Alternative Guides toward Shikantaza

The Dharma of Breathing and Energy Circulation
Taken, out of context, from Maezumi Roshi's Teishos

Zen masters such as Dogen Zenji and Keizan Zenji, the founders of the Soto Zen school, emphasized the essential reasons for practice, but gave little instruction on breathing. Dogen Zenji is very particular about the order: body, breath and mind. He always starts with the body. In Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation for Zazen), Dogen Zenji says, "Just breathe quietly through the nostrils." If the breath is short, be short. If long, be long. In his instruction on sitting, Dogen Zenji also says, "Think of non-thinking." Non-thinking is the best expression of how to breathe. "Forget the self and drop body and mind." Let the body and mind really be body and mind.

The meridian that runs from the top of the head along the surface of our body is called the ninmyaku, or "conceptual vessel meridian." It is located a little under the skin. From the top of the head, there are two frontal meridians: one is down the middle of the body to the abdomen, and another is on the surface of the body. There also are important points, the navel being one. ... When you practice circulating the energy through these meridians, your entire body breathes. The qi gong masters tell us not to think of breathing through the mouth or nose or even the lungs. So how to breathe? Allow the qi to flow and let the body breathe. It works amazingly well.

When you breathe from your lungs, the breath is very short because you are not using the full capacity of your lungs, perhaps only fifteen to twenty percent. When you breathe, let the entire body breathe and you will notice a big difference in how you feel. In order to make the qi flow easily, your body must be relaxed. Energy simply won't flow through a tense body. So, relax your body. Starting at the end of the spinal column, let the qi flow up the spine. The movement of qi is very slow, unlike the speed of sound or light. Qi moves about eight to twelve inches per second. When you are not used to moving it, it moves even slower.

Let the qi breathe. Let the body breathe. Let the blood and nerves breathe. Then without any effort, your breath will be relaxed and quiet. When we read Zen writings carefully, this is the instruction we should understand on how to take care of body, breath and mind.

There are also two meridians in the back. The tokumyaku, or "governing vessel meridian," runs through the spinal cord. The other meridian is the jinmyaku, or "kidney meridian," which runs alongside the spinal column. I personally prefer to use this meridian instead of the governing meridian. It helps me to be more centered.

Find the center of your body. Since we are sitting, we are focusing on the upper body, ignoring the legs for the time being. It's all right to circulate the qi just through the upper body while sitting zazen. When you stand up or lie down, you can circulate it through the legs. In any case, this sense of centeredness is very important, especially in the tanden.

Most importantly, let the qi flow all over the body. Usually we are just aware of our limited respiratory system. We think that our lungs are breathing, but that is definitely the most superficial kind of breathing. What is the ideal way to breathe? See for yourself what happens when the qi flows throughout the entire body. Use the meridians to breathe and let the qi circulate. Let the qi breathe. Allow this qi to take care of your body and mind.

When doing these practices, don't do too much at one time. Be at ease. Avoid creating too much tension in your head or in your heart. Have good concentration along with your practice of breathing, just sitting, koan, or whatever you are practicing. And trust yourself -- not the self you think you are, but as you are.

I encourage you to spend the first ten to fifteen minutes of sitting doing a relaxation or releasing practice. This has three purposes: one, to release tension; two, to remove toxins; three, to energize the body and mind. By visualizing, we are not just following energy as such, but sensing the structure of our life. I am condensing qi gong practice to one point: how to breathe. Figuratively speaking, the main part of qi gong is imitation -- to imitate a certain way, an ideal way in which this life is one with the whole world.

Learning is a process of imitation. By doing so, it becomes your wisdom. What do we imitate in doing zazen? The lives of the buddhas and ancestors. Dogen Zenji says that zazen is "imprinting the Buddha seal upon your body, breath and mind." Furthermore, "sit straight in samadhi," the state of forgetting. Even sitting is forgotten. When you do that kind of zazen, the whole universe becomes the Buddha seal, and all the ten directions in the dharma world become satori itself. You go beyond imitating buddhas and ancestors and directly confirm your life as the Buddha seal. This is breathing.

The relaxation practice is divided into three parts: the sides of the body, the front and the back. First, start from the top of your head. With each exhalation and inhalation, slowly move down each side, to the neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, finally letting the qi flow out of the fingers; second, inhale and exhale as you move slowly down the front of the body; third, from the top of the head down through the back -- release the tension. When you breathe out, make a sound within yourself, then let it go. By concentrating on one part of the body at a time, it is easier to release tension. For instance, release only up to the temples in the first breath, to the sinuses with the next breath, then down to the eyes, and so forth. Hakuin Zenji taught a breathing exercise in which one visualizes a substance like butter slowly melting down the body from the top of the head. So inhale and exhale slowly into each part of the body. Relaxing the whole body in one breath doesn't work. The more you concentrate on one part at a time, the more effective this practice will be for you. When you do it, you will sense how you are letting go of yourself.

Pay careful attention to relaxing your brain. Our brain carries all the knowledge from billions of years ago. Isn't it marvelous, this literally inexhaustible potential and power that we all have? The knowledge that we have accumulated since our birth is very limited. We are using such a small portion of how much is actually there. Qi gong breathing vitalizes all the cells, genes and nerves. I want you to develop the use all of these ancient parts of the body by letting the whole body breathe.

When relaxing the front of the body, use the upper tanden. Bring your whole attention into the center of the brain. This upper tanden is also called echu, the "center of wisdom." It's at the very center point of the head, about two inches straight behind the third eye. Visualize this point. Place your conscious awareness at this point, then move that awareness down through the middle tanden and down to the lower tanden, which, in this case, is behind the navel. Let that point be the very center of your whole body. Just about opposite the navel, on the back, is a point called meimon, the "light gate." This lower tanden is located between the navel and the meimon.

The most common or simple type of abdominal breathing is when the belly expands on the inhalation and contracts on the exhalation. When you inhale, air fills up the lungs and the diaphragm is pushed down. The inner organs and intestines are pressed and the belly is pushed out. Breathing from the navel or lower abdomen is important for adjusting the body as well as the mind.

Another abdominal breathing method is to pull all the internal organs from the inside at the point of the lower tanden when you inhale. In other words, instead of letting the abdomen out when you inhale, pull it in. But pull it in from the inside. Do it slowly, pulling in as large an area as possible. Do it very gently, release, and then let the abdomen move by itself. Just do this exercise once. It might take some time to do this kind of breathing comfortably.

To summarize, I want you to start your sitting with the relaxation or releasing practice. Then start circulating the qi up from the back meridian to the front meridian within the small or microcosmic body. Let the energy circulate nicely. In this way, the whole body participates. If you want to do some of this abdominal breathing, first just follow your natural breathing. The abdominal area moves in and out: on the exhalation, your abdomen contracts, and on the inhalation, your diaphragm expands. If you want to go further, use the opposite breathing method of pulling the abdomen in on the inhalation. In this way, your organs and cells will be stimulated.

Remember not to force yourself too much. Don't overdo these practices. As I mentioned, resume your regular practice of breath counting, just sitting, koan, or whatever. Real strength should come out of softness, a kind of tenderness. The more we make our body flexible and soft, the more we can create samadhi.

Everything is the function of energy. Our life is a life of constant change. Dogen Zenji says our life changes 6,500,000 times per day. And yet, each moment is one unbroken movement. This is the action in which life is maintained. When you see life from this perspective, the self is forgotten and, as Dogen Zenji says, you are confirmed by the 10,000 dharmas. Live your life in such a way. Each of us is equally the same as the dharma, as the Buddha, as the sangha-as the so-called Three Treasures. Right now, here, this is our life.

In his book of Teishos "Appreciate Your Life", Maezumi talks about 8 beliefs cited by Harada Roshi, e.g., true nature, no ego, no death, causation, buddhas, attaction (to the Way), not two/not separate, all buddha way. Maezumi says are these eight are aspects of our single Buddhist Belief. He mentions Buddha's Nirvana Sutra's "want little, know how to be satisfied, ... and transcend (avoiding idle talk)" He also mentions that Buddha taught "no I" but also taught his followers to take good care of this I (e.g., appreciate your life and its changing ideas, beliefs, views, and circumstances.) But from Dogen's "Yui Butso Yo Butsu", on Realization: The entire universe is the dharma body of the self.

Back to Mind and Meditation.