Breath Counting

"Breath Counting" number 79 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

When I first start actually regularly sitting, and not just reading and thinking about Zen, breath counting was my practice. I was surprised at how difficult and subtle a practice breath counting was.

Counting the breaths helped me with composure and centering. It felt like a beginners practice and as a beginner I benefited from counting breaths. I was never successful at staying with breath counting for any length of time over two or three cycles of ten breaths.

Once I met my teacher and started working with him, he set me on a koan path and we never talked of breath counting.

Coming back to breath counting this morning, I notice I have built up some zazen composure and was able to stay with counting my breath for the entire sitting period. Only drifted off a few times but only for a single breath before catching those sneaky thoughts as they tempt me to follow them rather than my breath. Good stuff this breath watching. I see what competes with and overlays my luminous mind.

Breath counting for me is 'breath in', 'breath out' while saying quietly to myself 'one', then repeat with 'two', and 'three' and so on. Keep eyes open and feel the sensations of the breath on the nose, throat, chest and abdomen. Listen carefully for the thoughts that will surly creep in. Don't entertain them and keep counting the breaths.

This could be said to be the beginners beginning practice as counting breaths is richer and deeper than how I've described it. It is surprising where it leads. Eventually the counting stop and the breathing continues.

For a richer understanding of Zen breath practice, check out Dosho Mike Port's blog post "Snow and Breath". In the post Mike points to breath.
  1. With practice, one can get pretty competent counting the breath and stay with the experience of breath for long periods.
  2. Dainin Katagiri said "Zazen is not to follow the breath."
  3. Dogen said only to "breathe softly through the nose" in his zazen recommendations for everyone.
  4. Rujing, Dogen's teacher said "Breath enters and reaches the tanden [hara], and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore, it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden [hara], and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long."
  5. Dosho Mike Port said "...breath is not inside or outside. Breath is right in the midst of the functioning of zazen. You think that by zazen you will become the breath. At that time, breath is already outside. When you feel breath by zazen you feel breath inside. But this isn’t real breath. Next moment it disappears. Real breath is blooming from moment to moment, not in the idea, but in the midst of the process of zazen."
  6. Will says "counting your breath starts you on the path to what Katagiri, Dogen, Rujing and Port describe." Dive in and join the fun!

Any error or confusion created by my commentary on
Miniatures of a Zen Master
is solely a reflection of my own delusion and ignorance.
Any merit generated by this activity is solely the result of
Aitken Roshi's clear teaching and is dedicated to
all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout space and time.