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

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.

Any idea who wrote the article you cited? I looked all over that web site and could not find any information about the author. Rather strange.

No idea, sorry, they used to be an active member here.

Thanks for this reference . :pray:

This makes a lot of sense. I practice breathe awareness during sustained vigorous activity and a short breath is definitely cooling and generally anaerobic. A long breath is warm and generally aerobic. The breath alternates on its own between these two exactly as required by the activity. Even just meditating in the snow, I would experience mostly long/warm breathing–breathing fast in the chill is a good way to start shivering.

In typing this, I also realized that my major objection to the translation as “heavy” is that “heavy breathing” is just wrong for meditation, since colloquially contemporary English links that to “lusty”. Let us please not use heavy.