Six Dharma Gates To the Sublime- Counting Breaths

Zhiyi, Chih-I

Six Dharma Gates To the Sublime- Counting Breaths

By Rev. Enkei Joseph Mendyka

It’s anger management 101–close your eyes and count to 10. It turns out this might be helpful for for all kinds of destructive and delusional mental states, though. Beyond anger, it can be used for pride management and lust management and jealousy management. For some who have struggled with very difficult pain and addiction, this sometimes cliche pop psychology prescription is less panacea and more placebo.  In considering how Zhiyi discusses the role of this practice, we can come to a greater appreciation for how to employ this contemplative tool.

 

At its most basic level, counting the breath is an act meant to still the mind and calm the breath flow.

 

Breathing in, 1…

 

Breathing out, 2…

 

Up to 10, back down to 1. Up and down, up and down.

 

Zhiyi writes in chapter 4, “The Six Gates According To Counteraction,” “when the mind scatters vertically and laterally–when this is so extreme that it is difficult to keep track of it–it is then that the practitioner should employ the gate of “counting.””

 

We have all been there. The stress of school, work, parenting, relationships…it sends the mind racing. This type of stress creates a windy condition in the mind and in the body. We may flow from racing thoughts to strong cravings to outbursts of anger at a loved one or stranger. We feel out of control–exhausted and at the same to time unable to rest. We might feel exhilarated with manic energy but also foggy and ineffective. The course of the mind is varying and relentless.

 

Sometimes when I get like this, I think to myself, “I need a retreat or vacation or, hell! I’d take a strong drink at lunchtime!” The mind in extreme disturbance looks for extreme relief. Over time, intensive interventions may be necessary to recover from acute stress and shock. Moving from one extreme to the other can be dangerous, though. Have you ever seen a piece of glass or metal be moved from a fire or forge into cold water and shatter? The mind can crack up like this, too. Rather than slamming on the breaks, try just slowing down first.

 

This isn’t about going from hungry ghost or angry god to bodhisattva on the turn of a dime. The cravings and anger don’t disappear, nor do you “gain control” over them. That’s where the modern interpretation of this practice can go wrong. Counting can’t suppress emotions like a magic phrase. There is no abracadabra for what you’re feeling. There is only awareness of the arising, abiding and ceasing appearance of experience.

 

Count breaths don’t make the emotions go away. Instead, the practice gives you the space to become a calmer, gentler version of yourself. You can become the person who sees your neuroses as they unfold and starts to make choices, rather than only being driven by emotions and obsessive thoughts. This practice is a process of mental and emotional cultivation that allows you to ease into peace without pretending to believe heady notions like “we’re all one” or “my thoughts and feelings are all an illusion.” When the mind is out of control like this, trying to cultivate the non-dual can be an act of aggression that denies your present reality. Right now, you don’t need luminous spaciousness. You need solid ground and order. No worries!

 

Breathing in, 1…

 

Breathing out, 2…

 

Up to 10, back down to 1. Up and down, up and down.

 

If you think this all seems a bit elementary, you’re in good company. In the classical Buddhist view, this practice is considered a coarse and rudimentary entry into mindfulness. For instance, Visuddhimagga, a 5th century Therāvadan meditation manual that shares the same six step meditation course with our present text, lists this as the first step in developing śamatha. However, Zhiyi used the single-vehicle lens of the Lotus Sūtra to provide a deeper interpretation. The Six Dharma Gates To the Sublime focuses primarily on using the six practices to engage in the first of Zhiyi’s Threefold Contemplation–entering into the ultimate from the provisional. The last several chapters, though, consider the latter two meditations. Starting with chapter 7, “The Six Gates In Terms of Reversed Orientation,” Zhiyi discusses how to use these practices to enter back into the provisional from the ultimate–seeing the truth of emptiness through interacting with the world. This is the unique path of the bodhisattva whose orientation to practice is the reverse of the practice of cessation pursued by the śrāvaka or pratyeka-buddha. Later chapters examine how this practice leads to a realization that all phenomena emanate from original mind and, more precisely, that all phenomena reflect the reality of all other phenomena through the contemplation of the Middle. This latter point is discussed in chapter 9, “The Six Gates According To Perfect Contemplation.”

 

Perhaps this sounds a bit far-fetched for simply noticing the breath and counting to 10 along with it. However, as Zhiyi points out, the power of the Mahāyāna begins with the commitment of the practitioner to explore the truth of emptiness through encounter with beings. “Even at that very time in which one is engaged in the counting of the breaths, one should generate the great vow and abide in compassion for beings.” We witness the truth of this observation from the moment that we make the choice to wrangle in the Monkey Mind and count the breaths. The momentum of the Bodhisattva Vow carries us through in times of distress, erupting through our story lines of victimization and malice. Like the lotus from the swamp, it blossoms out of this darkness to create a thought of beauty.

 

From that standpoint, counting the breath is not just a hopelessly cliche attempt at self-improvement. It is a courageous act of saving the world from the inside out. It is the first step in taking responsibility for suffering in this world. What’s more, the Lotus Sūtra teaches us that by taking this first step, you are taking the final step. You are demonstrating to yourself that you have always been arriving at bodhi. The insightful, powerful you that chooses to count the breath is the perfectly enlightened Buddha, present since beginningless time, manifesting as your choice to count the breath, spread peace, and grow in compassion for yourself and others.

 

Breathing in, 1…

 

Breathing out, 2…

 

Up to 10, back down to 1. Up and down, up and down.

 

Quotes for this selection were extracted from:

Zhiyi, and Dharmamitra. The six dharma gates to the sublime: a classic meditation manual on traditional Indian Buddhist meditation. Seattle, WA: Kalavinka Press, 2009.

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