Sit and Breathe Completely
Zazen is the core practice of Zen Buddhism. It is essential we have a clear understanding of it if we are to practice Zen. Although there are books that give basic instruction, the best teaching in zazen is always person-to-person from a skilled practitioner. Hearing or reading the basic instruction just once is usually not enough. As our experience with zazen grows, we hear the same instruction differently and more deeply. Even a well-seasoned practitioner can get fresh insight into sitting practice by hearing the basic sitting instruction again.
Zazen is body, breath, and mind. The most concise instruction I have heard is, “Sit and breathe completely.” This short statement evokes each of these areas, but we must fill in the teaching for it to be helpful to us. Let’s look into this statement and identify some key points in practicing zazen.
There are a number of acceptable postures for zazen. Besides the classic positions of full lotus and half lotus, there are various postures favored by Westerners. Regardless of the form, there are four essential elements to be kept in mind:
- A good posture, with the sternum raised to keep us alert and help ease our breathing
- A relaxed body, so that we can clearly perceive each moment arising.
- Eyes open or half-open, which emphasizes our practice in the midst of daily life.
- Hands in the cosmic mudra, encompassing the area just below our navel.
When we breathe, it is essential to use our diaphragm. Breathing this way, the lower abdomen expands outward with each in-breath and contracts inward with each out-breath. Our upper chest area should not move during breathing. Beyond this basic instruction, different Zen traditions teach different styles of breathing.
In Tathagata Zen, for example, the emphasis is on “spherical breathing,” which encourages us to recognize that we are sitting in the center of our life, inside a sphere of our experience. At the center of this sphere we receive sensations from every other point inside the sphere. What we see in each moment comes from those points to our eyes, like the light reaching us from millions of stars in the night sky. In the same way, what we hear is what comes to our ears, and what we smell is what comes to our nose. Each moment, from every direction, a sphere of sensation comes together exactly where we are, and this is what gives us our sense of the world around us.
When we inhale, we need to open ourselves to the complete expanse of our consciousness and let those sensations unify at the center of our life. In the Zen tradition our center is recognized as our hara, a point slightly below our navel. It is this area we encompass with our hands in formal zazen posture. When we exhale from this smallest point, we expand out to the largest expanse of our consciousness, meeting each sensation and giving ourselves to the experience. Each breath is our entire consciousness, all of our experience: Inhale – largest to smallest, exhale – smallest to largest. This is an upaya, a teaching aid (literally, “skillful means”) that aligns us with the three dimensions of our world. It conforms to the fundamental dharma activities, Tathagata – Tathaagata, or expansion and contraction.
Working with our mind is the subtlest area of sitting practice and for this there is a variety of instructions,. but the three essentials are no attachment, no fixation, and no distance. We cannot progress with our zazen unless we attend to our subjective activity. This practice is sometimes called mindfulness, or awareness, or simply paying attention. We begin with mindfulness of our body and our breathing, sometimes separately, sometimes together. Mindfulness training, which goes back to the early teachings of Buddhism, is essential for zazen.
As our awareness of mind activity grows, we cannot help but notice how busy our minds are. Our subjective activity—thoughts, memories, and emotions—is incessant, and impedes our awareness of the surrounding world. By identifying with this subjective activity – my thoughts, memories, and emotions –we value and encourage it, which stimulates even more subjective activity. When subjective activity overshadows our immediate perception of the people and world around us, our relationships with people and events suffer. To quiet the mind we must make a commitment to experience the sensations and relationships that arise in every moment, independent from our own subjective reaction.
When our perceptions are filtered by our self-interests, we try to avoid what we don’t like and hold onto what we do. Responding in this way, however, encourages even more self-interest and busyness of mind. If we want to quiet our minds, we must let go of our attachment to self. This is often when we see how difficult the practice can be. This practice of non-attachment, reigning in our busy minds, requires persistent dedication and discipline; but no matter how difficult it is or how long it takes, it is essential.
When we have a wonderful dinner with friends, or experience a tender moment with our partner, we want to extend the moment. Time never stops, however. The dinner ends, the tenderness passes. This is inevitable and undeniable. Every moment is new, and every person, situation, and object arises newly in that moment. Nothing is fixed. This is the teaching of impermanence. To realize our life as it is, we must manifest our life as it arises. The next moment is a new moment, new arising. Reflecting on what has happened is memory; anticipating what might happen is imagination. The present moment is neither memory nor imagination, nor is it fixed; it is already a new present moment.
To realize this moment, we must be the moment. We do this by manifesting our content: the people, events, and relationships, just as they arise in this moment. There is no time for thinking; the moment disappears before we can organize our thoughts. Self-conscious activity fixes subject and object, which inevitable causes problems, because the interaction of subject and object is dynamic; it is constantly changing. The only way to avoid fixating our world is to dissolve self-consciousness. Only when we surrender ourselves can we arise at the speed of life.
We have to make an effort to give ourselves to this moment, wholeheartedly. Yet, sometimes we focus on the effort we are making rather than the moment itself, and this undermines the very effort we are trying to make. Instead, we must realize the relationship of the moment, the meeting of subject and object, which means dissolving the distance between them.
To do this, we start with our breathing. Many teachers recommend observing, regulating or counting breaths as teaching aids, but these are mental devices which sustain the illusion we are separate from our breathing. The only way to unify with our breathing is for our self-consciousness to disappear into breathing activity. We must become one with the activity of breathing. This is not a metaphor, not abstract in any way. Inhaling, we disappear into the sensation of inhaling. All the subtle sensations of inhaling fill our consciousness. If we cling to self-awareness we cannot realize the fullness of inhaling. Similarly, when exhaling we disappear into the subtle bodily sensations of exhaling, giving ourselves so thoroughly that self-consciousness disappears. In complete breathing there is no distance.
As with breathing, there is no distance in complete, wholehearted sitting. We relate to the world by the sensations in our body. When we “manage” our perceptions, noting whether this sound is pleasant or disagreeable, that taste is sweet or sour, this person or object seems attractive or ugly, we assert our attachments and fix the objects of our experience. Instead, we must allow the seeing, hearing, and feeling of our experience to fill our consciousness – no self-consciousness. Distance disappears in the full-bodied embrace of our world. This is the practice of no-self, which is another basic teaching of Buddhism. We must practice no-distance to realize the truth of no-self.
To sit and breathe completely is to merge, moment to moment, at the speed of life, with the activity of life. To sit and breathe completely, there can be no attachment, no fixation, no distance. Attachment binds us to subjective mind, and prevents the clear realization of our whole self. Time never stops; each moment is a new moment. Each moment everything arises new, dynamically interacting with every other person and thing. It is impossible to preserve anything. If we want to realize the vitality of a relationship, we must give ourselves to it without holding back. Only when we dissolve the distance between subject and object can we realize complete peace and great love. It is our origin and destination, both – our true home.