Master Nan Huai-chin Provides A Practice Lesson on Qigong, Pranayama, Anapana and Breathing Exercises - Part 2
November 11, 2003
Nan: Today we will talk about the Anapana meditation. In Buddhism, we refer this meditation practice as one of the "common practices," which means it is shared by and known to non-Buddhists in their pursue for calmness in the mind or Samadhi. Followers of Kundalini and many other Yoga schools, Brahmanism, Tibetan Buddhism, Hinayana Schools, etc. all practice Anapana meditation.
What is unique to Buddhism, is the pursuit of Prajna, or the accomplishment of Wisdom. This, however, is attained on the foundation of the "common practices."
To repeat what I said at the end of the last session, Ana means breathing in and Pana means breathing out. As I have said in the last session, a fetus does not breathe through its nose. It therefore does not have the in-and-out breath. Yet, the fetus has a "momentum" that continues to power life in an expansion and contraction movement. We call this the phenomenon of "on and off." If we have to use an example, it's like the current of electricity. When we say "on and off" we don't mean connection and shut off. It in fact is "on" seamlessly.
At birth, as the baby's navel cord is cut off and its mouth cleaned, it bursts out the air in the lung with a "wah ." and then breathes in the first breath. From that moment on, the breathing continues until death and the person breathes out his last breath.
What the Buddhism sutras didn't elaborate clearly, as was lacking in Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism literatures, is that the objective of Anapana meditation is to cultivate that "momentum" which supported the fetus, not to cultivate the in-and-out of the respiratory breathing. This has to be clear from the outset.
So often we see people, in China as well as Japan, interpreting the breathing meditation (Xi Counting ) as the one to count the in or out breath. This is a misunderstanding. Xi, in its original meaning in the Chinese language, means still or rest. In the I-Ching, Xi carries the meaning of growing. The in-and-out, or the on-and-off, on the contrary, is depleting. Xi is the state of stillness, not in-and-out, and therefore not depleting. Growing and depleting are about life and death.
According to the China's Tian-Tai School of Zen, there are four kinds of breathing. The first is panting, the short and rapid in-and-out breathing, as when one runs. The normal in-and-out breathing is called wind, which the second kind. The third one is Qi, the long and deep in-and-out breathing, as when one is in meditation or sleep. Qi is very subtle. It is inaudible but one can feel it as it goes through the nose. If watch a person in sleep, you will observe that the breathing continues, which means the person is not in the deep sleep. The mind, or consciousness, is not in rest. There will come a very short interval when the breathing stops completely, beyond the regular in-and-out pattern, which tells you the person is in deep sleep. This is the state of Xi, the fourth kind of breathing.
The state of Xi dawns on the average person only briefly during meditation or sleeping. Very quickly the in-and-out breathing resumes. You can judge if a person is in a good state of mediation by observing his breathing. If you see short and shallow ones, the person's mind must be wondering around. That's why an experienced teacher can easily tell if a student is really meditating.
Setting aside all kinds sports and exercises popular in the West, we find that even in the East many schools of Yoga, Qigong or martial arts teach students to hold the in-breath at the lower abdomen, or Dan-tian - and they call this Qi. This is no Qi at all, but playing with wind. At best, this kind of practice helps to massage the internal organs, but it will cause the abdomen area to bulge over time.
Observe the body of a child from the side - the chest and stomach areas are joined together to form one curve line, an indication that the child inhales into the whole body. The real martial arts or Qigong masters know that the abdomen should actually contract at inhale to maximize force. When the masters strike, they strike calling out a loud "huh." The thrusting of air through the mouth also increases the force of the strike. Striking out in silence produces a weaker punch. However, here we are still talking about the wind, not Xi. When one reaches the state of Xi, the body will be filled with Qi. There is no breathing. The mind entails all functions.
A normal person uses only his lung to breath. That's just half breathing, not Xi, hardly even Qi. The ones who can reach the state of Qi will definitely see the miraculous improvements in health. The ones who have mastered the practice of samadhi will attest that breathing takes place in the navel area, quite by itself, instead of in the lung.
When the child grows up, especially after the first sexual experience, the natural habit of Qi breathing is broken. He starts to breathe using the lung only - the half breathing. Breathing with Dan-tian relates to the natural navel breathing used by a fetus. This is Qi, not Xi.
