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

Just read the Patisambhidāmagga and see that what is mentioned in it is different to the Mindfulness of breath practice in the Anapanasati sutta.

For one, it applies contemplation of impermanence and insight into every aspect of the mindfulness of breath. It’s approach is scholarly, analytical and neat - not the gnarled and organic tree trunk that is that description found in the Anapanasati sutta.

Nimitta (my apologies) can be of many kinds. I was referring to the patibhagha nimitta (stable, unmoving, ‘full moon’ level of illumination). The Patisambhidāmagga seems to be referring to the parikamma nimitta (small, local and a mental representation of the breath) seeing as they apply the term to the beginning stages (1-4) of the breath (though they are unlikely to be present at the very start). Nyanatiloka Mahathera’s Buddhist Dictionary under the word nimitta:‘Mental (reflex-) image’, obtained in meditation. In full clarity, it will appear in the mind by successful practice of certain concentration-exercises and will then appear as vividly as if seen by the eye. The object perceived at the very beginning of concentration is called the preparatory image (parikamma-nimitta). The still unsteady and unclear image, which arises when the mind has reached a weak degree of concentration, is called the acquired image (uggaha-nimitta). An entirely clear and immovable image arising at a higher degree of concentration is the counter-image (patibhāga-nimitta).

The sawing similie is used to denote strict one-pointedness at the point where the breath is best felt. This is again different from the Anapanasati sutta where it is the knowing plus the experience of the breath which is utilised. The latter method is conducive to a more intelligent awareness versus a high powered concentration in the former. The former can also lead to suppression of the ability to remember things if the one-pointedness is not balanced or adequately spaced. I remember having to stop meditation to be able to sit for exams as my recall was impaired. It was fortunately reversible.

If a strict one-pointedness is used, it won’t be possible to know at what stage the breath is, so the Patisambhidāmagga asks how do they still progress despite this. The progress of course is merely in concentration (samatha), which doesn’t require knowledge of the three dhammas (see above). To apply impermanence etc to the breath they will have to relax the strict concentration and use a more broader awareness.

With metta


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Ahh… understood then, some transitions in between are not mentioned. :innocent:

I share same view on this. I tried to put the 1~12 steps as a practice up to 1st jhana in a single pass and even tried to split some steps as beginning, middle and end of a particular step; but with the text of in breath out breath appearance in step 12, hard to make sense of it as absorption. So i am looking at it as 2 pass process. Your view on this

applicable, and some teachers says this is due to past life experience, that could be most logical explanation. I see it as also can be due to that person’s way of life, a built in character that suitable for meditating; but then that kind of charisma could be also due to past existance practice as well.
i have a slightly different approach now that (still a preliminary thought in mind), looking at practice on a specific nimitta object as a 2nd pass process. In this way, then begginer meditator will have less stress in the practice and that can avoid developing specific senses ‘locking’ experience (at early learning stage), anchoring in front of nostril after step 12, by targeting the mind towards the 3rd dhamma.

I’ll throw out a wild theory, what if…

Step 5 :: 1st jhāna — the pītisukha characterized by the pīti of being free of sensuality
Step 6 :: 2nd jhāna — the pītisukha characterized by the sukha of samādhi
Step 10 :: 3rd jhāna — the sukha free from pīti (which can be called pāmojja (abhipamodayaṃ) since sukha is already taken and to emphasize a subtler mental state than a feeling)
Step 12 :: 4th jhāna — the liberation from even positive vedanā arriving at pure upekkhā

Take this with a mountain of salt btw.


It is not the jhana itself, but the place where the mind is (actively) released into jhana. Now such an act of release would be possible only if a person has a good degree of control over the entry into a jhana- so this is referring to much advanced practice. Most people would go into jhana without much control. It still doesn’t make sense once a person has released the mind into jhana on the in-breath, why they would be doing it again in the out-breath. I think this is the work of the redactors trying to make everything neat and easy to memorize.

I came across a sutta where it talks of using the breath in jhanas as well, but I cant seem to find it now. In any case we know there is another sutta saying how the breath stops in the fourth jhana, implying it was present before this.

Release (vimutti) would have been final release for most other religious teachers- however it wasn’t so for the Buddha (see Alara kalama). This might be one instance where the Buddha was influenced or kept the common terminology around at the time. So mind-release (ceto-vimutti) refers to the release which is jhana while wisdom-release (panna-vimutti) refers release from insight.

He doesn’t use the term release or jhana in any of the other steps, but does so at the 12 step, suggesting that he intended release here and not before. Also, considering that the insight or vipassana practice comes in steps 13-16 it makes sense then that this is mind-release (ceto-vimutti) and not final liberation.

