Mahāvibhāṣā and mindfulness of breathing parallels

An old parallel from my notes. This one is about meditation traditions, across time and space…

In the middle period of Indian Buddhism, the most comprehensive technical analysis of the Buddhist teachings was the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra of the Sarvāstivādins. This huge text dwarfs other Buddhist abhidharmas, and represents a huge and valuable body of knowledge about the middle period of Indian Buddhism.

Although no longer extant in Sanskrit, the Mahāvibhāṣā is preserved in Chinese translation as Apidamo Da Piposha Lun 阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論 (T 1545, 27), in 200 fascicles. In its analysis of mindfulness of breathing, the Mahāvibhāṣā states that when someone first begins to cultivate mindfulness of breathing, the breathing is short, but after some time, then naturally the breathing will become longer and calmly abide.

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.

Even within the Sarvāstivāda, the Mahāvibhāṣā uses some unusual terminology for the first tetrad. It presumes that coarse breathing is “short” and subtle breathing is “long.” Using this terminology, the progression is from “short” breaths to “long” breaths. However, the text is still describing the normal shift from coarse breathing to subtle breathing. Considering the given analogy of a man carrying a heavy load over difficult terrain, as he engages in strenuous physical activity, he would have coarse breathing. This is what the Mahāvibhāṣā terms “short” breathing. The person at rest would have subtle breathing, which is termed “long” breathing.

We can then see not only a transition from coarse breathing (short) to subtle breathing (long), but from breathing felt at the nostrils, to breathing felt as it permeates the entire body, with specific mention of breathing at the pores of the body:

問此觀息風從鼻而入還從鼻出。何故乃說我覺遍身入出息耶。答息念未成觀入出息從鼻入出。息念成已觀身毛孔猶如藕根息風周遍於中入出。(T 1545, 27: 136a27–136b01)

Question: If this observation of the wind of the breath is at the nose when it comes in, and at the nose when it goes out, then why do we speak of being aware of inhalation and exhalation throughout the body?

Answer: When mindfulness of breathing is still immature, then we observe inhalation and exhalation of the breath from the inhalation and exhalation of the nose. When mindfulness of breathing has reached maturity, then we observe that the body’s pores are like a lotus root, as the wind of the breath permeates them going in and out.

I will stop on this point, rather than going further into the next step which is that the breath becomes progressively more subtle, until it ceases / suspends. There are some interesting modern parallels about this breathing at the pores… I will give just two of these, although there are more out there. The first comes from Ajahn Chah from Theravada Buddhism:

Also you’ll find that the more you contemplate in this way, the greater the benefits derived from the practice and the more delicate the breath becomes. It may even happen that the breath stops. It appears as if we aren’t breathing at all. Actually, the breath is passing through the pores of the skin. This is called the “delicate breath”. When our mind is perfectly calm, normal breathing can cease in this way.

And from Chinese Buddhism, Hsuan Hua similarly refers to the “external breathing” stopping in more successful meditation, with breathing instead occurring through the entire body, through the pores of the skin.

That internal breathing replaces the external breathing. That is why a practitioner with sufficient skill does not breathe externally. That external breathing has stopped, but the internal breathing functions. With internal breathing all the pores on the body are breathing. A person who is breathing internally appears to be dead, but actually he has not died. He does not breathe externally, but the internal breathing comes alive. […] But at this point, you should not think that you are great. You have merely activated an initial expedient and are experiencing the state of lightness and ease.

This “lightness and ease” is a translation of the Chinese qing’an 輕安, which is the most common translation of praśrabdhi, a common term in the EBT’s. This state is often referred to as a physical and mental state of pliancy / calm associated with samādhi and preceding it (e.g. Seven Factors of Bodhi).

The parallels seemed interesting when I noticed them in the book of collected teachings of Ajahn Chah, and then became even more interested after reading some excerpts from the Mahāvibhāṣā in a book by Kuan Tse-fu. I hope at least some people find this sort of thing to be interesting. It touches upon early Buddhist practices, sectarian Indian Buddhism, and some modern Buddhist traditions.

  • Chah, Ajahn. 2007. The Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Edited by Bhikkhu Dhammajoti and Bhikkhu Gavesako. 4.3 ed. Ubon Ratchathani: Wat Nong Pah Pong. PDF. p. 100.
  • Hsuan Hua. 2004. The Chan Handbook: Talks About Meditation. Ukiah, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society. p. 44.
  • Kuan, Tse-fu. 2008. Mindfulness in Early Buddhism: New Approaches Through Psychology and Textual Analysis of Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit Sources. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 72-73.

