Chapter 4 of The Breath of Life
One who has gradually practiced,
Developed and brought to perfection
Mindfulness of the in-and-out breath
As taught by the Enlightened One,
Illuminates the entire world
Like the moon when freed from clouds. (Theragatha 548)
There is much more Buddhist material on Breath Meditation than that of other traditions. This is because Buddha quite openly and continually advocated Breath Meditation and it was never “lost” to Buddhism at any time. So we have over two thousand years of very clear teaching on the subject.
What Buddha did and taught
When Buddha was a child, there was an annual celebration called the Plowing Festival. One year he was very bored with it all, and so went and sat under a tree. There he spontaneously entered into profound meditation through observing his breath. At the end of the festival his parents discovered him beneath the tree, roused him from his inner absorption, and took him home. He never repeated what he had done that day beneath the tree, but he never forgot it. Later, after years of practicing incredible austerities and many yogas, he found himself without authentic realization. Sitting beneath a tree, he vowed to remain there until he attained enlightenment. But how would he do that? What should be his practice, since everything he had learned in so many years had proven useless? Then he recalled his childhood meditation at the Plowing Festival. “Might that be the way to enlightenment?” he wondered. It seemed unthinkable that the simple, spontaneous practice of his long-ago childhood could be the key to Nirvana. But something from deep within him spoke, saying: “That is the only way to enlightenment.” He tried it; and continued it; and it worked. Consequently, he recommended it to others.
To his son Rahula, who had become a monk and was wanting to practice meditation, he said: “Practice being mindful of the breath, Rahula. Practicing continuous mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out is of great fruit, of great benefit (or riches). And how, Rahula, is mindfulness of breath practiced, and how does its sincere practice lead to a great harvest of richness?” Then he proceeded to give the instructions found in the Maha Rahulovada Sutra, concluding: “This is the practice of mindfulness of breath, Rahula. This is how the sincere practice of mindfulness of breath is of great fruit, of great benefit. If mindfulness of breath is practiced continuously, then your last breath will be in knowing, not in unknowing.” For as the already-cited meditation master, Ajaan Fuang said: “The breath can take you all the way to Nirvana.”
You will find that there is much more Buddhist material on Breath Meditation than that of other traditions. This is because Buddha quite openly and continually advocated Breath Meditation and it was never altogether lost to Buddhism at any time. So we have over two-thousand five-hundred years of very clear teaching on the subject.
The Anapanasati Sutra
The basic text on Breath Meditation is the Anapanasati Sutra.
“At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said this:
“Bhikkhus [monks], when mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfil the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfil true knowledge and deliverance.
“And how, bhikkhus, is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?
“Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him [parimukha: “in front of the face”–at the tip of the nose], ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
“Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long;’ or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’
“Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short;’ or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short,’ He trains thus: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Experiencing the whole body, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Tranquillizing the bodily formation, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Tranquillizing the bodily formation, I will breathe out.’
“He trains thus: “Experiencing rapture [piti], I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: “Experiencing rapture, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: “Experiencing happiness, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Experiencing happiness, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Experiencing the mental formation, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: “Experiencing the mental formation, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Tranquillizing the mental formation, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Tranquillizing the mental formation, I will breathe out.’
“He trains thus: ‘Experiencing the mind, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Experiencing the mind, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Gladdening the mind, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Gladdening the mind, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Concentrating the mind, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Concentrating the mind, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Liberating the mind, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Liberating the mind, I will breathe out.’ [The Patisambhida-magga says: “Intellect, intellection, heart, lucidity, mind, mind-base, mind-faculty, consciousness, consciousness aggregate, appropriate mind-consciousness element–that is mind.”]
“‘He trains thus: ‘Contemplating impermanence, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Contemplating impermanence, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Contemplating fading away, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Contemplating fading away, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Contemplating cessation, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Contemplating cessation, I will breathe out.’ He trains thus: ‘Contemplating relinquishment, I will breathe in;’ he trains thus: ‘Contemplating relinquishment, I will breathe out.
“It is, bhikkhus, when mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated in this way that it is of great fruit and benefit.”
The four foundations of mindfulness
The four foundations of mindfulness are:
- contemplation of the body,
- contemplation of feelings,
- contemplation of the mind, and
- contemplation of mental phenomena–mental states and the arising and cessation of such states, along with the factors that produce such arising and cessation.
It might seem to us that we would need to delve at different times into the “realities” of our body, feelings, mind, and mental phenomena, and that different techniques would be necessary for these inquiries. But such is not the case. Breath Meditation by itself reveals to us the truth of body, feelings, mind, and mental phenomena–and with no need for special methods or volition on our part. By holding to the breath and the nosetip alone, all will be manifested to us in time without our needing to look or concentrate elsewhere. This is the teaching of Buddha.
The seven factors of enlightenment
The Buddha further tells us that anapanasati produces the seven factors of enlightenment:
- investigation into phenomena [the quality or nature of things],
- concentration [samadhi], and
And the capstone of Breath Meditation is freedom (liberation; nirvana) itself. It is no wonder, then, that Arahant Upatissa, the author of the Vimuttimagga (The Path of Freedom), said about Breath Meditation:“This has been praised by the Blessed One. This is the abode of the Noble Ones, of Brahma and of the Tathagata.” The Noble Ones (Aryas), Brahma (the Creator of the lower worlds) and the Perfectly Liberated (Tathagatas) abide in the State of Being inherent in Anapanasati. Breath Meditation is the treasury wherein the Treasure of Liberation is to be found.
The tip of the nose
In the Dhatuvibhanga Sutra (M 140:4), Buddha’s entry into meditation is described in this way: “The Blessed One sat down, folding his legs crosswise, setting his body erect, and establishing mindfulness in front of him–that is, establishing his awareness parimukha–in front of his face at the tip of his nose.” So focussing attention on the tip of the nose is a requisite for meditation in general. This is further borne out by Buddha’s description of meditation practice in the Maha-Assapura Sutra (M 39:13): “He sits down, folding his legs crosswise, setting his body erect and establishing mindfulness in front of him [parimukha].”
In the practice of anapanasati the ideal place for observing the breath is the tip of the nose. The Thai meditation master, Ajaan Lee, said: “…as he [Buddha] was meditating on his breath, he gained Awakening. He found what he was looking for–right at the tip of his nose. Nirvana does not lie far away. It is right at the tip of our nose” through the practice of anapanasati.
In the translation of the Anapanasati Sutra quoted above, it says: “[The yogi] sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him [parimukha], ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.” This implies that mindfulness of in-and-out breathing at the nosetip becomes the focus of our attention–in the foreground of our mind. Soma Thera, in The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutra and Its Commentary, renders this verse: “A bhikkhu, gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down, bends in his legs crosswise on his lap, keeps his body erect, and arouses mindfulness in the object of meditation, namely, the breath which is in front of him. Mindful he breathes in, and mindful he breathes out.” In the commentary he explains the expression “arouses mindfulness in front” as meaning that the meditator “fixes the attention by directing it towards the breath which is in front.” Nyanasatta Thera, in The Foundations of Mindfulness says that the expression in the Satipatthana Sutra means “setting up mindfulness in front.” Parimukham may be literally translated as “in front of the face,” but it may also be rendered” “above [pari] the mouth [mukha]”–in other words, the nosetip. So there is a firm basis to understand the Buddha’s words as instructing us to fix our attention on the nosetip for the practice of Breath Meditation.
As Ajaan Chah, another Thai meditation master, says in A Taste of Freedom: “We do not have to follow the breath, just establish mindfulness in front of us at the nose-tip, and note the breath at this one point–entering, leaving, entering, leaving….” The Visuddhimagga says: “The bhikkhu who is possessed of this mindfulness and understanding should not look for these in-breaths and out-breaths elsewhere than at the original place of contact [the nosetip].…Thus, indeed, the bhikkhu should not seek the in-breaths and out-breaths elsewhere than at the original point of contact, and…he should set the mind on the original place of contact and keep that before his mind.”
“The whole body”
When the Buddha says “experiencing the whole body,” he is not referring to the physical body, but to the breath itself in its entirety, the idea being that each moment of the breath is keenly and clearly perceived by the meditator without any vagueness or fuzziness in his awareness. This is important–never is consciousness of the breath lost or peripheral. For the breath is the sole subject of our meditation. Buddha also says in the Ananda Sutra: “I tell you that this–the in-and-out breath–is classed as a body among bodies, which is why the monk on that occasion remains focused on the body in and of itself–ardent, alert, and mindful.”
The sutra says such things as: “Breathing in a long breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing in a long breath;’…Breathing in a short breath, he knows, ‘I am breathing in a short breath,’” to convey the idea that we are to be aware of the entire breath–not just the fact that we are inhaling or exhaling, or just a tenuous awareness at the tip of the nose. We must experience the entire breath, even though we do not “follow” it in and out of the body. That is also why Buddha refers to the breath as a “body.” It is a complete thing, of which we need to be completely aware. The Visuddhimagga says: “Breathing, because of being included in the tangible-object base, is a certain body.”
According to the Visuddhimagga, anapanasati also enables us to contemplate “the feelings in the feelings”–to pierce directly into the very core-source and nature of all feelings or states of mind (bhavas), to comprehend their basis, their primal nature. It also says that through Breath Meditation “a bhikkhu abides contemplating mental objects in mental objects” as well.
Having said that, I need to point out that during Breath Meditation we can sometimes become aware of the entire body, from top of head to soles of feet–the total physical entity–as if the whole body is being held or suspended within the breath. We are then experiencing the pranamaya kosha, the body consisting of life force (prana), of which the breath is its most objective manifestation. That is why Buddha said: “I tell you that this–the in-and-out breath–is classed as a body among bodies.”
Lord Buddha also says that “he knows, ‘I am breathing….’” “Knows” means that it is a matter of conscious experience, of intentional awareness of the breath. But perhaps even more important is the Buddha’s assertion that the practicer will know “I am breathing.” This has more than one significant truth for us.
The first one is supremely practical: Breathing is not utterly automatic, nor is it a purely physical function. A friend told me that in his first conversation with a great yogi, the yogi asked him: “How do the lungs breathe, the heart beat, and the cells divide?” When he replied that they were activities of the involuntary nervous system, the yogi told him: “Then get busy and know that which is behind the involuntary nervous system, for that is the root of life. That is what you really are–not the shallow phantom of your conscious mind.” Buddha’s declaration assures us that through anapanasati the subconscious becomes conscious, that we become aware of The Breather.
Secondly, the Buddha’s statement that we will know: “I am breathing” informs us that although we are watching the breath and letting it be spontaneous, at the same time we are engaging in a subtle act of will (or: feeling, imagining, intending, sensing or thinking) for the breath to move at/in the nosetip during our inhalations and exhalations. It is not a matter of forcing or of intense will, but it is a subtle “setting of the sails” to ensure that the breath and awareness of the breath will continually be centered in the tip of the nose. It is something that we are doing, though in the subtlest possible way.
This underlines that the practice of anapanasati is not passive but subtly active as we consciously center our attention on the tip of the nose and make ourselves feel or perceive the breath moving there–actually making the breath move there by an act of will, however slight. Furthermore, breathing in deliberately on occasion in no way interrupts or disturbs the process. There will be times during meditation when our experience of the breath will be very objective–as though we are watching something completely separate from us–and at other times we will be very aware that we are doing the breathing intentionally. It is natural for this to move back and forth and also occur simultaneously.
Thirdly, Buddha is saying that by means of Breath Meditation we shall come to know the true nature of our “I;” that by observing the breath we come to be aware of the observer, the “who” of us that is separate from and untouched by the duality that is embodied in the breath process, that full awareness of the dual breath leads us to the non-dual consciousness which both produces and perceives the breath. We breathe, and we know we breathe, and we come to know who we are. This is the purpose of Breath Meditation.
(This statement may seem inconsistent with contemporary Buddhist thought, but the historical fact is that until the wiping out of Buddhism from India in the thirteenth century, one of the largest schools of Buddhist thought was the Pudgalavadin–the “Personalist”–school that claimed Buddha had taught the existence of a “person” who was different from the five skandhas, and who reincarnated with a continuous consciousness. In the Gangetic plain the Pudgalavadins were in the majority and were also to be found throughout India and even in large numbers in what is now Vietnam. Recently there has been considerable scholarly interest in these “forgotten” Buddhists. See Buddhist Religion by Robinson.)
A right understanding
Buddha said that it was essential for the sadhaka–one who is seeking truth through methodical spiritual practice–to come to know the four foundations of mindfulness: the body, the feelings, the mind, and the contents and states of the mind. This is sometimes misunderstood as meaning that we must engage in intellectual analysis of these four factors. The same mistake is made in regard to the sixteen sentences beginning with: “Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long;’…” and ending with: “‘Contemplating relinquishment, I will breathe out.’” It is commonly thought that these are sixteen “breathing exercises” and affirmations–that a person should breathe in and out thinking: “I am steadying the mind…I am releasing the mind…,” and such like. But really they are outlinings of what will automatically happen to the meditator as he continues to keep his consciousness centered in the in-and-out breaths. That is why Buddha first lists the experience and follows it with the words: “I will breathe….” Furthermore, by attention on the breath and experiencing these various other things only peripherally, we will not get lost in them and distracted from our focused awareness on the breath.
Regarding this, Larry Rosenberg says in Breath By Breath: “Much of what the [Anapanasati] Sutra describes will turn up naturally if you just sit and follow the breathing, if you persist in that practice over the course of days and months and years. It is natural for your attention to deepen until it includes the whole body, and for that process gradually to calm the body. Once your attention is in the body, you begin to notice feelings and your mental reactions to them, which lead you into the mind as a vast realm to explore. Finally, if you are paying attention, you cannot help noticing that all the phenomena you are observing arise and pass away, that they are impermanent and lack an essential core. The sixteen contemplations, then, represent a natural process. They might not unfold in exactly that order, and some of them might stand out more than others. But most of these aspects of body and mind eventually, and quite naturally, show up if you sit and look into yourself over a period of time.”
