Breathing the Dharma Activity
by Zen teacher Eshu Martin
This activity, this practice of taking up a posture, bringing our bodies and our hearts and our minds into this moment as we pay attention to the activity of our breath, it’s a simple thing to do. From the perspective of dharma practice we’re not just looking at the activity of our breath. We are watching. We’re observing. We are viscerally experiencing the activity of this universe. Breathing in, we experience the activity of birth. When we are born, when we first come out of our mother’s womb, we don’t talk about being born.
We don’t talk about being alive until we witness, until we experience that first breath. When we’re parents we know that there is no relief, there is no true joy, we’re kind of holding our own breath until we hear the result of that first great inhalation, “WAAAAAAAAAA!!!” ahhh, the baby’s been born, finally!
Likewise, when we exhale, after having completely inhaled, after reaching the completion of the birth activity, we experience the activity of exhalation, or as it’s classically put; the dying activity. Just as when we lie in our deathbed, hopefully for all of us as very old people, the last thing that we do is this dying breath…hhhhhaaaaaaaaa… Ok, he’s dead.
So this activity that we’re engaged in all the time when we’re sitting, there’s all kinds of things happening, but fundamentally we are aimed at observing this activity which is the activity of all things in this universe. This activity of arising from an experience of completion, non-duality if you like. No separation. My teacher called it “zero”. The manifestation of true love.
In this position, there is no subject. There is no object. There is nothing to be talked about. There is nothing to do the talking. In classical Buddhism we talk about this as the manifestation of sunyata, emptiness. But all things are impermanent, just as if we just sit without breathing, we can try it for a little while but eventually in this state of breathlessness, the in breath naturally occurs. We are born into this body. We can feel the physical manifestation of the activity of birth, the plus activity. The self arises together with all things in this universe, together with every body in the zendo, together with the smell of the flowers and the incense, the sound of the fans, the physical sensation of the air moving around us, all born together, and our practice is to witness it, to observe the arising of all things in diversity, the birth activity.
As we continue to breathe in, we come to this place of fulfillment. We get as big as we can. We experience what it is to be complete as an individual, as self, as I. Having completely reached fulfillment, we can continue to try to breathe in if you want but inevitably, no matter how deeply you breathe in, there comes a point where we can no longer breathe in and naturally the breath turns and we begin to experience the activity of dissolution, dissolving, the death activity. Our practice is to witness this, not just as a philosophical concept, not just as an idea, not just as a neat observation but as a physical experience in our bodies. We observe, pay attention to, and are aware throughout the activity of breathing in and breathing out.
Having completely exhaled, we find ourselves once again at zero. The resting place. Subject and object dissolve. But again, we cannot stay and this activity begins again – birth (inhaling) and death (exhaling).
So many people come to Buddhism and one of the first questions that they want to ask about is this teaching of rebirth, and it’s a big mystery and it’s a difficult thing to understand. And yet, this activity of rebirth is something that each of us experiences personally, experiences on a gut level in every moment that we live, in every interaction that we have, in every relationship, in every environment, in every circumstance. We find that as we walk, as we enter into this moment, this moment arises anew, born fresh and we are born together with it. There is nowhere else to be. And as we walk through each moment we find that as we walk through it, it manifests simultaneously the death activity. There can be no holding on to it. There can be no holding back. There can be no saving of this moment that we’re living.
So in many ways, this activity that we engage in this activity of witnessing and experiencing the breath, the unfolding of the activity of this universe, the Dharma, is waking up to the realization that this moment is the content of our lives and that there is nowhere else for us to be.