Finally, some fun meditation: mindfulness of farts

I thought I would, but frankly I found it a bit depressing. :rolling_eyes:

One of the unfortunate things we find in Buddhism is that it’s not uncommon for silly ideas, once published, to gain traction. So indulge me while I respond to Flatulence and breathing meditation.

##Sources for farting mediation?

Leaving aside the various comments on problems in Buddhism, which make up the bulk of the article, I’ll just deal with the central thesis. This is that the term ānāpāna, usually translated as “in-breathing and out-breathing”, actually means, so far as I can tell, “burping and farting”. Amid the discussion of the various Yogic conceptions of “breath”, I was unclear exactly what the claim was, and probably it is a little more subtle that this, but anyway this is the gist.

The basis for this claim is an article written in 1919, Prāṇa and Apāna by G.W. Brown, which you can read in the internet archive. The article is briefly referenced in the PTS dictionary entry for apāna, but the dictionary doesn’t draw any inference from it, merely referring the reader to the discussion.

Flatulence and breathing meditation doesn’t discuss Prāṇa and Apāna in any depth, or at all really, merely asserting that this is common knowledge among students of Hinduism. To what extent its arguments are valid in brahmanical texts is beyond our concern here. What it fails to mention is that Prāṇa and Apāna doesn’t mention Buddhist sources at all, and is solely concerned with the meaning as defined in Sanskrit brahmanical sources. Nor does it discuss meditation, being concerned with the organic/spiritual concept of breath so central to the brahmanical philosophy.

Flatulence doesn’t attempt to argue why such a meaning must apply in the Buddhist context. The Buddhist terms are quite different, as I will show below. And the article doesn’t even mention the main terms actually used in Buddhism to describe breath meditation.

The only additional support adduced for the main thesis of Flatulence is the published Phd thesis by Ven Vajirañāṇa, Buddhist Meditation In Theory And Practice. Unfortunately, only a later edition of this text is available online, and the relevant footnote has been removed. Flatulence and breathing meditation doesn’t actually discuss the content of this note, preferring conspiratorial speculation to analysis. Given that, as acknowledged by the author of the article and reinforced by comments on the article, Vajirañāṇa elsewhere treated ānāpāna as “breath”, this can safely be dismissed.

This is the entire extent of the argumentation. Based on a mere allusion to an old article, Flatulence then sustains a series of allegations of lies, corruption, and failure that apparently characterize the whole Buddhist scholarly tradition since then.

Ignoring this, let us consider what the Buddhist texts actually say.

##On the breath in Buddhist meditation

First of all, in Pali we have two complementary sets of terms to deal with. The usual noun term for breath is ānāpāna. The normal Pali idiom is that a complementary verb form is formed from the same root, but here we use verbs from a different root, assasati and passasati. These resolve to ā + śvas and pa + śvas respectively.

Now, the situation is this. The basic description of breath meditation uses the verb form. This occurs perhaps 4 times as often as the noun form. Nowhere in Prāṇa and Apāna or any of the other sources discussed in Flatulence are these verbal forms even mentioned. Yet clearly they make up the primary source material. And they obviously mean “breathing in and out”: no-one disputes this.

One of the objections to the interpretation of apāna in particular in the meaning “breath” is that the prefix apa has the general meaning of “away, out, dispell”. But this is also the meaning of the pra- in prāṇa, so we have two terms meaning “outbreath”. We will return to this in due course, but for now, note that this objection does not apply to the verb forms. Indeed, a basic signification of ā- is “in” and pa- is “out”. So they fit perfectly.

So now to the noun forms. The individual word apāna doesn’t seem to occur in the texts at all. Indeed the term ānāpāna is almost entirely restricted to the compound ānāpānassati, describing “mindfulness of breathing”.

Note that this is a summary word, referring in brief to a concept and a practice that is already well understood by the student. Like other such terms, it is clearly derivative and secondary to the actual description of the practice, where, to repeat, we find only the verb forms.

Here is a typical example of how these are used together in the texts, from SN 54.1.

Kathaṃ bhāvitā ca, bhikkhave, ānāpānassati kathaṃ bahulīkatā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā nisīdati pallaṅkaṃ ābhujitvā ujuṃ kāyaṃ paṇidhāya parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā. So satova assasati, satova passasati
And how is mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, of great fruit and benefit? It’s when a mendicant, gone to a wilderness, the root of a tree, or an empty hut, sits down in meditation posture, sets their body upright, and establishes presence of mindfulness. Mindful they breath in, mindful they breath out.

