Ānāpānasati – Overview

June 2, 2022; revised June 5, 2020 (#11 added)

Evidence from the Tipiṭaka shows that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is not breath mediation. The former can lead to Nibbāna, while the latter cannot.

Introduction

1. 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.”

  • I call these “Elephants in the Room” for the following reason. I have tried to point out many apparent contradictions in current English translations of the Tipiṭaka. Those who have diligently 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 not easy for them to “remove the dark glasses” and “see the truth.”

2. Some people 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 it is not easy to get rid of firmly-embedded wrong views, 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 we can see from the comments in our discussion forum.
First Elephant in the Room – Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka

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

  • In this first post on “Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā,” I will lay out a map for future posts. I have divided this subsection into several categories, as indicated below.
  • 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 that it is easy for anyone to compare with my translation of a specific verse. Of course, most current English translations are very similar; for example, “Anapanasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118.).”
Second Elephant in the Room – Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is Not Breath Meditation

4. 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 mediation too.

  • 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 to show that Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, by itself, is all one needs to attain Arahanthood.
  • 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 that if one completes the steps in Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, one will be fulfilling the steps in the Satipatthana Bhāvanā. Satipatthana Bhāvanā discusses the same steps in greater detail.
  • The following is an overview of topics in future posts in the” ‘Elephant in the Room’ 2 – Ānāpānasati” subsection.
Breath Not Mentioned in Ānapāna Vagga in Saṁyutta Nikāya

5. 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!
  • Instead, those suttas briefly describe some KEY CONCEPTS that one needs to understand to correctly “take in “and “discard” (Ānapāna) to cultivate Ānapāna sati.

6. 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 “bones.” But the correct meaning in this context is not that, 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..”
Ānapāna Saṁyutta Says Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā — by Itself — Leads to Arahanthood

7. 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 the 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 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)

8. 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/PaṭiccaSamuppāda/Tilakkhana would not have sammā sati.
Assāsa/Passāsa in Ānāpānasati Is not About the Breath but Kusala/Akusala

9. 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.)

10. 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 the context of cultivating the Eightfold Noble Path.
Ānāpānassatikathā – Detailed Explanation in Paṭisambhidāmagga

11. 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!
Summary

12. I hope I have given enough information to make the case without writing another post.

  • But I will provide further details, even if not in the same order as above. Some sections above do not need further clarification. 
  • 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‘”
  • Please use that new thread to make comments/questions on the posts in the previous subsection as well, “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”
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