Zhu Xi on Quiet-Sitting

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.



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


Preface (i)

I compose “Exhortation for Adapting Breath,” which is about a method for nourishing one’s mind-heart (心, 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).



Exhortation (i) for Adapting Breath (ii).

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)

The breath is like fishes swimming in a spring pond


(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 in the following.

(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.

The breath is like hundreds of animals hibernating in the winter.



Zhu Xi’s “Exhortation for Adapting Breath” can be understood in the context of the Ruist meditative practice of quiet-sitting (靜坐, jingzuo). In the following, I translate and comment on one of Zhu Xi’s conversations with his students to explain Zhu Xi’s understanding of quiet-sitting.



說此次日,見徐,雲:“事來則動,事過了靜。如潮頭高,船也高;潮頭下,船也下。雖然,‘動靜無端’,亦無截然為動為靜之理。如人之氣,吸則靜,噓則動。又問答之際,答則動也,止則靜矣。凡事皆然。且如涵養、致知,亦何所始?但學者須自截從一處做去。程子:‘為學莫先於致知。’是知在先。又曰:‘未有致知而不在敬者。’則敬也在先。從此推去,只管恁地。” 砥 (朱子全書,十四冊)

Yi Zhi asked: “In order to preserve and nourish (the living-substance of human life), do we need to be still most of the time?”

Zhu Xi answered: “Not necessarily. Kongzi always taught people to cultivate themselves in situations that are of direct relevance to one’s life. Now, although some Ru master taught that self-cultivation should focus upon being quiet (i), this does not mean that one should give up affairs and things in order to pursue quietude. Since we are humans, it entails that we shall serve parents, assist governors, communicate with friends, foster our children, comfort our spouses, and supervise house servants. It is implausible that we could give up all of these, and then, close the door and sit quietly. If things and affairs come, can we just say: ‘No! Please wait! I am now preserving and nourishing myself’? Nevertheless, we cannot follow these things and affairs with an indifferent or confused mind either. Between these two poles (ii), we should think and have an appropriate judgement (about the correct method to preserve and nourish our human life). ”

After a while, Master Zhu continues: “Whenever moving, quietude is there. The state of movement has its due measure of quietude. If we can respond to affairs according to the concerned pattern-principles, even if we move, we can still be quiet. (iii) Therefore, the Greater Learning says: ‘Knowing where to dwell in, and then, one can become settled. Becoming settled, and then, one can be quiet.’ (iv) When things and affairs come, if we cannot respond to them according to the concerned pattern-principles, our mind-heart cannot achieve quietude. This is the case even if we isolate ourselves from those things and thus intentionally search for quietude. Only under the condition that we follow the concerned pattern-principles during our movement, can we become quiet when no human affairs arrive. On the other hand, if we can preserve (the living-substance of our life) during our stillness, we shall be more functional during our movement.

Hence, we must intentionally cultivate ourselves whenever we are moving or still. In other words, we must make our cultivating efforts continual, and thus, do not segregate our life into its still moments and its moving ones. If we can make these continuous efforts, we are quiet when we are still, and furthermore, we can also become unperturbed even when we are moving. This implies that we can be quiet even when we are moving. If we do not continually exert our cultivating effort, we are perturbed when we are moving, and even if we long for quietude when we are still, we cannot achieve that quietude. This means we can be perturbed even when we are still. Our physical movement and stillness is like a boat floating on the river. Tides come, and then the boat moves. Tides retreat, and then the boat stills. In the same way, we move when affairs come. We still when affairs get settled.” (This part of conversation is recorded by Xu Jufu)

One day after finishing this conversation, Master Zhu met Xu, and said: “We move when affairs come. We are still when affairs get settled. This is like a boat on the river. Tides high, then the boat is also high. Tides down, then the boat is also down. Nevertheless, because ‘The alternation of movement and stillness is all-pervasive’ (v), there is no reason for us to separate the pattern-principle for our movement and the one for our stillness. For example, we are still when we finish one round of inhale, but we become moving again when we exhale. For questions and answers between teachers and students, we move when we answer questions, while we are still when we finish the answer. All things ought to be understood as such. (vi) Hence, as for the cultivating effort of ‘moistening and nourishing’ and ‘attaining one’s lucid awareness,’ (vii) where should we start? I think scholars should start from one place and extend it. Master Cheng said: ‘Nothing is prior to “attaining one’s lucid awareness” for one’s learning.’ He also taught: ‘No effort of “attaining one’s lucid awareness” does not rely upon reverence.’ Therefore, being reverent, is the priority for all our cultivating effort. From here, we can extend our learning without any obstacle.” (Recorded by Di)


(i) “Focusing upon being quiet” was the teaching of Zhou Dunyi.