So here you can see that the the two sets of terms—the noun and the verb—are clearly coordinated: they refer to the same thing. It is a little curious that this coordinated pair relies on prefixes that don’t match up. It’s also striking how the noun phrase, with -ssati appended, resembles the verbal forms. Without wanting to say anything too definite on this, it seems to me that there’s an ambiguity—perhaps a confusion, perhaps a dialectical variation—in how these sets of terms ended up together.

To return once more to the Sanskrit terms, we know from the very title of the article that they are prāṇa and apāna. Remember, one of the basic problems with the Sanskrit terms is that both prefixes pra- and apa- have the sense of “out, away”, thus rendering the sense of “in and out breaths” problematic.

This is, however, not the case with the Pali terms. In Pali the compound ānāpāna resolves to āna + apāna. Here the prefixes are pa- (= Sanskrit pra-) and ā- (which does not equal Sanskrit apa-). Both the prefixes pa- in the verb form and apa- in the noun form provide the necessary sense of “out, ex-” to contrast with ā- as “in”. Thus the linguistic problem of the Sanskrit prefixes is not found in the Pali, and the sets of terms are clearly not equivalent.

##Bodily winds in Pali texts

As pointed out by some commenters in Flatulence, there are indeed references in Pali to the various winds in the body, in a manner comparable to that found in brahmanical texts. For example, at MN 28 we have:

Katamā cāvuso, ajjhattikā vāyodhātu? Yaṃ ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ vāyo vāyogataṃ upādinnaṃ, seyyathidaṃ—uddhaṅgamā vātā, adhogamā vātā, kucchisayā vātā, koṭṭhāsayā vātā, aṅga­maṅ­gā­nusā­rino vātā, assāso passāso iti, yaṃ vā panaññampi kiñci ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ vāyo vāyogataṃ upādinnaṃ
And what, reverend, is the interior air element? That which is internally and individually air, airy, and has been grasped. That is: upwards winds, downwards winds, winds in the belly, winds in the bowels, winds blowing through the limbs, in-breath and out-breath; and whatever else is interior and individual, air, airy, and has been grasped.

I don’t want to stray into the connections or lack thereof between this passage and the brahmanical texts. The most common list used in such contexts is the five vāyu, which are prāṇa, apāna, uḍāna, samāna, vyāna. Obviously these are not closely related to the Buddhist terminology, and any argument from one to the other would require clear support.

It is simply enough to note that the Buddhist texts do explicitly talk about various bodily winds, including flatulence and so on, but they use a quite distinct vocabulary. The operative term here is neither ānāpāna nor assasati but vātā, the normal word for “wind”. (Note that here the noun forms for “breath” are here derived from assasati rather than ānāpāna as we have seen earlier.)

##In conclusion

There are multiple other passages that confirm that these terms do, in fact, refer to the breath, several of which may be found in the comments of the original article. But I will beg leave to stop here. This has been an all-too-long rebuttal of an article that doesn’t deserve it. To sum up:

  • The Pali ānāpāna and Sanskrit prāṇa/apāna are not equivalent.
  • The essay that Flatulence relies on does not refer to Pali or Buddhist texts or terms at all.
  • The central usage of ānāpāna is as a noun equivalent of assasati/passasati, which just means breath.
  • When Pali texts refer to various bodily winds, they use different terms.

The article’s central thesis is without merit. The real reason the later dictionaries have not referred to Brown’s Prāṇa and Apāna is not because the compilers lacked critical faculties, but because the reference—a mere aside in a self-described “provisional” dictionary—is irrelevant.

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I’m glad Bhante Sujato has addressed this topic with an exposition. Not the first time I’ve seen that farting article (farticle?) cited.

SN54.1:

Can’t find much on the brahmanical/yogic/ayurvedic usage of these terms, not even sure exactly what texts/traditions these ideas stem from. However, what little I could find seemed to agree that:

  • prāṇa - inward?
  • apāna - downwards winds
  • uḍāna - upwards winds
  • samāna - winds of the belly/bowels (fanning of the digestive-fire)
  • vyāna - winds diffused throughout the body including the limbs

These functions are at least close to the description of the winds in SN54.1. IMO, they reflect a primitive understanding of body processes and the peripheral nervous system. Much like the theory of the classical elements could be seen as a primitive physics/chemistry. So maybe this was a shared theory of the natural world among samaṇas?

Linguistically, none of the Pāḷi terms bear resemblance to the Sanskrit (except maybe uda:uddha?). Of note also is that belly winds and digestive winds are considered separate winds in the sutta, whereas they are classified samāna in the non-Buddhist sanskrit. The most critical divergence, imo, between these two theories is that in the Pāḷi/Buddhist tradition in-breathing/out-breathing is considered a separate “wind”. The term used is the same in the instructions for breath meditation (assāso passāso : assasati passasati), that alone should be enough to settle the debate.

