Dīgha and rassa in Ānāpānassati

Hi Discoursers! :slight_smile:

A quick thought on a subject I was recently asked about.

The standard ānāpānassati (“mindfulness of breathing”) passage, as many of you know, starts like this:

dīghaṃ vā assasanto 'dīghaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, dīghaṃ vā passasanto 'dīghaṃ passasāmī’ti pajānāti, rassaṃ vā assasanto 'rassaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, rassaṃ vā passasanto 'rassaṃ passasāmī’ti pajānāti (E.g. MN118)

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi translated:

Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’ (SN54.1)

Sometimes this set of instructions is seen as two separate practices: you breathe first long breaths, and then sort ones. I have instead always read it as a single practice: Your breath is long or short, and whatever it is, you know it. Grammatically seen that is no problem, because it can all be taken as a single sentence joined by the repeated (‘or’). That is:

Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long’; or breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’

This may in fact explain the very appearance of , which is not found in any of the following Ānāpānassati instructions (which I do take to be more or less sequential).

So far, so good. But in my experience the breath generally becomes longer as I meditate and relax, not shorter. I think most people share this experience. So why is the sutta not in this order? Why does it start with the long breaths? Well, I noticed something. The words dīgha (long) and rassa (short), when used together, seem to always be in that order. A quick search brought up at least the following instances, and none where rassa comes first:

  • Yo ca dīghaṃ va rassaṃ vā, aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ (MN98)
  • mā kho tvaṃ, tāta dīghāvu, dīghaṃ passa, mā rassaṃ (Vin.I.345)
  • dīghārassā vā majjhimā vā kāḷī vā sāmā vā maṅguracchavī vāti (DN9)
  • Kattha dīghañca rassañca, aṇuṃ thūlaṃ subhāsubhaṃ (DN11)
  • Yaṃ kho me, deva, pitā maraṇakāle avaca ‘mā dīgha’nti mā ciraṃ veraṃ akāsīti. Imaṃ kho me, deva, pitā maraṇakāle avaca mā dīghanti. Yaṃ kho me, deva, pitā maraṇakāle avaca ‘mā rassa’nti mā khippaṃ mittehi bhijjitthā’’ti. (Vin.I.348)

It’s a bit like we say “left and right”, “top and bottom”, and “good and bad”, instead of the other way around. And come to think of it, we are probably also more likely to say “long and short” instead of “short and long”.

So I think the “discrepancy” of the Ānāpānassati instruction with meditation experience is just an artifact of the standard order of digha and rassa. It has no practical implications. I would just as happily swap the ‘long’ and ‘short’ phrases around and translate:

Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short’; or breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’

Sometimes it’s the small things that matter. :slight_smile:

Comments are of course very welcome, but please know I may be slow to respond.

(Partly in response to Mindfulness of breathing: an evolving approach to translation (MN118) )

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Thanks for giving us the long and short of it Bhante!

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Describing breathing in terms of “long” and “short” is an issue because it is unclear what is being measured. In modern medicine, these terms are avoided, and pointed out as inadequate for describing the breathing process. Some of the factors that would be used in a modern setting today would be “respiration rate” and “tidal volume”. To improve upon “long” and “short”, I would instead just use “coarse” and “subtle”. Those terms are not accurate enough for modern medicine, but are still better than “long” and “short”.

The description of breathing as “long” and “short” also caused confusion for Indian Buddhists. The most common interpretation of “long” seems to have been that it indicates “coarse” breathing. The most common interpretation of “short” was that it indicates “subtle” breathing.

However, the Vaibhasika Sarvastivadins who held the Mahavibhasa and the seven canonical books of Sarvastivada Abhidharma as authoritative, differed from all other groups in that they interpreted “short” as “coarse”, and “long” as “subtle”. As a result, they changed the order of these two items in the first tetrad of mindfulness of breathing. They were very unique in this regard.

From an older post, this is a relevant passage from the Mahavibhasa (T 1545):

問入出息為先短後長為先長後短耶。答先短後長。云何知然。如施設論說。菩薩初入定時其息速疾。久入定已息便安住。如人擔重經嶮難處其息速疾。後至平道息便安住。故入出息先短後長。 (T 1545, 27: 136a22–27)

Question: For inhalation and exhalation, is ‘short’ before ‘long,’ or is the ‘long’ before ‘short’?

Answer: Earlier it is ‘short,’ and later it is ‘long.’ How do we know this? As the Prajñāptiśāstra says, when the bodhisattva first entered samādhi, his respiration was quick, but after a long time of entering samādhi, his respiration naturally and peacefully abided. This is like a man carrying a heavy load who encounters many difficulties along the way and breathes quickly. If he arrives at an even path, his breathing will naturally and peacefully abide. In this way, inhalation and exhalation are short before and long after.

From this interpretation, we might think that the Vaibhasikas were negligent in their treatment of meditation. But actually the Vaibhasika Sarvastivadins had very detailed and in-depth treatments of the matter. The issue here was simply that they interpreted “short” and “long” in terms of the time of each breath (respiration rate), rather than as a measure of tidal volume.

Other Sarvastivadins who were not part of the Vaibhasika tradition, like the Darstantika Sarvastivada yogacaryas, rejected this interpretation of “long” and “short” and wrote refutations of the Vaibhasika sequence. We can see this in Dharmatrata Dhyana Sutra (T 618), AKA the Yogacarabhumi of Buddhasena of Kashmir. Their presumption was that “long” and “short” refer to “the force of the breath”. Instead of resorting to canonical abhidharma, they justified their interpretation based on “what is experienced”. In their view, the transition is from “long” to “short”, as dependencies are abandoned in meditation.

