How did the Greatest Ru (Confucian) Philosopher Meditate?

01/20/2017 08:51 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2017
<strong>Image: Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E), the teacher of Zhu Xi, was quiet-sitting when Cheng Yi’s students were waiting outsi
Image: Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E), the teacher of Zhu Xi, was quiet-sitting when Cheng Yi’s students were waiting outside during a snowing day.

In Chinese, the term Ru 儒 refers to a type of learned and cultured human being. The practice of the Ru is called ‘Confucianism’ in the West because one of its founding teachers was Confucius. Here, I will simply refer to these humans as Ru or ‘Ruist’, and replace the Western misnomer for the Ru tradition by ‘Ruism.’

In this post, I translate and annotate Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200, C.E, arguably the greatest Ruist philosopher after Confucius) “Exhortation for Adapting Breath” to show how Zhu Xi meditated in a Ruist way.



Preface (i)

Zhu Xi (1130-1200, C.E)

I compose “Exhortation for Adapting Breath,” which is about a method for nourishing one’s mind-heart (, xin). When people’s mind-heart doesn’t feel settled, their exhaled breath is usually too long, and their inhaled breath is usually too short. Therefore, we need to adapt it. After one’s breath becomes slow and balanced, our mind-heart will also be gradually settled. This is what Mencius means by “keep one’s mindfulness, and not destruct one’s breath” (ii).


(i) This preface is not included in the Complete Works of Zhu Xi (Zhuziquanshu). I saw it in some online version of Zhu Xi’s writings and thus, translate it for the readers’ reference.

(ii) Mencius’s words is from the Mencius, Gongsunchou A. Clearly enough, Zhu Xi understands his way of meditation as following the tradition of Ruist meditation initiated by Mencius’s practice of ‘Nourishing One’s Oceanic Vital-energy’ (養浩然之氣). In the context of Zhu Xi’s meditation, the breath-air which he contemplated can be seen as a concrete form of oceanic vital-energy (氣, Qi). I once explained the Chinese concept of Qi here (

<strong><em>“... exhale slowly, the breath is like fishes swimming in a spring pond.”</em></strong>
“... exhale slowly, the breath is like fishes swimming in a spring pond.”




Exhortation (i) for Adapting Breath (ii).

Zhu Xi


There is something white

on the end of my nose.

I contemplate it. (iii)


Whenever I am and

Wherever I am,

Whether I stay still or move,

I do not need to be anxious.

Do feel peace. (iv)


When stillness gets to its utmost, exhale slowly;

the breath is like fishes swimming in a spring pond.(v)

When movement gets to its utmost, inhale slowly;

the breath is like hundreds of animals hibernating in the winter. (vi)


The all-pervading breath-air (vii) goes out and in.

It is so wonderful, without a boundary.


Is there anyone dominating the process?

It is accomplished in a non-dominant way. (viii)


It feels like lying on the clouds,

and walking in the sky.

I dare not talk of it. (ix)


Observing the Oneness and residing in harmony,

may we live to two hundred, or even a thousand years! (x)



i) “Exhortation” (箴, zhen) is a genre of Ru writing. Though usually very short, it exhorts people, usually including oneself, to do something extremely important.

ii) Meditation through adapting one’s breath is not to control it. After a stage of adjustment and discipline, meditation may lead to a spontaneous way of breathing which is beyond human expectation and control. This is the major reason I translate 調息 as ‘adapting breath.’

iii) The method of Zhu Xi’s meditation is contemplating his breath. The method comprises several steps: When you close your eye with a slice of vision remaining, some vague light will appear on the end of the nose. Looking at the end but without really looking at one specific point, you can concentrate your attention to where the breath goes in and out. Then, feeling and adapting the way of breathing, is how meditation starts. In certain circumstances such as when the room temperature is moderate, you can even see the exhaled breath which gradually turns white, when you go into deep meditation.

iv) The meditation through contemplating one’s breath can be performed at any time and at any place. One salient feature of Ruist meditation, according to Zhu Xi, is that it does not make meditators prefer stillness to movement. Instead, meditation is treated as an efficient way to have people calm down and be mindful whether they are actually dealing with real affairs in the world or not. For Zhu Xi, the meditational skill described here enables one to concentrate their attention to the pattern-principles (理, li) of things (a pattern-principle refers to the dynamic and harmonious way how a set of cosmic or social realities fit together) and then, facilitate one’s further engagement in the world. We will know further details about Zhu Xi’s understanding of meditation through some of my other translations.

v) This and the following verses describe how Zhu Xi feels about his breathing during meditation. After a deep and slow inhale, our body will still for one moment, and then it begins to exhale and move again. The exhaling air is slow, delicate, peaceful, and warm, so Zhu Xi likened it as ‘fishes swimming in a spring pond.’

vi) Exhaling accompanies the movement of body. Once the movement stops, inhaling follows. Again, the inhaling air is slow, deep, and gradually spreads into a variety of organs within our body. This is a peaceful and efficient process of eliciting and storing energy from outside, so Zhu Xi likens the breath as “hundreds of animals hibernating in the winter.” Please pay attention to Zhu Xi’s “cosmic consciousness” during meditation, by which he understands the process of exhaling and inhaling as resonating with what happens to nature in spring and winter.

vii) After a sufficient time of breathing according to the aforementioned method, meditators may feel the breath-air inhaled and spread throughout the body, and the air outside the body, as merging into each other. At this moment, the breath-air’s going outside-and-inside may take place in a spontaneous way. In this stage of meditation, although meditators’ awareness continues to function, the awareness has attuned itself to this spontaneous process. Once this unitary feeling emerges, meditators will have some extraordinary experiences. The term ‘all-pervading breath-air’ reminds of Mencius’s term ‘oceanic vital-energy.’

viii) The spontaneity of breathing in such an enjoyable way goes beyond the meditators’ control, although human awareness can still perfectly function. That’s the reason why it is described by Zhu Xi that meditational experience is achieved in a non-dominant way.

ix) When the breath-air stored inside one’s body and the air outside get merged so intimately and delicately, meditators may feel they are ‘lying on the clouds’ and ‘walking in the sky.’ Zhu Xi is marveled by this experience, and thus, ‘dare not talk of this’. Personally, I have similar experiences during meditation. Its beauty and comfort is indeed beyond description.

x) The all-pervading cosmic vital-energy is the One, and meditation through contemplating one’s breath is to achieve harmony between one’s individuality and that cosmic vital-energy. For Zhu Xi, the meditational practice can make people’s body healthy, and thus, increase our longevity. In other words, the Ru way of life, as partially embodied in Zhu Xi’s practice of meditation, nourishes both people’s mind-heart and body.

<em>“...</em><strong>inhale slowly, the breath is like hundreds of animals hibernating in the winter.</strong> “
“...inhale slowly, the breath is like hundreds of animals hibernating in the winter.

Translation and Annotation: Bin Song

Editor: Nikola Stanojevic

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