Although we may perform many meditations while walking or working, when
formally sit to meditate, we should be careful to maintain a reverent attitude and to
sit and breathe correctly.
Dear friends, however many benefits we may derive from our efforts, meditation
spiritual exercise, not a therapeutic regimen. We do not practice in order to counter
psychological disturbances or to help us cope with the ego's frustrations. We
meditate in order to transcend ego-consciousness and to realize our Buddha Self.
Our intention is to enter Nirvana, not to make life in Samsara more tolerable.
This instruction can be confusing, I know. Many people think that they
when they achieve a peaceful and quiet state. They look forward to practicing
because they enjoy the hour or so of peace and quiet it gives them. But quietism is
not meditation. Corralling a wild horse doesn't make him tame or responsive to the
reins. He may rest for awhile and look tranquil. He may even begin to graze. But
when the gate is opened he will escape - as wild as he ever was.
You know, at Nan Hua Si, the Sixth Patriarch's monastery, there was once
who spent hours each day sitting quietly on his cushion enjoying the peace and
tranquility it brought him. He thought that he was meditating. Hui Neng, the Sixth
Patriarch, noticing the monk's error, approached him. "Why do you devote so much
time to your cushion each day?" he asked.
The monk looked up, surprised. "Because I want to become a Buddha," he
Hui Neng smiled. "My son," he said, "you can make a mirror polishing a
than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion!"
We should always remember this exchange between a great master and an erring
Before we enter the meditative state we are always awake and alert. Our
freed from external cares, are focussed on our meditation exercise. After we
succeed in entering the meditative state we are usually quite euphoric. This joyful
giddiness is experienced by practitioners in every religion. It is called Chan Disease
or God Intoxication or Divine Madness. Quietism doesn't produce euphoria. It
produces a zombie-like dullness that has nothing whatsoever to do with Chan
Buddhism or any other religion except, perhaps, voodoo.
We should never begin a meditation exercise if we are excited or agitated.
and body must come to a relaxed state. If we are angry, introspection and an
application of Buddhist principles, particularly of forgiveness and acceptance, may
help us to regain our composure; but if our distress persists we should pray for
guidance or seek counsel in order to resolve our problems before sitting down to
If our agitation is merely a temporary condition, due perhaps to being
fatigued, we should follow the "one-half inch incense stick" method. We simply sit
quietly and watch an incense stick burn down for half an inch. If by that time our
composure has not been restored, we should end the meditation session. We can
always try again later.
Likewise, our breathing must be gentle and rhythmical. Occasionally, while
practicing meditation, thoughts may arise which disturb us or we may gasp for air
because we've incorrectly performed a breathing technique. Again, we should follow
the "one-half inch incense stick" method and allow our mind and breath to settle
down before resuming our practice.
A natural, relaxed but upright posture is the best posture. We sit without
pain. This is very important. Pain initiates a panic-response, a perceived emergency
which causes the body's blood pressure and heart rate to rise; and under such
conditions, meditation is impossible. However, anyone who is easily able to sit in a
more formal meditation posture such as the lotus position, may use this posture to
Of course, we must sit erectly so that our lungs can fully expand. We may
slump forward or sideways. If we find ourselves drifting into sleep, we should rouse
ourselves with a few swallows of tea and by rocking from side to side a few times
and taking a few deep breaths.
Failure to control body, mind, and breath may result in small harms, such
emotional or physical discomfort, or in great harms, such as strained muscles or
fearful encounters with hallucinated demons which, I think we can all agree, are
most distressing events.
Before beginning any formal meditation technique it is absolutely necessary
control of the breath.
There are two basic approaches to breath control: unstructured and structured.
both methods the lungs are compared to a bellows. When we wish to fill a bellows
with air, we pull the handles apart. In like manner, when we desire to inflate the
chest, we begin by extending the abdomen, pushing it outward, away from the spine
as though we were pulling apart the handles of a bellows. When we exhale, we first
let the air seep out and then slowly contract the abdomen, squeezing the remaining
air out of the lungs as if we were closing the bellows.
Always, our aim should be to make our breathing so fine and unstrained
someone were to place an ostrich plume in front of our nose, we would not ruffle it
when breathing in or out.
1. In unstructured breathing, we lower our gaze and simply follow
counting ten successive breaths. If we lose count, we simply start again. When we
complete ten counts or breath-cycles, we simply start a new ten-count.
