Shodo Harada Roshi is Abbot of Sogen-ji, a Rinzai Zen monastery in Okayama, Japan. He has established sister monasteries in the USA, Germany and India, and regularly visits practice groups around the world.
In his booklet, How to Do Zazen, he writes,
As the center of your being settles lower in your body and your mind becomes more open you will start noticing the endless thoughts that arise in your head. It is no use trying to suppress them. A better approach is to focus on counting your breaths (a practice known as susokkan), which will help you maintain concentration and not get caught up in ideas. With each out-breath count a single number, continuing from one to ten and then returning to one again. Eventually the numbers will become part of the flow of breathing and you will no longer need to count. But in the beginning, counting your breaths will help you keep your energy gathered, your mind clear, and your attention focused on your breathing.
Shodo Harada provides detailed instructions in a YouTube video (English subtitles are available by clicking on the cc button).
In his book The Path to Bodhidharma, he describes how to,
There are three central aspects of zazen: the aspect of body, the aspect of breathing, and the aspect of mind.
Align the Body
The bodily aspect concerns the physical posture of zazen. In meditation, the aspect of mind is in many ways central, but the body-mind relation is such that unless attention is paid to the details of proper posture, it is extremely difficult to achieve anything on the mental level of true zazen. Sitting for even a thousand years with a slack posture will leave you just as confused and deluded as ever.
The body may be considered in terms of the section above the waist and the section below the waist, and both have their respective roles to play in the overall balance of zazen. The upper portion must be light and relaxed, while the lower portion must be firm, taut, and settled. We might compare the physical form of zazen to that of a pyramid, broad and stable at the base and gradually tapering toward the top, until it reaches a single point. The folding of the legs during meditation into the lotus position puts one in firm contact with the ground, creating a calm, stable foundation for both body and mind. Either full lotus or half lotus is fine, though the full lotus is preferable since the half lotus more easily results in a loss of balance and consequent injury to the legs.
The folded legs comprise a triangle where the knees form the two base angles and the coccyx forms the apex. The buttocks are pushed back and the lower abdomen is pressed forward, while the trunk rises perpendicularly from the middle of this foundation, forming a balanced centerline for the overall body pyramid. The lower back is curved in as much as possible to provide a solid support for the upper trunk; sitting with your back bent out may seem more comfortable, but it easily leads to sleepiness and random thoughts, and it makes the attainment of deeper meditative states impossible. The upper body should rise up in a light and relaxed manner, almost as if it is not there. The chin should be pulled back and the top of the head thrust upward, while the neck should touch against the back of the collar. With the body in this posture the strength will quite naturally settle into the tanden, the place in the lower abdomen, two or three inches below the navel, that forms the physical and mental foundation of zazen practice. It is important, however, to think of the tanden not as a specific point on the body but as something that appears when a number of factors are in proper balance—the tanden is, in a sense, the expression of an overall condition. It will not appear unless the upper trunk is relaxed, the back is straight, and the lumbar area is firmly tucked in. When the back is curved in as far as possible, the trunk naturally straightens and the ki, the vital energy, flows freely upward along the spine.
The use of zazen cushions, known as zafu, makes it easier to maintain this posture. Do not sit right in the middle of the zafu, since this tends to shift the body’s centerline backward, rendering it harder to sit properly and defeating the cushion’s purpose. Instead, place yourself more toward the front of the zafu, so that the body slants slightly forward and the back curves naturally in, easing the burden on the lumbar muscles. Make sure the cushion is of the appropriate height—people with years of experience may be able to sit well even with a relatively low cushion, but beginners usually need to raise the pelvis higher to aid the proper in-curving of the lower back.
When you start a period of meditation, particularly if you are a beginner, straighten your spine by leaning forward slightly, then leave your pelvis tipped forward and your lower back curved in as you bring the rest of your trunk to an upright position. Continue to rock forward and backward until you find the proper point of centeredness. Doing this will provide a quite clear sense of both the lower back and the tanden. Some practitioners find themselves sleepy, unfocused, or full of scattered thoughts nearly every time they sit. I’ve found that almost always this is because their back is not curved in and their centerline is off.
