Let's try an experiment that we call "one-minute zazen":
With your eyes wide open, stare at something in the distance: the corner of the building outside the window, a point on a hill, a tree or a bush, or even a picture on the wall.
At the same time stop, or nearly stop, breathing, and with your attention concentrated on that one point, try to prevent ideas from coming into your mind.
You will find that you really are able to inhibit thoughts from starting. You may feel the beginnings of some thoughtlike action stirring in your mind, but that, too, can be kept under control.
Repeated practice will give you the power to inhibit the appearance of even the faintest shadow of thought.
This inhibition can be sustained as long as the breath is stopped or almost stopped. Your eyes are reflecting the images of outside objects clearly, but "perception" does not occur. No thinking of the hill, no idea of the building or picture, no mental process concerning things inside or outside your mind will appear. Your eyes simply reflect the images of outside objects as a mirror reflects them. This simplest mental action may be called "pure sensation."
William James, in his classic Textbook of Psychology, depicts this pure sensation as follows:
"Sensation distinguished from perception ? It is impossible rigorously to define a sensation...and perceptions merge into each other by insensible degrees. All we can say is that what we mean by sensations are first things in the way of consciousness. They are the immediate results upon consciousness of nerve-currents as they enter the brain, before they have awakened any suggestions or associations with past experience: absolutely pure sensation.
"The next impression produces a cerebral reaction in which the awakened vestige of the last impression plays its part. Another sort of feeling and a higher grade of cognition are the consequence. 'Ideas' about the object mingle with awareness of its mere sensible presence, we name it, class it, compare it, make propositions concerning it... In general, this higher consciousness about things is called perception, the mere inarticulate feeling of their presence is called sensation. We seem to be able to lapse into this inarticulate feeling at moments when our attention is entirely dispersed."
In our experiment of one-minute zazen, sensation resulted from strong inhibition of the process of thinking. While James considered that to some degree we seem able to "lapse into this inarticulate feeling at moments when our attention is entirely dispersed," in our one-minute zazen strong mental power controls our mind and inhibits dispersed attention and wandering thoughts. It is not an inarticulate state of mind but a strong, voluntary, inward concentration.
Where does this mental power come from? In our experiment it came from stopping (or almost stopping) breathing. And stopping breathing necessarily involves straining the abdominal respiratory muscles ? in other words, developing tension in the tanden.
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Mental power, or we might say spiritual power, in the sense of this strong inward concentration, comes from tension in the tanden. At first this may sound somewhat ridiculous. But it proves true, as we shall try to show.
Try the following:
Sit down quietly for a time with the intention of not thinking anything.
Presently, however, some idea will come into your head, and you will become absorbed in it and forgetful of yourself. But before long you will suddenly become aware of yourself and start once again trying not to think anything.
Before perhaps twenty seconds have passed, however, you will once again find a new idea cropping up and will be drawn into thinking about it, forgetful of yourself. Repeat the same process time and time again, and at last you come to realize that you cannot control the thoughts occurring in your own mind.
Now try a variation of the one-minute zazen exercise:
Stop, or nearly stop, your breathing. Then breathe slowly and deeply, repeatedly generating new tension in the abdominal respiratory muscles. You will find your attention can be sustained by the tension of the respiratory muscles.
Breathing has an extremely important role in controlling thoughts in zazen practice. When you observe carefully how it is done, you find a tremendous amount of effort is being used. Even in spite of this, certain lapses of concentration appear and thoughts threaten to creep in. Each time, they can be inhibited by a renewed effort of concentration.
The effort involves keeping up or renewing the tension in the respiratory muscles. This tension leads to samadhi, which is a steady wakefulness, with thoughts controlled and spiritual power maximally exerted.
In zazen, the thoracic cage (between neck and abdomen) is to be kept as still as possible. Inhalation is done by inflating the lower abdomen, while exhalation is performed by contracting the abdominal muscles.
There is an important difference between normal breathing and breathing in zazen: In zazen, the free contraction of the abdominal muscles and their upward pushing movement are opposed by the diaphragm. This produces bated breath.
This sounds complicated, but is in fact very simple: you have only to hold your breath. If you then expire slowly, little by little, it is necessarily done by holding the diaphragm down and steadily checking the upward pushing movement of the abdominal muscles. This is what we mean when we speak of "throwing strength into the tanden." It results in the generation of what ultimately proves to be spiritual power.
If you manage to keep the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles contracting in opposition with almost equal strength, your breath will almost be stopped, though there is some quiet and almost imperceptible escape of breath from the lungs because of the natural bodily pressure. When we speak of stopped, or almost stopped, breath, we generally mean the state of very quiet respiration.
