The Tao of
by: Tom Takihi
One of the impressions I have gained recently in speaking to Zen
friends about practice is a certain attitude towards breathing in
zazen. For the sake of brevity, and just for fun, I wish to refer to
it as "samurai breathing". I think it has its origins in the martial
The "samurai breath' goes like this: one must push down hard on
the outgoing breath, concentrating on the hara (solar plexus) and in
doing so, push aside any thoughts, feelings, sensations, that get in
the way, smashing through them like a karate expert would smash
their hand through a brick.
If you practice like this, it will give you a considerable
feeling of power, like winning a contest (with yourself), and also
give you a sense of purpose in a goal-seeking way (like paying off
the mortgage). This type of straining zazen creates a heroic
struggle out of zazen and a sense that you are trying very hard, but
it is ultimately self-defeating. Perhaps it is part of the process
of learning that we have to go through this struggle before we
realize it is not productive.
When I see people practicing like this, I have a mental picture
of someone on an exercise bike peddling furiously, somehow believing
that they are going to get somewhere if only they try hard enough. I
then imagine someone coming up to them and whispering in their ear,
"Excuse me, it doesn't matter how fast you peddle, you won't get
anywhere on that bike. " This is like the story of polishing a tile,
believing if only it is done hard enough, it will become a mirror,
or believing that one will become a Buddha after years and years of
zazen, rather than realizing that we are Buddha right from the very
When I began my zen practice many ago in Japan with Kabori Roshi,
I was like the person on the bike furiously peddling to get
somewhere. I listened with keen interest to other students talking
about various breathing techniques, which I believed, if only I
could get them right, would propel me towards realization in no
time. Needless to say, I tied myself up in knots trying to breathe
the "right" way, even making myself sick in the process. After
several months of this, I went to Kabori Roshi and told him about it
in sanzen (Rinzai for dokusan). All he said was "Just breathe
naturally". I remember feeling a mixture of relief, confusion and
disappointment at his comment. How could it be that simple?
Kabori Roshi was like the kindly person whispering in the ear of
the stationary cyclist, "Excuse me, no matter how hard you try, you
won't get anywhere on that bike." The message got through a little
but, looking back, I wasn't quite prepared to really give up my
belief, that if only I pushed harder, I would get somewhere.
This happens all the way along in zen practice. Teachers keep
telling us there is nothing to attain, but we don't quite believe
them, even though we may mouth the words to others. In everyday life
we see people all around struggling to find happiness and peace,
believing it will come when they finally get what they want, without
seeing that this very moment holds all that one could desire. It is
easy to see this delusion in others, but can you see it in yourself?
Coming back to the analogy of the exercise bike, it is not the
practice of peddling we have to give up but the belief we are going
to get somewhere if we do fit. As we give up this belief, (which is
underpinned with the fear of failure) we can enjoy just peddling,
and in zazen if we give up this belief, we can just breath naturally
and our breathing includes the breathing of the currawong warbling
in the crisp morning air.
The "samurai breath" after all turns out to be conceptual
breathing, a fixed notion of what breathing ought to be, unlike the
breath of the Tao which is open and just comes and goes of its own
accord. When our breathing attempts to fit some conceptual pattern
of how we ought to breath, we interfere with it, and are out of
touch with ourselves. The mind/will should take its lead from the
breath, rather than the breath taking its lead from the mind/will.
When the mind/will takes its lead from the breath, then the
mind/will and the breath are in harmony. When sailing, you trim the
sails according to the strength and direction of the wind, not the
other way round.
Aitken Roshi, when he was a student of Soen Roshi, asked him
"When I do zazen should I use effort or not?" Soen Roshi replied,
"The question reminds of Joshu's question to Nansen in Case l9 of
the Mumonkan - 'ordinary mind is the Tao'".
Joshu asked Nansen, "What is Tao?" Nansen answered, "Ordinary
mind is the Tao." "Then should we direct ourselves towards it or
not?" asked Joshu. "If you try to direct yourself towards it, you go
away from it", answered Nansen. Joshu continued, "If we do not try,
how can we know it is the Tao?" Nansen replied, "Tao does not belong
to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion, not knowing is
blankness. If you really attain the Tao of no doubt, it is like the
great void, so vast and boundless. How then, can there be right and
wrong in the Tao?" At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened.
Mumon, commenting on this said, "Even though Joshu may be
enlightened, he can truly get it only after studying for thirty more
Should we direct ourselves towards it or not? Should we use
effort or not? Does Nansen mean just "go with the flow of the Tao"
as this cliche has become known, as on some personal growth weekend
where everyone lies around drinking herbal tea, looking dreamy-eyed
and talking about the oneness of the universe? I remember Aitken
Roshi once saying to a student, "When are you going to stop going
with the flow and get into action?"
"Going with the flow" is just the conceptual opposite of "samurai
breathing". Dull and complacent zazen with no vitality or resolve,
which is more accurately going with the flow of Taoist fantasy and
natural therapy mysticism.
What is the right attitude then with which to breath? The right
attitude is to have no fixed attitude. However from a practical
point of view it can follow certain guidelines. I think of right
zazen as like holding a baby in one's arms. You hold a baby gently
otherwise you will hurt it. You also hold it firmly otherwise you
will drop it. Light but steady. Should you use effort or not? Try
holding a baby.
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