Zen Buddhist Gathas

Little packets of mindfulness as you go about your day

by Marshall Bowden

Zen Buddhist Gathas are little poems that are used to help us remember to be mindful as we go about our day. It’s a device, a little ritual, that serves a similar purpose to that of a mindfulness bell, or setting an intention.

Gatha can refer to any Pakrit (Jain) or Pali verses in general as well as to more rigorously structured poetic forms in Sanskrit, but its modern usage generally refers to this kind of little mindfulness verse. The practice originated in Theravada and Zen Buddhism, but it was given a boost by popular Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn.

Zen Buddhist gathas are made up of two pairs of lines. They are designed to be recited silently, each line on an alternating in breath and out breath. One of the most famous of Thich Nhat Hahn’s examples is:

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. (breathing in)
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. (breathing out)
Dwelling in the present moment (breathing in)
I know this is a wonderful moment. (breathing out)

You don’t have to be a Buddhist or any specific spiritual practice in order to benefit from using gathas. They can be particularly helpful to those who suffer from overwhelming anxiety, helping to ground them and allow them to regain control of their thoughts and their physical reactions.

Zen Buddhist gathas derive much of their meaning from being anchored to the breath as well as being recited while we are performing a specific task. Hahn’s gathas display a an enjoyment of words, a deep tolerance of ambiguity and a sense of humor.

As verse, gathas are functional rather than artistic, but that is no reason not to play with the form and the practice a bit. Just remember, the purpose is to connect with our activities, not to write clever verse. Save that for Haiku or Tanka!

Joking aside, gathas can help us see things more deeply and I think that’s one reason to let your mind go and try to compose some gathas of your own. Here’s one I wrote for feeding the cats in the morning:

Breathing in I hear the sound of a snapping lid
Breathing out I smell beef or chicken
Spooning food into your bowl before the sun rises
I bid you good morning, my feline friend.

For those of you who practice yoga or work out, here is a gatha you might use:

I feel myself at home and grounded in my body (Breathing in)
I honor my body and all that it accomplishes (Breathing out)
I honor my body with consciousness of its movement (in breath)
And feel its strength and wisdom and peace. (out breath)

Creating some of your own gathas based on your own experiences and activities that you do every day can help you to deepen and find more meaning in your practice.

If you want to look into practicing with gathas take a look at these links:

About the Author

Marshall Bowden

Marshall Bowden is a freelance writer, blogger, and veterinary technician who lives in Chicago. Mr. Bowden also has written extensively about jazz and popular music, His work has appeared on All About Jazz, PopMatters, JazzIz, Paste Magazine and other publications. He is the author and editor of Quotable Jazz and recently contributed a story to Rescued 2, an anthology of stories about rescued cats.