Problems with Anapanasati Sutta

I have problems with understanding and following the first tetrad in the sutta.

  1. First and second pard of the sutta: “[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ And [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu at the accesstoinsight site.) Here, ‘long’ and ‘short’ are comparative terms I believe; one has to ask, to what we need to compare them to. My take is that you need to have a rough estimate of the average length of your in or out breaths. Then when you take an in or out breath, compare that with the average of your in and out breaths, and if it’s longer or shorter, you need to be aware of the fact. Well, I could be way off here. Feel free to remarks.

  2. The third part of the tetrad: “He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’” The task seems to be that you need to be aware of your in and out breath plus the body sensitivity at the same time. What “body sensitivity” are we talking about here and what actually has to happen in your mind for this to occur?

  3. The last part: “He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’” Here, “bodily fabrication” means bodily activities I think. There are a lots of bodily activities happen in the human body so what bodily activities are we talking about here and how do we calm them down? Again as in part 3, this task has to be done at the same time with the awareness of your in and out breaths.

I would love to hear your opinion, experience, interpretation of the first tetrad of this sutta.

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You might find it helpful to read some commentaries on the four tetrads of anapanasati.
One of the better ones, IMO, is “Mindfulness with breathing” by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

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I’ve seen lots of ideas/approaches to these rather terse passages.

I’ve personally found Bhikkhu Analayo’s take on this rather useful (see Mindfulness of Breathing: A Practice Guide and Translations, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2019). There’s a free PDF version of that here (see chapter II for some of Analayo’s ideas/thoughts about the first tetrad).

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Hello. The suttas is not instructing you to take any deliberate long or short breaths.

The sutta has one primary instruction, which is to “establish mindulness”, which means to establish a mind free from unwholesome mental qualities. MN 38 provides a detailed description of the instruction, as follows:

After his meal, returning from his alms round, he sits down, crosses his legs, holds his body erect, and brings mindfulness to the fore.

Abandoning covetousness with regard to the world, he dwells with an awareness devoid of covetousness. He cleanses his mind of covetousness. Abandoning ill will & anger, he dwells with an awareness devoid of ill will, sympathetic with the welfare of all living beings. He cleanses his mind of ill will & anger. Abandoning sloth & drowsiness, he dwells with an awareness devoid of sloth & drowsiness, mindful, alert, percipient of light. He cleanses his mind of sloth & drowsiness. Abandoning restlessness & anxiety, he dwells undisturbed, his mind inwardly stilled. He cleanses his mind of restlessness & anxiety. Abandoning uncertainty, he dwells having crossed over uncertainty, with no perplexity with regard to skillful mental qualities. He cleanses his mind of uncertainty.

MN 38

By doing this, the mind will come to be aware of the breathing because when the mind is pure it will naturally, without an act of will, become aware of the breathing. About this MN 118 says:

There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

When the above process/practice leads to the awareness/experience of the breathing becoming very clear, the mind will automatically discern the length of the breathing; similar to how the mind automatically discerns if a sound is loud or soft; or automatically discerns if a taste is sweet or sour. There is no need for “you” to intentionally doing anything to calculate if the breathing is long or short. The instruction “to know this breath is long” or “to know this breath is short” is merely an indicator that the meditator is making progress. If your mind cannot easily & naturally discern the length of the breath, this means the mind is not pure & sensitive & clear enough; it means the “concentration” or “samadhi” has not been established properly.

There are many ways to attempt to meditate. For example, you can try to meditate with a lot of determination & willfulness, attempting to push your mind onto the breathing. This type of method will have limited results and cause the breathing to become unclear.

In summary, when your mind easily discerns: ‘I am breathing out long’ or ‘I am breathing in short’; this is a indicator your mind has a right balanced clear concentration that is not polluted by unwholesome mental states; which includes too much determination. AN 6.55 is a sutta about balancing effort & determination.

The above translation by Thanissaro is debatable, since various translator have offered different translations. However, the bottom line of the above instruction is it is merely another indicator the meditator is making the right progress & their concentration is established in the right balanced way free from unwholesome mental qualities.

