Ānāpānasati – Overview

June 2, 2022; revised October 26, 2022; December 20, 2022; re-written January 12, 2023

Evidence from the Tipiṭaka shows that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is not breath mediation. The former can lead to Nibbāna, while the latter cannot. We will also discuss the connection between Ānāpānasati and Paṭicca Samuppāda.

Connection Between Ānāpānasati and Paṭicca Samuppāda

1. In the post “Difference Between Dhammā and Saṅkhāra,” we discussed our actions (kamma) with abhisaṅkhāra (involving lobha, dosa, and moha) lead to rebirths and future suffering. 

  • As discussed there, dhammā are kammic energies created as bhava in the Akusala-Mula (or Anuloma) Paṭicca Samuppāda process: “Akusala-Mūla Upapatti Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
  • That process is reversed in the “Paṭilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda – Key to Nibbāna” leading to Nibbāna. Here a different type of saṅkhāra (“kusala-mūla paccayā saṅkhāra) helps deactivate the dhammās created via the Akusala-Mula (or Anuloma) PS process.
  • The two PS processes are discussed side-by-side in “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
  • The Buddha stated in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) that cultivation of Ānāpānasati leads to Nibbāna. Thus, Ānāpānasati must be fulfilling the Paṭilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda. 
  • How can the “breath meditation” do that? It cannot. We will uncover some clues on the actual connection in this series of posts.
  • The problem is that current translations of Tipiṭaka references on both Ānāpānasati and Paṭicca Samuppāda have grave errors.
Elephants in the Room – Obvious Errors in Translations

2. In the series on “Elephants in the Room,” I discuss many blatant misinterpretations of the Tipiṭaka under three categories: “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka,” “Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā,” and “Tilakkhana.” The first category includes problems with Paṭicca Samuppāda translations.

  • I call these “Elephants in the Room” for the following reason. I have tried to point out many contradictions in current English translations of the Tipiṭaka. Those who have followed this website are aware of these issues.
  • However, I encountered strong opposition when I pointed out these issues at a well-known discussion forum. Anicca as impermanence and Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā as “breath meditation” seem to be ingrained into the minds of many people. It is difficult for them to “remove the dark glasses” and “see the truth.”

3. Some say, “I don’t know enough Pāli to determine who has the correct interpretations,  you or those well-established teachers.” However, knowledge of Pāli is not necessary to see many contradictions.

  • For example, see “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.” Even a child should be able to see such apparent contradictions!
  • I understand that getting rid of firmly-embedded wrong views is not easy, especially when the current “Theravada establishment” is behind such interpretations. I will do what I can to the best of my ability. (Of course, I learned these interpretations from the late Waharaka Thero.)
  • It is a relief to see that some people have understood, as I can see from the comments in our discussion forum and even in the other forum mentioned above.
First Elephant in the Room – Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka

4. I have already posted under the “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka” category and will post more later.

  • The primary sutta on Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is “Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118).” I will be discussing the main verses of this sutta in future posts. Before that, I need to provide some background, as laid out below. Note that in Pāli, the two words Ānapāna and sati combine as “Ānāpānassati.” Thus, you may see both Ānāpānasati and Ānāpānassati.
  • I will be using the English translation in the above link for comparison. I chose this particular translation because it has the English and Pāli verses side-by-side, so it is easy for anyone to compare with my translation of a specific verse. Of course, most current English translations are similarly incorrect; for example, “Anapanasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118.).”
Second Elephant in the Room – Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is Not Breath Meditation

5. The point that I will be making is the following. “Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā” is NOT “Mindful of Breathing.” Breath meditation is NOT a Buddhist meditation. Hindus practice breath meditation. See “Pranayama.”

  • Some people try to cheat by saying Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is the first step as a Samatha Bhāvanā, and then one needs to do “insight meditation.” However, I will present evidence from many suttas to show that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, by itself, is all one needs to attain ArahanthoodSee #9 below.
  • Furthermore, one CAN NOT do the CORRECT insight mediation if one does not even understand that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is not breath meditation!
  • The Buddha has clearly stated in the Ānāpānasati Sutta that if one completes the steps in Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, one will be fulfilling the steps in the Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā. Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā discusses the same steps in more detail.
  • An Introduction to Ānāpānasati is in posts #5 through #8 inBhāvanā (Meditation).” The following is an overview of topics in posts in the “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati“ subsection.  
Breath Not Mentioned in Ānapāna Vagga in Saṁyutta Nikāya

6. There is a small collection of suttas in the Ānapāna Vagga of Saṁyutta Nikāya BEFORE the section on Ānāpānasati. That is to give an idea of what is involved in Ānapāna, which comes from “Āna” + “āpāna,” where two words mean “taking in (kusala)” and “discarding (akusala or defilements).”

