When one begins training in Zen meditation, one is
instructed rigorously in three activities--harmonizing the body,
harmonizing the breath, and harmonizing the mind. One is taught the
importance of having correct posture, of breathing properly, and of
preparing the mind so that it is not unsettled.
The Correct Way to Breathe
So what, then, is correct breathing? And why should breathing, which
is something we are always doing anyway, be so strongly connected with
The Zen master Somei Tsuji, who at first started Zen training as a
lay practitioner, and then inherited the Dharma Lamp of Zen lineage,
and who has given guidance to various lay practitioners, had a
particular interest in the subject of breathing, and even published a
book entitled Kokyu no Kufu (How to Breathe). In it, he teaches
the importance of being able to slow down our breathing. He says that
breathing slowly is of particular importance. Observing that most Zen
monks, when practicing Zen meditation, allow more than a minute for
each breath, he tells us to allow at least one minute per breath. But
why is it so important to slow down our breathing? How is breathing
connected with our minds?
Even Shakyamuni himself spoke of the importance of breathing. It is
written as follows in the Samyuktagama, chapter 29, sutra 10:
"On one occasion, the Blessed One was at the Jetavana Monastery and
spoke to the monks there. He said to them, 'Monks, it would be good for
you to practice mindfulness of in-and-out breathing. Your bodies will
not tire, your eyes will not ache, and you will be able to experience
the pleasure of practicing observation meditation and learn to not
become contaminated by ephemeral pleasures. Thus, when the technique
for in-and-out breathing is pursued, it is of great fruit, of great
benefit. Through it, one can advance to deep meditative concentration (samadhi), acquire a compassionate mind, silence all doubt, and enter a state of clear knowing (satori).'"
In other words, he says that if one breathes properly, the mind will become calm and will open up to enlightenment (satori).
Theravada Buddhist Breathing Technique
About breathing techniques, the same passage states, "Count your
breaths with single-minded devotion, and patiently persevere in calming
your breathing. Learn to breathe in and out by being mindful about
counting breaths. Thus, just following this way, you will attain the
cessation of your mind." Today the first thing one is taught when
learning Zen meditation is the contemplation of counting one's breaths;
Shakyamuni himself also stressed the importance of breath counting.
So then what did Shakyamuni teach about breathing in such a focused
way, and about the importance of counting breaths? And how can modern
medicine explain it? I would first like to discuss, from the standpoint
of medicine, the meditation taught by Shakyamuni and preserved by
Theravada Buddhism, as well as the importance of breathing in the
practice of Mahayana Buddhism as well.
Among Shakyamuni's "Verses of Truth" (Dhammapada) is "He who has
gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching, and the Order penetrates
with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths." Shakyamuni also says
that to eliminate suffering in the mind and body, to surely know the
state of things, and to personally experience nirvana, one must
practice four types of awareness (the "four fields of mindfulness").
The four fields of mindfulness are contemplation of the body, to be
mindful of its impurity; of feeling, to be mindful that it is
suffering; of the mind, to be mindful that it is impermanent; and of
phenomena, to be mindful that they are devoid of self.
The way to truly practice these four fields of mindfulness is the meditation technique called vipassana. The "passana" part of "vipassana" means "to see," and "vi-" means "analytically." I would like to discuss how these things and breathing are related.
Breathing, the Body, and the Brain
When we tickle our own armpits we do not feel ticklish. If another
person does the tickling, however, we feel ticklish. Why is this?
Recently, it has become known that when we move our own bodies, the
cerebellum, which is related to physical movement, suppresses emotions
and feelings. We also now know that emotions and feelings are
suppressed even at times when the results of the movement are
When we tickle ourselves, it is done by moving our own fingers;
since we know that we are doing this to ourselves, the sensation is
blunted. On the other hand, if someone else does it, we can't
anticipate it because it's not our action, and we feel it strongly.
In this way when we are aware of our bodies or move our bodies, it
is not just our sensations, but also our feelings and emotions as well
that become weaker. Put simply, it is difficult for someone to cry
while running. When we're extremely sad or in pain, we stand still.
Conversely, it's because of this mechanism that anxiety is thought to
be alleviated by exercise.
In fact, it's the same for breathing. Putting one's whole mind into
one's breaths means focusing one's senses on the activity of breathing.
When we do this, a control stimulus goes out from the cerebellum, which
governs respiratory movement, to the amygdala, the cingulate gyrus, and
other structures of the limbic system, the brain's center for emotions;
this in turn suppresses feelings of anxiety, distress, desire, and the
In vipassana breathing, one is instructed to inhale air fully
into the abdomen and then let it out. When this is done several times,
we become aware of the sensations of the belly expanding with the
inhalation and contracting with the exhalation.
Next is to practice focusing awareness on the area of the abdomen
and the chest, so as to distinctly sense the expanding and contracting
of the belly. Then our movements are self-reported. That is to say, we
tell ourselves, "My belly is expanding, my belly is expanding" and "My
belly is contracting, my belly is contracting."
In vipassana meditation one must self-report activities such
as moving the chest or walking (this corresponds to the contemplation
of the body, one of the four fields of mindfulness). Such as saying,
"I'm now raising my right leg," "I'm moving forward" and "I'm lowering
my leg." This is applied to breathing, to try to eliminate delusions
Breathing Techniques for Zen and Other Meditation Practices of Mahayana Buddhism
From the viewpoint of Mahayana meditation, this could be seen as
being like trying to drive away idle thoughts with idle thoughts.