Whether sitting in full lotus or in half lotus, it is easiest to maintain your balance if you pull your feet up on your thighs as close as possible to your trunk; it is when you sit with your legs not high enough that they become numb and painful. The soles of your feet should face upward and not out to the sides. Attention to such details of posture is very important in finding the right physical alignment. Of course, your legs will hurt if you remain in this position twelve hours a day, but you need not make an endurance contest out of zazen. Try to sit in this manner, focused and straight, for even just a single short period every day.
When sitting, it is important to close your anal sphincter muscles slightly, as this helps keep the lower trunk in the proper position and in the right state of tautness, promoting the free flow of ki up through your tanden and backbone to the top of your head. When this flow is present, the back straightens naturally and the entire body comes into proper balance with the centerline. When the body is thus properly aligned—the lower portion taut and firm, the ki flowing freely, and the upper trunk straight, light, and relaxed—the mind, too, becomes settled, and extraneous thoughts are minimized. In contrast, when you sit in a careless fashion, inattentive to the details of posture, your ki, which should flow freely throughout your system, stagnates in the upper regions. This makes it difficult to bring the body into proper balance and causes painful stiffness in the shoulders and neck. The stability of the lower trunk is thus disturbed, causing a loss of balance in the entire body; you feel unsettled and overreact emotionally. Even the ordinary activities of daily life become difficult.
In this way, the study of Zen must proceed through the body—theorizing alone cannot lead to the inner experience of true zazen, in which your ki fills your tanden and provides a sense of boundless energy that seems to extend to the very ends of the universe. When you are grounded in your physical center and the various bodily parts are settled in their proper positions, the energy circulates naturally; the spine is straight, and the entire physical structure rests in a position of optimal balance, like a pagoda rising up with each story settled firmly on the one below. By maintaining this posture not only during zazen but in daily life—in walking, in working, and in all other activities—you remain centered in your lower abdomen, so your upper body feels fresh and light and you are filled with a sense of clarity.
This will be aided by loose clothing that does not restrict the flow of your breath. Another factor to be careful about is eating. Meat and other greasy fare thicken the blood and should be reduced; the emphasis should be on good nourishment. The matter of sleep, too, is important—neither too much nor too little is good for zazen.
One receives energy and support from food, from sleep, and from the surrounding environment. A balanced approach to these factors not only helps your practice but also contributes to good health, and a state of good health is, needless to say, the most suitable physical condition for the practice of Zen. I might add that it is best to sit with other Zen practitioners, so that everyone can sense everyone else’s zazen energy and draw strength from their efforts to harmonize the mind. It works the other way around, too—it is quite difficult to sit among people who have no interest in meditation.
One’s inner, mental environment is also important. You must make a conscious decision to practice, vowing from deep within to bring your body into balance, to harmonize your breathing, and to clarify your mind. Merely crossing your legs and sitting vacantly on a cushion is not enough. Unless you express your commitment in the form of conscious, directed effort, you will never be capable of genuine zazen.
It is very important also to keep your eyes open during meditation. Sitting with closed eyes may seem a good way to cut off distractions and achieve a state of inner silence, but doing so usually encourages drowsiness and extraneous thoughts. Even if you succeed in reaching a tranquil state of mind, this is nothing but hothouse Zen, of little use to you amid the challenges of everyday life. Furthermore, the senses, particularly sight and hearing, provide the most basic link between the outside world and the activities of the mind. Unless we learn to integrate such sensory input with our zazen, our training will be of little practical use.
Align the Breath
Let us now move on to the matter of aligning the breath. Settled, well-regulated breathing is basic to Zen practice and is vital to the realization of the inner essence of zazen. When the breath is disturbed, it is impossible to observe things accurately and make appropriate judgments. Moreover, shortness of breath often leads to shortness of temper—one loses one’s sense of perspective and reacts solely on the basis of the immediate circumstances. You become overly affected by what people say and are easily swayed by the events around you, leading to further disturbance and delusion. All of this signals that your breathing is not in order. Regulating the respiration means maintaining your breath in a relaxed and unobstructed flow regardless of the situation you find yourself in.
