Counting technique in Vissudhimagga

In Visuddhimagga, it was discussed or told to do counting or ganana when meditate. This method, the counting, are they taught the Buddha himself? Any sutta or sutra that we can refer this counting technique? Thanks.


The Buddha’s most basic teaching on the breath is the Anapanasati sutta. Step 3 of the first tetrad instructs to be sensitive to the entire body, and that couldn’t be done while counting:

"So let’s focus on the way we breathe. Where do you sense the breath right now? When you close your eyes, what sensations let you know that now the breath is coming in, now the breath is going out? Focus on them. They can be in any part of the body at all, for “breath” here means the flow of energy. Sometimes you’ll sense the breath as the feeling of the air moving in and out of the nose, but it can also be the rise and fall of the abdomen, the rise and fall of the chest. Sometimes those movements send ripples out to different parts of the body, so that you can sense even in your arms or your legs whether you’re breathing in or breathing out. So wherever you find it convenient to focus, focus on the breath sensations there.

Then allow them to be comfortable. In other words, don’t put too much pressure on them as you focus on them. At the same time, notice how long an in-breath feels good. At what point does the in-breath start feeling uncomfortable? Just breathe in as long as is comfortable, and then allow yourself to breathe out. Breathe out only as long as is comfortable, and then breathe back in again. Try to sensitize yourself to what feels good right now in terms of the breathing.

Think of the whole body breathing in, the whole body breathing out, with every cell in your body bathed with breath energy. When you think of the breath in that way, what kind of breathing feels good? You might find, as you start thinking in that way, that the breath gets deeper. If that feels gratifying, fine. If it feels uncomfortable, change the rhythm. Just think, “What would be more comfortable right now?” and see what the body does in response. Think of yourself as hovering around the breath. You’re not squeezing it out; you’re not forcing it in; you’re just staying very close to it, watching it, letting it adjust in whatever way feels good. Give it some space to adjust. Sometimes you might want to nudge it a little bit and see what longer breathing would feel like, or what shorter breathing would feel like, faster, slower, deeper, more shallow, and then notice what happens."—Thanissaro


Ven. Buddhaghosa doesn’t mention where it comes from, but in the Vimuttimagga it is said it comes from the ancients. This basically means old commentary. You also find the technique in northern meditation manuals/sastras which stem from the Sarvāstivādins. It’s not found in the suttas/agamas, but then again not everything is in the suttas/agamas.


But these counting was somehow introduced based on one of his so-called pupil (?). Or, maybe it is from the old brahman traditions which is available before The Buddha?

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It was not introduced by The Buddha. But it is said as Buddhist Technique of meditation. It is valid or not to be called Buddhist Meditation Technique since it was not taught by The Buddha?

We don’t know if it comes from the Buddha or if it was an innovation of some early Thera. No doubt even when the Buddha was alive there would have been slight variations on meditation practices. It’s just a preparatory technique for new meditators. Nothing to worry about.


The themes of insight and serenity are intertwined through the four tetrads. Counting is a serenity technique of steps I&2, it applies to basic meditation. Step 3 is an insight (active) theme of investigation. Both themes are necessary (AN 2.30).


These stages were not taught in the EBT’s as part of mindfulness of breathing. They are from later traditions, and are similar to the sequence found in the Sarvastivada tradition: (1) Counting, (2) Following, (3) Stopping, (4) Observing, (5) Turning Away, (6) Purification.

They are also found in the Vimuttimagga, but only in four steps: (1) Counting, (2) Following, (3) Stopping, (4) Observing. Florin Deleanu covers this in the article, Mindfulness of Breathing in the Dhyana Sutras.

The 6 steps from the Sarvastivada tradition is an alternative to the 16 steps in the EBT’s, and probably developed within the abhidharma traditions in India. The earliest meditation texts brought to China already have this sequence (An Shigao, 2nd century CE).

The description of “counting” in the Visuddhimagga is even worded similarly to what we see in Sarvastivadin works. It also includes “Purification”, which is not in the Vimuttimagga, but is in the Sarvastivada formulation.

Since Buddhaghosa was from India during the middle period of Indian Buddhism, I would be curious about what monastic sect he was ordained into, and what his education consisted of.


I understand. Thank you.

And about the Vimutimagga, the Wikipedia said ‘traditionally ascribed to the Arahant Upatissa’. It seems to me that the sentence represent a hesitancy or doubt about the exact author. Is it really by The Arahant Upatissa or someone else?

In my opinion, the authorship of Vimuttimagga is not quite relevant to OP’s question, since many good comments above already answered it with precision. But, well, there is no extant version of entire Vimuttimagga except the Chinese one (解脫道論) translated by Saṅghapāla in the early Sixth Century. That is why it is normally conceived that its author is Arahant Upatissa (優波底沙) as the Chinese translation attributes. The problem is who actually Arahant Upatissa was; let us remember that Sāriputta’s birth name was Upatissa. Although I have not checked the primary source, I heard that in a modern index of Chinese Tripitaka (二十二種大藏經通檢), Sāriputta is attributed as a possible (partial) author, which is not accepted in general. For more details on the authorship of Vimuttimagga, it would be helpful to read the Introduction of the attached book file:

The Path of Freedom (Vimuttimagga) (

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If, I am not wrong the Vimutimagga dated around the 1st or the 2nd century? And, Ven. Sariputta was dated around 6 century behind. To my humble opinion it was another person since the time spread was hundreds of year. Therefore, Vimutimagga was not made by the Ven. Sariputta. It was another Ven. Upatissa who makes the Vimurimagga.