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Kannon (Guan Yin)

The (1:4:2) Healing Breath, cont.

The lotus posture is a difficult one. If you cannot readily assume it, the following instructions may be helpful:

1. Sit on a small, medium-hard cushion or pillow, one that will elevate the tail-bone by a couple of inches. This allows a "3-pointed" posture, the body's weight being distributed between the spine and knees. This posture is easier to master than the traditional Indian version of sitting in lotus on a flat surface. Sit only on the edge of the cushion.

2. Arch the back as much as possible. The chest should be bowed far forward. This changes the pelvic axis to a more favorable angle.

3. Place the right ankle on the left thigh. (The thighs and knees should point forward, not out to the side as in other lotus posture variants). The right knee should be touching the floor. Don't proceed until the right knee is properly down and able to bear weight.

4. Bend the left leg, bringing the foot to the right knee. Grab the foot and cautiously pull it up onto the right knee. Be careful to use only reasonable force. Start counting. Initially, there will be a natural amount of pain associated with the position. When the pain becomes too much, carefully push the foot off. If on Monday the count of three was reached, try to reach four on Tuesday and then five on Wednesday. The knee joint will slowly loosen. In a few weeks, full lotus can be attained for five minutes or so. In a few months, half an hour can be managed.

Of course, as soon as it is possible to sit comfortably in lotus, the back is relaxed into an erect but normally balanced posture (no bow). Care must be taken not to lean to either side. The hands may simply rest in the lap or, with palms upward, the right hand may lie upon the left, thumbs touching gently. Since learning the lotus posture is stressful, efforts to achieve it should follow and not precede a meditation session. (Pain activates the sympathetic nervous system, a meditational no-no.)

The lotus posture is the traditional 'seat' taken in Japanese zendos. In Chinese Chan monasteries, the Daoist (half-lotus) seat is often taken. Teachers in most western institutions usually don't care what a person does with his legs, but they do get very fussy about mudras (the position of the hands) and will frequently become outraged if a devotee's hands do not conform to specifications. (I have had my hands slapped, pulled and adjusted in no less than four different meditation halls.) The biggest source of conflict involves the stacking of hands: should the right hand rest upon the left or vice versa?

Textbooks are undoubtedly a source of the confusion. Photographic plates are sometimes reversed by the printer so that the hands of the Buddha or Bodhisattva depicted appear opposite to what they actually are. People learn from these photographs and feel confident that they are duplicating an authentic mudra.

There are several reasons for placing the right hand upon the left. First, as evidenced by the 'on-guard' stance of martial artists, the right hand, contracted into a fist (palm down, with thumb and index finger towards the chest) represents power while the left hand resting open, palm down, upon the knuckles represents intellect. This position signifies that one's power must be governed by one's brain.

When, however, the warrior becomes a supplicant or devotee, the fist is opened and turned upward showing that it neither is a weapon nor contains one - the essential reason why in Western societies men shake their right hands in greeting. The fist, with the left hand still securely placed upon the knuckles, is simply inverted and the fingers gently opened. This signifies meditation's state of receptivity. (Remember that power is feminine and receptive. Recall from Chapter l: Shakti/Shiva - power and the law power obeys.)

Second, as evidenced in Buddhist iconography, the series of Buddhas associated with the various chakras are recognized principally by the position of their hands. The first four Dhyani Buddhas - East, South, West and North, are shown always with the left hand resting in the lap while the right hand makes the four basic mudras: earth- touching (palm down with fingertips touching the earth), giving (palm up with fingernails touching the earth), receiving (palm up, hand resting on top of the left), and reassuring (hand held up, palm facing outward).

Zen is a branch of the Mahayana, and as Mahayana Buddhists we are particularly devoted to the Buddha Amitabha, He of Infinite Light and Lord of the West, and to his divine offspring, the Savior/Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Guan Yin (Kwannon). Usually both this Buddha and Bodhisattva are depicted with their hands in the above mudra - palms up, right hand lying upon the left.

Those who still prefer to place their left hand upon the right are free to do so.

Of all postures, the lotus most conduces to relaxation. Its advantage may lie in the placement of weight upon certain body pressure points, perhaps along acupuncture meridians. Endorphins and other relaxing body chemicals are released when these points are stimulated.

Since calmness is vital to the success of the exercise, caffeine or other stimulants should be avoided. If you begin your day with coffee or tea you should perform your practice before you eat breakfast. If you cannot perform it at that time, then you should wait until the effects of your morning coffee or tea have worn off before beginning.

Certain medications, such as antihistamines, frequently interfere with a person's ability to concentrate. They should be taken into consideration when scheduling practice.

Signs of progress are: l. a feeling, upon exhaling, of delicate tingling in the shoulders; 2. an inability to keep the count straight due to drifting into a peaceful emptiness of mind; 3. the formation in the field of vision (behind closed eyelids) of shapes that rotate, undulate and shimmer in grey or iridescent hues; 4. an enveloping feeling as if the brain is trying to rotate; 5. a feeling of being suspended inside a golden cloud or mist; 6. a lapse into a prolonged period of no or barely perceptible breathing; 7. the hearing of unusual sounds such as a gong ringing, thunder, buzzing, or an authoritative but gentle voice which guides or encourages; (If, however, angry, argumentative or threatening voices are heard, the practice should be discontinued and not resumed until safely in the presence of a Chan master. Don't take this lightly. Many people experience nasty hallucinations.); 8. the loss of a sense of time - as an inability to gauge the amount of time that has passed during the exercise; 9. an upward turning and squeezing of the eyes in their sockets; l0. a feeling of numbness in the hands as if gloves are being worn; ll. Little but extremely clear pictures (as of a room or landscape) blinking in and out of consciousness; l2. a brightly colored or dazzling white geometric design filling the closed eyes' visual field; l3. a feeling of euphoria after completing the exercise.

Progress in a meditation practice can also be measured in a dramatic lessening of nervous tension and in the ability to free oneself from dependence on alcohol, tobacco, tranquilizers, stimulants, or sleeping pills.

One final caveat: A practice must never be discussed with anyone. Beginners never seem to be able to resist recommending their practice to others. The penalty they pay for this breach of discipline is that they quickly lose their ability to concentrate. They become observers of and commentators on their own practice. Instead of just doing the exercise, they watch themselves do the exercise, thinking about each step and judging their performance until they fall into a stream of consciousness and begin thinking about a thousand things. At this point, the mind jumps around like 'a drunken monkey' and the practice is ruined. It sometimes takes years of hard work to regain the ability that was squandered in a few minutes of innocent prattling. Again, never discuss a meditation practice with anyone other than a Chan master or a physician.

People who have no difficulties performing a deep-breathing exercise do not have to limit themselves to ten cycles. What is important is the perfection of the practice, in making the breath is so fine and the body's movements so imperceptible that someone sitting alongside would not know to a certainty whether he was sitting beside a manikin or a living human being.

Healing Breath Variation

We conclude this chapter with a variation of the Healing Breath which, though more advanced, is used to great advantage in conjunction with the Healing Breath. In this exercise the lungs are held empty instead of full. Usually, several Healing Breath cycles are followed by an equal number of variant cycles.

Simply exhale for 8 seconds, leave the lungs empty for l6 seconds, and inhale for 4 seconds and immediately repeat. Do not strain to keep the proportion. If the lungs cannot be held empty for l6, then reduce the time to l2, 8 or even 4 seconds and work up to l6, without a sense of competition.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 10: Part III: Practice, Page 4 of 4

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)