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As we know, in soto-shu we don't count nor observe the breath during zazen.

I would like people who have a long experience with zazen meditation to explain if they consider that counting and observing the breath was helpful to progress in their meditation practice or not. Should a beginner start with counting breathing rather then go straight into shikantaza practice ?

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In my practice at a Soto Zen center, I was never instructed not to count breaths; it seemed to be well accepted as a valuable beginner's practice. I personally found it very helpful, as I would go from 1 to 10, starting over from 1 if I lost track. You'd think that counting to 10 would be easy, but I've had times when I couldn't even make it past 1. It's just so very boring. That, for me is the key utility of the practice, as otherwise I find myself indulging in trains of thought and sensation without even realizing I'm doing it. The counting is artificial and a crutch, but my mind can't be trusted to operate well unattended.


In response to the comment, here are a few more thoughts.

The center where I sat was in the US, so it could be that the style of teaching is somewhat different. Here is an article where Shunryū Suzuki-rōshi answered a question regarding counting the breath vs. shinkantaza (at the very top in response to Student A); his answer was that there was not much difference. He does say that counting isn't really easier though, since to do the practice properly, you have to count with your whole body. He does slightly distinguish breath counting practice from shinkantaza (not 'much' difference), but the sense I get is that when you truly practice it correctly, they are essentially the same.

I was also told that shinkantaza does not stop when you get up from the cushion, perhaps suggesting we shouldn't get too attached to the 'sitting' part (or, perhaps, having a body to sit with?)

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  • Thank you Dan, I asked because in the soto-shu temples (I live in Japan) they always say not to observe breath but really just to sit strictly in the position and avoid following our train of thought. While doing the formal posture of zazen, where/how do you observe your breath? Belly? Nose? Do you keep your eyes opened as required? Maintaining the strict posture require already such a need of concentration that I was wondering if it was not "too much" to count breath on top of this...(?)
    – BlackSwing
    Oct 2 '14 at 2:26
  • @RaphaelTokyo, I added a bit more to the answer, including a link to a talk with Shunryū Suzuki-rōshi. I was taught to keep eyes half open. We would also maintain a mudra with the hands; the pressure of the thumbs (too little or too much) is a nice indicator of whether you are over-relaxed or excessively tense. The breath was fair game as a way to help keep centered, but really the practice was to be present for everything. When breathing, breathe. When counting, count. If drifting out of balance, notice, correct and continue.
    – Dan Bryant
    Oct 2 '14 at 13:09
  • I prefer to count to fifty in five groups of ten, and if I lose count anywhere I have to go back to the beginning. When the mind is being unruly this is a tough discipline and on a bad day it can take a long time. It's a warm-up only but I find it immensely useful. @BlackSwing - Just me but I prefer watching at the nose, and to have eyes closed. Practices vary. As Dan notes, our lives are 24/7 and we can't always be siting and counting. .
    – user14119
    Jun 19 '19 at 11:06
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My experience with "formal" zazen comes from meditating at a local Korean Zen meditation center, for about two years, twice a week, two hours each time. Plus some meditation at home.

In my experience, counting breaths is useful on those days when the mind is very distracted with mental chatter / inner gossip.

There seems to be a progression here: from counting by mentally saying the numbers, to counting on phalanges, to simply watching the breathing, to watching the mind, to just sitting.

For beginner, "just sitting" is an impossible feat. So rather than lying to oneself and pretending to "just sit" while instead indulging in thinking, one is advised to watch the mind ("don't go with thoughts, don't go against the thoughts"). If that still does not work, one should watch the inhales and exhales, in the hope to see the emotional disturbances that the thoughts come from, and let those go. If the mind is so disturbed that one can't even follow the breath, then counting breaths is used as last resort to tie up the discursive mind.

