A Way of Living

Gautama’s teaching revolved around action, around one specific kind of action:

…I say that determinate thought is action. When one determines, one acts by deed, word, or thought.

(AN III 415, Pali Text Society Vol III p 294)

“When one determines”—when a person exercises volition, or choice, action of “deed, word, or thought” follows.

Gautama also spoke of “the activities”.  The activities are the actions that take place as a consequence of the exercise of volition:

And what are the activities?  These are the three activities:–those of deed, speech and mind.  These are activities.

(SN II 3, Pali Text Society vol II p 4)

Gautama claimed that a ceasing of “action” is possible:

And what… is the ceasing of action? That ceasing of action by body, speech, and mind, by which one contacts freedom,–that is called ‘the ceasing of action’.

(SN IV 145, Pali Text Society Vol IV p 85)

He spoke in detail about how “the activities” come to cease:

…I have seen that the ceasing of the activities is gradual. When one has attained the first trance, speech has ceased. When one has attained the second trance, thought initial and sustained has ceased. When one has attained the third trance, zest has ceased. When one has attained the fourth trance, inbreathing and outbreathing have ceased… Both perception and feeling have ceased when one has attained the cessation of perception and feeling.

(SN IV 217, Pali Text Society vol IV p 146)

The “activity” of speech ceases in the first trance—that would imply that the “word” occasioned by “determinate thought” has ceased.  

Gautama spoke of the “activity” of deed, but when he spoke of the ceasing of the activities, he spoke of the ceasing of “inbreathing and outbreathing”.  Even when “determinate thought” is not directly involved in the movement of the diaphragm, actions in the body that are occasioned by “determinate thought” affect the movement of breath, and can leave a residue of habit that further affects the movement of breath.  If “activity” in inbreathing and outbreathing has really ceased, then the “determinate thought” that gives rise to “activity” in the body of any kind must likewise have ceased.

“The cessation of inbreathing and outbreathing” is not an actual stoppage of breath. Gautama only spoke about the stoppage of breath once, in a description of the practices he undertook as an ascetic:

So I, Aggivessana, stopped breathing in and breathing out through the mouth and through the nose and through the ears.  When I, Aggivessana, had stopped breathing in and breathing out through the mouth and through the nose and through the ears, I came to have very bad headaches… very strong winds cut through my stomach… there came a fierce heat in my body.  Although, Aggivessana, unsluggish energy came to be stirred up in me, unmuddled mindfulness set up, yet my body was turbulent, not calmed, because I was harassed in striving by striving against that very pain.  But yet, Aggivesana, that painful feeling, arising in me, persisted without impinging on my mind…

(MN I 244-245, Pali Text Society vol I p 298-299)

Stopping the breath in and the breath out did not satisfy Gautama’s quest to “bring to a close the (holy)-faring”.  Only after he had abandoned such ascetic practices did he enter the states of concentration, and attain the state that caused him to say, “done is what was to be done”. 

Just as he pointed to the “activity” of inhalation and exhalation instead of the “activity” of deed, Gautama pointed to the “activity” of perception and feeling instead of the “activity” of mind.  Apparently in Gautama’s experience, when the “determinate thought” that gives rise to perception and feeling has ceased, the “determinate thought” that gives rise to “activity” in the mind of any kind can also be said to have ceased. 

Gautama said that after he lectured, he returned to concentrating his mind:

And I… at the close of (instructional discourse), steady, calm, make one-pointed and concentrate my mind subjectively in that first characteristic of concentration in which I ever constantly abide.

(MN I 249, Pali Text Society vol I p 303)

“That first characteristic of concentration” is “one-pointedness of mind”, as here in Gautama’s description of “right concentration” (“right concentration”, part of “the eight-fold path” that leads to the end of suffering):

And what… is the (noble) right concentration with the causal associations, with the accompaniments?  It is right view, right purpose, right speech, right action, right mode of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness.  Whatever one-pointedness of mind is accompanied by these seven components , this… is called the (noble) right concentration with the causal associations and the accompaniments.

(MN III 71, Pali Text Society vol III p 114; similar at SN V 17; “noble” substituted for Ariyan)

Gautama spoke of laying hold of “one-pointedness” in the induction of the first “trance”:

Herein… the (noble) disciple, making self-surrender the object of (their) thought, lays hold of concentration, lays hold of one-pointedness.  (The disciple), aloof from sensuality, aloof from evil conditions, enters on the first trance, which is accompanied by thought directed and sustained, which is born of solitude, easeful and zestful, and abides therein.

(SN v 198, Pali Text Society vol V p 174; “noble” substituted for Ariyan)

I have described the experience of “one-pointedness of mind” as something that can occur in the movement of breath:

The presence of mind can utilize the location of attention to maintain the balance of the body and coordinate activity in the movement of breath, without a particularly conscious effort to do so. There can also come a moment when the movement of breath necessitates the placement of attention at a certain location in the body, or at a series of locations, with the ability to remain awake as the location of attention shifts retained through the exercise of presence.

