Ānāpāna in the Saṃyukta Āgama

Some years ago I made a translation of EA 17.1, which is probably the closest Chinese parallel to MA 118, although it maybe shares more in common with MA 62. Basically I wanted a nice English version of the Ānāpānassatisutta, but translated from Chinese.

I knew there were some other small texts on ānāpāna in the āgamas, but probably nothing as “big” as EA 17.1. When I started looking more at the Saṃyukta Āgama, I knew there was an ānāpāna saṃyukta, but after reading a translation of the same section from the Saṃyutta Nikāya, I thought it was probably not that informative. Just some short little texts.

I was wrong, though. The texts in the SA are very dense, interesting, and informative. Taking notes on the SA, I gradually began to see how much information is actually available. If the 15 sūtras are taken together and treated as one text, they are certainly the most valuable resource for ānāpāna in the āgamas by a wide margin.

Rather than just making notes for myself in a list format, I decided that it would be more useful to make notes as an article made available to others. The article is still very rough and will be both edited, amended, and expanded in the future, but this is the beginning:


In the future I hope it can encompass all the main materials in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta. Currently some things are still missing or incomplete, such as the detailed explanation of how ānāpāna fulfills the Seven Factors of Bodhi, etc.

Note: It would be best not to copy it for a local version, as my articles sometimes change. They are not like printed materials that are published once and never updated.


One thing I’ve been seeing is that the denseness of the instructions on ānāpāna makes them a little difficult to parse. Previously I was interpreting lines like the following:

觀察     滅出息,
於觀察     滅出息     善學。

This would mean observing the cessation of the out-breath. By breaking down the text line-by-line and comparing with other passages, though, it appears that the correct form is:

觀察     滅     出息,
於觀察     滅     出息善學。

There is a huge difference in here. This corrected form means when breathing out, one observes cessation, not necessarily the cessation of the out-breath.


It’s better if you can present the translation of 15 sutras from Anapana Samyukta, so that others can read it directly too… :slight_smile:


Wow, thanks so much for this! Any chance of reading your actual translations as well?

I’m planning on translating at least a few of them. A translation for SA 801 is already available, but that is quite a small text, even for the SA.

I would like to have some others available like some detailed instructions, as in 803, 810, or 813, or the report by the Buddha on his own personal practice, in 807.

Interestingly, in the SA, ānāpāna is only mentioned within its own saṃyukta, and one other little SA text on the Seven Factors of Bodhi (SA 746).


I’ve just expanded the article to include all four major āgamas, including looking at some similarities and differences.

In general, the SA has most of the material on ānāpāna, but the EA also has a long discourse and a few interesting short texts. Not every source has been used yet, but it is becoming more complete.

One thing that is clear is that ānāpāna played a very small, almost insignificant role in the MA and DA collections, at least the ones that were translated into Chinese. In the MA, it only shows up in abbreviated form for mindfulness of the body. In the DA, it is not found at all.

I wonder if there were big trends in meditation that swept ānāpāna out of the way? The MA has mostly contemplation of impurity, and contemplation of the body, while the DA has things like contemplation of the 32 marks of the Buddha.

Yet we know that at least in the Northwest, there was a very strong tradition of ānāpāna in the first few centuries of the common era, and it remained an important part of the meditation systems and traditions there…


This is informative. Interesting insights. What do you make of the differences between the last tetrads of the Pali and Agama versions?

1 Like

Dear @llt,

Is this article still in progress of editing? Because I want to ask a permission to translate it into Indonesian and put it on our Indonesian Buddhist forum (https://dhammacitta.org/forum).

Thank you



Maybe different interpretations about the end of the path? Or maybe different traditions? Out of curiosity I looked outside the āgamas, and found that the sequence found in Pali looks a bit more similar to that in the Yogācārabhūmi of Saṃgharakṣa (T. 606). But looking in the Mahāvibhāṣa (T. 1545), there is a slightly difference sequence that is even different in the first tetrad. So there was just a certain amount of variation in these formulas. A much broader comparison would be needed to track them all down.

