Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

There is still an error in the English translation of this sutta. ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation’ is repeated twice.

“And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating the body as a body? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation’; he trains thus: ********‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation’ ; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.’*********Just as a skilled lathe-operator or his apprentice, when making a long turn, understands: ‘I make a long turn’; or, when making a short turn, understands: ‘I make a short turn’; so too, breathing in long, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I breathe in long’…he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.’

Thanks, I’ve fixed it. It may take a little while to appear on the site.

May I just say, what a terrible translation! How can you “tranquilize” a “formation”? You could use “energies”, “activities”, or “processes”, any of which would work better here. I’d say something like, “I’ll breathe out, stilling the breath energies.”

Kāyasaṅkhāra is elsewhere defined simply as in-breathing and out-breathing.

Bravo! I agree. I can’t remember the last I used the phrase ‘tranquilising the bodily formation’ in everyday conversation. Oh wait, that’s right…never!:yum:
I posit though that the whole way the sutta is translated is a bit ‘misleading’. It suggests that the meditator uses will/force to ‘tranquilise’ the ‘bodily formation’. I wonder whether the sutta would be better translated to convey more a sense of ‘if this, then that’. For example picking up from stage where the meditator experiences the whole body (of the breath) perhaps it would be better to say words to the effect that "as the meditator’s mindfulness (begins to) encompass the entirety of he breath, ‘the breath and the physical body become more calm’ (instead of tranquilising the bodily formation). This leads to mediator to experience rapture…and so on.
Regardless however of how the meaning of the sutta is conveyed, I think that ‘tranquilising bodily formation’ is just ‘the breath and physical body become (more) calm’. That’s how I am explaining it to people at the moment anyway. Thanks.

This is an artifact of the grammatical structure of the original text. I’ll see if there’s another approach that might work.

bhante, if you’re in agreement with @stuindhamma why do you think it’s not a conscious effort or rather conscious decision or intention?

here and in the Ānā­pā­nassa­ti­sutta (MN 118) it’s formulated as a resolve and not as a description of a resulting state

this must be the reason why direct speech and active voice were used in the text

How about something like “Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in” ? Or “Stilling the habitual doing of the body, I will breathe in.” ?

For me, it is useful to see a separation between (a) the effort I am making now, in the moment of mindful practice (passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ), and (b) a breath I am looking forward to taking at some future moment (assasissāmī).

The effort I am making now is in the direction of coming to quiet, by inhibiting what can be inhibited (e.g., abandoning for a start, I confess, the idea of being right, or the idea of being number one). The inhibition of such unhelpful and deluded thinking is the indirect way of inhibiting undue activity in the brain and nervous system which manifests itself in the body as “bodily doing” – e.g. the kind of tightening of joints that restricts the breathing.

I think the meaning of passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ is causing this kind of “bodily doing” (kāyasaṅkhāraṁ) to cease, not by direct but by indirect means. Then the breathing can be left to take care of itself (which is the principle of non-doing; cf. Sanskrit asaṁskṛta; Chinese/Japanese 無為 ). I think this is why assasissāmī is in the future tense.

As a translation of passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ, I object to “stilling the breath energies” firstly because “breath” is nowhere even close to a literal translation of kāya, and secondly because that translation is still pegged to the traditional misconception (as enshrined in the Theravada commentaries) that passambhayaṁ expressses a direct effort to influence the breathing.

As so often is the case, we fail to translate the Buddha’s words literally because we have not yet fully understood them. So the two objections really boil down to the same complaint.

Sorry to labour the point, but I think the Buddha worded it so as to suggest an indirect rather than a direct approach to allowing oneself to breathe. So the Buddha was suggesting something quite different from “breath control” as it tends to be practised in yoga, for example.

The task is to inhibit saṅkhāraṁ – however you translate that word – and then natural breathing will tend to do itself, naturally, spontaneously.

This isn’t idiomatic English. Never do we refer to the breath as “bodily doing”. It sounds like you really need to go, and are just holding it in!

It isn’t meant to be. The sentence is a translation of the sentence, and sentences can’t be reduced to words.

Nice try! But no. Passambhayam is a present participle. The most common form of present participle in English is the -ing ending. It is absolutely normal to render present participles in that way in countless settings, and has nothing to do do with the commentaries.

And by the way, can you quote me a commentarial passage that says you should deliberately calm the breath? I’m not aware of any such passage, nor am i aware of any modern school of Buddhist meditation based on the commentaries that says this. The Visuddhimagga, to the contrary, gives the following simile for this passage:

Suppose a man stands still after running, or descending from a hill, or putting down a big load from his head, then his in-breaths and out-breaths are gross, his nostrils become inadequate, and he keeps on breathing in and out through his mouth. But when he has rid himself of his fatigue and has bathed and drunk [275] and put a wet cloth on his heart, and is lying in the cool shade, then his in-breaths and out-breaths eventually occur so subtly that he has to investigate whether they exist or not.

