New Guide to Practising with the Anapanasati Sutta

I believe that the steps in the APS map to the jhana states as you have outlined here. I’ve been working to prepare a study guide for APS that is available here:

(you are welcome to provide feedback or suggest edits)

I noted in reviewing different texts the following: Some suggests that jhana occurs in the fourth contemplation of the kaya tetrad, see [Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. Anapanasati: Mindfulness of Breathing. Translated by Bhikkhu Nagasena, Sublime Life Mission, 1976. Others mention that the Jhana states occur later at the fourth contemplation of the citta tetrad (Ajahn Brahm) or the third contemplation of the citta tetrad ([Bhikkhu Nanamoli. Mindfulness of Breathing: Ánápánasati. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2010). Thus, there is quite a diversity of opinion on this matter.

Lately, I’ve also been wondering about the four arupa (formless) jhanas:
The four arupas are:

  • fifth jhāna: infinite space (Pali ākāsānañcāyatana , Skt. ākāśānantyāyatana ),
  • sixth jhāna: infinite consciousness (Pali viññāṇañcāyatana , Skt. vijñānānantyāyatana ),
  • seventh jhāna: infinite nothingness (Pali ākiñcaññāyatana , Skt. ākiṃcanyāyatana ),
  • eighth jhāna: neither perception nor non-perception (Pali nevasaññānāsaññāyatana , Skt. naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana ).

The four dhamma tetrad items are:

  1. Dwelling on impermanence
  2. Dwelling on dispassion ( virāga ). SA 8.10 instead has ‘eradication’.
  3. Dwelling on cessation ( nirodha ). SA 8.10 instead has ‘dispassion’.
  4. Dwelling on relinquishment ( paṭinissaggā ). SA 8.10 instead has ‘cessation’.

I wonder if these could parallel the four steps in the dhamma tetrad. This might be a bit of a stretch to try to make a 1:1 correspondence, but I feel that when reflecting on the dhamma tetrad, one’s mind expands and seems to enter these arupa jhana-like states to varying degrees.

Any thoughts?


“I wonder if these (immaterial jhanas) could parallel the four steps in the dhamma tetrad (Anapanasati sutta fourth tetrad).”

No, because the fourth tetrad components are insight factors, concerned with developing impermanence and the subsequent attitude of dispassion towards conditioned phenomena.

According to Analayo, this applies to both the fourth tetrad and the fourth foundation of mindfulness in the Satipatthana sutta (MN 10, DN 22):

“In contrast to the previous satipatthãnas, contemplation of dhammas is particularly concerned with recognizing the conditioned nature of the phenomena under observation.”—"Satipatthana"

Up until recently, I tended to view the dhamma tetrad as primarily being about insight and letting go of conditioned phenomena as you describe. More recently, though, in my meditation, as I move into the dhamma tetrad, I notice that it seems to create a sense of boundlessness, and infiniteness. That is, the act of letting go and reflecting on dispassion, cessation and relinquishment in the dhamma tetrad cultivates a mind state that approaches a sense of infinite space and emptiness, as described in the arupa jhanas. I do not want to claim that I am entering jhana states, only that it seems like a glimpse of what that may be like. The Buddha, when he chose to enter a 3 month period of isolation, chose to practice mindfulness of breathing as described in MN 54.11. He did not say, in MN 54.11, that he started with mindfulness of breathing then entered the jhana states. SuttaCentral

For this reason, I find myself wondering if the Anapanasati sutta overlaps with the jhana states more than I previously realized.

Another possibility is that the jhana states (rupa and/or arupa) can be attained before the dhamma tetrad, perhaps in the fourth step of the citta tetrad (“releasing the mind”), right before moving into the dhamma tetrad. From this perspective, the samadhi state, cultivated during the 12 prior steps of the Anapanasati sutta, is ready to be directed towards insight as part of the remaining 4 steps of the dhamma tetrad. In a practical sense, one would attain a perception of boundlessness (arupa jhanas), then on coming out of that state, incline the mind towards reflections on impermanence, dispassion, cessation and relinquishment during the final portion of the meditation.