However, the contemplation of the body is used in Zen practice as well.
The technique developed by the Zen master Hakuin, which he called Nanso no Ho, recommends an introspective (naikan)
approach wherein the meditator visualizes a bolus-like object,
approximately the size of an egg, balanced on the top of the head. It
has a very beautiful fragrance and shape. The meditator visualizes it
melting from his or her body heat, and the liquid slowly transferring
into the body, flowing downward through the body and gradually pooling
at the feet. As this is repeated, the "liquid" reaches every part of
the body; the meditator visualizes it purifying the places in the body
that are afflicted by illness.
Meanwhile, in the introspective technique, the meditator lies down
facing the ceiling and breathes slowly, drawing the breath in slowly to
fill the lower abdomen. Then the breath is slowly exhaled, while the
meditator recites inwardly, "My mind is focused on my lower abdomen."
It is taught that when this is repeated, the body will gradually become
warmer and one can sleep well.
Another technique called sokushin breathing is exhorted in Mo-ho Chih-kuan
(The Great Cessation-and-Contemplation) by T'ien-t'ai Chih-i, founder
of the T'ien-t'ai school of Chinese Buddhism, which Zen Master Hakuin
was also said to have read as well. According to this, on the sole of
the foot, in the middle of the plantar arch, there is a zone, called
the sokushin, that absorbs our inhalations. The theory is that
our breaths enter and leave from there. When a breath is first taken
in, it is inhaled slowly from the sokushin points on the sole of the feet. The breath first enters the sokushin
points, then the ankles, the calves, the knees, the thighs, the waist,
and the abdomen. Next, the breath is slowly exhaled. The exhalation
travels downward through the waist, thighs, knees, calves, and ankles,
and exits from the sokushin. If one experiences this flow with
full awareness and repeats the in-breathing and out-breathing slowly,
Great Master Chih-i says, "this will heal all ailments." But isn't this
the same as the "contemplation of the body" meditation, using
breathing? Hakuin's Nanso no Ho meditation has nothing to do
with breathing. The meditator visualizes a beautiful, pure liquid
flowing through the body to maintain the health of the mind and body.
It certainly is contemplation of the body!
When practicing Zen meditation, one first breathes in slowly from
the lower abdomen, a point about ten centimeters (four inches) below
the navel. The meditation is practiced in as bright a room as possible.
At night, it is done in a room that has the lights turned on.
In the morning, or during the day, a good spot for meditation is one where the sunlight penetrates a shoji
paper door. As you meditate, visualize the light entering your lower
abdomen and gradually filling the inside of your body cavity as you
inhale, until the inside of the body is filled up. Then slowly let the
breath out, but as you expel the breath from the lower abdomen to the
outside, visualize the light cleansing impurities from inside your body.
When this is continued, the inside of the body is gradually cleansed
and you will feel like you are shining. Never close your eyes during
this time. You should calmly lower your gaze to a point about 1.5
meters (five feet) in front of you.
Opening the eyes and lowering the gaze to a point in front of you is
actually one method of contemplating the body. When one is having
delusory thoughts, one is not looking at anything. It is altogether the
same as if the eyes were closed. This is also referred to as "spacing
out." Lowering your gaze to the tatami mat (or the floor) and
neither looking nor not looking is what is referred to as directing
one's mind to the spot, and is the same in vipasanna meditation.
Slow Breathing Makes the Mind Healthy
Next, what is the value of slow breathing? Our minds are influenced
by substances. In particular, the monoamines--noradrenaline, dopamine,
and serotonin--are substances that govern the emotions. When dopamine
is released from the nerve endings, it causes a pleasant feeling of
will power and accomplishment. Noradrenaline causes arousal and helps
resist things like stress. Serotonin helps maintain psychological
Monoamine neurons are located in the brain stem, and send
neurotransmissions to the entire brain via long dendrites. When there
is a stimulus, monoamines are released from the nerve endings and
stimulate the next neuron. These neurons have the functions of
switching on pleasant feelings and fostering mental stability. Most of
today's anti-depressants increase the amount of serotonin in the brain.
It is known that in depression an insufficient amount of monoamines,
particularly serotonin, is released. When serotonin and the others are
released from nerve endings, they are sent to the synaptic cleft, and
then bind to receptors in the next neuron, stimulating it.
When we hold our breath, we become uncomfortable after a while. That
is due to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, which stimulates
the brain's respiratory center. When you make yourself breathe in and
out slowly, until you get used to it you will feel as if you have to
inhale more quickly or exhale more quickly. This is because the level
of carbon dioxide increases.
We have recently come to understand that when carbon dioxide
increases in the bloodstream, the brain's serotonin neurons are
stimulated, causing the release of lots of serotonin. A large serotonin
output results in settling the mind and canceling out feelings of
depression. In other words, slowing the breathing causes more serotonin
output and settles the mind.
This is a Buddhist breathing technique, as are the techniques of contemplation of counting breaths, sokushin breathing, and Nanso no Ho;
with it, through concentrating one's mind on the state of one's
breathing, the mind can be settled and distress alleviated, something
that Shakyamuni and the others knew from personal experience.