Zen  Mountain Monastery

Zen Meditation Instructions

Breathing in zazen

Breathing in Zazen

Begin rocking the body back and forth, slowly, in decreasing arcs, until
you settle at your center of gravity. The mind is in the hara, hands are
folded in the cosmic mudra, mouth is closed, tongue pressed on the upper
palate. You're breathing through the nose and you're tasting the breath.
Keep your attention on the hara and the breath. Imagine the breath
coming down into the hara, the viscera, and returning from there. Make
it part of the whole cycle of breathing.

We begin working on ourselves by counting the breath, counting each
inhalation and each exhalation, beginning with one and counting up to
ten. When you get to ten, come back to one and start all over. The only
agreement that you make with yourself in this process is that if your
mind begins to wander - if you become aware that what you're doing is
chasing thoughts - you will look at the thought, acknowledge it, and
then deliberately and consciously let it go and begin the count again at

The counting is a feedback to help you know when your mind has drifted
off. Each time you return to the breath you are empowering yourself with
the ability to put your mind where you want it, when you want it there,
for as long as you want it there. That simple fact is extremely
important. We call this power of concentration joriki. Joriki manifests
itself in many ways. It's the center of the martial and visual arts in
Zen. In fact, it's the source of all the activity of our lives.

When you've been practicing this process for a while, your awareness
will sharpen. You'll begin to notice things that were always there but
escaped your attention. Because of the preoccupation with the internal
dialogue, you were too full to be able to see what was happening around
you. The process of zazen begins to open that up.

When you're able to stay with the counting and repeatedly get to ten
without any effort and without thoughts interfering, it's time to begin
counting every cycle of the breath. Inhalation and exhalation will count
as one, the next inhalation and exhalation as two. This provides less
feedback, but with time you will need less feedback.

Eventually, you'll want to just follow the breath and abandon the
counting altogether. Just be with the breath. Just be the breath. Let
the breath breathe itself. That's the beginning of the falling away of
body and mind. It takes some time and you shouldn't rush it; you
shouldn't move too fast from counting every breath to counting every
other breath and on to following the breath. If you move ahead
prematurely, you'll end up not developing strong joriki. And it's that
power of concentration that ultimately leads to what we call samadhi, or
single-pointedness of mind.

In the process of working with the breath, the thoughts that come up,
for the most part, will be just noise, just random thoughts. Sometimes,
however, when you're in a crisis or involved in something important in
your life, you'll find that the thought, when you let it go, will recur.
You let it go again but it comes back, you let it go and it still comes
back. Sometimes that needs to happen. Don't treat that as a failure;
treat it as another way of practicing. This is the time to let the
thought happen, engage it, let it run its full course. But watch it, be
aware of it. Allow it to do what it's got to do, let it exhaust itself.
Then release it, let it go. Come back again to the breath. Start at one
and continue the process. Don't use zazen to suppress thoughts or issues
that need to come up.

Scattered mental activity and energy keeps us separated from each other,
from our environment, and from ourselves. In the process of sitting, the
surface activity of our minds begins to slow down. The mind is like the
surface of a pond - when the wind is blowing, the surface is disturbed
and there are ripples. Nothing can be seen clearly because of the
ripples; the reflected image of the sun or the moon is broken up into
many fragments.

Out of that stillness, our whole life arises. If we don't get in touch
with it at some time in our life, we will never get the opportunity to
come to a point of rest. In deep zazen, deep samadhi, a person breathes
at a rate of only two or three breaths a minute. Normally, at rest, a
person will breathe about fifteen breaths a minute - even when we're
relaxing, we don't quite relax. The more completely your mind is at
rest, the more deeply your body is at rest. Respiration, heart rate,
circulation, and metabolism slow down in deep zazen. The whole body
comes to a point of stillness that it doesn't reach even in deep sleep.
This is a very important and very natural aspect of being human. It is
not something particularly unusual. All creatures of the earth have
learned this and practice this. It's a very important part of being
alive and staying alive: the ability to be completely awake.

Once the counting of the breath has been really learned, and
concentration, true one-pointedness of mind, has developed, we usually
go on to other practices such as koan study or shikantaza ("just
sitting"). This progression should not be thought of in terms of "gain"
or "promotion"; that would imply that counting the breath was just a
preparation for the "real" thing. Each step is the real thing. Whatever
our practice is, the important thing is to put ourselves into it
completely. When counting the breath, we just count the breath.

It is also important to be patient and persistent, to not be constantly
thinking of a goal, of how the sitting practice may help us. We just put
ourselves into it and let go of our thoughts, opinions, positions -
everything our minds hold onto. The human mind is basically free, not
clinging. In zazen we learn to uncover that mind, to see who we really

    * Download these Instructions in printable PDF format <zazeninst.pdf>

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