Anapanasati, and more questions

Breath meditation is one of the timeless classics of buddhist practice. MN 118 is dedicated to it, and so many teachers have their own spin on it. Together with other ‘classics’ of Buddhism though, it caused me a lot of headache (at which point you can rightly claim ‘man, you got way to much headache with the teachings!’)

My problem with with MN 118 has been mainly that I first didn’t understand it. And when I understood a little bit, I realized that it is a blueprint for the whole development - from casually knowing the length of the breath up until nirodha. And I found it weird that the sutta would string all those stages together without warning signs.

And today I thought, wait a minute, we know pretty sure that the Buddha practiced anapana, there are too many references throughout the suttas. But where do we actually find the practice in detail? Turns out, not at too many places:
DN 22 - MN 10 - MN 62 - MN 118 - MN 119 - AN 10.60 - and Anapanasamyutta SN 54.1, 10, 11, 13

It’s not too far fetched to say that DN 22, MN 10, MN 118 and MN 119 stem from one pool of material - we have the two satipatthana suttas, and the similarly sounding anapana- and kayagatasati suttas

MN 62 is another such ‘meditation’ sutta where so many methods are collected at one place. The context is weird though, and who rightly distrusts the confusing story finds confirmation in Bh. Analayo’s discussion of the chinese parallel that points to many irregularities. This sutta seems to be assembled from other material.

AN 10.60, again a ‘meditation’ catalog, with many sannas.

Basically all of those suttas’ originality has been contested, but I don’t know if has been really proven. My own reasons are admittedly more vague, but still valid to me:

  • I usually expect to find main doctrinal topics in the Anguttara (e.g. the ‘bloated corpse theme’ can be found six times), since it’s such a varied collection of material. Only one occurrence of the anapanassati practice in the assembly list of AN 10.60 raises (my) questions
  • The cryptic practice of anapanassati is described in all the same stereotypical way. This unfortunate feature of the suttas makes me think that the material comes from a single source that in the best case suffered from the loss of explanatory details, and in the worst assembled the material from other sources.
  • I have to admit that I don’t understand the Samyutta Nikaya. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that the anapanassati practice is only to be found in the Anapana Samyutta. But even the term ‘Ānāpānassati’ appears only once (SN 46.66) before its own samyutta. And here I get a deja-vu from my little research on ariya, where the term ‘Four Noble Truths’ in the Samyutta basically only appears in 56. Saccasamyutta (with two exceptions). The editors couldn’t have put all the suttas that in any way mentioned ‘Four Noble Truths’ into that samyutta… Anyway, I don’t get it

My shaky conclusion for now is this: There was an anapanassati practice, the suttas mention it, not a terrible lot though:

  • 1x in the Digha, 4x in the Majjima, 9x in the Anguttara, 5x in the Samyutta
  • The actual practice is cryptic and without context unintelligible
  • I would say this points to one uncertain source
  • …and that either the practice was very general (for example focus on one’s prana / life energy) or that the details went lost

And again I am perplexed: Why do we have the countless mentions of brahmins, brahma, devas, nagas, good rebirth etc. and so little about the actual meditation practice that should lead us to our goal?! (exceptions: asubha & anatta)

What do you guys think about anapana and the meditation issue?


If you haven’t checked out this article, then I would recommend that it may be useful if you are looking into the basis of anapana in the EBT’s. One thing to consider is that MN 118 does not even exist in the agamas as far as we know. My tentative hypothesis is that it’s a combination of several earlier and shorter texts. The parallel to MN 118 that is usually listed, EA 17.1, is probably more properly considered the parallel to MN 62.


Thanks, I forgot about your article and will read into it again!
Apart from the sutta, what is your impression of the list of items - long breath… cessation?

Edit: I guess I found the answer in your text…

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 think it is worth to mention and emphasise as well that anapanasati is the only practice explicitly called a Brahmavihara in the Pali suttas:

Ānā­pā­nassa­ti­samā­dhiṃ sammā vadamāno vadeyya— ariyavihāro itipi, brahmavihāro itipi, tathā­gata­vihāro itipīti.
SN54.11 / SN54.12

I see the coerence between Anapanasati steps and Awakening factors as a good indication that this is probably the only practice that survived the ages of transmission.

Also, it is a practice that I have seen people from the most different backgrounds and levels of practice adhere to and benefit from.

What tends to move some away from it is that it really cannot be approached independently from a virtuous and harmonious lifestyle (i.e. without a certain level of investment in the first 6 factors of the eightfold path).


