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 vā (‘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 vā, 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)
- dīghā vā rassā 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.
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) )