Begin your zazen with shinkokyu, “deep breathing.” The kind of deep breathing practiced during athletic warm-up exercises generally focuses on inhalation, but in zazen it is the exhalation that is central. It might be called “exhalation-type deep breathing.” This necessitates, first of all, that the upper body be straight and completely free of tension. Centering your respiration in your tanden, begin with an exhalation; if you start with an inhalation there is a tendency for the body to stiffen. Exhale completely, using the mouth, not the nose, for the first several breaths. After this, breathe through the nostrils. The respiration should be neither overly forceful nor overly gentle—it should feel full and expansive, as though it extends infinitely and without constraint. The breath should feel as though it comes not from the chest but directly from the lower abdomen, as though there were an open pipe directly connecting the tanden and the mouth.
Do not force the breath, but allow it to flow completely out in a relaxed, expansive way. If the upper body is completely free of tension, the settling of the strength into the tanden area will occur in a quite natural way. Continue the exhalation for about thirty seconds or more if possible, breathing out every last bit of air until the abdomen becomes convex. At the very end of the exhalation some tension tends to set in, so try making two or three light, gentle pushes—this heightens the sense of the tanden and makes the transition to inhalation quite natural. When the in-breath is complete (generally it does not take long), begin the next exhalation, again letting out all the air until the abdomen is concave and finishing in the same manner with two or three small pushes.
This type of breathing, in which the air is released until the belly becomes concave, is called abdominal breathing. Try to take about ten breaths in this way, being careful to exhale fully with each one. When the exhalation is complete, the ideas filling the head are, as it were, expelled along with the air. This is the best way to effect the mental “turnabout” that enables you to leave behind the agitations of everyday life and begin zazen with a mind that is fresh, clear, and empty. With only a partial exhalation, your mental state in zazen remains a mere continuation of what was in your mind before.
When you have settled into this abdominal breathing, with the shoulders and chest free of tension, the entire upper body relaxed, and your strength seated in the tanden, then a shift takes place—from abdominal breathing to tanden breathing. In the former, the abdominal muscles play the major role in the drawing in and letting out of the breath, expanding and contracting to enable long, relaxed, free respiration. This quickly brings about a settling of ki in the tanden, which in turn gives rise to a sense of strength and stability in the area between the lower back and the lower abdomen, drawing the consciousness there and filling it with relaxed energy. In this state, the abdomen remains rounded and nearly motionless even as the breath moves freely in and out, as though (in the words of Hakuin) there were a fully inflated ball inside. Were the belly to be poked from the outside, it would feel taut and firm but not rigid.
Once this tanden breathing is mastered, you can maintain the zazen state of mind whether you stand or sit, work or talk—in the words of Yoka Gengaku’s Song of Enlightenment, “Walking is Zen, sitting too is Zen; speaking or silent, moving or still, the essence is undisturbed.” This is not easy at first, of course, and we soon become scattered as we go about the activities and interactions of daily life, but as tanden breathing matures, you will notice how your inner state remains the same in all conditions, even during sleep. This is because in tanden breathing, the body and the respiration have come into a state of oneness; it is not something performed through willpower, but something that the body does quite naturally. For the same reason, the body is always relaxed during this type of respiration—it is only when the conscious mind tries to influence the breath that tension and stiffness set in.
Align the Mind
This state of integration alone, however, is not in itself enough to bring about the third type of alignment mentioned above: alignment of the mind. Attaining the stability of a well-aligned mind is essential in Zen training, since most of us do not live in a quiet world of our own, cut off from other people, but are instead surrounded by the constant distractions and demands of everyday life. In daily life there are, of course, important matters that demand careful thought, but so much of what fills our heads is utterly unnecessary. We constantly replay emotionally charged situations and fret endlessly over personal relationships, overloading our minds with thoughts that are of no real account. One memory leads to another to create an endless chain of ideas that clouds our awareness and confuses our mental functions. We end up unable to judge situations accurately and therefore act in inappropriate ways.