The two traditions were actually describing the exact same transition from coarse breathing to subtle breathing. Both were also describing the transition from subtle breathing, to breathing at the pores, and finally abandoning breathing. They were just using different terminology for the first two stages, based on totally different presumptions about what “long” and “short” refer to.

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Different translators translate it differently. Sujato has:

When breathing in heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing in heavily.’ When breathing out heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing out heavily.’ When breathing in lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing in lightly.’ When breathing out lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing out lightly.’ They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing out experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion.

but the way I treat it - the first part is not practice at all, it’s settling into it, familiarizing with the breath as it currently is, long or short, deep or shallow, coarse or subtle, heavy or light… Only in the third step it says “they practice”… only then the actual practice begins.
My two cents FWIW

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Thanks for sharing this. It’s indeed interesting to see that since early days Buddhists were struggling with this topic, to the extent different sects differed in thru understanding of such a fundamental and preliminary aspect of the breathing based development of mindfulness !

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Well, it’s a meditation method, not a medical diagnosis. :smiley:

That’s interesting, thanks! This shows again that all ideas have been thought of before; I have nothing new to add. :smiley:

That’s how I interpret it too.

It’s also more pragmatic to me to notice the duration of the breath rather than the volume. The breath becomes subtle quite quickly. But you can still have long or short subtle breaths.

“Long” and “short” are also very literal to the Pali, and make sense in the simily of the wood turner in the satipatthana suttas. When turning a lathe by hand or foot, you can make “a long or short turn” (turning a lot or a little), but a “subtle or coarse turns” doesn’t really fit as well.

The Pali for “turn” is añchati.

Lathes nowadays turn continuously, so the simile is kind of lost. But to give you an idea of a manual lathe, they go back and forth:

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Sujato’s translation forces the turners simile to be changed a lot, though. I think the turner became a carpenter, and turning became cutting.

I agree with you that it is familiarizing with the breath that is the point. There it doesn’t really matter whether we notice the length or the coarseness or heaviness or whatever.

But as far as translations go (which this subforum is mainly about) I think literal is better. I think long/short aligns with the original idea the best.

True, it’s a drawback. I had always found the literal translation confusing, I never knew what it meant. As always, I try to express the idea in as clear an idiomatic way as I could. But then the simile doesn’t fit so well. Arrg, maybe I should change back.

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Ah. Perhaps coming from the same place as @llt. Thanks Bhante.

I don’t find it confusing, though. A breath can be quick or slow (so it lasts short or long). :dash: Perhaps not the most helpful practice for everybody, but that to me is clearly what the sutta says.

So I’d recommend going back. :smile: (As I vaguely recall having put as feedback when proofreading your translation of MN a few years back.)

Going a bit off the translation track into experience: For me it is helpful. One advantage I find of doing Anapanasati like this is that you can lose the breath for a while, but as long as you catch the beginning and end, you have a fair idea of whether it was long or short. The beginning and end are sort of reminders that pull you back on the breath. Then later you move on to the whole breath (which is how I interpret “the whole body”). (As I agreed with tuvok, I think the idea is just to get interested in or settled with the breath, so this isn’t the only way. But it does work well for me.)

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Obviously, there are various interpretations, but to me long and short, and the simile, make sense if they are referring to distance, not time. So “long” is a “deep breath”, “short” is a “shallow breath”. That makes sense with:

When breathing in heavily/deep/long they know: ‘I’m breathing in heavily.’ When breathing out heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing out heavily.’

When breathing in lightly/shallowly/short they know: ‘I’m breathing in lightly.’ When breathing out lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing out lightly.’

It’s like a deft carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice. When making a deep cut they know: ‘I’m making a deep/long cut,’ and when making a shallow/short cut they know: ‘I’m making a shallow cut.’

Going from deep to shallow is what I actually notice. My breath doesn’t really slow down that much as I get calm - it gets shallow. So the time reading makes no sense to me.

But of course, that could be just me. I have sometimes had teachers who give some initial calming exercises involving breathing in and out for many tens of seconds. Unless I consciously changed my breath to be much deeper, those instructions would cause me to pass out through lack of oxygen, whereas other seemed fine with it… :rofl:

I think perhaps we get to stuck on words when it comes to mindfulness of breathing. Recently I’ve begun to appreciate the Mahāsāṃghika description of the practice

"The Bhagavān told him, “Rāhula, suppose there is a bhikṣu who is happy being alone in quietude. In a secluded place, he corrects his body, corrects his intention, and sits cross-legged. Without any other thoughts, he fastens his mind on the tip of his nose. [1] When there is a long breath out, he is also aware of the long breath. [2] When there is a long breath in, he is also aware of the long breath. [3] When there is a short breath out, he is also aware of the short breath. [4] When there is a short breath in, he is also aware of the short breath. [5] When there is a cold breath out, he is also aware of the cold breath. [6] When there is a cold breath in, he is also aware of the cold breath. [7] When there is a warm breath out, he is also aware of the warm breath. [8] When there is a warm breath in, he is also aware of the warm breath. [9] He completely contemplates the in-breaths and out-breaths of the body, aware of them all. [10] When there is breathing, he also is aware of its presence. [11] When there is no breathing, he is also aware of its absence. [12] If there is an out-breath conditioned by the mind, he is aware that the out-breath was conditioned by the mind. [13] If there is an in-breath conditioned by the mind, he is aware that the in-breath was conditioned by the mind. Thusly, Rāhula, one is able to cultivate the practice of Ānāpānasmṛti, to eliminate every notion of worry and sorrow, obtain the great fruit, and taste the sweet nectar of immortality.”

It captures the essence of the practice IMP. No need to get stuck over analysing the words.

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While I agree from the pragmatic side of things, there is a need for analyzing words when you’re translating one particular text. Hence this subforum is “translations”.

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Yes, you are right. From a translation point of view it’s important.

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