On the use of future tense in the steps of mindfulness of breathing

My day has been rather pleasantly diverted into a study of the future tense in Pali, which, meandering on various byways, eventually led me to a consideration of the use of future tense in the context of mindfulness of breathing.

The 16 steps of mindfulness of breathing, as taught in detail in SN 54.1, MN 118, etc. and more briefly in MN 10, begin with a fairly standard phrasing in the present tense.

Dīghaṃ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti
Breathing in long, they understand “I breathe in long”.

Such phrases are used commonly in meditative contexts, and they indicative a reflexive awareness. It doesn’t mean, “thinking”, but rather that you are aware of the process as you do it. Compare such phrases as:

sukhaṃ vā vedanaṃ vedayamāno ‘sukhaṃ vedanaṃ vedayāmī’ti pajānāti
Saṅkhittaṃ vā cittaṃ ‘saṅkhittaṃ cittan’ti pajānāti

And so on. But from the third step of anapana things get a little more complex. We have:

‘sabba­kā­yapaṭi­saṃ­vedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati
They train, “I will breathe in experiencing the whole body.”

Note that I’m keeping things as literal as possible here, I’m not discussing interpretation of sabbakāya.

The same pattern is used for the remaining steps. The shift is very characteristic, and is handled consistently in the context of anapana in Pali. It seems to be indicating a more intentional shift, a deliberate thought or determination to practice in this way, in contrast with the more natural flow in the first two steps. This is, however, not unproblematic, as we usually think of breath meditation as being very much about letting go, following the natural flow of the breath, rather than making oneself follow a set of pre-determined steps. Let’s see if this interpretation is justified.

Note that this shift is absent from the Sanskrit version in the Arthaviniścaya (Arv 20, Anandajoti’s translation):

Sarva-kāya-saṁskāra-pratisaṁvedī āśvasan sarva-kāya-saṁskāra-pratisaṁvedī āśvasāmīti yathā-bhūtaṁ prajānāti
While breathing in and experiencing the whole bodily conditions he knows as it really is: I am breathing in and experiencing the whole bodily conditions

Unfortunately there do not seem to be many parallels to this in Sanskrit. So far as I can determine, the Chinese versions also do not include the shift to future tense.

Regarding the relation between the Pali and Sanskrit, on the face of it the Pali would seem to be preferred as the more difficult reading. It is easy to understand how the Sanskrit version would arise by simple standardization, less easy to see how the Pali would have derived from something like the Sanskrit.

You’d think such a striking shift in a central passage would have prompted a clear explanation, but this is not so. The Visuddhimagga is the core text here, and it merely says that the shift to future tense is to indicate that from then on “the aspect of arousing knowledge, etc. has to be undertaken from then on.” The subcommentary seems a little embarrassed by this, admitting that of course knowledge must be aroused from the beginning of the practice, but that from here on it is much harder, and requires exceptional prior effort. This seems equally forced.

I’ve checked my usual go-tos for this point and nothing comes up, so if anyone knows of any discussions of this point, I would be interested to learn of them.

Given that this passage is included in MN 10/DN 22, it has been treated by many translators. Most of them acknowledge the future tense, using either “will” or “shall”. There are some exceptions, though. In older translations of MN 10 and MN 118, Ven Thanissaro used:

He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to the entire body

However, in more recent translations he has changed this to: “He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’”

Ven Brahmali in his ongoing Vinaya translation has:

When breathing in, he trains in having the full experience of the breath

While Rupert Gethin in his Sayings of the Buddha has:

He practices so that he can breathe in, experiencing the whole body.

While avoiding the future tense, these do retain the sense that this is something that is intentionally trained in.

There is a common idiom that we can compare this to, the stock phrase where the Buddha instructs students to train themselves. This occurs countless times. Here is a typical example from AN 2.2:

Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ:
So you should train like this:
‘sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggatthaṃ padhānaṃ padahissāmā’ti.
‘We will try to let go of all attachments.’
Evañhi vo, bhikkhave, sikkhitabban”ti.
That’s how you should train.”

Compare with the phrase in breath meditation. In both cases the verb sikkhati is used, applied to another action expressed by a verb in the future tense.

The syntax is, in fact, identical to breath meditation. The only real difference is that in breath meditation the training is in present tense, something one is actually doing, rather than here, as future passive participle, something one should do.

The point is that the future tense as used in breath meditation does not mean what one will do from here on. It is a “historical future” referring back to a prior event, whether it was a teaching that was heard, or a thought or intention to implement that teaching, or even just a purely hypothetical occasion. It was at that historical time that the future tense was used, which is why it is indicated as a quote with -ti.