In Zen, it is through the practice of susokkan or the koan that alignment of the mind is attained. Susokkan, which literally means “counting-the-breath meditation,” is the most basic practice in Zen for mind-alignment. It is not a mere breathing exercise, as it is often regarded even by experienced Zen practitioners; rather, it is the primary means by which we gather the ki in the tanden, and it leads to a thorough cleansing of the very roots of the mind. Traditionally, susokkan is said to consist of six “wonderful gates”—that is, six aspects or stages. The first is called su (literally, “to count”), in which one counts as one observes the inhalations and exhalations; the second is zui (“to follow”), in which one comes into harmony with the breathing and simply follows its movement as it flows in and out; the third is shi (“to stop”), in which the mind is focused in a state of oneness; the fourth is kan (“to observe”), in which one sees clearly and directly into the true nature of all existence; the fifth is gen (“to return”), in which the all-seeing eyes attained at the kan stage are turned inward to see clearly within oneself; and the sixth is jo (“to purify”), in which one reaches the state where not so much as a speck remains.
In susokkan, the out-breath should be long and steady. One breath after the other, inhale and exhale with the entire body, keeping centered in your lower abdomen and taking care not to force the outbreath, as this would prevent the expansive, free respiration necessary to zazen. The full exhalation should last for ten to fifteen seconds (or, for beginners, for about eight seconds, with eight seconds for inhalation, so that there are about four complete breath cycles a minute). As you become accustomed to this type of breathing, the exhalations will grow longer, while the inhalations will remain about the same length.
As mentioned above, the first stage of susokkan is counting the breaths; the counting in and of itself is not essential, but in the beginning it helps focus the attention on the breathing process. Slowly and expansively become one with each number, breathing and counting in a relaxed, unhurried manner free of all tension. Generally, one counts in a series of from one to ten, but it is also possible to count from one to a hundred or from one to a thousand, or even just to recite “one” over and over again. Allow the exhalations to be full and complete, aiding the process with the two small, relaxed pushes described above—this will lead to a very comfortable breathing cycle.
Again, the respiration in susokkan must not be forced or artificially controlled, as this would simply constrict the breathing process. Do not count in an automatic manner, but with relaxed yet complete attention. You must apply yourself unceasingly and with single-minded sincerity to this careful counting, working with ever-fresh attention and creativity. Exhale from the lower abdomen in an open, relaxed manner until your belly feels totally empty and the in-breath begins spontaneously; if you are too hasty or hurried, your practice will become mechanical and your mind will remain restless and unable to deepen into a state of intense concentration. At the beginning, your trunk tends to pull backward and the movement of the abdomen feels unnatural; you become very self-conscious about how the process is going, and about whether you are “succeeding” or not. As your sitting ripens with constant practice, you will be able to remain with your breathing quite naturally, your body in perfect harmony with the rhythm of respiration.
Focus on each individual breath, one after another, centering your consciousness in your tanden and filling it with energy. Breathe each breath totally, then forget it and move on to the next. Superficial concentration is useless—you must feel that the respiration is piercing through the ground to the very ends of the universe. Let no gaps appear between your concentration on one breath and the next. Continue like this, one focused breath cutting off all thought of the one before, cutting and cutting and cutting until there is no room for random ideas, no room for concepts of self, no room for inner noise. Your body, the zendo, the entire universe are all contained in this total focus on the breath, in this utter singleness of mind. There remains nothing to hold on to, nothing to depend upon.
This condition is known as samadhi of susokkan, where only the breathing and the counting remain; one has become the breathing; the mind is occupied with nothing else. In this state of true emptiness you feel completely refreshed, full of energy, and taut, yet fresh and lucid. This is the state of the first “wonderful gate” of susokkan, that of su.
In this way, follow the coming in and going out of your breath from morning until night. Count and count and keep on counting the breaths whether you are doing zazen or not; count whether you are standing or sitting, whether you are asleep or awake. As you continue, the inhalations and exhalations become completely natural, and finally you enter a clear, open state of perfect unity between mind and respiration, where it is no longer necessary to count to help focus your attention. This stage, in which the awareness and the breathing are one, with no need for numbers, is that of zui, “following.”
