Encountering Breath

When we first encounter breath meditation it’s a real challenge to stay with the practice. It really isn’t very exiting and may not seem like there is much to hold on to, to keep our attention on.

Breath practice isn’t kindergarten practice. Breath is the foundation of our way, the way of intimacy. Intimacy with the current; actuality as it is, arising complete and unsayable, this instant.

At times the object of meditation the breath is dealt with in very specific ways, with a count regime, feeling the swell and release of the belly, tracking the breath sequence of sensations. But this is all temporary, working toward building an attentive quality that can become intimate with the breath exactly as it is this moment, with no preconditions, even preconditions of attention. This may seem strange, but even attention disappears into intimacy. As practice evolves, its subtlety evolves. This usually occurs in such a way that people cannot witness this change for themselves.

A person working several years with the breath may not feel like there has been any ‘progress’ but may find they can respond to probing koan like questions, not about the breath at all, with some measure of confidence and assuredness.

One of the issues in working with the breath for many people is the tendency to experience or tie together being attentive to the breath with controlling the act of breathing itself. The very act of keeping attention on the breath creates a clear sense of deciding when to breathe in and when to breathe out. This creates a difficulty, as we want to avoid influencing the breath in any way. We are aiming to truly let breath be completely as it is, each moment.

So how to work with the sense of controlling the breathing? First of all briefly reflect that the body has been breathing ok all this time, since birth. It knows what to do. It lives by being able to simply continue breathing without need of our consciously maintaining control.

Following on from this we can be attentive to the body’s breathing cycle. Feel for a particular quality, the early tendency of the body to unforcedly begin to breathe in, the soft tendency to start the inhale; then the soft slide to easefully release to breathing out. Looking at the point of change noticing the soft changes, trusting and following the body and seeing the breath flow naturally.

This temporary approach isn’t manufacturing ideas about breath or picturing breath as a cycle, rather using the cyclic nature to be present for all the changes that make up the single breath, Each single breath is made up of changing sensations that are represented by the breath cycle, that we can rivet our attention to.

It’s helpful to be relaxed about the breath and definitely step back from overtly doing the breathing for the body. It’s not necessary. The body needs no controlling in order to do what it can do naturally.

In this same spirit once we’ve seen the softness of the changes and let that go to trusting the event of breath itself, we are also working toward not creating specialized or narrowed attention with imagining the breath, or creating a pattern with it, or picturing it.

We want to have as little do with the act of breathing as possible. This is about trusting letting things be. When we can truly let be, we encounter the current. There were actuality arises.

So we’ve established that it’s pretty usual that when we attend to the breath we have the experience of doing the breathing. This isn’t helpful as practice, but it does have a use. It doesn’t make our practice ‘better’ in fact it hinders the maturing of practice, but it’s helpful for us to experience getting past this point. It’s a point that comes up again and again in other and more subtle guises as our practice unfolds.

Getting past this tendency to control through the practice of intimac with what is shows us the path of trust, trust in the current. This is the path beyond the neuroses that circulate as intense self centricity.

When we control something we are clearly setting up ourselves in relation to that thing. ‘I’ am controlling. Even without such an idea as the imperative, it is the clear function of the situation of having a ‘me’.

When we control something we separate from that event, we become in relation to that thing. Oddly, we tend to control so that we sort of bind the thing to us, so that it comes under our auspicious, a part of our sphere of operations, but really we have at that point created separation rather than the unity we are aiming for and beguiled by.

It may not feel like something is generated that is me, when we ‘do’ the breathing, or feel ourselves in relation to the meditation object, there is a sort of warming familiarity that is comforting. Like a pleasing reassurance about ourselves.

Getting back to attention of the breath; Steady engaged breath attention may generate quite still space, even a sense of profound quiet, like a broad and deep pool of still calm. This is beautiful and deeply encouraging, as it should be.

However there is another step as we are still being in relation to the breath. As long as we watch the breath in that very stillness we are planted in the center of that still space that can arise.

We sit at the center of the stillness and as such sooner or later disturb the stillness with our entitled sense of self, thankfully.

There is a further refinement or direction for practice to take up. A refinement that requires nothing from us at all, or perhaps requires nothing of us – the practice of intimacy. Here there is solely the thing itself, this current breath. Here we completely combust any sense of being attentive or watching into the event itself, the breath, the body or the koan, or the cup of tea, depending on the practice. Here everything is left behind, consumed in the current actuality; completely combusted in the fire of the current.

This is the work of allowing the current as it is, not impinging ourselves upon it either grossly, “I hate it when she does that!” or subtly as in ‘witnessing’ what arises. No matter how fine and subtle the ‘witnessing’ it is the upholding of self, rather than clear apprehension of the current as it is.

Intimacy it the touchstone of Zen, its requirement and its joy. The utter irrevocable intimacy of the current. This is unbordered and without requirement or condition and we begin this journey with the breath.

Learning to trust the current breath as enough in itself is were we develop the skill and means for intimacy with the current. It’s the place were self falls away in the face of actuality itself, it is natural, and indeed already so.

