, boredom, desires and attachments, anger, regret, all kinds of delusions, emotions and ignorance."

Generally, these feelings can be grouped in two categories: Feelings of dizziness or sleepiness, that make us feel as if we could not continue with zazen because we lack the energy for it - and feelings of desire, anger or random thoughts that distract us so much that we want to jump up from the cushion and take some immediate action. Dogen Zenji does not offer so much advice, maybe that is why Keizan Zenji wrote in the "Zazen Yojinki":

"When sitting in zazen, your body may seem hot or cold, uneasy or comfortable, sometimes stiff, sometimes loose, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes startled awake. This is all because the breath is not in tune and needs to be tuned. The way of tuning the breath is as follows: Open your mouth, letting the breath be long if long, or short if short, gradually harmonizing it. Following it for a while, when a sense of awareness comes, the breath is in good tune. After that let the breath pass naturally through the nose.

The mind may seem to sink away or float off. Sometimes it seems dull, sometimes it seems sharp. Sometimes you feel you can see the outside of the room through the walls, sometimes you feel you can x-ray through your body, sometimes you feel that you can see buddhas and bodhisattvas. Sometimes you comprehend scriptures and treatises. Extraordinary things like this are diseases that stem from a lack of harmony between awareness and breath.

When these things happen, sit with the mind in the lap. If the mind sinks into topor, rest it on top of your head. If your mind is distracted or scattered, rest it on the tip of your nose or your lower belly. Otherwise, let the mind rest on the palm of your left hand. When you sit for a long time, although you do not force the mind to be calm, it will naturally not be scattered."

Keizan Zenji talks about the breath in a little more detail, but basically what he says is: Follow the breath for a while in the beginning, than just let it be natural. Dogen Zenji does not say where we should "put" our mind, but Keizan says: put it into the palm of your left hand. But, when we are sleepy, we should try moving our awareness "upwards", to the top of our head or the tip of our nose, while if we are distracted by to much internal thoughts, we should move it "downwards", placing the mind in the lap, the lower belly or on our feet for example. I think that moving the awareness upwards creates energy and "turns on", while moving it downwards calms us "down". Concentrating on the breath can also be a way to calm us down.

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