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Excerpt from "A Guide to Zen"


by Katsuki Sekida

Beginners in Zen will usually be told to start by practicing counting their breaths —that is, to count each exhalation up to ten, and then start again.

Try this for yourself. You may think you can do it without dif?culty, but when you start you will soon ?nd that wandering thoughts come into your head, perhaps when you have reached about “?ve” or “six,” and the thread of counting is broken. The next moment you come to yourself and can’t remember where you left off. You have to start again, saying “one” and so on.

How can we prevent our thoughts from wandering? How can we learn to focus our attention on one thing? The answer is that we cannot do it with our brain alone; the brain cannot control its thoughts by itself. The power to control the activity of our mind comes from the body, and it depends critically (as we see later) on posture and breathing.

With regard to posture, we need only say at this stage that stillness of body engenders stillness of mind. Immobility is a ?rst essential. Traditionally, and for good reasons, we sit down to practice, because (among other reasons) it is in this position that we can keep our body still but our minds wakeful.

Immobility results in a diminution of the stimuli reaching the brain, until eventually there are almost none. This gives rise, in due course, to a condition in which you cease to be aware of the position of your body. It is not a state of numbness, for you can move your limbs and body if you want. But if you keep your body still, it is not felt.

We call this condition “off-sensation.” In this state the activity of the cortex of the brain becomes steadily less and less, and this is preliminary to entering samadhi.

We continue to breathe, of course, as we sit, and ?nd that our ability to concentrate our attention, to remain wakeful, and ultimately to enter samadhi depends on our method of breathing.

Even those who have not practiced zazen know that it is possible to control the mind by manipulating the breathing. Quiet breathing brings about a quiet state of mind.

In zazen, we breathe almost entirely by means of our abdominal muscles and diaphragm. If the lower abdomen is allowed to ?ll out, the dia-phragm is lowered, the thoracic cavity (between the neck and abdomen) is enlarged, and air is taken into the lungs. When the abdominal muscles contract, the diaphragm is pushed up, expelling air from the lungs.

The slow, sustained exhalation that we adopt in zazen is produced by keeping the diaphragm contracted so that it opposes the action of the abdominal muscles, which are trying to push air out of the lungs. This opposition generates a state of tension in the abdominal muscles, and the maintenance of this state of tension is of utmost importance in the practice of zazen.

All other parts of the body are motionless, and their muscles are either relaxed or in a state of constant, moderate tension. Only the abdominal muscles are active. As we explain later, this activity is a vital part of the mechanism by which concentration and wakefulness of the brain are maintained.

Traditionally, in the East, the lower part of the abdomen (called the tanden) has been regarded as the seat of human spiritual power. Correct zazen ensures that the weight of the body is concentrated there, producing a strong tension.

The essential point we want to make is that it is the correct manipulation of the lower abdomen, as we sit and breathe, that enables us to control the activity of our mind. Posture and breathing are a key to concentration, to stilling the activity of the mind, and to entering samadhi.

When we put it so brie?y, our conclusions may seem far-fetched. If they do not seem convincing on the page, the reader should experiment for him- or herself along the lines we indicate. Zen is above all a matter of personal experience. Students are asked to accept nothing as the truth that they cannot demonstrate for themselves, with their own mind and body.

# # #

Excerpted from the A Guide to Zen by Katsuki Sekida ©2013 Marc Allen. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com

Katsuki Sekida (1903–1987) began his practice in 1915 and he continued his practice of SZen throughout his long life. Marc Allen, a student of Sekida’s at the Maui Zendo in Hawaii in the early 1970s, is a lifelong student of Zen as well as a successful entrepreneur, author, and teacher. He lives in northern California.

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