Well here are just a few ideas that have come to me as I also have struggled myself to make sense of what is going on in the Sutta Pitaka:

A lot of the earliest and most central Buddhists texts are addressed to other wanderers and renunciants. Most of these people were already living some version of the renunciant holy life, and had already encountered and worked with various yogins and wandering sages. They often knew the mechanics of meditation and how to achieve various states of absorption, just as wandering musicians already know their scales, chords, basic chops and even compositional techniques. What they needed to learn from the Buddha, a great master, was what was most different about the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of the human condition and the highest spiritual ideals we can attain. So it was more a matter of turning their techniques in the right direction, with the right sense of the problem and the goal; the hindrances and obstructions; the fetters, taints and defilements holding one back; and a clearer sense of the true nature of the freedom that is sought. Once these students were directing their mind more properly within the right framework of physical and mental discipline, then all that was left was for them to retire to a secluded place with the techniques they already have and work gradually on their liberation.

It would only be later, when teaching more novice trainees, that the need would emerge for basic teachings roughly in the form of “how to meditate” manuals. But even with the novices the thought might have been that meditation is best learned via individual instruction with a preceptor, not from the memorization of a discourse. By analogy, it’s one thing to have a discourse that says, “The world is covered with water; water is wet, cold and suffocating; and so it’s good to be able to swim thorough it.” But it would be quite another thing to try to teach swimming via a discourse. It’s doubtful anyone has ever learned how to swim from a book.

On the subject of all those divinities and and non-human beings, I have no way of saying which of these accounts the Buddha believed literally and which were just instructive stories. But I do think we can say something about why the stories were important. They all involve previously existing popular conceptions of the relationship of human beings to higher and lower powers, beings, and realms, and thus alternative conceptions of one’s possible spiritual goals and the role of these external realities in the achievement of these goals. The goals might involve shamanistic control over extraordinary beasts; or “splitting the heads” of one’s enemies; or forecasting the future; or transmuting things; or enjoying the kind of bliss that is imagined as similar to sitting on a cloud with divinities, listening to celestial music and having one’s feet massaged by dove-footed celestial maidens. But the Buddha thought all of these conceptions of spiritual power or improvement depended on pain-inducing attachments to some supposed external reality - possibly real, possibly imaginary - but that true spiritual perfection and liberation is something that one can’t obtain from dependence on any external source.

The Buddha’s stories about these beings all point in the direction of redirecting one’s attention away from higher and lower beings, and back toward one’s own fathom long body, and reliance on oneself as a refuge (in the end, you even have to drop the conception of the"self" upon which you are trying to rely.) He teaches that the beings are all at least potentially benign, and cannot interfere with one’s spiritual development, so long as one subdues one’s fear of them. One can neutralize them simply by cultivating metta toward them and others - no altars, fires, rice cakes or horses are required. Mara is not so benign, but only sees us through our contact with the sensory realm, so we can protect ourselves from him and escape from Mara’s sight and potential interference with our spiritual progress by detaching from the sensory realm.

The reason there are so many discourses dealing with these beings is because so any of the wanderers, brahmins, householders and ordinary lesser folk coming to the Buddha for teaching came with conceptions of the world and spiritual life which were wrapped up in conceptions of these beings.


What about SA 815? The two suttas seem to include the same major points of doctrine.


Right, the introduction to SA 815 is basically the same as that in MN 118. But the contents of MN 118 are much longer, several times what is in SA 815. I haven’t looked at the matter closely enough yet to make any definite conclusions, but I think the contents of MN 118 might be (more or less) equivalent to several sutras from the SA, combined together.

In agamas, the main place for instructions on anapana is basically the Anapana Samyukta. While the MN has MN 62 and MN 118 (both lengthy discourses that go into anapana), the MA has no equivalents to these. The DA even has no instructions on anapana at all (unfortunately for us, because it would be neat to have a Dharmaguptaka version). My impression is that there is less overlap in subject matter between these collections than what we see in the Pali.


Do you know if Anapanasati is as well mentioned in the Vinaya preserved in Chinese?

In the Pali / Theravada Vinaya Vibhanga it is found in the origin story for the third parajika:

Small correction, in my essay I mentioned the places where metta etc. are mentioned as ‘brahmaviharas’ as well:

MN 83: By developing the four divine abodes (brahmaviharas), on the dissolution of the body, after death, he passed on to the Brahma-world. (transl. Bodhi)

AN 5.192 Having developed these four divine abodes, with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in a good destination, in the brahmā world.