He doesn’t describe the jhana here as attaining the first jhana samadhi is adequate for final release, and he is describing how the mindfulness of breath fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness (Right mindfulness) and not Right concentration (where the jhanas are described).

with metta

This could work as an explanation and lot of people probably do use it that way. However the only problem I see with it is that it could mislead someone into thinking that they have prematurely attained jhana. As a first jhana Samadhi is right concentration, then they should work their way up to the ‘fourth jhana’ according to this scheme.



I would say do whatever you need to do to get beyond the initial stages, including having several sitting per day, giving adequate time in each sitting (1 hour or more), using nimittas, kasinas, picking the right time of day etc. Initial practice is quite messy and individual variations are many. Picking on what motivates us personally will help go further. Nimittas can take a long time to appear and many people are disheartened if they don’t. It is nice to have bright shining nimittas but not everyone gets these and it does vary from sitting to sitting. I think apart from distracting thoughts, nimittas are the second worst culprits in discouraging meditators.

Focus on the breath, not it’s side effects (like nimittas or rapture…). The engine of progress is the breath. Let go of the breath (to watch the ‘scenery’) and valuable seconds are lost. This is a bit like treading water to stay upright in the water (of Samadhi). The more you tread the water the higher into Samadhi and then jhana, you will go. Get distracted and it is like sinking to the bottom. The technique here requires watching rapture etc. As long as thinking about it in a prolonged way it wont be an issue. The Buddha says watching it WITH the breath, which maintains the momentum. If nimittas etc do not arise that doesn’t mean your Samadhi is not developing. It does develop undetected, which is why after many days of seemingly no progress, there can be sudden signs of deepening, which wouldn’t have happened at all without the preceding gradual practice). The nimittas will come. Make sure the five precepts are being kept- that defilements are kept at a minimum. The purity of the mind is dependant on environmental as well as internal factors. Maintain mindfulness during the day as much as is possible- this helps. Don’t let anyone let you think you don’t have the good karma or the past life experience. In fact all of us have attained jhana at some point in our cycle of samsara - if we haven’t attained nimittas or jhanas now, the only thing that can happen to us in the future is for them to happen. The single most important factor is sustained effort to see you through.

with metta


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Are you referring to AN9.31 and SN36.11 here?

catutthaṃ jhānaṃ samāpannassa assāsapassāsā niruddhā honti
When one has attained the fourth jhāna, in-and-out breaths [bodily fabrications] have been stopped/ceased

What is the right way to read this?

Does the bodily phenomena of breathing cease or is it the feeling of the bodily phenomena of breathing that ceases?

If such a thing were only to be found in the 36th chapter of the SN - which apparently has feelings (vedana) as its subject - I would say that it is the feeling of the in and out breath which ceases. But once this is found in the AN as well, not necessarily within a chapter on feelings (vedana) I am really not sure!

Bodily fabrication is kaya sankhara. assāsapassāsā is in-and-out breath.

This might provide a good clue as to what to relax in the 4th step, 1st tetrad.

With metta

Sorry but I don’t understand how this relates to my questions. :confused:

It is the in-and-out breath (according to the Pali-see above) which ceases, and not feeling of bodily fabrication. :slightly_smiling_face:

With metta

Ok, so the sutta is saying that one stops breathing at 4th jhana then. Do you know if that interpretation unanimous? (I am not challenging you here, just double checking!)

I am still miles away from confirming that but will definetely keep this in mind so if that happens I don’t pull myself back afraid I will die if I don’t breath!

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I think the problem @Gabriel_L might be referencing is that elsewhere in the suttas, in-and-out-breathing is considered to be the bodily fabrication/conditioner (or in less unusual English — the body’s motion as Bhante translates above).

From MN44:

In-breathing and out-breathing, friend Visākha, is bodily process

If my wild theory outlined above has any validity (doubtful), then this sutta is maybe the only instance of how to move between jhānas (steps 7-9, 11). Another possibility is that this is not jhāna at all, but jhāna conditioning or jhāna “training-wheels”.

Here’s another problem;
a common 5-fold formula to samādhi from the suttas unfolds as follows:


However, in the ānāpāna, the sequence goes:

(passadhi — passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ)
(passadhi — passambhayaṃ cittasaṅkhāraṃ)
pāmojja (abhippamodayaṃ cittaṃ)


In any case it is not the body (kaya) itself. So bodily sensations doesn’t seem correct to me (if anyone was using that).