Thanks to you Ven. Sujato for your role in setting up this excellent site, and for taking the trouble to reply to my objection.

Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines,

saṅkhāra: This term has, according to its context, different shades of meaning, which should be carefully distinguished.

(I) To its most frequent usages (s. foll. 1-4) the general term ‘formation’ may be applied, with the qualifications required by the context. This term may refer either to the act of 'forming or to the passive state of ‘having been formed’ or to both.

  1. As the 2nd link of the formula of dependent origination, (paṭiccasamuppāda, q.v.), saṅkhāra has the active aspect, 'forming, and signifies kamma (q.v.), i.e. wholesome or unwholesome volitional activity (cetanā) of body (kāya-s.), speech (vacī-s.) or mind (citta- or mano-s.). This definition occurs, e.g. at S. XII, 2, 27. For s. in this sense, the word ‘kamma-formation’ has been coined by the author. In other passages, in the same context, s. is defined by reference to (a) meritorious kamma-formations (puññābhisaṅkhāra), (b) demeritorious k. (apuññabhisaṅkhāra), © imperturbable k. (āneñjābhisaṅkhāra), e.g. in S. XII, 51; D. 33. This threefold division covers karmic activity in all spheres of existence: the meritorious kamma-formations extend to the sensuous and the fine-material sphere, the demeritorious ones only to the sensuous sphere, and the ‘imperturbable’ only to the immaterial sphere.
  1. The aforementioned three terms, kāya-, vacī- and citta-s. are sometimes used in quite a different sense, namely as (1) bodily function, i.e. in-and-out-breathing (e.g. M. 10), (2) verbal function, i.e. thought-conception and discursive thinking, (3) mental-function, i.e. feeling and perception (e.g. M. 44)…

Passambhayaṁ is causative, and its object is kāyasaṅkhāraṁ. So if the traditional commentators are thus correct in identifying kāyasaṅkhāraṁ with in-and-out breathing, the instruction (to use your suggested word “stilling”) is equivalent to “stilling the in-and-out breathing.”

I say that the traditional commentators are not correct. For me, the object of stilling is not the breathing. The object of stilling is the saṅkhāra which are the 2nd of the 12 links in the dependent arising of suffering.

Suppose a man stands still after running, or descending from a hill, or putting down a big load from his head, then his in-breaths and out-breaths are gross, his nostrils become inadequate, and he keeps on breathing in and out through his mouth. But when he has rid himself of his fatigue and has bathed and drunk [275] and put a wet cloth on his heart, and is lying in the cool shade, then his in-breaths and out-breaths eventually occur so subtly that he has to investigate whether they exist or not.

This simile explains how the breathing naturally goes from long to short when one rests after vigorous exercise. But in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta the Buddha affirms a long breath as long and a short breath as short. There is no sense in which long is more desirable than short or vice versa. So the simile misses the point.

The simile is about the breath becoming quiet, an intransitive process. But in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta passambhayaṁ is transitive, and its object is kāyasaṅkhāraṁ.

So with the word passambhayaṁ, I submit that the Buddha is saying that we should deliberately still something, or deliberately cause something to cease. That something is not the breath; the object of stilling is saṅkhāraṁ – as per the 2nd of the 12 links in the dependent arising of suffering.

So, in other words, "allowing the cause of suffering to cease, I will breathe in."
Or, in other words, “being truly mindful of the truth of cessation, I will breathe in.”

I think the real meaning is like that, if I interpret it. But for a literal translation, something like:
“Stopping the body’s habitual doings, I will breathe in.”

To translate passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ as “stilling the breath energies” is very, very interpretive. But because you have accepted a Theravada view as true, you seem to feel that the true meaning is like that. But the original words, if we study them afresh, are not as per the Theravada view.

Thanks for taking the time to investigate this further!

I’m not sure why you quoted Nyanatiloka. This isn’t a commentary. And anyway, the definition of kāyasaṅkhāra as the breath is from the suttas, eg SN 41.6:

Assāsapassāsā kho, gahapati, kāyikā. Ete dhammā kāyap­paṭi­baddhā, tasmā assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro.
In-and-out breaths are bodily. These things are bound up with the body. This is why in-and-out breaths are a bodily activity.

We’re in the context of breath meditation, and saṅkhāra here has nothing to do with dependent origination. There, it means “intention”. The idea that these two contexts share the same meaning for sankhara was proposed long ago by Ven Nyanavira. It was debunked by Bhikkhu Bodhi, and I guess you can find the essay online somewhere.

I’d just like to add something here about the nature of discussion. You’ve repeatedly said that I am basing myself on the “Theravada” and on the “commentaries”. This is despite the fact that I have consistently, for well over a decade, refused to call myself Theravadin or to identify in any way with Theravada doctrine. It is disrespectful to impute to another person values or allegiances that they have explicitly disavowed.