For that matter, there is a wealth of material available in Chinese on ānāpāna as it was practiced in Sarvāstivāda meditation traditions, but most of it has not been translated into English yet. One exception in recent years has been the Dharmatrāta Dhyāna Sūtra, the meditation manual of Buddhasena, Kashmir’s most famous dhyāna teacher ca. 4th century.

Oh, very neat! Unfortunately the article is still a work in progress, and one that will evolve over time. Maybe after a few weeks I will be pretty sure that all the sources have been tracked down and adequately addressed in the article. If you would like, I can send you a message when I think it is maybe in a more stable and complete state.

But if you do decide to translate it, you don’t really need my permission, as the article is Creative Commons Zero (no copyright or other rights retained).


Whoops. Neglected to quote L’s original post. Please see below.

That is a very important point, IMO. People understand the instruction in the Sutta on Mindfulness, in the section on breathing in and out, as “calming the breath, I will breathe in… calming the breath, I will breath out.” But the literal translation of the Pali is “Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in. Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe out.” There is indeed a huge difference. One approach is direct, seeking to influence the breathing directly. The other approach is indirect. I think it is the difference between ignorance and wisdom.

1 Like

That’s exactly what I think. In fact, I’ve been wondering lately if the final step in the Agama version–cessation–might not be a reference to nirodha samapatti: which would be very different from how the Pali tradition even conceives of the final tetrad.

Do you know much about the Anbanshouyijing? I think it also has a different sequence for the 16.

Thanks for the Dharmatrata Dhyana Sutta link! I’ve had a copy of the Chinese for years; it’s hefty reading, though, and I never really got too deep into it. But this’ll help. Could you similarly direct us toward some of that material you mentioned on Sarvastivada anapana?

1 Like

It’s great, you can notify me on this topic when it’s ready :slight_smile:

1 Like

Interestingly, in all the Chinese translations, there is no “I will,” or “I,” or even “he.” There is no sense of “I will breathe in,” or “I will” do this or that. After all, this is a practice of mindfulness and awareness of the breath.

Right, that’s interesting, and there are certainly parts of the sequence that have clear parallels to entering the Nirodha Samāpatti, as explained in SN 41.6 and SA 568. The sequence given in the Mahāvibhāṣā also gives cessation as the final stage, so that was the last item for the “orthodox” Sarvāstivāda.

I know a bit about it, but I don’t know if I have access to the original text. The version in the Taishō is just a commentary on the original text, which was lost for about 1000 years, until some years ago when the original was found at an old temple in Japan. The text has been published, but I don’t know the details. It would be interesting to compare, though, as that is a 2nd century text from the Northwest.

You’re right. It’s pretty inscrutable, being full of Sarvāstivāda terminology and squeezed into short lines of Chinese verse. It was a proper subject for a PhD thesis. The English translation has a very good introduction, and it’s pretty amazing to have a detailed meditation manual like this from Kashmir.

From what I know, the Mahāvibhāṣā would probably be the best source for understanding standard ānāpāna practice as taught by the Sarvāstivādins (of course it is not translated from Chinese). I’ve read some parts from the Mahāvibhāṣā on ānāpāna, and it is interesting. Not awful and dry. There is a good article on it here:

[Suen Hon-ming - Methods of spiritual praxis in the Sarvāstivāda: a study primarily based on the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā (2010)] (https://hub.hku.hk/handle/10722/141906)

1 Like

In the West, many people are still focused on studying early Buddhism in terms of a large and interpenetrating corpus of texts. So for example, studying the Pali Canon, the EBT’s, or something like that. But usually we don’t hear about someone studying just one collection like the Saṃyutta Nikāya. The reasons for this approach are probably well-meaning and done out of respect for the historicity of the canon itself. In my opinion, though, very real differences may be ignored in the process.

Since Yin Shun and others started studying the Saṃyukta Āgama, their approach has been almost the opposite. They tend to focus on the Saṃyukta Āgama as the earliest collection, and to direct much of their attention to this one āgama. This is kind of interesting because the SA and MA have some pretty big differences in some respects.

