Here are some quotes from Suzuki Roshi in “Not Always So” (chapter: Calmness of Mind) that emphasize working with the exhale while meditating:
“Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation. If you exhale smoothly, without even trying to exhale, you are entering into the complete perfect calmness of your mind. You do not exist anymore.
Inhaling without effort you naturally come back to yourself with some color or form. Exhaling, you gradually fade into emptiness – empty, white paper. That is shikantaza. The important point is your exhalation. Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale.
To take care of the exhalation is very important. To die is more important than trying to be alive. When we always try to be alive, we have trouble. Rather than trying to be alive or active, if we can be calm and die or fade away into emptiness, then naturally we will be all right. Buddha will take care of us. Because we have lost our mother’s bosom, we do not feel like her child anymore. Yet fading away into emptiness can feel like being at our mother’s bosom, and we will feel as though she will take care of us. Moment after moment, do not lose this practice of shikantaza.”
This is very impressive quote to me. It is in alignment with the fourth Tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutra. The Anapanasati Sutra is composed of sixteen contemplations, which divide rather neatly into four sets of four: The body group, the feelings group, the mind group, and the wisdom group. They are in a “somewhat” developmental order in that mindfulness of the physical movements of the breath is the first emphasis in any concentration practice. The feelings group is becoming sensitive to rapture and joy in meditation and then calming or letting go of rapture. The third group is the mind group – becoming aware of the mind, gladdening the mind, steadying the mind, and liberating the mind. (See “Breath by Breath” by Larry Rosenberg. This is a book Clouds in Water studied several years ago).
The fourth group the wisdom group is very similar to Suzuki Roshi’s quote above.
From a Thich Nhat Hanh translation:
13. I am breathing in and observing the impermanent nature of all dharmas. I am breathing out and observing the impermanent nature of all dharmas. He practices like this.
14. I am breathing in and observing the fading of all dharmas. I am breathing out and observing the fading of all dharmas. She practices like this.
15. I am breathing in and observing liberation (cessation). I am breathing out and observing liberation (cessation). He practices like this.
16. I am breathing in and observing letting go (relinquishment). I am breathing out and observing letting go (relinquishment). She practices like this.
This sutra demonstrates how the breath can take you all the way to the deepest realizations. The breath often is used as the first object of concentration. But it also can practiced as a complete teaching which leads to insight.
In Larry Rosenberg’s book, he writes about Buddhadasa’s approach to breath practice and its use for going all the way to realization. He writes:
“ When we got to the thirteenth contemplation – which concerns impermanence, this is where real vipassana begins – he said that Anapanasati was one of the simplest and most effective means for realizing emptiness.”
Buddhadasa said: “There is no question that breathing is taking place. Can you see that there is no breather to be found anywhere? The body is empty, the breath is empty and you are empty.”
Perhaps this is where Zen and Vipassana meet. Where the Mahayana and the Theravada come to the same conclusion.