These states will not necessarily arise in exactly the order of their listing, because meditation experience, like everything else in our life, is a highly individual matter. Buddha is only giving the general outline of what will happen to us so we can get the general idea. Some of the states he lists may never arise for us–at least not in our conscious awareness–and many not listed may arise, since it is different for each person.
Part of the idea of listing the states that will arise is to indicate that such states are dealt with by not dealing with them, but keeping intent on the breath. Buddha’s way of expressing the practice of anapanasati indicates that we are solely occupied with the breathing as our focus of attention, and not the effects it may produce.
The sixteen factors–and more
Buddha speaks of the necessity for being aware of the body, the feelings, the mind, and the objects of the mind. The sixteen states or experiences listed in the sutra are four groups of four relating to just these four categories. In Indian thought the number sixteen often indicated perfect completeness. For example, it was considered that there are sixteen levels of existence (kalas) in physical manifestation. And there used to be sixteen “annas” in a rupee.
The Patisambhida-magga, an authoritative treatise on meditation and mental development, says that for one who develops the sixteen-based respiration mindfulness concentration, more than two hundred kinds of knowledge arise, and proceeds to name them. (Since they are extremely technical I am not including them here.)
It is not without significance that in the Buddha’s outline of the states that will arise from the practice of Breath Meditation he does not at all mention visions, sounds, memories, inspirations, or intellectual insights. The mindfulness enjoined by the Buddha is the mindfulness of the breath in all our activities, a mindfulness that will then illumine and perfect those activities.
There is a further way of looking at the list given in the sutra; namely that all the things found there–the body, the bodily processes, rapture, pleasure, mental processes and their calming, the mind itself along with its satisfying, steadying, and releasing, inconstancy, dispassion, cessation, and relinquishment–are the breath itself in its many permutations. That is, these states are not just inherent in the breath…they are the breath. This is why anapanasati accomplishes all that is needful for the attainment of Nirvana. For both the Visuddhimagga and the Papancasudani in commenting on the Sutra say that the attainments of “the fourfold jhana” as taught by the Buddha are “due to respiration-mindfulness.” (Jhana is the Pali word both for meditation and the states of meditation. Its Sanskrit equivalent is Dhyana.)
The Ananda Sutra
The Ananda Sutra is very similar to the Anapanasati Sutra, but contains these distinctive passages:
“Thus developed, bhikkhus, thus repeatedly practiced, the concentration on the mindfulness of breathing is of great fruit, of great benefit. Before my awakening, while I was still a bodhisattva, I too, dwelt much in this way of life. Dwelling much in this way of life,…through not clinging my mind was freed from defilements.”
“This concentration on the mindfulness of breathing, bhikkhus, developed and repeatedly practiced, is both peaceful and sublime, unadulterated and of happy life; it causes to vanish at once and suppresses evil and unbeneficial thoughts as soon as they arise. Just as in the last month of the hot season the dirt and dust blow about, and then, out of season, a great rain-cloud causes them to vanish at once and suppresses them; so, indeed bhikkhus, the concentration on the mindfulness of breathing…is peaceful and sublime….”
“From respiration-mindfulness, bhikkhus, thus developed, thus repeatedly practiced, one of two fruits is to be expected: final knowledge here and now, or, if there is some remainder of clinging, the state of non-return.
“From respiration-mindfulness, bhikkhus, thus developed, thus repeatedly practiced, seven fruits, seven benefits, are to be expected. What seven fruits, seven benefits?
“One attains to final knowledge here and now, in the course of life.
“If one does not attain to final knowledge here and now, in the course of life, then one attains to final knowledge at the time of death.
“If one does not attain to final knowledge at the time of death, then, having destroyed the five lower fetters [as a non-returner], one attains Nirvana during [one’s term of life in some particular heaven].
“If one does not…one attains Nirvana after reducing [the number of births].…one attains Nirvana without exertion.…one attains Nirvana by exertion.…one goes upstream, destined for the highest gods.”
“From the development, from the repeated practice, of respiration-mindfulness concentration, there comes to be neither wavering nor trembling of body, nor wavering nor trembling of mind.”
The Satipatthana Sutra
On one occasion the Buddha was instructing the monks in the way to reach Nirvana through contemplation of the breath. His instructions were exactly the same as those in the previously-cited sutras. But in conclusion he said: “Thus he lives contemplating the body [that is, the breath] in the body,…and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.”
The MahaRahulovada Sutra
“The venerable Sariputta saw Rahula [the son of the Buddha] sitting cross-legged at the root of a tree with the body erect, keeping mindfulness present. He addressed Rahula, ‘You should practice being mindful of the in-breath and out-breath, Rahula. If mindfulness of breath is cultivated with continuous practice, then there is a vast harvest, there is great richness.’
“At evening time the venerable Rahula arose from solitude and approached the Generous One [the Buddha], sitting down to one side. Seated, Rahula asked the Generous One, ‘How is mindfulness of breath to be practiced? How is it that continuous practice will bring a vast harvest and great richness?’”
Buddha then spoke of the need to no longer identify with material things, but to engage in unwavering practice. Finally he said: “Practice being mindful of the breath, Rahula. Practicing continuous mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out leads to a vast harvest and great riches. And how, Rahula, is mindfulness of breath practiced and how does its sincere practice lead to a great harvest of richness?”
He then gave instructions virtually identical with those of the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Sutras, concluding: “This is the practice of mindfulness of breath, Rahula. This is how the sincere practice of mindfulness of breath leads to a vast harvest and great richness. If mindfulness of breath is practiced continuously, then your last breath will be in knowing, not in unknowing.”
The Sambodhi Sutra
“He should develop mindfulness of in-and-out breathing so as to cut off distractive thinking.” The identical words are found in the Meghiya Sutra as well.
The Kayagata-sati Sutra
“And how is mindfulness immersed in the body developed, how is it pursued, so as to be of great fruit and great benefit?” The outline of Anapanasati is then given in a briefer form, concluding with the statement that from his practice: “his mind gathers and settles inwardly, grows unified and centered. This is how a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body.” Again: the “body” is the breath.
The Girimananda Sutra
Once Girimananda, a disciple of the Lord Buddha, was seriously ill and in great pain. The Buddha sent his chief disciple, Ananda, to give him instructions for his relief. Ten things were prescribed by the Buddha, among them being the mindfulness of in-and-out breathing. The instructions of the practice of anapanasati were those given in the sutras that have already been cited, but given in such a way that it was evident that the other nine instructions were to be fulfilled by the practice of Breath Meditation itself. Girimananda followed the Buddha’s directions and was completely healed.
The Samyutta Nikaya
In the sutra collection known as the Samyutta Nikaya, the fifty-fourth section, known as the Anapanasamyutta is a compilation of material on Breath Meditation extracted from many sutras so as to give a complete overview of the subject. The following are the most relevant parts.
“When, bhikkhus, mindfulness of breathing has been developed and cultivated in this way, one of two fruits may be expected: either final knowledge in this very life or, if there is a residue of clinging, the state of non-returning.”
8. The Simile of the Lamp
“I too, bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisattva, not yet fully enlightened, generally dwelt in this dwelling. While I generally dwelt in this dwelling, neither my body nor my eyes became fatigued and my mind, by not clinging, was liberated from the taints.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May neither my body nor my eyes become fatigued and may my mind, by not clinging, be liberated from the taints,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.”
[The Buddha then gives a list of undesirable thoughts and perceptions and says that if the practicer wishes to avoid them, “mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.”]
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, enter and dwell in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, with the subsiding of thought and examination, enter and dwell in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, with the fading away as well of rapture, dwell equanimous and mindful and clearly comprehending, may I experience happiness with the body; may I enter and dwell in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ““He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily,””’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, enter and dwell in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, with the complete transcendence of perceptions of forms, with the passing away of perceptions of sensory impingement, with non-attention to perceptions of diversity, aware that ““space is infinite,”” enter and dwell in the base of the infinity of space,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, by completely transcending the base of the infinity of space, aware that ““consciousness is infinite,”” enter and dwell in the base of the infinity of consciousness,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, by completely transcending the base of the infinity of consciousness, aware that ““there is nothing,”” enter and dwell in the base of nothingness,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“‘Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, by completely transcending the base of nothingness, enter and dwell in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“‘Therefore, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu wishes: ‘May I, by completely transcending the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception, enter and dwell in the cessation of perception and feeling,’ this same concentration by mindfulness of breathing should be closely attended to.
“‘When, bhikkhus, the concentration by mindfulness of breathing has been developed and cultivated in this way, if he feels a pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘It is impermanent;’ he understands: ‘It is not held to;’ he understands: ‘It is not delighted in.’ If he feels a painful feeling, he understands: ‘It is impermanent;’ he understands: ‘It is not held to;’ he understands: ‘It is not delighted in.’ If he feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘It is impermanent;’ he understands: ‘It is not held to;’ he understands: ‘It is not delighted in.’
“If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it detached; if he feels a painful feeling, he feels it detached; if he feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he feels it detached.
“When he feels a feeling terminating with the body, he understands: ‘I feel a feeling terminating with the body.’ When he feels a feeling terminating with life, he understands: ‘I feel a feeling terminating with life.’ He understands: ‘With the breakup of the body, following the exhaustion of life, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will become cool right here.’
“Just as, bhikkhus, an oil lamp burns in dependence on the oil and the wick, and with the exhaustion of the oil and the wick it is extinguished through lack of fuel, so too, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu feels a feeling terminating with the body…terminating…, with life…He understands: ‘With the breakup of the body, following the exhaustion of life, all that is felt, not being delighted in, will become cool right here.’”
9. At Vesali
“‘Bhikkhus, this concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, is peaceful and sublime, an ambrosial pleasant dwelling, and it disperses and quells right on the spot evil unwholesome states whenever they arise.
“Just as, bhikkhus, in the last month of the hot season, when a mass of dust and dirt has swirled up, a great rain cloud out of season disperses it and quells it on the spot, so too concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, is peaceful and sublime, an ambrosial pleasant dwelling, and it disperses and quells on the spot evil unwholesome states whenever they arise.”
11. At Icchanangala
“Bhikkhus, if wanderers of other sects ask you: ‘In what dwelling, friends, did the Blessed One generally dwell during the rains residence?’—being asked thus, you should answer those wanderers thus: ‘During the rains residence, friends, the Blessed One generally dwelt in the concentration by mindfulness of breathing.’
“‘Here, bhikkhus, mindful I breathe in, mindful I breathe out. When breathing in long I know: “I breathe in long;’ when breathing out long I know: ‘I breathe out long.’ When breathing in short I know: ‘I breathe in short;’ when breathing out short I know: ‘I breathe out short.’ I know: ‘Experiencing the whole body I will breathe in.’…I know: ‘Contemplating relinquishment, I will breathe out.’
“If anyone, bhikkhus, speaking rightly could say of anything: ‘It is a noble dwelling, a divine dwelling, the Tathagata’s dwelling,’ it is of concentration by mindfulness of breathing that one could rightly say this.
“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who are trainees, who have not attained their mind’s ideal, who dwell aspiring for the unsurpassed security from bondage: for them concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, leads to the destruction of the taints. Those bhikkhus who are arahants, whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, those completely liberated through final knowledge: for them concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, leads to a pleasant dwelling in this very life and to mindfulness and clear comprehension.
“If anyone, bhikkhus, speaking rightly could say of anything: ‘It is a noble dwelling, a divine dwelling, the Tathagata’s dwelling,’ it is of concentration by mindfulness of breathing that one could rightly say this.”
17. The Fetters
“Bhikkhus, concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, leads to the abandoning of the fetters.”
18. The Underlying Tendencies
“Bhikkhus, concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, leads to the uprooting of the underlying tendencies.”
19. (9) The Course
“Bhikkhus, concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, leads to the full understanding of the course.”
20. The Destruction of the Taints
“Bhikkhus, concentration by mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, leads to the destruction of the taints.”
The Anguttara Nikaya is a collection of various short sayings of the Buddha, rather than entire discourses, that were remembered by his disciples after his leaving this world. The following are some of them.
Ekaka Nipata, 16. “One thing, bhikkhus, developed and repeatedly practiced, leads to complete revulsion [for wrong actions], to fading away [of defilements], to cessation, to pacification, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvana. What is this one thing? Respiration-mindfulness.”
Pancaka Nipata, 96. “A bhikkhu practicing respiration-mindfulness [anapanasati] penetrates the immovable after no long time.
Chakka Nipata, 115. “For the abandoning of distraction of the mind, respiration-mindfulness is to be developed.”
Navaka Nipata, 1. “Respiration-mindfulness is to be developed for the cutting off of thoughts.”
Itivuttaka, 85. “Let mindfulness of your own respiration be well established at the tip of your nose.…When mindfulness of one’s own respiration is well established at the tip of the nose, the habits of thought which tend to produce irritation are no more.
“In the body the foul discerning,
Mindful of breathing in and out,
Ever ardent, comprehending
Pacification of all formations.
“Indeed, this bhikkhu rightly seeing
Is henceforth liberated here;
Armed with full knowledge and at peace
This sage has severed all bonds.”
The thirty-third verse of the Dhammapada says: “The mind is wavering and restless, difficult to guard and restrain: let the wise man straighten his mind as a maker of arrows makes his arrows straight.” The way a fletcher (arrow-maker) makes his arrows straight is by holding them directly in front of his nose at an angle and looking down his nose at them. This is the only way to perfectly see whether the arrow shaft is absolutely straight. So he keeps testing the arrow in this manner until it is seen to be truly straight. The mind, too, is made straight by looking at the nosetip in the same way as the breath is being observed in an objective and penetrative manner.
The Patisambhidamagga, The Path of Analysis, by Mahanama, is an ancient text that is usually considered part of the Pali Canon, and therefore is of considerable authority.
“For one who knows one-pointedness and non-distraction of mind by means of the awareness of in-breaths and out-breaths, feelings are known as they arise, known as they appear, known as they subside. Perceptions are known as they arise, known as they appear, known as they subside. Applied thoughts are known as they arise, known as they appear, known as they subside.” This statement of the Patisambhidamagga underscores the fact that the breath is the basic substance of feelings, perceptions, and thoughts–the basic substance of mind itself. And it defines “mind” for us: “Intellect, intellection, heart, lucidity, mind, mind-base, mind-faculty, consciousness, consciousness aggregate, appropriate mind-consciousness element–that is mind.”