It starts with a sort of reflection that for a moment ‘I’ simply was not and there was just the breath, just the cup, just the view out the window and there is the beautiful completeness of requiring nothing beyond this current actuality. In that moment we are not required, we have seemingly disappeared into the actual.

But we don’t find we’ve disappeared because at that point we are not in evidence in order to disappear. It’s functional, no one left to appear or disappear. There is just breath, just the cup, just the view.

This can sound wonderful and sort of heroic, and strangely or perhaps naturally, is a real allure for the sense of self. But it is just this unexciting current breath that airs the body, shows us our simple, live, environmental basis.

When we fully allow, there is no one arising. There is no one to be. This fully allowing is developed with becoming intimate with the breath. This is our path.

When no one arises to be, there is no one to be and, curiously we are then at our most free and engaged, embodied naturally as who we are without the encrusted calcifications of idea, even as we think about it.


It takes practice

Be gentle



Each moment is nothing less than your lifeblood, your birthright itself.


© Glenn Wallis July 2015


Zen and Form

Zen practice is typically associated with two main characteristics. Emphasis on seated meditation, Zazen, and the exacting particularity of form.

From the outside this particularity around form can seem pedantic or obsessive, but there is definite purpose behind this emphasis. It is training, not just in the forms themselves, handed down from teacher to student, or master to disciple, but as a way of practice that takes us beyond self-centricity. Fulfilling form is a way of practicing the final line of the Bodhisattva vow, “Buddha’s Way is unsurpassed, I vow to embody it fully.” Form is the way of practicing embodiment, or intimacy with activity where the blinding-ness of self-importance is long left behind.


Zen Forms change as the practice of Zen settles into new cultures and encounters peoples differing capacities and sympathies for those previous forms. The important matter isn’t so much the form that has carried the practice so far (although form expresses the heart, and is where the heart can give complete expression), but the purpose of those forms in enriching the practice of Zen for the people and culture that take it up. However, without fully engaging with those previous forms to weigh their value and the wisdom of their practice, judging what to keep and what to let go of becomes an expression of fixed points of view.


When we really get down to it, what must be retained as form for the practice of Zen? Shunryu Suzuki, in responding to that question, rather minimally said, “Posture.” That uprightness of posture that is as Suzuki put it, “The best posture for meeting the difficulties we encounter in life.” But that beautiful uprightness of zazen posture need not the only reference to posture either. There is also the posture of conduct. How we deport ourselves in the world. The Zen Buddhist Precepts themselves support being ‘upright’; that is being straightforward, trustworthy and clear, true to the Dharma.


At the heart of Zen is trust. Hakuin Zenji, the great reviver of the Rinzai school in the 18th C, termed it ‘Faith’ in his triptych of Faith, Doubt and Perseverance. Faith in Teaching, practice, ones original essence; Doubt, the built up force of unknowing that begins as curiosity and gathers in the deep inquiry of koan study; Perseverance speaks for itself but it recognizes that practice is functional, doing it has results.


In Zen, to properly engage the practice we must have faith in the practice, trust it. When we practice we are not supporting the critical thinking faculty, this would be supporting distraction. We are instead simply doing the practice itself. In doing this it’s not that we specifically suspend critical thinking and assessment, we let everything, thinking and distractions of environment alone and simply focus on doing the practice, keeping to the meditation object, for the time we are practicing. This is the way true intimacy can be cultivated.


As we drop more deeply into Zen practice, our ability to trust what is current and be able to allow it completely becomes vital. This doesn’t remove or neuter thought and logic but isn’t constrained by these elements. We don’t think in order to experience, we think to improve the value of our experience, but all too often thinking simply dominates actual current experience. This typically develops both a disconnectedness from our current state but also a sort of mistrust of the current actuality.


Allowing what is current isn’t to indulge in not acting or responding immediately or appropriately either. When we are functionally current we act freely with complete response because the current is equally freely allowed, completely as it is. This is how we engage fully with what is current, to engage completely with body and mind, practicing ‘body and mind fallen away’, to use Dogen’s terminology. We engage as part of what is happening, not as separate and affected. And it all starts in Zen practice quite concretely with working with Form.

In the various Zen Forms, whether it be bowing, chanting, walking, Dokusan or Teisho formalities, the actual form of what goes on is important. It has a purpose. It is a practice.

Zen form provides a restricted container. It is specifically proscribed, has particular limits and boundaries, which constrain the form and make it precise. Because it is precise there is definite way of doing the form, of being accurate, of filling out the form with our actions, with our body. Because the form has specific constraints that we can fill out or engage with totally we can practice to completely fill that action, that moment and become intimate with the event that is that form.


An example is bowing, which can be quite a challenge for people, especially facing it fir the first few times. A bow is a physical movement that can be done very particularly and carefully. To fully be there with the bow, or fully inhabit the bow is to be so ‘full of bow’ there is no space at all for anything that could be self-consciousness.