(Common Ground)

In my experience, the “placement of attention” by the movement of breath only occurs freely in what Gautama described as “the fourth musing”:

Again, a (person), putting away ease… enters and abides in the fourth musing; seated, (one) suffuses (one’s) body with purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded with purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind.

(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III p 18-19, see also MN III 92-93)

The “pureness of mind” refers to the absence of any intention to act. Suffusing the body with “purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind” is widening awareness so that there is “not one particle of the body” that cannot become the location where attention is placed. 

I would say that the placement of attention by the movement of breath is actually a common experience for everyone, if at no other time, then in falling asleep.  That begs the question:  why teach something that is already a common experience? 

Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the way is perfectly pervasive; how could it be contingent on practice and verification?  The vehicle of the ancestors is naturally unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it?

(Eihei Dogen, “Koroku Kukan zazen gi”, tr Carl Bielefeldt, “Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation” UC Press 1988 p 175)

Dogen’s questions are rhetorical, but I nevertheless believe they have an answer:  there’s a particular frailty of the human body that can require practice to overcome, at least for some people.

Moshe Feldenkrais described the reason that many people hold their breath for an instant when getting up out of a chair:

The tendency to hold one’s breath is instinctive, part of an attempt to prevent the establishment of shearing stresses or forces likely to shift the vertebrae horizontally, out of the vertical alignment of the spinal column that they constitute.

(“Awareness Through Movement”, Moshe Feldenkrais, p 83)

Holding one’s breath retains pressure in the abdomen.  Medical researcher D. L. Bartilink remarked on the utility of a “tensed somatic cavity” in support of the spine: 

Animals undoubtedly make an extensive use of the protection of their spines by the tensed somatic cavity, and probably also use it as a support upon which muscles of posture find a hold…

(“The Role of Abdominal Pressure in Relieving the Pressure on the Lumbar Intervertebral Discs”, J Bone Joint Surg Br 1957 Nov;39-B(4):718-25. doi: 10.1302/0301-620X.39B4.718. 1957)

However, Bartilink noted that pressure in the abdominal cavity need not restrict the diaphragm:

… Breathing can go on even when the abdomen is used as a support and cannot be relaxed. 


Feldenkrais suggested a practice to overcome the tendency to hold the breath, a series of preparatory movements to be done on a chair before standing.  First, he said, move the upper body forward and backward, then from side to side, and finally “in such a way that the top of the head marks a circle, the head being supported on the spine as on a rod.”  According to Feldenkrais, the relaxed awareness initiated by these exercises can allow a change in the center of gravity to initiate “automatic movement” in the legs:

…When the center of gravity has really moved forward over the feet a reflex movement will originate in the old nervous system and straighten the legs; this automatic movement will not be felt as an effort at all. 

(“Awareness Through Movement”, Moshe Feldenkrais, p 76, 78)

Feldenkrais emphasized that in a good posture, “there must be no muscular effort deriving from voluntary control”:

…good upright posture is that from which a minimum muscular effort will move the body with equal ease in any desired direction. This means that in the upright position there must be no muscular effort deriving from voluntary control, regardless of whether this effort is known and deliberate or concealed from the consciousness by habit.


Feldenkrais spoke about shifting “the center of gravity”.  In his “Introduction to Zen Training”, Rinzai master Omori Sogen offered a quote from Hida Haramitsu, who spoke of shifting ‘the center of the body’s weight”:

We should balance the power of the hara (area below the navel) and the koshi (area at the rear of the pelvis) and maintain equilibrium of the seated body by bringing the center of the body’s weight in line with the center of the triangular base of the seated body.

(Hida Haramitsu, “Nikon no Shimei” [“Mission of Japan”], parentheticals added)

Feldenkrais described how shifting the center of gravity over the feet can generate an “automatic movement” in the legs.  Haramitsu spoke of shifting “the center of the body’s weight in line with the center of the triangular base of the seated body”, and I believe that such a shift can set up “automatic” activity of the body in inhalation and exhalation.

Feldenkrais described the origin of the automatic movement in the legs as “the old nervous system”.  While the movement may indeed be coordinated by the autonomic nervous system, I suspect the activity is initiated through the stretch of ligaments.  Feldenkrais’s exercises allow for the relaxation of the muscles of the lower body, so that the weight of the upper body can rest on particular ligaments.  I believe that when the stretch in those ligaments is sufficient, they can initiate the activity of standing. 

I would say that the relaxed awareness of the balance of the body that Haramitsu described similarly allows the weight of the body to come to bear on particular ligaments, and the shift in the weight of the body that he prescribed initiates activity to relieve shearing stress on the spine in inhalation and exhalation. 

The classic literature of Tai Chi appears to identify the ligaments of the body as a source of activity.  The literature describes three levels in the development of “ch’i”, a word that literally translates as “breath” but in practice is taken to refer to a fundamental energy of the body, and each of the three levels has three stages.

The stages of the first level are:

“… relaxing the ligaments from the shoulder to the wrist”; “from the hip joint to the heel”; “from the sacrum to the headtop”.

