How to Breathe in Zen [ Reply to a Reader ]

Question:

Hello Sunim,
I’ve been following your live-stream videos on YouTube. I wrote you before, but couldn’t get an answer. In order to follow you in a right manner: 1.) Which sutras do you chant in the mornings and in the mornings and in which order? 2.) Is there a special kind of breathing during chanting? 3.) During sitting , would it be ok to repeat x3 Clear mind during breathing in and x1 twice time longer Dooòon’t knowwwww during breathing out ? or just counting the long extended breaths like “ooooonnnneeeee.” (susok’kan) ?

Thank you,
H.

The great Okwang Sunim shows how it’s done. (As Head Monk in a Korean temple Winter Kyol Che, c. 2012.)

Reply:

Dear H.,

Thank you very much for your letter. Please forgive the oversight in not replying. We recently had technical difficulties with the blog, and we weren’t receiving peoples’ letters. Now it is fixed. I am a little overworked with running this large facility, keeping up with the admin work and correspondence and editing teaching-videos and trying to prevent this large facility from becoming too dirty. So, sometimes I do not catch these tech difficulties with blog and so forth for a long time!

Here are some replies for your questions:

1. Following my Teacher, every day we chant the Homage to the Three Jewels, Heart Sutra (in Korean), Heart Sutra (in English), and the Great Dharani (sometimes 3x). There is a link for the sutras that we chant. The link is in the “description” for the livestream, which you already follow — it is very clearly indicated. Here it is again: https://zen-center-regensburg.com/wp-…

2. There is no special kind of breathing during chanting. I say that quite often during our practice — NO SPECIAL BREATHING during SITTING or CHANTING. There is no technique or method. What is important is, we return to a soft awareness of breath during chanting. But there is no special force or concentration. I always say: “We do not concentrate or focus on the breath during chanting or sitting. Some people learn from some meditation teachers that they must concentrate on the breath, or focus on the breath, or count the breath. This is OK, maybe good for some beginners for a short few introductory sessions or even a three-day retreat, to get grounded.

But this is not Zen practice. Concentration and focusing both involve a kind of tension, and tension cannot be maintained for a long time — certainly not for a 35-minute or 50-minute sitting period, much less for a three-day retreat! Make a fist right now. Make it very, very tight. How long can you hold this? Making a tight fist is a form of concentrating your force, focusing your force in one action. Such an action cannot be maintained for a period of time. It does not have a consistency of effort — in the beginning, maybe you can produce a great effort, but your mind really wants to release it as soon as it can! Focusing on an object in the distance, or on the floor, is the same thing. It will give you a headache. This is not Zen.

So, when I feel that people are taught to “concentrate” or “focus” on the breath, I am very sad. This gives people a difficult, even unpleasant tension-feeling. There is a subtle rigidity, but that can be enough tightness to make them inflexible and unable to sit for long. It is like when you learn to ski or skateboard or surf or even dance salsa: Don’t keep the body tight. Let it be flexible and soft and loose. But most people learn meditation as breath-concentration or breath-focusing, which are, by nature, a tightening that cannot be maintained for long, cannot go “deep”. People who learn this mistaken way continually “fall off” the surfboard of their breath, and they think that they cannot practice Zen as a result. Maybe they give up altogether, or even just come to regard Zen practice as some drudgery that must be soldiered through. This is really, really unfortunate. It makes me really sad to hear of such completely avoidable experiences.

The fundamental practice of Rinzai Zen is Great Question. And to help with Great Question, we return to soft awareness of breath. Concentrating/focusing on breath, and returning to awareness of breath are actually two quite different things. If while sitting or walking, you notice sounds, notice smells, notice what you taste, you are naturally aware of hearing, naturally aware of smelling, naturally aware of tasting, without particularly effort. Inside and outside become one. This is the function of “kwan um”, our endlessly awake original, true nature always functioning without special effort, by “itself”. But if you crane yourself to hear “a” particular sound or smell “a” particular thing in the range of possible smells in the room, this is concentrating/focusing. It cannot be maintained for long, it is tensed against other sensations or experiences, and somewhat unnatural. Imagine trying to try watching a TV show or listen to a beautiful piece of music while three people talk animatedly in the same room. You need to work hard to really see the show or hear the music, amidst the other sensations. This is concentrating, focusing. It makes you tired after a while — not long! “Can you people please take your conversation to another room?!” That is the experience of tension: it cannot truly “become one”. This is something of what we are doing when we try “concentrating on breath” or “focusing on breath” during meditation. It isn’t Zen. Maybe for the beginning of your practice, trying this, or counting breaths, can be good expedient means. But they are not long-term practices — not in Rinzai Zen.

So, no special breathing practice. However you breathe, that is your practice, without special “technique”. Rather, are you lightly, naturally aware of that “happening” or not? Are you lightly regarding the rising and falling of breath, noticing that movement and looking straight through it to the question: “Who sees this breathing? What hears sounds? Who is this witness?” Thinking is maybe coming, maybe thinking is going. You just leave it alone. You should treat your thinking the same way you would treat the passing wind: notice, but don’t engage. Don’t employ any special force, either. Leave it be. Your thinking — coming and going — really doesn’t give a shit about you, to be honest. Your thinking gives a shit about other thinking, maybe, but it really does not give a flying shit about the vast, borderless “you” that this thinking has no ability to describe anyway. In the same way, the things you smell don’t give a shit about you, the things you hear don’t give a shit about you, and the things you taste don’t really give a shit about you. You might give a shit about them, but they don’t give a flying shit about you. Thinking is just another of this apparitions of phenomena. Let it pass, like the wind which also doesn’t give a shit about you. Because it is basically the same natural force, the same empty phenomenon.

