What did Gautama mean by “the cessation of in-breathing and out-breathing”? The phrase occurs often in the Pali sermon volumes (along with “the cessation of perception and sensation”). Did he actually mean that the breath stops?
What Gautama meant can be established by cross-referencing the teachings in the sermons about what he referred to as “activities”.
Gautama’s truth concerning the origination of suffering placed “activities” between “ignorance” and “consciousness”:
Conditioned by ignorance activities come to pass; conditioned by activities consciousness, conditioned by consciousness name-and-shape, conditioned by name-and-shape sense, conditioned by sense contact, conditioned by contact feeling, conditioned by feeling craving, conditioned by craving grasping, conditioned by grasping becoming, conditioned by becoming birth, conditioned by birth old age-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow, despair come to pass. Such is the uprising of this entire mass of ill.”
(SN II 2, Pali Text Society Vol II pg 2–for more on the four truths, see the prior post, Zen, Part Three)
He defined “activities” as “determinate” bodily deed, speech, or thought (AN III 415, Vol III pg 294 and SN II 3, Vol II pg 4). The cessation of the activities constituted the cessation of speech, the cessation of “in-breathing and out-breathing”, and the cessation of “perception and feeling” (SN IV 217 Vol IV pg 146).
“The cessation of in-breathing and out-breathing” is therefore the cessation of determinate activity in the movement of breath, rather than the actual cessation of the breath itself.
A cessation of determinate or volitive activity in speech, body, or thought can be a wonderful thing, yet sitting down to experience such a thing is fraught with peril. So, for example, Shunryu Suzuki admonished Blanche Hartman: “Don’t ever think that you can sit zazen! That’s a big mistake! Zazen sits zazen!”
Similarly, Dogen quoted a koan:
Mayu, Zen master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?”
“Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent,” Mayu replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.”
“What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the monk again. Mayu just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply.
Maybe if the author of the koan had not added, “the monk bowed deeply”, folks would have thought that Mayu’s action in fanning himself was just old Mayu, continuing to willfully fan himself–I don’t know!
When Gautama said “for (one) knowing thus, seeing thus, there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body”, I believe he was talking about the day when Mayu discovered himself continuing to fan in the absence of any exercise of will to do so, and I’m sure the experience for Mayu had as much to do with breath as my experience of zazen getting up and walking across a room–everything to do with the breath, as a part of the wind that reaches everywhere!
To have such an experience requires “dying the great death”, a willingness to give up initiating activity to such an extent with regard to the body that the suffocation response is invoked, yet moment-to-moment relaxation and calm can be continued.