A question for Pali Experts. The real interpretation of Anapanasati

A question for those who understand Pali.

Some translate the Anapanasati as ‘Mindfulness OF The Breath’ and some translate as ‘Mindfulness WHILE Breathing’. Different translation with different meaning.

As we know the word ‘Anapanasati’ is a compound words. The main difference in English translation is the Adverb (?) or The Conjuctive Words ‘OF’ and ‘WHILE’.

Do we have an explanation on this?

1 Like

My (inexpert) response to this is that there is no clue within the compound word itself as to whether to use English of or while between the two halves because Pali uses stem forms only for the parts of compound words and then inflects the final part according to the function of the word within the sentence: subject/object etc). So one has to look at the context of the whole sutta.

Does the sutta tell us to do nothing but watch the breath while meditating?

No, there are sixteen steps, only two of which focus directly on the breath. Also included are body, feelings, mind, and dhammas. For this reason I prefer to use English while.


If directly translating the compound words, ānāpānasati, it can be
“mindfulness by in- and out-breathing”. Cf.
Pages 225-7 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (210.4 KB)


The compound consists of āna-apāna-sati.

It is not entirely clear how to separate the compound because the individual limbs don’t appear in Pali. So we don’t know if it’s apāna or āpāna for example.

A few Upanisads, e.g. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 1.5.3, know five types of breath: prāṇa - apāna - vyāna - udāna - samāna (translated as out-breath, in-breath, inter-breath, up-breath, link-breath).

As Indian breath often starts with the outbreath, Pali āna would equal prāṇa, and Pali apāna the same Sanskrit apāna.

So literally ānāpānassati would mean: outbreath-inbreath-mindfulness. Now you just have to make sense of it. There is no conjunction in the Pali, so you have to follow the compound rules (e.g. here). And there are several possibilities.


The compound word of ‘Anapanasati’ derived from 3 word … Inhalation + Exhalation + Mindfulness … but it is somehow confused me, how some translator end up into 'Mindfulness OF Breath (Inhale/Exhale) and ‘Mindfulness WHILE Breathing’?

Is there any origin-word in ‘Anapanasati’ that can be translated into the word ‘OF’ or ‘WHILE’ .???

The difference of OF & WHILE, surely have different meaning and it explained why we have different method of meditation (especially in my country, and that makes laity confused and they hoovering around looking for the right ‘guru’).

I don’t understand what is still unclear. There is obviously no OF or WHILE in the original. Just as in beach-volleyball the word doesn’t tell you if you play volleyball AT the beach or WHILE you’re on the beach, or if you’re ON THE WAY to the beach, etc. Translators make sense of the compound just as we all do in our native language. Take “homework”, “churchbell”, “breakfast” or any other compound…


IMO it is simply “mindfully breathing in and mindfully breathing out”.
With Metta

1 Like

It is unclear because the word say mindfulness + inhale + exhale, to my knowledge … do we have the word ‘OF’ or ‘WHILE’ in ‘Anapanasati’ … if not the ‘OF’ or ‘WHILE’ where it is coming from? Or it just a personal interpretation of the translator … ???

Some ‘guru’ used it and they taught to focus on the breath, the air but not the body … which is correct?

How do you know what applesauce means? It just says apple + sauce. Is it sauce WHILE apple? apple OF sauce? apple AND sauce? It’s not magic - Translators look at the context and the compound rules that I already posted. Language doesn’t provide the ‘correctness’ you’re looking for


That is why I asked where this word ‘OF’ & ‘WHILE’ coming from? … because the meaning will be different with this ‘OF’ or ‘WHILE’.

From what people have said above, HHS, you can see that a literal translation would be “out-breathing/in-breathing-mindfulness,” or just “breathing-mindfulness.” The words “of” or “while” result from translators trying to communicate what they understand the actual practice of ānāpānasati to be.

The actual conjunction used isn’t as important as understanding what we’re meant to do doing. As Gillian pointed out above, the Ānāpānasati Sutta goes well beyond mindfulness of the breathing itself. That’s the important thing to know. We should take our cues from understanding the word in context, not from trying to forensically examine the word in isolation. (Arguably we’re always mindful while breathing, so an alternative would be "mindfulness with breathing.)

