To help you with your beginning meditation, I have included an excerpt from the book that we are currently studying in our English Dharma Group, Only a Great Rain, by Venerable Master Hsing Yun:
The full name of this contemplation is “contemplation on counting the breath.” In Sanskrit, this meditation technique is called anapana. Anapana is one of the most fundamental and powerful of all the many meditation techniques. In Sanskrit, ana means inhale and apana means exhale. Anapana gains its strength from its simplicity and from its ability to lead the mind quickly into one-pointed concentration. Perfect concentration on the flow of the breath is a doorway that opens, almost immediately, onto the vast stretches of higher awareness. This technique should not be ignored by anyone who wants to find the truth.
The five contemplations are the contemplation on uncleanness, the contemplation on compassion, the contemplation on conditioned arising, the contemplation on Buddha, and the contemplation on the breathing. In Mahayana Buddhism these five contemplations are considered to be essential foundations for the Paramita of concentration. Generally speaking, the five contemplations are used to cure specific problems. The contemplation on uncleanness is used to cure greed. The contemplation on compassion is used to cure anger. The contemplation on conditioned arising is used to cure ignorance. The contemplation on Buddha is used to cure attachment. The contemplation on the breathing is used to cure scattered thinking.
Meditation should not be viewed as an isolated practice that can stand on its own. To be effective, meditation must be practiced along with morality and wisdom. Without a firm moral foundation, meditation will never produce the wonderful results it should. Without wisdom, even if one’s meditation produces good results, one will not be able to use them or understand them as one should. Meditation properly is one part of complete Buddhist practice. It is very important for Buddhist to meditate, but if one does not also uphold the precepts of Buddhism while working to increase one’s wisdom, it will be unlikely that one’s meditation will produce good results. In Buddhism, morality, meditation and wisdom are called the three trainings or three teachings. They are grouped together because it is essential that all three be practiced at once. A Collection of Terms Used in Translation says, “Stopping what is evil is called morality. Contemplating the breath in peaceful conditions is called meditation. Overcoming evil to understand the truth is called wisdom.”
Anapana is the basis of the contemplation on counting the breath. By first counting our breath and then actively contemplating the process of breathing, we can quickly learn to overcome scattered thinking and the frailties attendant on mental disorganization. The Chinese tradition recognizes six basic stages of contemplating the breath: (1) actually counting the breath, (2) mentally following the breath, (3) ceasing, (4) contemplating, (5) returning, and (6) purity. These stages are called the “six wondrous teachings” or the “six mysterious doors” in Chinese. We will discuss them below.
1. Counting the breath. The first purpose of counting the breath is to relax the system and concentrate the mind. The second purpose is to focus the mind and engage it fully in the wonderful mystery of breathing. One should count the breath by counting either inhalations or exhalations, but not both. Counting is done in groups of ten. The breath should be allowed to flow freely without being forced in any way. After counting ten breaths, one should start over again. Thousands of years of experience with this technique have shown that if less than ten breaths are counted, the mind has a tendency to become hurried or impatient. If more than ten breaths are counted, the mind has a tendency to become unfocused and scattered. Experience has also shown that there are three basic problems that often crop up when people practice this technique: (a) people count only eight or nine breaths when they have actually breathed ten times; (b) people count eleven or twelve breaths when they have actually breathed only ten times; (c) people confuse inhalation with exhalation. The best way to avoid these problems is to concentrate and be very mindful of what you are doing. This is one time when it is very important to practice precise concentration on the task at hand.
Our mental attitude is very important. When we meditate, our attitude reverberates within itself and creates its own storms or its own expanse of peace and wisdom. When counting the breath, it is important to avoid the two extremes of being overly anxious or overly relaxed. If we are too anxious, our bodies become tense, and the energies in our systems do not flow properly. Similarly, if we allow ourselves to be too relaxed in our approach to this technique, our systems can become sleepy and dull.
The right way to approach breath-counting is to be sensitive to the interaction between the mind and the breath. If we calmly allow the mind and the breath to find their own interactive harmony, we discover that both the mind and the breath become very calm. Eventually, the mind seems to breathe on its own, without use of the lungs.
2. Mentally following the breath. After a while, a beautiful harmony between mind and breath becomes established, and it is no longer necessary to count inhalations or exhalations. This point can be identified by the peace and calm that begins to permeate the system, and by the ease with which the mind willingly follows each breath through its full course of entering the nose and the lungs and then leaving again. When this stage is reached, one need only observe or follow the flow of the breath. One should be able to do this almost without effort.
3. Ceasing. After the mind has followed the breath for some time and a peaceful harmony has been established between mind and breath, the mind becomes exceptionally calm. This slows the breath even further and leads the entire system into a state of wonderful ceasing. At this point, true contemplation can begin.
4. Contemplation. At this point, the time is right to contemplate the breath in the light of all of the mind’s wisdom. Contemplate that the breath depends on the body, and the body depends on the breath. Contemplate that the body is comprised of nothing more than the six forms of sense awareness (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind). And that the personality is comprised of nothing more than the five skandhas (form, sensation, perception, mental activity, and consciousness). This contemplation is very effective in breaking the hold of self-grasping and attachment to the things of this world.
5. Returning. Turn the mind in on itself; return its radiance wholly to itself. Contemplate this returning and see that all mental phenomena are illusions and that all that the mind grasps is an illusion. Only the deepest lights of the mind are real. As its delusions are seen through more and more, the mind will discover that it basks in perfect wisdom without outflows and that it has always basked in this wisdom.
6. Purity. When the mind no longer grasps at anything, it becomes pure. Like virtue, purity is its own reward, and like wisdom, purity knows itself. There are no words to describe this state.
If you gather your mind in Samadhi, you will understand the process by which phenomena rise and fall. – From the Sutra of Bequeathed Teachings