Curiously, this use of -ti is quite distinct from the reflexive use of -ti in the first two steps. There, the reflexive quality is indicated by the repetition (dīghaṃ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṃ assasāmī’ti), which is not the case from the third step on.

The use of such historical tenses is very common in Pali, and their representation in the target language should not be literal, but judged according to the context. For example, the opening of suttas says that:

bhagavā sāvatthiyaṁ viharati

If we were to render it “literally” it would be “the Buddha is staying near Sāvatthī”. Which would be the best news I have heard all day! Alas, here the present indicative tense is set in a historical past, as indicated by the prior ekaṁ samayaṁ, “At one time”. Thus, even though it is present tense, it is always rendered “the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī.” Thus in such cases the context takes precedence over the linguistic form, and should be rendered using whatever idiom conveys the meaning most clearly.

In the context of breath meditation, this means that either the fact that the future tense is historical must be indicated—whether with quote marks or in some other way—or it should be rephrased in such a way as to make the situation clear.

So it seems we should accept that this idiom in breath meditation does, in fact, represent an intentional mode. It represents someone who has heard and accepted the teaching, and is consciously meditating in order to realize this, following instructions. Again, it doesn’t matter linguistically whether these instructions actually happened, if they are thoughts in the mind, or even if they’re purely hypothetical, merely a linguistic formalism to express the situation.

Of course, it doesn’t mean you sit there and say to yourself, “Now I will experience the whole body!” But it does mean that there is an awareness of the teaching, an understanding of how the practice proceeds, which is used to guide one’s development.

This leaves open the question as to why the pattern shifts from the present tense in the first two steps. I don’t know if there is a clear explanation for this, but it seems to me that the implication is that the first steps are simply experiences of the breath that everyone has. Everyone has breath that is sometimes deeper, sometimes shallower, and knowing this is not restricted to breath meditation as such. Only when we begin to expand our awareness, experiencing the subtle energies of the body, the rapture and bliss of meditation, do we begin to step into the realm where “training” is required, in the sense of a conscious, intentional spiritual practice.

To return to our translation:

‘sabba­kā­yapaṭi­saṃ­vedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati
They train, “I will breathe in experiencing the whole body.”

I don’t know if this sense is conveyed clearly enough. Perhaps we should use something a little more like:

They implement the training to breathe in experiencing the whole body.


They implement the training to experience the whole body while breathing in.

Or more idiomatically:

They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body.


Thanks for that bhante. It is really good to have your take on this crucial Sutta. Can’t wait to have the full translation to translate it into Portuguese as well. :wink:


Thanks for the encouragement! Today I spent the whole day researching a single verb form; hopefully that doesn’t happen too often.



doesn’t two first “steps” of mindfulness of breathing­ establish citta/viññāṇa quality, while the training part establishes cetanā quality? Both (i.e. citta & cetanā) are present in the jhānas according to MN 111.

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Are you saying that because of the use of pajānāti in the first two steps? I wouldn’t push the idiom too far. If anything, I would be inclined to suggest that the first two steps are, following my interpretation, even more strongly to do with the body: just by sitting still, even without meditation, the breath will become more subtle. The difference is, of course, that a meditator becomes aware of this process, hence the relexive idiom with pajānāti. Still, the development of awareness (citta) at this point is still very basic, the real transformations happen much later.


How about: They train while breathing in to experience the whole body…


Yes, because of pajānāti and because when first four steps of mindfulness of breathing are developed they bring first sati­paṭṭhā­na to culmination, which I guess means that one has achieved first jhāna. Therefore it seems that prior to this achievement one should work on qualities which are present in the goal. But maybe this is making too much of it.

BTW, in all Ṭhānissaro’s publications I have the 3rd step is translated as:

He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’

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Hey Jit, lovely to see you here.

It seems to me that if the idiom is felt to be significant, we should make it apparent (if not literal), as in my first two examples. Given that, until now, I don’t think I understood what the idiom really meant, I’m leaning towards being more explicit rather than less. But if this is too clumsy, just do a simple rendering, as in my final option.

Your rendering specifies a verbal form “while breathing” that is not in the text (technically this would normally be expressed in Pali with the locative of the present participle). Now, often that’s fine; it’s just an idiom. But, given that the use of tenses here is critical, I’m not sure what it achieves.

But the main point, I suppose, is to avoid the implication that the practice is something to be done in the future, so that works.

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My sources are from the AtI texts of MN 10 and MN 118, although I use the versions hosted at obo.genaud (only because I tend to have these tabs open, as this site also has the Horner translation) He must have changed his rendering; I’m not sure which is more recent.

