Aspects of Sitting Meditation


You cannot really tell what breathing is. We are very interesting existence. As soon as a mother gives birth to her child, a separate body, the child starts to breathe by himself or herself. Before that, the mother is breathing for the child.

What kind of breathing you do while you sit is an important issue: How the inside of your mouth, your tongue, your teeth should be. You should keep no air in your mouth. It sounds strange to say this, but can you do it? When you tighten the upper and lower rows of your teeth, using your jaw muscles, the teeth firmly touch and press each other. Your alertness gets very strong. But don't force the jaw muscles as some students do. Let your tongue touch the upper dome of your mouth. Let your breath go through your nose and straight to your lungs. This helps especially when you become drowsy. Naturally, saliva comes into your mouth, but you shouldn't swallow it all at once. Little by little you should let it go down without noticing it. If you notice it, it comes more and more and you have a problem. Saliva is very important.

If you really sense the texture of the inhalation, when the air comes in and how you feel when the air goes out, you will have a different feeling. If you just count the breath, you miss it all. That's too bad. This is a very important moment you are living. There really is no time to count.

Counting is a skill you use to quiet a restless mind, a fast mind, or a cluttered mind. It's very helpful to finish up your breath just before you move into the zendo. "Finish up" means to take your finest breath for sitting instead of crashing into the room and starting to sit and beginning work on your breath. That's too late.

Kapleau Roshi's book The Three Pillars of Zen made counting the breath a popular method of sitting in this country, because it was one of the few readable texts years ago. But as you sit and get more familiar with your sitting posture and the dynamics of your body and mind, counting your breath becomes a very small part of practice. It is like knitting a sweater during sitting. It's better not to do it. I mean, definitely, you have to do it some time. It can be used as a crutch before you sit. Maybe before the zendo you can start counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, straighten your breath, then drop counting right there, and sink into sitting. I'm not denying the instructions you had; the means of counting is what I'm talking about.

Depending on each person, there is an inner image of what breathing when sitting is. As you notice, there is also a physical element of sitting, and invisible element of sitting which we call mind. We do mind-sitting, body-sitting, and we let the breath sit. Three aspects of sitting exist because we can observe our sitting from three angles. We breathe naturally and appreciate our breath and really understand what the breath does to our body and mind. To really connect the three: body, mind, and breath, is the point, not counting breathing.

As Suzuki Roshi mentioned, you should not go all he way in exhaling. You inhale about 80%, with the sense that you could go a little bit more. With that strength you come back. So, it is like drawing a circle with no gap between exhaling and inhaling. With the contracting of the diaphragm and expanding of the stomach sometimes the whole body expands and contracts. The important point is to have no gap between the end of exhalation and the beginning of inhalation. It's like a hand pump. Water always goes the same direction, but the pump handle goes almost all the way up like this, and almost all the way down.

Back to Talks on Aspects of Sitting Meditation, by Kobun Chino Otagawa Roshi.
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