Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?

June 2, 2017; revised September 2, 2017

1. If you Google “Ānāpānasati”, almost all websites that come up identify it as “Buddhist breath mediation” or “mindfulness of breathing”. But Tipiṭaka suttās clearly lead to the conclusion that breath meditation is not Buddhist Ānāpāna bhāvanā.

  • Breath meditation was practiced by yōgis even at the time of the Buddha. So, breath meditation predates Buddha’s Ānāpāna bhāvanā. Buddha rejected it, because it does not lead to Nibbāna, or PERMANENT relief from suffering.
  • There are many suttās in the Tipiṭaka that clearly state that when Ānāpāna is followed correctly, that automatically fulfills Satipaṭṭhāna, Saptha Bojjhaṅga, and all 37 Factors of Enlightenment, and leads to Nibbāna. Therefore, Ānāpānasati is infinitely more deeper than just focusing on one’s breath.
  • I will provide evidence for those two statements below. First, let us see what can be accomplished with Buddhist Ānāpānasati bhāvanā.

2. According to the Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118): “..Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā cattāro satipaṭṭhāne paripūreti. Cattāro satipaṭṭhānā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satta bojjhaṅge paripūrenti. Satta bojjhaṅgā bhāvitā bahulīkatā vijjāvimuttiṃ paripūrenti.”

  • Translated, “..Ānāpānassati, when used (bhāvitā) and used frequently (bahulīkatā), completes (paripūreti) four types of Satipaṭṭhāna. Cattāro satipaṭṭhāna, when used and used frequently, completes Sapta BojjhaṅgaSapta Bojjhaṅga when used and used frequently, completes the full release (Nibbāna or Arahanthood)”.
  • Exactly the same statement was made in the Ananda Sutta (SN 54.13). In fact, most of the suttās in Ānāpāna Saṃyutta (SN 54) has that phrase or the phrase: “..“Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā mahāpphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā“. Here, “mahāppalā” (“mahā” + “pala“) means the four Noble stages: Sotāpanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, Arahant.
  • Therefore, it is quite clear that ānāpānassati, by itself, can lead to all the way to the Arahanthood. Thus, one does not need to do “separate vipassanā (insight) meditation after getting to samatha with ānāpānassati” as some suggest.

3. The next key question is: “Can breath meditation, by itself, lead to Arahanthood?     This is the critical question that needs to contemplated by those who believe that  Ānāpānassati means breath meditation.

  • Nibbāna is removal of greed, hate, ignorance: “rāgakkhayō dōsakkhayō mōhakkhayō idaṃ vuccati nibbānanti“.  This verse is in many suttās, for example, in Nibbāna pañhā Sutta (SN 38.1).
  • If Ānāpānassati means breath meditation, how could keeping the mind on one’s breath by itself REMOVE rāga, dōsa, mōha from one’s mind?

4. The conventional (and erroneous) teaching in many texts today is that one needs to get to samādhi with Ānāpānassati and then one needs to do Vipassanā or insight mediation to attain magga phala.

  • However, from the above discussed suttās it is quite clear that Ānāpānassati by itself can lead to even the Arahanthood!
  • Of course this erroneous interpretation — that breath meditation is Buddhist Ānāpāna bhāvanā —  is not something that current practitioners  came up with. It can be traced back to Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, see, “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“.

5. The incorrect version of Ānāpānassati was there even before the Buddha. In the Arittha Sutta (SN 54.06), the Buddha, upon finding out that Bhikkhu Arittha was practicing the incorrect breath meditation as Ānāpānassati told him, “..Atthesā, ariṭṭha, ānāpānassati, nesā natthī’ti vadāmi. Api ca, ariṭṭha, yathā ānāpānassati vitthārena paripuṇṇā hoti taṃ suṇāhi, sādhukaṃ manasi karohi; bhāsissāmī”ti.

  • Translated, “..There is that ānāpānassati, Arittha. I don’t say that there isn’t. But I will describe the real (yathāānāpānassati, listen and pay close attention. I will speak.”
  • Furthermore, that incorrect version of breath meditation was used by yōgis at that time even to attain higher jhāna. However, those anāriya jhāna are attained by just SUPPRESSING defilements (keles), and will not lead to ANY magga phala. Those who cultivate such anāriya jhāna will also have next birth in Brahma realms, but after that they can be reborn even in the apāyās.

6. The main reason for the incorrect interpretation of Ānāpānassati as breath meditation is that in many suttās it is described as assāsa/passāsa, which conventionally means taking in/putting out of something, and particularly to breathing in/breathing out.

  • In fact, āna/āpāna (which rhymes as ānāpāna) also mean taking in/putting out, as we discuss below.
  • However, in the suttās on Ānāpānassati, assāsa/passāsa or  āna/pāna specifically mean taking in kusala/getting rid of akusala, or, equivalently, taking in the Noble Eightfold Path/discarding the micchā eightfold path.
  • That should be clear to anyone who knows that Nibbāna is attained via getting rid of dasa akusala.

