Assāsa Passāsa – What Do They Mean?

June 8, 2022; revised August 18, 2022; January 11, 2023 (revisions and new #9, #14)

In an ordinary sense, assāsa and passāsa mean inhaling and exhaling. However, the deeper meanings in the context of Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā are about purifying a mind by taking in morals and discarding immoral.

Ānāpāna and Assāsa Passāsa

1. Ānāpāna comes from “āna” + “āpāna,” where the latter two words mean “take in/import” and “discard/export.” Thus, in connection with the Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā, assāsa and passāsa represent taking in morals and discarding immoral.

  • Cultivating (taking in) good morals and discarding immoral is the basis of  Buddha Dhamma.
  • Breathing in and breathing out are physical activities. How can that cleanse a mind?
  • Yet, it can calm the mind because when concentrating on the breath, it cannot wander around and start generating sensual, angry, or foolish thoughts. That is a lower form of Samatha Bhāvanā. However, Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā is NOT a Samatha Bhāvanā, as we will see below.
  • A better way to get to Samatha is to listen to a Dhamma discourse or read about a Dhamma concept.
Words With Multiple Meanings

2. In any language, there are words with multiple meanings depending on the context.

  • For example, in the English language. the word “interest” has very different meanings in the following two sentences: “We are paying a high interest on the loan” and “She has no interest in him.”
  • In the same way, the Pāli words assāsa and passāsa can mean very different things depending on the context.
Mundane Meanings of Assāsa Passāsa 

3. In some suttas, assāsa passāsa means inhaling and exhaling. But most suttas convey a deeper meaning in the context of Ānāpānasati Bhāvanā. It is easy to figure out which meaning applies.

  • For example,  assāsapassāsā in the context of kāya saṅkhāra refers to breathing in and out (under different contexts.) The Buddha explains that in the “Dutiyakāmabhū Sutta (SN 41.6).” “Assāsapassāsā kho, gahapati, kāyasaṅkhāro, vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro, saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti. In that verse, the Buddha says, “Assāsapassāsā means kāyasaṅkhāra.”
  • When asked why, the Buddha explained: “Assāsapassāsā kho, gahapati, kāyikā. Ete dhammā kāyappaṭibaddhā, tasmā assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro,” i.e., “inhaling and exhaling is associated with bodily functions (kāyappaṭibaddhā), and that is why it is associated with kāya saṅkhāra.”
  • The same definition of kāya saṅkhāra is in the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44).

4. The “Anupubbanirodha Sutta (AN 9.31)” states: “catutthaṁ jhānaṁ samāpannassa assāsapassāsā niruddhā honti.

  • Here, assāsa and passāsa again refer to the breath. That verse says: “Breathing ceases in the fourth jhāna.
  • Two more suttas with the ordinary meanings for assāsa and passāsa: “Sappa Sutta (SN 4.6)” and “Mahāsaccaka Sutta (MN 36).
  • Now let us look at some suttas with the deeper meanings of assāsa and passāsa.
Deeper Meanings – Assāsa and Parama Assāsa

5. Two suttas clearly illustrate the deeper meaning of “assāsa.” The following is my translation of “Assāsappatta Sutta (SN 38.5)” First, note that “patto” means “to get to a certain state.” Here, “assāsappatto” means “someone who has got to assāsa” or, in the context of this sutta, “someone who started taking in lokottara morals.” Thus, anyone above the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage is an “assāsappatto.

“Venerable Sariputta, who is an assāsappatto? When a Bhikkhu truly understands the origin and ending of the six contact fields (phassāyatanāna) and their gratification, drawback, and escape, they have gained solace/relief by entering the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Pali verse:Yato kho, āvuso, bhikkhu channaṁ phassāyatanānaṁ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṁ pajānāti, ettāvatā kho, āvuso, assāsappatto hotī”ti.

  • Note: assāsappatto is a Sotapanna/Sotapanna Anugami, and “pajānātimeans “understands.” 
  • When asked how to get there, Ven. Sripuatta replies that it is the Noble Eightfold Path (“Ayameva kho, āvuso, ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo etassa assāsassa sacchikiriyāya, seyyathidaṁ—sammādiṭṭhi …pe… sammāsamādhi.)
  • (Also note that when the two words “assāsa” and “patto” are combined, it is pronounced as “assāsappatto.”)