I don’t want to spend much more time sidetracking from what’s important… but, since breathing is considered a wind, would ānāpānasati meditation be considered a meditation on the wind element? Maybe it doesn’t matter…

It’s just a categorization question, but sure, we could consider anapana as a kind of air-element contemplation.

I recall communicating with the author, Eisel Mazard, some years ago. At the time, he was a young man in something of a state of distress, an expat in a strange country, lamenting what he saw as his wrongful exclusion from higher academic circles by academics that were “jealous” of his ideas and brilliance. My view was that he was clearly intelligent, but troubled ( at least at that time) and wrote a number of poorly founded and provocative articles concerning Buddhist topics. My sense was that he enjoyed the attention that these controversies engendered. I hope that he has over the years sorted himself out…I sensed he was suffering, and from that place and time, some of these controversial articles appeared.

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Brown’s article from 1919 is interesting, and it seems to be fairly well-researched, although it could perhaps be more careful and comprehensive. His conclusions are interesting as well, that in the Brahmanical context, prana and apana referred primarily to the thoracic and abdominal breath. There are also many interesting possible implications of these meanings in the context of yogic practice.

The much more recent article, however, is very reckless. I don’t understand how the author can make a leap from breath in the abdomen, to farting, and then leaping further to connect this with the Pali term anapana. Then he attributes the interpretation as in-breathing and out-breathing to colonialism and censorship. Was he really unaware of the ancient commentaries and translations that translated the terms straightforwardly as in-breathing and out-breathing (or sometimes reversed, as there were two interpretations in Indian Buddhism, which tells us that the terminology was already antiquated)?

In any case, perhaps there is a silver lining here in that by raising these sort of issues, people are more likely to reexamine the meanings of these terms, and the relationships between the Buddhist and Brahmanical traditions.

For example, was Brown correct about prana and apana? Also, what is the relationship between the Brahmanical pranapana, and the Buddhist anapana, and how did these terms come about? Do studies of the role of wind and breath in the Upanisads help us to understand the role of anapana in Buddhism, and why wind and breath are the subjects of meditation in the first place?

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From what little I understand of the “yogic” traditions, I think it could be said that the prāna is centered in (or governed from, or it’s domain of control is) a region in the chest and that the apāna is centered in (or governed from, or it’s domain of control is) a region in the abdomen. The apāna is somehow associated with abdominal breath, but it’s definitely also associated with lower excretion in general (farting and pooping).

Admittedly, I’m more familiar with haṭha and tantra texts/theory than with the upaniśads, which would probably be more relevant. I just did some quick searching in the upaniśads and can’t find anything on the winds besides prāṇa meaning breath/life-force/energy. Interestingly, it seems in the early upaniśads the breath is the self, whereas in later upaniśads the self breathes the breath. The early concept seems especially relevant to the Buddhist practice of ānāpānasati, I’ve heard some teachers say that breath meditation is about identifying with the breath and dissociating from the physical meat-body. There is that problematic line in the Pāḷi sutta MN118 — “I say that this is a certain body among the bodies, namely, in-breathing and out-breathing”. Obviously, in Buddhist practice we wouldn’t want to reify anything as the self, but perhaps this is another instance of a spin on Brahmanical theory/methods.

Regarding thoracic and abdominal breathing, I think it can be said that in haṭha yoga at least one tries to keep the breath in the chest (uḍḍīyana bandha, the various kumbhakas (antar, bahya), etc). Have you studied much of the Daoist body practices? It seems there is more emphasis on abdominal breathing in the Chinese traditions, with concepts like the dan t’ien, perhaps this had an influence on Ch’an Buddhism?

There is quite a lot about prana in the Upanisads, but it’s not neatly organized in a way that makes it easy to parse, and sometimes English translations don’t make the terminology clear. But even in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, the oldest of the bunch, we can see:

[One] should practise but one activity. He should breathe in and breathe out, wishing, ‘May not the evil one, Death, get me.’ And the observance which he practises he should desire to fulfil to the end. Thereby he wins complete union with that divinity [i.e. Breath] and residence in the same world.

Here we see the concept of attaining complete union between the mind and breath, and thereby entering another world beyond this world. Additionally, there is a basic science of the breath and its channels:

Now when one falls asleep (susupta), when one knows nothing whatsoever, having crept out through the seventy-two thousand veins, called hita, which lead from the heart to the pericardium, one rests in the pericardium. Verily, as a youth or a great king or a great Brahman might rest when he has reached the summit of bliss, so in this one now rests.