This means the first tetrad in steps 1,2,&3 encompasses both beginnner and advanced practice.

“[3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’”—MN 118

Could you please translate the Anapanasati and Jhana sections from the Mahavibhasa ? It’d be very valuable.


There is currently a fair amount on Sarvāstivāda meditation in English. The most accessible is probably from Zuochan Sanmei Jing 坐禪三昧經 (T 614, 15), which was translated by the Numata Center as The Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation. This is a summary of meditation methods given by Kumarajiva, who was trained as a Sarvāstivādin. There are some Mahayana methods as well, but the first half of the manual is quite traditional Sarvāstivādin material. The materials on mindfulness of breathing do seem to follow the sequence and ideas in the Mahāvibhāṣā, including some of the idiosyncracies, the metaphors, interpretations, etc. PDF here.

There is also an entire Sarvāstivādin Yogācārabhūmi manual from the dhyāna school of Buddhasena and Dharmatrāta. They were reputed to be the most famous dhyāna teachers in Kashmir around the late 4th century. When Faxian took his pilgrimage to India, one of his fellow travelers named Zhiyan split with him at Dunhuang, and instead went to Kashmir to learn meditation. Zhiyan stayed there for 10 years learning at the dhyāna school. Then he brought back another monk from this school to China, named Buddhabhadra. Some time later, Buddhabhadra actually translated their meditation manual as Damoduoluo Chan Jing 達摩多羅禪經 (T 618, 15), or Dharmatrāta Dhyāna Sūtra. The original title was no doubt simply Yogācārabhūmi, as the text itself indicates. Chan Yiu Wing actually made a translation of this text into English in 2013. It includes an extensive introduction that examines the history of the text, and compares the system described to what appears in other Sarvāstivādin sources. The translated text itself is a bit difficult and rough, but interesting. PDF here.

This last text differs a bit from interpretations in the Mahāvibhāṣā, because it comes from the Dārṣṭāntika Sarvāstivādins.


Do you have a pdf version of the English translation for T 15 no. 617 Siwei yaolue fa (An Epitome of Meditation) by Mukhopadhyaya, Sujitkumar called An Outline of Principal Methods of Meditation ?

Unfortunately I’m not familiar with that text or its translation. From what I can tell, it’s a short text by Kumarajiva that introduces a variety of meditation methods. Some of the methods look to be Mahayana, while others are more traditional. The English translation looks like it was published in the 1970’s.

The idea of breathing at/through the body’s pores is also mentioned briefly in Zhiyi(智顗;538–597 CE)'s “Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime(六妙法門)". In the chapter on sequential development(次第相生) of the six gates, Zhiyi explains on the realizing stage(證觀) of the fourth gate, the gate of contemplation(觀門), where he mentions that ‘acknowledgment of breathing in and out through whole the pores (覺息出入遍諸毛孔)’, followed by the attainment of Satipatthana(得四念處), characterizes this stage.


This is very interesting. I beleive Ajahn Thanissaro talks about “breath energy” in his breath meditation teachings that are to be felt throughout the body. The reading above seems to be similar with that kind if teaching.


Stephen Suen from the University of Hong Kong published a thesis on the paths and meditative practices described in the Mahāvibhāṣā. It is over 400 pages, and contains many details about the Sarvāstivādin treatment of mindfulness of breathing, samādhi, the dhyānas, etc.

Suen, H. S. [孫漢明]. (2010). Methods of spiritual praxis in the Sarvāstivāda : a study primarily based on the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā. (Thesis). University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong SAR. Retrieved from

PSU seems to have a direct link to the PDF.

From the abstract:

This thesis is based on the hypothesis that Abhidharma is intrinsically concerned with spiritual praxis realization, and that the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā, the supreme authority for the orthodox Sarvāstivādins, provides details of all the fundamental methods of Buddhist meditation, together with their doctrinal basis.

In the conclusion, he also demonstrates a concern for the future needs of forum members here:

This text is in effect an encyclopaedia of ancient Buddhist doctrines held by the various Abhidharma schools and masters. Unfortunately, it has largely been neglected by most modern scholars, not least because of the fact that it is extant now only in Classical Chinese. For this reason, I have taken the pain to carefully translate numerous lengthy passages from it, which in itself is hopefully a humble contribution of this thesis.