Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The most fundamental technique in training the mind is to keep the mind still,[*] meaning not jumping around with all kinds of stimuli like a monkey. The untrained mind is easily pushed, shoved, pulled, and excited by almost anything – bad news, good news, compliment, offensive remark, fear, anxiety, worry…
The eight winds (bát phong, tám gió) of life constantly attack our mind. The eight winds come in four pairs: prosperity & decline, disgrace & honor, praise & censure, suffering & pleasure (Lợi suy, hủy dự, xưng cơ, khổ lạc — thịnh suy, nhục vinh, khen chê, khổ vui).
The eight winds represent all life stimuli, which constantly move our mind around in all directions, if the mind doesn’t know how to stay still.
Keeping the mind still is the way to defeat the eight winds. A completely still mind is a Bodhisattva mind.
In Zen, students are taught to sit still during a meditation session (called zazen – tọa thiền, thiền ngồi), to empty his/her mind of everything — i.e, not thinking about anything — and to concentrate solely on the breath, the in and out movements of the breath. This method is called Breathing Meditation (thiền sổ tức, thiền hít thở).
(Some teachers called thiền sổ tức “breath counting meditation” (thiền đếm hơi thở). It appears that in Chinese Vietnamese (Hán Việt) sổ tức may mean counting (sổ) the breath (tức), so some teachers teach the students to count the breath first. I don’t recommend you to count, because you don’t want to keep your mind too busy. You need to relax the mind.
Let me give you another meaning of sổ tức, using pure Vietnamese. In pure Vietnamese, sổ means going out, running out, pushing out… such as chim sổ lồng (bird fleeing from cage), cửa sổ (an opening to the outside), thuốc sổ (laxative), the hem of the shirt bị sổ chỉ (the sewing thread gets loose), sổ mũi (running nose).
Tức, in pure Vietnamese, means pressure inside (inner pressure), such as tức ngực (heaviness or pain in the chest), tức tối (angry), tức nước vỡ bờ (too much water pressure will break the dam).
So, sổ tức means letting the inner pressure out, relieving yourself of the pressure inside.
Thus, I call thiền sổ tức “breathing meditation” (thiền hít thở) – you are not doing anything other than breathing – breathing slowly and deeply to relieve inner pressure, inner stress – not breath counting meditation. And I am NOT recommend you to ADD WORK to your mind by counting the breath or anything else).
The purpose of breathing meditation is to concentrate the mind on the breath, in order to stop the mind from wandering.
We keep the mind stay in ONE place. That is the purpose of breathing meditation.
The ultimate goal of Zen is complete stillness (hoàn toàn tĩnh lặng). However, for the new Zen student, the first thing to do is to keep the mind stay in one place. Not really complete stillness, but at least the mind stays in one place instead of jumping around. This is called one mind undisturbed (nhất tâm bất loạn, một tâm không loạn động). The mind focuses on one thing, not disturbed by any other thing.
Following the breath is the way to keep the mind stay on the breath. (1) Breathe in slowly and deeply, (2) stop and hold the breath for 2 or 3 seconds, then (3) breathe out slowly.
Remember, ultimately we want complete stillness. But, if the mind has to do some work now, let the mind do only ONE simple work, so the mind is as close to stillness as possible. Therefore, just follow you breath, but don’t add counting or anything else to it.
That’s it. Keeping the mind in one place is the first step in establishing stillness. One mind undisturbed is the first step in establishing complete stillness.
Here is how you do breathing meditation.
Keep your eyes close, so as to concentrate easier.
Follow your breath — let your mind go along with your breath: breathe in slowly and deeply, stop, breathe out slowly.
Timing. You can meditate for 15 minutes each day, anytime when you are not too hungry or too full; however, early morning or before bed time is the best. Later on, you may increase the time as you wish.
And relax. This is nothing to do, but could be difficult if you don’t know how to relax (thư giãn, nghỉ ngơi). Let the mind do nothing (other than following the breath), thinking about nothing, trying nothing, having no goal, aiming at no purpose. Nothing.
An important point to remember: Sometimes we are taught the benefits of Zen, such as peace and happiness for the body and the mind, dwelling peacefully in the present, producing peace energy, good health… These things are the results of Zen, and some teachers talk about them often to encourage the novices.
However, I teach, you should get those things out of your mind, or at least, ignore them. For Zen is complete emptiness and stillness; there is nothing in our heart. The Void (Không) contains nothing. Nirvana (Niết Bàn) contains nothing – the fire is out.
This is important. Don’t grasp anything. Don’t go after any purpose. Every grasping is an attachment, and we never get ashore if we keep grasping the boat. If there is a purpose for Zen, that purpose should be to erase everything, erasing all means — including Zen — and erasing all purposes — including the purpose of attaining Zen.
If we grasp at anything while practicing Zen, such as peace and happiness, dwelling peacefully, energy, health, attaining Zen… then we are attaching.
Zen is non-attachment (vô chấp), non-grounding (vô trụ), mushin (no mind, vô tâm), munen (no thought, vô niệm). That is the Buddha mind/heart.
No grounding anywhere, thus the Bodhisattva mind is born. (The Diamond Sutra – Section 10)
At the beginning, I’d like you to do a simple mechanical thing; that is to follow your breath, and do nothing else, wanting nothing, aiming at no purpose. Unfortunately, there is still one purpose of “one mind undisturbed”. Later on, when you grow, you need to erase even “one mind undisturbed”, so that there is nothing in the mind — non-attachment, non-grounding, no mind, no thought.
Have a good meditation.
[*] In the Western tradition, people use “mind”, in the East people use “heart”. It is really “mind/heart”.
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Trần Đình Hoành
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