Master Nan Huai-chin Provides A Practice Lesson on Qigong, Pranayama, Anapana and Breathing Exercises - Part 1
November 10, 2003 Lesson
Nan: Before you come and join us for meditation some years ago, have you learned from anyone on meditation, yoga or anything of such nature?
Student: My first contact with meditation was at a Zen retreat in California, founded by the Japanese Zen master Suzuki. I was about 21, still in college at the time. Subsequently I participated in many retreats, such as one by an Indian master Swami Muktanada and different trainings in the human potential movement.
Nan: Given your age, I suppose you didn't meet Suzuki in person.
Student: That's right. He was dead when I joined his Zen retreat.
Nan: Suzuki talked about Zen at great length but I am afraid he limited himself to the theoretical aspect. He didn't really endeavor in practice, a subject we will be talking about in this session. Anyway, at least you started with Zen, which is a better way for you than Tibetan Buddhism or other esoteric sects.
Before we start, I want to ask you a simple question: What did you hope to achieve by following the practice? Was it for a worldly or trans-worldly purpose? To serve a different purpose, the practice one follows would be different, although ultimately all the practices will converge.
Student: This is some simple question! Ok, I'll answer it simply: I wish to contribute to human sanity.
Nan: Fine. That was your answer - for now. Remember that.
Now, how often do you meditate each day?
Student: Twice a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.
Nan: How long do you meditate each time?
Student: Between 45 minutes to one and quarter hours in the morning and about ½ hour in the evening. I also do some Qi Gong practice in the morning. Altogether, they take about 2 hours in the morning.
Nan: To serve the purpose you hope to achieve, we shall talk about the kind of practice you should follow. This will help to vitalize you and to calm your mind.
By the way, when you were here the last time, did we discuss how life came to be and what happens at death?
Student: We did.
Nan: This time, we will talk only about life, which manifests in two areas: perceptions and feelings. Perceptions pertain to things mental, and feelings pertain to things physical. In the West, perceptions are related to reason, thus spiritualism - mind you, this is different from spiritualism in Buddhism. Feelings are related to senses, therefore materialism.
When you meditate, are you aware of the changes of movement in your mind, i.e. sometimes the flow of thoughts gushes through while sometimes the flow trickles to almost nothing?
Student: Yes, I am mindful of that.
Nan: That was the function of the mind consciousness, the distinguishing consciousness - the sixth of eight consciousnesses as termed by the school of Consciousness Only.
You should remember what we discussed before that such consciousness does not reside inside your body or your brain. It is neither within nor without. It is nowhere and yet everywhere. The Tibetan Buddhists believe that such consciousness is a function of the brain. That is incorrect. The brain is but part of the body consciousness, which is the fifth consciousness.
When you mediate, all the comfort or discomfort in your body come through the body consciousness. It is the mind consciousness that is aware of the sensations in the body. I always have people complaining to me about the great discomfort in the body so that they cannot continue the sitting meditation. If someone points a gun at your head and threatens to shoot you if you should move one inch, would you dare to get off from the sitting posture? Here the sixth consciousness takes control and the body consciousness will not function. No, that's not correct -it's not that the body consciousness stops functioning, I should have said that the body consciousness will then not influence you.
Student: Yes. Sometimes I get a cramp in my leg during sitting meditations and it can be very painful but I am able to hold it without moving. If this were to happen during sleep, I would have instinctively released my leg and massaged it.
Nan: That's right. So, the question to ask is this: When one wishes to get off from sitting meditation, is it the mind or the body that decides to quit? I am afraid it's the sixth consciousness that prevails.
The sixth consciousness flows day and night, even during your sleep - although it may stop momentarily.
Do you ever experience a complete silence of the sixth consciousness?
Student: Sometimes, but not often.
Nan: Unfortunately you let go of that precious opportunity. Otherwise, we will have a different you today. It's not just you - very, very few people can recognize that moment and hold it. No matter which posture one is in - be that sitting, standing, walking or whatever, one can attain the silence of the sixth consciousness. It is like amputation of the perception or the blocking off of a flowing river. The moment does not come very often. The next time the moment comes, hold it. Stay there as long as you can.