Well there is a sutta mentioning what is called ‘mastery of the jhanas’. They are able to (by simply intending for it to happen), move between jhanas. The other option is to keep focusing on the breath. That would develop further samadhi to reach progressively higher until the fourth jhana is reached. Then onwards the object of mindfulness are immaterial ones like infinite space.

There is a causal link to the above blissful factors. The Anapanasati ones arise depending on the level of progress of the mind.

catutthaṃ jhānaṃ samāpannassa assāsapassāsā niruddhā honti

The Sanskrit root rudh √रुध्, also means to restrain (RV.); not just to stop.
Nirodha in AVŚ. has the signification of holding back; refusing to hand over or share.
In ChUp, it has the meaning of a closed door (an opening in for the knowers, and a closing out for the ignorants).
MBh (3-4-12-13-14) has to be checked for accurate dates; but a general meaning of: restraint, check, control, suppression, destruction, has pervaded throughout the text.

So it seems that restrain and control is as much a part of the meaning of nirodha, than stop and suppress.

And it seems more reasonable (in SN 36.11,) that the gradual sinking to a lower level, aka subsiding (vūpasamo - Sk. root शम् śam = pacify, calm, soothe, settle - RV., or be quiet or calm -TBr. & ŚBr.) comes later on (after the restraint - and not after the ceasing?!?).

In other words, the states involved don’t have to cease, but just be restrained, controled, held back; and then pacified, and settled (as unchangeable as possible).

Middle way.



Do you happen to know which one that is, Mat? I’ve heard other people reference it but haven’t been able to find it myself.

Not sure what you mean here, would you mind explaining in more detail?

:tired_face: we will have to come back many life times to finish up this salt then.

I am thinking of taking step 1~12 as a more rigid steps with the objective of freeing the mind; and the 2nd and even 3rd, 4th and 5th looping for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th jhana.

In 1st pass step 11, out breath and in breath is prominent, 3rd dhamma is a ‘shadow’ even to the mind itself. At step 12, freeing the mind as in the transition of the 3rd dhamma from shadow to light, likes dime moon light. Some can be brighter but without ‘intensity’; whereas the out breath in breath become shadow.

Thus 1st pass purify the mental vedana out from combination with bodily vedana. Those that maintain mindfulness

may remain so, which probably may or may not skip parikamma nimitta and those that anchor in front of nostril may experience parikamma nimitta (2nd transition); whereby the process is looping from step 12 back to step 1 for 2nd pass.
2nd pass of 1st tetrad is going to be slightly messy as it depends on how the meditator anchoring his mindfulness in the 1st pass. Keeping large bodily mindfulness chances are proceed into white Kasina kind of nimitta unless he direct the mind to anchor in front of nostril after step 12. Those that anchoring mindfulness in front of nostril after step 11 would develop different kinds of nimitta depending on individual conceptual production of the 3rd dhamma on (air)+(out breath)+(in breath) or locality of specific point of anchoring. What ever it is, it goes thru the stilling of nimitta object process of the 2nd pass 1st tetrad.

I’m considering the cultivation of different phase of vitakka-vicara in 1st jhana process in 2nd pass 1st tetrad, looking into a process for mind object as the ‘body’. Mostly our opinion on parikamma nimitta is unstable. It comes and go with inconsistency; that is not an accurate understanding of it. There is parikamma nimitta that is perfectly stable, an embodiment of breath body in grey, resonance to the physical breath. After all, nimitta is a production of concept. For meditator that encounter this kind of experience, the 1st tetrad does not require alteration of knowing long short normal or slow breath, because the mind already see the breath directly.

The process goes into 2nd pass 2nd tetrad with cultivation of mental piti-sukha; along the way, out breath and in breath shadow has to be dropped off for the full development of the nimitta object, so that the intensity built up subtly, later allowing a minor transition to patibhaga. The reason i say that this transition minor is not really mean minor, just that first time normally it could be missed out, not that it is not there, just that not being notice even though it is being ‘recorded’; especially white kasina type. Upon exit from attainment, even after a few hours, if one look back by directing the mind into the experience even when he is not meditating, chances is he can know (see) that uggaha ‘is’ there.

So 2nd pass 3rd tetrad would be stilling and freeing the patibhaga nimitta by entering the nimitta for full absorption in 1st Jhana.

