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Offering breaths
February 26th, 2015

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Offering breaths

   Many practitioners offer incense, water, light, flowers, fruits, etc., on altars in front of buddhist statues (be it representing the Buddha, another buddha like Amitābha or a bodhisattva like 観音).
   Beyond the ritualistic aspects (which are not so helpful), such practice might support the cultivation of giving, of non-attachment to one's possessions, of generosity. It might also supports humility, showing signs of respect.
   There might be strong symbolism attached too: e.g. water is offered because it adapts to all shapes (like expedient means adapt the Dharma to all circumstances), incense perfumes all directions, light dispels darkness…

   A different kind of offerings can be contemplated, suitable for the ritualistic as well as for the anti-ritualistic person: the offerings of breaths.

   Giving breaths away has the particular benefit of supporting your practice in any case but, when related to it as an offering, you can combine the 'normal' benefit to those on cultivating generosity and humility.
   How do you give breaths away? You slow down your breathing. This can be done in many, if not most, circumstances… and it requires you to be mindful of your breathing.
   It's slightly different from classical mindfulness (which doesn't interfere) since you're actively affecting the process you're observing. It still supports you to take a step back, not to let bodily reactions (excitement or flight/fight modes) take over, not to let your mind being so entranced by an object that you forget you're alive. So it is good practice anyway. Forms of kriyayoga would go on the basis that every emotion has breathing patterns, e.g. anger comes with short and fast breathing and that breathing has an impact on the mind (for example, a deep, long breath relaxes the mind). Based on nāmarupa,  the buddhist practitioner has no reason to reject whatever bodily practice which might support mind cultivation, just like "right livelihood" and "right action" support "right mindfulness". Through breathing in different patterns, one can influence emotions.

   But if you see this slowing down as an offering, then it also acts as a reminder of the values you work to embody. This goes from an attempt to somehow stay in control, not to be overwhelmed, maybe even a deluded attempt at 'self'-protection, towards an form of inspiration.

   Classically, slowing down your breathing can support equanimity. It doesn't necessarily reminds you of loving-kindness, compassion or sympathetic joy. The beneficial trait of the "offering breaths" version of slowing down your breathing is precisely to support a form of equanimity which is not confused with mere indifference.

   In very quiet contexts, you might prelude the practice by "may this breath in full awareness benefit all beings".  After a while, this should be enough to help reconnect with the values you want to embody even in contexts with more urgency and no opportunity for explicit mental dedication.
   It is useful to try to be mindful not just of the breath but also of whatever obstructs it, notably a tense body. Relax the shoulders…

   Happy, slow breathing!


   There was once a Samurai, named Nobuchika, who approached the Zen master, named Hakuin, and asked whether there were really Hell and Heaven.
   The Zen master asked him, « Who are you? »
   The Samurai answered, « I am a Samurai, sir. »
   « Uh! Are you? » the master exclaimed, and said « You don’t look like a Samurai; you look like a beggar. »
   The Samurai got angry and grabbed his sword. When Master Hakuin saw that, he said « Uh! You have a sword. It looks very dull. What can you do with the dull sword? »
   Nobuchika drew his sword out of the sheath. Then Master Hakuin said, softly, « See! The gate of Hell opens now. »
   When Hobuchika heard that, he realised that and calmed down. And then again, Master Hakuin said, kindly, « See! The gate of Heaven opens now. »

photo: still from "The Last Samurai" with Ken Watanabe