Just as in steps 1 &2 when the mind came to naturally experience the length of the breathing, now, at this stage 3, due to the increased sensitivity of right concentration, the mind becomes aware/experiences the physical body & how the sensations of the breathing mix & interact with the physical body.

Again, there is really nothing here for you to do deliberately, with an act of your will. Instead, this experience simply arises naturally when the mind is pure, sensitive & concentrated; free from unwholesome mental qualities.

Above, the Pali is “kaysankharo”, which either means the in & out breathing (per SN 41.6) or otherwise means how the breathing & body interact. Therefore, this step 4 is simply about calming the breathing & calming the physical breathing processes. In summary, it is simply about maintaining right concentration in the right way to result in the breathing & body becoming calm & tranquil. Again, there is nothing here for you to deliberately do with an act of will. All you need to do is to keep the mind free from unwholesome mental qualities and allow right balanced concentration to develop. When the mind has pure balanced concentration, the automatic result will be the breathing becoming more & more calm & tranquil.

Regards & best wishes :slightly_smiling_face:

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This is a crucial point because if understood correctly it prepares for the second tetrad’s focus on feeling. It means to develop (train) the awareness of how the breath influences the whole body. This skill is required in the subsequent Satipatthana sutta where joy is suffused through the body (jhana), so body sensitivity is a major directional step in a long term task, this joy being the alternative feeling necessary to replace sensuality. Your mental state changes in order to facilitate the arising of joy. There is no more explicit instructor on this process than Thanissaro (7.20):

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You, seeking nothing, just sitting, mindfully breathe out and mindfully breathe in.

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The bodily activity is the investigation of how the breath influences the body, which is a relatively energetic activity. Then in Step 4 that activity is calmed. The same procedure occurs in the second tetrad. This is a pattern at a more advanced level in the seven factors of awakening where the energy of the group of three beginning with investigation, is followed by the tranquilization group (Samyutta Nikaya 46.53). It is a foundation for the two paths of insight and tranquillity. So the Anapanasati sutta initiates skills which will be implemented in later path development.

This is an important point. In Majhima Nikaya 62 the Buddha teaches how the elements, including air, have a purifying effect on the mind.

"Develop the meditation in tune with wind. For when you are developing the meditation in tune with wind, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind. Just as when wind blows what is clean or unclean — feces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood — it is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, when you are developing the meditation in tune with wind, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind.”

In the sutta the elements are listed according to their density, except for air which is elevated above earth, water, and fire, and placed next to space indicating its superior quality. Every thought has a feeling tone, and habitual states of mind can unwittingly cause hardness. The qualities of air experienced through the senses include lightness, transparency, and ease of movement, and always experiencing the body in terms of the breath identifies and removes unwieldy mind states.

I would like share somethings, more from a traditional perspective. ( Although this is not to say that, there is no mental development to be had using any other method. I know atleast one monk who teaches a method where one can feel the whole body expanded and contracting like a bellows)

Workings of the mind is very profound. When most people bring their attention to the general area of the tip of the nose, nostrils, philtrum etc they dont feel much or what they feel is vanishingly faint. Even though there is a lot of air moving through this area and depending on individual differences, air is striking quit forcefully in certain areas. It is pretty amazing. Like in one of those did you spot the gorilla tests.

It is the same for example with the heart. There is hunk of meat thumping inside the chest but we normally dont feel it. But it is possible to tune in to the heart beat. Quite attention worthy and no straining required. Snipers are trained to do this and pull the trigger between heartbeats. And some yogis use the heartbeat as a timing device when they do their pranayama.

while paying attention to above mentioned areas, if the breath appears very clearly (usually either the in breath or out breath) in a certain area, in an attention worthy manner, without needing to strain, then the traditional method is for you. I recommend reading the Visuddhimagga anapanasati chapter for the answers to your questions.

Great write up, this interpretation is supported by SN 54.6

“Sir, I’ve given up desire for sensual pleasures of the past. I’m rid of desire for sensual pleasures of the future. And I have eliminated perception of repulsion regarding phenomena internally and externally. Just mindful, I will breathe in. Mindful, I will breathe out. That’s how I develop mindfulness of breathing.”