Since I started looking at the SA more, it has also become clear to me that even within these collections, there is older and newer. Some texts are obvious additions, or should otherwise be considered “late,” like from the time of the MA or EA. But even within these collections, there are certain doctrines that are closer to the core of the teachings, and others that are out on the periphery.

This is interesting in the case of the ānāpānasmṛti saṃyukta in the SA. Outside its own saṃyukta, there is only one reference to ānāpāna in the entire SA, which is SA 746, linking the practice to the Seven Factors of Bodhi. Within the saṃyukta itself, which otherwise seems completely isolated, the texts clearly reference two other frameworks multiple times. The first is the Four Bases of Mindfulness, which the 16 steps of ānāpānasmṛti must have been based on. The other is the Seven Factors of Bodhi, as ānāpānasmṛti is held to fulfill mainly the “mindfulness” factor. Within the saṃyukta, ānāpāna is said to be able to accomplish just about everything in Buddhism, being praised in the highest terms, but practically all the other sūtras have basically nothing to say about the practice and do not even mention its existence. Doesn’t that seem strange?

The role of impurity meditations within the collection is also a bit unusual. These only seem to be mentioned very sporadically. I don’t see much evidence (so far) that they were known and taught at the time the SA was compiled. SA 809, which uses the term impurity contemplation (不淨觀) over and over, was likely taken from a Vinaya story about a mass suicide, which Richard Gombrich has described as a grotesque and unrealistic fable. But the role of this story in the ānāpānasmṛti saṃyukta seems to be to portray impurity meditations as dangerous, and to promote ānāpāna instead. Maybe there some resistance to impurity meditations becoming popular around the time of the MA?

In any case, I think these individual collections tell their own stories, and hopefully we can learn some interesting things about them in the future. A few interesting scenarios, for example:

  1. Maybe we will learn about some core teachings that were tightly integrated, and thus learn more about the “original” Buddhism from even before the SA.
  2. Maybe we will see the MA, DA, and EA more as progressive “expansions” of Buddhism, and thereby gain a better and more detailed understanding of the development and growth of the tradition.
  3. Maybe ānāpāna and impurity meditations will be seen more as “newer” methods of meditation that were gradually accepted into the Buddhist community by being framed as fulfilling the Four Bases of Mindfulness (of course they must have been effective too).

These are just a few ideas, and proving any of them would likely require a larger study and effort. But even looking at individual practices and saṃyuktas can give us some really interesting and challenging clues.


Thanks for the very interesting info. You might remember the palicanon micro-analysis on parimukha I was lead to do - in the phrase usually translated as “and established mindfulness in front of him”. The conclusion was that if in the pali canon parimukha appears with a specific meditation it was overwhelmingly with anapanassati - a connection that was not to be found in the sanskrit versions. I had to think of that when you write in your article that anapanassati “is the only form of explicitly seated meditation that is given its own saṃyukta within the SA”.
Also lately I went over Sutta Nipata IV and V, and if I remember correctly there is no specific meditation method mentioned at all. Could it be that the systematized methods we find in the suttas are a condensation of editors who brought order into much more diverse practices and approaches?

1 Like

Does anyone have last suggestions, corrections, or criticisms for this article?


I’ve been falling behind recently, but I just updated it with information from SA 805 and SA 806, which feature Ariṣṭa and Kapphiṇa, respectively.

In particular, the one about Kapphiṇa seems simple at first glance, but tells us some valuable information, including illustrating that mindfulness leads to samādhi, and that one who practices ānāpāna correctly becomes motionless in both body and mind.


Hi Llt,

I have had a quick look at your essay, and I jotted down a few random comments as I went along. Your review is very useful, at least until we have a proper translation of this into English. I noticed on the way that there is a lot in common with the Pali, especially in the Saṃyukta. This is true in regard to individual suttas, but also more generally in regard to the ideas expressed. As usual it is hard to avoid the feeling that the Pali and the Chinese are different recensions of the same original teachings.

Hopefully you will find something useful in this.
With metta from Oz.

This section should give us sūtras that are generally older and more likely to be shorter, simpler, and earlier than those in the other āgamas.

