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Anapana Sati Meditation on Breathing
by Ven. Mahathera Nauyane Ariyadhamma
Originally delivered as a sermon under the Bodhi Tree at Kalutara. Published as a Bodhi Leaf with the kind permission of the author. Translated from the Sinhalese by Professor U.D. Jayasekera. This electronic edition was transcribed from the print edition in 1994 by Steven McPeak & John Bullitt under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society. (see copyright notices that accompany this text)
Homage to the Blessed One, Accomplished and Fully Enlightened
Anapana sati, the meditation on in-and-out
breathing, is the first subject of meditation expounded by the Buddha in
the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of
Mindfulness. The Buddha laid special stress on this meditation, for it
is the gateway to enlightenment and Nibbana adopted by all the
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 Nibbana.
The Basic Text
Let us first examine the meaning of the text expounded by the Buddha on anapana sati. The text begins:
"Herein, monks, a monk who has gone to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down cross legged, holding his back erect, arousing mindfulness in front of him."
This means that any person belonging to the four types of individuals mentioned in this teaching -- namely, bhikkhu (monk), bhikkhuni (nun), upasaka (layman) or upasika (laywoman) -- desirous of practicing this meditation, should go either to a forest, to the foot of a secluded tree, or to a solitary dwelling. There he should sit down cross-legged, and keeping his body in an erect position, fix his mindfulness at the tip of his nose, the locus for his object of meditation.
If he breathes in a long breath,
he should comprehend this with full awareness. If he breathes out a long
breath, he should comprehend this with full awareness. If he breathes in
a short breath, he should comprehend this with full awareness. if he
"He breathes in experiencing the
whole body, he breathes out experiencing the whole body": that is, with
well-placed mindfulness, he sees the beginning, the middle and the end
of the two phases, the in-breath and the out-breath. As he practices watching
the in-breath and the out breath with mindfulness, he calms
The Buddha illustrates this with
a simile. When a clever turner or his apprentice works an object on his
lathe, he attends to his task with fixed attention: in making a long turn
or a short turn, he knows that he is making a long turn or a short turn.
In the same manner if the practitioner of meditation breathes in a long
In this way he comprehends the two functions of in-breathing and out-breathing in himself, and the two functions of in breathing and out-breathing in other persons. He also comprehends the two functions of in-breathing and out-breathing in himself and in others in rapid alternation. He comprehends as well the cause for the arising of in-breathing and out-breathing, and the cause for the cessation of in breathing and out-breathing, and the moment-by-moment arising and cessation of in-breathing and out-breathing.
He then realizes that this body which
exercises the two functions of in-breathing and out-breathing is only a
body, not an ego or "I." This mindfulness and wisdom become helpful in
developing greater and more profound mindfulness and wisdom,
This is an amplified paraphrase of
the passage from the Maha Satipatthana Sutta on anapana sati. This meditation
has been explained in sixteen different ways in various suttas. Of these
sixteen, the first tetrad has been explained here. But these four are the
foundation for all the sixteen ways in which anapana sati can be
The Preliminaries of Practice
Now we should investigate the preliminary stages to practicing this meditation. In the first place the Buddha indicated a suitable dwelling for practicing anapana sati. In the sutta he has mentioned three places: the forest, the foot of a tree, or an isolated empty place. This last can be a quiet restful hut, or a dwelling place free from the presence of people. We may even consider a meditation hall an empty place. Although there may be a large collection of people in such a hall, if every one remains calm and silent it can be considered an empty place.
The Buddha recommended such places
because in order to practice anapana sati, silence is an essential factor.
A beginning meditator will find it easier to develop mental concentration
with anapana sati only if there is silence. Even if one cannot find complete
silence, one should choose a quiet place where one will enjoy
Next the Buddha explained the sitting posture. There are four postureswhich can be adopted for meditation: standing, sitting,reclining and walking. Of these the most suitable posture to practiceanapana sati at the beginning is the seated posture.
The person wishing to practice anapana
sati should sit downcross-legged. For bhikkhus and laymen, the Buddha hasrecommended
the cross-legged Position. This is not an easy posture foreveryone, but
it can be gradually mastered. The half
In the practice of anapana sati,
it is imperative to hold the body upright. The torso should be kept erect,
though not strained and rigid. One can cultivate this meditation properly
only if all the bones of the spine are linked together in an erect position.
Therefore, this advice of the Buddha to keep the upper part of the body
The hands should be placed gently on the lap, the back of the right hand over the palm of the left. The eyes can be closed softly, or left half-closed, whichever is more comfortable. The head should be held straight, tilted a slight angle downwards, the nose perpendicular to the navel
The next factor is the place for
fixing the attention. To cultivate anapana sati one should be clearly mindful
of the place where the incoming and outgoing breaths enter and leave the
nostrils. This will be felt as a spot beneath the nostrils or on the upper
lip, wherever the impact of the air coming in and out the nostrils can
Then the Buddha has explained the
manner in which anapana sati has to be
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
The Eight Steps
To help practitioners in developing this meditation, the commentators and meditation masters have indicated eight graduated steps in the practice. These eight steps will first be enumerated, and then they will be explained in relation to the actual meditative process.
