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swallow zen — count to 10

It seems an eternity ago when I first began exploring the practice of Rinzai Zen directly. It’s not splashy or exciting, and has more in common with thoroughly cleaning a toilet than it does with charismatic sages bantering on in parables about the mysteries of creation.

The practice hinges on the ability to sit still for long periods while breathing a strange sort of question in and out, usually with a group of similarly disposed buddhists. Theoretically, one is attempting to resolve this question. In reality, the whole idea of the question and activity soon renders itself absurd.

At the age of 24, I thought the idea of formally studying insoluble riddles was fascinating and mysterious — but in hindsight I can admit that part of me was attracted by a seductive misapprehension about how easy it would be for me to resolve them. Truth be told, I was hoping this might be a way to gain credentials of one sort or another — a kind of thermometer of my real intelligence. I figured myself for a quick study. In this particular dimension, however, I wasn’t.

The problem with these riddles is simple: they do not conform to any common logic. So disastrously uncommon is their logic that the same answer given twice may fail — yet it is possible to give an adept and accurate answer. In essence, the application of common logics to this pursuit will merely serve to cause the canny practitioner great frustration.

Eventually. this leads to the necessity to re-invent all forms and positions of logics — which in turn leads into a spiraling cognitive process that plays a game of swapping out retarded elements in favor of momentum and new ways of proceeding. Effectively, this aspect of Zen practice contains a hidden ‘intelligence lens’ — a learning-toy of inestimable value and efficacy. Yet few Zen practitioners will taste or speak of this matter. It’s considered materialistic, in a sense, to seek after some element of the product of practice.

Early in the process of learning to ‘sit zazen’, the student is commonly taught the practice of counting breaths. One might count in 1, out 2, or in 1 out 1 &c. At 10, the count begins again at 1. This activity is about as intellectually stimulating as eating gravel, and my novelty-hungry mind was never very pleased about this way of settling into the sitting posture and the body before taking up the koan.

Now, many years later — I understand and enjoy this practice. There’s something quite profound about those first 10 numbers — in general — in at least 7 dimensions.


at ten t ion

‘A the tenTree ion’






contents and concept © d. de stefano, 2004