At the beginning of this chapter we described the experiment of "one-minute zazen" and found we could control thoughts occurring in the brain by holding our breath. That control and inhibition of thought came from this opposed tension in the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. From the experience of zazen we are bound to conclude that by maintaining a state of tension in the abdominal respiratory muscles we can control what is happening in the brain.
Even those who know nothing about Zen will throw strength into the abdomen, by stopping their breath, when they try to put up with biting cold, bear pain, or suppress sorrow or anger. They use this method to generate what may be called spiritual power.
The abdominal muscles can be regarded as a kind of general manager of the muscular movements of the entire body. When doing heavy manual work, such as weight lifting or wielding a sledge-hammer, you cannot bring the muscles of the rest of the body into play without contracting these muscles. Even in raising a hand or moving a leg you are using the abdominal muscles. Scribble with your pen or thread a needle and you will find tension developing in the diaphragm. Without cooperation of the respiratory muscles you cannot move any part of the body, pay close attention to anything, or, indeed, call forth any sort of mental action. We cannot repeat this fact too often: it is of the greatest importance but has been rather ignored up to now.
What is described in this chapter is not found elsewhere in Zen literature. It is a new proposal. Of course, if you are experienced in zazen and do not like the method proposed here, you may ignore it. However, as your practice develops you may come to see the value of it.
COUNTING AND FOLLOWING THE BREATH
It is usual to begin the practice of zazen by counting your breaths. There are three ways of doing this:
1. Count both inhalations and exhalations. As you inhale, count "one" inwardly; as you exhale, count "two," and so on up to ten. Then return to one again and repeat the process.
2. Count your exhalations only, from one to ten, and repeat. Let the inhalations pass without counting them.
3. Count your inhalations only, letting the exhalations pass without counting them.
Of these three, the first method is generally used for the initiation of beginners, the second is recognized as a more advanced step, and the third is somewhat difficult for a beginner but gives good training in inspiration.
When beginning to practice the first method, it may be helpful to whisper the count inaudibly, or even audibly. Then, except for occasions when you feel the need for audible counting, concentrate on the counting inwardly.
In practicing the second method, say "won-n-n" with a lengthened expiration, and after taking a breath say "two-oo-oo" with the next expiration. With each count the expiration will naturally go down below the horizon of breathing. Thereafter you keep on, saying "three-ee-ee," "four-r-r," and so on, up to ten.
But in the middle of counting, some other idea will suddenly come into your head, and you will find yourself involved with that thought for a while. However, you will soon return to yourself and take up the counting again ? but now you discover you have forgotten where you left off and must go back to the beginning and start from one again.
All beginners who try this practice for the first time experience this, and are surprised by their inability to control their thoughts. Some readers may find this hard to believe. Then they should try it for themselves and see how their minds wander. That's exactly what a Zen teacher wants them to be aware of, and the teacher will say, "Use this method for a while to train your mind."
The third method is training in breathing. The most important thing in this case is to inflate the lower abdomen and inhale. In the course of saying "one," generally the tidal volume will be filled. As you approach the end of the inhalation it will tend to become chest breathing and you will have to make an effort to keep up the abdominal breathing.
POSITIVE SAMADHI AND ABSOLUTE SAMADHI
Although we discuss samadhi in detail in the next chapter, we want at this stage to make a clear distinction between the two kinds of samadhi, since it is important to our practice of counting breaths.
There are two kinds of samadhi: absolute samadhi and positive samadhi. People generally associate the term samadhi with Nirvana, in which the activity of consciousness is almost stopped. But the samadhi reached in counting the breaths involves a very definite action of consciousness. This, then, is an active sort of samadhi, which we call positive samadhi, to distinguish it from the other kind, which we call absolute samadhi.
We do not call it "negative samadhi," because absolute samadhi constitutes the foundation of all Zen activities and also because it leads us to experience pure existence.
To date, these two kinds of samadhi have not been clearly distinguished, and confusion has resulted. Some traditions of Zen involve a large element of positive samadhi, while absolute samadhi is more important in others. We suggest that the right course is to develop positive and absolute samadhi equally.
To enter the silence of absolute samadhi is to shake off what we call the habitual way of consciousness ? in an old phrase, "topsy-turvy delusive thought." By doing so we purify body and mind.
Then, going out (or coming back) into the world of actual life and of the ordinary activity of consciousness, we enjoy positive samadhi and freedom of mind in the complicated situations of the world. This is real emancipation.