I was told that the 15-year old daughter of one of my students started to meditate with her mother. After a few months practice, the daughter told her mother that she noticed that breathing actually took place at the navel area for her, even during her sleep. If a grown up person can achieve what his daughter achieved, good health is guaranteed. To achieve longevity, navel breathing is the starting point.
Now, I elaborated on this subject because you reported experiencing cessation of breathing during meditation. Actually, it is still a near stop, not a real cessation. But still, it is close. That's why you ought to have a better understanding on this subject.
Once you reached cessation, the Xi, you will encounter many changes physically and mentally. We shall come to that later on. But there is one thing that you should be clear: the mind and the Xi are separate. If your every thought can go in unity with the Xi, you will have achieved samadhi.
One day many years ago, I was taking a walk with my teacher. I was perhaps 25 or 26 then. Suddenly my teacher grasped me by the hand as asked, "How does a thought emerge - initiated first by the mind or by the Qi?" Without any hesitation, I replied, "Of course it's the mind." The teacher let go of my hand and said, "Remarkable. I commend you for having truly figured it out. I have asked the same question on so many who are much older than you are, and yet they all thought that it was Qi that initiated the thought. They were wrong."
So, the thought and the Qi are two separate things. To describe a state in which the breathing stops and the mind dwells on one thought only, the Mahayana Buddhists in China call it "mind and Xi in tandem." In Tibetan Buddhism, this is called "mind and Qi in unity." It is an extremely important subject to know.
For instance, the 15-year old daughter I talked about was able to achieve navel breathing, even though she was already 15 and already had her first menstrual period, because her mind is relatively pure and clean. As a person grows older, the mind becomes more chaotic. The more thoughts go through the mind, the shorter the breaths and the more difficult to do navel breathing.
When one meditates, if the Qi first starts to fill the lower body, then on to all four limbs and finally to the entire body and the respiratory breathing becomes oblivious, it is a sign that one is close to total cessation, or the stillness of Xi.
Student: During my meditation, I notice that if my breathing resumes after it has already stopped it was because I starting thinking again. In other words, the mind moved and then the Qi followed.
Nan: Yes. That is correct. Mind moves, so the Qi moves. Samadhi is attained only through the unity of the mind and Qi. Anapana meditation entails a great deal of subjects; I can't go into all those details for you at this session. We can only touch on the fundamentals.
Sometimes, when a person is totally absorbed in something he is doing, he may also experience the cessation of breath. So may a person suffering extreme horror (fright). This is all caused by the total concentration of the mind. Therefore, it is all about the mind. As the mind settles down, breathing will slow down. Once the mind moves, the Qi follows. Understanding this will greatly benefit your body and mind.
That is why the Lord Buddha taught us to be aware of our Xi, to be aware that the Xi is a long one or a short one. By the same token, when your body is filled with Qi, you are aware of it. When the Xi transforms every single cell in your body, you are aware, too. This awareness is a function of the consciousness.
Unfortunately, most people wrongfully interpret Xi as breathing. Their attention is then drawn to the action of inhale and exhale. This is so wrong. To be aware of the Xi is to be aware of the interval between two breaths during which one neither inhale nor exhale. In the beginning, the interval, or the Xi, is brief. With correct practice, the duration will gradually extend and the mind will settle down as well. When the mind goes in tandem with the Xi, you will feel the Xi all over your body.
That will be quite enough for today. Go and practice. We will continue tomorrow.
November 13, 2003
Nan: Following our discussions on Anapana yesterday, how was your experience practicing it?
Student: It has been very helpful.
Nan: I know you have learned and practiced breathing meditation before. You must also understand how does it really work for you and why do we do it. Have you understood all that?
Student: On that I have a question. When the breathing for me clams down, I become very aware of all. Things become very quiet. If I understood the master correctly from the first day, at which you spoke about expansion and contraction throughout the body, down to the cells. When I reach cessation of the respiratory breathing, I could sense breathing in the original point, or the Dan Tian. Is that the same as the expansion and contraction of the cells?
Nan: Ah. I don't think you have fully understood Anapana. This is a difficult subject indeed. Let me first answer your question and then I shall give it another go at Anapana.
I am afraid that you have been too absorbed by the breathing movement alone. The practice I have been talking about goes beyond that. If you focus on breathing through the nose, then the practice becomes a practice of the Qigong.