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I’d say that these are older than versions currently published on ATI. But if you want to get the newest versions of his work please check dhammatalks.org (since ATI is closed project & no longer updated) where his anthologies are published and regularly updated:


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Thanks for the link. So it seems he has re-introduced the future tense; I will acknowledge this in the essay, thanks. And you’re right, the versions on AtI reflect this change, so they must be more recent.

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How about something like:

They train themselves to experience the whole body as they breathe in.

They determine themselves to experience the whole body as they breath in.


They continue training with the breath, determining to experience the whole body as they breath in.

How do these suggestions answer the two options I spelled out to Jit: either make the historical future idiom explicit, or ignore it?

Hi Bhante

I don’t have the reference handy now but I think there’s a resource that describes the iti in Sanskrit as an “object complementiser”. This would be “that”.

Eg “I will go”, he thinks = he thinks that he will go. Notice how the 1st person changes into the 3rd person once the complementiser takes over.

I believe this is the basis of Ven Thanissaro’s earlier translation.

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Sorry, Bhante, I was too terse. I was accepting your explanation and just tossing in a further handful of idiomatic candidate sentences, all along the same lines, for you to add to the assortment you had already proposed, and give you more options.

What I took away from your discussion, and from your report that the same shift seems not to have a parallel in the Chinese, is that the shift to the future here is only intended to capture a subtle, relative shift from a more passive awareness of the breathing experience to some kind of more deliberate trying, endeavoring or intentional direction toward experiences of a particular kind.

In the initial stages, the teaching is that whether your in-breaths are short or long, you maintain awareness of some physical aspect of the in-breath and its temporal qualities of shortness or length. But following this shift with the future tense, the teaching is not merely something like “whether you experience the whole body or only part of the body during the in-breaths, maintain full awareness of that experience of the body.” That is still included, but following the shift, we now have the idea that the practitioner should also be trying to have whole-body awareness during the in-breaths. The quality of the intention has shifted from “try to maintain awareness of the in-breaths” to “try to maintain awareness of the whole body during the in-breaths.” As you note, it’s not as though you are actually supposed to say these things to yourself, but rather that the imperatives inside the quotation marks characterize the changing quality of the intention as the practice develops.

It’s interesting that English we still use the word “will” both as an auxiliary to build the future tense, and as noun and psychological verb referring to volition or inner determinations. And when a speaker uses the auxiliary in the first-person, both senses seem to come into play at once. “I will go to Benares” isn’t just a prediction that my going to Benares will happen in the future, but a self-report to the effect that I’m determined or resolved to go.


I started memorizing the ānāpāna instructions in pāḷi. As someone on the forum remarked the rhythm is actually quite nice, the cadence just dances along. For instance, the punctuated rise and fall in a phrase like “sabba­kāyap­paṭi­saṃ­vedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati”.

The Chinese might not be much help in terms of tense since as far as I know they don’t really have tenses as such (there are no verb conjugations). Though they definitely do seem to preserve the same logical break between the first two instructions and the rest. Llt’s ānāpāna āgama studies also show that there is even more variation for the operative verbs in the Chinese preservation of anapana: “mindful”, “aware and mindful”, “trains”, “observes”.


Newbie to this forum, I greet you all with metta.

Sikkhati (Sanskrit: śikṣati - inflected form - शक् śak) is a desiderative verb that has the underlying meaning of “desiring to be able to”. It is about training, with the “desire to be able to”.
Doesn’t that carry an implicit future feel in it? - Isn’t desiring entailing some tacit futurity; that might or not, be expressed by the future tense?



I apprecaite your thoroughness!

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I very much appreciate your thoroughness!

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Ven Anālayo has this paper (see p.p. 154-154). He doesn’t go specifically into the grammar but he talks about the process of moving from simply being aware of the breath to a more conscious effort of broadening one’s awareness and how this relates to fulfilling satipaṭṭhāna. He talks about this in his book, Perspectves on Satipaṭṭhāna, as well.


Thanks everyone so much for your supportive and helpful comments!

I realize that I omitted a step in my argument, which perhaps makes it a little harder to follow than it need be, so I will rectify that now. It now includes a discussion the role of historical tenses.

Sure, this is very common. I believe it’s a relic of oral tradition, and personally I tend to favor using “that” where possible, as it breaks the flow of the text less.

If only language was nice and neat. But then, we’d have no fun at all!

It does indeed. It’s the Pali equivalent of a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom. The rhythm and the sound mean as much as the words to one chanting it; in fact I suspect this underlies the rather unusual choice of idiom.

Well, hi there and welcome! :pray:

Indeed. I’m not sure about the Sanskrit use, however in Pali the emphasis is not so much on “wanting to be able to do” as “repeatedly and consistently doing the thing (that you want to be able to do)”. Hence “train” or “practice” would be the usual renderings.