DN 17 And, having practised the four divine abidings, at the breaking-up of the body he was reborn in the Brahmā-world.

But is that a criterion for its originality? Take the Thai mantra tradition for example - ‘buddho, buddho’. So many Ajahns have successfully recommended it Aj. Chah, Aj Maha Boowa, just to name a few. We can’t claim it’s been taught by the Buddha. Also outside our small theravada island, I’m sure that in the tibetian tradition there are powerful practices that helped many people - again, not in itself a criterion for authenticity.

I can follow your reasoning and yet I wonder - didn’t he speak mostly with his bhikkhus? I find it hard to imagine that he mostly preached or debated with other sects, ascetics or brahmins. Yes, it could be that the normal, subtle instructions were not considered ‘suttas’, but on the other hand we have many of these as well… The Buddha walks by, hears bhikkhus chatting, asks what is going on and talks dhamma. Or someone asks for advice and gets a conversation about a specific topic.

The editors/compilers would not have left out that material if they had access to it. And if they didn’t have it, it goes back to a serious limitation in the transmission. The Buddha must have talked with many struggling monks about their issues, used similes, encouragement, etc.

This must be right, though we don’t have much reference. The bodhisatta’s own teachers of course, and for example AN 5.192

Doṇa, the ancient [seers among the brahmin—that is, Aṭṭhaka, Vāmaka, Vāmadeva, Vessāmitta, Yamataggi, Aṅgīrasa, Bhāradvāja, Vāseṭṭha, Kassapa, and Bhagu—were the creators of the hymns and the composers of the hymns, and it is their ancient hymns, formerly chanted, declared, and compiled, that the brahmins nowadays still chant and repeat, repeating what was spoken, reciting what was recited, and teaching what was taught. Those ancient seers described these five kinds of brahmins: the one similar to Brahmā, the one similar to a deva

Or Snp 1016 about the non-buddhist brahmins:

All of them with their pupils’ groups
in all the world they’re famed—
enjoyers of jhāna, meditators Wise…


Well, I suppose that’s hard to know for sure. But the Middle Fifty discourses in the Majjhima Nikaya are divided into ten vaggas of ten suttas each, corresponding to five different types of interlocutors: householders, bhikkus, wanderers, kings and brahmins.

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Sounds like a ‘best of’ album :wink:

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Could it be that SA 815 is abbreviated? The Pali is very repetitive. According to Ven. Analayo’s thorough comparative study the two suttas cover pretty much the same ground. He certainly sees them as parallels.


In general, for Buddhist texts from India, when one text is much longer than another, the longer one has been expanded. The idea that shorter texts were contractions or extracts from longer ones has often been held in the past, even by scholars, and usually eventually shown to be wrong (sometimes when more versions of the text are discovered).

This presumption (abbreviated versions) was also held in ancient China, in which scholars accused earlier translators of abbreviating the contents of certain sutras. Then some 1300 years later, modern scholars discovered that actually the earlier translators were being faithful to the texts they had at the time. It’s just that later people in India continued to expand those texts, producing larger versions.

Bhikkhu Analayo has done a lot of great work, but I often disagree with his conclusions. The papers on the EBT’s that I have read from him tend to conclude that differences between texts are not important or significant, even when their contents are quite different. That’s fine, and everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions when studying these texts, but I tend to think that these differences are significant, and no less worth studying than the similarities.

Perhaps there are some very different perspectives here. I think generally for a monk in the Theravada tradition, there is a great investment in the historical authenticity of the Pali Canon, and tying it to a historical Buddha. On the other hand, I am generally interested in the broader phenomenon of Indian Buddhism, so I think later changes and additions are also very significant.

With a text like SA 815, in which its closest parallel is several times as long, and includes so many other materials, it’s hard for me to say that it’s a simple parallel. Some of the framing materials and the introduction are certainly similar, though.


I think I share this impression, with the addition that when a content becomes a text all kinds of movements are possible, expansions, contractions, copy&paste, harmonization etc. Take the notorious MN 62 for example, that is a fiddling stuck in the middle - there is an original storyline, but some content was included and in the end both versions don’t convince.

A possible view that I offer is that anapanassati was mentioned in texts, that one post-buddha-authority provided the 16-steps-formula and that the term was thereby expanded into the list at several places.

