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How to practice Anapanasati (the 16 steps, original sutta version, taught by the historical Buddha )

I have noticed that many people, even some who are sutta followers, do not know how to practice anapanasanti meditation. I too looked at that sutta like at an UFO in the begining. I just could not make sense of the 16 step anapanasanti meditation. This is despite the fact that I was already a sutta follower and knew Mahasi has nothing to do with the suttas, but still I had a “mahasi way of thinking”. I kept asking things like “how long do I need to do every step” or all kinds of other ideas.

The way to practice anapanasanti is quite simple. The sutta is very clear and straighforward. That’s why no other explanations are given about it in the whole 10.000 pag of suttas. It is so simple and straightforward it’s actually pretty strange not to understand it.

The reason you don’t understand how to practice it is because you feel like adding more steps to the sutta, such as doing every step for like 10 minutes or focusing on the breath 10 minutes before starting the anapanasanti meditation. You feel like the sutta is incomplete. You feel like you know better than the Buddha how meditation should be done, or that Buddha was an idiot and gave us just half a sutta of one of the most important teachings of his. I suggest to have confidence in the Buddha and give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to being a complete idiot. From 10.000 pag of suttas, you really think Buddha somehow left the anapanasanti meditation incomplete, waiting for a guy like Mahasi or others to come along 2400 years later and fix the missing half of the sutta ? Why not try the sutta the way it is and see how it goes ?

Before I explain it, let me first let everybody know how I first figured it out: I said I need to look at the sutta like you look at any other sutta. I said I am going to interpret the sutta based on what is written in it, WITHOUT ADDING MAHASI THINGS THAT I FEEL LIKE ARE MISSING FROM THE SUTTA. Yup, just read the sutta without adding things to it. Show a modicum amount of confidence in the idea of Buddha not being a total idiot. And second, ask yourself what is the goal of anapanasanti and how does it works ? Many think of meditation as a form of incantation, like doing a repetitive set of precise steps that will make magic pop up. This is a ritualistic, primitive way of understanding meditation. So you need to ask critically ask what is the goal and why does this anapanasanti meditation achieve it ?

So how it is done ?

You first do the observing of the breath part in order to calm down a little. Spend like 8 breaths on this first 2 steps. Do not “focus” on the breath Mahasi style. Just observe the breath in general if it’s long or short etc. The goal of these first 2 steps is to calm down a little before you start and make you’re mind a little more alert. I repeat, stop looking for a nail to hit with your “focusing on a fixed spot” hammer. That is not the goal. Just be aware of the breath in general, if it’s long or short etc. - do not focus on a specific part of you’re body. Do you see the sutta asking you to focus on the nostrils or on the chest ??? Is any other suttas asking you to do that ? I repeat, stop adding new mahasi steps to the sutta. I heard there is a passage in the vinaya witch implies the observence of the breath should be initially done on the chest. But do not “focus” on that region, the point is to observe the breath, to be aware if it is long or short etc. A totally different thing than “focusing” on something.

After you do this for like 8 breaths and calm down a little, then you experience the whole body for like 4 breaths. No, not some imaginary “breath body” or other such ideas. Just experience you’re body. Like you’re legs, hands etc. all at once. Try it right now while reading this, try experiencing you’re whole body. But why is this important ? What is the goal of this step ? The goal is to help with step 3:

Calming the body. You need to do step 2 for like 4 breaths in order to do step 3. You can’t do it without it. I repeat, you can’t do it without it. You first experience the body, then you calm the body. You just say to yourself “calming the body, calming the body” and an inch of intention will be present there that will calm it. If you did step 2 good and experienced the body for like 4 breaths, then you will see how well the body will calm down doing this step 3. It will really calm down, the breath will calm down too.

And it works the same for “mental activities” or for the mind.

You say “experiencing mental activities”. You need to experience them like in the same way you experienced the body. You do this for 4 breaths or how much you feel like needed. And then, again you get to the important step of:

Calming the mind. If you did the “experiencing the mind” part wrong, you will not be able to calm it too well. You really need to do the “experiencing the mind” part in order to do the “calming the mind part”. Try a couple of times and you will get it. You’re mind will get very calm at this point, same as the body got very calm too at this 3rd step. Now you continue with “concentrating the mind” and it will get concentrated.