“That is mindfulness of breathing, Ariṭṭha; I don’t deny it. But as to how mindfulness of breathing is fulfilled in detail, listen and pay close attention, I will speak.”

Here the Budddha agrees that it is indeed anapanasati, just not “fulfilled in detail”.

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the first tetrad should be seen in context of the whole sutta.

the sutta progresses by developing increasingly deeper levels of knowing, starting with grosser aspects of physicality, to increasingly more refined aspects of mind, culminating in knowing the highest levels of natural phenomena. thus, we first have preparatory establishment of basic mindfulness, followed by mindfulness to body, sensations, mind, and natural phenomena.

in the preparatory section, the buddha instructs us to direct attention to the grosser, more easily knowable aspects of the body - around the face (parimukha), and the basic quality of the breath long / short (or as per alternate translation deep / shallow).

from there, the buddha instructs us “train ourselves” in becoming aware of the whole body. this is not knowing feelings in the body (that is the next section of the sutta associated with mental fabrications). rather this is just developing a knowing of the body - developing a whole body sense / awareness. if feelings arise, drop them - they’re part of mind, so are not relevant at this stage of the training. in this section we separate rupa (materiality) from nama (mentality) - this is learning to know the aggregates as the buddha teaches them.

from there, the buddha instructs us to calm that whole body as a breathing entity. in MN 44: Culavedalla Sutta, the buddha instructs that bodily fabrication refers to refers to the breath. elsewhere in the suttas the buddha uses bodily fabrications to refer to the fabricated aspects of the body (e.g., injurious bodily actions), so i think you’re right in referring to bodily fabrications as something related to bodily activities.

thus, in this first part of the sutta, we start with becoming aware of the separate aspects of breath and body, and then bringing them together, calming the activities of the body with the breath.

you needn’t get hung up on the long / short of the breath - it’s just preparatory - focus on the parts that the buddha says to train yourself in.

hope this helps - best wishes.

I’ve also found this extremely useful. Bhikkhu Analayo also has a class through Insight Meditation Society. I believe you have to complete his Sathipatthana course first though.

There are also recorded teachings on YouTube from various teachers, daylong style or series.

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While it’s true that the Satipatthana meditation course is a prerequisite for Bhikkhu Analayo’s Mindfulness of Breathing course, he offers guided meditations that go along with his book here:
https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/resources/offerings-analayo/breathing-audio/

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I rather like the mix of theory, sutta/agama translations and practice in many of his books. I’ve never done one of those IMS/Barre Centre courses (probably wouldn’t be particularly inclined to – what’s available less expensively or freely suffices for me, cheapskate that I am :wink: ). Had a look at the Barre website and it seems to be getting more formal in terms of certifications etc. His books are nice, though (I own physical or e-book copies or both of most). They almost invariably become freely available, anyway, in PDF format on his academic webpage 2 or 3 years after initial publication:

I can see Compassion & Emptiness, A Meditator’s Life of the Buddha, Satipattana Mediation: A Practice Guide etc. all there. He almost invariably releases audios of guided meditations to accompany his more practice-oriented books, which can be nice to get a feel for the practices he is describing and just sit down and try them out and experiment with them. His approaches can be interesting, e.g., his metta/Brahamavihara practice is a bit different to the more traditional take. @Jeane gave a link to the anapanasati audios. One can find his audios in various places. Someone from the Agama Research Group, which he has been associated with, has gathered together the various audios in a useful page here:
https://agamaresearch.dila.edu.tw/bhikkhu-analayo-meditation-instructions

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I close my eyes and, if needed, ask myself, how do I know by feeling that there is a body present?

Awareness outlines the body quickly, and then when it is aware knowing of the whole subtle body as is, I breathe with the whole body, seeing that breath energy is all around it, going in, and following the out-breath to the outline/felt form of the body, making it solid. When the whole body is complete in breathing in and out, the breath usually adjusts itself down to a calm state, and if not, I make sure that the out-breath is a bit longer than the in-breath until the body and mind respond with cooling down.

I rarely direct the breath to any specific point or organ of the body.

Have fun :slightly_smiling_face: