Being Breathed - III

Dharma Talk by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, April 8th, 2000

By the age of forty you will have breathed twenty-five billion, two hundred and twenty nine million, three hundred thousand times. This is a minimum calculation based on 12 breaths a minute. The calculation does not include Leap Year or any times you've increased your respiratory rate through climbing up stairs or mountains, running a marathon or exercising your dog. It doesn't take into account laughter, or sex, or lifting a child, walking, carrying groceries. getting out of bed or giving birth.

How many have you noticed?

Before we begin to practise we have usually only noticed our breath when we can't 'catch it' or when it's too short or too long, or laboured or impeded in some way. In short, as with so much of our life before we began to practise, we only notice it when there is a problem or when we are 'working with it' as a relaxation technique, or in learning to swim, sing, or play a wind instrument or in response to illness or injury. Otherwise we're just not aware of our own breath.

When we first encounter the Teachings of our Hakukaze Soto Zen lineage and read "The Four Gates of Zen Practice" by Ven. Anzan Hoshin roshi we discover at some point that 'Four Gates' refers to body, breath, speech, and mind.

We are asked to practise mindfulness of breath and to use the breath as a touchstone to reveal ourselves to this moment. Sometimes we understand this and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we practise it and sometimes we don't. And sometimes we pay more attention to someone else's breath than we do our own: We find ourselves becoming irritated at the sound of the person sitting next to us breathing in and out, and in and out, and in and out.

If we mention the arising of irritation to a practice advisor, we are asked what we do at that moment and we might say that we "try to FOCUS ON the breath". The practice advisor will look at us astonished and goggle-eyed, "Wherever did you get the idea that you were to focus on the breath? No one here ever told you to FOCUS on the breath." We start to flush, and squirm and get angry. Self-image likes to be right and starts to look for excuses and justifications. But before we can speak we are told to "feel the breath at the tanden" or to feel "the body moving in and out with the breath" and we'd just like to poke the monk or to scream. We choke out that we are TRYING TO FEEL THE BREATH BUT IT'S TOO SHALLOW or that we don't know how to breathe or that there are too many things to notice. Or we just don't understand and what is the big deal about the breath anyway?

As has been said over and over (and as will continue to be said over and over) the breath being breathed as and through you is this moment of your life. It is this present moment. You may as well notice it because this is where and when your life actually is. Simply by noticing, by being mindful of the breath, the bodymind is being given a chance to balance itself out. The bodymind can and does find its balance. Over time we start to notice that our sense of being overwhelmed and pushed this way and that by thoughts and feelings is less frequent.

In "The Bodymind of the Way, Zen Teachings on Dogen Zenji's Shinjin Gakudo", Zen Master Anzan Hoshin says, "We welcome you with open arms, and I do hope that you practise with wide open eyes and open breath. Open again and again into this moment. Enter again and again into this life."

As our practice opens, words become increasingly slippery and shoot out of our grasp. What we thought we understood of the meaning has changed. We thought that "open" meant wide and deep and big. In this context it means, "As it is". It means not manipulated or changed. It means this moment of breathing in as it is, and this moment of breathing out as it is. Should you notice commentary or judgment as to the quality or length or shallowness of the breath simply notice that commentary as a thought and feel the breath simply as it is.

The Roshi goes on to say,

An open breath might not necessarily be a deep breath. It might be a shallow breath, it might be a strangled breath. It might be a breath riding the crest of a wave of anxiety. An open breath is a breath that is attended to fully and completely, a breath that is breathed completely.

Attending to the breath does not mean to move attention toward the breath and away from other moments of experiencing. That movement of attention would be focusing on the breath and as I said before, no one told us to focus on the breath. There's room for everything in this moment so include the breath in this moment of attending to this moment.

The Roshi continues,

The more fully that we breathe our breath, perhaps the longer and deeper they become. Perhaps. However whether it is a long breath or a short breath, it is this breath.

This sounds pretty simple. And it feels pretty simple when you're actually doing it. But we understand for a moment and then it slips away. We need all of the help we can get in this matter of mindfulness of breath. The forms of practice in the Monastery offer this help and direction...relentlessly....

As we enter the Hatto we bow. If we are attending completely to the moments of the bow we can feel the lungs expand with the in breath as we lift the arms to place the hands palm to palm. As we bend at the hips we can feel the breath being exhaled from the body. As we straighten and bring the hands back to shashu we open attention to the flow of air through the nostrils, across the slightly parted lips, and as the air flows into the lungs the torso expands. This moment is the hands, the feet, the bones, the muscles, the seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, and the smell of incense as we step over the threshold into the Hatto.

During the formal bows as the incense is lit we are given another opportunity to align with the Roshi or the monk who is leading the sitting. In this moment we are also aligning with the Lineage even if we don't yet know what this means exactly. In chanting practice we are asked to align body, breath, speech, and mind with the chanting leader. Alignment means many things as our practice deepens. It begins with just doing the forms together, at the same time, as often as we can. When we notice we are off the next breath gives us an opportunity to align and begin again. This opening of attention relentlessly hones and sharpens our senses but without force. We start to be able to attend more fully to this moment.

Practice interviews, and, for formal students and monks, dokusan, are another opportunity to practise this alignment. We start to see that alignment isn't a one sided affair. At the moment of meeting the Roshi or the practice advisor pay attention as we come to gassho together, aligned in body and breath. The student waits for the senior to lead. Look carefully and you will see that the senior is aligning with you as well. In this one moment two people are breathing this moment together and recognizing and acknowledging this moment as this moment, without, before, and beyond, words. This simplicity highlights anything extra that comes up and gets in our way. Look carefully and you will see how contraction occurs, how it shrinks and knots the space of experiencing and how, if you fall for and propagate whatever story is going on, a self comes into being. This self is frozen, like a deer caught in the headlights of an on-coming car. Quick-notice it-open the tendency to contract around that one moment of experiencing-see the seeing, hear the hearing, feel the breath, and take your place on the zafu. There is no problem. You are, however, beginning to see the functioning of the formation of states. In that seeing you are being offered the key to freedom from them.

Take it. Use it. The Lineage of Buddhas and Awakened Ancestors invites us all to receive our lives as they truly live.

Anzan Hoshin roshi continues in "The Bodymind of the Way",

To try to manipulate and structure or restructure the breath; to try and structure or restructure the mind, to shift around the contents of consciousness trying to find a more pleasing pattern; to manipulate our lives by amputating those parts that don't seem to fit...All of this is confusion about who we are and what the world is, what the body is, what the mind is. If you confuse yourself like this, then the mind will become bits and pieces of a broken mind.

Open to this breath, open to this moment, practise with wide-open eyes.

Open this body, this mind, to the open air. And practise things as they are.
This practice of things as they are requires no struggle. It cannot be constructed or manufactured. This recognition of this moment of body, breath, speech, and mind, is practising yourself as you are. Through this continuous practice, this gyoji, Dogen zenji says. "Thus you will be able to steal the nostrils of the Buddhas and Ancestors and make them breathe out."

Thank you for listening.