Upon exit from the absorption, by looping directly to 3rd pass 2nd tetrad, that would keep vitakka-vicara at bay; with direct mind onto piti-sukha directly, develop patibhaga nimitta with it and enter into 2nd jhana. Similarly 4th pass by looping directly to step on sukha, keeping piti at bay as well, progressing to 3rd tetrad of 3rd jhana. The 5th pass would then be end of 3rd tetrad looping directly to the beginning of 3rd tetrad by keeping sukha at bay. So looking in this way, then we see that especially 3rd jhana to 4th jhana, looping into its own tetrad, would suggest that from jhana to jhana, one has to exit that jhana, pick up a patibhaga nimitta and enter another. If one has to exit the 3rd to enter the 4th, then logically one exit the 1st to enter the 2nd jhana and the rest. Usually, i have heard of one that attain the 2nd jhana finds that easier to attain the 3rd, the fact that both are looping back to the same tetrad perhaps is the reason. 4th jhana is harder as it is looping back to the same tetrad. Furthermore, from 2nd looping onwards, i would look at the specific tetrad as a single united steps, not specifying this or that step of one after another for one reason, we are learning not to control.

A wild theory! Anyway, the translation of APS16, by taking care of the first pass is sufficient, if we try to interpret such that a single pass to include jhana, that would be difficult as different meditator experiences different fabrication of breath body nimitta and kasina is additional variation that complicate things.

As to the sequence of 5 fold formula, perhaps can see if there is any clue by looking at if it is defined due to looking at different perpective as in 1st or 2nd looping?

I explained pāmojja in my previous post, in how it relates to Anapanasati (but not necessarily to jhana).

As for ānāpānasati, it appears to not be jhana because awareness of breathing exists in every step.

The commentaries refer to both neighbourhood concentration & jhana concentration. Despite its often auspicious characterisation in the suttas, ānāpānasati appears to be a meditative development on the level of neighbourhood concentration.

I can only speculate some teachers, such as Ajahn Brahm, are unfamiliar with the fruition of neighbourhood concentration because their minds were probably so naturally lofty & gifted that their meditative development started with jhana (rather than started with neighbourhood concentration).

My speculations seem to be supported by Ajahn Brahm’s explanation of steps 5 & 6 in his book. Here, Ajahn Brahm appears to be describing the blissful radiance that occurs in the physical body prior to jhana. This is not rapture & happiness per MN 118 but a jhanic equivalent to step 3.

Then Ajahn Brahm supports my speculations further, when explaining step 9 of Anapanasati as experiencing the nimitta, which is obviously contrary to the detailed description of cittanupassana found in MN 10.

My understanding is when the 16 stages of anapanasati are completed, the practitioner must start again to attain jhana.


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Here’s a sutta saying how the transition from one jhana to another occurs: It is through intention after the jhana that one is in is well established.

I learnt about mastery of jhana from Ven Amathagavesi, a Sri Lankan monk whom I meditated under. AN6.24 notes the same mastery over entering, remaining, exiting and adverting to jhana factors, but uses the term Samadhi over the term jhana. This article gives a good summary.

Henepola Gunaratana mentions it is in the Patisambhidha and later the Visuddhimagga, here.

I think we must see if the dhamma we are looking at is in line with the Buddha’s dhamma-vinaya. This is the main criteria. The early or lateness of the text is helpful, but the former criteria is more important, as otherwise anything discussed in this forum or elsewhere today would otherwise be invalid!


Pamojjha leads to piti, which leads to passaddhi which in turn leads to sukha, which leads to samadhi. This is not while doing anapanasati, and seems to be about one factor becoming the cause the subsequent one to arise. Note that Samadhi arises last in this sequence. I think this is a sequence that happens in the mind of someone who has nearly removed all of his or her defilements (as in the seven factors of enlightenment). Pamojjha here I think is delight at removing defilements.


In anapanasati these three are not causally linked. They arise as natural features of the mind at that state of development. Passambhayaṃ incidentally I think means ‘calming’ (the bodily fabrication) rather than calm per se, but I could be mistaken.

with metta


Replying to (and reviving, sorry) this old thread for
3 reasons:

  1. To thank everyone who participated for the amazing resource that has been created! It’s was a weird and wonderful ride to read through it. Special thanks to @sujato for starting this conversation and helping explain his thinking at the time on the translation, especially seeing as how the translation itself has clearly evolved in the meantime.

  2. To add this link and reference code for the sutta itself, so it will show up up when people click the “:speech_balloon:Join the discussion about this sutta” button from the sutta page. I would have loved to find this thread when I was going through the results there: mn118 - Mindfulness of Breathing | Ānāpānassatisutta

  3. To add a link to the essay on the future tense in mindfulness of breathing, mentioned in the original post, but not linked :slight_smile: On the use of future tense in the steps of mindfulness of breathing

Thanks all and apologies again for sending you a notification if it isn’t welcome :pray: