The principle is single-minded practice with a pure heart. One does not seek proof or verification – it will come by itself.
Generally, beginners suffer from two problems: oblivion and distraction. There is a way to settle them, which is simply resting the mind on the breath.
In Chinese, the word breath is made up of the character for self and the character for heart/mind; so the breath is one’s own mind breathing. When the mind stirs, there is movement of energy. Energy is basically activity of the mind. Our thoughts are fitful and restless; the mind is wandering every single moment, with inhalation and exhalation responding to it like sound and echo. Every day we draw ten-thousand breaths and have equal number of random thoughts. As the self-illuminating energy leaks away, one gradually becomes like a withered tree or dead ashes.
So should one have no thoughts? It is impossible to have no thoughts. Should one not breathe? It is impossible not to breathe. Nothing compares to making the affliction itself into medicine, which means to have mind and breath rest on each other.
Therefore we should coordinate turning the light around with tuning the breath. This method totally involves activating the light of the ears. There is the light of the eyes and there is the light of the ears. The light of the eyes means unified light of the external sun and moon, while the light of the ears means unified essence of the internal sun and moon. Essence is stabilized and crystallized light. Essence and light have the same source but different names. So clarity of hearing and clarity of seeing are one, and both coming from the same spiritual light.
When you sit down, you lower the eyelids, and establish a point of reference. Now let go. But it is not absolutely let go – you are listening to the soundless sound of your breathing.
You should not let your breathing be audible; keep it silent and just listen to its soundlessness. If it is audible, it means your breathing is too shallow and coarse, not refined enough. Just be patient, slow down and lighten up. The more you let go, the subtler it becomes. And the subtler it is, the quieter it becomes.
Eventually, after a long time, all of a sudden this subtlety will be interrupted, true breathing manifests itself, and the mind-body is perceptible. When the mind is light, the breathing is subtle; when the mind is unified, the energy flows smoothly. When the breathing is subtle, the mind is light; when the energy is unified, the mind breathes at ease. Stabilization of the mind must be approached by cultivating breath-energy first, otherwise there is no way to tame the mind. So breath-energy is used as a tool, and the practice is called maintaining pure breath-energy.
You may not truly understand the meaning of movement. Movement is pulling the strings; it is another word for control. If you can move the mind by pulling, shouldn’t you also be able to bring it to rest by quietude and tranquility?
子辈不明动字, 动者以线索牵动言, 即掣字之别名也。即可以奔趋使之动, 独不可以纯静使之宁乎。
The sages who realized the interrelation of mind and breath-energy skillfully set up this method to benefit later generations. It says in the Book of the Elixir, “The hen can hatch her eggs because she always practices mentally listening.” These are the finest instructions. The way a hen gives life to an egg is through giving it warm energy; warm energy can only warm the shell, but cannot penetrate the inside. So the hen must also inwardly direct the energy with her mind. The act of listening is single-minded attention. When the mind penetrates, the energy enters; with warm energy, birth takes place.
Even though the hen leaves her eggs from time to time, she is always listening, and her concentration is never interrupted. So her warm energy is also uninterrupted day and night, and thus the spirit comes alive. The birth of the spirit is resulted from the death of the mind. If you can kill the mind, your primordial spirit comes alive. To kill the mind does not mean to let it become withered, but to let it become concentrated and undivided. The Buddha says, “Gather the mind into one, and everything can be done.” If the mind runs off, tame it by means of breathing; if the breathing becomes rough, refine it with the mind. If you do this, how can the mind not be stabilized?
Generally speaking, the two afflictions of oblivion and distraction require consistent daily practice in quietude; then the mind will naturally comes to complete rest. If you don’t practice sitting meditation, you tend to be distracted without knowing it. Once you become mindful of distraction, distraction itself becomes a mechanism to stop distraction. There is a great difference between unconscious oblivion and conscious oblivion. Oblivion that you are unaware of is real oblivion; oblivion that you are aware of is not complete oblivion, in which there is certain clarity. Distraction means the mind is wandering; oblivion means the spirit is unclear. Distraction is easy to cure; oblivion is hard to heal. When it comes to illness, symptoms like pain or itch can be treated with medicine, but oblivion is a symptom of paralysis, where there is no feeling. A distracted mind can be gathered into concentration, and a confused mind can be set in order, but oblivion is a state of stupidity and darkness. Distraction and confusion still have some direction, but oblivion means that the lower soul is in complete control.
In distraction there is still a lingering presence of the higher soul, but oblivion is ruled by pure darkness and negativity. If you become drowsy when you practice sitting meditation, this is oblivion. Repelling oblivion is simply a matter of tuning the breath. The “breath” in this case is respiration through mouth and nose, not the true breath. Nevertheless true breath is in it. Whenever you sit, you should quiet your mind, let go of everything, and purify your energy. How to quiet the mind? It is done by focusing on breathing. Let the mind alone know you are breathing in and out; do not let the ears hear. When you can’t hear it, the breathing is fine. When the breathing is fine, the mind is clear. If you can hear it, it means the breathing is rough and the mind is cloudy. Cloudiness means oblivion. It is only natural for a cloudy mind to feel sleepy.
Even so, the mind should focus on breathing. It is focus without force. Just maintain a subtle looking and listening. This saying has a profound meaning. What is “looking”? It is using the light of the eyes to illuminate the inner self, with the eyes only looking inward and not outward. Not looking outward yet being alert is inward looking; it is not that there really is such a thing as looking inward. What is “listening”? It is using the vitality of the ears to listen to the inner self, with the ears listening inwardly only and not outward. Not listening outward yet being alert is inward listening; it has nothing to do with listening to inner noise.
Listening means listening to the soundless; looking means looking at the formless. When the eyes do not look outside and the ears do not listen outside, they are closed off and have a tendency to race around inside. Only by inward looking and inward listening can you ward off distraction from outside, and prevent oblivion in between, which is led on through inner racing. This is the internal sun and moon unifying their vitalities and lights.
When you sink into oblivion and become drowsy, get up and walk around. Once the spirit has become clear, sit down again. It is best to sit in the early morning, for as long as it takes to burn an incense stick. After noontime, when there are too many things to do, it’s easy to fall into oblivion. Also, there’s no need to fix the length of time for sitting; it is only essential to set aside all entanglements and sit quietly for a while. Eventually you will attain absorption and not become oblivious or sleepy.