Further than this we learn to trust our own act of bowing, so that there is no need to check our experience of it, leaving our practice falling into intimacy, naturally and freely. We begin warm to the act itself, beginning to embody it with a deeper and more reverent attitude for the path of intimacy that Zen practice uncovers. Even more if we are completely intimate as bow, there is only bow. The propped up experience of self or me bowing, falls away and the bow bows. Intimacy brings forth the entire universe as this very bow, completely clear of any ideas of these matters at all.


Sutras and their chanting are an educational tool, familiarizing us with the texts and sayings of old but there is another purpose for us. Sutras as chanting, are a gateway to an experience of intimacy. Sutra chanting is an opportunity, a tool to allow us to transcend the old conceptions of self and other. Trying to transcend self centeredness can never transcend self centeredness. It takes a practice of becoming intimate beyond our ideas and references of self and other, a practice of being intimate with the voice of chant, the ear of chant, the body of chant.


With Sutra Chanting, the experience changes territory somewhat from a bow and there are different landmarks along the way, but it is based in intimacy, that unbordered state that gestates within the full participation of everything we have, practicing with your complete body and mind. Everything that you come as, your entirety, goes into that chant, that syllable of voice that is the current moment of “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva practicing deep Prajna Paramita…”


We are organic; we have form; we are participatory.

To be clear beyond the certainties of our thinking and views, we engage fully through being inimitably current to what is. In Zen training Form is the practice means for nurturing this territory.



© Glenn Wallis

Dunedin summer 2015


this doc can be downloaded from the ‘Talks’ catagory




Audio Talks and Teisho

Talks and Teisho by Glenn Wallis Roshi in mp3 format.

Please click on the link and follow to download

You may need to download drive tunes or similar player to play or simply download audio file.

These Talks and Teisho where offered during Sesshin to Sesshin participants. Please respect the Dharma and use the recordings responsibly.

Practice Talks:


Practicing Entirety without making something

The Body of Presence


On Breathing




Who is Hearing That Sound?

Gateless Barrier Case 8: Xi Zhong Builds Carts

Gateless Barrier Case 18: Dongshan’s Three Pounds of Flax

Hakuin Zenji The Sound of One Hand

Blue Cliff Record Case 17: Xianlin Gets Tired

Blue Cliff Record Case 87: Medicine and Sickness Mutually Correspond


Walking the Zen Path

The Koan Path

Blue Cliff Record Case 53: Baizhangs Wild Duck

Transmission of the Light Introductory Case: Shakyamuni

Gateless Barrier Case 47: Doushuai’s Three Barriers

Gateless Barrier Case 37: Zhaozhou’s Oak Tree in the Courtyard


Who Am I?

Who Is Hearing?

Wumenkuan case 23 Huineng: Don’t Think Good, Don’t Think Evil

Wumenkuan case 13 Deshan: Bowls in Hand

Shoyuroku case 4 The Buddha Points to the Ground

Wumenkuan case 6 The World Honoured One Twirls a Flower


Talks are a range of approaches and topics as well as writing for encouragement in Zen practice.

Some pieces were given as afternoon encouragement talks on Sesshin, some written for Zen journals.


2008  Random Encouragement in the ten directions

2009 Ordinarily So

2010 Taking our place

2013 Narrating Selfs Story

2014 Commonly asked Questions

2014 Some thoughts on starting Zen practice

2015 Zen and Form


In this section there are links to Teisho by Dunedin Zen Group resident teacher Glenn Wallis Roshi.

A Teisho is a presentation of Dharma typically given during a Sesshin, or Zen intensive ‘retreat’. Because we use words to communicate ideas this is the form of the presentation, but beyond this Teisho is actual live presentation of Dharma, of actuality as it is. By nature Teisho is an oral presentation.

The Teisho offered here are transcriptions with a minimal re working for written form in an effort to retain original impact and presentational value. The way to read a Teisho is the way you listen to one. As if it solely for you and you alone. Which is actually, deeply, the case.


Miscillaneous Koans case 25 The Mind That Dwells Nowhere

Wumenkuan case 47 Doushuai’s Three Barriers

The Dunedin Zen Group

Welcome to the web page of the Dunedin Zen Group. The DZG is committed to supporting Zen practice and training in Dunedin, and in NZ/Aoteaora. The group supports practice by arranging weekly practice sessions (zazen), as well as offering longer half day sits (zazenkai) and regular retreats (sesshin). We also have a small lending library. If you are interested in Zen, or in learning more you are welcome to contact us at the address below, or to come along on Wednesday night to our regular practice session. We meet at 7.00 pm at St Martins Anglican Church, downstairs at 194 North Road, North East Valley.   We ask $5, to help cover rental costs. And if this is your first visit please try to email us beforehand and come at least ten minutes early .              E-mail: dunedinzen@gmail.com

The group is a part of the Diamond Sangha, and we are fortunate to have Glenn Wallis Roshi available as a Zen teacher to guide and support practice. While we practice in the Diamond Sangha Zen lineage, everyone is welcome and we regularly have friends from other traditions sit and practice with us.


For 2016 Wednesday evening Zazen is held at St Martins Anglican Church, downstairs at 194 North Road, North East Valley. We ask $5, to help cover rental costs. It’s good to arrive a few minutes early so we can be under way by 7.00pm.