(“Three Levels” from “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Ta’i Chi Chuan”, Cheng Man Ch’ing, trans. Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn, p 77-78)

Unlike the contraction and relaxation of muscles, the stretch and resile of ligaments can’t be voluntarily controlled.  The muscles across the joints can, however, be relaxed in such a way as to allow the natural stretch and resile of ligaments–that would seem to be the meaning of the advice to “relax the ligaments”. 

The stages of the second level are:

“sinking ch’i to the tan t’ien” (a point below and behind the navel); “the ch’i reaches the arms and legs”; “the ch’i moves through the sacrum (wei lu) to the top of the head (ni wan)”.


Tai Ch’i master Cheng Man Ch’ing advised that the ch’i will collect at the tan-t’ien until it overflows into the tailbone and transits to the top of the head, but he warned against any attempt to force the flow.

Omori Sogen cautioned similarly:

… It may be the least trouble to say as a general precaution that strength should be allowed to come to fullness naturally as one becomes proficient in sitting.  We should sit so that our energy increases of itself and brims over instead of putting physical pressure on the lower abdomen by force. 

(“An Introduction to Zen Training:  A Translation of Sanzen Nyumon”, Omori Sogen, tr. Dogen Hosokawa and Roy Yoshimoto, Tuttle Publishing, p 59)

I would posit that the patterns in the development of ch’i reflect involuntary activity of the body generated in the stretch of ligaments. There is, in addition, a possible mechanism of support for the spine from the displacement of the fascia behind the spine, a displacement that can be effected by pressure generated in the abdominal cavity and that may quite possibly depend on a push on the fascia behind the sacrum by the bulk of the extensor muscles, as they contract (see my Kinesthesiology of Fascial Support). 

The final level in the development of ch’i concerns “chin”.  According to the classics, “chin comes from the ligaments”. 

The three stages of the final level are:

“t’ing chin, listening to or feeling strength”; “comprehension of chin”; “omnipotence”. 

(“Three Levels” from “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Ta’i Chi Chuan”, Cheng Man Ch’ing, trans. Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn, p 77-78)

Another translator rendered the last stage above as “perfect clarity” (“Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, Douglas Wile, p 57). In my estimation, “perfect clarity” is “the pureness of (one’s) mind” that Gautama associated with “the cessation of inbreathing and outbreathing” in the fourth concentration.

The Tai Chi classics emphasize relaxation. For me, calm is also required with regard to the stretch of ligaments, if “automatic movement” is to be realized.  The stretch of a ligament prior to strain is small (6%), and I would say that automatic movement is only initiated at the edge of the range. 

Cheng Man Ch’ing mentioned a Chinese description of seated meditation, “straighten the chest and sit precariously” (ibid p 21)–I think that also speaks to the necessity of calm.

In my experience, “automatic” activity in the movement of breath can at times depend on the relaxation of particular muscle groups and the exercise of calm with regard to the stretch of particular ligaments.  I believe that a pattern in the circulation of “automatic” activity can develop, especially when a bent-knee posture or carriage is maintained over a period of time.

“Automatic” activity in the movement of breath also follows as one “lays hold of one-pointedness”, but in order to “lay hold”, carriage of the weight of the body must fall to the ligaments and volitive activity in the body must be relinquished. 

Body and mind dropped off is the beginning of our effort.

(Eihei Dogen, “Dogen’s Extensive Record, Eihei Koroku, #501, tr Leighton and Okumura p 448)

“One-pointedness” can shift, as every particle of the body (with no part left out) comes into the placement of attention.  At the moment when “one-pointedness” can shift as though in open space, volition and habit in the activity of inhalation and exhalation ceases. 

Gautama taught the practice of a common experience, perhaps because the ability to return to such experience, although seemingly necessary for optimal health for many, is not common.

As a way of living, Gautama recommended thought applied and sustained to the relaxation of the body, to the calming of “the mental factors”, to the detachment of the mind, and to the contemplation of “cessation”, with each particular of thought to be applied or sustained in the course of an inhalation or exhalation.

I’ve written about my approach:

I begin with making the surrender of volition in activity related to the movement of breath the object of thought.  For me, that necessitates thought applied and sustained with regard to relaxation of the activity of the body, with regard to the exercise of calm in the stretch of ligaments, with regard to the detachment of mind, and with regard to the presence of mind.  I find that a presence of mind from one breath to the next can precipitate “one-pointedness of mind”, but laying hold of “one-pointedness of mind” requires a surrender of willful activity in the body much like falling asleep.


Gautama said that the mindfulness he recommended was his way of living, when he was “as yet the bodhisattva” (before his enlightenment).  He identified the same mindfulness as “the Tathagatha’s way of living” (his way of living after enlightenment).  Such a mindfulness was, he said, something “peaceful and choice, something perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living too” (Sanyutta Nikaya V Pali Text Society p 285)*.

Many people in the Buddhist community take enlightenment to be the goal of Buddhist practice.  I would say that when a person consciously experiences automatic movement in the activity of the body in inhalation and exhalation, finding a way of life that allows for such experience in the natural course of things becomes the more pressing concern.  Gautama taught such a way of living, although I don’t believe that such a way of living is unique to Buddhism.


* (see From the Early Record for the elements of Gautama’s mindfulness)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *