Breath and Precepts

Eihei Dogen on Breath from Eihei Koroku, vol. 5, case #390 (trans. Leighton/Okumura pg. 348-350)

In the zazen of patch-robed monks, first you should sit correctly with upright posture. Then regulate your breath and settle your mind. In the lesser vehicle originally there were two gateways, which were counting breaths and contemplating impurity. In the lesser vehicle, people used counting to regulate their breath.

However, the buddha ancestor’s engaging of the way always differed from the lesser vehicle. A Buddha ancestor said, “Even if you arouse the mind of a leprous wild fox, never practice the self-regulation of the two vehicles.” The two vehicles refer to such as the school of the four-part Vinaya and the Abhidharma Kosa school, which have spread in the world these days. In the Mahayana there is also a method for regulating breath, which is knowing that one breath is long, another breath is short. The breath reaches the tanden and comes up from the tanden. Although exhale and inhale differ, both of them occur depending on the tanden. Impermanence is easy to clarify, and regulating the mind is easy to accomplish.

My late teacher Tiantong said, “Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.”

My late teacher said it like that. Suppose someone were to ask Eihei, “Master, how do you regulate your breath?” I would simply say to him: Although it is not the great vehicle, it differs from the lesser vehicle. Although it is not the lesser vehicle, it differs from the great vehicle.

Suppose that person inquired again, “Ultimately, what is it?” I would say to him: Exhale and inhale are neither long nor short.

Someone asked Baizhang, “The Yogacarabhumi Shastra and the Jewel Necklace Sutra contain

the Mahayana precepts. Why don’t you practice according to them?” Baizhang said, “What I take as essential is not limited to the greater or lesser vehicles, and does not differ from the greater or lesser vehicles. I condense and combine the extensive scope [of regulations] to establish standards for appropriate conduct.”

Baizhang said it this way, but Eihei is certainly not like this. It is not the case that it is not limited to the great or small vehicles, or not different from the great or small vehicles. What is this small vehicle? The affairs of the donkey are not complete. What is this great vehicle? The affairs of the horse have already arrived. Not the extensive scope means the extremely great is the same as the small. Not condensed means the extremely small is the same as the great. I do not combine, but gallop over and drop away great and small. Already having accomplished this, how shall we go beyond?

After a pause Dogen said: When healthy and energetic we do zazen without falling asleep. When hungry we eat rice, and know we are fully satisfied.

We have spent a few weeks investigating the practice of taking and maintaining the 16 Bodhisattva precepts in the Soto Zen tradition. This is following on the heels of some our regulars having participated in jukai (receiving lay precepts/ordination) with our sister sangha up in Taos and their teacher, Ian Forsberg. I wished to go to our founding teacher in Japan, Eihei Dogen Zenji, to see what advice he had about the precepts. Some cursory research confirmed my impression that Dogen didn’t directly speak about the precepts all that much. He clearly outlined them and how to administer them in chapter 83 of the Shobogenzo, called simply “Jukai”. Beyond that, the references generally remain oblique.

For instance, in this wide-ranging case from Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, he drops an interesting reference to the precepts, but he curiously couches it in a discussion about breathing – that in true Dogen fashion, is hardly just about “breathing”.

In the zazen of patch-robed monks, first you should sit correctly with upright posture. Then regulate your breath and settle your mind. In the lesser vehicle originally there were two gateways, which were counting breaths and contemplating impurity. In the lesser vehicle, people used counting to regulate their breath.

Dogen Zenji gives a succinct lucid summary of our zazen practice right off the bat. Then he leads us right into weeds and tangled branches. “Lesser Vehicle” (Hinayana) can mean different things. The Buddhism that established itself in East Asia some centuries after the historical Buddha’s physical lifetime referred to itself as the “Great Vehicle” (Mahayana) as opposed to the earlier, “lesser” iteration which (in a nutshell) emphasized cutting off worldly attachments with the hope of getting “enlightened” in order to get off the perceived cyclical wheel of existence, or at least get a better “rebirth” to make that more likely in future.

Mahayanists are defined by their emphasis on practicing for the benefit of all beings, realizing that the very idea of self and other is highly conditioned and subjective. In other words, everybody or nobody. Hinayana as a reference to a specific school of Buddhism is generally considered pejorative today. Instead the term Theravada (“the elders path”) is used. In Tibetan Buddhism, Hinayana and Mahayana can refer to stages of practice and their associated techniques or concepts. I think both qualities are implied in Dogen’s use.