  • That section in the Ānapāna Vagga has several suttas starting with the “Aṭṭhikamahapphala Sutta (SN 46.57)” and ending with the “Ānāpāna Sutta (SN 46.66).”
  • You can read the English translations in the above links and see that the word “breath” is NOT there! Of course, the INCORRECT English translation of “Ānāpānassati” as “mindfulness of breathing” in SN 46.66 does not mean the word “breathing” is mentioned in that sutta! That INCORRECT translation is in the Sutta Central translation in the above link.  (Note:  I usually provide the “side by side” Pāli and English translations from Sutta Central. That does NOT mean I agree with their translation. One should always be cautious about the INCORRECT translation of many words in Sutta Central translations).
  • Instead, those suttas briefly describe some KEY CONCEPTS that one needs to understand to correctly “take in “and “discard” (Ānapāna) to cultivate Ānapāna Sati.

7. For example, the first sutta explains that one needs to understand how to cultivate “aṭṭhika saññā.” That is the “anicca or unfruitful” nature of this world. It is amusing to see that the English translation in the first link above translates “aṭṭhika saññā” as “perception of a skeleton”! 

  • Word-by-word translations can lead to such ridiculous statements.
  • The word “aṭṭhi” can mean “bone.” But that verse only gives an analogy, as I will explain later.
  • Other suttas in that series briefly mention several types of meditations in Satipaṭṭhāna, and the series ends with “Ānāpāna Sutta (SN 46.66)” which briefly states, “Bhikkhus when Ānāpānasati is developed and cultivated it’s very fruitful and beneficial.”
Is a Bhikkhu a “Begger”?

8. Another common problem with Sutta Central translations is that the translator translates “bhikkhu” as “mendicant” all the time.

  • See the definition of a “mendicant: “mendicant definition.” A bhikkhu is NOT a “beggar.” It is an insult to call a bhikkhu a “beggar”! 
  • In some dictionaries, a second definition is “often capitalizeda member of a religious order (such as the Franciscans) combining monastic life and outside religious activity and originally owning neither personal nor community property.” See “mendicant.” But why use obscure definitions? Furthermore, there is no “capitalization” in Sutta Central translations (mostly mendicant, not Mendicant.) 
  • To understand the term “bhikkhu,” read the suttas in “11 results for bhikkhusutta.”
  • The easiest solution regarding words like bhikkhu, anicca, and anatta is to use the same Pāli word, as done in the Sinhala language. There are no single words for such Pāli words in any language!
Ānapāna Saṁyutta Says Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā — by Itself — Leads to Arahanthood

9. There are twenty suttas in the Ānapāna Saṁyutta of Saṁyutta Nikāya DIRECTLY stating that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā — by itself can lead to Arahanthood.

  • The series starts with the “Ekadhamma Sutta (SN 54.1).” Ekadhamma means “one dhamma,” implying that this is all one needs to get to Arahanthood.
  • The series ends with a short sutta stating that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā will lead to the removal of all saṁyojana, anusaya, and āsava. There is no question that it leads to Nibbāna! See,  “Āsavakkhaya Sutta (SN 54.20).”
  • Thus, this series of suttas provides enough evidence by itself.
  • Incredibly, the translator in the link (and other “well-known” teachers) did not realize this while they did these translations. As I keep saying, sutta translation has become a mindless, mechanical process. It is a dangerous practice. Many suttas with deeper meanings require detailed explanations. See, “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118)

10. The Buddha discussed the Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā in the “Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118.).” Let me make two quotes from the sutta that should be enough to make the case.

Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā cattāro satipaṭṭhāne paripūreti.”

  • Translation:Ānāpānasati (Bhāvanā), when developed and cultivated, fulfills the four sections of the satipaṭṭhāna (Bhāvanā.)

