Applying the method in Chan practice is essentially adjusting and harmonizing the body and mind. Between these two processes, there is the method of adjusting the breath. Actually, one cannot separate breath from adjusting and harmonizing the body and the mind, for how coarse or subtle the breath is precisely tells how well physically and mentally the body and mind are harmonized. If your breath is natural, it means your body and mind are in a generally healthy and harmonized condition. If the breath is coarse, then it reflects the disharmony in your body and mind. If it one experiences breathlessness, usually it happens after intense or fierce movement or the body and mind under great stress, or it indicates some health-related problems.
When you recognize your breath is not natural and smooth, if it is not a health- related issue, then you need to adjust and bring it into harmony by taking deep breath, slowly breathing in and breathing out. Then the breath should return to natural after a few times using deep breathing. The heart beat should also slow down a bit and the tension in the body will lessen. At a certain degree, even mentally the pressure will lighten. So, when you begin to practice and apply the method, first regulate your breath, let it be at ease, begin settling the mind in a quieter state after the body is settled with ease.
Having adjusted your body and when beginning the process of harmonizing the mind, you will start to notice something more subtle functioning in your body. If your breath has not been settled at ease, it is not easy to work on the method. For example, you begin with the method of reciting the name of the Buddha, as you become concentrated and you notice your breath, but you do not know what method to use next. Your attention on the recitation of the name of the Buddha may be pulled away by the breath, or when you pay attention to your breath, your mind may be occupied with the recitation activity. In a situation like this, you can use the method of counting the breath to settle the mind. When you count the breath, the focus is on the natural rhythm of the breath. Breathing should be a subconscious action, which means you do not need to control your breath with mental power.
When counting the breath, some people often exhale after they have counted “one”, then they count “two” and breathe out. This is controlling the breath, not counting breath. Breathing is very natural. You count it when you notice the exhalation. The reason to use the method of counting is to strengthen your concentration. If you use the method of observing breath at the very beginning, usually it is not easy to succeed. Because after the body has been settled at ease, the function of the breath is quite subtle, but the state of the mind is not, therefore it is not easy to be aware of the breath. That is why we add a thought of “counting” to help.
As you reach a certain stage of breath counting and the mind is more concentrated, you may find the five senses become sensitive and you can notice a more subtle function which is the heart beat, or even the flow of the blood running through the veins. These are what happening in the body, you do not need to pay attention to it, just continue to focus on your practice of counting the breath.
If during the practice you feel tight in your chest, then you need to pay attention. It may indicate that, in some degree, your breathing is being controlled by you. You must adjust your breath and let it return to its natural way of breathing, and then this tension will slowly dissipate. If you feel heaviness in your nose or feel stuffy, it may indicate there is a problem with that part of your nose. What you need to focus is the entrance part of the nose, but your attention might have been on the bridge of your nose. If so, you should temporally put down your method, relax the body, bring your focus to the crossing point of your thumbs, or the touching point of your bottom on the sitting cushion.
Some people may not have these happening to them, but during the practice, they may take a few deep breaths. This is also controlling the breath. Because you thought you are doing well in applying the method, and your breath should be deep and subtle, so you make it happen. But, your body has not been settled, and as you try to force a few deep breaths, it can cause a lack of oxygen. If so, the automatic reaction of the body is to take a deep breath. If you notice yourself experiencing this, you need to take a deep breath a few times and then return to natural breathing and then counting the breath.
Therefore, we emphasize that, when you enter the Chan hall and practice, you must first pay attention to your mindset, put down everything that might become an obstacle, especially your mental state, and clearly understand the method. With a simple mind, wholeheartedly apply yourself in the method of adjusting and harmonizing the body and mind, let it become more and more established and with depth.
(Teachings during retreat at Ipoh, Malaysia, Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)