If you have ever testified in a court of law, you have sworn an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And as you may have discovered, that is a tall order. Even if we are trying our best to be honest, our best intentions may be at odds with imperfect memory, the slipperiness of language, and the inherent complexity of human affairs. “The whole truth,” if it exists at all, may be well beyond our comprehension or powers of expression.
In practicing Zen meditation, we also seek the whole truth, though our means are not primarily verbal. Rather than talk, we endeavor to realize ultimate truth through a variety of practices, one of the most essential being that of conscious breathing. Coming home to our breath, time and again, we embody the truth of our lives in general and three kinds of truth in particular.
The truth of unmediated experience
In his book Moon by the Window (Wisdom, 2011), Zen master Shodo Harada coins the term “the ego filter” to describe the lens through which we ordinarily view ourselves and the world. The moon by the window, he reminds us, is always “the same moon.” Not so our perceptions of the moon, which are colored by our preconceptions, judgments, and other forms of conceptual thinking. We filter our experience through such dualistic concepts as “good” and “bad,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” and especially “self” and “other.” However useful or necessary, those concepts mediate between our minds and the objects of our awareness.
By returning to our breathing, we cut through the ego filter. We merge our awareness with our immediate experience. Although we might employ such conceptual tools as counting our breaths or naming their qualities (shallow or deep, coarse or smooth, etc.), our general aim is to become fully aware of each breath, from beginning to end, and eventually to rest in that awareness. With practice, we learn to recognize the impulse, common among practitioners, to manipulate our breathing or judge a particular method as “right” or “wrong.” And, no less important, we learn to observe the disparity between our conceptions and our actual, unmediated experience. Those are valuable insights, which we can carry into our everyday lives.
The truth of radical impermanence
Few realities are more apparent than the fact of change. Unless we are living in a dream, we know that children grow up, friends grow old, and meetings end in partings. Yet all too often the reality of radical impermanence—the fact that everything is changing, moment by moment—escapes our conscious notice.
By sitting quietly and monitoring our breathing, we directly encounter that reality. The “impermanence of all conditioned things,” as Zen teachings put it, becomes a felt experience. No two breaths, we discover, are quite the same. Breath by breath, the texture, depth, and other qualities of our breathing fluctuate, often in response to thoughts arising or feelings passing through us. Grounded though we are in awareness, we witness a stream of ever-shifting sensations, feelings, thoughts, and mental formations. Thich Nhat Hanh likens this state to that of a pebble resting on a river bed.
To novice practitioners, the direct experience of radical impermanence may be unnerving. It can feel as if the bottom is dropping out. For those who persist, however, that experience can be profoundly liberating. Having intimately observed the impermanence of our breath, our bodies, and our most cherished thoughts and feelings, and having realized that ultimately there is nothing substantial to grasp or claim as our own, we can begin to release our resistance to change and our habitual attachments.
The truth of receiving and offering
“Breathe in with gratitude,” exhorts the Zen teacher Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “breathe out with love. Receiving and offering—this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.”
In popular images of Zen meditation, the practice is often portrayed as a solitary activity. The Zen disciple sits cross-legged and alone. In reality, however, Zen practice is intrinsically relational. Breathing in, we cultivate gratitude, principally for the gift of “this precious human life” but also for the untold forms of sustenance we receive from other sentient beings, past and present. Breathing out, in a spirit of selfless love, we let go of the “ego filter” and offer whatever stability, clarity, and wisdom, and compassion we have managed to cultivate. Literally as well as symbolically, the act of breathing embodies this continuing exchange.
Unlike witnesses in a trial, committed Zen practitioners do not take oaths, but they do take what are known as the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. “However innumerable beings are,” reads the first, “I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.” As impossible of achievement as it is noble in aspiration, this vow epitomizes the spirit of Zen practice.
Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “What is Zen?” Zen Center of Syracuse website.
The translation of the first Bodhisattva Vow quoted above has been attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh. That vow is more commonly translated as “However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all.”