Assāsa Passāsa – What Do They Mean?

June 8, 2022; revised August 18, 2022

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 down the mind because when concentrating on the breath, the mind cannot wander around and start generating sensual, angry, or foolish thoughts. That is indeed 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 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 mean 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. 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.”

“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 “pajānāti” means “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:viditva” 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 is a clear illustration 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.”
Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118)

9. 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.) “

10. The third verse below that: “sabbakāyapaṭisaṁvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati,’‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṁvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

  • 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 #9 and #10 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

11. 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 “sikkhati” in 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 #9 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 passasatiDīghaṁ 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. We will discuss that in the niddesa (with more details) in an upcoming post.
Sabbe Saṅkhārā Anassāsikā

12. Anassāsikā comes from na + assāsikā. Thus, “anassāsikā” is something that should not be taken in or 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 “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.
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