When we return to counting breaths, a useful analogy can be drawn with the state of mind necessary in driving a car. When driving you are obligated to exercise two kinds of attention. The first is sharply focused, directed upon a certain limited zone ahead of you. The second is quite the opposite and is diffused over a broad area; you are on the lookout for emergencies arising in any direction.
Similarly, in counting breaths, both sharply focused and diffused attention are required. We have to concentrate on reciting the numbers, while at the same time being alert not to miss their order. This may sound easy, but in fact, the more you concentrate on the individual breaths and counts, the more difficult it is to keep the attention widely diffused at the same time. To accomplish the two things at once requires vital effort.
One final word about counting the breaths: If, after making good progress in zazen, you return to this practice once more, you will find that it leads to the development of an extraordinarily brilliant condition of consciousness. But this is not to be expected in the zazen of beginners. Teachers, therefore, are usually satisfied if students can master just the elements of counting the breaths and will then pass them to another kind of practice.
The students may suppose that they have finished with this sort of discipline and they will not have to practice it again, but this is mistaken. Students practicing alone may also revert to counting the breaths from time to time, even though they have gone on to other kinds of exercises.
FOLLOWING THE BREATH
A certain understanding of Zen makes people vaguely seek after absolute samadhi, even though perhaps not consciously. When you practice counting the breaths, if you recognize that it is a training in positive samadhi, you will find it brilliantly illuminating. But this will come only when you have made considerable progress in your study of Zen.
When beginners have worked on breath counting for a while they will find, without knowing why, that the counting is something of an encumbrance to them. They will wish to practice a quiet form of meditation in which the activity of consciousness will be transcended. Then, very naturally, they turn to the practice of following the breath.
Instructions for following the breath are very simple:
Follow each inhalation and exhalation with concentrated attention. At the beginning of your exhalation, breathe out naturally, and then when you reach a point near the horizon of breathing, squeeze the respiratory muscles so as nearly to stop breathing.
The air remaining in the lungs will almost imperceptibly escape, little by little. At first this escape will be so slight that you may not notice it. But presently it will become noticeable, and as the exhalation goes below the horizon you will find that the air is being pushed out intermittently.
If you regulate the escape of air in a methodical manner you will advance more effectively toward samadhi. The longer the exhalation, the sooner you will be there.
A very long exhalation, however, must necessarily be followed by short, rather quick respirations, because of the oxygen deficiency that results. This more rapid respiration need not disturb samadhi, as long as you continue with abdominal breathing. If you find this irregular method of breathing uncomfortable, try shorter exhalations.
When using short or moderate exhalations, however, even those who have made considerable progress in zazen will often find it difficult to control wandering thoughts. Let us consider these wandering thoughts for a moment.
They are of two kinds. The first type is that which appears momentarily and disappears quickly. The second is of a narrative nature and makes up a story. The first type may be subdivided into two: (1) noticing someone coughing, the window rattling, birds chirping, and similar distractions that intrude momentarily from outside; and (2) the momentary thought that springs up from within, so that we think, "Now I am getting into samadhi," or "I am not doing well today." This sort of thinking does not disturb our getting into samadhi very much, and as samadhi progresses, these thoughts gradually disappear of themselves.
The second type of wandering thought is the sort of narration that occurs in daydreaming, in which you think, for example, of a recent conversation, and you are once again absorbed in the situation. While the body is apparently sitting in meditation, the mind is getting angry or bursting into laughter. These kinds of thoughts often happen when you are practicing moderate exhalations, and they are quite a nuisance.
Every so often you come back to yourself, notice the wandering thoughts, and pluck up concentration to control the fantasy. But eventually you find that your power is too weak. How can you get out of this condition?
There is no way other than by generating tension in the respiratory muscles by stopping or almost stopping the breath with a long, slow exhalation. That strength and energy give you the power to control wandering thoughts.
After a few long exhalations, you will find your lower abdomen equipped with a strength you have never experienced in your ordinary breathing. It gives you the feeling, we might say, that you are sitting on the throne of existence.
This will naturally lead you to samadhi.
A Guide to Zen: Lessons from a Modern Master
by Katsuki Sekida.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. ©2003 www.newworldlibrary.com
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About the Author
Katsuki Sekida (1903–1987) began his Zen practice in 1915 and trained at the Empuku-ji Monastery in Kyoto and the Ryutaku-ji Monastery in Mishima, Japan, where he had deep experience of samadhi early in life. He became a high school teacher of English until his retirement, then he returned to a full-time study of Zen. He taught at the Honolulu Zendo and Maui Zendo from 1963 to 1970 and at the London Zen Society from 1970 to 1972. Then he produced his two great works, both published in America and Japan, Zen Training in 1975 and Two Zen Classics in 1977.