Student: I should say I experienced such moment a number of times. Once I was by a frozen lake about ten years ago, the moment came. No thoughts came through my mind. I had neither perception nor feeling. I also have had the same experience a number of times during sitting meditation.
Nan: Good. I believe the Suzuki Zen School put a lot of emphasize on this state of mind. But don't ever confuse this with enlightenment, for it is not. It was just an opportunity for enlightenment to take place - but is not enlightenment in and of itself. For that matter, I would not even consider it a gateway to enlightenment. Throughout history many Zen masters attained enlightenment during moments of total cessation of the consciousness flow. One can say that enlightenment exploded on the masters when they had that state of mind.
This moment can even dawn on people when one is in an extreme state of emotions such as ecstasy, rage, sorrow or thrill. Only if you can recognize it when it comes - you might therefore achieve enlightenment.
A senior official in China's Sung Dynasty once asked a Zen master to explain for him a passage in the sutra in which the Lord Buddha said a gale of black wind blows one to the land of the demons. The usually benign Zen master responded harshly, questioning, among other insults, whether the official was intelligent enough to deserve to know the answer. Deeply humiliated, the official flushed with rage. At this time, the master returned to his benign disposition and said to him, "Your excellency, your question has been addressed." Deeply shamed this time, the official bowed to the master in gratefulness.
It is even possible for people to experience this state of mind during war and the killing of an enemy. When I was young, people asked me what it was like in a state boarding on enlightenment. I told them it was like the moment you sit on the toilet bowl after running up and down the streets desperately searching for a toilet due to a bad stomach.
In another Zen story, a layman practiced Zen for 30 years without achieving anything significant. In total frustration, he gave up and returned to his wife at home. That same night, he had sex with his wife. As he was just about to reach orgasm, the moment dawned on him. He jumped up and screamed, "I've got it!"
His poor wife, shocked by his move, fainted. Of course I am not encouraging all of you here in this room to practice with your wife for that moment.
A Zen master taught us to "saw off all flows so as to snap into enlightenment." To saw off all flows relates to concentration or samadhi. To snap into enlightenment relates to insight, wisdom or prajna.
In fact, not only human beings, but all beings can and do experience such moments. It's just that no one can recognize it when it comes. Once, many years ago, I was in Sichuan Province of China. On my way down from the mountain where I went into seclusion, I saw an ox that stood completely motionless when the heavy gear was removed from its back. I knew the ox had that moment then. Too bad the ox could not recognize it. I went forward, patted on the ox and said, "You poor fellow, why couldn't you recognize the moment?" Of course it was in vain. The ox wasn't enlightened.
Let me tell you yet another story related to cattle. It was recorded in "The Biographies of Eminent Monks" that one monk, knowing he was about to die and he had to be reincarnated as a cow due to a bad karma, asked one of his fellow monks to serve him a reminder in due course. Then the first monk died and he was cremated according to Buddhist tradition.
Eighteen years later, a student of the second monk was about to leave the monastery to go on a journey. The monk, now a master, told the student to look for a cow at a certain place on a certain date. On that particular day, the student indeed saw a cow at a roadside where his master had predicted. The student went forward to the cow, called the cow by the name of the first monk and read to it a letter prepared by his master "Now is the time to free yourself!" Upon hearing this, the cow died while it was still standing.
People practice meditation in order to reach that moment. Hardly do they realize the best moment, to a lot of people, is when one just sits down and the legs are crossed. When one feels that he has sat properly and can now begin to meditate, that moment has long gone.
We have talked long enough about perceptions, the mental aspect. We will now turn to feelings, the physical aspect.
Let's begin with the five gross elements : earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness (space). Are you aware that China has just launched a man into the orbit and back?
Nan: Let's use that as an example. The earth floats on water. It is easy to understand. Fire, or warmth, is always present. Even if at hundred degrees below zero, it is still warmer than a thousand degrees below zero. So, there is still warmth even at hundred or thousand degrees below zero. Warm or cold is dependent on your position.
