MN-118, SN 54.1, etc- Digha=Long, Rassa=Short. Why "Heavy / Light"?

Ok. Now I’m getting confused. A long breath can be deep or shallow. So can a short breath. And for me a long breath is light, drawn like the thinnest thread. The short breath for me is the heavy in- or out- rush of air. It’s a bit like the confusion in telling people to “scroll up”. Different people have different mental models. The only unambiguous translation I’ve seen so far is long/short.

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This is insane, but, dīrgha and long are cognates.

Believe it or not.

Its a pretty wild phonological change that connects them though.

They are both from *dl̥h₁gʰós in theorized Proto-Indo-European.

The h becomes voices as an i, and the l̥is preserved as an r-colouring after the i.

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Yes, deep/shallow would also be fine. To me that sounds similar to heavy/light. I think that the point is that in the simile the first action sounds more intense than the second, so long seems more like “deep breathing” than “peaceful breathing”.

But in the end it’s a judgement call.

I was hoping to get a clarification about the translation. Still waiting.

There was a discussion by @Sujato of this issue a couple of years ago, I think when he presented a draft of MN10.

OK, here is some discussion:


Thanks mikez66. The link is exactly what I was looking for. Will read through the chain of discussions.

I have always understood the instructions about long/short breath as making neutral observation, i.e. just objectively note the breaths clearly as they change between long or short. That’s good enough to guide my meditation.

What motivated me to read Sujato’s new translation carefully is to find out whether Ajahn Brahm’s explanation about -setting up mindfulness ‘in front of’- ( which he said did not capture the nuance of Pali language & also misleading) and should be understood as - setting up mindfulness as ‘the foremost priority’ - is reflected in the new translation. It was not.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s version is : established mindfulness in front of him.
Bhante Sujato’s version is: establish mindfulness right there.

Either Sujato does not agree with Ajahn Brahms’s explanation; or that such a translation will be stretching the original Pali text too far (and perhaps best left as a footnote commentary)?

There was already a thread discussing the translation of “the Uposatha day” as " the sabbath" - I still find the “sabbath” translation strange, because to me the word sabbath is associated with Jewish religious observation. Anyway we should leave the sabbath debate to the other thread.

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Let us know what you think. Like it says in the title, it’s an evolving approach!

Yes, I think it’s unjustified. The word parimukha is found only one other place in Pali, where it means literally “around the mouth” (referring to facial hair). Whether it has such a meaning here is dubious, but it shows that there is no real solid choice.

I believe that the term is an example of the tendency in Pali to reduplicate meaning, giving near-synonyms in close conjunction. In such cases it’s better to translate idiomatically. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, though. Maybe I should simply say, “began mindfulness meditation”.


Hi Bhante,

Perhaps, like I’ve heard Patrick Kearney say in a few on-line talks, you could use the Aussie idiom:
“Set up mindfulness in your face…” :sunglasses:

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I take these as examples of things to notice about the breath.

Hi Whippet,
I ‘m not clear what ‘these’ refers to. Enlighten me please?

I meant long and short ( or heavy and light ). There are all sorts of things one could notice about the breath, this is one example.

Referencing the heading and OP … get it …I was looking in the last couple of post above yours.

Dear Bhante, thank you for the explanation about parimukha.

I have deep respect for Ajahn Brahm, but I am receptive to different interpretations when they make more sense.

A thought just occurred to me about translation. As a test: what if the translated version is “re-translated” back to the original language by another translator? Can they “restore” it to the original text? And if not the exact words, how close to the original meaning? In the Chinese Agama, unfortunately most of the original texts, in Sankskrit or other Indo-stan languages, were lost.

“Around the mouth” “the front of the face” (prognathous) might make sense if we consider that’s one of the most sensitive parts of the body/mind…

(mods: I could edit this to make a censored version if required)


It’s nothing worse than what one would see on a Jain statue.

It’s an interesting thought-experiment, but it wouldn’t be possible practically. Why? Because of the limited scope of the corpus. Anyone who knows Pali well enough to translate into it—which is a lot harder than translating from it—is already very familiar with the passages and terms of phrase. So when seeing a translation, they’d immediately recognize the underlying Pali idioms.

That is, incidentally, how I manage to “read” or at least get some idea of, Chinese Buddhist texts. All the subtleties and nuance escapes me, but at least I can recognize what the underlying Indic phrase was in most cases.


I read Chinese. The ancient Chinese translations of the Agamas are far from consistent. For modern day Chinese the problem is further complicated because usage of many Chinese words and phrases have changed substantially over the centuries . Without a broader knowledge of Dhamma or rely on modern commentary, reading the Agamas can be very taxing. And since almost all of the original Sanskrit texts (plus those written in other languages along the silk-route) are lost, there is really no way to verify what was in the original text. For me it is an useful learning exercise to compare equivalent texts found in the Chinese Agama against the English translation from the Nikayas. Unfortunately my knowledge of Pali is limited to a few common words and so could not use the source Pali texts.

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To follow up on the “thought experiment” I looked up several related suttas in the Agamas about Breathing Meditation to find out whether Long/Short were consistently translated. Here are the passages from some (not all) of the Agama Suttas:

from SA 803

from SA 810

from EA 17.1
出息長(long)知息長,入 息長亦知息長;出息短(short)亦知息短,入息短亦 知息短;

The translations are consistent: 長 = long, 短 = short
If these Chinese passages are translated into Pali, the words chosen will be “digha” & “rassa”.

Of extra interest is the additional sentence in EA 17.1 about other qualities of the breath to watch for
出息冷(cool) 亦知息冷,入息冷亦知息 冷;出息暖(warm) 亦知息暖,入息暖亦知息暖。
Here the instruction is to observe cool (冷) and warm (暖) breath. Thus one might infer there are other qualities to observe, such as heavy/light, deep/shallow, etc.


The Chinese anapana texts are interesting. There’s a thorough study here:

The first 2 of the 16 “steps” of anapana (in the Pali at least) have a different verb and in that way stand out. They seem to be more about a passive observational awareness/understanding of the breath than an active training. The Chinese texts might provide an expansion on what that observation could encompass, but the fact that they both include the digha and rassa observations and there are some Chinese (Agama) sūtras that only state digha and rassa like the Pali: we might conclude that those are the most important characteristics of the breath to observe. Perhaps because they cue a deepening relaxation/stillness/serenity.