And you go on and do the whole 16 steps like this. I did this anapanasanti meditation like 4-5 times in total and didn’t really do it till the end. I did just the first half of the steps. One time I got shockingly calm and concentrated, much better than the other times. The goal is to calm and then concentrate the mind, to bring you’re mind it best possible shape. By bringing it in such a perfect state, you will then be able to do the 4th tetrad in a much better way than you would do without bringing you’re mind to such a state through the first 3 tetrads. And doing the 4th tetrad like that will temporarely get you to a very free from attachment and conceit state, a temporary state in witch you can see things more clearly. In a normal state, it is like looking for you’re reflection in a bowl with boiling watter of muddy watter or etc. But by temporarely achieving this good state of mind, you can see things more clearly. That is why jhana is required for achieving higher levels such as non-returning. Seeing the 3 charachteristics while is jhana is required for achieving such levels.

I do not know how difficult it is to achieve jhana since I only did this a couple of times and did not even remember all the 16 steps, just the first part of them. For a better understanding of jhana I also recommand this sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.042.than.html

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Thanks dxm_dxm, I really appreciate being reminded of The Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118) just at the minute.

Out of curiosity, in light of your comendable wish to engage with the sutta without adding anything to it, how did you arrive at quite precise breath numbers for each of the steps (no such details being given in the instructions of the sutta itself)?

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As this is being carried over from another thread my contribution to how to practice the 16 steps of Anapanasati is in the thread below:

Apart from the initial couple of steps I think it is advanced practice as it describes the entire way up to jhana. This means doing this practice patiently without rushing to do the higher steps of the practice, when the mind may not be ready. I would wait until it is clear that it is possible to experience what is mentioned in each step before trying higher steps. Always be prepared for under or overestimation. If all else fails just stick to the breath, the awareness somewhere at the nostrils. I would predict having to start with 10-15 minutes initially, building it up to 1 hour or so, everyday. Twice daily practice would be better. Doing 15 minutes of walking meditation (cankhama- of the gradual training- anupubbhiya sikkha) before starting mindfulness of breath is ideal and helps with thoughts disruptive to your mindfulness of the breath. Some people also find metta and asubha meditation also helps prior to doing this. This is simply to get craving and aversion (abijja domanassa- Satipatthana sutta) under control.

Your comments and questions are welcome!

with metta

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how did you arrive at quite precise breath numbers for each of the steps

Good question that I forgot to address. The number I gave is an aproximation. The idea is not to spend too much time with every step cause that is missing the point. For example doing like 10 minutes of “experiencing the body” simply has no point. On the other hand, doing too little might mean doing the step too superficially and not doing it well. This is what I’ve noticed from the little experience I had with it.

It is important to keep the goal of anapanasanti in our mind and not do the meditation like a ritualistic incantation, thinking that the more we spend with each step the better. Or doing it too fast, like doing 1 breath with each step and rushing to the next one, cause that is again missing the point.

I quite agree with you.
First of all, we should not forget the back- ground story to MN118.
All of the monks are following Uposata.
What is important is not the 16 steps. That comes later but not necessarily in order one after the other.
What is important is;
"There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore.[1] Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out."
Perhaps a person might do this for many years before he moves to 16 steps.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.118.than.html

There’s a WikiHow article in the topic. It would be great to have people collaborating to shape it in line with what we find in EBTs.

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The following may some help too:

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The edition you’ve linked to contains Geoff Shatz’s reworked excerpts from Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the Ānāpāna chapter of the Paṭisambhidāmagga. But the chapter can be found in full in Ñāṇamoli’s BPS book Mindfulness of Breathing, link.

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Thank you so much for sharing this bhante @Dhammanando !
I am really amazed by this. This bit called my attention:

“Brings to bear the path”: he brings to bear—
right understanding in the sense of seeing;
right thinking in the sense of focusing;
right speech in the sense of laying hold;
right action in the sense of originating;
right livelihood in the sense of purifying;
right effort in the sense of exertion;
right mindfulness in the sense of establishment
(foundation);
right concentration in the sense of non-distraction.
This person brings to bear this path on this object
– page 63

How to interpret the above? This is the first time I see the path factors approached this way. Do you think it can be traced to any sutta in particular?

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That article is about Mahasi meditation, not Anapanasanti.

The edition you’ve linked to contains Geoff Shatz’s reworked excerpts from Ñāṇamoli’s translation of the Ānāpāna chapter of the Paṭisambhidāmagga. But the chapter can be found in full in Ñāṇamoli’s BPS book Mindfulness of Breathing, link

I’ve browsed the book a little and noticed it is full of ideas that have nothing to do with the suttas. I then noticed why this is so: It is based on Vissudhimagga writen by Buddhaghosa. From what I’ve heard, that is actually a good book except the parts about meditation.

