Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Anapanasati 16 steps

Anapanasati 16 steps

Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu within this training, having gone into the forest, to the base of a tree or to an empty dwelling, having sat cross-legged with his body erect, securely maintains mindfulness (sati). Ever mindful, that bhikkhu breathes in; ever mindful, he breathes out.

1. Breathing in long, know breathing in long.
Breathing out long, know breathing out long.

2. Breathing in short, know breathing in short.
Breathing out short, know breathing out short.

3. Breathing in, experience the whole body (sabba kaya).
Breathing out, experience the whole body.

4. Breathing in, calm the body-conditioned breath (kaya sankhaara).
Breathing out, calm the body-conditioned breath.

5. Breathing in, experience joy.
Breathing out, experience joy.

6. Breathing in, experience happiness.
Breathing out, experience happiness.

7. Breathing in, experience the mind-conditioner (the feeling present now).
Breathing out, experience the mind-conditioner.

8. Breathing in, calm the feeling present now.
Breathing out, calm the feeling present now.

9. Breathing in, be aware of the mental activity present now.
Breathing out, be aware of the mental activity present now.

10. Breathing in, gladden the mind.
Breathing out, gladden the mind.

11. Breathing in, concentrate the mind.
Breathing out, concentrate the mind.

12. Breathing in, liberate the mind from attachment.
Breathing out, liberate the mind from attachment.

13. Breathing in, observe impermanence.
Breathing out, observe impermanence.

14. Breathing in, observe attachment fading away.
Breathing out, observe attachment fading away.

15. Breathing in, observe no craving.
Breathing out, observe no craving.

16. Breathing in, observe giving back.
Breathing out, observe giving back.

A passage from the Culavedalla Sutta, MN 44 defines the awkward phrase "bodily formation (kaya sankhaara)" which actually means the breath:
13: "Lady (Dhammadinna, a bhikkhuni praised by the Buddha for great wisdom), how many formations are there?"
"There are these three formations, friend Visakha (a layman asking Dhammadinna to define some concepts): the bodily formation, the verbal formation, and the mental formation."
14. "But, lady, what is the bodily formation? What is the verbal formation? What is the mental formation?"
"In-breathing and out-breathing, friend Visakha, are the bodily formation; applied thought and sustained thought are the verbal formation; perception and feeling are the mental formation."
15. "But, lady, why are in-breathing and out-breathing the bodily formation? ...
"Friend Visakha, in-breathing and out-breathing are bodily, these are states bound up with the body..."

In a footnote to this, Bhikkhu Bodhi quotes a comment in the MA (Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha Papancasudani ),the fifth-century classical commentary by Buddhaghosa, not available in English [correction: see Bhikkhu Nanamoli's book listed above]. MN footnote #466 says, "MA explains further that the bodily formation and the mental formations are said to be formations "bound up" with the body and the mind in the sense that they are formed by the body and by the mind, while the verbal formation is a formation in the sense that it forms speech." Therefore, if true, this implies that the flesh-body conditions the breath-body, which is reasonable. However sankhaara can mean either conditioned or conditioner, depending on context, therefore another interpretation is that the breath-body conditions the flesh-body. The phrase sabbakaaya means literally all-body, which could mean all the bodies, or the whole of the flesh-body which includes the breath-body, or the whole of the breath-body from beginning to end. Actually neither breath nor body can exist independently of the other, like two sides of the same coin. Similarly a soul can not exist independently of a body according to the Buddhist view, in fact a soul or person does not exist at all except as an idea. Whether consciousness can exist without a body is not clear. There are said to be formless realms of existence without a body. Perhaps the difference between a soul and pure consciousness is the false idea of personal identity. However, down on our mundane level, the "breath" clearly depends on a body. Buddhist thought is permeated by this concept of conditionality. Fabricated things (sankhaara) can not exist independently.

Another clarifying passage found in the Anapanasati Sutta MN 118:24
[The Buddha explains with reference to "contemplating the body as a body"]: "I say this is a certain body among the bodies, namely in-breathing and out-breathing." Further, the MA commentary by Buddhaghosa explains that in-and-out is to be counted as the air element among the four elements making up the body.

The relevance of this is that the flesh-body is one of the four main objects of contemplation ("foundations of mindfulness"), therefore contemplating breathing falls under the satipatthana MN:10 category of contemplating the body, among the four foundations of body, feelings, mind and noble truths. In other words, to put this in perspective, the anapanasati practice is a special application within the four grand foundations of mindfulness.