There are many more references to prana in this upanisad, and many more in the later ones as well. Notably, the Prasna Upanisad is often cited as one that gives a detailed account of the five pranas of the body.

At least according to my readings, prana is special in the Upanisads because it is the closest to the Atman, and the closest thing to one’s own self. In the Upanisads, for example, there is a ceremony that is performed when a father is dying. In this ceremony, the father recites sacred formulas for transferring all of his positive attributes to his son. But in the case the father is too weak to go through all of these, he is instructed to simply pass on his prana to his son.

There are all sorts of possible connections here. To begin with, the Sarvastivadins did regard the navel as important, and did trace inhalation and exhalation through the body as part of their practice of anapana. This can be found in their own literature. They did not simply observe the tip of the nose.

In China, the Sarvastivadin theories of anapana deeply influenced the Tiantai meditation manuals, and both Sarvastivadin manuals and Tiantai manuals influenced Chan Buddhist meditation. To add to this, there were also Indian Buddhist theories of the development of the fetus and the origins of human life, such as the Sutra on Entering the Womb.

When these were translated into Chinese, the Daoists took it a step further and developed all sorts of theories about the vital breath. Of particular note here are theories about Embryonic Breathing. These were based on the gradual refinement of the vital breath until the body would have no need of breathing in or out through the mouth or nose. This could be compared with Kevala Kumbhaka of Yoga, or states of breath cessation in Sarvastivada dhyana traditions, or even what more modern teachers such as Nan Huai-Chin or Ajahn Chah have described. In some cases they even use practically the same descriptions.

To add to the complexity, it has been proposed that elements of the Mahasi method were derived from Japanese Zen meditation. Specifically, the focus on the abdomen, the strict alternation between walking and sitting, the emphasis on “bare awareness”, the practice of intensive retreats, and so on.

(This is possible because in the late 19th/early 20th century there was an emerging Asian cultural sphere, with magazines and newsletters disseminated that spoke of the new post-colonial Asia. Buddhism was the key unifying philosophy of the region, and Japan was the dominant social and technological power. So for sophisticated Burmese monks to adopt Japanese ideas in those days was not as far fetched as it seems today. Of course it may also be the case the modern Zen has drawn from the vipssana movement.)

If this is true, then the modern Burmese (and world) meditation of observing the belly has traveled by an extremely circuitous route!

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Something I posted on DW some time back -

The article cited Prāṇa & Apāna, G.W. Brown in J. Am. Or. Soc. 39, 1919 pp. 104-112. Here’s a link - http://www.jstor.org/stable/592721

Brown’s argument for apāna being flatus is rather convincing, save for this observation on page 110 -

Both Brh.Ar and Ch. recognise the five breaths, but do not try to define them.

So, I decided to audit this claim and came up against this passage from the Chandogya Upanisad -

samāna u evāyaṃ cāsau ca |
uṣṇo 'yam uṣṇo 'sau |
svara itīmam ācakṣate svara iti pratyāsvara ity amum |
tasmād vā etam imam amuṃ ca udgītham upāsīta || ChUp_1,3.2 ||

atha khalu vyānam evodgītham upāsīta |
yad vai prāṇiti sa prāṇaḥ |
yad apāniti so 'pānaḥ |
atha yaḥ prāṇāpānayoḥ saṃdhiḥ sa vyānaḥ |
yo vyānaḥ sā vāk |
tasmād aprāṇann anapānan vācam abhivyāharati || ChUp_1,3.3 ||

yā vāk sark |
tasmād aprāṇann anapānann ṛcam abhivyāharati |
yark tat sāma |
tasmād aprāṇann anapānan sāma gāyati |
yat sāma sa udgīthaḥ |
tasmād aprānann anapānann udgāyati || ChUp_1,3.4 ||

Olivelle’s translation -

2 This breath in here and that sun up there are exactly the same. This is warm,
and so is that. People call this sound (svara), and they call that shine (svara) and
shining back (pratyasvara). Therefore, one should venerate the High Chant as both
this here and that up there.

3 Now, then, one should venerate the High Chant as just the inter-breath. When
one breathes out, it is the out-breath; when one breathes in, it is the in-breath. And
the inter-breath is where the out-breath and the in-breath meet. The inter-breath is
the same as speech. One speaks, therefore, without breathing out or in.

4 Speech is the same as the Rg verse. One recites a Rg verse, therefore, without breathing out or
in. The Rg verse is the same as the Saman chant. One sings a Saman chant, there-
fore, without breathing out or in. The Saman chant is the same as the High Chant.
One sings the High Chant, therefore, without breathing out or in.