We begin by focussing our attention on the inhalation, noticing the air
as it enters the
nose, descends down the throat and fills the lungs. We mentally watch the chest
expand and the shoulders rise.
As we prepare to exhale, we take note of the count; and then we watch the
air as it
seeps out of our lungs through the nose. We note our shoulders as they relax and
fall as our lungs are emptying. As we complete the exhalation, we observe our
abdominal muscles contract. With practice, all of the muscles of our abdomen,
groin and buttocks will contract to force out the residual air in the lungs.
For some reason, it is easier to count breath cycles when beginning to
when beginning to inhale. But each of us is different. Counting inhalations or
counting exhalations is a matter of personal choice.
2. In structured breathing, we inhale, retain the breath, exhale,
and either begin a
new cycle or else we hold the lungs empty before beginning another breath-cycle.
The amount of time we allot to each part of the cycle, depends on the particular
formula we follow. Because lung capacity varies from individual to individual, no
single formula can suffice. The practitioners may select from several ratios:
a. The ratio, 4:16:8, requires that the inhalation take four counts,
the retention take
sixteen counts, and the exhalation take eight counts.
The ratio, 4:16:8:4 requires an additional period in which the lungs are
left empty for
four counts. This is more difficult, but many practitioners find it more conducive to
attaining deep meditative states.
Usually, one second per count is the prescribed cadence. However, some
have great difficulty in holding their breath, for example, for sixteen seconds. These
individuals should then simply hold their breath for twelve seconds. With practice
they will quickly achieve the count of sixteen. If twelve is also too difficult, then they
may try eight and work up to twelve and then to sixteen.
b. The ratio, 5:5:5:5 or other similar equalized counts are also
Beginners may find it easier to eliminate the final count of holding the lungs empty.
The aim of all breathing exercises is to establish a rhythmic, controlled breath.
Resisting the Impulse to Flee
For a reason no one has yet been able to determine, we often find that
when we sit
down to meditate our cushion turns into an ant hill. Chan beginners most frequently
experience this mysterious cushion transformation but sooner or later it happens to
us all. We begin to squirm and the only thing we can think about is getting away
from that itchy place.
When we first sit down, we're full of good intentions. We plan to do a
program - at least twenty breath-cycles. But then, after four or five cycles, we
discover that we're sitting on an ant hill and have to cut our program short.
Sometimes there are no ants there. But all of a sudden we remember many
important things that we've forgotten to do: straighten the books on the library shelf;
purchase noodles for tomorrow's dinner; read yesterday's newspaper. Clearly,
these things must be attended to and so, with great regret, we get up from our
Dear friends, how do we maintain our good intentions? How do we prevent
resolve from diminishing so drastically?
First we have to recognize how we are deceiving ourselves. You know, there
old story in Chan about a rich man who contracted a disease and was in great
jeopardy of dying. So he made a bargain with the Buddha Amitabha. "Spare my life,
Lord" he said, "and I will sell my house and give the poor all the proceeds from the
sale." All of his family and friends heard him make this pledge. Then, miraculously,
he began to recover. But as his condition improved, his resolve began to diminish;
and by the time he was completely cured, he wondered why he had made such a
pledge in the first place. But since everyone expected him to sell his house, he put it
up for sale. In addition to the house, however, he sold his house-cat. He sold the
house and cat for a total of ten thousand and one gold coins. But a promise is a
promise, and so he gave one gold coin to the poor. That was what he sold the
house for. The cat, you see, was a very valuable cat. When we don't want to do
something, trivial things become very important. A house cat is worth ten thousand
times as much as a house.
We should all remember this man whenever we get the urge to jump up from
cushion. We should all remember him whenever we suddenly decide to cut short
our program. But if we do not excuse ourselves from performing our practice,
neither should we remain on our cushion because of sense of duty.
Sometimes people act as if they are making a great sacrifice when they
their meditation practice. "I'll do it and get it over with," they think. But this is not the
proper attitude. The time we spend in meditation should be the most beautiful time
of our day. We must cherish this time.
Dear friends, be grateful for the Buddha Dharma. Be grateful for the Three
Treasures. Never forget that eternal refuge that exists for us all in the Buddha, the
Dharma, and the Sangha. Be thankful for the Lamp that leads us out of darkness
and into the light.
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