II. Inner Skill

The ABC’s of the Breath

September 27, 1957

There are three important parts to meditating: thinking, awareness, and the breath. All three of these parts have to be kept right together at all times. Don’t let any one of them come loose from the others. ‘Thinking’ refers to thinking ‘buddho’ together with the breath. ‘Awareness’ means knowing the breath as it goes in and out. Only when thinking and awareness are kept fastened constantly with the breath can you say that you’re meditating.

The in-and-out breath is the most important part of the body. In other words, (1) it’s like the earth, which acts as the support for all the various things in the world. (2) It’s like the joists or girders that hold up a floor and keep it sturdy. (3) It’s like a board or a sheet of paper: When we think ‘bud-’ with an in-breath, it’s as if we rubbed our hand once across a board; and when we think ‘dho’ with an out-breath, it’s as if we rubbed the board once again. Each time we rub the board, some of the dust is bound to stick to our hand, so if we keep rubbing it back and forth, the board is going to become glossy. When it’s very glossy, it’ll be so clear that we can see our reflection in it. These are the results that come from our thinking. But if we go rubbing hit-or-miss, we won’t be able to see our reflection even in a mirror, much less in a board.

In another sense, the breath is like a piece of paper. When we think ‘bud-’ in with the breath, it’s as if we took a pencil and wrote a letter of the alphabet on a piece of paper. If we keep doing this, eventually we’ll be able to read what we’ve written. But if our mind doesn’t stay constantly with the breath, it’s as if we wrote sometimes right and sometimes wrong. The letters we’d write would be a mess and wouldn’t even be letters. No matter how large our piece of paper might be, the whole thing would be a mess. We wouldn’t be able to read what letters we had written or what they were supposed to say.

If we’re intent, though, and think of the breath as a piece of paper, we’ll write down whatever message we want on the paper and know for ourselves what we’ve written. For example, thinking ‘bud-’ is like taking a pen to our paper. It’ll give us knowledge. Even after we’ve stopped writing, we’ll still benefit. But if we’re not really intent on our writing, our letters won’t be letters. If we draw a picture of a person, it won’t be a person. If we draw an animal, it won’t be an animal.

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When we start learning to write, we have to use chalk because it’s big, easy to write with and easy to erase. This is like thinking ‘buddho.’ Once we advance in our studies, we start using a pencil because its mark is clear and longer-lasting. For example, the sentence, ‘Where’s Dad?’ is a piece of knowledge. If we can only read the separate letters, ‘W’ or ‘D’, it doesn’t really count as knowledge. So we then throw away our chalk. In other words, we don’t have to repeat ‘buddho.’ We use our powers of evaluation (vicāra) to see, as we’re breathing: Is the in-breath good? Is the out-breath good? What kind of breathing is comfortable? What kind of breathing isn’t?

Then we correct and adjust the breath. Pick out whichever way of breathing seems good and then observe it to see if it gives comfort to the body. If it does, keep that sense of comfort steady and put it to use. When it’s really good, benefits will arise, perfecting our knowledge. Once we’ve obtained knowledge, we can erase the pencil marks in our notebooks because we’ve seen the benefits that come from what we’ve done. When we go back home, we can take our knowledge with us and make it our homework. We can do it on our own at home; and when we stay at the monastery, we can keep at it constantly.

So the breath is like a piece of paper, the mind is like a person, knowledge is like a note: Even just this much can serve as our standard. If we’re intent on just these three things—thinking, awareness, and the breath—we’ll give rise to knowledge within ourselves that has no fixed limits and can’t possibly be told to anyone else.