“One who knows one-pointedness and non-distraction of mind by means of the awareness of in-breaths and out-breaths, brings to bear the faculties, the powers, the enlightenment factors, the path, mental objects, knows the domain, penetrates the meaning of calm.” The Saddhammappakasini, a commentary on the Patisambhida-magga, makes a very important point, saying that following “after in-breath or out-breath which has passed beyond the place of contact [the nose-tip] and gone away from it” produces distraction in the meditator’s mind.
Full awareness of the beginning, middle, and end of each inhalation and exhalation according to the Patisambhidamagga “is purity of conduct in the sense of restraint, purity of consciousness in the sense of non-distraction, and purity of view in the sense of seeing. What is restraint therein is the training in the higher virtuous conduct; what is non-distraction therein is the training in the higher consciousness; what is seeing therein is the training in the higher understanding.”
The Patisambhidamagga says that Breath Meditation is like the striking of a gong: there is the loud sound which diminishes into increasingly fainter sounds. In the same way, at the beginning of meditation the breath is very gross and objective, but as the meditation goes on, the breath becomes increasingly subtle and refined. This is a sign of successful practice.
The Vimuttimagga–The Path of Freedom–was written by Arahant Upatissa in the first century of the Christian era, and is a complex treatise on all the aspects of meditation–for meditation is the path of freedom. The fourth section of the eighth chapter of the Vimuttimagga is devoted to Breath Meditation and is well worth our careful perusal. At the very beginning it is stated that anapanasati “is ‘being mindful,’ ‘mindfulness,’ and ‘right mindfulness.’”
Upatissa then gives us the primary purpose of anapanasati, saying: “To cause arising of perception…is its salient characteristic.”
Next he tells us that: “Removal of discursive thought is its near [immediate] cause.” This is extremely important. Our mental energies are depleted by constant discursive thinking. With the conservation, clarification, and correction of our mental energies produced by anapanasati we can lead an intelligent, coherent, and meaningful life.
Then he cites these wonderful words of the Buddha about Breath Meditation: “If a man practices mindfulness of respiration, he attains to the peaceful, the exquisite, the lovely, and the blissful life. He causes evil and demeritorious states to disappear and to perish as soon as they arise. He is not negligent as regards his body or his organ of sight. His body and mind do not waver or tremble. He fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness, the seven enlightenment factors and freedom. This has been praised by the Blessed One. This is the abode of the Noble Ones, of Brahma and of the Tathagata.”
Arahant Upatissa comments on these words of Buddha, saying: “The foundation of mindfulness which begins with the long incoming breath and the long outgoing breath is the reviewing of the body. That which begins with the experiencing of joy is the reviewing of feeling. That which begins with the experiencing of the mind is the reviewing of thought. That which begins with the discernment of impermanence is the reviewing of states. Thus one who practices mindfulness of respiration fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness.”
He then enumerates the two factors of Breath Meditation. First: “mindfulness established in front–fixed at the nosetip.” Second: “The yogi…considers the sensation of the incoming and the outgoing breath through mindfulness that is fixed at the nosetip.” And he cautions us that the meditator “does not consider the breath when it has gone in and also when it has gone out.” That is, he does not follow the breath into the body when inhaling or out of the body when exhaling. Instead, “he considers the sensation of the incoming breath and the outgoing breath at the nosetip, with mindfulness.” Then he gives us an illustration of this. “It is as if a man were sawing wood. That man does not attend to the going back and forth of the saw [but only the point where the teeth are cutting].” In the same way the meditator does not follow the breath in and out, back and forth, but “he is aware of the sensation at the nosetip, and he breathes in and out with mindfulness.” If he practices in any other way “his mind will be distracted. If his mind is distracted, his body and mind will waver and tremble.”
The following caution is then given: “He should not endeavor too strenuously nor too laxly. If he endeavors too laxly, he will fall into rigidity and torpor. If he endeavors too strenuously, he will become restless.” What is needed is a gentle persistence.
Our venerable guide then speaks of what is called the nimitta–the image or “sign” of correctness in anapanasati practice. The nimitta is a most pleasant inner sensation experienced at the tip of the nose. He describes the nimitta in very simple words: “a pleasant feeling similar to that which is produced in the action of spinning cotton or silk cotton. Also, it is likened to the pleasant feeling produced by a breeze.…This does not depend on color or form.”
The simile of spinning is very significant. When cotton is held in the hand and the thread is formed, the grip must be neither too tight nor too loose. So the nimitta arises as a sign of correctness in meditation when, as already set forth, we are neither practicing strenuously nor laxly. But the most important point in this simile is the fact that the thread is felt to be forming at the point of holding–the spinner’s awareness is focused there. So also the nimitta occurs at the nosetip itself when the meditator’s awareness is centered there. At such times the breath may be experienced as though it were arising at the nosetip itself–neither coming from somewhere nor going somewhere. It is moving, but it does not move. This is really impossible for a person who has not experienced the nimitta to understand, but for one who has, this simile greatly illuminates the character of its experience. And it enables the meditator to be assured that his practice is right. For in correct practice the breath sensation at the nosetip changes into the nimitta and remains so unless the attention begins to slip away from its focus. For it really is the nimitta form of the breath which is the ultimate nimitta, and which becomes the object of our meditation rather than the mere physical breath. Furthermore the text informs us that the nimitta is purely tactile and has no relation with or dependence upon the visual experiences of color or form–though that will be discussed almost immediately.
Finally, the nimitta is really more of a psychological phenomenon than a sensory one, for it soothes and calms the mind when it arises. Rather than being a reward or a toy for the mind to fiddle with, it is a sober and assuring sign of correctness in meditation–no more. Hence the meditator feels no compulsion to grasp or hold on to it. Yet his objectivity will enable the nimitta experience to increase.
Upatissa then tells us that the nimitta may be experienced, not only at the nosetip, but also at the point between the eyebrows or the forehead. It has been my experience that it may also be experienced at the medulla, in the center of the head, at the hollow of the throat, or at the center of the chest–all of these being the points of power known as “chakras.” However it is crucial that the meditator not transfer his awareness from the nosetip to whatever place the nimitta is also manifesting. Rather, he should maintain his focus upon the tip of the nose, for it is that which brought about the secondary appearance of the nimitta–which will fade away if he abandons the nosetip. In time, through the increase and expansion of the nimitta, “He attains to distinction through bliss, his whole body is charged with bliss. This is called Perfection.”
Now we come to the matter of visual experiences during meditation. Certain visual phenomena often occur at the onset of the rise of the nimitta. In themselves they are nothing, merely “signs of the sign.” Yet, they do indicate that it is the true nimitta that is arising, so they are a kind of proof or test. “He sees various forms such as smoke, mist, dust, sand of gold….” These are approximate descriptions of inner light that the meditator may see with his eyes closed. The Visuddhimagga says that some see “a star or a cluster of gems or a cluster of pearls,…a wreath of flowers or a puff of smoke,…a stretched-out cobweb or a film or a cloud or a lotus flower or a chariot-wheel or the moon’s disk or the sun’s disk.” Again, these are only approximations in most cases. I have seen several of these myself; some are something like, and some are exactly like the objects listed. I must say I was surprised to see the string of pearls, since when I read about the experience I figured it was either a mistranslation or just silly. It was neither. I have also seen a kind of golden rain.
The nimitta itself–at the nosetip–causes us no problems and never leads us astray or distracts us. But this is not so in relation to visual phenomena, for: “If his mind does not become clear regarding these different images, he will be confused and distracted from anapanasati. If his mind remains clear, the yogin does not experience confusion.” And how does his mind remain clear at the time of visual experiences? “He attends to respiration and he does not cause the arising of other perceptions.” So by calmly remaining centered in the breath, the meditator’s mind remains clear and free of confusion. “Meditating thus he is able to end confusion…and he attends to respiration with a mind that is free.…that yogin attends to respiration and becomes joyful.”
Toward the end of the section on anapanasati, the Vimuttimagga simply says: “Practice means attaining.” That is, in Breath Meditation all practice is fruitful. The very practice of anapanasati guarantees results. When you practice, you attain.
The Visuddhimagga–The Path of Purification–was written in the fifth century by the great Buddhist commentator Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa. It deals with all the aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, including meditation, and is considered the “great treatise” of Theravada Buddhism.
“When his gross in-breaths and out-breaths have ceased, his consciousness occurs with the sign of the subtle in-breaths and out-breaths as its object. And when that has ceased, it goes on occurring with the successively subtler signs as its object.” Commenting on this, Bhikkhu Nanamoli, the translator, says: “The point made here is that if the breaths themselves get temporarily too faint [subtle] to be observed, he should carry on by observing the tip of the nose…till they become apparent again.” Sometimes when the expression “sign” is used in Buddhist texts on meditation the tip of the nose is meant. The Saddhammappakasini says: “The ‘sign’ is the place where the inbreaths and out-breaths touch. For in-breaths and out-breaths as they occur strike the nose-tip.”
[After prolonged practice] “in the case of the meditating bhikkhu the in-breaths and out-breaths are still and occur so subtly that he has to investigate whether they exist or not.”
“While other subjects of meditation become clearer at each higher stage, this one does not. But for him who is developing it, it becomes more subtle at each higher stage.” [Just before this passage, the Visuddhimagga uses the striking of a gong to illustrate this idea. First the loud sound of the blow on the gong is heard, and then the resonance is heard, diminishing into fainter and fainter sounds. Later it says: “In proportion as continued attention is given to it, it becomes more peaceful and more subtle.”] Also it comes to the point at which it is not manifested. But when it is not manifested thus, the bhikkhu should not rise from his seat and go away. What should be done?…By just sitting as he was, it should be reinstated from the point (where it was formerly established).” That is, the meditator should take one or more deliberate, deep breaths through the nose, reestablishing his awareness of both the nosetip and the breath, and then continue on as before.
“The mind of the bhikkhu, which has long been pursuing sense objects such as visible forms and so on, has no wish to mount respiration-mindfulness concentration as its object; but it runs off the track like a vehicle yoked to a runaway ox. Therefore, just as a cowherd, wishing to tame an unruly calf, might tie it up by a rope to a strong post driven into the ground, then that calf of his, dashing to and fro, unable to run away, sits down or lies down by that post; so indeed, the bhikkhu, wishing to tame his corrupted mind, should tie it by the rope of mindfulness to the post of in-and-out breathing. And so that mind of his, though it may dash to and fro, being unable to break the rope of mindfulness and run away, it sits down, lies down, beside that object, by virtue of access and full absorption. Hence the Ancients said:
“Just as the man who tames a calf
Would tie it to a post, so here
Should one’s own mind by mindfulness
Be firmly fastened to the object.”
Elsewhere it says:
“The clever man binds his mind onto the breathings in and out” as to a post.
“Respiration-mindfulness as a meditation subject is foremost among the various meditation subjects for all Buddhas, Paccekebuddas, and Buddhas’ disciples, as the basis for the attainment of distinction and a happy life here and now.” (A paccekebudda is one who is almost a Buddha, and whose attainment of Buddhahood is assured.)
“Mindfulness of breathing is…a field in which only the minds of Buddhas, Paccekabuddhas, and Buddhas’ sons are at home. It is no trivial matter, nor can it be cultivated by trivial persons. In proportion as continued
attention is given to it, it becomes more peaceful and more subtle. So strong mindfulness and understanding are necessary here.”
Regarding the enumeration of the sixteen states in the Anapanasati Sutra, the Visuddhimagga makes it very clear that they are not being set forth as affirmations or exercises, but rather that “the bhikkhu having seated himself thus and having established mindfulness thus, not abandoning it, just mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.”
The Paramattha-manjusa, a commentary on the Visuddhimagga says virtually the same words:
“The long kind and the short as well,
The in-breath and the out-breath, too–
Such are the four kinds that happen
At the nose-tip of the bhikkhu.”
When speaking of Breath Meditation in the Eighth Section, the Visuddhimagga says that “it is sublime, something one cannot have enough of,…it is unalloyed, unmixed, particular, special. Here it is not a question of peacefulness to be reached through preliminary work….It is peaceful and sublime in its own individual essence too, starting with the very first attention given to it.…So it should be understood to be ‘unadulterated’ and a ‘blissful abiding’ since it leads to the obtaining of bodily and mental bliss with every moment of absorption.”
Anapanasati is unalloyed and unadulterated because there is nothing in its makeup or practice that is inconsistent with enlightenment. It is not a thorn that takes out a thorn and then gets thrown away–a simile very much used by Indian yogis in speaking of meditation, but which implies that meditation is inconsistent with enlightenment. But Buddha has declared that Breath Meditation “is the abode of the Noble Ones, of Brahma and of the Tathagata.” For this reason Buddha continued to meditate right up to his final entering into Nirvana. He truly did “abide” in anapanasati because it essentially is really not a practice or method at all, but the abiding in the state of liberating consciousness.
Commenting on the Anapanasati Sutra, Buddhaghosa says that Breath Meditation “is training in the higher virtue,…training in the higher consciousness, and…training in the higher understanding.” And in its practice, “he should only breathe in and breathe out and not do anything else at all.” For Bhikkhu Nanamoli, the translator of the Visuddhimagga, says in a note on VIII, 175 that the breath originates in the consciousness. Consequently, it can open and reveal the original consciousness to the meditator. Later he says of the breath: “It is born of awareness, its source is awareness, and it is produced by awareness.”
Buddhaghosa also affirms that in anapanasati we are “not apprehending them [the inhaling and exhaling breaths] either inside or outside the body, but apprehending them just at the door” of the nosetip, “not discerning the air either inside or outside” the body. “Just as a gate-keeper does not examine people inside and outside the town, [asking:] ‘Who are you? Where have you come from? Where are you going? What have you got in your hand?’–for these people are not his concern–but he examines each man as he arrives at the gate; so, indeed, the incoming breaths inside and the outgoing breaths outside are not the concern of this bhikkhu but, as they arrive just at the gate [of the nose-tip], they are his concern.”
He warns us against any other form of observation, saying: “By bringing his consciousness inside along with the incoming breath, it seems as if it were buffeted by the wind inside or filled with fat [that is, heavy, thick, and sluggish]. By taking his consciousness outside together with the outgoing breath it gets distracted among the many objects outside. However, his development is successful when he fixes his mindfulness on the place of contact [the nose-tip].” To elucidate this, the Visuddhimagga says a little further on: “The mind of one who follows the breathing [in and out of the body] is confused by agitation and vacillation, according as is said in the Patisambhida: ‘In one whose consciousness is distracted [by following the breath in and out of the body], both body and mind are disturbed, unsettled, and unsteady.’ So when he gives his attention to it he should do so instead by contact [of the nose-tip] and by fixing [the awareness on the nose-tip alone].”
Regarding the nimitta, he says that “it is not the same for all,” and gives the list already cited in the Vimuttimagga section. Then he quotes what he says is an ancient aphorism:
Fixing his mind upon the nimitta
And putting away extraneous aspects,
The clever man anchors his mind
Upon the breathings in and out.
And he comments: “So as soon as the nimitta appears, his hindrances are suppressed, his defilements subside, his mindfulness is established, and his consciousness is concentrated in access concentration.…He should guard it as carefully as a king’s chief queen guards the child in her womb due to become a Wheel-turning Monarch [an Emperor], or as a farmer guards the ripening crops…. Then, guarding it thus, he should make it grow and improve with repeated attention….”
The Buddha outlined four states of meditation (jhana), all of which are produced by Breath Meditation. Buddhaghosa puts it this way: “He both breathes in and breathes out delivering, liberating, the mind from the hindrances by means of the first jhana, from applied and sustained thought by means of the second, from happiness by means of the third, from pleasure and pain by means of the fourth.”
Regarding the fervent and steady practicer of Breath Meditation, the Visuddhimagga says: “The body and the mind of one who is energetic become pliable–this is the endeavor. The imperfections of one who is energetic are abandoned and his applied thinking is pacified–this is the task. The fetters of one who is energetic are abandoned and his inherent tendencies are brought to an end–this is the distinction. Thus his consciousness does not become distracted; he manifests endeavor, accomplishes the task, and achieves distinction.” “Through the more subtle state of the in-breaths and out-breaths, through the increased peacefulness, through the advancement, there arises joy for the mind devoted to development.” So says the Paramattha-manjusa.
Concluding the section on anapanasati, Buddhaghosa says: “This mindfulness of breathing…thus is of great fruit, of great benefit.…for it is because it is peaceful, sublime, and an unadulterated blissful abiding that it cuts off the mind’s running hither and thither with applied thoughts obstructive to concentration, and keeps the mind only on the breaths as object. Hence it is said: ‘Mindfulness of breathing should be developed in order to cut off applied thoughts.’…Also its great beneficialness should be understood as the root condition for the perfecting of clear vision and deliverance; for this has been said by the Blessed One.” And he ends with this aphorism:
“So let a man, if he is wise,
Untiringly devote his days
To mindfulness of breathing, which
Rewards him always in these ways.”
Many things lighten and purify the mind, but nothing clarifies the mind like meditation. Without prolonged and profound practice of meditation, the mind will not be clarified to the point that the state of “clear-sight”–vipassana–arises in the mind. For clear-sight is a state–not a practice. This is extremely important to know, for a great deal of people think that clear-sight is a technique or intellectual insight, whereas it is a mode of seeing, not a mode of thinking. It is crucial for us to understand this, lest we waste our time in a kind of monologuing self-analysis, a form of auto-psychoanalysis that has nothing whatsoever to do with real clear-sight.
Although the state of clear-sight is produced by meditation, the experience of clear-sight also occurs spontaneously outside meditation, either in times of quiet examination (which may follow the period of meditation) or during daily activities. At those times the mind sees deep into whatever it perceives or focuses on. It not only sees, it knows. And that is clear-sight.
Sitting like Buddha
When Gotama Buddha sat beneath the bodhi tree he vowed that until he was enlightened he would not get up even if his flesh and bones were to be dissolved. This is why it is said that Buddha got enlightenment because he knew how to sit. His “sitting” was in the consciousness of the Self, not just the body. So if you “sit” in the same way during meditation, you will be safe from distractions and illusions as was Buddha.
All the forces of the cosmos came to distract Buddha from his inner quest. Cosmic Illusion itself in the form of Mara came to distract him. But he did not move, either in body or mind. Such steadfastness conquered the forces of ignorance completely. Buddha conquered them by simply ignoring them–which was the only sensible course, seeing that they were just illusions. You, too, can conquer distractions not by combating them, not by killing them, not by “seeing through” them or any such thing–but by just having nothing to do with them. The true Self does not touch any of these things, so the true path involves not touching them in your mind.
By sitting and ignoring the unreal, Buddha found the Real. Therefore many centuries later Jesus simply said: “In your patience possess your souls” (Luke 21:19). To relax and experience is the key for the correct practice of meditation.
Contemporary Buddhist Teachers
on Breath Meditation
This section contains a great deal of material, but whenever I read through it with the intention of paring it down, the profound wisdom and inspiration of every sentence made me abandon the idea. I hope you will value it as highly as I do.
Thich Nhat Hanh
“Breathing is a means of awakening and maintaining full attention in order to look carefully, long, and deeply, see the nature of all things, and arrive at liberation.”
“Our mind and our breath become one.”
“Well-known commentaries, such as the Patisambhida Magga (Path of No Hesitation) and the Visuddhi Magga (Path of Purity), teach that while we breathe, we should be aware of our nostrils, the place where air enters and leaves the body. Just as when we cut a log we keep our eyes on the place where the saw touches the log (rather than looking at the teeth of the saw), we pay attention to the nostrils and not to the air as it enters the body. Many commentators point out that if you follow the breath entering the body, then the object of your attention is not a single object, and thus concentration will be difficult. For this reason, they say that ‘the whole body’ in the third method means the whole body of breath and not the whole body of the practitioner.”
“All the commentaries–the Patisambhida Magga (Path of No Hesitation) by Mahanama, the Vimutti Magga (Path of Liberation) by Upatissa, and the Visuddhi Magga (Path of Purity) by Buddhagosa–recommend that practitioners focus on the tip of the nose rather than follow the breath as it enters the body. If the practitioner follows the breath into the body, they say, the practitioner will be dispersed.…Focusing the mind at the tip of the nose and being aware of the first moment of contact of air at its place of entry into the body, just as the carpenter looks only at the place of contact of the saw’s teeth as they enter and leave the wood, gradually the rough, uneven breathing becomes delicate and subtle, and finally discrimination [between the two] disappears.”
“Only by practicing correctly, according to the teachings of the Buddha in the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Sutras, can we be sure we will not stray into practices we may later regret.”
“Most readers of this book do not live in forests, under trees, or in monasteries. In our daily lives, we drive cars, wait for buses, work in offices and factories, talk on the telephone, clean our houses, cook meals, wash clothes, and so on. Therefore, it is important that we learn to practice Full Awareness of Breathing during our daily lives. Usually, when we perform these tasks, our thoughts wander, and our joy, sorrow, anger, and unease follow close behind. Although we are alive, we are not able to bring our minds into the present moment, and we live in forgetfulness.…Full Awareness of our Breathing helps our mind stop wandering in confused, never-ending thoughts.
“Most of our daily activities can be accomplished while following our breath….Stopping the random progression of thoughts and no longer living in forgetfulness are giant steps forward in our meditation practice. We can realize this by following our breath and combining it with awareness of each daily activity.
“There are people who have no peace or joy because they cannot stop their unnecessary thinking. They are forced to take sedatives to fall asleep, but even in their dreams, they continue to feel fears, anxieties, and unease. Thinking too much can give us headaches, and our spiritual power will diminish. By following our breath and combining conscious breathing with our daily activities, we can cut across the stream of disturbing thoughts and light the lamp of awakening. Full Awareness of an out-breath and an in-breath is something wonderful that anyone can practice.”
“At this point, allow your breathing, your body, and your observing mind to all become one. Breathing and body are one. Breathing and mind are one. Mind and body are one. Mind is not an entity that exists independently, outside of our breathing and our body. The boundary between the subject and the object of observation does not actually exists. We observe ‘the body in the body.’ The mind is one with the object it is observing.”
(From his book Breathe! You Are Alive. He also extensively expresses his opinion that anapanasati is the only formal yogic-type “technique” taught by Buddha–all other practices being more in the form of contemplations or ponderings by the intellect.)
“Mindfulness with breathing is a meditation technique anchored in our breathing. It is an exquisite tool for exploring life through subtle awareness and an active investigation of breathing and of life. The breath is life; to stop breathing is to die. The breath is vital, natural, soothing, revealing. It is our constant companion. Wherever we go, at all times, the breath sustains life and provides the opportunity for spiritual development. In practicing mindfulness upon and through breathing, we develop and strengthen our mental abilities and spiritual qualities.…And all the while, we are anchored in the breath, nourished and sustained by the breath, soothed and balanced by the breath, sensitive to breathing in and breathing out.
“Mindfulness with breathing is the system of meditation, or mental cultivation (citta-bhavana), often practiced and most often taught by Buddha Gotama.…
“Thus, the comprehensive form of mindfulness with breathing taught by the Buddha leads to the realization of humanity’s highest potential–spiritual awakening and liberation. It has other fruits as well, and so offers something of both immediate and long-term value, of both mundane and spiritual benefit to people at all stages of spiritual development.
“We should always remember that meditation is the cultivation and practice of non-attachment. The Buddha taught only the middle way, and anapanasati is nothing but the middle way. It is neither an intense practice, nor can it be done without effort. It must be done with balance. Properly done, anapanasati is neither detached pushing away nor egoistic clinging; it is a practice of non-attachment. Be very careful about sitting down with ideas like, ‘I am sitting, I am watching, I am breathing, I am meditating. I am this, that is mine, my breathing, my body, my mind, my feelings, I, I, me, me, mine, mine.…’ Learn to let go of these attached feelings and ideas of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ Learn to stay balanced in the breathing with sati (mindfulness/awareness).
“We do not cling to the technique we are using, nor do we cling to its theory. We do not use anapanasati to collect mundane trivia about the breath, ourselves, or anything else. We do not abuse it in the pursuit of attainments. Rather, we respectfully use anapanasati to develop the skills and learning we need, and all we need so to let go of attachments and thereby quench our dukkha [stress or pain].…
“Attachment is a long-established habit for most of us. If we could drop it easily, we would become buddhas just like that! Instead, most of us must work at letting go of our attachments and the habit of clinging and grasping. Anapanasati is one way of letting go. We begin by letting go of our coarse attachments: attachments to the body, to aches and pains; attachments to agitation and impatience, to boredom and laziness; attachments to external disturbances and petty annoyances. Then, we find ourselves becoming attached to more subtle things, such as happy feelings. Once we let go of these, we discover attachments to higher, brighter, clearer, more refined states of awareness. Letting go of these, we begin to have some insight into reality and so we become attached to the insights. Finally, we learn to let go of everything. In this way, anapanasati is a systematic method of successively letting go of more and more subtle attachments until there is no attachment left at all.…
“With anapanasati we learn to live in the present moment, the only place one can truly live.…Anapanasati will guide us to the bottom of this nasty ‘I-ing’ and ‘my-ing’ that spawns selfishness. It is not necessary to shout for peace when we need merely to breathe with wise awareness.”
“Of the many approaches [to vipassana, to meditation], anapanasati surely has the best claim to being Lord Buddha’s approach. No other system is detailed in the Sutras, whereas anapanasati has it own sutra, is partially discussed in the two satipatthana sutras, and is prominent in the Vinaya-pitaka [the texts on monastic discipline] and the Samyutta-nikaya [a large collection of Buddhist sutras] as well.”
(The quotations here are taken from his introduction to Mindfulness With Breathing by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.)
“The breath awareness teaching in the Anapanasati Sutra provides a clear and comprehensive way for us to develop both samatha [calmness] and vipassana [clear-sight]. The Buddha himself is reported to have attained liberation using this very method.”
“There are many different systems and techniques of mental development, or vipassana, for training the mind. Nevertheless, of all known techniques, the best is anapanasati-bhavana, the cultivation of mindfulness with breathing.”
“What parts and components come together to form a body? We should note that there is one very important component which nourishes the rest of this body, namely, the breath.…
“The breath-body is very important because it sustains life in the rest of the body. This relationship is crucial to our study. Although we lack the ability to control the general body, or flesh-body, directly, we can master it indirectly by using the breath. If we act in a certain way toward the breath-body, there will also be a specific effect upon the flesh-body. This is why we take the breath as the object of our training. Supervising the breath, to whatever degree, is equivalent to regulating the flesh-body to that same degree. This point will be more clearly understood when we have trained up to the particular stage of anapanasati.…
“…the flesh-body and the breath-body are interconnected and inseparable.…This, in turn, will allow us to master the flesh-body by means of regulating the breath.”
“The samadhi-bhavana [mental cultivation through concentration; meditation] specifically introduced and recommended by Lord Buddha himself [is] anapanasati. This method appears in both brief references and detailed explanations in the Pali Tripitaka. Anapanasati is the Buddha’s system, ‘the Buddha’s samadhi-bhavana.’…This system is simply the correct way as recommended by the Buddha. He declared this form of samadhi-bhavana to be the one through which he himself realized the Dharma of Perfect Awakening.”
“In ancient times, practitioners took clean lukewarm water in the palm of the hand, drew it up into the nose, and then blew the water out. If we do this two or three times, the nose will be clean and prepared, able to breathe well. The nose will then be much more sensitive to the breath. This is an example of getting our body ready.” [I can unreservedly recommend the use of a “neti pot” to accomplish the same thing–and much easier, too.–Nirmalananda]
“The spine is a vital part of the nervous system, so…a straight spine is necessary [in meditation] because it stimulates the correct kind of breathing.”
“Next, consider the hands. The most comfortable and easiest placement is to let the hands fall onto the knees.”
“We are intent upon gazing at the nose, at feeling the nose, and at the same time we feel the body breathing.”