The earth, water and fire are surrounded by air. Air per se is not wind. Wind is the movement of air. When the rocket rises through air, the surface of the rocket will glow because of friction with air. When the rocket rises further into outer space where there is no air, it has reached emptiness (space). Mind you, this is the emptiness in the realm of the physics, which is not to be confused with the "emptiness", a state that Buddhists seeks to achieve.
Our physical body is similar to the planet we live one. All our organs, muscles and bones are earth and they float on water, which accounts for 70% of our body weight. Fire is represented by the body's heat. Surrounding all these is air. Air is still a material in that it has substance but cannot been seen by naked eyes. And so is emptiness (space), which encompasses our entire body and occupies an area about as big as when you stretch out both arms to each side. Modern photography can capture this sphere of emptiness (space) on films.
Student: How is the aura you just described relate to the five gross elements?
Nan: Ah, every one of the five gross elements glows. That is why, when one practices "meditating on the white skeleton ", a particular meditation technique, the advanced students can visualize in their mind that the skeletons glow with white rays.
Of the five gross elements, wind is the most important. Wind, however, is not just breathing - but it becomes breathing once we were born.
Why do we breath? We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants breathe, too. But they do the opposite. Plants breathe out oxygen during the day, but carbon dioxide at night. So don't wonder in the woods at night thinking you are taking in fresh air.
Student: Sorry for interruption, I would like to ask if oxygen and carbon dioxide are actually earth. I mean, isn't the movement of oxygen created the wind but oxygen itself is the element of earth?
Nan: Yes. Your body has to have carbon
Now, all things - plants, animals, and minerals, even down to a single cell -have expansion and contraction movements, which reflect the function of breathing. When the breathing stops during a meditation, one enters a state of physical emptiness (space). The physical emptiness can bring tremendous pressure.
Student: When you say the breathing stops, did you mean the stopping of respiratory breathing or that of breathing of the entire body?
Nan: We will come to that later.
A fetus in mother's womb cannot breathe with its nose. It breathes with the navel cord. At birth, the navel cord is cut and the baby will exhale and then breathe in the first fresh air. From that moment on, one will continue to breathe through the nose until one dies. At birth, the baby's mouth is filled with slimy stuff that has to be cleaned out thoroughly. If not - and even if the baby should swallow just a tiny bit of the slimy stuff - it will cause all kinds of illness for the baby when it grows up, for the stuff is toxic.
Just as a fetus does not breathe through the nose, you may experience the stopping of breathing (the respiratory breathing) during meditation but you will notice movement in your lower abdomen. Usually this movement then becomes a thrust that pushes forward to the area that we would call the "Youth Gland", which lies between the navel and pubic hair.
When this happens, your sexual drive will become so intense that you will want to get relieved. Here is a critical point: if one can get past this thrust without having sex, one would have reached a higher level and, consequently, one's health will improve over time.
When I was a lad, there was always a warm, comfortable sensation in my "Youth Gland" area. Did you have the same sensation when you were young?
Student: I can't recall .
Nan: Because you are a smart person. Puberty comes early for smart people. You might have lost the innocent youth early, ha ha ha. At least some of you should have had the experience of a shiver when you are about to finish urinating? Yes? No?
The particular practice I am about to elaborate in the next session is called Anapana Meditation. "Ana" is inhaling and "pana" is exhaling. Strictly speaking, anapana is about expansion and contraction, rather than about breathing.
And with that, let's break here for today.
Student: Could I ask a quick question before we break, just for clarification?
Nan: Go ahead.
Student: I would like to make sure I understand the five gross elements. Let's say water. When water is boiled it's no longer water. It's gas. When frozen, water becomes ice or earth. Is that true?
Nan: Yes. Water is closely related to earth. That's why 70% of our body is water. But this does not mean that the elements are interchangeable or transformable. The Lord Buddha taught us: "Each of the great four elements is separate of one another." Every element has its own domain. Water does not transform into wind. The fact that water becomes steam is just a phenomenon reflecting only how water is influenced by wind. Our body and every material thing in the universe are composed of the four great elements. Ultimately these four great elements will converge into emptiness (space). The fifth great element, however, is not related to the first four.
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