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Rissho Kosei-kai
International of North America
Buddhism for Today
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Regulating Our Breath

Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei-kai

RKINA president NiwanoDirecting Our Thoughts toward Breathing

Although we tend to take breathing for granted, inhaling and exhaling are essential for human life. Most people are unable to remain alive if they stop breathing for even a few minutes. As a matter of fact, nearly all human beings take their first breath by letting out a loud squawk as soon as they are born, and take a last small breath just as they are dying and depart this world. In other words, breathing is the essence of being alive.

Among the teachings of Shakyamuni is a sutra called the Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing. This sutra teaches us how to cultivate a careful awareness of breathing by thinking, "I am now inhaling slowly, I am exhaling slowly," with each breath in and out.

The sutra continues: The practice of cultivating mindfulness of breathing in and out is fruitful and of great benefit, and will quell greed and distress. This allows us to attain a tranquil, stable state of mind in which we are not disturbed by passions or distracting thoughts.

In concrete terms, as I suggested above, while realizing that one is breathing out, one should slowly exhale, and while realizing that one is breathing in, one should inhale the same way. Then one should breathe with one's thoughts focused on feeling joy while breathing, quieting the mind while breathing, and contemplating impermanence while breathing.

By directing our consciousness toward our breathing, we will know that our breathing has become slower and deeper of its own accord. And while repeating this process of breathing we can calm down our mind and improve mental function. Slow, deep exhaling stimulates the parasympathetic nerves that urge one to rest and by bringing balance to the sympathetic nerves causes the emotions to settle down. This is because by inhaling slowly, one is able to take in a sufficient amount of oxygen. The exhaled breath is particularly signifi cant because it is not unrelated to the fact that life begins with the first cry one makes as a newborn baby.

Buddhism involves the teaching of realization. Every person should become aware of the working of the truth and the importance of self-control. In this sense, focusing one's consciousness on breathing—with which human life starts—is a convenient method of controlling the body and the mind.

Becoming Aware of Gratitude

The Chinese philosopher Zuangzi (died c. 286 BCE) left us the following thought about breathing:

"The true man's breathing comes from his heels, while the ordinary man's breathing comes from his throat." This means that breathing deeply calms people, endoawing them with supreme virtue. Certainly, when one's emotions are rising and falling or when one is agitated because of anger or excitement, one's breathing becomes shallow and fast.

In this sense, breathing deeply is important for regulating the mind. Indeed, we may sigh from too much stress, but we do not usually focus our consciousness on breathing or make a habit of breathing deeply. In fact, however, it is important that in our daily lives we learn to breathe slowly and deeply.

To this end, why not take just three to five minutes to have such time, for example, in the morning and in the evening.

While we are sitting in seiza, the Japanese way of sitting formally, before the Buddhist altar, we keep our bent knees spread about the width of two fists and settle our posture by swaying the body to the left and to the right. In zazen, one sits crosslegged in the "full lotus" position and sways the body to the left and the right, but there is also a method of practicing it in the Japanese formal sitting position.

Then slowly exhale from the mouth, and when you have completely exhaled, let air flow in naturally through your nose. Then, as I mentioned at the beginning, by concentrating on each breath, both body and mind will relax.

At the same time, as we become aware of the mystery of life—that while we breathe our hearts continue to beat without stopping for even a moment, the development of feelings of gratitude for being caused to live arises. This realization protects us from desire and conceit, and brings us the great gift and benefit that is true self-control.

September 2012
From “Kosei” Translated by Kosei Publishing

Read past Guidance messages from President Niwano.

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