One of the impressions I have gained recently in speaking to Zen friends about practice is a certain attitude towards breathing in zazen. For the sake of brevity, and just for fun, I wish to refer to it as “samurai breathing”. I think it has its origins in the martial arts.
The “samurai breath’ goes like this: one must push down hard on the outgoing breath, concentrating on the hara (solar plexus) and in doing so, push aside any thoughts, feelings, sensations, that get in the way, smashing through them like a karate expert would smash their hand through a brick.
If you practise like this, it will give you a considerable feeling of power, like winning a contest (with yourself), and also give you a sense of purpose in a goal-seeking way (like paying off the mortgage). This type of straining zazen creates a heroic struggle out of zazen and a sense that you are trying very hard, but it is ultimately self-defeating. Perhaps it is part of the process of learning that we have to go through this struggle before we realise it is not productive.
When I see people practising like this, I have a mental picture of someone on an exercise bike peddling furiously, somehow believing that they are going to get somewhere if only they try hard enough. I then imagine someone coming up to them and whispering in their ear, “Excuse me, it doesn’t matter how fast you peddle, you won’t get anywhere on that bike. ” This is like the story of polishing a tile, believing if only it is done hard enough, it will become a mirror, or believing that one will become a Buddha after years and years of zazen, rather than realising that we are Buddha right from the very beginning.
When I began my zen practice many ago in Japan with Kabori Roshi, I was like the person on the bike furiously peddling to get somewhere. I listened with keen interest to other students talking about various breathing techniques, which I berlieved, if only I could get them right, would propel me towards realisation in no time. Needless to say, I tied myself up in knots trying to breathe the “right” way, even making myself sick in the process. After several months of this, I went to Kabori Roshi and told him about it in sanzen (Rinzai for dokusan). All he said was “Just breathe naturally”. I remember feeling a mixture of relief, confusion and disappointment at his comment. How could it be that simple?
Kabori Roshi was like the kindly person whispering in the ear of the stationary cyclist, “Excuse me, no matter how hard you try, you won’t get anywhere on that bike.” The message got through a little but, looking back, I wasn’t quite prepared to really give up my belief, that if only I pushed harder, I would get somewhere.
This happens all the way along in zen practice. Teachers keep telling us there is nothing to attain, but we don’t quite believe them, even though we may mouth the words to others. In everyday life we see people all around struggling to find happiness and peace, believing it will come when they finally get what they want, without seeing that this very moment holds all that one could desire. It is easy to see this delusion in others, but can you see it in yourself?
Coming back to the analogy of the excercise bike, it is not the practice of peddling we have to give up but the belief we are going to get somewhere if we do fit. As we give up this belief, (which is underpinned with the fear of failure) we can enjoy just peddling, and in zazen if we give up this belief, we can just breath naturally and our breathing includes the breathing of the currawong warbling in the crisp morning air.
The “samurai breath” after all turns out to be conceptual breathing, a fixed notion of what breathing ought to be, unlike the breath of the Tao which is open and just comes and goes of its own accord. When our breathing attempts to fit some conceptual pattern of how we ought to breath, we interfere with it, and are out of touch with ourselves. The mind/will should take its lead from the breath, rather than the breath taking its lead from the mind/will. When the mind/will takes its lead from the breath, then the mind/will and the breath are in harmony. When sailing, you trim the sails according to the strength and direction of the wind, not the other way round.
Aitken Roshi, when he was a student of Soen Roshi, asked him “When I do zazen should I use effort or not?” Soen Roshi replied, “The question reminds of Joshu’s question to Nansen in Case l9 of the Mumonkan – ‘ordinary mind is the Tao'”.
Joshu asked Nansen, “What is Tao?” Nansen answered, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” “Then should we direct ourselves towards it or not?” asked Joshu. “If you try to direct yourself towards it, you go away from it”, answered Nansen. Joshu continued, “If we do not try, how can we know it is the Tao?” Nansen replied, “Tao does not belong to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion, not knowing is blankness. If you really attain the Tao of no doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How then, can there be right and wrong in the Tao?” At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened. Mumon, commenting on this said, “Even though Joshu may be enlightened, he can truly get it only after studying for thirty more years.”
Should we direct ourselves towards it or not? Should we use effort or not? Does Nansen mean just “go with the flow of the Tao” as this cliche has become known, as on some personal growth weekend where everyone lies around drinking herbal tea, looking dreamy-eyed and talking about the oneness of the universe? I remember Aitken Roshi once saying to a student, “When are you going to stop going with the flow and get into action?”
“Going with the flow” is just the conceptual opposite of “samurai breathing”. Dull and complacent zazen with no vitality or resolve, which is more accurately going with the flow of Taoist fantasy and natural therapy mysticism.
What is the right attitude then with which to breath? The right attitude is to have no fixed attitude. However from a practical point of view it can follow certain guidelines. I think of right zazen as like holding a baby in one’s arms. You hold a baby gently otherwise you will hurt it. You also hold it firmly otherwise you will drop it. Light but steady. Should you use effort or not? Try holding a baby.