1 Like

The term “letting go” should be abandoned as it gives a simplistic impression of the process. Insight is applied to the hindrances to cut the entanglement resulting from wrong views that are their origin:

“He discerns how there is the arising of unarisen sensual desire. And he discerns how there is the abandoning of sensual desire once it has arisen. And he discerns how there is no further appearance in the future of sensual desire that has been abandoned.”—- Fourth foundation, MN 10

"This simile, sisters, I have given to convey a message. The message is this: The substance of the inner flesh stands for the six internal media; the substance of the outer hide, for the six external media. The skin muscles, connective tissues, & attachments in between stand for passion & delight. And the sharp knife stands for noble discernment — the noble discernment that cuts, severs, & detaches the defilements, fetters, & bonds in between.”—-MN 146

I agree that the term “letting go” is a simple one, however, when meditating, I find that term/concept to be useful. The Buddha described five practices to deal with distracting thoughts (MN 20), with the third one being simply to turn away from it or ignore it: “If evil, unskillful thoughts continue to arise in a bhikkhu who ponders on their disadvantageousness, he should in regard to them, endeavor to be without attention and reflection. Then the evil unskillful thoughts are eliminated; they disappear.” While it is better to do the first two (replace it with a wholesome thought or reflect on the harm it causes), one could argue that this third strategy is “letting go”.

Another reason why this simple mental construct of letting go is helpful at times is because it is quick and allows me to rapidly return to the focus of the meditation. In a broader sense, though, I like the concept of letting go because it embodies the idea of renunciation and disengagement. I let the idea fill me, pervade my mind and body, and can then enjoy the pleasant abiding/sanctuary that results.

I do agree with you though, that at other times, it is important to focus my meditation on a specific hindrance. In those times, simply letting go is not enough and then one does need to carefully inquire into the hindrance. But as Buddha mentioned, excessive thought can also be a problem: " If I were to think & ponder in line with that even for a night… even for a day… even for a day & night, I do not envision any danger that would come from it, except that thinking & pondering a long time would tire the body. When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from concentration.’ (MN 19, MN 19  Dvedhāvitakka Sutta | Two Sorts of Thinking)

Thus, meditation becomes an interesting balance between “letting go” at times, and at other times, deeper inquiry. As you mentioned, this deeper inquiry may occur during the fourth tetrad, the dhamma tetrad. However, in the first three tetrads, especially the final steps of each (kaya #4: calming bodily formations, vedana#8: calming feelings/mental fabrications, and citta #12: releasing the mind), “letting go” may be the most effective strategy so that one can then move on to the dhamma tetrad.

I view meditation as a refuge. A mind state in which I can see safety everywhere.

Abstaining, unaroused,
he everywhere sees
(SN 4.15)

The first three tetrads allow me to gradually build that foundation of safety and refuge. I perceive safety in my body (kaya), my feelings (vedana) and my mind (citta) through letting go. Then, from this foundation, there is the mental space to explore the dhamma (anatta, anicca, dhukkha), and to apply insight to the hindrances.

With metta,


If anyone is interested, we would welcome your feedback on a new intereactive course for the Anapanasati Sutta (APS) we are putting together at the Philadelphia Meditation Center for Feb 22/29, 2020. Briefly, we are hoping to use the free Canvas Learning Management System (it is used by educators for teaching classes) to create a structured approach for learning the APS that includes a daily practice and meditation log. A draft of the course is available here:
(currently it only contains one of the modules (or lessons)–it will eventually contain 21)

Each module consists of a reading, drawn from the self-study guide, available here:

And also a guided meditation audio file–the scripts are available here:

Lastly, we will include questions for each module–drafts are here: APS_Question List_Canvas 2020 - Google Docs

If you would like to offer feedback, please click one of the links and then request “editing” privileges–I’ll be happy to grant them to you. If you are aware of similar sutta-focused courses, please let me know and I would love to look over them for guidance.

We also hope to link the course back to SuttaCentral and Discuss&Discover to help encourage participants to continue their study of the suttas after the course ends, likely using the “Courses” section of Discuss&Discover.