“We do not allow empty spaces where the mind might wander but keep the mind constantly focused on the breathing in and out.”
“We should not forget: in every step, in every stage and interval of the practice, we must note the breathing in and breathing out. This is the background and foundation of our sati. This is how to be supremely mindful.”
“Lord Buddha himself declared that he realized Perfect Self-Awakening (anuttara-sammasambodhi) through the practice of anapanasati. So he offered it to us as the best system to practice. He advised us to use this practice for our own welfare, for the welfare of others, for the welfare of everyone. There is no better way to practice Dharma than mindfulness with breathing. May you give careful attention to it.”
(Most of the quotations given here are from his book Mindfulness With Breathing.)
“Being mindful and alert to the in-and-out breath is the actual meditation.”
“The in-and-out breath is like the wick of a candle or a lantern. Focusing mindfulness on the breath is like lighting the wick so that it gives off light. A single candle, if its wick is lit, can burn down an entire city. In the same way, mindfulness can destroy all the bad things within us: defilement, unawareness, craving, and attachment. Mindfulness is the consuming fire of the practice.”
“Being mindful of the breath is like casting a Buddha image inside yourself. Your body is like the furnace, mindfulness is like the mold. If mindfulness lapses, the bronze will leak out of the mold and your Buddha image will be ruined.”
“When the mind stays with the full breath, it does not waver or loosen its grip in the wake of any passing distractions, as when sounds strike the ear and so forth. Feelings are still experienced as they are felt, but at this point they do not give rise to craving, attachment, states of being, or birth. Awareness is simply aware. This is serenity as a factor of Awakening.”
“From what I have observed in my own practice, there is only one path that is short, easy, effective, and pleasant, and at the same time has hardly anything to lead you astray: the path of keeping the breath in mind, the same path the Lord Buddha himself used with such good results.”
“If you let the breath follow its own nature, and the mind its own nature, the results of your practice will without a doubt be all that you hope for.”
“When you focus your attention on the breath–which exists in each of us–to the point where the mind settles down and is centered, you will have the chance to meet with the real thing: buddha, pure knowing.”
“Let the breath be relaxed and natural. Keep your mind perfectly still, focused on the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils. When the breath goes out, do not send the mind out after it. When the breath comes in, do not let the mind follow it in. Let your awareness be broad and open. Do not force the mind too much. Relax.…Keep the mind still, like a post at the edge of the sea. When the water rises, the post does not rise with it; when the water ebbs, the post does not sink.
“When you’ve reached this level of stillness,…simply be aware of the feeling of the breath.”
“A mind intent only on issues related to the breath, not pulling any other objects in to interfere, until the breath is refined, giving rise to fixed absorption and then liberating insight: This is Right Concentration.”
“Another, even briefer way to express the four Noble Truths is this: The in-and-out breath is the truth of stress. Not being aware of the in-breath, not being aware of the out-breath: This is the cause of stress–obscured, deluded awareness. Seeing into all aspects of the breath so clearly that you can let them go with no sense of attachment, is the disbanding of stress. Being constantly mindful and aware of all aspects of the breath, is the path to the disbanding of stress.
“When you can do this, you can say that you are correctly following the path of breath meditation. Your awareness is unobscured.”
“These three qualities [of directed thought (vitakka), singleness of preoccupation (ekaggatarammana), and evaluation (vicara)] must be brought together to bear on the same stream of breathing for the first level of jhana [meditation] to arise. This stream of breathing can then take you all the way to the fourth [and highest] level of jhana.”
“As rapture and pleasure grow stronger, the breath becomes more subtle. The longer you stay focused and absorbed, the more powerful the results become.”
“Actually, our mind tends to be working all the time, but the work it gets involved in is usually a lot of fuss and bother without any real substance. So we have to find work of real value for it to do–something that won’t harm it, something really worth doing. This is why we are doing breath meditation, focusing on our breathing, focusing on our mind. Put aside all your other work and be intent on doing just this and nothing else. This is the sort of attitude you need when you meditate.”
“Breath meditation–keeping the breath steadily in mind–is the best method the Buddha taught for wiping out these Hindrances [sensual desire, ill will, torpor and lethargy, restlessness and anxiety, and uncertainty].…
“…As soon as you bring the mind to the breath, you’ll feel a sense of rapture and refreshment. The four bases of attainment (iddhipada)–and the desire to practice, persistence in the practice, intentness, and circumspection in your practice–will develop step by step. These four qualities are like the ingredients in a health tonic. Whoever takes this tonic will have a long life. If you want to die, you do not have to take it, but if you do not want to die, you have to take a lot. The more you take it, the faster the diseases in your mind will disappear.”
“When you sit and meditate, even if you do not gain any intuitive insights, make sure at least that you know this much: When the breath comes in, you know. When it goes out, you know. When it is long, you know. When it is short, you know. Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, you know. If you can know this much, you are doing fine. As for the various thoughts and concepts (sanna) that come into the mind, brush them away–whether they are good or bad, whether they deal with the past or the future. Do not let them interfere with what you are doing–and do not go chasing after them to straighten them out. When a thought of this sort comes passing in, simply let it go passing on. Keep your awareness, unperturbed, in the present.”
“The awareness that forms the present: That is the true mind.”
“…as he [Buddha] was meditating on his breath, he gained Awakening. He found what he was looking for–right at the tip of his nose.
“Nirvana does not lie far away. It’s right at the tip of our nose. But we keep groping around and never find it. If you are really serious about finding purity, set your mind on meditation and nothing else. As for whatever else may come your way, you can say, ‘No thanks.’ Pleasure? ‘No thanks.’ Pain? ‘No thanks.’ Goodness? ‘No thanks.’ Evil? ‘No thanks.’ Attainment? ‘No thanks.’ Nirvana? ‘No thanks.’ If it is ‘no thanks’ to everything, what will you have left? You won’t need to have anything left. THAT is Nirvana.”
“What’s difficult about the highest good lies in the beginning, in laying the groundwork–being constantly mindful, examining and evaluating your breath at all times. But if you can keep at it, you are bound to succeed in the end.”
“The breath is a mirror for the mind.”
“With one exception, all of the meditation themes mentioned here are simply gocara dhamma–foraging places for the mind. They are not places for the mind to stay. If we try to go live in the things we see when we are out foraging, we will end up in trouble. Thus, there is one theme that’s termed vihara dhamma or anagocara: Once you have developed it, you can use it as a place to stay. When you practice meditation, you don’t have to go foraging in other themes; you can stay in the single theme that is the apex of all meditation themes: anapanasati, keeping the breath in mind. This theme, unlike the others, has none of the features or various deceptions that can upset or disturb the heart.…
“Thus only one of these themes–anapanasati, keeping the breath in mind–is truly safe. This is the supreme meditation theme. You do not have to send your awareness out to fix it on any outside objects at all. Even if you may go foraging through such objects, do not go living in them, because after a while they can waver and shift, just as when we cross the sea in a boat: When we first get into the boat we may feel all right, but as soon as the boat heads out into the open bay and we are buffeted by wind and waves, we can start feeling seasick. To practice keeping the breath in mind, though, is like sitting in an open shelter at dockside: We will not feel queasy or sick; we can see boats as they pass by on the water, and people as they pass by on land. Thus, keeping the breath in mind is classed:
“–as an exercise agreeable to people of any and every temperament;
“–as anagocara, an exercise in which you focus exclusively on the breath while you sit in meditation, without having to compound things by sending your awareness out to grab this or get hold of that;
“–and as dhamma-thiti, i.e., all you have to do is keep your mind established firm and in place.”
“The breath is one thing, mindfulness is another, and your awareness, still another. You have to twist these three strands together so that they do not break away from one another. In other words, your awareness has to stay with the act of mindfulness, thinking about the breath. And both your awareness and mindfulness have to stay with the breath. Only then can you say that these things are factors of meditation.”
“If you force the mind too much, it is bound to pop away. If you loosen your grip too much, it is going to get lost. So try to tend to it in a way that’s just right. The important point is that your mindfulness and alertness be circumspect. Do not let the mind go flowing out after other preoccupations.”
“So be aware simply of the breath, for the breath is what gives life and leads you to higher happiness.”
“Mindfulness is like a magic soap that scrubs the breath. Alertness is another bar of magic soap for scrubbing the mind. If you constantly have mindfulness and alertness in conjunction with the breath and the mind, your body and mind will be valuable and pure, so that as long as you live in the world you’ll be at your ease; when you die, you will not be put to difficulties.”
“To put it simply: every aspect of meditation is good. No matter how much you do, even if you do not seem to be getting any results, it is all good regardless.…When you are mindful of the breath, it is good for the mind. When you can make the mind still with the breath, it is good for the mind. For this reason, meditation is something you should do at all times. Do not let the time and opportunity to meditate pass you by.”
“Ordinary, everyday breathing does not do anything special for you except keep you from dying. The breathing on which your awareness is intent can give rise to all kinds of good things.”
(From The Skill of Release, Basic Themes, Keeping the Breath in Mind, and Starting Out Small. Ajaan Lee was one of the foremost teachers in the Thai forest ascetic tradition of meditation founded at the turn of the century by his teacher, Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta. His life was short but eventful. Known for his skill as a teacher and his mastery of supernatural powers, he was the first to bring the ascetic tradition out of the forests of the Mekhong basin and into the mainstream of Thai society in central Thailand.)
Maha Boowa Nanasampanno
“Whether the breath is heavy or refined, simply be aware of it as it normally is. Do not set up any expectations. Do not force the breath to be like this or that. Keep your awareness with the breath, because in meditating by taking the breath as your preoccupation, you are not after the breath. The breath is simply something for the mind to hold to so that you can reach the real thing, just as when you follow the tracks of an ox: You are not after the tracks of the ox. You follow its track because you want to reach the ox. Here you are keeping track of the breath so as to reach the real thing: awareness. If you were to start out just by holding on to awareness, you would not get any results, just as you would not be sure of finding the ox if you simply went around looking for it. But if you follow its tracks, you are going to find it for sure.…
“The same holds true with focusing on the breath. If it is heavy, know that it is heavy. Do not get worried or upset about it,…the important point is to keep track of the breath coming in and out. Eventually the breath will become more and more refined, because mindfulness is focused on the breath and does not go anywhere else. When the breath goes in, be aware of it. When it goes out, be aware of it, but there is no need to follow it in and out. That would simply be creating a greater burden for yourself, and your attention might slip away. So focus right on the entry point where the breath goes in and out.…the tip of the nose is the place to focus on the breath. Keep watch right there. Keep aware right there. Do not waste your time speculating or planning on how the results will appear, or else your mind will wander away from the principle of the cause that will give rise to those results. Keep close watch on the cause–what you are doing–and the breath will become more and more refined.
“When the breath becomes more refined, that shows that the mind is refined. Even if the breath becomes so refined that it disappears–at the same time that you are aware that it is disappearing–do not be afraid. The breath disappears, but your awareness does not disappear. You are meditating not for the sake of the breath, but for the sake of awareness, so stay with that awareness. You do not have to worry or be afraid that you will faint or die. As long as the mind is still in charge of the body, then even if the breath disappears, you will not die. The mind will dwell with freedom, with no agitation, no worries, no fears at all. This is how you focus on the breath.”
(From Things As They Are. Venerable Ajaan Maha Boowa was a disciple of the Venerable Ajaan Mun and followed him into the forests of northeast Thailand. He often went into solitary retreat in the mountains and jungle, but stayed with Ajaan Mun for seven years, until his venerable teacher’s passing away. The vigor and uncompromising determination of his Dharma practice attracted other monks dedicated to meditation and this eventually resulted in the founding of Wat Pa Bahn Tahd, in a forest near the village where he was born. Venerable Ajaan Maha Boowa is well known for the fluency and skill of his Dharma talks, and their direct and dynamic approach.)
“…mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out, and he wins to the insight that frees from suffering.”
“If you attach great significance to Mindfulness of Breathing (anapanasati) you have perceived an important fact. As the four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthana) may be called the heart of the doctrine, so is Mindfulness of Breathing, if rightly understood, the heart of the heart. ‘Mindfulness of Breathing if developed well and regularly practiced, brings to perfection the four Foundations of Mindfulness,’ thus it is said in the 118th Discourse [the Anapanasati Sutra]. He who knows these means of deliverance, and applies them, will experience by himself that restlessness, desire, anger, misapprehensions and thereby all deep sorrows, will vanish, and will reappear only and always, when that mindfulness (sati) is absent. While our other fellow-beings–millions of them–go on living without any substantial gain in liberation (‘worn out in vain, this body dies away’), he who knows the laws of deliverance can purposefully take into his hands the work of their unfolding; he can loosen, and finally break, the chains of slavery.”
“First of all, three things are required here: 1. persistence, 2. persistence, 3. persistence. Without great devotion, without extraordinary patience even one who is otherwise gifted, will not be able to make progress.”
(From his book Going Forth [Pabbajja]).
“Mindfulness of breathing was, by tradition, the subject used by Gotama in his efforts to attain Enlightenment. It is most suitable for promoting calm and concentrated states and so for quelling the distracted mind.”
“Mindfulness of breathing is especially good as a concentration method for use during travel and during the times when one is restlessly expecting a bus or a train. Why be agitated or impatient? A little mindful breathing is just the practice for these moments, since it calms the feverish workings of the mind and the restless movements of the body.”
“The mindfulness of breathing is recommended for calming and clearing the mind, and a person of almost any temperament may practice it with benefit, though great care is needed in the subtler ranges of this exercise. The breathing is never forced but observed constantly with mindfulness, the point of concentration being the nose-tip.”
(From his books Lay Buddhist Practice and Practical Advice For Meditation.)
“Mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati) is generally regarded as the most important meditation subject taught in the Nikayas [collections of Buddha’s teachings]. The Pali exegetical tradition holds that it was mindfulness of breathing that the Buddha practiced on the night of his enlightenment,…and during his teaching career he occasionally would go off into seclusion to devote himself to this meditation. He calls it ‘the Tathagata’s dwelling,’ a lofty honor, and often recommends it to both trainees and arahants. For those in training it leads to the destruction of the taints; for arahants it leads to a pleasant dwelling here and now and to mindfulness and clear comprehension.”
