Posts Tagged ‘Yasutani Roshi’

one

August 3rd, 2021    -    3 Comments

During the long, slow months of the pandemic lockdown, holed up at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I discovered something new. I discovered my breath.

Breathing might not seem like much of a discovery, occurring as it does twenty thousand times a day for each of us. But we hardly notice the breath. We remain unstirred by its subtle constancy and unmoved by its deep mystery. Yet right there under our nose lies a journey into the pulsing heart of a living, breathing universe.

All I needed to do to take that journey was sit down and count my breath.

Counting one’s breath is the foundational practice in Zen, taught by generations of ancestors. It’s an efficient way to quiet discriminative thought and bring the mind to single-pointed concentration. Yasutani Roshi, a twentieth-century Japanese Zen master, instructed his students in a sequence of four types of counting, which are described in Phillip Kapleau’s classic book The Three Pillars of Zen. To start, count each inhalation and exhalation up to ten, and then return to one. Do this over and over for the length of each sitting period. Next, count only the exhalation up to ten and over again for each sitting period. Then, only the inhalation. Finally, drop the counting entirely and concentrate your attention on each breath fully.

“Breathe naturally,” Yasutani said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Even so, anyone who has ever tried a breathing practice knows that it is not at all simple in the doing. The very word “simple” conjures up difficulty in our dualistic thinking. Trying too hard to “just breathe” can strangle the breath. The number ten can seem as distant as ten thousand. Obsessing about breathing, we may no longer know how to do what we have been doing effortlessly since the moment we were born, and even before.

“Before we were born, while still in our mother’s womb, how did we breathe? You don’t remember how? Actually, that is the problem!” the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi said. Like his teacher Yasutani, he exhorted his students to remember “that most excellent breathing” from the lower abdomen where we were once connected by umbilical cord to our mothers.

Infants maintain full-body breathing—not to mention full-body crying and full-body laughing—until they grow older and, like the rest of us, become engrossed in the artifice of thought. It’s the busyness in our heads that tightens the chest and shortens the breath, creating physical and mental discomfort. Because of that, we are likely to conclude that a breathing practice isn’t working for us. It’s harder than we thought it would be. It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere. And it’s not interesting. We want to move on to what’s next, to a more entertaining or important stage in our quest. Or we give up altogether.

But all the while, breathing remains the most profound dharma—every thought, every action, and every moment comes out of it. So how do we keep the practice of breathing going if we get discouraged? The answer really does lie in giving up.

Breathing exposes the expectations we bring into a practice: what we think it should feel like, what we aim to accomplish, and what it all means. But each breath defies our expectations and is entirely original: sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes smooth, sometimes not. Breath is movement and movement is change, the truth of our existence. We can hold on to our expectations, beliefs, and judgments, but we cannot hold on to a breath, which is the manifestation of the present moment. The exhalation itself guides us into the empty ease and relief of letting go.

If we’re honest about counting the breath, we have to make sure we can keep a count going through a full sitting period, then a series of sitting periods, or, if we’re on retreat, for a full day of sitting. By then, we are probably unconcerned with whatever comes next in our spiritual advancement, and when we empty ourselves of ambition, a kind of in-the-marrow remembering occurs. Our bodies know how to be. Our breath knows how to flow. Our brain knows how to self-regulate and our thoughts to self-liberate. This is the inherent wisdom of our Buddha nature. It’s how the seemingly simplistic instruction to “breathe naturally” can be realized quite naturally. We just get out of the way.

That’s what happened to me while I was stuck at home for a year with nowhere else to go. I sat down on my cushion, folded my legs, straightened my back, and brought my attention to my breath, just as I’ve done for more than twenty years. Longtime meditators can get trapped in stale habits, but this time was different; this time was entirely new.