The first part of MN 19 refers to a stage prior to the Buddha’s enlightenment, when his method was in an inchoate form only beginning to be developed. It deals with the second factor of the NEP, right thought.
In MN 19 is seen the emergence of the themes of insight and serenity, and the latter’s function as a support:

“Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment" (Insight)

“ If I were to think & ponder in line with that (renunciation) even for a night… even for a day… even for a day & night, I do not envision any danger that would come from it, except that thinking & pondering a long time would tire the body. When the body is tired, the mind is disturbed; and a disturbed mind is far from concentration. So I steadied my mind right within, settled, unified, & concentrated it.” (Serenity)

Later the Buddha describes the approach from the fully developed path:

"He discerns that ‘When I exert a [physical, verbal, or mental] fabrication against this cause of stress, then from the fabrication of exertion there is dispassion. When I look on with equanimity at that cause of stress, then from the development of equanimity there is dispassion.’ So he exerts a fabrication against the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the fabrication of exertion, and develops equanimity with regard to the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the development of equanimity. Thus the stress coming from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the fabrication of exertion is exhausted & the stress resulting from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the development of equanimity is exhausted. "—MN 101

The Anapanasati sutta like the Satipatthana sutta contains two intertwined themes of opposite characteristic, serenity and insight. The first and second tetrads establish tranquillity of body and mind, but the second tetrad includes the development of joy (piti), part of the energy group of the seven factors of enlightenment, an insight factor (SN 46.53). It is simplistic to regard the first three tetrads as dealing exclusively with serenity.
In SN 46.53 is seen how with the insight group the association is with the fire and air elements, while the serenity group is with water and earth.

I took a look at MN19 and I see that the section on two kinds of thoughts occurs before the paragraph in which Buddha enters the jhana states. Thus, discerning the two kinds of thoughts helps create a “mind [that] would not be disturbed” and is ready to move into the jhana states. You also made the comment that “the method was in an inchoate form”–are you referring to the teachings on mindfulness in general at the time MN19 was spoken, or an individual practitioner’s training?

In regards to the comment that joy is “part of the energy group of the seven factors of enlightenment, an insight factor”: I took a look at SN 46.53. However, I think that 'Joy" is not just an enlightenment factor as mentioned in 46.53, but I also find it a helpful tool to deal with negative feelings and thus contributing to serenity. Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? The explanation, at least for me, is as follows: One concern with meditation is that it can expose negative emotions that we have suppressed. For a long time, I didn’t understand why “joy” was mentioned so early in the APS, but then I later realized that by experiencing joy, it gave me the mental strength to tackle my other feelings, including negative ones. In essence, by experiencing joy and happiness, and by knowing that I could call upon those feelings by practicing the first six steps of the APS, I felt more comfortable exploring negative emotions and feelings. Ultimately, this then led to serenity because I no longer had to fear those negative emotions. So, joy can clearly be part of the energy group, but it can also be an element that can contribute to ultimately attaining serenity.

I looked over the Guide, albeit not with the eye of one who has detailed knowledge of the suttas.

I must say that I received a very favourable impression in that it appears to be very carefully prepared and user friendly. There is always going to be a trade-off between precision of detail and accessibility for a general audience. I presume you are targeting people who aren’t new to breath meditation but are new to the sixteen practices?

I hope you get lots of helpful feedback from a wide variety of angles to help with the development of this project. :pray:


Thank you for looking over the guide and words of encouragement. It is indeed intended for people with some experience in meditation, but minimal prior exposure to the APS. I’ve also set up a “course” in the Courses section and will encourage students to sign up for Discuss&Discover, as well as post discussions for each module in the respective placeholders I created. Hopefully this will get them more engaged with the website and also broaden their access to the suttas. With meta, Nalaka


Can you supply a link to the Courses section please?

I placed it here:

Please let me know if I need to edit anything, thanks


I think the APS indicated in SN 54.1 (= SA 803) presents (in five sections, including the first breathing section) a series of sixteen “practices”, but not “stages”.

The APS teaching in the text centres mainly on practice and experience for individuals in a practical sense, rather than on idealistic and systematic theory.

The guide seems to provide idealistic and systematic theory on the “stages”.



You mention “practice” and I believe you are contrasting this to “idealistic/systematic theory”. This was a tension that I struggled with while preparing the guide. How much should I focus on practice and how much on theory? In our modern society, we have a short attention span. My college-age kids find anything longer than a few minutes to be boring. I don’t think we should “dumb-down” the APS, but we have to be realistic about the pace of modern life. My compromise was to try to limit the discussion of each practice or contemplation to about 1-2 pages, to provide references to more detailed texts, such as Larry Rosenberg’s excellent guide (he kindly agreed to let me reference it), so that an interested reader could use this as a launching point, and to create a daily practice using guided meditations for each contemplation. If someone learns only a little about the APS, but starts a daily practice because of this course, that would be a great success for them.


