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           Breathing and Posture
                 byMaster Hsu (Xu) Yun

              Although we may perform many meditations while walking or working, when we do
              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 is a
              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 are meditating
              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 a monk
              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 brick sooner
              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 minds,
              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. The mind
              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 rushed or
              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 we are
              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 rigidity or
              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
              good advantage.

              Of course, we must sit erectly so that our lungs can fully expand. We may not
              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 as
              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.

              Breathing Exercises

              Before beginning any formal meditation technique it is absolutely necessary to gain
              control of the breath.

              There are two basic approaches to breath control: unstructured and structured. In
              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 that if
              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 the breath,
              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 exhale than
              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 people
              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 very effective.
              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 complete
              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 our
              resolve from diminishing so drastically?

              First we have to recognize how we are deceiving ourselves. You know, there is an
              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 our
              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 perform
              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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