The eight steps are named: counting
(ganana); following (anubandhana);
When the meditator sits down for meditation, he fixes his attention at the tip of his nose and consciously attends to the sequence of in-and-out breathing. He notes the breath as it enters, and notes the breath as it leaves, touching against the tip of the nose or the upper lip. At this time he begins to count these movements.
There are a few methods of counting. The easiest is explained thus: The first breath felt is counted as "one, one"; the second as "two, two"; the third as "three, three"; the fourth as "four, four"; the fifth as "five, five" and so on up to the tenth breath which is counted as "ten, ten." Then he returns to "one, one" and continues again up to "ten, ten." This is repeated over and over from one to ten.
The mere counting is not itself meditation, but the counting has become an essential aid to meditation. A person who has not practiced meditation before, finding it difficult to understand the nature of his mind, may think he is meditating while his mind runs helter skelter. Counting is an easy method to control the wandering mind.
If a person fixes his mind well on
his meditation, he can maintain this counting correctly. If the mind flees
in all directions, and he misses the count, he becomes confused and thus
can realize that his mind has wandered about. If the mind has lost track
of the count, the meditator should begin the counting over again. In this
As the practice develops, there may
come a time when the in-breathing and out breathing take a shorter course
and it is not possible to count the same number many times. Then the meditator
has to count quickly "one," "two," "three," etc. When he counts in this
manner he can comprehend the difference between a long
"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 breath 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
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.
(iii) Contact and (iv) Fixing
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
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 sign appears like a wad of cotton, like an
The learning sign is unsteady, it moves here and there, up and down. But the counterpart sign 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
(v) Observing -- (viii) Retrospection
The paths are followed by their respective
fruitions; this stage is called "purification" (parisuddhi) because one
has been cleansed of defilements. Thereafter one realizes the final stage,
reviewing knowledge, called retrospection (patipassana)
The Seven Stages of Purification
Next, he applies himself to his topic
of meditation, and as a result, the hindrances become subjugated and the
mind becomes fixed in concentration. This is purification of mind (citta-visuddhi)
-- the mind in which the hindrances have been fully
When the meditator becomes well established in concentration, he next turns his attention to insight meditation. To develop insight on the basis of anapana sati, the meditator first considers that this process of in-and-out breathing is only form, a series of bodily events -- not a self or ego. The mental factors that contemplate the breathing are in turn only mind, a series of mental events -- not a self or ego. This discrimination of mind and matter (nama-rupa) is called purification of view (ditthi-visuddhi).
One who has reached this stage comprehends
the process of in-and-out breathing by way of the conditions for the arising
and cessation of the bodily and mental phenomena involved in the process
of breathing. This knowledge, which becomes extended to all bodily and
mental phenomena in terms of their dependent arising,
After having, understood the causal relations of mind and matter, the meditator proceeds further with insight meditation, and in time there arises the wisdom "seeing the rise and fall of things." When he breathes in and out, he sees the bodily and mental states pass in and out of existence moment after moment. As this wisdom becomes clearer, the mind becomes illumined and happiness and tranquillity arise, along with faith, vigour, mindfulness, wisdom and equanimity.
When these factors appear, he reflects
on them, observing their three characteristics of impermanence, suffering
and egolessness. The wisdom that distinguishes between the exhilarating
results of the practice and the task of detached contemplation is called
"purification by knowledge and vision of the
He sees next, with each in-breath
and out-breath, the breaking up of the concomitant mental and bodily phenomena,
which appears just like the bursting of the bubbles seen in a pot of boiling
rice, or like the breaking up of bubbles when rain falls on a pool of water,
or like the cracking of sesamum or mustard seeds as they
Then there arises in him the wisdom that sees all of these phenomena as a fearsome spectacle. He sees that in none of the spheres of existence, not even in the heavenly planes, is there any genuine pleasure or happiness, and he comprehends misfortune and danger.
Then he conceives a revulsion towards
all conditioned existence. He arouses an urge to free himself from the
world, an all consuming desire for deliverance. Then, by considering the
means of releasing himself, there arises in him a state of wisdom
Now there appears in him the comprehension that the aggregates of mind and body appearing in all the world systems are afflicted by suffering, and he realizes that the state of Nibbana, which transcends the world, is exceedingly peaceful and comforting. When he comprehends this situation, his mind attains the knowledge of equanimity about formations. This is the climax of insight meditation, called "purification by knowledge and vision of progress."
As he becomes steadfast, his dexterity
in meditation increases, and when his faculties are fully mature he enters
upon the cognitive process of the path of stream-entry (sotapatti). With
the path of stream-entry he realizes Nibbana and comprehends directly the
Four Noble Truths. The path is followed by two or three
If one continues with the meditation
with earnest aspiration, one will develop anew the stages of insight knowledge
and realize the three higher paths and fruits: those of the once-returner,
non-returner, and arahant. These attainments, together with
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 Dhamma.
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
One should choose a convenient time
for meditation and practice with utmost regularity, reserving the same
period each day for one's practice. One may begin by briefly reflecting
on the abundant virtues of the Buddha, extending loving-kindness