7. In the assāsa Sutta (SN38.5), it is specifically said what needs to be “taken in” (assāsa):

  • “Katamo panāvuso maggo katamā paṭipadā etassa assāsassa  sacchikiriyāyāti (what needs to be “taken in”). Ayameva kho āvuso ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo etassa assāsassa sacchikiriyāya (it is the Noble Eightfold Path that needs to be “taken in”). Seyyathīdaṃ (namely): sammādiṭṭhi sammāsaṅkappo sammāvācā sammākammaṃto sammāājīvo sammāvāyāmo sammāsati sammāsamādhi”.
  • Parama assāsa Sutta (AN38.6) has the same statement, emphasizing with the term “parama” or “superior”.
  • Therefore, there should not be any confusion about what assāsa means.

8. A detailed description of how the cultivation of correct  Ānāpānassati leads to Ariya jhānā as well as magga phala is described in the Padī­po­pama ­sutta (SN 54.8), also called the Dipa Sutta.

  • So satōva assasati, satōva passasati” means “He maintains his mind on dhamma that should be taken in (kusala or moral) and those that should be gotten rid of (akusala or immoral)”.
  • paṭi­nissag­gā­nu­passī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘paṭi­nissag­gā­nu­passī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati” means, “one cultivates discipline (sikkhati) by removing bonds that binds one to the rebirth process (patinissaganupassi) by taking in morals (assasissāmi) and getting rid of immorals (passasissāmi)”.

9. As is the case with many Pāli words, the meaning of the word Ānāpāna is embedded in the word itself. The two words  “āna” and “āpāna” combine to rhyme as ānāpāna. When  “sati” is added for being mindful of that, it becomes ānāpānassati.

  • Āna” is taking in; In Sinhala, “ānayaṃaya” is “import”. “Äpāna” is discarding;  In Sinhala, “apanayaṃaya” is “export”. Thus “äna”+”äpäna” or anapana is “taking in/discarding” or import/export.
  • “Assa” is same as “āna”, and “passa” is the same as “āpāna”. In Sri Lanka, parents tell their child to clean his/her room by saying, “kāmaraya (room) assa passa (or aspas) karāganna”.
  • When cleaning the room, the child needs to get rid of the clutter (passa), but also can take in (assa) something like a flower vase to make the room look more pleasant, or to take in a chair that can be useful.
  • So, one does not throw away everything or take in everything. One needs to be selective in taking in “good things” and throwing away “bad things”. That is where mindfulness comes in. That cannot be done with breath.

10. Most people are reluctant to give up the wrong practice of “breath meditation” simply because they are attached to the “state of well being” that can be reached with breath meditation. But that relief is only temporary.

  • It is even possible to attain anāriya jhānā with breath meditation, but those jhānā are also temporary, because the defilements are only SUPPRESSED. On the other hand, the Ariya jhānā attained via correct Ānāpānasati bhāvanā are permanent even in future rebirths because deeply-hidden defilements (anusaya) are REMOVED.
  • It must also be mentioned that breath mediation can be used to calm down one’s mind. But one should not expect to make much progress towards Nibbāna using it. In fact, if one gets “addicted” to it (as I have seen many people do), it could be a serious distraction to the Noble Path.

11. As I have emphasized in the “Bhävanä (Meditation)” and the “Maha Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta“, one should not restrict either Ānāpānasati or Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā to formal sessions conducted sitting down at an isolated place.

  • When the Buddha said, “..Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā..” in #2 above, he meant doing it as much as possible, anywhere possible. That means basically all the time! One just needs to be mindful of one’s actions, speech, and thoughts, and stop bad ones and cultivates good ones.
  • This is the fundamental approach to practice, see, “Living Dhamma” section for a step-by-step process that can be used by even those who do not believe in the basic tenets of Buddha Dhamma, like rebirth or kamma.

12. Some people believe that Ānāpānasati or Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā should be done in formal sessions, because of the verse, “Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu aranna gato vä rukkhamüla gato vä sunnägära gato vä nisidati pallankaṃ äbhujitvä, ujuṃ käyaṃ paṇidhäya, parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvä”, that appears in multiple suttās explaining both Ānāpānassati and Satipattāna bhāvanā.

  • In most English translations this verse is written as, “There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore”.
  • But there is a deeper meaning to this verse. For example, in the word “rukkhamūla“,
    rukkha” is “tree” and “mūla” is the “root”; even though the top of a tree sways back and forth with the wind, the tree trunk close to the root is very stable. Thus “rukkhamūla gatō vā” means getting to a stable mindset. In the conventional interpretation is says, “having gone to the foot of a tree”.
  • The deeper meaning of that complete verse is discussed in detail in, “Prerequisites for the Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā“. Then the verse can be stated something like, “get into a calm and stable mindset that is devoid of greed, hate, and ignorance; keep a modest attitude without any sense of superiority; be forthright and honest, and keep the mind on the main object of cooling down the mind”. That can be done anywhere, a formal session is not needed, even though that could be helpful.
  • One could also use the conventional meaning for formal sessions. But of course, it is the deeper meaning that is much more important even in formal sessions.

13. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary from the Tipiṭaka, please make a comment at the “Discussion Forum“. I will be happy to address any such issues.

  • Other than the three commentaries (PatisambhidamaggaPetakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) that are included with the Tipiṭaka, all other commentaries written later have many inconsistencies and outright misinterpretations; see, for example, “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“.
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