I will browse the book a little more and come with a more pertinent opinion. But I have serious doubts about meditation advice based on a book in witch they say the base of infinity of space is achieved through contemplating a shirt with a hole in it and many other ridiculous meditation advice.

EDIT: I’ve browsed it more and see it only attempts to explain the first 4 steps, ignoring the other 12. And the analysis at step 3 and 4 are pretty much words to fill the space in my opinion, saying basically nothing. The missing 12 steps are just listed in the “analysis” chapter, with no explanation given about them. I find it strange that even a 150 pag book can totally ignore 12 out of 16 steps.

But this is no surprise since the Mahasi technique developed based on the Vissudimaga book witch never understood the main point here are the 16 steps and the breath is like a small anchor to help maintain concentration, to help you remember to repeat constantly doing these steps. The whole problem started with Buddhaghosa who used to be a Hindu and interpreted Anapanasanti as some form of hindu meditation where you focus on the breath and through this focus you gain concentration. Having hindu meditation as a starting point, it is impossible to understand the 16 steps so most simply ignore them in their books. There is very little point in these 16 steps from a hindu “focusing on the breath” point of view.

In short:

Buddhist point of view: The point is doing the 16 steps and the breath is like an anchor to help you remember to constantly do these steps. You keep an eye on the breath while doing these steps so that you remember to constantly repeat the step with every breath.

Hindu point of view: You focus on the breath as hard as you can, the point here is the breath. And these 16 steps - step 3 and 4 are like some form of result that will happen if you focus on the breath strong enough. The rest 12 steps we have no idea about.


The goals of these 2 methods are also different:

Goal of Buddhist method: To achieve good state of mind through doing these 16 steps. Though calming, concentrating, gladdening the mind and then, through the 4th tetrad, achieving a temporary free from craving and conceit state of mind. The goal of achieving this temporary good state of mind is so that it will better penetrate the 3 carachteristics at a more profound level, impossible to do with a normal or bad state of mind. By temporarily being able to see clearer these 3 carachteristics, the person will cut ignorance at the root, never to grow again even when not in such a good state of mind, and therefore achieve non-returning or arahantship.

Goal of Hindu method: To achieve concentration by focusing on the same spot and not letting the mind wander in other directions. The same type of concentration one can get by focusing on a fixed dot on a wall. Or in the goenka method, similar to focusing on a moving dot on a wall.


As for the contemplations such as contemplating a skeleton, contemplating death, contemplating impermanence interior and exterior etc. - these are done in order to reduce defilements in the person. But achieving jhana is done through the anapanasanti method. And according to suttas, jhana is needed for achieving non-returning and arahantship. It is because only a mind in such a positive shape is able to truly penetrate the dhamma to such an extent needed to achieve non-returning and arahatship. For example a person who has not slept for 2 days will have a mind incapable of doing very high level contemplation. In the same way, a mind not in jhana is not capable of penetrating the dhamma to such an extent as to reach non-returning and arahantship.

I have no doubts that the focusing on a fixed spot on a wall or focusing on a moving spot on a wall will indeed bring the mind to a higher concentration and calmness level than normal. It’s just not the 16 step methods Buddha said will bring one to jhana. The goal of the buddhist method is not to simply get the mind concentrated and calm, it is also to get the mind in a maleable shape (ilustrated by the simile of a goldsmith) and also a free from defilement and conceit state. The hindu way of meditation can only lead to the so called “hindu jhanas”, not the buddhist jhanas. The whole mechanism behind how these 2 types of techniques technically work is very different.

[quote=“dxm_dxm, post:10, topic:5431”]
I’ve browsed the book a little and noticed it is full of ideas that have nothing to do with the suttas. I then noticed why this is so: It is based on Vissudhimagga writen by Buddhaghosa.[/quote]

The book contains a translation of the Ānāpānassati Sutta and the ānāpānassati chapters of the Paṭisambhidāmagga (one of the books of the Khuddaka Nikāya, legendarily attributed to Sāriputta) and the Visuddhimagga. It was for the Paṭisambhidāmagga section that I linked to the book; this is not based on the Visuddhimagga but rather predates it by several centuries.

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Thanks. I did not know that, I’ll try reading it. And I also noticed it has all suttas dealing with the subject gathered at the end. Nice to see you around again B.Dhammanando :wave:

The terms and concepts used in the Paṭisambhidāmagga’s account of the function of each of the 37 bodhipakkhiyadhammas are mostly (though not entirely) unprecedented in the suttas of the four Nikāyas. Among the early-ish texts their main sources are the Abhidhamma’s Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Nettipakaraṇa and Peṭakopadesa.