Or take the pali orthography. It struck me when Cousins mentioned that in the Asokan texts the spelling of sometimes same words in one text changes! Even though we have this still in the suttas we must have had harmonizations at some points where editors agreed on a spelling - with consequences to our ability to find sanskrit equivalents. (e.g. I assume that thereby the etymology of jhāna was lost).

Wow! That is a very big assumption.

Do you know of any sort of hard evidence which would point towards that or it is just a feeling you have?

By far not enough for my own standards of evidence - but that was basically the point for my introduction of the discussion, to show that the 16-steps, even if they appear at 7 places in the suttas, probably go back to very few original material.

It has its own MN 188 sutta, and still the 16 steps are not properly explained - no beginner could just meditate with that sutta.

With jhanas, the 8-fold path and many other dhammas we at least have some similes, with the 16-steps-anapanassati - nothing.

And yet it is claimed that this was basically the bodhisatta’s and the Buddha’s practice to the middle way and the jhanas. If that was the case then it really would have a central place in the practical dhamma, but it doesn’t.

Also ānāpāna is supposed to stop thoughts - normally it’s quite the opposite when people try to concentrate on the breath.

Plus, the unresolved question of what āna + apāna actually means - certainly not our post-modern physiological understanding of it. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad if full of mystical and esoteric references to prāna and the breaths.

My feeling for now is that there was no elaborated practice, that āna was in its understanding very close to prāna. When I immerse myself in the perception of the life-force in the breath, that it makes me and this body alive, this mysterious undeniable force that penetrates all beings, I have much more a stilling of the thoughts for example.

But this not hard evidence. I try to make sense out of it, and I try to access an understanding of the practice that would help newbee-meditators.

The whole introduction of MN118 and the whole back story around the introduction of anapanasati as mentioned in the Vinaya is that it was something the Buddha was teaching to bhikkhus who were already seriously and fully invested in the path - I am not sure if what you call a beginner necessarily falls in that category. The list of types of bhikkhus he had around himself at the end of the Vassa when he taught the MN118 were at least:

… bhikkhus who abide devoted to the development of the four foundations of mindfulness—such bhikkhus are there in this Sangha of bhikkhus. … bhikkhus who abide devoted to the development of the four right kinds of striving…of the four bases for spiritual power…of the five faculties…of the five powers…of the seven enlightenment factors…of the Noble Eightfold Path—such bhikkhus are there in this Sangha of bhikkhus.

… bhikkhus who abide devoted to the development of loving-kindness…of compassion…of altruistic joy…of equanimity…of the meditation on foulness…of the perception of impermanence—such bhikkhus are there in this Sangha of bhikkhus. In this Sangha of bhikkhus there are bhikkhus who abide devoted to the development of mindfulness of breathing.

Now on the point of it not being practical or making sense. Interestingly, I particularly see the 16 anapanasati steps as perfectly practical and acknowledge that only once I really started paying attention to what they point to my practice of meditation picked up.

Looking back, I basically “wasted” 16 years of contact with the Buddha Dhamma playing around with what people taught and never had actually invested in that simple yet beautiful guidance found in MN118 and SN54.13.

The beauty of the 16 anapanasati steps is that they dont rely on forcing a certain frame of jhanic development but leave that clearly implied. They obviously require one to be somehow advanced into the preliminary steps of “being a good person” as they require a minimum level of peace of mind and contentment with oneself in order for natural flourishing of the first four steps (aka 1st tetrad) to be possible.

The “sikkhati” steps - which take one from tranquillising the bodily formation through stilling / concentrating and to liberating the mind - are all about how in practice one should here and now take the enobbling task of fullfilling the 9th and 10th factors of right knowledge and liberation through establishing the right sort of stillness - which is naturally originated from happiness/gladness of heart and supported by the fourfold development of right presence / mindfulness and leads to insight into impermanence and the natural response of relinquishing/abandoning/ giving up the cause of suffering.

Moreover, from the big picture perspective, the gradual transition seen in 16 steps is perfectly aligned in implied causality of the transcendental dependent origination with what we see in “big picture of the path” suttas like the AN10.2 and SN12.23.

The transition from the third to the fourth tetrad is all about how the gradual strengthening of one’s vision and insight into experience of existence leads to revulsion, dispassion and ultimately liberation. It is basically telling us that fading away, cessation and relinquishment of suffering will be experienced breath by breath as it is attained.

I sincerely wish you find someone experienced enough in Anapanasati to inspire you to give it a try, in a way as simple as found in the Suttas and of course in the context of a truly dedicated approach to the path in its entirety!

