I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on November 19, 2020. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
This Case 27 in The Blue Cliff Record, one of our koan collections:
A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yun Men said, “Body exposed in the Golden Wind.”
I meditate each day in an attic office. My cushion is placed near a small dormer window. The top of a giant tree hovers just outside. Its leaves were turning gold and crimson a few weeks ago, shortly after I last spoke during one of our evening sits. One morning the wind stirred up while I was meditating. I could hear the leaves shaking loose from the tree’s branches and rustling in the air, before falling to the ground.
I knew then that I wanted this talk to be about breathing in Zen practice. Most of us begin Zen practice by counting our breath.
Many people tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental practice. Early on, and despite the guidance we receive from teachers and experienced Zen students, most of us apply great mental effort trying to rid ourselves of mental activity, as if thoughts are bad and meditation were about banishing them completely. Perhaps the ancient Buddhist texts we encounter, which often use the term Mind (with a capital “m”) as a synonym for the Absolute or Emptiness, contribute to this confusion.
It’s true that counting the breath early in Zen practice is a way to use one type of mental activity to tame another. The idea at that point in our practice is to substitute a relaxed, focused form of mental activity for the frenetic, loop-de-loop sort of mental activity in which so many of us spend much of our lives lost. But that’s not because loop-do-loop, this-that mind is “bad” and must be suppressed completely. It’s just that it tends to be our default mode; we tend to get stuck there without realizing this is the frame of mind that sustains the illusion of separateness that causes so much needless suffering.
That frame of mind is like living alone in a castle in the sky, standing in front of a mirror in that castle, having a conversation with oneself about the world, without realizing its an extended monologue about figments of our imagination. We think we’re making real contact with the world, but we’re not.
Breath practice helps us gently disengage from that frame of mind just enough to begin stepping back from the mirror. It helps us exit the castle, at least for a while. It’s a first step along a new path that Zen invites us to travel.
As we travel this path, the castle recedes toward the horizon . . . and yet it’s also right here, and we can instantly find ourselves back in it. That’s fine. Now we know how to find the door to someplace more spacious if we find ourselves jabbering into the mirror again.
Eventually, we can let go of breath practice and just sit shikintaza, which is a rather formless form of meditation practice. From here, the path opens wider and wider, in every direction. It becomes an infinite field; one that manifests in and as our experience of life, right here, right now.
As our meditation experience shifts in this way, we might begin to relate to our breath differently. While counting the breath, it’s pretty hard not to control it, much as I might imagine or intend otherwise. When I stop breath counting practice, I’ll still become conscious of my breath from time to time, but I’ll be much more likely to feel as if my breath is breathing me, rather than the other way around. To experience just breathing.
All day long, and all through the night, breathing just happens, without willing it to happen. I don’t even notice this most of the time. As we take up meditation practice, we use this everyday, mostly unconscious aspect of our creaturely experience to reground our awareness; to coax it back to the here and now.
So, although many people wrongly tend to regard meditation primarily as a mental discipline, it’s fundamentally an embodied practice and experience. In fact, it’s a practice that tends to collapse the distinction between body and mind; our mind-body dualism.
Some of us may have a sudden, profoundly transforming experience during meditation, or as a result of it—kenshō, a direct experience of emptiness. Master Dōgen described his own kenshō experience as “dropping off body and mind,” not as a mental experience. Whether or one has a sudden experience of body and mind dropping off, however, that same realization tends to soak into us over years of consistent Zen practice, like a tree soaking up water through its roots.
In the koan with which I opened, Yunmen’s student is using the familiar Chinese metaphor of a withering tree and falling leaves to ask his old teacher what it’s like to age and approach death. Yunmen responds with another familiar Chinese metaphor, the Golden Wind—the wind that carries the autumn leaves away.
There’s a lovely Chinese myth about a cow herder and a weaver girl, whose love was forbidden. (I suppose Romeo and Juliet is our Western equivalent.) These lovers are banished, as stars, to opposite ends of the Milky Way. Once a year, as Spring and Summer, the periods of birth and growth, give way to Fall and Winter, the periods of decline and death, a flock of magpies forms a sky bridge, allowing them to meet for a day.
There are many poems about this myth, one of which contains this beautiful line:
One meeting of the Cowherd and Weaver amidst the golden autumn wind and jade-glistening dew, eclipses the countless meetings in the mundane world.
As the wind kicked up during my morning sit a few weeks ago, a thought passed by with the leaves levitating just outside: What is the wind, if not my own breath?
The wind is my breath, your breath, and old Yunmen’s breath.
And we are autumn’s leaves carried by that wind. And we are the sapplings that will sprout from soil nourished by those leaves, their roots soaking up Spring’s jade-glistening dew.
Through our practice, we find our place, and our peace, as vulnerable, noble, embodied beings, exposed in the Golden Wind.