The practice assigned to me as a beginning Zen student was to count my breaths from 1 to 10 and then repeat. If I lose track, I should simply return to focusing on my breath and start over. It’s a remarkably simple practice but one I have found to be effective for quieting my mind. After a long spell of counting breaths, the counting may become less important. This is when my practice morphs into one of simple awareness–awareness of the breath, awareness of sounds in the environment, awareness of bodily sensations and awareness of thoughts. When thoughts arise, I take note and try to let them go, without linking to additional thoughts. My practice during zazen is to avoid making judgments, concocting stories or engaging in other unnecessary mental activity.
No doubt others’ experiences are similar to mine: we seek stimulation, we repeatedly reassert our self-identity, and engage in lots of internal dialog. The thing about counting the breath, or simply following one’s inhalations and exhalations, is that it replaces the usual mental habits (our default mode) and provides a break. Over time, it occurs to us that we possess an inherently clear mind that we can always return to. We become more aware of our unnecessary mental activities and find opportunities to let them drop away. It can feel like coming home or waking from a dream.
I know that I have internalized a lot of Zen Buddhist teachings. But I also think I have maintained a measure of healthy skepticism–which I no doubt learned growing up with a father who was a science teacher. He often questioned assertions made by experts and wanted to know the evidence behind the claims. I try to measure Buddhist teachings against my own personal experience.
Even when I am listening to a dharma talk by Roshi, I frequently find myself asking, “Is that really true?” The assertions he makes sometimes resonate with me; other times they seem at odds with how I see the world. Sometimes his statements seem self evident; sometimes brilliant; sometimes they seem intractable at first, but help me eventually to see things in new ways; other times I put them in the category of “Things I’ll Never Fathom.” It’s a path that just goes on forever.
Next page: Zazen Instruction