It brought life back to my heart, and is a key reason of my strong confidence in Buddha and his Dhamma. :slight_smile:

I once read the transcript of the dhamma talk found in the link below and that served as a first spark of inspiration in giving a real try to this practice. Hope you enjoy it!!


Thanks for sharing your experiences with anapanassati! I can totally relate to a close reading of the suttas - even though I might appear to be overly critical my practice has benefited a lot since then as well. That’s why I continue to challenge the meditation and jhana suttas.

Unfortunately the suttas have suffered from copy&pasting so much… for example in MN 36 where the Bodhisatta remembers that as a kid he had a jhana experience, the editors were careless and pasted paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ - how should the Bodhisatta have known that it was the first jhana? clearly an editorial mishap.

And if we image the kid- or adult-Bodhisatta to do anapanassati, do we really think that he went through the 16 stages? As you point out the stages are doctrinally charged and only start to make sense after at least a provisional enlightened dhamma has been formulated. How did he practice then? we don’t know, but probably not in the 16 stages. It must still have been the proper way, because instead of the misleading appāṇaka jhāna he practiced before (mind you, here we have as breath-less a + pāṇa = prāna, not āna) he now found the proper path (eseva maggo bodhāyā) - that was not the 8fold path yet.

I don’t completely follow the issue here.

What stops us from allowing for the 16 steps to have been simply a formalization of what he developed once leaving behind the austerities, and lead him to be the first this age in dispelling completely ignorance with regards to the four noble truths?

Let’s consider the way the practice of anapanasati is mentioned in the Vinaya passage I linked above: It seems that the Buddha’s first approach in terms of teaching bhikkhus was all about the perception non-beauty in the body and its organs (asubhasaññā) - and that probably worked pretty well for a while. As soon as he took a break from guiding those bhikkhus and went in a self retreat himself those guys started killing themselves and each other! (I always remind myself of this event, a proof that awakening has nothing to do with omniscience! :wink:)

It makes perfect sense to me that at the same time the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni Sangha grew around the Buddha his understanding of how to frame the teachings evolved. This is an understanding aligned with the view that Buddhas do not awaken to the four noble truths independently but as a consequence of having heard about it in a past life, from an always previous Buddha.

By this way, a Buddha would not come up with the formulation of the teachings as soon as of the occurrence of awakening itself. He of course realized - in an unique and very powerful triple insight (tevijja) as described in both MN4 and MN19 - that what had just happened was the fulfilment of the four enobbling tasks he was in a previous life introduced to.

Later on, as people through their own causes and conditions came to the Buddha, he - with supreme kindness, compassion and wisdom - would find ways to keep their hears as much as possible open to the beautiful reality of total ending suffering that the four noble truths and its enobbling tasks point to and allow for.

This is in turn aligned with what we have recorded in the Suttas and Vinaya:

As soon as he convinced himself it was worth teaching the world what he realized as a first in his generation he first made sure to lay out the four noble truths and set up a system of livelihood as conducive to the cultivation of the eightfold path as possible.
He then started having opportunities to define and trace boundaries around what he meant by each of the factors of the path the fourth noble task is all about.

Moreover, he took chance to present very beautiful and inspiring big picture discourses like the AN10.2, SN12.23 and SN46.3 which all point to the impersonal aspect of the dependent origination of awakening itself.

Last but not least, as key disciples started fullfiling themselves the four noble tasks he gave them room to express their own understanding and clarifications around key aspects concerning not only the noble task of cultivating the path but as well the noble task of fully comprehending suffering. This resulted in key discourses in which we see Ven. Maha Sariputta, Ananda, Kaccana etc explaining things (of both practical and doctrinal nature) with (or not) Buddha’s agreement approval at the end.

Amidst of all that - through the course of his career as the Samma Sambuddha of our times - the conditions for the framing and explanation of thirty seven bodhipakkhiya Dhamma arose and this is what we have inherited.

And beautifully enough, anapanasati is found there as a beautiful cohesion element, something like a thread of glue, linking the eightfold path with the seven factors of awakening, depicted as a basic practice of a disciple aiming for Nibbana (AN5.96 / AN5.97 / AN5.98 / SN54.8), being recommended by the Buddha himself not only to bhikkhus at the verge of suicide (SN54.9) but as well disciples when sick (AN10.60).

All that said, let me reiterate that - as far as I am concerned - this is the only practice explicitly put - in both SN54.11 and SN54.12 as being the ‘tathagata’s dwelling’ (tathā­gata­vihāro).