For the past few weeks I have been worrying about a passage in the Anapanasati Sutta which has been translated differently by various authors. These are the third and fourth steps in the first tetrad. These are important steps because they occur early in the sequence of sixteen steps, even though not all of the steps are necessarily practiced in sequence. Nevertheless, after decades of observing the in-breath and out-breath, eventually one wants to move on to the other steps.

To my present understanding, after weighing the various translations, and after some correspondence with Bhikkhu Bodhi (although I am not sure we see eye to eye on this), my present best guess [see further updates below] for step number three is "Experience all bodies" (that is, experience both the flesh-body and the breath-body, and the intimate relationship between them), and four: "Calm the body-conditioned breath".

It seems to me that both bodies are so intimately connected that they can not exist separately except in a nominal sense. I believe that Ajahn Buddhadasa's description of the breath as "body conditioner" at least represents an attempt to highlight a conditional relationship between breath-body and flesh-body. Even if the conditional direction may have been stated in the reverse sense, at least the existence of a conditional relationship is expressed. Whereas, translating step four as "calm the bodily formation" implies calming a formation which has a body in some unclear sense. This requires a footnote because the intended meaning is "calm the breath, a formation conditioned by the body".

So why doesn't the ancient sutta just simply state "breath" instead of using the circumlocution "kaya sankhaara"? There surely exists a word for breath in Pail; it figures in "anapanasati" where "anapana" means in-and-out breath, related to the Sanskrit word prana. Probably "kaya sankhaara" was used in order to convey an important defining characteristic of the breath, namely its dependent condition on the body. Therefore a good translation should preserve this defining feature.

This complexity of the human body has an important consequence for the practice of anapanasati, step 3. The issue is whether the object of concentration, called "sabba kaya" in the original Pali, should be understood as the whole body (of breath), or the whole body (of flesh-and-blood), or both of them together.

The reason why this detail may be important is a risk that meditation might not bear fruit if the practice is not done right, hence the importance of an experienced teacher if one has the good fortune to meet one, which was not my experience. While I received the eight precepts from Ven. Thanissaro, I did not feel that he welcomed conversation with me. In my personal history, I was 62 years old before I discovered that my understanding of anapanasati was flawed.

I came across Buddhadasa's book in the Bangkok train station which contained a translation of the sutta. It was the first time I learned that there are 16 steps, much more than just watching the long-breath and short-breath, steps 1 and 2. How and where the breath is watched can make an difference in results. Never having experienced reports of joy and happiness in the meditative states (the jhanas), I believe it my practice may not have been focused correctly. For example, for years my attention followed the movement of the breath into and out of the body, moving along with it, instead of holding a fixed position at the nostrils. For years I was unsure about which sabbakaaya should be calmed.

Yesterday Nanamoli's translation of Buddhaghosa's fifth century commentary on anapanasati reached me. According to Buddhaghosa, the object of the third step should be calming the whole body of in-breath and out-breath, not the whole body of flesh-and-blood. This sounds plausible, considering that if attention is diverted to the vast desert wilderness of the gross body with multiple sensory contacts clamoring for attention at any given moment, then the mind may not settle down to a calm state of samadhi.

If the attention strays from the calm oasis of the breath out into the trackless wilderness of the body, it may get lost there in manifold distractions.

From the Anapanasati Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 118

1. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Mindfulness with Breathing, tr. Santikaro Bhikkhu,
Silkworm Books, Thai edition 2001,
In U.S. available from
2. Thich Nhat Hanh,
Breathe! You Are Alive
3. Larry Rosenberg:
Breath by Breath
Majjhima Nikaya , tr. by Bhikkhu Bodhi (price as of 21 Feb 2010: $39.96 + free shipping at,
or $40.95 + free shipping
Mindfulness of Breathing: Buddhist Texts from the Pali Canon and Commentaries, tr. by Bhikkhu Nanamoli,
including the commentary by Buddhaghosa
6. See discussion of interpretations and more links


zendoRon said...

Hello, Venerable Ashin Yaw:
I know there are many controversies over translations and many teachers disagree with each other. However, you might find the explanations of Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond helpful. That book was the first book that explained to me the Anapanasati Sutta in a way that I could understand and practice. Please read it and let me know what you think.
With metta,
Ron Smith

Anonymous said...

you are great man

Anonymous said...

very nice, try your best!

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