“This method of exposition [in the Samyutta Nikaya] shows mindfulness of breathing as a complete subject of meditation that begins with simple attention to the breath and culminates in the highest deliverance of the mind.”
“The Buddha begins his exposition of the body with contemplation of the mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati). Though not required as a starting point for meditation, in actual practice mindfulness of breathing usually serves as the ‘root meditation subject,’ the foundation for the entire course of contemplation. It would be a mistake, however, to consider this subject merely an exercise for neophytes. By itself mindfulness of breathing can lead to all the stages of the path culminating in full awakening. In fact it was this meditation subject that the Buddha used on the night of his own enlightenment. He also reverted to it throughout the years during his solitary retreats, and constantly recommended it to the monks, praising it [in the Anapanasati Sutra] as ‘peaceful and sublime, an unadulterated blissful abiding, which banishes at once and stills evil unwholesome thoughts as soon as they arise.’”
“Mindfulness of breathing can function so effectively as a subject of meditation because it works with a process that is always available to us, the process of respiration. What it does to turn this process into a basis for meditation is simply to bring it into the range of awareness by making the breath an object of observation. The meditation requires no special intellectual sophistication, only awareness of the breath. One merely breathes naturally…keeping the breath in mind….There should be no attempt to control the breath or to force it into predetermined rhythms, only a mindful contemplation of the natural process of breathing in and out. The awareness of breath cuts through the complexities of discursive thinking, rescues us from pointless wandering in the labyrinth of vain imaginings, and grounds us solidly in the present. For whenever we become aware of breathing, really aware of it, we can be aware of it only in the present, never in the past or the future.”
“Mindfulness has to cover the whole extent of the breath, its beginning, middle and end. This is what is meant by the passage in the Sutra, ‘Experiencing the whole [breath] body, I shall breathe in and out.’ Similarly, the entire ‘breath’ or rhythm of our life will become deeper and fuller if, through slowing-down, we get used to sustained attention.”
(From the introductory material in his translation of the Samyutta Nikaya and to his book The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering.)
Mahathera Ledi Sayadaw
“It is usual for all Buddhas to attain Supreme Enlightenment by means of mindfulness of breathing, and having attained Buddhahood, all Buddhas have continued to remain established in mindfulness of breathing without a break until they attained Paranirvana.
“Of the forty prescribed exercises of tranquillity meditation, mindfulness of breathing is the easiest to establish continuously at all times. The Buddha also extolled this meditation subject more highly than he did other subjects. The commentators too called anapanasati ‘the plane of great personages.’”
“‘O bhikkhus! If mindfulness of breathing is cultivated and developed many times for a lengthy period, the four foundations of mindfulness are fulfilled and perfected. If the four foundations of mindfulness are cultivated and developed many times for a lengthy period, the seven factors of enlightenment are fulfilled and perfected. If the seven factors of enlightenment are cultivated and developed many times for a lengthy period, knowledge and deliverance are fulfilled and perfected.’
“Here, knowledge means the four path knowledges, and deliverance the four fruition knowledges. The essential meaning is that if mindfulness of breathing is practiced assiduously for days and months, the work of the four foundations of mindfulness, the seven factors of enlightenment, and knowledge and deliverance is automatically accomplished. The four foundations of mindfulness, the seven factors of enlightenment, and knowledge and deliverance comprise the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment, and hence it means that the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment are automatically accomplished [by the mindfulness of breathing].”
“Says the Sutra: ‘When, to a yogi practicing mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness becomes firm, and there is no moment when he is without mindfulness, then the enlightenment factor of mindfulness is accomplished.’”
(From his book Manual of Mindfulness of Breathing.)
“Mindfulness of breathing takes the highest place among the various subjects of Buddhist meditation. It has been recommended and praised by the Enlightened One thus: ‘This concentration through mindfulness of breathing, when developed and practiced much, is both peaceful and sublime, it is an unadulterated blissful abiding, and it banishes at once and stills evil unprofitable thoughts as soon as they arise.’ Though of such a high order, the initial stages of this meditation are well within the reach of a beginner though he be only a lay student of the Buddha-Dharma.”
“Though we have been breathing throughout our life, we have done so devoid of mindfulness, and hence, when we try to follow each breath attentively, we find that the Buddhist teachers of old were right when they compared the natural state of an uncontrolled mind to an untamed calf. Our minds have long been dissipated among visible data and other objects of the senses and of thought, and hence do not yield easily to attempts at mind-control.
“Suppose a cowherd wanted to tame a wild calf: he would take it away from the cow and tie it up apart with a rope to a stout post. Then the calf might dash to and fro, but being unable to get away and tired after its effort, it would eventually lie down by the post. So too, when the meditator wants to tame his own mind that has long been reared on the enjoyment of sense objects, he should take it away from places where these sense objects abound, and tie the mind to the post of in-breaths and out-breaths with the rope of mindfulness. And though his mind may then dash to and fro when deprived of its liberty to roam among the sense objects, it will ultimately settle down when mindfulness is persistent and strong.
“When practicing mindfulness of breathing, attention should be focused at the tip of the nose…. The meditator’s attention should not leave this ‘focusing point’ from where the in-coming and out-going breaths can be easily felt and observed. The meditator may become aware of the breath’s route through the body but he should not pay attention to it.”
“It has been said by the Buddha: ‘Mindfulness of breathing, developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, of great advantage, for it fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness; the four foundations of mindfulness, developed and repeatedly practiced, fulfil the seven enlightenment factors; the seven enlightenment factors, developed and repeatedly practiced, fulfil clear-vision and deliverance.’ Clear vision and deliverance, or direct knowledge and the bliss of liberation, are the highest fruit of the application of mindfulness.”
(From his introduction to his translation of the Satipatthana Sutra.)
Ajaan Fuang Jotiko
“We have got to be observant as much as possible. Use your mindfulness to keep the breath in mind–the breath that’s already there within you, that’s been there from the day you were born up to the present. The effort lies in taking what’s already there and keeping it continuous, without break, so that it grows, so that it is steady and constant. It’ll then gain momentum. There will be strength in the breath. Developments will appear. Our in-and-out breath will become timeless. It will appear continuously to our awareness. This is something we have to pursue as much as possible, do as much as possible. The more we do it, the more all sorts of good things will appear within us. If we do not work at it, our goodness will not develop.…The opportunity to know the truth will not appear clearly within us. The truth will stay incomplete. So we have to use the power of our mindfulness to keep the breath in mind in a way that becomes more and more complete. Then developments will appear within us.”
“The breath does not belong to Buddhism or Christianity or anyone else. It is common property all over the world, and everyone has the right to look at it. So try looking at the breath until you can see your own mind and know your own mind. Then the question of what religion you belong to will not be an issue, because we can talk about the mind instead of discussing religions. This way we can understand each other.”
“You have to know the breath at all times, and then happiness will be yours. The human state, the heavenly state, and Nirvana are all here in the breath. If you get carried away with other things, happiness will slip through your fingers, so you have to learn how to observe the in-and-out breath at all times. Pay attention to how it is getting along–do not leave it to fend for itself. When you know its way of life–sitting, standing, walking, everything–then you can get what you want from it. The body will be light, the mind at ease, happy at all times.”
“The breath can take you all the way to Nirvana.”
“The first step is simply to look at the breath as it is. You do not have to go fiddling around with it a lot.…Do not force the breath, or force the mind into a trance. Simply hold the mind carefully right there with each breath.”
“[The breath] is always real, right there. The important thing is whether or not you are for real. If you are, then simply keep at it. That is all there is to it. Simply keep being real, being true in what you do, and your meditation will make progress. It will gradually grow stronger, and the mind will grow calm. Just be clear about what you are doing. Do not have any doubts. If you can doubt even your own breath, then there are no two ways about it: You will doubt everything. No matter what happens, you will be uncertain about it. So be straightforward and true in whatever you do, for everything comes down to whether or not you are true.”
“Make the mind and the breath one and the same. Do not let them be two.”
“Do not be a post planted in the mud. Have you ever seen a post planted in the mud? It sways back and forth and can never stand firm. Whatever you do, be firm and single-minded about it. Like when you focus on the breath: Make the mind one with it, like a post planted firmly in solid rock.”
“Hold onto the breath the way a red ant bites: Even if you pull its body so that it separates from the head, the head will keep on biting and will not let go.”
“Observing the breath is the cause, the pleasure that arises is the result. Focus as much as you can on the cause. If you ignore the cause and get carried away with the result, it will run out and you will end up with nothing at all.”
“The main thing when you meditate is to be observant.”
“The breath can be a resting place for the mind, or it can be what the mind actively contemplates.”
“If you were to say it is easy, well yes, it is easy. If you were to say it is hard, it is hard. It all depends on you.”
“All you need to do is keep your sense of simple awareness solid and strong, and nothing will be able to overwhelm you.”
“Right awareness has to be paired with the breath.”
“All the things you need for the practice–the breath, the mind–are already there.”
(From the books Timeless and True, and Awareness Itself. Ajaan Fuang was one of Ajaan Lee’s most devoted students, spending some twenty-four rains retreats in the company of his renowned teacher. After Ajaan Lee’s death, Ajaan Fuang continued on at Wat Asokaram, Ajaan Lee’s bustling monastery near Bangkok. A true forest monk at heart, Ajaan Fuang left Wat Asokaram in 1965 in search of greater solitude more conducive to meditation, and ultimately ended up at Wat Dhammasathit in Rayong province, where he lived as abbot until his death in 1986.)
“When sitting in meditation we are told to close the eyes, not to look at anything else, because now we are going to look directly at the mind. When we close our eyes, our attention comes inwards. We establish our attention on the breath, center our feelings there, put our mindfulness there. When the factors of the path are in harmony we will be able to see the breath, the feelings, the mind and its mood for what they are. Here we will see the ‘focus point,’ where samadhi and the other factors of the Path converge in harmony.”
“Let the breath go naturally, do not force it to be short or long or whatever, just sit and watch it going in and out. When the mind lets go of all external impressions, the sounds of cars and such will not disturb you. Nothing, whether sights or sounds, will disturb you, because the mind does not receive them. Your attention will come together on the breath.
“If the mind is confused and will not concentrate on the breath, take a full, deep breath, as deep as you can, and then let it all out till there is none left. Do this three times and then re-establish your attention. The mind will become calm.
“It’s natural for it to be calm for a while, and then restlessness and confusion may arise again. When this happens, concentrate, breathe deeply again, and then re-establish your attention on the breath. Just keep going like this. When this has happened many times you will become adept at it, the mind will let go of all external manifestations. External impressions will not reach the mind. Sati will be firmly established. As the mind becomes more refined, so does the breath. Feelings will become finer and finer, the body and mind will be light. Our attention is solely on the inner, we see the in-breaths and out-breaths clearly, we see all impressions clearly.…
“After watching the breath for a long time, it may become very refined; the awareness of the breath will gradually cease, leaving only bare awareness. The breath may become so refined it disappears! Perhaps we are ‘just sitting,’ as if there is no breathing at all. Actually there is breathing, but it seems as if there is none. This is because the mind has reached its most refined state, there is just bare awareness. It has gone beyond the breath. The knowledge that the breath has disappeared becomes established. What will we take as our object of meditation now? We take just this knowledge as our object, that is, the awareness that there is no breath.
“Unexpected things may happen at this time; some people experience them, some do not. If they do arise, we should be firm and have strong mindfulness. Some people see that the breath has disappeared and get a fright, they are afraid they might die. Here we should know the situation just as it is. We simply notice that there is no breath and take that as our object of awareness. This, we can say, is the firmest, surest type of samadhi. There is only one firm, unmoving state of mind. Perhaps the body will become so light it is as if there is no body at all. We feel like we are sitting in empty space, all seems empty. Although this may seem very unusual, you should understand that there is nothing to worry about. Firmly establish your mind like this.
“When the mind is firmly unified, having no sense impressions to disturb it, one can remain in that state for any length of time. There will be no painful feelings to disturb us. When samadhi has reached this level, we can leave it when we choose, but if we come out of this samadhi we do so comfortably, not because we have become bored with it or tired. We come out because we have had enough for now, we feel at ease, we have no problems at all.
“If we can develop this type of samadhi, then if we sit, say, thirty minutes or an hour, the mind will be cool and calm for many days. When the mind is cool and calm like this, it is clean. Whatever we experience, the mind will take up and investigate. This is a fruit of samadhi.”
“We sit in meditation to establish peacefulness and cultivate mental energy. We do not do it in order to play around at anything special. Insight meditation is sitting in samadhi itself. At some places they say, ‘Now we are going to sit in samadhi, after that we will do insight meditation.’ Do not divide them like this! Tranquillity is the base which gives rise to wisdom; wisdom is the fruit of tranquillity. To say that now we are going to do calm meditation [samatha], later we will do insight [vipassana]–you cannot do that! You can only divide them in speech. Just like a knife, the blade is on one side, the back of the blade on the other. You cannot divide them. If you pick up one side you get both sides. Tranquillity gives rise to wisdom like this.”
“When you fix attention on the breath, make a clear mental determination that you are not going to force it in any way. If you get disturbed by the breathing, it is a sign that you still are not practicing in the right way. If you are not at ease with the breath then it will always seem either too short or too long, too gentle or too forceful, and it will not feel comfortable. But once you do feel at ease with it and there is awareness of each in-breath and out-breath, you have got it right. This indicates that you are practicing in the correct way.”
“In the course of the meditation, if you desire to experience different things–or you actually do start to experience different psychic phenomena, such as bright lights or visions of celestial palaces or other similar things–do not be afraid. Be mindful of such experiences and keep doing the meditation.”
“Sometimes you might be meditating and the sensation of the breath totally disappears. It might truly seem to have vanished making you afraid. Actually, there is no need to be afraid; it is only your thoughts that have vanished. The breath is still there, but is simply operating on a much more refined level than normal. Once an appropriate period of time has elapsed, the sensation of the breathing will return by itself.”
