Benefits of Meditation / Mindfulness of Breathing
Zen-Seven Meditation Retreat

Transcribed and edited from a talk given by Ven. Jian-Hu on January 5, 2002, during the Zen-Seven Retreat at Buddha Gate Monastery


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Some Misconceptions about Meditation

    Today we will learn about the benefits of meditation. But first, there are some misunderstandings we should address. We should know what the proper attitude is in practicing Zen meditation. Last week someone came here to participate in the Zen retreat. No one had ever taught him how to meditate. He loves to meditate, so he often sits silently at home. I asked him what he did when he was sitting. He said someone told him that the purpose of meditation is to sit until you fall asleep. That is a misconception. We are not sitting here to fall asleep. If we wanted to sleep, we might as well go home, lie down and sleep in bed.

    Last year, I also met someone who had been practicing meditation for over 10 years. I asked her how she meditated, and whether her teacher taught her the proper posture in meditation. She said that her teacher taught her to sit in any position whatsoever; that the purpose of meditation was to be at ease and that she could think about whatever she wanted. Again, that is a misconception. I also asked her if her teacher taught her where to focus her mind. She said that her teacher never taught her how to train her mind during meditation. All she had to do was sit in any position for half an hour or an hour and that was considered to be meditation, and when she came out of it she would feel well and relaxed. Of course, if you took a nap for half an hour, you would feel relaxed too. But that is not meditation. If you sit in whatever position you like, it might not be the right posture. For example, many people have back problems. Why? Because many of us haven't been standing, sitting or walking in the right position. We design comfortable sofas, beds, and chairs; they are very cozy, but the longer you sit, the more problems you develop because they don't necessarily put your body in the right position. They turn you into a "couch potato." When you sprawl out on a sofa, look at what it is doing to your spine. Here we are sitting with our backs straight. It is not easy. If it is not easy it means that we are used to sitting in the wrong position; it means that we are conditioned wrongfully. So, sitting up straight may be hard but it is the right conditioning. We should try to be persistent about it. Posture is important. But what is even more important is what you do with your mind during meditation.

Two Types of Meditation: Samatha and Vipassana

    What is the purpose of meditation? How do you practice meditation? What are the different types of meditation? There are many different types of meditation but they all fall into two categories. One is to concentrate the mind, to make your mind still, calm, and focused. The other is to make the mind observant and able to contemplate clearly. Sometimes the terms samatha and vipassana are used. Samatha means to calm, to still, to focus, or to stop the mind. Vipassana means to perceive, to reflect, or to contemplate. Vipassana has also been translated as "insight". These are the two general types of meditation. Both are important.

    While you are practicing the breath counting method, you are focusing on the breath and nothing else. That is samatha or concentration. Your mind never leaves the breath. Every number that you count, you are counting it single-mindedly. When you are counting the numbers your mind should be very clear; for every number that you bring forth from your mind (1, 2, 3, etc), you should put your full attention on it. When you are counting the numbers clearly without getting mixed up, that is vipassana. What is the benefit of samatha practice? Practicing samatha results in samadhi, a state of deep concentration. What is the benefit of practicing vipassana-perception, reflection, or contemplation? It is wisdom. Wisdom is a result of practicing vipassana.

    We should understand that depending on what we are contemplating, we might obtain either secular wisdom or prajna wisdom. So everything we do in life, the skills we've learned and the knowledge we've acquired, those come from keen observation or insight. Being able to observe the principle, to understand the principles, to see phenomena clearly, that is vipassana. To observe or perceive clearly or correctly brings us wisdom. However, if we reflect on our mind, we turn our attention inward. That kind of observation, reflection and contemplation can bring us prajna. Prajna is the kind of wisdom that can cut through all the delusions we have, that can even help us to understand and transcend life and death. So it is important to know what you do during sitting meditation. Breath counting is one of the most fundamental techniques in meditation. The lady who had been practicing for more than 10 years never heard of it. So it is important to have a good teacher while practicing meditation.


Mindfulness of the Breath

    Today we will teach another method called "mindfulness of the breath." At this point, if the mind is very scattered and unable to settle down, then we should still use the "breath counting" method to bring the mind into focus. If you can do breath counting well without interruption and without dozing off, then you may come to a point where you think that counting the numbers is burdensome and that you can focus well without the counting. In that case you may let go of the counting. However, don't let go of your attention; you should still be mindful of the breathing. Observe the air coming in during inhalation and going out during exhalation. You don't need to follow the passage of the air, just keep your attention on the tip of your nose. Observe and concentrate, see how the air is coming in and going out. At every moment your attention never leaves that point. This is concentration or samatha. This will bring you into samadhi. At every moment your mind is very clear, you can even begin to realize the difference between the incoming and the outgoing breath. How are they different? The incoming breath is slightly colder than the outgoing breath. Being able to detect the difference between observing and perceiving is an example of vipassana. It can bring you insight, or wisdom.

    So, in our methods, we use both concentration and observation. They are not two separate practices. They are two aspects of one single practice, the practice of meditation. In every Zen practice both samatha and vipassana are integrated. However, in this practice, we are not using our discursive mind, we are not thinking about anything. In breath counting you still use a bit of thinking, counting 1, 2, 3, etc. In breath observing (mindfulness of the breath), there is less activity for the conscious mind. You don't count anymore, you just observe. We are going back to the root of our mind, to the source of our wisdom, observation. Who is the one that is making the observation? To understand this, we first need to learn to observe well, to perceive well and clearly with concentration, without disturbance and interruption, without drifting away and dozing off. That is what we need to achieve and that is why we are practicing. This second method is called "mindfulness of the breath".


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