7. What is Ānāpāna?

Revised April 2, 2017;  July 23, 2020; June 6, 2022; October 11, 2002

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. The “Ānāpānasati Sutta, MN 118)” has the following verse:

Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā. Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā cattāro satipaṭṭhāne paripūreti. Cattāro satipaṭṭhānā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satta bojjhaṅge paripūrenti. Satta bojjhaṅgā bhāvitā bahulīkatā vijjāvimuttiṃ paripūrenti.”

That means:Ānāpānasati, Bhikkhus, when practiced frequently bears many fruits and leads to many benefits. Ānāpānasati, Bhikkhus, when cultivated and pursued, brings the four Satipaṭṭhānas to their completion. The four Satipaṭṭhānas, when cultivated and pursued, bring the seven Bojjhaṅga to their completion. The seven Bojjhaṅga, when cultivated and pursued, bring vijjā (opposite of avijjā) and vimutti (or Nibbāna) to their completion.

  • Now, if ānapāna means “breathing in and breathing out,” how can that lead to the completion of the four Satipaṭṭhānas, the seven Bojjhaṅga, removal of avijjā, and the attainment of Nibbāna? Can anyone seriously think that is possible?
  • Instead, ānapāna MEANS cultivating Satipaṭṭhāna, Satta Bojjhaṅga, etc., by “taking in morals” and “expelling immoral,” as we discuss below.

2. Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā is a more detailed version of the Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā. Thus it is essential to learn the correct version of the Ānāpānasati. If one does Ānāpānasati correctly, it can be easily turned into Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā.

  • Section 4 on “Dhammānupassanā” describes how the cultivation of the four types of Satipaṭṭhāna leads to the removal of the five hindrances and fulfillment of the seven Bojjhaṅga to their completion. See, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10).” That confirms the statements in the Ānāpānasati Sutta mentioned above.

3. First, let us figure out exactly what the Buddha meant by “āna” and “āpāna” in “āna+āpāna+sati” which rhymes as ānāpānasati; of course, “sati” is mindfulness.

  • Āna” is taking in; In Sinhala, “ānayānaya” is “import.” “āpāna” is discarding;  In Sinhala, “apānayānaya” is “export.” Thus “āna” + “āpāna” or ānapāna 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.

4. During the time of the Buddha itself, auxiliary suttā, as well as commentaries (“Atthakatha”), were written to explain the keywords/phrases in the main suttā that were abbreviated for easy transmission; see “Preservation of Dhamma.”

There are two crucial suttās, “Assāsappatta Sutta (SN 38.5)” and the “Paramassāsappatta Sutta (SN 38.6)” that describe how one should “take in” kusala thoughts and “discard” akusala thoughts; that is “āna” +” āpāna” (ānapāna) or “assa/passa,” for cleaning up (the mind). The English translation there is hopeless, but one can get the idea by looking at the Pali version. You don’t need to be an expert on Pāli to see that.

  • In the Mahasaccaka Sutta, “assa/passa” was also used to indicate “in and out breathing” when the Buddha was describing to Saccaka how he engaged in the “breath meditation” per instructions by Alāra Kālama and Uddakarāmaputta while he was searching for the truth as Bodhisatta.
  • But the following verses of that sutta describe how he gave up on that technique and moved onto the correct path.
  • So, we must ensure a given phrase is used in the proper context, depending on the situation.
  • For example, there are several conventional and deeper meanings to the keywords “atta” and “anatta,” and one needs to be able to figure out which meaning to use for a given case; see, “Atta Hi Attano Natho,” “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?“, and links in those posts.

5. When one knows what kusala/akusala kamma are, the first thing to do is to prevent from doing akusala kamma and to make an effort to do kusala kamma by engaging in meritorious actions (puñña kriya); see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)“, and “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā“.

  • Thus, when one leads a moral life, one automatically engages in the primary form of Ānāpānasati.
  • And, one cannot do a proper formal Ānāpānasati meditation and get to even samādhi, let alone a jhāna, unless one leads a moral life. The five hindrances are too strong to be suppressed; see “Key to Calming the Mind – Five Hindrances.”

6. Formal Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā can be done in a formal sitting or walking meditation session while engaging in the basic version (taking in what is good/discarding what is evil) all the time.

