6. Anāpānasati Bhāvanā (Introduction)

The top 10 posts in this section describe a way of using meditation in following the Noble Path and to attain the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna. The rest of the posts in this section are on possible meditation subjects and together with other posts at the site can be used to clarify unresolved questions, and to gain samādhi. It is recommended that the first 11 posts be followed in that order, at least initially.

1. I hope that  several key points are clear from the discussion in the post, “The Second Level – Key to Purify the Mind“:

  • Bad habits (gathi/āsava) are associated with one more of immoral or unworthy acts, speech, or thoughts. We need to discard those.
  • To counter the bad habits one needs to cultivate good habits. For this we need to cultivate moral behavior by engaging in moral activities that bring joy to the heart.
  • AND we need to do this all the time; we cannot let bad habits come back, which means we need to be on the lookout for any lapses in our practice. And we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to do moral acts that are beneficial for oneself and others.

2. The Buddha described bhävana as follows: “āsevitäya, bhāvitāya, bahuleekathāya,...” or “keep close association, use often, and use all the time (what is good)……”. When one is making effort to form a new habit, one should be thinking about it and doing things to support that whenever possible. Trying to do it in a formal meditation session will not be enough.

  • We discussed the current scientific explanation of how repeated acts help form habits by strengthening a set of neural connections in the brain in an earlier post in this series. Same thing works to break bad habits by NOT doing it whenever that comes to the mind; existing neural connections will get weaker.
  • What is to contemplate: To be mindful to “take in good things (kusala or moral things), and to “discard bad things (akusala or immoral things)”. This is the real meaning of ānāpānasati bhāvana.
  • In the wider sense, “āna” includes anything that needs to “taken in” for the betterment of life, and “āpāna” the opposite. For example, we should eat only foods that are good for the body, and stay away from or discard foods that are bad.
  • Nowadays, “āna” is taken to be “breath in” and “āpāna” is taken to be “breath out”; “sati” means mindfulness so, the word “ānāpānasati” is interpreted as “mindfully breathing in and mindfully breathing out”. This is the conventional (or “padaparama“) interpretation of “ānapāna“, and that is only a very narrow use; see the post below that explains these terms.

3. These aspects are discussed in many suttas. I have a couple of posts that discuss the Sabbāsava Sutta (sabba+āsava is all āsavas), which point out seven specific steps that will help remove bad habits and develop good habits (gathi/āsavas).

  • Looking at the same goal from a slightly different viewpoint, five such steps are given in the Vitakkasanthāna (vitakka+san+thāna = removing defiled thoughts) sutta; I hope to write a post on this later.

4. Now, with all the discussion we have had up to this point, how can just a process of “breathing in” and “breathing out” mindfully GET RID OF either the bad habits (gathi/āsāvas) or the five hindrances?

  • Of course that is not possible.
  • But it CAN do one thing, as we mentioned before. If we sit in a quiet place with the eyes closed (i.e., turn off the five physical senses in effect), AND fix the mind on the breath, we can get the five hindrances to settle down and not come up (assuming that we are staying away from committing the BIG EIGHT immoral acts).
  • However, this calming down or getting to samatha is a TEMPORARY solution. The moment we come back to the real world with all its distractions and temptations, those habits take over.

5. The breath meditation needs to be used appropriately, with the understanding that it can provide only temporary relief. This breath meditation is the same meditation that was used by the Hindu yogis to attain mundane (Anāriya) jhanas even before the Buddha.

  • Since the time Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga was accepted as the basis of Theravada Dhamma (in the fifth century CE), this “literal interpretation” of the ānāpānasati has been used.
  • The real anāpānasati bhāvanā is not described in the visuddhimagga, and is not described in any  Mahayana or even Theravada texts today. One needs to go directly to the Tipitaka to find it; it is described in many suttas, for example the Assāsa sutta. I could not find an English translation of this sutta. Another one Arittha Sutta, and the translation published at the Access to insight site is not complete, even though it does contain Buddha’s admonition to Ven. Arittha that in and out breathing is only one version of anapanasati (in the sutta it says it is NOT the Ariya or Noble version)  : http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn54/sn54.006.than.html.
  1. Thus there are two interpretations of the ānāpānasati bhavana: one is the conventional “breathing” version and the other is the real version recommended by the Buddha, which has a wider interpretation, including breathing to a minor extent.
  • The Ānāpānasati sutta is the condensed version of the Buddha’s desana on ānāpānasati bhavana. As with most main suttas, the discourse was condensed in to the form for easy transmission. Other suttas, mostly by Ven. Sariputta, have explained the terms like “āna” and “āpana” in detail (like the Assāsa Sutta).
  • See, “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?“, where I provide a detailed discussion based on the Tipitaka.
  • Furthermore, Sinhala commentaries (atthakathā) were also written to explain the main suttas. Unfortunately, these atthakathās were burned down shortly after Buddhaghosa wrote his Visuddhimagga and other books. However, three important ones (Patisambhida Magga Pakarana, Pitakopadesa, and Netthipakarana) have survived because they had been included in the Tipitaka. What I describe here is from those books in the Tipitaka.
  • Buddhaghosa was a Hindu before converting to be a Buddhist later on; see, “The Life and Work of Buddhaghosa” by B. C. Law (1927). Some say he became a Buddhist in order to introduce Hindu concepts to Buddha Dhamma. Either that or he just used whatever he understood to be the anapanasati without any malicious intentions. Either way, the correct interpretation had been hidden for all these years; see, “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“.

7. The key message of the Buddha was that we need to remove the greed, hate, and ignorance that we all have in our  minds, and by doing that we can experience the nirāmisa sukha that is of better quality and of permanent nature. Let us now discuss the basic meditation technique that will start us on the correct path to achieve lasting happiness.


Next, a simple explanation at, “What is Anapana?“, ……..

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.