In practicing Dhyana meditation, the first thing you do, when you sit down, is to let your mind to relax totally, letting go all thoughts, the past, present and future. The breathing comes naturally without any effort. In the beginning, the breathing goes through the nose. After you have calmed down, your breath will become long and deep and it will naturally go down to your navel area, or Dan Tian. You don't need to meditate, or be particularly mindful of, the Dan Tian. That's the practice of the Taoists or Tibetan Buddhists, which are different from the Anapana we are talking about.
Student: In my experience, it happens spontaneously. You can't make it happen.
Nan: Yes. It is what I've told you yesterday - that you are aware of the breath has become long and deep.
Now, let's go over this once more.
The Anapana meditation, as taught by the Tian-Tai School of China, incorporates both efforts and non-efforts. Once you have sat down properly for meditation, let go all of your thoughts. Allow yourself to become pure and clean, albeit it is only an imagined state of pure and clean.
Next, you do the cleansing of your physical body. The average person's body is infected by all kinds of illness arising from such daily activities as eating, drinking and sex. As long as you are not free from these worldly activities, your body will not be free from ailments. Your body therefore becomes an impediment.
The Tian-Tai School uses a breathing technique of the Six Words to cleanse your internal organs. This technique, however, was not created by the masters of Tian-Tai School but came with the Buddha's teachings. Later on, the Taoists in China also adopted the same technique.
The Six Words and their corresponding organs for cleansing are:
Ho for the heart Hu for the stomach Hui for the liver Chuei for the kidney Hee for the throat, chest and abdomen areas (thyroid gland, thymus gland and adrenal gland) Sss for the lung
The words by themselves are meaningless. You are to pronounce each world -silently - with each out breath. It is the shape of the mouth, in trying to pronounce the words, that matters. You should not hear any sound coming out of your mouth as you do it. Now watch me (the master demonstrates).
As you breathe out the Ho in one slow, long breath, you should also imagine that all the ailments and negative Qi in the heart area are expelled from you. At the end of each out breath, you close your mouth and the inhale will take place effortlessly. If you have to force the inhalation, you are dong it incorrectly. The same is applied to the remaining five words.
So, each time you practice the Anapana meditation you should first let go of all your thoughts. Relax your mind and body totally. Next, you can use the Six Words breathing technique to deal with whichever areas in your body that do not feel comfortable. For example, if you should feel that the chest area is congested, it might be caused by heart or lung problems. You therefore practice breathing out the words of Ho and Sss. The discomfort in the waist area might be caused by kidney problems. And so on. If we wish to go into greater details about this, there are numerous derivative practices, such as making certain postures and movements with the breathing or imaging thrusting out an "air dagger" or other kinds of martial arts etc. But we are not going to getting into those.
After you are done with the Six Words breathing, which may take a while, your internal organs are cleansed and the passages of Qi unblocked, you will drift into Anapana meditation naturally, without being obsessed by the breathing.
I've said in the first day, wind is the most important of the five gross elements. All the ailments people suffer can be attribute to the blocking of the internal flow of the wind (Qi).
At this stage, if you still feel any discomfort in your body, you can apply the same technique: expel the ailments with pana, or the out breath. In fact, you can do this not only during a sitting meditation but also at work, in a car etc. When you have mastered the pana technique, you can apply it effectively to calm your mind, if the nagging in your mind cannot stop. Do you notice what do people do when they are exhausted or deeply bothered? They do a long - sometimes loud -sigh and then they feel better. People sigh also after an exhausting sex. Then they fell into deep sleep like dead pigs. When a man dies, his last breath is an out breath. At birth, the baby's first breath starts with an out breath, too.
All right. Back to meditation. After you have done the Six Words (Sounds) breathing technique, you can now leave your breath alone. Just let it be but "watch" it with your consciousness (again, remember the consciousness does not reside in your brain). If the in-coming breath is long and deep, you are aware of it. If your mind has not calmed down, the breath will be short and shallow -and you are also aware of that.
The sutras told us that there could short breaths among long ones, as could be longs ones among short breaths. Why are there uneven breaths? The Lord Buddha didn't elaborate. It has to do with your own health. During meditation, you may experience uneven breaths due to the mood you are in, the food or drink you took or due to the whether on that day. There can be many causes for having hard or subtle breaths.