Just reflect lightly on the breath, and turn the gaze toward “What is the viewer? What notices this thinking? What hears? Who? Who is it?” If you do this, you’re doing Zen! Everything else is just some temporary technique.

3. This is a “method” taught by many teachers in the Kwan Um School of Zen. Personally, I do not teach this method. Yes, this simple and clear method was taught for a period by Zen Master Seung Sahn. But he intended this as an entree-practice to reach absolute beginners in the practice, people who needed first to get some grounding in breath. He used it for people just starting out, whose heads were too filled with thoughts to really look into the question-engine of Zen practice, “What am I?” that is the core of his Great-Doubt teaching. It was a temporary expedient-means teaching, not something he intended for people to practice with for a while. When you teach your child how to use language, you use the sing-song method of “A, B, C, D, E, F, G ~~”. This helps them to arrange these unfamiliar letter-symbols into some order in their fresh, fleshy-brains. Then, you do not have them sing this song every time they write an essay or letter from there on out! Through first repetition of this song, the arrangement of otherwise unfamiliar letters become absorbed through the basic sing-song method, and then the student grows into deeper, more enduring uses of the language than just the spoon-fed singy-song. Then Shakespeare is possible.

I do not wish to denigrate this as a practice. I only need to emphasise that this was one of those super-genius expedient means that he employed, like hitting the floor — total treasures of his perfect teaching freedom — a freedom that other great Zen masters of his age would not deign to explore for bringing people into their true nature.

But this “3x clear mind breathing-in, 1x ‘Don’t knowwwwwwww’ breathing-out'” was not something I believe he wished folks to linger on for long (and I say this based on being able to see how he taught people who had grown more stable in their meditation — this “method” or whatever we want to call it was never, ever used, to my knowledge. Only maybe for people with hyper amounts of thinking and unspooled consciousness). It was just one among many important tools that Dae Soen Sa Nim gave to total beginners, because it could really give them a strong experience of their breath. For many people, to connect with the breath is a very new and even difficult thing! So this is a great example of his freedom in employing expedient means. Don’t linger on it long.

So, this is really only a practice for people coming in right off the street. Or for people with complicated heads, to ground them and give them some basic taste of the existence of breath and their “center”. It lets people get a little familiar with the possibility of “don’t know”. It is not a practice that takes one very deep.

To “go deep”, in Zen, one needs to really look into Great Doubt: “don’t know”. If you really want to taste “don’t know”, you would not use this word “don’t know” anywhere in your practice. Dae Soen Sa Nim was a genius Teacher, so he had various means to meet people at whatever level they brought to the practice. I think he gave this practice to absolute beginners as what others might call a “visualization practice”. By practicing it, people who have been completely glued to every aspect of their thinking-minds can begin to feel or perceive a possibility of greater spaciousness that comes with breath-awareness and conceiving of the possibility of a not-thought-based reality. I don’t know. Just my gut sense, for whatever it’s worth.

He had many different ways of practice that he tried out to catch his students’ minds, to “ground” them and stabilise their consciousness long enough for the infinite flower of their own “don’t know” to bloom up before them. Some of the practices worked for some people, and some of them did not connect with others. He was definitely not a one-trick pony! For example: He invented a special breathing-practice called “Soen Yu”. It is a series of arm or leg movements keyed to an in-breath or out-breath flow. Very interesting! I tried this a few times, and never felt it especially helpful (or not). It just never connected. But some people get some real benefit from it, and though I have never taught it or encouraged it, I do not discourage it, either. Dae Soen Sa Nim taught some people to repeat “Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal…” as a mantra. For others, he suggested “Gaté gaté paragaté parasamgaté, bodhi svaha!” (Curiously, I can hardly remember him encouraging so much the use of his own Great Dharani mantra as a practice, at least not in his public talks. (There were some exhortations, but not as much as one would expect, given that it was his own personal practice. Mostly to really strong students only.) And yet, somehow, the constant practice of this Great Dharani mantra-question (“Who is doing this?”) became my practice and my life. I couldn’t imagine life without doing that! But he never told me to do it. I’m not sure why I started it. And that should also tell you something.

So, if this “clear mind, clear mind, clear mind // Don’t knowwwwwww” works for you, then do it. If it does not work for you, then don’t do it. Only you can see if it is effective for you. Personally, I do not teach this “method” or style, ever. But I am not “against” it — I just never used it, or used it just for a very short time.

You are asking this question because you are wondering what I teach. You have already sat meditation many times together during the livestream! I always repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat my particular emphases in the teaching during every single sitting period. It is very clear what I teach. I repeat it TOO much! But if you like this style, then do it! Dae Soen Sa Nim never kept this or that style practice for people once they became a little grounded in the practice, and neither will I. If it works for you, then do it.

I hope this answers your questions. Best wishes for your practice.

Yours in the Dharma,

hg

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