6. Anāpānasati Bhāvanā (Introduction)

Revised July 22, 2020

The top 10 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section discuss meditation subjects. They clarify unresolved questions and help gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.

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

  • Bad habits (gati/āsava) are associated with one or more immoral or unworthy acts, speech, or thoughts. We need to discard those.
  • To counter the bad habits, one needs to cultivate good habits. We need to improve moral behavior by engaging in ethical 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 look out for any lapses in our practice. And we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to do moral acts that are beneficial for ourselves and others.

2. In a general sense, the Pāli word ānāpāna, “āna” includes anything that needs to be “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 avoid or discard bad foods.

  • Nowadays, “āna” is taken to be “breathe in,” and “āpāna” is assumed to be “breathe out.” Now, “sati” means mindfulness, and thus, the word “ānāpānasati” is interpreted as “mindfully breathing in and mindfully breathing out.” That is the mundane (or “padaparama”) interpretation of “ānapāna.”
  • Buddha meant something more profound that would help cleanse the mind.

3. The Buddha described bhāvanā as follows: “āsevitāya, bhāvitāya, bahuleekathāya,...” or “keep close association, use often, and use all the time (what is good)……”. When one is making an 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 neural connections in the brain. See “Truine Brain: How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits.” The same thing works to break bad habits by NOT doing it whenever that comes to mind. Then, 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).” That is the real meaning of ānāpānasati bhāvana.

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 (gati/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 one the Hindu yogis used to attain mundane (Anāriya) jhānā 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  Mahāyāna or even Theravada texts today. One needs to go directly to the Tipiṭaka to find it; it is described in many suttā, 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 Ānāpānasati (in the sutta, it says it is NOT the Ariya or Noble version): https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn54/sn54.006.than.html.

6. 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 broader interpretation, including breathing to a minor extent.

  • The correct meaning is in many suttā. Of course, the main sutta is “Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118).” The Ānāpānasati sutta is the condensed version of the Buddha’s discourses on Ānāpānasati Bhavana. As with most main suttā, the discourse was condensed into the form for easy transmission. Other suttā, primarily by Ven. Sariputta has explained the terms like “āna” and “āpana” in detail (like the Assāsa Sutta).
  •  I have discussed the sutta at a bit deeper level in “7. What is Ānāpāna?” and “8. The Basic Formal Anāpānasati Meditation.”
  • See “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?“, where I provide a detailed discussion based on the Tipiṭaka.

7. Furthermore, Sinhala commentaries (Atthakathā) were also written to explain the main suttā. 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 Tipiṭaka. What I describe here is from those books in the Tipiṭaka.

  • Buddhaghosa was a Hindu before converting to a Buddhist; see “The Life and Work of Buddhaghosa” by B. C. Law (1927). Some say he became a Buddhist to introduce Hindu concepts to Buddha Dhamma. Either that or he just used whatever he understood to be the Ānāpānasati without malicious intentions. Either way, correct interpretations have been hidden for all these years; see “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis.”
  • More details with many Tipiṭaka references at “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati.”
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