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Grand Master Xu (Hsu) Yun Chapter 7 - Breathing and Posture

Although we may perform many meditations while walking or working, when we do formally sit to meditate, we should be careful to maintain a reverent attitude and to sit and breathe correctly.

Dear friends, however many benefits we may derive from our efforts, meditation is a spiritual exercise, not a therapeutic regimen. We do not practice in order to counter psychological disturbances or to help us cope with the ego's frustrations. We meditate in order to transcend ego-consciousness and to realize our Buddha Self. Our intention is to enter Nirvana, not to make life in Samsara more tolerable.

  Painting by Yao Xin
This instruction can be confusing, I know. Many people think that they are meditating when they achieve a peaceful and quiet state. They look forward to practicing because they enjoy the hour or so of peace and quiet it gives them. But quietism is not meditation. Corralling a wild horse doesn't make him tame or responsive to the reins. He may rest for awhile and look tranquil. He may even begin to graze. But when the gate is opened he will escape - as wild as he ever was.

You know, at Nan Hua Si, the Sixth Patriarch's monastery, there was once a monk who spent hours each day sitting quietly on his cushion enjoying the peace and tranquility it brought him. He thought that he was meditating. Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, noticing the monk's error, approached him. "Why do you devote so much time to your cushion each day?" he asked.

The monk looked up, surprised. "Because I want to become a Buddha," he answered.

Hui Neng smiled. "My son," he said, "you can make a mirror polishing a brick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion!"

We should always remember this exchange between a great master and an erring monk.

Before we enter the meditative state we are always awake and alert. Our minds, freed from external cares, are focussed on our meditation exercise. After we succeed in entering the meditative state we are usually quite euphoric. This joyful giddiness is experienced by practitioners in every religion. It is called Chan Disease or God Intoxication or Divine Madness. Quietism doesn't produce euphoria. It produces a zombie-like dullness that has nothing whatsoever to do with Chan Buddhism or any other religion except, perhaps, voodoo.

We should never begin a meditation exercise if we are excited or agitated. The mind and body must come to a relaxed state. If we are angry, introspection and an application of Buddhist principles, particularly of forgiveness and acceptance, may help us to regain our composure; but if our distress persists we should pray for guidance or seek counsel in order to resolve our problems before sitting down to meditate.

If our agitation is merely a temporary condition, due perhaps to being rushed or fatigued, we should follow the "one-half inch incense stick" method. We simply sit quietly and watch an incense stick burn down for half an inch. If by that time our composure has not been restored, we should end the meditation session. We can always try again later.

Likewise, our breathing must be gentle and rhythmical. Occasionally, while we are practicing meditation, thoughts may arise which disturb us or we may gasp for air because we've incorrectly performed a breathing technique. Again, we should follow the "one-half inch incense stick" method and allow our mind and breath to settle down before resuming our practice.


A natural, relaxed but upright posture is the best posture. We sit without rigidity or pain. This is very important. Pain initiates a panic-response, a perceived emergency which causes the body's blood pressure and heart rate to rise; and under such conditions, meditation is impossible. However, anyone who is easily able to sit in a more formal meditation posture such as the lotus position, may use this posture to good advantage.

Of course, we must sit erectly so that our lungs can fully expand. We may not slump forward or sideways. If we find ourselves drifting into sleep, we should rouse ourselves with a few swallows of tea and by rocking from side to side a few times and taking a few deep breaths.

Failure to control body, mind, and breath may result in small harms, such as emotional or physical discomfort, or in great harms, such as strained muscles or fearful encounters with hallucinated demons which, I think we can all agree, are most distressing events.

Breathing Exercises

Before beginning any formal meditation technique it is absolutely necessary to gain control of the breath.

There are two basic approaches to breath control: unstructured and structured. In both methods the lungs are compared to a bellows. When we wish to fill a bellows with air, we pull the handles apart. In like manner, when we desire to inflate the chest, we begin by extending the abdomen, pushing it outward, away from the spine as though we were pulling apart the handles of a bellows. When we exhale, we first let the air seep out and then slowly contract the abdomen, squeezing the remaining air out of the lungs as if we were closing the bellows.

Always, our aim should be to make our breathing so fine and unstrained that if someone were to place an ostrich plume in front of our nose, we would not ruffle it when breathing in or out.

[Introduction]  [Chapter 1]  [Chapter 2]  [Chapter 3]  [Chapter 4]  [Chapter 5]  [Chapter 6]
[Chapter 7]  [Chapter 8]  [Chapter 9]  [Chapter 10]  [Chapter 11]  [Chapter 12]  [Chapter 13]
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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