Perhaps, but the extent to which this is true is still up for debate. One of the issues here is how much older. It seems reasonable to think that the suttas would have evolved within the lifetime of the Buddha. He would probably have started off with simpler and shorter suttas, of the type we normally find in the Saṃyukta/Saṃyutta. The suttas would then have evolved in both content and length throughout his career. It seems reasonable to think that many of the lengthy but oft-repeated suttas would have been spoken by the Buddha himself, such as the gradual training (e.g. MN 27 or DN 2). And if a sutta originated from the Buddha, its relative age is not all that significant.

Another important issue is the fact that the same sutta was often either placed in different Nikāyas/Āgamas to begin with, or moved around the various Nikāyas/Āgamas. We know this because a Pali sutta found in a particular Nikāya is often found in a different Āgama in the Chinese. So even if the Saṃyukta as a container is old, this does not necessarily mean that the content is older than that of the other Āgamas/Nikāyas. To me it seems that there is too much uncertainty around this to make any general statements about age.

In my opinion, a better and more reliable method of relative chronology is to look at linguistic criteria. For instance, you can tell that the Abhidhamma is later than the suttas simply on the basis of the language used. The vocabulary is different, and so is the style. When you look at the four Nikāyas/Āgamas, the language is very similar across the board, and this should mean that they all stem from roughly the same period. It is true that we still need better research in this area, and it is quite possible that we might be able to relatively date certain suttas, even collections, on linguistic criteria. But the general outline is clear enough: the differences within the four Nikāyas are relatively minor. All this is of course much easier to ascertain with the Pali suttas than with those translated into Chinese, where such minor linguistic details often got lost in translation.

… only form of explicitly seated meditation …

So far as I am aware, ānāpānasati is the only form of explicitly seated meditation anywhere. Seated meditation is also mentioned in the gradual training, but in connection with the abandoning of the hindrances, not with a specific meditation technique.

… the Four Bases of Mindfulness …

This is similar to the common translation “the four foundations of mindfulness”: both of them imply that mindfulness arises as a consequence of this practice. However, mindfulness is needed at the outset of satipaṭṭhāna practice: the practice is described as satimā, which implies the presence of mindfulness as the practice is done. I would prefer a translation such as “the four applications of mindfulness”, or even “the four focuses of mindfulness”. The purpose of satipaṭṭhāna, as you point out further down, is samādhi, not mindfulness per se.

The Smṛtyupasthāna Saṃyukta also contains a strong narrative element that includes illustrations, for example, about a small bird and an eagle (SA 617), monkey hunting (SA 620), acrobats (SA 618), a chef (SA 616), and the most beautiful woman in the world (SA 623).

All of which are found in the Pali as well.

This highly detailed approach to meditation is unique within the Saṃyukta Āgama, and perhaps reflects the ideas of a certain group of authors who had strong opinions and particular ideas about how this type of meditation ought to be practiced, and who believed that each detail was important enough that it should be memorized and followed.

I see no reason why this should not have come from the Buddha. I agree with you that the degree of detail is striking – the same is true of the Pali – but I would see this as an indication of the importance the Buddha placed on ānāpānasati. Apart from the Ānāpānasati Saṃyutta, the sixteen steps together with the introductory instructions are found in a number of places in the Pali canon (MN 62, MN 118, AN 10.60; in addition you find the introduction together with the first tetrad in MN 10, MN 119, and DN 22). Moreover, ānāpāna is mentioned in brief in number of other places. It seems unlikely to me that such an important teaching should not stem from the Buddha.

The authors of the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta …

May we not assume that this is the Buddha, unless proved otherwise? This is the sort of language used by academic scholars, and to me it is the result of academic over-caution and fashion. I feel it would be good for Buddhists to take a stand on where these teachings come from.

The impression left by the texts in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta is that its authors were exacting, demanding, opinionated, eremitic, avoidant, and puritanical. They do not seem to have been particularly creative, tolerant, flexible, or sociable. They did not care much about entertaining others or communicating their message in a charismatic way. They were simply concerned about the details of their practice, and how it should properly be carried out.

