Mindfulness of Breathing as Applied to Advanced Chan Methods


Part I - Mindfulness of Breathing

Venerable Guo Huei, a Dharma heir of the late Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009), is currently Vice Abbot of Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. He holds a Doctor of Letters degree from Rissho University in Japan, and is Chairman of the Department of Buddhist Studies at the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts. This article is taken from the concluding dharma talk of a workshop given by Ven. Guo Huei at the DDMBA-NJ chapter on July 26, 2015. It discusses the Buddhist meditation method of mindfulness of breathing, and its relationship with the advanced Chan methods of silent illumination and huatou.

Counting the Breath

Mindfulness of breathing (Sanskrit ānāpānasmṛti, Pali ānāpānasati) is a form of Buddhist meditation that uses breathing as an object in the practice of mindfulness. The method is to start with exhalation, followed by inhalation. Number one is the first breath of exhalation and inhalation, number two is the second breath, etc. In the breathing patterns that practitioners usually experience when relaxed, some exhalations or inhalations are longer than others, and some are shorter. This is perfectly normal and represents the natural rhythm of breathing when the practitioner does not control their breath.

It is best not to count when just starting the exhalation. Instead, make the count shortly after the exhalation begins, and hold the count until the end of the exhale. During inhalation, remain aware of the breath but do not count it. Continue counting the second breath, the third breath, and so on until the tenth breath, and then start back at one again. For a beginner it may be difficult to complete the perfect cycle of counting from one to ten, due to wandering thoughts and an unsettled mind.

Counting Scenarios
The figure below illustrates the timing and duration of the counting. The gray line represents the breathing pattern, exhalation and inhalation, and the black lines show various counting scenarios.

Scenario 1: Counting starts shortly after the exhalation begins, and the count is held until the exhalation is complete. This is the best timing for counting.

Scenario 2: Counting begins at the same time as the exhalation. This is not the worst timing, but can frequently lead to controlling the breath, which is not ideal.

Scenario 3: Counting begins before the exhalation. This will trigger the most severe controlling of the breath. The body can tense up, and the breathing will become heavy and panting.

Scenario 4: Counting starts shortly after the exhalation begins, but the count is held all the way through the inhalation. People do this because they worry that wandering thoughts may arise. But if one counts all the way through, it’s not as relaxing as simply maintaining awareness during inhalation. It causes stress and the mind cannot be at ease.

Losing the Count

Between breaths, wandering thoughts may come up which can cause you to be distracted, and to lose track of the count. For example, as you are counting “One, two, three…” a non-related thought comes up such as “What’s for dinner tonight?” “Oh, what number should be next, four or five? Alright, I’ll just use five, and go on.” Then you count “Six, seven, eight…” and another thought comes up: “What should I do for fun tomorrow?” “Oh, I’m not sure which number is next, eight or nine? Never mind, I’ll just use eight.” The mind will keep wandering off to other thoughts instead of concentrating on the breath.

There are two types of distracting thoughts: the grosser form is the wandering thought, the finer form is the scattered thought. There is a subtle difference between the two. At the grosser thought level, the mind follows the distraction and forms a complete idea of the wandering thought, such as “What’s for dinner tonight?” At the finer thought level, the mind is more alert and is aware of the distraction when only one word pops out, such as “eat”. When you notice that you have wandering thoughts, resume the counting from one. At the finer level of scattered thought, a slight thought emerges and is still in the primitive form; complete awareness is not lost, so you can return to the method immediately and continue on with the counting.

Following the Breath

Gradually, the grosser form of the wandering thoughts will reduce, and subtly, the finer form of scattered thoughts will also subside. Then you can maintain mindfulness for longer periods of time. If you can focus on the breath without losing awareness of it, eventually you will notice that each breath feels the same. The breaths when you count “one, two, three” are no different from those if you just repeatedly count “one”. When reaching this stage, you don’t need to count any more; simply exhale and inhale while maintaining awareness all the time. This is the stage of following-the-breath instead of counting-the-breath. The body is at ease and relaxed. At this point, if you do not get attached to this enjoyable state, and continue to practice, you can reach the unified mind state. In the state of unified mind, one does not need to pay attention to breathing any more; just maintain awareness that the existence of energy and air fills the body. Since the body, the earth element, is heavier, and the air element is lighter, when one does not feel the body element but only the air element, one will feel the sensation of lightness almost to the state that the body does not exist.

Extended Reading

By: Venerable Guo Huei
Resources: Chan Magazine, Spring 2017 More on the Chan Magazine...

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