6. The “Paramas­s­āsa­p­patta­ Sutta (SN 38.6)” completes the description by saying that at the Arahant stage, one has completed the Noble Path and has gained the ultimate (parama) solace/relief.

The key verse:Yato kho, āvuso, bhikkhu channaṁ phassāyatanānaṁ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṁ viditvā anupādāvimutto hoti, ettāvatā kho, āvuso, paramassāsappatto hotī”ti.Note: That means becoming an Arahant.

  • Note:viditvā means “experienced and verified,” and that gets to “anupādāvimutto” or the “release from the Saṃsaric journey, i.e., the Arahanthood.” In “paramassāsappatto,” the word “parama” means “ultimate.”
  • Note: The English translation in the above link does not even translate those last critical verses in the two suttas! That clearly illustrates that the translator did not comprehend the importance of those verses.

7. In the “Nakulapitu Sutta (AN 6.16)” the Buddha tells Nakulapitu Gahapati that his wife is an “assāsappatto” (i.e., a Sotapanna) whose advice he should take; see the end of the sutta.

  • At the beginning of the “Kaḷāra Sutta (SN 12.32),” bhikkhu kaḷārakhattiyo asks Ven. Sariputta: “Tena hāyasmā sāriputto imasmiṁ dhammavinaye assāsaṁ patto”ti? That means, “Has Ven. Sāriputta found solace/relief in this teaching and training?”
  • Venerable Sariputta explains how one can get there, i.e., how to attain Nibbāna.
One Becomes Assāsappatto by Cultivating the Nobel Path

8. Both “Assāsappatta Sutta (SN 38.5)” and “Paramas­s­āsa­p­patta­ Sutta (SN 38.6)” state that one becomes an “assāsappatto/paramassāsappatto” (Sotapanna Anugami/Arahant) by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • In each sutta the following question is raised, Katamo panāvuso, maggo katamā paṭipadā, etassa assāsassa/paramassāsassa sacchikiriyāyā”ti?“ OR “Is there a path, is there a way to become a Sotapanna Anugami/Arahant?.
  • The reply was: “Ayameva kho, āvuso, ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo etassa assāsassa sacchikiriyāya, seyyathidaṁ—sammādiṭṭhi …pe… sammāsamādhi.” OR “Yes. It is the Noble Eightfold Pathsammādiṭṭhi …pe… sammāsamādhi.”
Sīha Sutta (AN 8.12)

9. “Sīha Sutta (AN 8.12),” the Buddha explains to General Sīha, “Ahañhi, sīha, assāsako paramena assāsena, assāsāya dhammaṁ desemi, tena ca sāvake vinemi,” or “Sīha, I teach the parama assāsa dhamma (Four Noble Truths) and guide my disciples in that way.” In the Sutta Central translation, that verse is incorrectly translated as, “I’m ambitious to offer solace, the highest solace, I teach solace, and I guide my disciples in that way.”

  • In the “Kesamutti Sutta (AN 3.65),”  the Buddha explains to the Kālāmās that he teaches mettā, karuṇā, muditā, and upekkhā, four ways of “taking in,” leading to “Tassa diṭṭheva dhamme cattāro assāsā adhigatā honti” (@ marker 43.2)  meaning: “they comprehend (adhigata) four types of assāsā in the present life.” 
  • There are many suttas where the word “assa” indicates “receiving,” for example, in the “Samādhi Sutta (AN 10.6),” receiving/cultivating a specific type of saññā
Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118)

10. Now, let us look at the “Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118)” briefly to see the usage of the words assāsa and passāsa.

  • The first usage of those words is in: “So satova assasati satova passasati.
  • Note that the words “assa” and “passa” combined with “sati.” Here, “sati” does not just mean to “fix the attention” but “Sammā Sati” that comes with the comprehension of the Four Noble Truths.
  • That verse means: “He contemplates (with Sammā Sati) what to take in, and what to discard (regarding an ārammaṇa.) “

11. The third verse below that: “sabbakāyapaṭisaṁvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati,’‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṁvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.” Here, “sikkhati” means “train (to remove defilements).”