However, the buddha ancestor’s engaging of the way always differed from the lesser vehicle. A Buddha ancestor said, “Even if you arouse the mind of a leprous wild fox, never practice the self-regulation of the two vehicles.” The two vehicles refer to such as the school of the four-part Vinaya and the Abhidharma Kosa school, which have spread in the world these days.

Dogen immediately begins to point (with some urgency) beyond this “two vehicle” model, and its associated distinctions or emphases. The school of the four part Vinaya can mean practitioners who are overly obsessed with following the complex and stringent rules of conduct laid out for ordained monastics during the historical Buddha’s time; a sort of fundamentalist position. The Abhidharma Kosa school might be thought of as practitioners overly concerned with theory and maps of consciousness. We can find correlates in our own place and time, and in more familiar traditions.

In the Mahayana there is also a method for regulating breath, which is knowing that one breath is long, another breath is short. The breath reaches the tanden and comes up from the tanden. Although exhale and inhale differ, both of them occur depending on the tanden. Impermanence is easy to clarify, and regulating the mind is easy to accomplish.

These instructions will be familiar to many students of Zen (which is technically a form of Mahayana Buddhism): concentrating the energy in the abdomen (tanden), and utilizing diaphragmatic breathing to cultivate settledness, confidence, and clarity of mind. But Dogen doesn’t let us settle in believing these “Great Vehicle” techniques superior to the “Lesser Vehicle” ones.

My late teacher Tiantong said, “Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.”

Dogen reaches for the words of his teacher, who handily dismantles this idea of refuge in a fixed idea of breath. Where does breath come from? Where does it go to? In this deeper sense, how can we call any individual breath long or short? Tiantong Rujing posits the breath as a readily available koan, a living gateway to the mystery of Buddha.However, Dogen does not stop even here. He’s not interested in setting up another authority for you, or another bottom line – even from his own master.

My late teacher said it like that. Suppose someone were to ask Eihei, “Master, how do you regulate your breath?” I would simply say to him: Although it is not the great vehicle, it differs from the lesser vehicle. Although it is not the lesser vehicle, it differs from the great vehicle. Suppose that person inquired again, “Ultimately, what is it?” I would say to him: Exhale and inhale are neither long nor short.

Here Dogen pulls it all together, and also takes it all a bit more apart. The lesser and greater vehicles are not the same, nor are they different. Don’t stick, he says. Well, should I concentrate on breath? Can I take refuge in that? Don’t stick, he says. Then he lays out some more fly paper.

Someone asked Baizhang, “The Yogacarabhumi Shastra and the Jewel Necklace Sutra contain the Mahayana precepts. Why don’t you practice according to them?” Baizhang said, “What I take as essential is not limited to the greater or lesser vehicles, and does not differ from the greater or lesser vehicles. I condense and combine the extensive scope [of regulations] to establish standards for appropriate conduct.”

This is the reference to the precepts. Basically, the student is asking the teacher, “this famous text authoritatively presents especially ennobling and liberating rules of conduct. Shouldn’t we just follow those? Won’t that do?” As with defining the breath or being subject to the differing schools, Dogen quotes this eminent ancestor who says, don’t stick. Use what works, in context. Importantly though, the example here isn’t just “do what you want.” Rather, this discussion is occurring among people who already have recognized the greatness of their traditions and ancestors, and fully taken refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This isn’t antinomianism. These are devoted people suggesting that we establish ourselves in practice, then use our common sense and not get stuck in dogma. But lest we get stuck even here

Baizhang said it this way, but Eihei is certainly not like this. It is not the case that it is not limited to the great or small vehicles, or not different from the great or small vehicles. What is this small vehicle? The affairs of the donkey are not complete. What is this great vehicle? The affairs of the horse have already arrived. Not the extensive scope means the extremely great is the same as the small. Not condensed means the extremely small is the same as the great. I do not combine, but gallop over and drop away great and small. Already having accomplished this, how shall we go beyond?

After a pause Dogen said: When healthy and energetic we do zazen without falling asleep. When hungry we eat rice, and know we are fully satisfied.

Of course, Dogen wants to liberate us even from this idea of liberation. I will let these final words stand on their own. I feel like they go straight to the place beyond words, galloping over and through them. I don’t know about you, but they just make me want to practice. I imagine this was precisely the point.

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