Then, at a certain point, all awareness disappears. This is the stage of shi, “stopping.” When this will happen cannot be predicted—it must occur naturally; it cannot be produced or forced. Some time after this “stopping” takes place you come back once again to awareness. This is kan, “to see.” Again, you cannot deliberately generate this state, it must happen of itself. Following this is gen, where you forget yourself completely, and finally jo, a state of mind that is bright, clear, and transparent. In all six of these stages—the natural path to samadhi—it is vitally important that one not attempt to force things but simply allow the process to unfold on its own.
Although six stages may be identified in the practice of susokkan, it is the first two—counting and following—that are most important. Once these are experienced the rest will follow of themselves. Do not get caught up in analyzing your progress or attempting to determine which of the six stages have been attained—just stay with the breathing. You must become the breathing. This is the most important point. The nature of the respiration varies, of course, sometimes becoming deeper and sometimes becoming shallower depending on whether you are working, reciting sutras, or sitting zazen, but press on until you can no longer tell whether it is you who is breathing or the breathing that is breathing itself.
This state must be deepened to the point that all connection with the outside world is cut off and nothing whatsoever touches or enters your awareness. This does not mean, however, that the senses are shut down. Externally, the correct way to cut off connections is to collect the mind into a single point and maintain this state of absolute attention and clear awareness. Internally, it is to avoid holding on to anything at all. Do not get caught by thoughts or fantasies—just let the breath flow in and out while staying with susokkan or your koan. Allow the images that arise to come and go as they will—like pictures passing on a screen—but keep your awareness focused on the breath, allowing nothing to linger in your mind, until you and your breath become one.
Breathing never stops—it is with you all the time. You need only remain attentive to its flow. Even if thoughts arise, even if stimuli press in from the outside, just push on without pause, allowing no breaks in your awareness. Put everything into the process and move relentlessly ahead. No matter what comes along, do not let it become an obstacle. If you lack the courage to advance in one continuous line, you should not begin in the first place. To do zazen and susokkan just because you think you ought to will never lead to a true understanding of the mind. If you want to touch the True Mind that connects each and every one of us, you must be willing to push beyond any problems that arise.
Bodhidharma likened such perseverance to the stability of a wall: “Cutting away all connections to external things, letting go of all concerns within, when our mind is like a firm, tall wall we are then at one with the Way.” But the idea is not to be hard and stiff. Whether sitting, standing, or engaged in the activities of everyday life, just maintain your awareness of the breath. If you proceed in this way, the noisy, bothersome thoughts that fill the mind will eventually quiet down, and all the ideas you once thought necessary will fade away. With all the stimulation in today’s world, this does not happen easily, but if you continue with a straightforward effort you will eventually realize a state of mind that is full and replete, a state of mind so still and clear that, like the depths of the ocean, neither wind nor wave can touch it.
Koan work and susokkan are not about attaining a quietistic state; they must become your total life energy, engaged in with the entire body and with the inner eye fully open. The first case of the Mumonkan explains it clearly: Zazen must involve every bit of your mind and every bit of your being, all “three hundred and sixty bones and joints and eighty-four thousand hair follicles.” In the face of such total awareness, random thoughts and fantasies soon vanish. In true zazen, not so much as a speck must remain of dualistic notions of self. Our existence fills the universe, and it is this existence that speaks words, that moves the body, that carries on the activities of everyday life. It is only when we realize this inner essence that koan work has any meaning. Zazen is not a trance—the eyes are fully open, the ears are fully open, the mind is fully open, the inner and outer worlds are one. It doesn’t matter if you are sitting in the zendo, walking, or cleaning the grounds; the essence is the same.
