The Tao of Breathing
One of the impressions I have gained recently in speaking
to Zen friends about practice is a certain attitude towards
breathing in zazen. For the sake of brevity, and just for
fun, I wish to refer to it as "samurai breathing". I think
it has its origins in the martial arts.
The "samurai breath' goes like this: one must push down hard
on the outgoing breath, concentrating on the hara (solar plexus)
and in doing so, push aside any thoughts, feelings, sensations,
that get in the way, smashing through them like a karate expert
would smash their hand through a brick.
If you practise like this, it will give you a considerable
feeling of power, like winning a contest (with yourself),
and also give you a sense of purpose in a goal-seeking way
(like paying off the mortgage). This type of straining zazen
creates a heroic struggle out of zazen and a sense that you
are trying very hard, but it is ultimately self-defeating.
Perhaps it is part of the process of learning that we have
to go through this struggle before we realise it is not productive.
When I see people practising like this, I have a mental picture
of someone on an exercise bike peddling furiously, somehow
believing that they are going to get somewhere if only they
try hard enough. I then imagine someone coming up to them
and whispering in their ear, "Excuse me, it doesn't matter
how fast you peddle, you won't get anywhere on that bike.
" This is like the story of polishing a tile, believing if
only it is done hard enough, it will become a mirror, or believing
that one will become a Buddha after years and years of zazen,
rather than realising that we are Buddha right from the very
When I began my zen practice many ago in Japan with Kabori
Roshi, I was like the person on the bike furiously peddling
to get somewhere. I listened with keen interest to other students
talking about various breathing techniques, which I believed,
if only I could get them right, would propel me towards realisation
in no time. Needless to say, I tied myself up in knots trying
to breathe the "right" way, even making myself sick in the
process. After several months of this, I went to Kabori Roshi
and told him about it in sanzen (Rinzai for dokusan). All
he said was "Just breathe naturally". I remember feeling a
mixture of relief, confusion and disappointment at his comment.
How could it be that simple?
Kabori Roshi was like the kindly person whispering in the
ear of the stationary cyclist, "Excuse me, no matter how hard
you try, you won't get anywhere on that bike." The message
got through a little but, looking back, I wasn't quite prepared
to really give up my belief, that if only I pushed harder,
I would get somewhere.
This happens all the way along in zen practice. Teachers keep
telling us there is nothing to attain, but we don't quite
believe them, even though we may mouth the words to others.
In everyday life we see people all around struggling to find
happiness and peace, believing it will come when they finally
get what they want, without seeing that this very moment holds
all that one could desire. It is easy to see this delusion
in others, but can you see it in yourself?
Coming back to the analogy of the exercise bike, it is not
the practice of peddling we have to give up but the belief
we are going to get somewhere if we do fit. As we give up
this belief, (which is underpinned with the fear of failure)
we can enjoy just peddling, and in zazen if we give up this
belief, we can just breathe naturally and our breathing includes
the breathing of the currawong warbling in the crisp morning
The "samurai breath" after all turns out to be conceptual
breathing, a fixed notion of what breathing ought to be, unlike
the breath of the Tao which is open and just comes and goes
of its own accord. When our breathing attempts to fit some
conceptual pattern of how we ought to breathe, we interfere
with it, and are out of touch with ourselves. The mind/will
should take its lead from the breath, rather than the breath
taking its lead from the mind/will. When the mind/will takes
its lead from the breath, then the mind/will and the breath
are in harmony. When sailing, you trim the sails according
to the strength and direction of the wind, not the other way
Aitken Roshi, when he was a student of Soen Roshi, asked him
"When I do zazen should I use effort or not?" Soen Roshi replied,
"The question reminds of Joshu's question to Nansen in Case
l9 of the Mumonkan - 'ordinary mind is the Tao'".
Joshu asked Nansen, "What is Tao?" Nansen answered, "Ordinary
mind is the Tao." "Then should we direct ourselves towards
it or not?" asked Joshu. "If you try to direct yourself towards
it, you go away from it", answered Nansen. Joshu continued,
"If we do not try, how can we know it is the Tao?" Nansen
replied, "Tao does not belong to knowing or not knowing. Knowing
is illusion, not knowing is blankness. If you really attain
the Tao of no doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and
boundless. How then, can there be right and wrong in the Tao?"
At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened. Mumon, commenting
on this said, "Even though Joshu may be enlightened, he can
truly get it only after studying for thirty more years."
Should we direct ourselves towards it or not? Should we use
effort or not? Does Nansen mean just "go with the flow of
the Tao" as this cliché has become known, as on some
personal growth weekend where everyone lies around drinking
herbal tea, looking dreamy-eyed and talking about the oneness
of the universe? I remember Aitken Roshi once saying to a
student, "When are you going to stop going with the flow and
get into action?"
"Going with the flow" is just the conceptual opposite of "samurai
breathing". Dull and complacent zazen with no vitality or
resolve, which is more accurately going with the flow of Taoist
fantasy and natural therapy mysticism.
What is the right attitude then with which to breathe? The
right attitude is to have no fixed attitude. However from
a practical point of view it can follow certain guidelines.
I think of right zazen as like holding a baby in one's arms.
You hold a baby gently otherwise you will hurt it. You also
hold it firmly otherwise you will drop it. Light but steady.
Should you use effort or not? Try holding a baby.
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