Breath Regulation and When to Do Zazen

Someone emailed to ask when the best times for sitting were and how to regulate the breath when doing zazen. Here’s my answer.

1. I sit first thing in the morning, then again around 11am-12pm (because I’m locked in anyway), the  again in the evening whenever I get to it. That’s the best routine for me.  

2. Here’s some quotes from Dogen and Suzuki about breathing in zazen (excerpted from my forthcoming book):  

In Eihei Koroku Dharma Hall Discourse number 390 Dogen says, “first you should sit correctly with upright posture. Then regulate your breath and settle your mind. In the lesser vehicle originally there were two gateways, which were counting breaths and contemplating impurity. In the lesser vehicle, people used counting to regulate their breath. However, the buddha ancestors’ engaging of the way always differed from the lesser vehicle. A buddha ancestor said, ‘Even if you arouse the mind of a leprous wild fox, never practice the self-regulation of the two vehicles.’  

“In the Mahayana there is also a method for regulating breath, which is knowing that one breath is long, another breath is short. The breath reaches the tanden (basically the diaphragm) and comes up from the tanden. Although exhale and inhale differ, both of them occur depending on the tanden. Impermanence is easy to clarify, and regulating the mind is easy to accomplish. 

“My late teacher said, ‘Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.’ My late teacher said it like that. Suppose someone were to ask Eihei, ‘Master, how do you regulate your breath?’ I would simply say to him: Although it is not the great vehicle (Mahayana), it differs from the lesser vehicle (Hinayana). Although it is not the lesser vehicle, it differs from the great vehicle. Ultimately… exhale and inhale are neither short nor long.” 

Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center said, “When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say ‘inner world’ or ‘outer world,’ but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, ‘I breathe,’ the ‘I’ is extra. There is no you to say ‘I.’ What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.”  

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