Alone, with nothing to prove and no insights to uncover, my body relaxed. I felt my weight drop to the floor and even further, as if pulled underground. I breathed as though my nose wasn’t in the middle of my face, but located two inches beneath my navel, inflating and deflating my belly. My mind cleared, and automatically I began following the counting instructions Yasutani had spoken so long ago. It happened by itself. In sight of a clock, I could tell that my breathing slowed to four or five times per minute, sometimes slower. As I did this day after day, it felt as though the sitting weren’t my doing at all. It was the world that wanted to stop spinning, and me with it.

Studies tell us that focused breathing can help relieve depression and chronic pain, fight inflammation, and activate life-extending genes in our DNA. The power of breath can’t be understood but it can be felt—not just within but beyond our egoistic self. Deep in the lungs, the separation between ourselves and the outside world is smaller than a single cell. That’s no separation at all. That’s what we are.

From the Sept. 2021 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Photo by Amy Clark.

To be continued

July 23rd, 2009    -    3 Comments


Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist doctrine, and Buddhist philosophy are no more than intellectual formulations of zazen, and zazen itself is their practical demonstration. From this vast field I will abstract what is most essential for your practice.

Buddha devoted himself exclusively to zazen for six years and eventually, on the morning of the eighth of December, at the very instant when he glanced at the planet Venus gleaming in the eastern sky, he attained perfect enlightenment. He spontaneously cried out, “Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are Buddhas, endowed with wisdom and virtue, but because men’s minds have become inverted through delusive thinking they fail to perceive this.” The first pronouncement of the Buddha seems to have been one of awe and astonishment.

The first declaration of Buddha is also the ultimate conclusion of Buddhism.

I hope to have succeeded in conveying to you the importance of zazen. Let us now talk about practice.

Select a quiet room in which to sit.

This can only be continued by you.
Earlier entries in this series are here, here, and here.

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to my retreat

Don’t wrap your head around this

July 23rd, 2009    -    3 Comments

How can we fully illumine our life and personality with the moon of truth? We need first to calm the surging waves by halting the winds of discursive thought. We must empty our minds of the “conceptual thought of man.” Most people place a high value on abstract thought, but Buddhism has clearly demonstrated that discriminative thinking lies at the root of delusion. I once heard someone say, “Thought is the sickness of the human mind.” From the Buddhist point of view this is quite true. To be sure, abstract thinking is useful when wisely employed – which is to say, when its nature and limitations are property understood – but as long as human beings remain slaves to their intellect, fettered and controlled by it, they can well be called sick.

To be continued

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to my retreat

Muddy water world

July 22nd, 2009    -    2 Comments

Between a supremely perfected Buddha and us, who are ordinary, there is no difference as to substance. This “substance” can be likened to water. One of the salient characteristics of water is its conformability: when put into a round vessel it becomes round, when put into a square vessel it becomes square. We have this same adaptability, but as we live bound and fettered through ignorance of our true nature, we have forfeited this freedom. To pursue the metaphor, we can say that the mind of a Buddha is like water that is calm, deep, and crystal clear, and upon which the moon of truth reflects fully and perfectly. The mind of the ordinary man, on the other hand, is like murky water, constantly being churned by the gales of delusive thought and no longer able to reflect the moon of truth. The moon nonetheless shines steadily upon the waves, but as the waters are roiled we are unable to see its reflection. Thus we lead lives that are frustrating and meaningless.

To be continued

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to my retreat

All ears

July 21st, 2009    -    3 Comments

Everyone should listen with his or her eyes open and upon the speaker – in other words, with their whole being – because an impression received only through the hearing is rather shallow, akin to listening to the radio. Each person should listen as though the message was being given to him or her alone. Human nature is such that if two people listen, each feels only half responsible for understanding, and if ten people are listening each feels responsible to be but one tenth. However, since there are so many of you and what I have to say is exactly the same for everybody, I have asked you to come as a group. You must nonetheless listen as though you were entirely alone and hold yourself accountable for everything that is said.

To be continued

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to my retreat

archives by month