There are many good methods of concentration bequeathed to us by our predecessors in Zen. The easiest for beginners is counting incoming and outgoing breaths. The value of this particular exercise lies in the fact that all reasoning is excluded and the discriminative mind put at rest. Thus the waves of thought are stilled and a gradual one-pointedness of mind achieved. To start with, count both inhalations and exhalations. When you inhale concentrate on “one”; when you exhale, on “two”; and so on, up to ten. Then you return to “one” and once more count up to ten, continuing as before. If you lose the count, return to “one.” It is as simple as that.

Counting Fish, Wang Fang Yu, 1980
Counting Fish, Wang Fang Yu, 1980

As I have previously pointed out, fleeting thoughts which naturally fluctuate in the mind are not in themselves an impediment. This unfortunately is not commonly recognized. Even among Japanese who have been practicing Zen for five years or more there are many who misunderstand Zen practice to be a stopping of consciousness. There is indeed a kind of zazen meditation that aims at doing just this, but it is not the traditional zazen of Zen Buddhism. You must realize that no matter how intently you count your breaths you will still perceive what is in your line of vision, since your eyes are open, and you will hear the normal sounds about you, as your ears are not plugged. And since your brain likewise is not asleep, various thoughtforms will dart about in your mind. Now, they will not hamper or diminish the effectiveness of zazen unless, evaluating them as “good,” you cling to them or, deciding they are “bad,” you try to check or eliminate them. You must not regard any perceptions or sensations as an obstruction to zazen, nor should you pursue any of them. I emphasize this. “Pursuit” simply means that in the act of seeing, your gaze lingers on objects; in the course of hearing, your attention dwells on sounds; and in the process of thinking, your mind adheres to ideas. If you allow yourself to be distracted in such ways, your concentration on the counting of your breaths will be impeded. To recapitulate: let random thoughts arise and vanish as they will, do not dally with them and do not try to expel them, but merely concentrate all your energy on counting the inhalations and exhalations of your breath.

Excerpted from“The Three Pillars of Zen,”by Roshi Philip Kapleau, with permission from Anchor Books.

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