“To meditate you do not have to think much more than to resolve that right now is the time for training the mind and nothing else. Do not let the mind shoot off to the left or to the right, to the front or behind, above or below. Our only duty right now is to practice mindfulness of the breathing.…Your sole duty is to observe the inhalations and exhalations. Do not force the breath to be any longer or shorter than normal, just allow it to continue easily. Do not put any pressure on the breath, rather let it flow evenly, letting go with each in-breath and out-breath.
“You must understand that you are letting go as you do this, but there should still be awareness. You must maintain this awareness, allowing the breath to enter and leave comfortably. There is no need to force the breath, just allow it to flow easily and naturally. Maintain the resolve that at this time you have no other duties or responsibilities. Thoughts about what will happen, what you will know or see during the sitting, may arise from time to time, but once they arise just let them cease by themselves, do not be concerned over them.
“During the meditation there is no need to pay attention to sense impressions. Whenever the mind is affected by sense impingement, whenever there is a feeling or sensation in the mind, just let it go. Whether those sensations are good or bad is unimportant. It is not necessary to make anything out of those sensations, just let them pass away and return your attention to the breath. Maintain the awareness of the breath entering and leaving. Do not create suffering over the breath being too long or too short, simply observe it without trying to control or suppress it in any way. In other words, do not attach. Allow the breath to continue as it is, and the mind will become calm. As you continue the mind will gradually lay things down and come to rest, the breath becoming lighter and lighter until it becomes so faint, that it seems like it is not there at all. Both the body and the mind will feel light and energized. All that will remain will be a one-pointed knowing. You could say that the mind has changed and reached a state of calm.
“If the mind becomes agitated, set up mindfulness and inhale deeply till there is no space left to store any air, then release it all completely until none remains. Follow this with another deep inhalation until you are full, then release the air again. Do this two or three times, then reestablish concentration. The mind should be calmer. If any more sense impressions cause agitation in the mind, repeat the process on every occasion. Similarly with walking meditation. If, while walking, the mind become agitated, then stop still, calm the mind, reestablish the awareness with the meditation object [the breath] and then continue walking. Sitting and walking meditation are in essence the same, differing only in terms of the physical posture used.
“Sometimes there may be doubt, so you must have sati [mindfulness, awareness], to be the one who knows, continually following and examining the agitated mind in whatever form it takes. This is to have sati. Sati watches over and takes care of the mind. You must maintain this knowing and not be careless or wander astray, no matter what condition the mind takes on.
“The trick is to have sati taking control and supervising the mind. Once the mind is unified with sati a new kind of awareness will emerge. The mind that has developed calm is held in check by that calm, just like a chicken held in a coop…the chicken is unable to wander outside, but it can still move around within the coop. Its walking to and fro does not get it into trouble because it is restrained by the coop. Likewise the awareness that takes place when the mind has sati and is calm does not cause trouble. None of the thinking or sensations that take place within the calm mind cause harm or disturbance.
“Some people do not want to experience any thoughts or feelings at all, but this is going too far. Feelings arise within the state of calm. The mind is both experiencing feelings and calm at the same time, without being disturbed. When there is calm like this there are no harmful consequences. Problems occur when the ‘chicken’ gets out of the ‘coop.’ For instance, you may be watching the breath entering and leaving and then forget yourself, allowing the mind to wander away from the breath back home, off to the shops or to any number of different places. Maybe even half an hour may pass before you suddenly realize you are supposed to be practicing meditation and reprimand yourself for your lack of sati. This is where you have to be really careful, because this is where the chicken gets out of the coop–the mind leaves its base of calm.
“You must take care to maintain the awareness with sati and try to pull the mind back. Although I use the words ‘pull the mind back,’ in fact the mind does not really go anywhere, only the object of awareness has changed. You must make the mind stay right here and now. As long as there is sati there will be presence of mind. It seems like you are pulling the mind back but really it has not gone anywhere, it has simply changed a little. It seems that the mind goes here and there, but in fact the change occurs right at the one spot. When sati is regained, in a flash you are back with the mind without it having to be brought from anywhere.
“When there is total knowing, a continuous and unbroken awareness at each and every moment, this is called presence of mind. If your attention drifts from the breath to other places then the knowing is broken. Whenever there is awareness of the breath the mind is there. With just the breath and this even and continuous awareness you have presence of mind.
“There must be both sati and sampajañña. Sati is recollection and sampajañña is self-awareness. Right now you are clearly aware of the breath. This exercise of watching the breath helps sati and sampajañña develop together. They share the work. Having both sati and sampajañña is like having two workers to lift a heavy plank of wood. Suppose there are two people trying to lift some heavy planks, but the weight is so great, they have to strain so hard, that it is almost unendurable. Then another person, imbued with good will, sees them and rushes in to help. In the same way, when there is sati and sampajañña, then pañña [wisdom] will arise at the same place to help out. Then all three of them support each other.
“With pañña there will be an understanding of sense objects. For instance, during meditation sense objects are experienced which give rise to feelings and moods. You may start to think of a friend, but then pañña should immediately counter with ‘It does not matter,’ ‘Stop,’ or ‘Forget it.’ Or if there are thoughts about where you will go tomorrow, then the response should be ‘I am not interested, I do not want to concern myself with such things.’ Maybe you start thinking about other people, then you should think: ‘No, I do not want to get involved,’ ‘Just let go,’ or ‘It is all uncertain and never a sure thing.’ This is how you should deal with things in meditation, recognizing them as ‘not sure, not sure,’ and maintaining this kind of awareness.
“You must give up all the thinking, the inner dialogue, and the doubting. Do not get caught up in these things during the meditation. In the end all that will remain in the mind in its purest form are sati, sampajañña, and pañña. Try to develop sati like this until it can be maintained at all times. Then you will understand sati, sampajañña, and samadhi thoroughly.
“Focusing the attention at this point [the breath/nosetip] you will see sati, sampajañña, samadhi, and pañña together. Whether you are attracted to or repelled by external sense objects, you will be able to tell yourself ‘It is not sure.’ Either way they are just hindrances to be swept away till the mind is clean. All that should remain is sati, recollection; sampajañña, clear awareness; samadhi, the firm and unwavering mind; and pañña, consummate wisdom.”
“…it will have to take many sittings and much effort before you become proficient. Once you are, the mind will let go of the external world and remain undisturbed. Mind-objects from the outside will be unable to penetrate inside and disturb the mind itself. Once they are unable to penetrate inside, you will see the mind. You will see the mind as one object of awareness, the breath as another and mind-objects as another. They will all be present within the field of awareness, centered at the tip of your nose. Once sati is firmly established with the in-breaths and out-breaths, you can continue to practice at your ease. As the mind becomes calm, the breath, which was originally coarse, correspondingly becomes lighter and more refined. The object of mind also becomes increasingly subtle and refined. The body feels lighter and the mind itself feels progressively lighter and unburdened. The mind lets go of external mind-objects and you continue to observe internally.”
“When you focus attention in just one place–in this case, the breath–you gain a clarity and awareness because of the uninterrupted presence of sati. As you continue to see the breath clearly, sati will become stronger and the mind will become more sensitive in many different ways. You will see the mind in the center of the place (the breath), one-pointed with awareness focused inwards, rather than turning towards the world outside. The external world gradually disappears from your awareness and the mind will no longer be going to perform any work on the outside. It is as if you have come inside your “house,” where all your sense faculties have come together to form one compact unit. You are at your ease and the mind is free from all external objects. Awareness remains with the breath, and over time it will penetrate deeper and deeper inside, becoming progressively more refined.”
(From the books A Taste of Freedom and The Key to Liberation and the Path to Peace. Ajaan Chah was born in the northeastern part of Thailand. He became a novice at a young age and received higher ordination at the age of twenty. He followed the austere Forest Tradition for years, living in forests and begging for almsfood as he wandered about on mendicant pilgrimage. He practiced meditation under a number of masters, among whom was Ajaan Mun, a highly respected and accomplished meditation teacher of the time. Ajaan Mun had an indelible influence on Ajaan Chah. Ajaan Chah later became an accomplished meditation teacher in his own right, sharing his realization of the Dharma with those who sought it.)
Ajaan Suwat Suvaco
“Simply be mindful of the breath. When the breath comes in, let it come in with ease. When it goes out, let it go out with ease. Let the mind be at ease, too. If anything comes along to disturb you, do not get involved with it. Just keep that sense of ease going.”
(From A Fistful of Sand. Ajaan Suwat ordained in 1939 at the age of 20 as a student of Ajaan Funn Acaro. He also studied briefly with Ajaan Mun. In the 1980’s Ajaan Suwat came to the United States, where he established four monasteries: one near Seattle, Washington, two near Los Angeles, and one in the hills of San Diego County [Metta Forest Monastery]. He returned to Thailand in 1996.)
“Concentration on the breathing process leads to one-pointedness of the mind and ultimately to Insight which enables one to attain Sainthood or Arahatship.”
“The Buddha also practiced concentration on respiration before He attained Enlightenment.”
“This harmless concentration may be practiced by any person irrespective of religious beliefs.”
“It is of no importance which posture one may adopt provided the position is easy and relaxed.”
“It is clear that the object of this concentration on respiration is not merely to gain one-pointedness but also to cultivate Insight to obtain deliverance from suffering.”
(From Buddhism in a Nutshell.)
In the discourse entitled “A Roof That Does Not Leak” the Venerable Webu Sayadaw likens our life to a roof. If the roof is well-made it does not leak and so no water enters the house. In the same way, if our lives are “well-made” by conformity to spiritual principles, no suffering will enter our heart. Therefore he says:
“You see, you think that the teachings of the Buddha are vast and varied, but really they are just one single way of escape from suffering. Only if you take up one object of meditation given by the Buddha and pursue it with steadfast effort to the end, can you justly claim that your roof is not leaking anymore. If your roof is not rain-proof yet, you have to be aware of this.
“…Only if you are steadfast does your practice resemble a roof, and greed, aversion and delusion cannot leak through. Only if the roof is not leaking can we say that we are sheltered.
“…While you sit, walk, stand and work, it is always possible to be aware of the in-breaths and out-breaths, isn’t it?
“The men, Devas [gods] and Brahmas [creators] who received the teachings after the Buddha’s awakening practiced [anapanasati] continuously and therefore their respective aspirations for awakening were fulfilled. What the Buddha taught is enshrined in the Tripitaka. If you keep your attention focused on the spot [i.e., the tip of the nose] and on the in-breath and out-breath, the whole of the Tripitaka is there.
“When you concentrate at the spot, there is understanding, and ignorance has been banned. Now, if we continue to concentrate on the spot, will ignorance spring back up again?
“You see, you have to establish understanding in this way. You have found it now; do not allow it to escape again. Can you suddenly be overpowered by delusion if your understanding keeps growing moment by moment? Do good people still have to moan and complain, saying that it is difficult to get rid of ignorance once they have been given the teachings of the Buddha, which are the tool to overcome and defeat ignorance?
“So, you realize that all that the Buddha taught is contained in this meditation. If you put forth effort, establish yourselves in perfect effort, then you will reach full understanding.…Now you have to build a roof that really protects you against rain. Once you have built a good shelter you will not get wet and you will not have to suffer the heat of the sun anymore.
“In that case, put forth full effort so that you do not have to suffer sun and rain ever again.”
(From The Essential Practice Dharma Discourses of Venerable Webu Sayadaw.)
“Apart from its ultimate benefits, mindfulness of breathing has an immediate value that can be seen in one’s daily life. It promotes detachment and objectivity. It allows one the mental distance needed to arrive at wise decisions in the countless difficulties of daily life. Regular practice of this meditation brings increased concentration and self-control, improved mindfulness, and is also conducive to healthy and relaxed living.”
(From A Simple Guide to Life.)
Mahathera Nanyane Ariyadhamma
“Anapana sati, the meditation on in-and-out breathing, is the first subject of meditation expounded by the Buddha in the Maha Satipatthana Sutra, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. The Buddha laid special stress on this meditation, for it is the gateway to enlightenment and Nirvana adopted by all the Buddhas of the past as the very basis for their attainment of Buddhahood. When the Blessed One sat at the foot of the Bodhi Tree and resolved not to rise until he had reached enlightenment, he took up anapana sati as his subject of meditation. On the basis of this, he attained the four jhanas, recollected his previous lives, fathomed the nature of samsara, aroused the succession of great insight knowledges, and at dawn, while 100,000 world systems trembled, he attained the limitless wisdom of a Fully Enlightened Buddha.
“Let us then offer our veneration to the Blessed One, who became a peerless world-transcending Buddha through this meditation of anapana sati. May we comprehend this subject of meditation fully, with wisdom resplendent like the sun and moon. Through its power may we attain the blissful peace of Nirvana.”
“The practitioner of meditation who consciously watches the breath in this manner should never try to control his breathing or hold back his breath with effort. For if he controls his breath or holds back his breath with conscious effort, he will become fatigued and his mental concentration will be disturbed and broken. The key to the practice is to set up mindfulness naturally at the spot where the in-breaths and the out-breaths are felt entering and leaving the nostrils. Then the meditator has to maintain his awareness of the touch sensation of the breath, keeping the awareness as steady and consistent as possible.”
“‘Following’ means following the breath with the mind. This is explained by the Buddha in this manner: ‘When the meditator breathes in a long breath, he comprehends that he is breathing in a long breath; and when he is breathing out a long breath, he comprehends that he is breathing out a long breath.’ Herein, one does not deliberately take a long in-breath or a long out-breath. One simply comprehends what actually takes place.
“The Buddha has declared in the next passage that a meditator trains himself thinking: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body, and I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ Here, what is meant as ‘the whole body’ is the entire cycle of breathing in and breathing out. The meditator should fix his attention so as to see the beginning, the middle and the end of each cycle of in-breathing and out-breathing. It is this practice that is called ‘experiencing the whole body.’”
