THE HEART OF KANJI: We survive through our breathing


Hito wa ikide ikiteiru. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu

Hito wa ikide ikiteiru. calligraphy by Rev. Masato Kawahatsu

人 (Hito) means ”a person.” This character represents two people supporting each other.

息 (Iki) means “breath.” The top lines indicate a human nose and the lines below indicate a human heart. Air passes through our nose to our lungs and heart.

生 (Ikiru) means “a life.” The bottom lines represent soil and the top lines represent a plant sprout.

We all know that in order to survive, we must breathe air. However, we may not mindfully breathe everyday or give appreciation for this essential aspect of our life.

There was a German man named Neruke Muho who was raised in Europe, but became a Japanese Zen monk.

At the age of 7, his mother passed away. She was only 38 years old and Muho learned a harsh lesson about loss and death. Though he was young, this experience prompted him to ask, “Why do we live? What is the purpose of life?” He asked his father, but his father jokingly said, “Are you a school teacher?” Neruke asked his teacher, but the teacher did not have an answer for him either.

He was disappointed, but realized he would have to seek out the answer himself. At the age of 16, Muho had a teacher who mentioned that he might enjoy Zen meditation. He didn’t know much about it, but assumed it was a fake religion or a cult. His teacher encouraged him to do more research and try it briefly before making up his mind about disliking it.

The first time Muho sat in silence, he became very aware of his breath. He was shocked to realize that for the last 16 years of his life, he had been breathing without giving it any thought, but that this bodily function allowed him to survive. He considered how this also seemed to be out of his control, since his body continued to breathe even when he was unconscious or asleep.

After college, he moved to Japan to undergo the strict and traditional Zen training and eventually became an influential leader in the Zen community. His experience and understanding allowed him to share mindfulness not only with the Zen community but with others around the world.

At its core, breathing keeps us alive, but by practicing mindful breathing, we can gain even more benefits. Deep, slow, intentional breathing can lower blood pressure, release anxiety and ground any other heightened emotions so that you can think more clearly and rationally.

A couple of years ago, I had a Toritsugi mediation by a phone session with a mother. She said that she was very worried and needed some advice on how to calm her nerves. I told her, “The Japanese word ‘shinpai’ has two meanings. One is concern and the other is worry. One seems more caring and positive and the other feels burdensome. There is a teaching that states, “Worry poisons your body and Kami/God is not happy when you worry.” Rather than struggling against your worries, take a moment to still your body and take some deep, mindful breaths. This will tell your body and mind that there is nothing to worry about and that all is well. You can even try smiling and laughing at the end of your breathing session. We practiced this together over the phone and she said, “My heart feels better and at peace now.” It is reassuring to know that the effects can be immediate as we often get so locked up in our negative feelings that we want a quick solution. Please practice this in your own life. Now that we wear masks everywhere, you can even practice outside while walking around and not be embarrassed because your face is covered!

Rev. Masato Kawahatsu is a minister at the Konko Church of San Francisco and Konko Center of South San Francisco, who teaches shodo (Japanese calligraphy). He can be reached at or (415) 517-5563. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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