Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?
June 2, 2017; revised September 2, 2017; April 25, 2020; August 20, 2022
1. If you Google “Ānāpānasati,” almost all websites that come up identify it as “Buddhist breath mediation” or “mindfulness of breathing.” But Tipiṭaka suttās lead to the conclusion that breath meditation is not Buddhist Ānāpānasati 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 suttā in the Tipiṭaka that clearly state that Nibbāna can be attained with the Ānāpāna Bhāvanā. It automatically fulfills Satipaṭṭhāna, Satta Bojjhaṅga, and all 37 Factors of Enlightenment. Therefore, Ānāpānasati is infinitely 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.
Ānāpānassati by Itself Is Sufficient to Attain Nibbāna
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 Bojjhaṅga. Sapta Bojjhaṅga, when used and used frequently, completes the full release (Nibbāna or Arahanthood)”.
- The same statement was made in the “Ananda Sutta (SN 54.13).” Most of the suttās in Ānāpāna Saṃyutta (SN 54) have 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 clear that ānāpānassati, by itself, can lead to Arahanthood. Thus, one does not need to do “separate vipassanā (insight) meditation after getting to Samatha with Ānāpānassati” as some suggest.
Can Nibbāna be Attained With Breath Meditation?
3. The next key question is: “Can breath-meditation, by itself, lead to Arahanthood? That is the critical question that needs to be contemplated by those who equate Ānāpānassati to breathing meditation.
- Nibbāna is the removal of greed, hate, and 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, and 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. Then one needs to do Vipassanā or insight mediation to attain magga phala.
- However, from the above-discussed suttā, it is quite clear that Ānāpānassati by itself can lead to even 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.”
The Ariṭṭha Sutta
5. The incorrect version of Ānāpānassati was there even before the Buddha. In the “Ariṭṭha Sutta (SN 54.06), the Buddha, upon finding out that Bhikkhu Arittha was practicing the incorrect breath meditation as Ānāpānassati, told him the following. “..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 (yathā) ānāpānassati, listen and pay close attention. I will speak.”
- Furthermore, breath meditation was used by yōgis at that time to attain higher jhāna. However, those anāriya jhānā are attained by just SUPPRESSING defilements (kilesa) and will not lead to ANY magga phala. Those who cultivate such anāriya jhāna will also have their next birth in Brahma realms, but after that, they can be reborn even in the apāyā.
Assāsa/Passāsa And Āna/Āpāna
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 breathing in/breathing out.
- Āna/āpāna (which rhymes as ānāpāna) in general means taking in/putting out something. It can be breath or anything else.
- However, in the suttās on Ānāpānassati, assāsa/passāsa or āna/āpāna specifically means 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.
Evidence from the Tipiṭaka
7. The “Assāsappatta Sutta (SN38.5)” specifically says 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”.
- “Paramassāsappatta Sutta (AN38.6)” has the same statement, emphasizing 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 bind one to the rebirth process (paṭinissaggānupassī) by taking in morals (assasissāmi) and getting rid of immoral (passasissāmi).”
Meaning Embedded in Ānāpāna
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, “ānanaya” is “import”. “Āpāna” is discarding; In Sinhala, “apānanaya” is “export.” Thus, “āna”+”āpāna” or ānāpāna is “taking in/discarding” or import/export.
- “Assa” is the 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” (“කාමරය අස්පස් කරගන්න.”)
- 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.
Breath Meditation Can be Harmful
10. Most people are reluctant to give up the wrong “breath meditation” practice simply because they are attached to a “state of well-being” that can be reached with it. But that relief is only temporary.
- It is even possible to attain anāriya jhānā with breath meditation. Yet, 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. That is because even to attain the first Ariya jhāna, one MUST have first removed kāma rāga, not merely suppressed it. See “Samādhi, Jhāna, Magga Phala – Introduction” and “Mundane versus Supramundane Jhāna.”
- 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. If one gets “addicted” to it (as I have seen many people do), it could be a serious distraction to the Noble Path. See “Breath Meditation Is Addictive and Harmful in the Long Run.”
Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā Is Not Only a Formal Meditation
11. As I have emphasized in the “Bhāvanā (Meditation)” section and the subsection “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 all the time! One just needs to be mindful of one’s actions, speech, and thoughts, stopping bad ones and cultivating good ones.
- This is the fundamental approach to practice, see the “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.
- In particular, see “Ānapānasati Eliminates Mental Stress Permanently” and “Ānāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna – Fundamentals.”
12. Some people believe that Ānāpānasati or Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā should be done in only formal sessions. That belief has origins in 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 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. The conventional interpretation 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 conventional meaning for formal sessions. But the deeper meaning is much more important, even in formal sessions.
Only Three Commentaries Can be Trusted
13. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary from the Tipiṭaka, please comment on the “Discussion Forum.” I will be happy to address any such issues.
- Only three commentaries (Paṭisambhidāmagga, Peṭakopadesa, and Nettippakarana) can be trusted. Those are in the Tipiṭaka. All other later commentaries have many inconsistencies and outright misinterpretations; see, for example, “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis.”