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  • I'm new here and really benefit from your answers. I don't know if you ever saw "When Harry Met Sally" in the great scene in the deli with the attendant remark: I want what she's having. In that regard, perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me what your path/practice is if it's not an imposition. Thanks. With kind regards,
    – user20360
    Jan 9 at 19:12
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    Hello there. No I have not seen the movie. I am mostly self-taught, drawing on a wide spectrum of Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions I've met through my reading, plus a number of live encounters with Tibetan lamas and several years of live meditation practice under a Korean Zen master.
    – Andrei Volkov
    Jan 9 at 22:14
  • Thanks for your kind reply. It's actually quite an amusing scene if I may. Harry and Sally the two romantic personae are in a deli, and she contends that she can fake an orgasm - which she does quite effectively. A waiter approaches another customer (decidedly advanced in her years) and asks what she will have; to which she replied: I want what she's having.
    – user20360
    Jan 9 at 22:27
  • Well in this case the metaphor holds with minor tweaking. Inspired by all those ideas and encounters I did learn to orgasm on my own, in a manner of speaking, so wanting what I'm having is totally appropriate ;)
    – Andrei Volkov
    Jan 9 at 22:36
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I'd like to give my view on that topic, even if the question is already old. I started sitting at a martial arts dojo once in a month without any sect or tradition. The second pillar was a book from Sekida ("Zen-Training" in german). He suggested to count your breath and while I was sitting mostly alone at home and had no real training, even at that dojo, I followed that advice and it worked very well for me.

I have to admit, since know, I haven't sit regular. It was something like "a few days in a row" than a few days not. Over time I stopped practice and started again.

Now I sit with Soto-Shu once a week and every day at home. We do Shikantaza. With the random training before I was able to adopt that way quickly. But when it comes to long periods or I have a troubled mind, I go back to counting my breath, just to stay on track. I do two or three cycle and then stop counting again.

While I see the help breath-counting brings for concentration, I found for myself, that with enough training, I can count in a half conscious part of my brain, while thinking about other things in a different part. I still now the next count and I still restart after ten. Just training.

And for me, there is always the danger of counting breath as a measurement of how long I still have to sit, since my breath is deep and low and of quite stable frequency. In my consideration that is just as unuseful as daydreaming.

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For last two years i am practicing Vipasana meditation and by observing the process of breath. I am work-ably become thoughtless during meditation and helpful even any time for few seconds or a minute or two whenever i do it before doing anything even drinking water. After observing a single breath, I do not talk a single word. This practice helped me a lot. my problem is to get back through to only sit, and nothing else than sitting. i have no clue. Will you help me. You may contactt me on beyondheaven@gmail.com

Spiritually yours
     Sujan, an youngman of 81 years.  
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I started my zen practice with shikantaza. For a beginner, I would say I was doing really good. After 6 months, I got great personal transformation out of it.

Unfortunately, this small win caused me to slip and get lazy with the zen practice - I was looking for a shortcut. I started to think if I need any practice at all. This caused me to slip big and I was at square one after another 6 months.

When I had another attempt at it, it didn't went as good as with the beginning. I think I was doing the practice wrong, I thought I was doing it ok, but I was actually thinking a lot and I was not even that aware of it. It became a bad a habit. I lacked the ability to separate myself from my thoughts and trying to do an intense focus somehow mixed with those thoughts and it fueled a sort of negative energy state.

After realizing that mistake, I started the breath counting. And it was good, because I could easily benchmark whether I'm doing meditation right or not.

However, I was frustrated that sometimes I just can't hold my attention. I'm supposed to be counting, but I'm sinking in thoughts (I work as a software developer, my job requires me to think a lot). And then I reminded myself of shikantaza. And I felt it's just easier to focus. It's easier to stay present during the practice. I could cut thoughts at the first word rather than just observing thoughts. And this time I could tell if I was present and I could tell if I got distracted by thought.

I think that shikantaza is a more powerful method in our world full of distraction - but the practice of shikantaza is like a double edged sword, because unlike breath counting, it has no objective way to tell if you are doing it well or not. A person that is doing shikantaza well, knows it, but a person that is doing shikantaza wrong, thinks he/she's doing well. It's similar to how when you are awake, you know this is not a dream, but when you dream, you may think you are awake.

I think, doing breath counting for the first 6 months, then switching to shikantaza may be a good strategy - but then be really careful if you are really alert and objective. And if you think you were alert the entire session when you are just getting started, it's very likely you were unconscious the entire session. Also don't overdo it. After the session, relax. Try to be present, but relax. It's not possible to maintain that intense focus indefinitely.

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