Gee, you are really going for it! To me the point is that there is a time for solitude, especially when one wants to develop samādhi. There is also a time for communicating the message, but that should be at a different time from when you practice samādhi. I don’t really see the division in personalities that you seem to see.

… nectar of immortality (得甘露究竟甘露) …

Would it not be better to translate this as “nectar of the deathless”, or even “the nectar of freedom from death”, as is customary for the Pali? “Immortality” is not a very Buddhist idea.

… in accordance with separation (依遠離), in accordance with desirelessness (依無欲), in accordance with cessation (依滅), tending towards abandonment (向於捨).

The Pali equivalent is vivekanissitaṃ virāganissitaṃ nirodhanissitaṃ vossaggapariṇāmiṃ, which means “dependent on seclusion, dependent on fading away, dependent on cessation, ripening in giving up”. Virāga can mean both “without desire” and “fading away”.

… Bodhi factor of pliancy (修猗覺分)

The Pali is passaddhi, which means “tranquillity”. This is how other translators have also translated the Chinese, e.g. Marcus Bingenheimer’s translation of MĀ 42 in the recent BDK translation of the Madhyama-āgama.

… he obtains equality and abandonment (得平等捨).

Should this not rather be “equanimity”, as in the Pali?

He then cuts off craving and affection (斷世貪愛), and develops purity apart from desires (離欲清淨). He then severs ill-will (瞋恚), drowsiness (睡眠), restlessness and remorse (掉悔), and doubt (疑).

This is interesting. In the standard exposition of the gradual training, the abandoning of the five hindrances is always mentioned just before the attainment of the four jhānas, but without specifying any particular meditation topic. I have always thought that this referred to satipaṭṭhāna, since it is mindfulness that is everywhere the cause of samādhi. Since satipaṭṭhāna is primarily exemplified by mindfulness of breathing, I decided a long time ago that this was the preeminent method for abandoning the hindrances, that is, the refined remnants of the hindrances that are still present at this stage.

It seems likely that SA 813 originally came from the smṛtyupasthāna camp, since much of the style and terminology seem much more at home within that saṃyukta.

I don’t find the idea that there were different camps particularly convincing. Satipaṭṭhāna is more of an overarching framework, whereas ānāpānasati is a quite specific technique within satipaṭṭhāna. It is perhaps not so strange that ānāpānasati should be described in such a detailed and rather dry fashion, compared to satipaṭṭhāna. I don’t think a two camp thesis is required, and I would say it is all likely to stem from the Buddha.

… the destruction of outflows (成盡漏心)

This is interesting. Does the Chinese literally mean “outflows”?

Outside the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta, there is only one sūtra in the entire collection that mentions the practice at all (SA 746). It is almost as if the practice is invisible to the rest of the Saṃyukta Āgama.

But isn’t the point with the saṃyukta principle that it collects suttas of the same category in the same group? Should one really expect to see many suttas on this topic outside of its dedicated Saṃyukta?


Hi llt,

Thank you very much for this work. Reading it has been of benefit and I look forward to more.

It is interesting that EA 17.1 mentions the tip of the nose as the point of focus during mindfulness of breathing. Is this an unambiguous instruction, unlike the controversial parimukhaṃ?

I’ve never thought of examining the temperature of the breath (EA 3.8 and 17.1). Perhaps this speaks to discerning the various qualities of breath in general as some meditation teachers teach. Perhaps this is part of the application of the verbal part of the mind in keeping the mind on the breath (e.g. using counting) until such a point when it can dropped.

Instruction 6 of EA 17.1* reminds me of one of Ajahn Chah’s meditation instructions:

When it appears that the breath has gone, you might panic or become afraid that you are going to die. Here you must establish the understanding that it is just the nature of the practice to progress in this way. What will you observe as the object of meditation now? Observe this feeling that there is no breath and sustain it as the object of awareness as you continue to meditate.

*[6] If there are times when there is breathing (有時有息), he knows that it exists (知有), and when there is no breathing (又時無息), he is aware that it does not exist (知無))


Thanks a lot @llt, I’ll go back to the anapanassati sutta and your translation and comments soon and appreciate your contribution!

1 Like