Shunryu Suzuki talking about breathing

December 12, 2008

One of my favorite talks about Zen breathing comes from Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless.

We say "inner world" or "outer world", but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe", the "I" is extra. There is no you to say "I".

What we call "I" is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no "I", no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.

In Zen meditation, you are usually taught that your focus should be on your breathing, and in this section Zen Master Suzuki provides some discussion regarding the attitude around this breathing practice. Having had an experience of my consciousness essentially laying in bed next to my physical body, I feel like I have a unique perspective regarding this passage by Zen Master Suzuki. I don't know if what I experienced is what Zen is about, but I can certainly read that passage and smile.

While I'm in the Zen meditation neighborhood, I'd like to share another quote from this same chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

You should not be absent-minded.

In my own practice, working with a few different people, including spending a little time at the Providence Zen Center, I have found Zen meditation to be about awareness of the present moment, and as Zen Master Suzuki says, don't be absent-minded, that's not what Zen is about.

In one interview with a Zen Master, he handed me a watch and asked me what the time was. I said something like "Ten-thirty a.m." He then told me to be more specific, essentially telling me to add the seconds in whenever I told him the time. So living Zen is about awareness, it's about the present moment, and it's about the details.

In both books by Zen Master Suzuki he makes things very simple. I don't think any chapter is more than three pages long, and they tend to be on just one topic, so you can read that chapter, and consider that topic without being drawn into other thoughts. I think this is one of the great strengths of both of his books, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", and "not always so".

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