(ii) “Two poles” refer to two inappropriate statuses of human spirituality: “being obsessed in physical stillness” and “being unmindful in physical movement.”

(iii) Here, the Chinese character Jing 静 is differentiated by Zhu Xi into two distinctive meanings: physical stillness and spiritual quietude. According to Zhu Xi, as long as people’s thoughts and behaviors abide by the concerned pattern-principles in evolving life situations, people can achieve a peaceful state of spiritual quietude whenever they are physically moving or still. A pattern-principle (理, li) is the dynamic and harmonious way how a set of cosmic or social realities fit together. For example, in order to have a good parental relationship, parents must be kind to their children, which includes providing necessary guidance and instruction, and children must respect their parents, which entails correcting parents’ wrong-doing in a respectful way. In this sense, the virtue of “parental kindness” (慈) and the one of “filial” (孝) are the pattern-principles for parental relationships. Only if we are diligently cultivating these virtues, can we become spiritually quiet and peaceful when we deal with affairs about our parental relationships. In my translation, I deliberately render physical jing as “stillness” and spiritual jing as “quietude” in order to indicate the crucial different meanings of jing intended by Zhu Xi.

(iv) According to Zhu Xi’s understanding, the place that the Greater Learning, one of the Ruist Four Books, teaches Ru learners to “dwell in” is the solid pattern-principle of human life which I explained in note (iii).

(v) The quote is from some Ru masters’ understanding of the endless unfolding of cosmic changes. For example, Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E) holds this view.

(vi) The pattern-principle for our physical movement is continuous with the one for our physical stillness. More importantly, the features of alternating movement and stillness pervade all moments of human life. Therefore, there ought not to be a discontinuity for our cultivating effort to focus upon the concerned pattern-principles and thus, to preserve and nourish the living-substance of our human life. When we are still, we can practice quiet-sitting according to its pattern-principle. When we are moving, we need to focus upon another set of pattern-principles. Regardless, all these pattern-principles share one common goal: making all moments in our human life dynamically and harmoniously fit together.

(vii) The meaning of “moistening and nourishing” is the same as the aforementioned “preserving and nourishing.” They share the same target: to nourish the healthy, energetic living-substance of one’s human life. In Ruist terms, this cultivating effort must be combined with another one: “attaining one’s lucid awareness” of the concerned pattern-principles. The reason why Zhu Xi broached these two terms in relation to the topic of quiet-sitting is that Cheng Yi once summarised the Ru cultivating method in two verses: “Moistening and nourishing (one’s living-substance of life) needs ‘reverence’, while advancing one’s learning consists in attaining one’s lucid awareness (of pattern-principles)” (涵養須用敬,進學在致知).


In my view, this conversation is Zhu Xi’s most refined exposition of his view on quiet-sitting.

For Zhu Xi, quiet-sitting is a convenient practical method for enhancing one’s mindfulness and preserving one’s physical health. However, the reason why quiet-sitting can achieve this must be understood in a more general methodology of Ruist self-cultivation. In other words, as for its spiritual function, leading to a healthy and enlightened way of human life, quiet-sitting is of convenient use, rather than of ultimate use.

Ultimately, the Ru self-cultivation should start from “being reverent” 敬. At first, we need to be reverent towards our learning. This is a condition for one to achieve a lucid awareness of concerned pattern-principles in evolving life situations. Then, we need to be reverent towards our acting-out of the concerned pattern-principles. Once pattern-principles are followed and intentionally acted out, we shall be really successful to preserve and nourish our human life. This is the case whether we are physically still when we are practicing quiet-sitting or physically moving when we are dealing with things and affairs.

In a word, Zhou Dun-yi’s cultivating method of “focusing upon being quiet” (主静) is transformed by Zhu Xi as one of “focusing upon being reverent” (主敬). In this transformation lies the kernel of Zhu Xi’s understanding of the Ruist spiritual practice of quiet-sitting.

Translated and Annotated by Bin Song. Edited by Nikola Stanojevic.