The Tracks of the Ox
An excerpt from a talk given July 6, 1982
…Whichever theme you focus on, be earnest with it, keeping mindfulness in constant touch with the work you are doing. For example, if you’re focusing on the repetition of buddho, keep constantly aware of the word buddho, buddho, as if there were nothing else left in the world for you to become two with this or three with that. There is only one thing: the word buddho blending step by step with your awareness. As the mind becomes more and more still, the buddho you are repeating will more and more blend into one with your awareness. Then the word buddho, buddho will fall silent, leaving only an awareness that’s more conspicuous than before. This means that you’ve reached the mind. To put it in terms of following the tracks of an ox, you’ve reached the ox and can let go of its tracks. Here you’ve reached the inner buddha, which is like the ox, so now you can let go of the meditation word.
The same holds true if you focus on keeping the breath in mind. Whether the breath is heavy or refined, simply be aware of it as it normally is. Don’t set up any expectations. Don’t force the breath to be like this or that. Keep your awareness with the breath, because in meditating by taking the breath as your preoccupation, you’re not after the breath. The breath is simply something for the mind to hold to so that you can reach the real thing, just as when you follow the tracks of an ox: You’re not after the tracks of the ox. You follow its tracks because you want to reach the ox. Here you’re keeping track of the breath so as to reach the real thing: awareness. If you were to start out just by holding on to awareness, you wouldn’t get any results, just as you wouldn’t be sure of finding the ox if you simply went around looking for it. But if you follow its tracks, you’re going to find it for sure. Your meditation word has to keep moving in. This is called following the tracks of the ox step by step until you reach the ox, or what knows: namely the mind.
The same holds true with focusing on the breath. If it’s heavy, know that it’s heavy. Don’t get worried or upset about it, and don’t be afraid that you’ll die because the breath is heavy or because you feel suffocated. When you do heavy work, you feel suffocated—don’t think that you feel suffocated only when focusing on the breath. There are a lot of other things more suffocating than this. If you carry a post or lift something heavy, you feel suffocated to death all over the body, not just in the chest or in the breath. The whole body is ready to burst because of the heaviness and great pain, and yet you can take it. You even know that it’s because of the heavy object, and that’s the way it has to be.
While you focus on keeping the breath in mind when the breath is coarse, it’s as if you were lifting something heavy. It’s naturally bound to feel suffocating, so don’t worry about it. Even if it’s suffocating, the important point is to keep track of the breath coming in and out. Eventually the breath will become more and more refined, because mindfulness is focused on the breath and doesn’t go anywhere else. When the breath goes in, be aware of it. When it goes out, be aware of it, but there’s no need to follow it in and out. That would simply be creating a greater burden for yourself, and your attention might slip away. So focus right on the entry point where the breath goes in and out. In most cases, the tip of the nose is the place to focus on the breath. Keep watch right there. Keep aware right there. Don’t waste your time speculating or planning on how the results will appear, or else your mind will wander away from the principle of the cause that will give rise to those results. Keep close watch on the cause—what you are doing —and the breath will become more and more refined.
When the breath becomes more refined, that shows that the mind is refined. Even if the breath becomes so refined that it disappears—at the same time that you’re aware that it’s disappearing—don’t be afraid. The breath disappears, but your awareness doesn’t disappear. You’re meditating not for the sake of the breath, but for the sake of awareness, so stay with that awareness. You don’t have to worry or be afraid that you’ll faint or die. As long as the mind is still in charge of the body, then even if the breath disappears, you won’t die. The mind will dwell with freedom, with no agitation, no worries, no fears at all. This is how you focus on the breath.