  • The phrase “assasissāmī’ti sikkhati” becomes apparent when written, “assa sissāmī’ti sikkhati” That means, “He trains by taking in what will be good for that training (purifying the mind).”
  • In the same way, “passasissāmī’ti sikkhati” means “He trains by discarding what will be bad for that training (which is to purify the mind).”
  • Those Verses in #10 and #11 are critical and appear many times throughout the sutta. We will discuss them in detail in an upcoming post.
Ariṭṭha Sutta (SN 54.6) – Both Meanings

12. The incorrect version of Ānāpānassati was there even before the Buddha. In the Ariṭṭha Sutta (SN 54.06), Bhikkhu Ariṭṭha told the Buddha that he practices Ānāpānassati as follows: “So satova assasissāmi, satova passasissāmi.

  • In the above verse, Bhikkhu Ariṭṭha meant, “I breathe in mindfully, breathe out mindfully.” There is no “sikkhatiin this verse. Inhaling and exhaling does not lead to training on the Noble Path, i.e., removal of defilements from the mind.” Furthermore, there is no role for “Sammā Sati” via “So satova assasati satova passasati” as in Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118); see #10 above.

The Buddha 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, Ariṭṭha. I don’t say that there isn’t. But I will describe the real (yathāānāpānassati in detail, listen and pay close attention. I will speak.”

Then the Buddha explains with the same verses from the Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118): “So satova assasati, satova passasati. Dīghaṁ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṁ assasāmī’ti pajānāti …pe… ‘paṭinissaggānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘paṭinissaggānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhatiEvaṁ kho, ariṭṭha, ānāpānassati vitthārena paripuṇṇā hotī”ti.”

  • Of course, this explanation is the uddesa version. In an upcoming post, we will discuss that in the niddesa form (with more details).
Sabbe Saṅkhārā Anassāsikā

13. Anassāsikā comes from na + assāsikā. Thus, “anassāsikā” means it should not be taken in, associated with, or cultivated because it can only be detrimental.

  • The verse, “evaṁ anassāsikā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā” means, “Bhikkhus, you should not cultivate saṅkhārā.” There are several suttas with that verse. See, for example, “Vepullapabbata Sutta (SN 15.20).” Some others are SN 22.96, AN 7.66, MN 76, MN 112, and DN 17.
  • It is easy to see why. The Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda starts with, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and ends with “bhava paccayā jāti, jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti” OR to the “whole mass of suffering.”
  • Of course, “saṅkhāra” are many types that can bring vipāka to varying degrees. Apuñña abhisaṅkhāra  (or apuññābhisaṅkhāra) can lead to birth in the apāyās. Puñña abhisaṅkhāra (or pññābhisaṅkhāra) leads to “good births” but still extends the rebirth process where future rebirths in the apāyās are still possible. All saṅkhāra generation stops at the death of an Arahant.
Arahaṁ Assā – Attaining Arahanthood

14. As we saw in #5 above, anyone above the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage is an “assāsappatto,” and Arahant is a paramassāsappatto.

  • On the other hand, “arahaṁ assā” means “received/gained the Arahant phala,” where “assā” is equivalent to “receive.”
  • This is in a short sutta,Dukkara Sutta (SN 39.16),” where the question is: “Kīvaciraṁ panāvuso, dhammānudhammappaṭipanno bhikkhu arahaṁ assā” ti?” OR ” If a bhikkhu practices in line with the teaching, will it take them long to receive the Arahanthood?” The word “assā” as well as “assāsa” can have different meanings depending on the context.
  • Note that an earlier verse, “Pabbajitena kho, āvuso, abhirati dukkarā” ti.” is mistranslated in the Sutta Central translation as “When you’ve gone forth it’s hard to be satisfied.” The correct translation is, “When you’ve gone forth, you see craving for sensual attractions (abhirati) as (the cause of) suffering (dukkarā).”


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