  • There is no need to do Samatha Bhāvanā separately. If one does a formal Ānāpānasati session with the eyes closed in a quiet place, one will automatically get into samādhi. Let good thoughts grow, and discard evil thoughts. Very simple.
  • Another thing to do in a formal meditation session is contemplate a dhamma concept like anicca, dukkha, or anatta. That means focusing on “āna.”
  • When one gets to samādhi, the mind goes on “auto-pilot”; you will feel that your mind is taking charge and you need to exert less effort to keep the focus.
  1. When one does the basic version while engaged in other activities, one is only mindful of what one is engaged in, i.e., the task at hand. That task presumably does not involve the BIG EIGHT we discussed previously; see “The Basics in Meditation.” It could be a technical task or a daily chore like washing dishes or driving.  Be mindful of just the task (washing, driving, etc.). Here, one will NOT get into samādhi, so there is no danger of injuring oneself. Many people get into accidents while driving because they are not mindful of driving.
  • However, if one does not have a specific task (say, when riding a bus or waiting at the doctor’s office), one could be engaged in Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā. When our minds are not focused on something (like in the cases mentioned above), all sorts of ideas bubble up. As we discussed in “The Basics in Meditation.” These are due to deeply ingrained habits or āsavā that we have acquired not only in this life but also from previous lives.

8. The more we keep reviving or re-living this habit (i.e., doing āna/apāna or assa/passa), the more we strengthen that good habit (gati).

  • We have come all this way in the cycle of rebirths that are mostly filled with suffering because of our bad habits (gati) that have been percolated into a very dense state of deep-seated cravings (āsavas). It may take some time to develop this “āna/pāna,” but you will see results in a few weeks to a few months.

9. In the ānapānapabba of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, it says, “..sō satō vā assa sati, satō vā passa sati. Digham vā assasantō digham assasāmi ti pajānāti, digham vā passasantō digham passasāmi ti pajānāti, ……” Here it DOES NOT mean “take long breaths in, expel long breaths out”; instead, it means “get rid of long-established (deeply-rooted) bad habits, and cultivate long-established good habits.”

  • Similarly, the next sentence (“..rassam vā assasantō…”) is not about short breaths but about those good habits that you started to work on recently and those bad habits that started to creep into your mind recently (if there are any).
  • One cannot purify one’s mind by breathing in/out, even though it can get one’s mind to calm down (Samatha). The correct way of doing it is doing both Samatha and Vipassanā together.

10. When we think a bit more about this, we realize that what needs to be discarded are micchā diṭṭhi (wrong views), micchā saṅkappa (wrong thoughts or ideas), micchā vācā (incorrect, harmful speech), micchā kammaṃta (incorrect/harmful actions), micchā ājiva (incorrect/harmful way of living), micchā vāyāma (tendency to strive on immoral activities), micchā sati (tendency to focus on immoral activities); when one does all that micchā samādhi (tendency to get absorbed in immoral ideas/actions) is the result.

  • In the same way, what we need to “take in” are sammā diṭṭhi,  sammā saṅkappa, sammā vācā, sammā kammaṃta, sammā ājiva, sammā vāyāma, sammā sati, and when one keeps doing that one automatically gets to sammā samādhi.
  • Put in another way, Ānāpānasati is nothing but “taking in” the Noble Eightfold Path and “discarding” the opposite.

11. The longer one “takes in” or “lives” the Noble Eightfold Path and “rejects” the opposite, the easier it becomes to get to samādhi in a formal meditation session. As samādhi grows gradually, one day, one will automatically get into the first Ariya jhāna. However, one more thing is needed before getting to the Ariya jhānā: an understanding of anicca, dukkha, and ānatta. See “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?

  • Keep practicing “ānapāna” as much as possible throughout the day. With time, you will feel the “cooling down” or ‘nivana” or “a taste of Nibbāna.”
  • Buddha Dhamma is NOT about following rituals. It is all about cleansing one’s mind, which takes effort and concentration. Initially, it could be challenging, but as one gains samādhi bit by bit, one gets motivated. In a few months, one can look back at one’s life and see that it has changed for the better.
  • Even though one can start with discarding immoral deeds and cultivating or taking in morals, one needs to know the real meanings of “san,” anicca, and anatta to do the ānāpānasati Bhāvanā in a deeper sense: (i) One needs to comprehend which “san” or defilements to be discarded; see, “San.” (ii) One needs to know the deeper meanings of Tilakkhana; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”

12. More details with many Tipiṭaka references at “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati.”

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