Nāhaṁ, bhikkhave, muṭṭhassatissa asampajānassa ānāpānassatiṁ vadāmi.”

  • Translation: “I do not teach this Ānāpānasati (Bhāvanā) to those who do not have (sammā) sati.”
  • Anyone who has not understood the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana would not have sammā sati.

The English translation in the above link translates that Pāli verse as: “There is no development of mindfulness of breathing for someone who is unmindful and lacks awareness, I say.”

  • As I have explained, it is not about “breathing in and out.” Any person should be able to “mindfully breathe in and out”! The translator does not understand “sati” is that “Sammā Sati.” Only a Noble Person at or above the Sotapanna stage has Sammā Sati. See, for example,Mālukyaputta Sutta (SN 35.95)at the marker I have linked to where it says: “‘Rūpaṁ disvā sati muṭṭhāOR “mindfulness is lost upon seeing an attractive sight (for those who don’t have Sammā Sati).” That can happen with all six senses, as the sutta explains below.
Assāsa/Passāsa in Ānāpānasati Is not About the Breath but Kusala/Akusala

11. How did those translators miss the above critical points? I am not quite sure. I cannot even imagine how ALL OF THEM missed such crucial verses.

  • As you can see, the English translations in the above links do not contradict my statements. But from their manner of writing, it is clear that they did not grasp the meanings.
  • They must have been intent on cranking out as many suttas as possible without really paying attention to check self-consistency.
  • One possibility is the following. No one in recent years had understood the deeper meanings of assāsa and passāsa (in the context of cultivating the Eightfold Noble Path.) So, they mechanically used the ordinary meanings of inhaling and exhaling. 
  • There is no question that even breath meditation can lead to a calm mind. Yet, that will NOT lead to rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya, mohakkhaya (i.e., Nibbāna.)

12. One word with two or more meanings (depending on the context) is common in all languages.

  • Let us consider a simple example in English. “Turn right at the next junction” and “You are right” are perfectly correct statements. The word “right” has very different meanings in the two contexts.
  • These translators of the Tipiṭaka suttas have not understood the meanings of assāsa and passāsa in cultivating the Eightfold Noble Path.
Ānāpānassatikathā – Detailed Explanation in Paṭisambhidāmagga

13. There is a detailed explanation of Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā in the Tipitaka commentary Paṭisambhidāmagga: “1.3. Ānāpānassatikathā.”

  • One can write a book translating this detailed explanation! In future posts, I will use this resource to explain keywords used in the Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118). 
Mundane Version of Ānāpānasati

14. Obviously, any fool can do “breath meditation” since that involves only focusing the mind on the breath!

  • There are two types of “correct Ānāpānasati.” The “mundane version” of Ānāpānasati completes the mundane eightfold path described in the “Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (MN 117).” That sutta describes two versions of the first five steps in the Eightfold Path: mundane and Noble. I have linked to the start of the description of the two versions of Sammā Diṭṭhi at marker 6.2. Two versions of the following four steps are at markers 12.2, 18.2, 24.2, and 30.2. Those then lead to DIFFERENT states of Sammā Samādhi in the two paths. (Also note that this sutta comes just before the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118.))
  • The “mundane version” of Ānāpānasati includes the following: Taking in good morals and cultivating “good gati, “discarding bad gati, learning (taking in) correct teachings of the Buddha, discarding wrong views by contemplating those teachings and related material (like rebirth accounts, Out-Of-Body experiences, Near- Death Experiences), etc.
  • Completing the mundane version will enable one to comprehend the Noble Truths/Paṭicca samuppāda/Tilakkhana and start on the lokuttara (Noble) Path and practice the Ānāpānasati described in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118.)

15. I hope I have given enough information to make the case without writing another post on the issue of whether Ānāpānasati is “breath meditation.” 

  • Further information will be in future posts too. However, I need to focus on the issue of switching from the mundane path to the Noble Path.
  • Switching to the Noble Path essentially requires getting rid of Sakkāya Diṭṭhi. That connection is not in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) but in other suttas and also in the Tipitaka commentary Paṭisambhidāmagga mentioned in #13 above.
  • In the meantime, please post your comments/questions in the new thread that I opened in the discussion forum: “Posts on ‘Elephants in the Room‘”
  • All posts on Ānāpānasati at “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati.
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