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Buddhadharma : Summer 2018
JIRYU RUTSCHMAN-BYLER 25 over. The Buddha just asked us to look at, to know precisely, the breath we have right now. As he taught in the Anapanasati Sutta and elsewhere, when the breath is long, we know that it’s long. When it’s short, we know that it’s short. That’s all. Why then, in Zen meditation instruction, are we taught to focus on hara, the lower belly, to pull or push or coax the breath down there as deep as it goes? We celebrate this physical and spiri- tual center with terms like the Ocean of Energy and the Field of Transformative Elixir. But such an emphasis seems on its face quite contrary to the Buddha’s teaching, like a clear-cut case of breath manipulation. Finding, breathing from, and abiding in this belly center is gener- ally seen as demanding great effort—Katsuki Sekida, author of Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, instructs students to find it by imagining flinging themselves against a solid door! It is a powerful and tremendously energizing practice, to be sure. But what does it have to do with “natural breathing”? We seem a long way from sim- ply “knowing it’s long” or “knowing it’s short.” As we study the interplay of effort and effortlessness, though, we can begin to see how this hara practice might in fact bring us closer to truly natural breathing. It can be forced or taken too far, of course, but what if we see effortful hara breath as a way of clearing out the constrictions that hold the breath “unnaturally” hostage in the chest? Isn’t our most natural breathing, after all, really belly breath? At least in my experi- ence, with the serenely dying and the newly born, the rise and fall of their hara has been evident. At these life moments of least constric- tion, least manipulation, the breath finds its way home to hara. So maybe hara breathing is forcing the breath—but forcing it back home. Would we call that manipulation, or is it a step closer to the truly effortless? The Buddha didn’t teach any of the delicious breath-control practices well known and much practiced by meditators throughout history. He just asked us to know precisely the breath we have right now.