If it is the hard breath, you can feel it at the tip of your nose. Gradually, it goes to the area between eyebrows, and then to the top of your head. You can feel the sensation of in and out, if you are sufficiently calm. Of course it is not really air coming in and out through your head. It's all in your mind. When you reach the state of cessation, a total silence of the mind, the respiratory breathing stops. This is called the Xi (stillness) of breath.
So, when you practice, you just need to be aware of the in-and-out. Do not pay attention to the coming and going of thoughts in your mind. It's like watching your kid running around the house. You are aware of the kid's movements but you don't go and help him. Or, it's like watching a fish swimming. You are aware where the fish is but you don't touch it. You continue to watch the long-and-short, in-and-out of the breath until it stops, reaching stillness.
Having reached stillness, you will feel the body is filled with Qi. Of course it's not so easy for you to have the Qi all over your body. You may feel the Qi is blocked in your behind or elsewhere in the body. When that happens, you can observe or imagine that you are channeling out the negative Qi as you breathe out. You may have to slightly move the infected area to help the relief. Sometimes you can even release the blocked Qi with a fart. The most difficult situation to handle is when the Qi goes to the area of your genital part. It then becomes impossible to imagine the Qi away and finding a sexual relief seems to be the only way out. What should you do then? You should ignore such Qi. Ignore even the consciousness that is watching the Qi. The more you watch it, the more persistent it becomes until one finally gives in. When the problems rise, you should know how to resolve them. Understand?
Now, when you reach the stage where the body is filled with Qi, let go of all thoughts. Empty your mind. Slowly, the Qi also stabilizes. You will then dwell in a state of no breathing. In fact, it's not no breathing in the absolute sense. You only breathe once in a long while. If you feel any Qi coming in, discharge it. Let it all out until every cell in your body becomes translucent. This is followed by light that glows from within. It may glow in the head area, the back or, in the most rare instance, the bottom area. Sweet saliva flows in abundance and it seems to go down the throat without having to make an effort to swallow. The saliva now becomes the most nutritious juice, or the most potent cocktail of hormones.
The body gradually disappears from consciousness. You dwell in the light, pure and clean.
That is all I could elaborate for you at this time. Further knowledge on this subject will actually be a disservice to you at your level.
You see, so many believe that air is good for health so their practices focus foolishly on inhaling. The secret key is just the opposite: one should let go instead. In Mahayana, it is called giving unselfishly. We give out our Qi, even our lives, to all beings.
As you practice, the most difficult area to unblock is from the waist down, all the way to the toes. The two feet are the especially difficult. Once unblocked, a sensation of comfort will come to the two feet. This will be followed by a joyous sensation, better than that of sex. Such sensation will gradually move from the feet to the brain, at which time one will experience the joy of the ultimate bliss that is beyond description. The body is no longer an impediment. The average person always feels the existence of the body throughout the meditation, because he or she feels that the body is sitting here and there are discomforts in various area of the body. As such, the body becomes an impediment.
Once the body no longer impedes you, one should then pursue Bodhi. If not, one can easily go astray, dazzled by the so-called "super natural powers" that may arise. Therefore, up to this stage, the meditation practice is shared by - and known to - Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists.
As for the physical sensations one may experience during meditation practice, such as sore, pain, swell, numb - all 34 of them - we shall deal with them later.
I believe this is already more than enough for you to digest over a year's time.
Student: Yes indeed.
Nan: Even for people doing yoga postures, some of the techniques I described can become very useful in stretching the body. One should always breathe out while attempting to stretch the body beyond normal limitation. The more you breathe in, the harder the stretch will become.
The most difficult one to release is the Qi in the brain, much more so than to release the Qi in lower body. Once the Qi in the brain is fully released, the head disappears and all kinds of wisdoms are ignited. The real problem is up here in the head, not from down there, the sexual drives. The problems down below are fakes, they all originated from up here. Therefore all the problems disappear if the head is chopped down.
In the skeleton meditation practice, the Lord Buddha taught us to contemplate our own skeleton such that the head is chopped and placed upside down inside the cavity below the rib cages. If you are able to contemplate that, for sure you won't have high blood pressure and your mind will be as calm as never before.
This is enough for the day. Let's break here.
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