7. What is Ānāpāna?

The top 10 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section are on possible meditation subjects and can be used to clarify unresolved questions, and to gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.

Revised April 2, 2017 (#4); September 2 (#11)

1. The Ānāpānasati Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya (Ānāpānasati SuttaMN 118) starts off with the following, just after the very first verse:

Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvithā bahulīkathā mahāpphalā hoti mahānisansā. Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvithā bahulīkathā chattāro satipaṭṭhānparipūreti. Chattāro satipaṭṭhānā bhāvithā bahulīkathā saptha bojjhaṅgparipūrenti. Saptha bojjhaṅgā bhāvithā bahulīkathā vijjā vimuttiparipūrenti.…..

That means:Ānāpānasati , Bhikkhus, when practiced frequently bears much fruits and leads to much benefits. Ānāpānasati , Bhikkhus, when cultivated and pursued, brings the four Satipaṭṭhānas to their completion. The four Satipaṭṭhānas, when cultivated and pursued, bring the seven bojjangas to their completion. The seven bojjangas, 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 bojjangas, removal of avijjā, and the attainment of Nibbāna? Can anyone seriously think that is possible?
  • Instead, ānapāna MEANS cultivating Satipaṭṭhāna, saptha bojjanga, etc., by “taking in morals” and “expelling immorals” as we discuss below.

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

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 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.

4. During the time of the Buddha itself, auxiliary suttā as well as commentaries (“Atthakatha“) were written to explain the key words/phrases in the main suttā that were abbreviated for easy transmission; see, “Preservation of Dhamma“. There are two important suttā, Assāsa sutta and the Parama Assāsa sutta 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).

  • 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 Alara Kalama and Uddacaramaputta while he was searching for the truth as Bodhisattva.
  • But the very next verses of that sutta describes how he gave up on that technique and moved onto the correct path.
  • So, we need to be careful about making sure a given phrase is used in the right context, depending on the situation.
  • For example, there are several conventional and deeper meanings to the key words “atta” and “anatta“, and one needs to be able 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 is automatically engaging in the basic 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 bhāvana 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 bad) 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 bad thoughts. Very simple.
  • Another thing to do in a formal meditation session is to contemplate on a particular dhamma concept like anicca, dukkha, anatta. This is really 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 being mindful of what one is engaged in, i.e., the task at hand. That task presumably does not involve any of 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 in injuring oneself; Many people get into accidents while driving, because they are not being 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 above mentioned cases), 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), 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 to very dense state of deep-seated cravings (āsavas). It may take some time to develop this “āna/pāna”, but you will definitely see results in a few weeks to 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”; rather it means, “get rid of old bad habits, and cultivate the old good habits”.

  • Similarly, the very next sentence (“..rassam vā assasantō…”) is not about short breaths, but on those good habits that you started to work on recently, and those bad habits that started to creep in to the mind recently (if there is any).
  • There is no way that one can 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 does both samatha and vipassāna 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 it 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, easier it becomes to get to samādhi in a formal meditation session. When samādhi grows little by little, one day one will automatically get into the first Ariya jhāna. However, there is one more thing that is needed before getting to the Ariya jhānā: an understanding of anicca, dukkha, ānatta. We will discuss why in a future post.

  • 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 and that takes an effort and concentration. Initially it could be hard, but as one gains samādhi bit by bit, one gets motivated. In 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 moral, one needs to know the real meanings of “san“, anicca and anatta in order to do the ānāpānasati bhāvana 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“.

Next, “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?“, ……..

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