Breathing in Rinzai Zen Meditation

Recently I have been re-reading an old bilingual book on Rinzai Zen called “What is Zen?”.  I reviewed it here a few years back.  The book covers many aspects of Rinzai Zen Buddhism not just meditation, but also provides a brief guide for how Zen is practiced in the main temple, or honzan (本山) of Myoshinji.

There are plenty of guides to Zen meditation posture and such elsewhere, so I won’t recap them here, but one tip I thought was really handy was how to watch your breath.  Concentrating on one’s breathing, or even counting the breaths from one to ten (and repeat), is a time-honored practice in Buddhist meditation.  In Rinzai Zen, this is called tanden (丹田) breathing referring to a point several centimeters below the navel.  This is where one should breathe when meditating, as opposed to normal breathing which is done higher up the torso.

Further the book describes counting the breaths using a technique called susokukan (数息観):

First you count hito- as you slowly exhale and then -tsu as you inhale (the Japanese word for “one” is hitotsu).  You count futa- as you exhale, and -tsu as you inhale (the Japanese word for “two” is futatsu).  Continue this up to kokono- as you exhale and -tsu as you inhale (the Japanese word for “nine” is kokonotsu).  The word for “ten,” , has no -tsu, so you simply breathe in with u.  (pg. 67)

For those not familiar with counting in Japanese, the full course would be:

Exhale Inhale Number
Hito- -tsu One
Futa- -tsu Two
Mit- -tsu Three
Yoh- -tsu Four
Itsu- -tsu Five
Mu- -tsu Six
Nana- -tsu Seven
Yah- -tsu Eight
Kokono- -tsu Nine
To- -u Ten

Of course, learning to count in Japanese isn’t strictly necessary for meditation, but the advantage is that all the numbers have two-syllables, where as most English numbers have only one (three, four, five, etc). Once you learn the numbers, it’s easier to follow your breath, based on limited, personal experience.¹

With regard to Rinzai Zen meditation though, the book also does provide a warning:

There is a limit to what you can achieve in Zen practice simply by doing zazen and reading books about Zen….Books can only impart intellectual understanding.  Zen is something one must study with one’s entire being.  As one engages earnestly in Zen practice, one’s ability to perceive phenomena is gradually heightened, and one may experience unique things while doing zazen.  Without a Zen master who has fully realized the practice of Zen to help you understand those experiences, you are likely to go astray.  (pg. 69)

So, while I found the breathing techniques interesting, it also reminds that it may be best to find a Rinzai teacher in my area before getting too far into Zen practice.

Anyhow, something cool to pass along.  🙂

¹ Then again, to be fair, I already knew how to count in Japanese.  :p  Your mileage may vary.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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