Buddhist Path to Awakening, Rupert Gethin’s book on the 37 bodhipakkhiyas, is probably the best account yet of how the Eightfold Path is conceived in the Paṭisambhidāmagga.

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Here’s my contribution in attempting to connects the dots between EBT and real practice. This is what I would after teaching meditation for 18 years consider to be an introduction to EBT based Anapanasati practice.

Practice topic: Mindfulness of Breath meditation (Ananapanasati)

Sutta: MN118 (Anapanasati sutta). See also:

Setting: 4 Noble Truths—Noble eightfold path (4th noble truth) —Right mindfulness (7th step)—mindfulness of the body (1st Foundation of Mindfulness):

This meditation should be done as part of a holistic approach to Buddhist practice. Having faith in the teachings and having a goal (such as Nibbana, stream entry or jhanas []) The 8 elements of the N8FP should be concomitantly practiced [each step can be practiced separately MN117]. Each preceding step will give rise to the successive step. Therefore, focus on Right view, Right intention, Morality through word, deed and livelihood and Right effort to reduce unwholesome qualities and increase wholesome qualities in oneself are foundational to this practice [MN117]. The gradual training (anupubbiya sikkha) also outlines a similar path- with additional step for monks like monk’s training rules. Walking meditation maybe a particularly useful practice when the mind is very distracted [ , pp]. Metta and Foulness of body meditation can be used when aversion and craving [] arises as a hindrance, or to see if further deepening of Samadhi will happen if they are practiced before mindfulness of breath.

It should give rise to: Right Unification (Samma Samadhi -8th Step), Right Wisdom (Samma nana) and Right Release (Samma vimutti) MN117, Samatha-Vipassana, Seven Factors of Enlightenment
It should give rise to a concentrated and unified state of mind which is pleasurable. This pleasure is not to be feared [MN137-thanks!] as giving rise to craving -except a wholesome craving (canda) that motivates one to practice the path more [sutta?].

There is no vipassana without samatha, and vice versa [AN4.170]. The former leads to insight and the latter leads to tranquillity of mind [AN2.30]. These two has to happen either together or sequentially for the path to be born which leads to enlightenment [ AN4.170]. They are said to be like two wheels of a chariot which is the noble eightfold path. One without the other will not lead to nibbana [AN10.71].

Avoid:

  1. Practicing just for relaxation and just for pleasure without the N8FP (the ‘raft’) in mind (Wrong intention MN117).

  2. Practicing in a way that leads to wrong concentration -ie focusing on cravings, aversions, sloth and torpor, restlessness and regret, and doubt. These can be intensified if focused upon clouding the mind [MN108]

  3. Practicing without ‘mindfulness’ [ ]- dull awareness long term can lead to impaired memory which is quickly reversible upon stopping meditation.

I will post the rest in my next post.

with metta

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“Here, bhikkhus, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna … the second jhāna … the third jhāna … the fourth jhāna.
This is called the bliss of renunciation, the bliss of seclusion, the bliss of peace, the bliss of enlightenment.
I say of this kind of pleasure that it should be pursued, that it should be developed, that it should be cultivated, and that it should not be feared.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘One should know how to define pleasure, and knowing that, one should pursue pleasure within oneself.’
–MN139

:anjal:

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Hi Friends,

This is a reminder: please do not bash or attack other people’s methods of practice and meditation. If you do not agree with someone’s way of practicing, that is fine, but please treat their practice with respect.

With metta.

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??? Quote ?

consider to be an introduction to EBT based Anapanasati practice.

Would you consider Mahasi way of practice to be the same as Anapanasati 16 step method described in the EBTs, or would you say it is different than it ? If so, what differences would you point out ? And what is you’re opinion on the last 14 out of 16 steps from the MN118 sutta ?

I think claiming that the Mahasi method has nothing to do with the suttas does a tremendous disservice to the tradition itself. A great portion of the method is based off of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN10), and while the sutta does not explicitly give the instructions that Mahasi taught, I think that noticing that correlation is important and necessary.

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That is you’re opinion, but my opinion is different. My opinion is that the Mahasi method has nothing to do with the suttas. My opinion is that it is a corruption to the dhamma, as described in these 2 suttas:

It is my opinion. Voicing my opinion about the 19th century Mahasi method does not mean bashing other people for their way of practice. If that would be the case, then B.Sujato or B.Brahmali should be banned and electroshocked for their opinions on Mahasi, Goenka, abbhidhamma etc. Can we say that B.Sujato is “bashing on other people way of practice” for his extremely critical opinions of abbhidhamma ?