In terms of understanding what we’re meant to be doing, I’ll just throw in one other observation, which is that many teachers use the words “breath” and “breathing” interchangeably. In my humble opinion these are very different things, and it’s the breathing we should be observing in meditation, not just the breath. But many people, even when specifically asked to observe the sensations of the breathing, habitually default to observing the sensations of the breath, and this has consequences for their practice.


No. There isn’t.

You might be interested in exploring Venerable Anālayo’s teachings on the sutta here:


It’s being added by the translator in an attempt to create a meaningful and formal term in English for the practice described.

Translators are thinking about issues besides the meaning of the term itself. They also want something that can be used in any grammatical situation in English. Also, there’s the problem that in English a verb is not normally an adjective, or if it is it’s a special kind that’s rendered in past tense like “dyed wool.” “Dyeing wool” is a verb phrase that means “right now, I’m dyeing a batch of wool” rather than “wool that’s dyed.”

“Breathing mindfulness” means mindfulness is being inhaled and exhaled to an English reader. “Breathed mindfulness” has the same connotation. It’s mindfulness that’s been breathed in and out. So, to use “breathing” it requires a preposition like “while” to get the meaning right. “Breath mindfulness” could work, but it sounds rather indistinct. So, translators try to indicate the relationship between breath and mindfulness with prepositions.

At the end of the day, a person needs to read a sutra that describes the practice to actually know what mindfulness of breath actually means. It’s a technical term, really, since it’s so specific.


“Of” comes from the translator’s belief that ānāpānassati is a chaṭṭhītappurisasamāsa - a genitive dependent-determinative compound.

“While” comes from the translator’s belief that it is a sattamītappurisasamāsa - a locative dependent-determinative compound.

Though both are plausible, the earliest sources that give us a clue about how the compound should be analysed seem to favour treating it as a tatiyātappurisa (instrumental dependent-determinative) compound.

This would generate translations like “mindfulness with the in-breaths and out-breaths” or “mindfulness (that is established) by means of the in-breaths and out-breaths”, depending on whether we suppose it to be an instrumental of accompaniment or an instrumental of agency.


Welcome to D&D Aurelijus :pray:t4::bouquet:!


Interesting, both readings would tend to work.


In the beginning you want to be “mindful of the in and out breath” and when you have settled and calmed yourself then you would want to keep your “mindfulness” while breathing so that you can practice the other 14 steps of Anapanasati.

I believe you should practice both “mindfulness OF the breath” and “mindfulness WHILE breathing”.


This is one of numerous “sati” compounds of the same kind: Dhammānussati, saṅghānussati, sīlānussati, cāgānussati,devatānussati, ānāpānassati,maraṇassati, kāyagatāsati, upasamānussati

In all of them, “sati” means “keeping in mind” that which is indicated by the first part of the compound. As explained in the Satipaṭṭhānavibhaṅga:

“Satimā” ti. Tattha, katamā sati?
“Mindful”. Herein, what is mindfulness?

Yā sati anussati paṭissati sati saraṇatā,
That which is mindfulness, recollection, recall, mindfulness, remembrance,

dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā,
bearing (in mind), not losing, not confusing,

sati Satindriyaṁ Satibalaṁ Sammāsati – ayaṁ vuccati “sati”.
mindfulness, the Faculty of Mindfulness, the Strength of Mindfulness, Right Mindfulness – this is called “mindfulness”.

Thus Dhammānussati means “Keeping the Dhamma in mind”, or “retention of the Dhamma”. Similarly with ānāpānassati.


The answer is not found in translation, it is clearly stated. As @Gillian has pointed out, the instruction to focus on a subject (such as the entire body) in conjunction with the breath is repeated fourteen times through the sutta. This is important because it means a connection between the mind and the physical basis of the breath is being forged, taking habitual feeling away from organs involved with food or sex. The joy associated with mindfulness of the breath however is a feeling not of the flesh.