The APS, based on SN 54 Anapana Samyutta (such as SN 54.1; cf. Choong Mun-keat. Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, pp. 225-7) centres mainly on practice and experience for individuals in a practical sense for overcoming dukkha in daily life, rather than on idealistic and systematic theory. So, no theory should be focused on.

Note: It is a series of sixteen “practices”, but not “stages” theory.

Therefore, the guide does not fit in well for that, the pace of modern life.

I think it will be better to discuss only on practice and experience for individuals in a practical sense, rather than on idealistic and systematic theory.

However, it will be better to discuss the practice in connection with the “four stations of mindfulness” based on SN 47 Satipatthana Samyutta (such as SN 47.2; cf. Choong Mun-keat. Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, pp. 215-218), but not based on MN 10 and DN 22, which are the expanded version on the practice of mindfulness (cf. Satipatthana Sutta - Wikipedia).

Note: The knowing/seeing of “anicca, dhkkha, anatta” in connection with the practice of minfulness is also mainly on practice and experience for individuals in a practical sense for overcoming dukkha in daily life, rather than on idealistic and systematic theory, according to the SN/SA suttas (cf. pp. 52-3 in Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism).

In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the first is seeing body as body. Here of the 6 modes the first is in and out breath or Anapanasathi. We need to first ask as to why Buddha expounded this first in the sutta. Of the 10 fetters, the first is Sakkkaya Ditti or Sathkaya Ditti. Sath meanstrue and Kaya is collection and here it is this body. The yogi first breathe with mindfulness, then observe the in and out breath either long or short. Both long and short are apparent truths, long because it is not short enough and short because it is not long enough.

The next phase is sabbakaya patisanvedi. Unfortunately, in great majority of cases this is interpreted as beginning, middle and end of each in and out breath. In the Sabba Sutta, Enlightened One says, "I tell you the all Bhikkus, listen carefully and contemplate. Eye & form, ear & sound, nose & smell, tongue & taste, body & tactile , mind & things. The sabbakaya is body & tactile, the two give body consciousness and the three together to contact and to feeling, perception and to thoughts, that to proliferation. Here the yogi will observe the happy, unhappy and neutral feelings without giving any value. That is the start of insight development, seeing as it is. Vipassana is penetrating the apparent truth to see it as it is. The yogi then realise that the breath is hardly discernible. That is when the yogi observe this body of four great elements and realise that other bodies too are of same. In Vijaya sutta this is further explained where the yogi will also see of the 32 faecal matters, "yatha ethan, thatha idan, thatha ethan, yatha idan. Ajaththancha bahiddacha kaye chandan virajaye. Let go of this body and other bodies and realise that this body is not I.


I think it’s very easy for us on this forum to get too caught up with specific word meanings in English.

Stages? Practices? I’ve also heard of “the 16 steps”. In his translation of Arv 20 Bhikkhu Ānandajoti uses “16 modes of mindful breathing”. I’m no expert but I don’t think that MN 118 has any word that equates with any of these; it just go straight to a description of the practices.

Perhaps we could agree to use any of the words, depending on the nature of an individual’s meditative experience and the need of the moment? One might say, “I am doing this practice at them moment, and ahead of me I can see a map of the steps ahead of me.” Or a teacher might say, "Let me tell you about the sixteen stages, how they relate to each other and how you can start off with this practice ".

Words in English are very flexible things.


In regards to specific word choice (stages, practice, steps, contemplations), it also helps me to remind myself that we are using translations from the original Pali text, thus adding a further level of “flexibility” as mentioned by Gillian. Perhaps at some point in my life I will learn Pali and can then engage in the finer points of Pali semantics, but for now, I feel that my time is best spent practicing and reflecting.

At times, it is helpful to look at the original Pali words, which is why SuttaCentral is such a valuable resource. This occurs especially in the context of key words, such as craving or clinging, in order to make sure that the translator is not over-extending the interpretation.


I was recently listening to a talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in which he mentions that the APS has a “step-by-step order”. This occurs around the 3 hour and 18 min mark in this talk: Ajaan Thanissaro: Five Aggregates

1 Like