In this way align your mind so that absolutely nothing superfluous remains. This is the state called “no-mind,” the nature of which is impossible to explain; thus we describe it as “a fully aligned mind.” The spirit should always be clear, vast, and luminous. Not that we should cling to the notion of maintaining an empty mind or endlessly tell ourselves to avoid all thought—this is still delusion, and must be transcended as well. Nor, of course, should we go about searching for understanding in books or the words of others—this simply causes uncertainty and aimless wandering of the mind, quickly dissipating any concentration that may have been gathered through zazen. When filled with thoughts, the mind tends toward anxiety and dejection; when free of them, it becomes naturally fresh and relaxed; our facial expression clears, and our lives are filled with light. From this is born the true way of being and living.
This explanation, however, does not yet express the full purpose of zazen. At the entrance of a Zen temple we often see the words kyakka shoko: “Watch your step!” What these words are telling us is to be aware of everything we do. We take off our footwear attentively and in such a way that later no one has to rearrange it correctly for us. We put our shoes at the side of the entranceway, not in the middle, so that other people may more easily slip out of their shoes. In this way, even to the way in which we take off our shoes, continual awareness is necessary.
The words kyakka shoko do not, of course, apply only to our feet and shoes. They remind us to remain attentive in our entire way of living. If we keep our room in order then our home is kept in order, and next our neighborhood is kept in order, and next society is put in order. In this way, step by step, the nation, the natural environment, and finally the whole planet are put in order. The entire universe then comes into order. Thus, when we regulate our own mind, this circle extends to include the whole planet, and then the entire universe. To align your own mind, to put it in order, is to correct and put society in order.
When Master Joshu said, “When you’ve finished your gruel, be sure to wash your bowls!” he was showing us how the process of creating order is not something special or unusual. It is living a simple and natural life in a simple and natural way. If we do this, then order manifests naturally and of itself—there is nothing special that has to be done in order to produce or maintain it. In your everyday life, if your way of being is in order and your mind’s creative and inventive energies are full and consistent, then everything around you will spontaneously and naturally come into order as well. This is living zazen, useful throughout our lives.
When the Buddha spoke from the top of Vulture Peak, he held a single flower in front of everyone. This was not just any flower—it was the Buddha’s experience, the manifesting of the Buddha’s very essence. Even if it is true that humans are simply another type of animal, as some people so dismissively put it, we are not here simply to live out our lives eating and sleeping. If we simply live and die as the animals do, then our existence as human beings has no significance. To be truly human we must live in a humane and dignified way. We are not alive merely to accumulate things and fulfill our desires. Our life, our mind—how brightly can they shine and illuminate all that we encounter? Zen is the direct realization of the divine light as it exists right here within our bodies. To have the exquisite teachings of the sutras come forth from our very own bodies, expressed in our every word and every action—that is the point. Unless we experience this our Zen is not genuine. With our wonderful human mind and spirit we are not mere animals; we are called to live our lives in the best way possible. This is the understanding that Master Joshu expressed so that the young monk, too, might be able to understand.
If we view our zazen as something separate and independent from our actual, everyday lives, then it has no meaning whatsoever. In this real world, in our actual living bodies, we must discover to what degree we can refine and develop our creative and inventive potential, and to what extent we can shine forth with a great and brilliant light throughout our lives. We must examine ourselves always in this manner, employing the same creative energy we use in our zazen to see ourselves clearly and never turn our gaze away. To develop such watchfulness to its highest level is our most important task.
It is through zazen that we nurture and develop this ability. Thus we can see the crucial importance of meditation in the insecure, ever-changing society of today. Zazen enables us to live in a way that expresses our true humanity, so that we can live and develop in accord with the truth.
One lifetime is not so very long. In the time you have left, live in the way indicated by Master Joshu when he said, “When you’ve finished your gruel, be sure to wash your bowls!” How brightly can you make your bowls shine? You have to work energetically and deeply on this! It is not someone else’s problem—only you can resolve it. Your life in this world is not someone else’s responsibility, it is your responsibility. To grasp this deeply is what Zen teaches us. If one person truly understands, then that person’s way of living will have a lasting effect on all of society.
The Path to Bodhidharma: the teachings of Shodo Harada Roshi, translated by Priscilla Daichi Storandt, Tuttle Publishing, 2000 (pp 52-67)
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