  • The Early Upanisads, Annotated Text and Translation, pp.173 to 175

Hume’s translation -

  1. This [breath in the mouth] and that [sun] are alike. This is warm. That is warm. People designate this as sound (svara), that as sound (svara)1 and as the reflecting (pratyāsvara). Therefore, verily, one should reverence this and that as an Udgītha.
  2. But one should also reverence the diffused breath (vyāna) as an Udgītha. When one breathes in—that is the in-breath (prāṇa). When one breathes out—that is the out-breath (apāna). The junction of the in-breath and the out-breath is the diffused breath. Speech is the diffused breath. Therefore one utters speech without in-breathing, without out-breathing.
  3. The Ṛic is speech. Therefore one utters the Ṛic without in-breathing, without out-breathing. The Sāman is the Ṛic. Therefore one sings the Sāman without in-breathing, without out-breathing. The Udgītha is the Sāman. Therefore one chants the Udgītha without in-breathing, without out-breathing.
  • The Thirteen Principal Upanisads (1921)

Whatever other evidence Brown may have found to suggest that apāna = flatus, this interesting passage from the Chandogya suggests that in this passage, both prāṇa and apāna are breaths in the thoracic sense, since they are connected to speech/vāk mediated by their junction in the “inter-breath”/vyāna to articulate the Udgītha.

Sloppy bit of scholarship by Brown…

BREATHE AWAY!
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=10291&p=287062&hilit=thoracic#p287062

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Nice, thanks for that. I suspect we’d find, if we looked closely, that the Brahmanical tradition is not entirely consistent. But here anyway it obviously means breathing.

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From the Praśna Upaṇiśad, Ch. 2 Line 5:
" Prana engages apana in the organs of excretion and generation;"
http://www.swamij.com/upanishad-prasna.htm

Here I think it’s important to point out that Brown (writing nearly a century ago) makes no such claims about apana indicating flatus. His claims are more along the lines that prana and apana generally indicate what they are said to indicate in the Prasna Upanisad, in its description of the five pranas, rather than simply in-breath and out-breath.

The claim that apana is associated with flatulence and gas is only made by Eisel Mazar very recently, and was apparently never published in a peer-reviewed journal.

As in the article claiming the Buddha was bald, there is a tiny kernel of evidence or logic accompanied by huge, grandiose claims. This is a writer, for example, who wrote that the traditional descriptions of the Buddha were a freakish Mahayana invention. Writing an article on the physical attributes of the Buddha, he was apparently completely unaware of the existence of the 32 marks in the early Buddhist texts. Then again, maybe the MA / MN and DA / DN are also wild Mahayana inventions… :yum:

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@llt What do you make of this line?

That’s just one description and function of apana in the yogic traditions. Prana and apana have broad functions within the body. They are not material things, or simple mechanical processes like breathing in, or farting. To get a broader sense of the meanings, it’s important to read across many passages and contexts, not just one or two.

I’m not sure how else you could interpret “organ of excretion”.

For some people, this is their larynx.

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Apana having some function in the abdomen, genitals, etc., is not controversial. Brown and the yogic traditions all agree with that idea, and it was well-established in scholarship before Brown as well.

That mainstream idea, however, is very different from what is claimed by Eisel Mazar, which is that apana is directly equivalent to flatulence, when he writes:

In plain English, what he calls “abdominal breath” is flatulence […]

Here, “he” is Brown, who was always careful to use the appropriately general term of “abdominal breath.” Brown did not consider apana to be the same as flatulence.

Reading through the comments I was waiting for a particular aspect that did not fully arise and I wonder if there is something to it: When I usually talk with people about the breath meditation I say something like “The breath is a nice neutral object, and it’s always there, it doesn’t have to be made up, plus it becomes more subtle so the accompanying concentration also has to grow stronger”. And now I wonder if it really was meant to be such a neutral object.

Because no matter which breath we take, for many contemporaries of the Buddha, breath was a divine manifestation, and at least the life force. Even the PTS dictionary translates apana also with ‘life’. So when the Buddha and his contemporaries meditated on breath wasn’t it much more a very special object, charged with relevance rather than what it is today, i.e. the process which provides oxygen to the red blood cells etc?

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Oh, yes, I don’t think it was meant to be neutral; “gently positive” might be a better way of seeing it. The suttas, on the whole, have a fairly cool, subdued emotional tone, but they clearly present the breath in a positive light.

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i’m afraid these days and in this culture we underestimate the significance of breath, after all together with nutrition it’s one of the two components without which we die very quickly