“The beginning, middle and end of the breath must be correctly understood. It is incorrect to consider the tip of the nose to be the beginning of the breath, the chest to be the middle, and the navel to be the end. If one attempts to trace the breath from the nose through the chest to the belly, or to follow it out from the belly through the chest to the nose, one’s concentration will be disrupted and one’s mind will become agitated. The beginning of the in-breath, properly understood, is the start of the inhalation, the middle is continued inhalation, and the end is the completion of the inhalation. Likewise, in regard to the out breath, the beginning is the start of the exhalation, the middle is the continued exhalation, and the end is the completion of the exhalation. To ‘experience the whole body’ means to be aware of the entire cycle of each inhalation and exhalation, keeping the mind fixed at the spot around the nostrils where the breath is felt entering and leaving the nose.
“This work of contemplating the breath at the area around the nostrils, without following it inside and outside the body, is illustrated by the commentaries with the similes of the gatekeeper and the saw.
“Just as a gatekeeper examines each person entering and leaving the city only as he passes through the gate, without following him inside or outside the city, so the meditator should be aware of each breath only as it passes through the nostrils, without following it inside or outside the body.
“Just as a man sawing a log will keep his attention fixed on the spot where the teeth of the saw cut through the wood, without following the movement of the teeth back and forth, so the meditator should contemplate the breath as it swings back and forth around the nostrils, without letting his mindfulness be distracted by the breath’s inward and outward passage through the body.
“When a person meditates earnestly in this manner, seeing the entire process, a joyous thrill pervades his mind. And since the mind does not wander about, the whole body becomes calm and composed, cool and comfortable.”
“When the mindfulness of breathing is maintained, the breathing becomes more and more subtle and tranquil. As a result the body becomes calm and ceases to feel fatigued. Bodily pain and numbness disappear, and the body begins to feel an exhilarating comfort, as if it were being fanned with a cool gentle breeze.
“At that time, because of the tranquillity of the mind, the breathing becomes finer and finer until it seems that it has ceased. At times this condition lasts for many minutes. This is when breathing ceases to be felt. At this time some become alarmed thinking the breathing has ceased, but it is not so. The breathing exists but in a very delicate and subtle form. No matter how subtle the breathing becomes, one must still keep mindful of the contact (phusana) of the breath in the area of the nostrils, without losing track of it. The mind then becomes free from the five hindrances–sensual desire, anger, drowsiness, restlessness and doubt. As a result one becomes calm and joyful.”
“It is at this stage that the ‘signs’ or mental images appear heralding the success of concentration. First comes the learning sign (uggaha-nimitta), then the counterpart sign (patibhaga-nimitta). To some the [learning] sign appears like a wad of cotton, like an electric light, a silver chain, a mist or a wheel. It appeared to the Buddha like the clear and bright midday sun.
“The learning sign is unsteady, it moves here and there, up and down. But the counterpart sign [that is the sensation of the breath] appearing at the end of the nostrils is steady, fixed and motionless. At this time there are no hindrances, the mind is most active and extremely tranquil. This stage is expounded by the Buddha when he states that one breathes in tranquilizing the activity of the body, one breathes out tranquilizing the activity of the body.
“The arising of the counterpart sign and the suppression of the five hindrances marks the attainment of access concentration (upacara-samadhi). As concentration is further developed, the meditator attains full absorption (appana-samadhi) beginning with the first jhana. Four stages of absorption can be attained by the practice of anapana sati, namely, the first, second, third and fourth jhanas.”
“Births like ours are rare in samsara. We have been fortunate to encounter the Buddha’s message, to enjoy the association of good friends, to have the opportunity to listen to the Dharma. As we have been endowed with all these blessings, if our aspirations are ripe, we can in this very life reach the final goal of Nirvana through its graduated stages of stream entry, once-returner, non-returner and arahatship. Therefore, let us make our life fruitful by developing regularly the meditation of anapana sati. Having received proper instructions on how to practice this method of meditation, one should purify one’s moral virtue by observing the precepts and should surrender one’s life to the Triple Gem.”
“One should choose a convenient time for meditation and practice with utmost regularity, reserving the same period each day for one’s practice.…Then, arousing the confidence that one is walking the very road to Nirvana walked by all the enlightened ones of the past, one should proceed forth on the path of meditation and strive with diligent effort.”
(From his booklet Anapana Sati: Meditation on Breathing.)
“Take as example the founder of our religion, the fully self-enlightened Buddha. Before his enlightenment he practiced calm meditation using the breath as his initial object. On the day of his enlightenment he practiced this way. On the in-breath he focused intently on the in-breath. On the out-breath he focused intently on the out-breath. All mental agitation and movement ceased, leaving only the in-breaths and out-breaths remaining. The Lord’s mind was focused intently on the breath until his mind became calm, cool and easeful, attaining the firmness of khanika, upacara, and ultimately the unwavering appana samadhi. When the Buddha-to-be’s mind was thus unwaveringly and undeviatingly single-pointed vipassana took place: there was clear knowing….” [Note that vipassana took place–it was not “done” or engaged in in an intellectual sense. (Nirmalananda)]
“On that Visakha Puja night the Lord did not move from his seat; he just sat. Even so it says in the scriptures that the daughters of Mara, all the hosts of temptation, attacked him strongly. But the Buddha did not give in. They urged him to get up but he would not. The Buddha focused his attention on his breathing. If he did get up he knew that all that awaited him was death, at most he might postpone it for eighty or a hundred years, and so he just looked intently at his breathing. He reflected that if after inhalation some obstruction or other prevented the exhalation, then he would die. If after exhalation some blockage in the lungs prevented inhalation then also he would die. The Buddha just stayed with the breath,…until a strong conviction and clarity of mind arose in him.”
“The Buddha himself used the breathing process as the subject of calm meditation and the foundation of insight meditation. It was the ground of his Dharma practice. All of us too are inhaling and exhaling, we too all have body and mind. As the Buddha did, if we overcome the defilements in our hearts we will clearly perceive Nirvana.”
(From the book Simply So: Dharma Teachings of Looang Boo Sim Buddhacaro.)
“Bhikkhu Vimalo argued that I was seriously limiting my work with the breath, that in fact the breath could take me all the way to the deepest realizations.”
“Soto Zen emphasizes full attention to breathing and posture; all the wisdom one needs will be a natural outcome of such complete presence. The Anapanasati Sutra–though it can be used as a systematic course of contemplations–is also a blueprint of the way in which that wisdom can arise.”
“Much of what the [Anapanasati] Sutra describes will turn up naturally if you just sit and follow the breathing, if you persist in that practice over the course of days and months and years. It is natural for your attention to deepen until it includes the whole body, and for that process gradually to calm the body. Once your attention is in the body, you begin to notice feelings and your mental reactions to them, which lead you into the mind as a vast realm to explore. Finally, if you are paying attention, you cannot help noticing that all the phenomena you are observing arise and pass away, that they are impermanent and lack an essential core.
“The sixteen contemplations, then, represent a natural process. They might not unfold in exactly that order, and some of them might stand out more than others. But most of these aspects of body and mind eventually, and quite naturally, show up if you sit and look into yourself over a period of time.”
“You can use the [Anapanasati] Sutra as a training program or as the description of a process, but, however you use it, you cannot force these [sixteen] steps. They will happen in their own time; you cannot bring them about. You can prepare the ground, certainly, and make a sincere effort, but ultimately your body and mind do what they want, and you will not have much to say about it.”
“Try to be straight and comfortable, relaxed and balanced. This isn’t a mindless rigidity, which locks itself at the base of the spine and does not give the posture another thought, but a relaxed, aware straightness, an uprightness that emerges from within. An erect posture makes the breathing easier, and ease of breathing relaxes the body. These two factors feed on each other.”
“When we focus on the breath, we are focusing on the life force [prana]. Life begins with our first breath and will end after our last. To contemplate breathing is to contemplate life itself.”
“We are all breathing. The instruction is just to know that we are, not in an intellectual sense, but to be aware of the simple sensation, the in-breath and the out-breath. Even in this first instruction, we are learning something extremely important, to allow the breathing to follow its own nature, to breathe itself. We are not trying to make the breath deep or keep it shallow. We are seeing how it is.
“That flies in the face of our lifelong conditioning to control, direct, and orchestrate everything.…”
“The breath is an object that the Buddha often meditated on. It is what he used to help him achieve enlightenment. He continued to practice with it for years after his awakening. The breath, as we gradually discover, is a whole world. It is easily worth a lifetime of study.”
“It is important to emphasize, in discussing the art of meditation (and the practice as you continue it becomes an art, with many subtle nuances), that you shouldn’t start out with some idea of gaining. This is the deepest paradox in all of meditation: we want to get somewhere–we wouldn’t have taken up the practice if we didn’t–but the way to get there is just to be fully here. The way to get from point A to point B is really to be at A. When we follow the breathing in the hope of becoming something better, we are compromising our connection to the present, which is all we ever have. If your breathing is shallow, your mind and body restless, let them be that way, for as long as they need to. Just watch them.
“The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing. No one is saying that the breathing should be some particular way all the time. If you find yourself disappointed with your meditation, there is a good chance that some ideal of gaining is present. See that, and let it go. However your practice seems to you, cherish it just the way it is. You may think that you want it to change, but that act of acceptance is in itself a major change. It has the dynamic power to take your mind into stability and serenity.…
“One place where ideas of gaining typically come in, where people get obsessive about the practice, is in the task of staying with the breathing. We take a simple instruction and create a drama of success and failure around it: we are succeeding when we are with the breath, failing when we are not. Actually, the whole process is meditation: being with the breathing, drifting away, seeing that we have drifted away, gently coming back. It is extremely important to come back without blame, without judgment, without a feeling of failure. If you have to come back a thousand times in a five-minute period of sitting, just do it. It is not a problem unless you make it into one.
“Each instance of seeing that you’ve been away is, after all, a moment of mindfulness, as well as a seed that increases the likelihood of such moments in the future. Best of all is to go beyond the whole mentality of success and failure, to understand that our lives are a series of alternations between various states. If you already had some kind of laser-like attention that never wavered, you wouldn’t need to practice meditation at all. The object is not to make your breathing perfect. It is to see how your breathing really is.”
“Obsession with a target is not the point. We in the West have a very strong ‘in order to’ mind. We want to go from A to B, B to C. Ideally we’d like to go from A straight to Z, get our Ph.D. the first day, skip all the steps in between. Enlightenment in one easy lesson. Our mind spends all its time calculating. Everything is a means to an end.
“But that misses the point. Each breath moment is both a means and an end. we are not looking at the breath in order to get to enlightenment, we are just looking at the breath, rooted to it, sitting with it like a lion. Enlightenment, after all, is just one more bone [for the doggie mind to pursue]. It is an idea we have.
“The instruction is to disappear into the breathing….”
“Return gently to the breath.”
“So the constant repetition of coming back to the breath has real value. Our wish always to hit the target, always be doing it right, is an obstacle. We start to blame ourselves: I do not know how to do this, I’m a bad meditator, everybody else is concentrating but me. If only my mind didn’t wander, I’d be able to practice. But seeing that the mind has wandered is practice. If you continue for years, you’ll have to come back, who knows, millions of times. So learning to come back gracefully is extremely important. Make it a dance, not a wrestling match.”
“The body, mind, and breath become one.”
“Thich Nhat Hanh says he has been watching the breath for fifty years and it only grows in interest.”
“[Tang Hoi] speaks of realizing the breathing practice, which means seeing the breath vividly, make attention to the breath continuous.
“‘When the yogi has realized the breathing process the mind is ablaze with light. Using that light to observe deeply, nothing can enter the yogi’s mind that he does not see.’
“It is as if the murky shadowy place that we call the mind–where so much happens that we do not understand–is suddenly bright and clear, like a large empty room. According to Tang Hoi, it is attention to the breath that brings that transformation about.”
“Zen Master Hogen said that the whole universe is the breath. If you really pay attention to it, it takes you to its immaculate source. You can call that Buddha nature, nirvana, the deathless, whatever you want. All the names for it are human inventions. What they point to is the deepest truth we know.”
“For long periods of time–like the spider–you might sit in silence. That is not wasted time. The silence is also nourishing. What we are learning to rest in finally is awareness itself, Buddha: that which knows. All the arising and passing away, and the growing periods of silence, are the contemplative’s food.
“The attitude to sit with is one of total receptivity and openness. You lay the calculating mind to rest and allow life to come to you, without reaching out for anything at all. You sit with relaxed alertness, knowing that life will provide you with all the material necessary for your meditation to flourish. Whatever is there is perfect to practice with, because it is there. It is your life in that moment.”
“It is wrong to call what we do–trying to stay with the breath from moment to moment throughout the day–practice, which sounds artificial and contrived. It is really a way of living, one in which we give attentiveness and alertness to every moment the highest priority. Finally it is not a technique or practice at all. It is much larger than that.…
“That is the wonderful thing about the breathing, and the reason it is such a helpful object of attention. It is both perfectly ordinary (we are all doing it, all the time) and extremely special (if we weren’t doing it, we’d be dead). There is nothing Buddhist about it. Everybody breathes. It is also extremely portable. We take it everywhere we go. So if you choose to practice with the breathing, it has the advantage of always being there. No matter how many times you forget it throughout the day, you can always take it up again. There’s another in-breath. There’s another out-breath.…
“…One thing that many students find is that the more they pay attention to the breathing throughout the day–while eating, washing the dishes, listening to music, walking in the woods–the easier it is. The capacity to stay with the breath gets stronger and stronger, and the breath itself becomes more vivid and available and alive.”
“The breath can be helpful by acting as a brake on the mind’s tendency to act impulsively, to prefer any course of action to the anguish that accompanies confusion. Sometimes wisdom is not to act.”
“The breath can be a great help by giving you space around your words. Sometimes you are just moments from saying the wrong thing, but spending those moments with the breathing can give you the clarity to avoid it. In the same way, one of my students once told me of a situation in which he was perhaps thirty seconds away from committing a sexual indiscretion. He wanted to, and felt that the woman he was with did also. But in the brief period he was able to come to the breathing and bring himself back from a fantasy that had been very compelling. He had been carried away by a thought in the same way that he might have been on the cushion [sitting in meditation].”
“Buddha is saying that both the four foundations and the seven factors develop out of the practice of anapanasati.”
(These are taken from his book Breath by Breath.)
Next Chapter in The Breath of Life: The Taoist Tradition of Breath Meditation