This Way or That

02024-07-09 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

Zen students are usually told to sit and count their breaths from one to ten or one to twenty. I have often wondered about this, in particular whether there was an error in translation. Counting the duration of the inhalations and exhalations, also known as paced breathing, would be something Taoists do (1). Paced breathing is known to calm the nervous system. Counting the number of inhalations or exhalations only serves to concentrate and thereby activate the mind. Counting the length of each breath, rather than the number of breaths… it makes a big difference and yet when we say count the breath we could literally mean either of the two options.

I usually don’t do any counting, preferring just to sit (to quote Dogen) but when I feel the need to calm down I count the duration of my breaths. Six seconds for each inhalation (2), six seconds for each exhalation, five breaths per minute. That works for me, but adjust to your lung volume and what feels good. 

You don’t have to say that you are meditating… just sit for five minutes and count the duration of each breath. You will feel differently. And I won’t tell anyone.  :-)

(1) Sengcan, the third patriarch of Zen, wrote the inspired poem Trusting the Mind. I think Laozi might have nodded along with most of the points Sengcan made in that great poem. Sengcan lived on a Taoist mountain and his friends were Taoists. In fact there weren’t many Chan/Zen people yet and Sengcan only had one single student. Red Pine made a new translation of Trusting the Mind that is wonderful. You can find it on its own from Empty Bowl, or in the collection Zen Roots: the First Thousand Years. 

(2) I find it so strange that in English we have the word INhalation and the word EXhalation but the word HALATION means something altogether different and unrelated. Hello, where was quality control when someone in the 19th century decided to use HALATION for “the spreading of light beyond its proper boundaries” as in photos or on a TV screen. 


  1. anne

    breath work was wonderful during this 9 week (ongoing) hell

    (breath works great on the parasympathetic nervous system)

    thanks again for the book recommendation – very useful.

    (an eye clinic that can’t see…well, ..what should i do?…6 MD’s, so far ..maybe number 7 or 8 will have some answers….it is a complex system problem)

    • anne

      the word …Zen, …hits the mark – as most people get a calm feeling or at least have some idea what the word implies without needing to do anything.

      Not sure if this is correct – my understanding is Siddhartha Gautama was not the first Buddha …the big B type.

      – think he was number 6?
      – which is very interesting if correct, … another one will emerge??
      ( Find that hard to imagine as Buddhist are a small demographic – globally )

      • anne

        “sages” may be myths…made up stories ( even crazy stories)

        so much controversy around ALL of them – don’t think the experts can agree on anything.

        in an ideal world, it would be great if we could get clarity…even direction.
        but instead, .. left with texts that either inspire or confuse

        Breathing works ….meditation, ..praying, yoga , music, reading also work

        the questions are too big …answers too far away ….
        (unconditional living may be the closet truth)

  2. Steve

    >Red Pine made a new translation of Trusting the Mind that is wonderful. You can find it on its own from Empty Bowl,

    And it IS truly excellent

  3. Steve

    Oh, boy … my ignorance will be showing … I read Trusting the Mind this morning in its entirety … My impression is that Sengcan wrote a Taoist poem. Is that right? I don’t see any Chan/Zen philosophy expressed in this poem. Ami I just missing it or is it just not there? or … so steeped in Taoist language that it’s not obvious?

    (If I were to do a “blind test” and someone handed this book to me and not allowed me to see the author, I would have thought, “Laozi” or a student of Laozi’s)


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