If you want to argue that a certain point is based on the commentaries, the onus is on you to produce a relevant commentarial passage to support your argument. Instead, you quote a passage that is not commentarial, and where the relevant point is in fact from the suttas. This simply reinforces something that I have observed for many years: critics of the commentaries rarely take the time to actually read them.

In response to your claim that the commentaries say we should control the breath, I went to the trouble to find and quote a relevant commentarial passage that clearly does not support this view. But then you dismissed it on grounds that have nothing to do with the point I was making.

Please forgive me for saying this, but this is not how to have a rational discussion. I’m happy to consider your proposals, but you need to articulate them more carefully.


I apologize, Ven. Sujato, if I gave the impression that I was criticizing you as a Theravadin. My intention was rather to complain that “stilling the breath-energies” is not a literal translation of the Buddha’s words, but an interpretive translation that reflects a Theravada view. I think the commentary you quoted also reflects the same view.

Just because we disavow a view or attitude or habit, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are free of it. I know whereof I speak – I have spent the last 20 years disavowing the stiff-necked arrogance of my late Zen teacher… but as they say in Japan, “the son of a frog is a frog” !

The view which I am criticizing was in evidence in the meditation halls of Thailand, where I spent some time in the 1980s. Some monks there seemed almost to cultivate a slumped posture. Evidently wishing to “calm the breathing,” they seemed to see sitting-meditation as the polar opposite of the kind of vigorous activity – like running or hill climbing or weight lifting – alluded to in the passage of commentary you quoted. Hence they tended to slump, with associated shallow breathing.

In Japan of course Zen practitioners go to the other extreme, making a big effort to maintain a rigidly upright posture. Because this rigidity is associated with tightness of the rib-cage, they tend inevitably to breathe more from the abdomen, and many of them deliberately cultivate the kind of deep abdominal breathing practised by martial artists. (Again, I know too well whereof I speak.)

As Nāgārjuna wrote,
Saṁsāra-mūlaṁ saṁskārān avidvān saṁskaroty ataḥ.
“The habitual doings which are the root of saṁsāra, thus does the ignorant one do.”

Since we are speaking about breathing, there are these two kinds of breathing that, being still steeped in ignorance, we habitually do. In sitting-practice in the middle way, breathing does not stop, but it is empty of these two kinds of habitual doing.

For the record I have read more than my fair share of the commentaries over the past few years, as a proofreading service to Ven. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu. On that basis, I have developed total respect for the Pali Suttas, and also for translators such as Ven. Ānandajoti and yourself who are devoted to clarifying those faithful records of the Buddha’s words. But for the commentaries, it is true, I don’t have so much respect. I dismissed the commentary you quoted because, at least as a commentary on the Satipaṭṭāa Sutta, that bit of commentary fails utterly to convey the point the Buddha is making.

Shall we put the commentaries to one side and consider what Ven. Kamabhu says in the Kamabhu Sutta? First of all, since it is so pertinent to the point I am trying to make, I should thank you very much for identifying it.

Citta asks:
> “kasmā pana, bhante, assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro,…"

“On what basis, Venerable Sir, are in-and-out breaths the habitual doing of the BODY?”

The intention of the question seems to be, “How are those in-and-out breaths habitual doing of the BODY, as opposed to habitual verbal doing or habitual mental doings”

And so the answer comes:

Assāsapassāsā kho, gahapati, kāyikā. Ete dhammā kāyap­paṭi­baddhā, tasmā assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro.
In-and-out breaths are BODILY. These things are bound up with the BODY. This is why in-and-out breaths are a BODILY doing.

Kamabhu is not saying that all breathing is kāyasaṅkhāra, habitual bodily doing. He is explaining why those breaths which are described as PHYSICAL doing, are so described – because those respiratory doings are particulary bound up with the BODY.

Later in the sutta, Kamabhu describes two conditions: (1) a person who has died, (2) a monk who in sitting-meditation (in Zen jargon) has dropped off body and mind – in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, “a monk who has attained the cessation of perception & feeling.”

In both cases habitual bodily doing has ceased and subsided. In the second instance, however, in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, “his life force is not ended, his heat is not dissipated, and his faculties are bright & clear.”

In the second instance, in other words, the monk is still breathing, but habitual bodily doing has stopped.

If kāyasaṅkhāra means the breath itself, Ven. Kamabhu’s explanation makes no sense at all – unless you think Ven. Kamabhu is describing a monk who stays alive after his breathing has stopped?

(On reflection, I edited out from this post several needlessly provocative references to the “Theravada view” I was criticizing. Apologies again. There is constructive intention here, I promise, struggling to find harmonious expression.)

No problems, thanks for the helpful reply. I will consider this further. My own views on these things is, of course, still evolving. Many times I look at my old work and go, “how could I?” “What did I mean by that?”

The task of emerging from the commentarial tradition will, I think, be a long and slow one. We have to accept that we will try many byways!

Your remarks on the different meditation postures in Zen and Thai practice are interesting. It relates to the cultures: Thai is relaxed and easygoing, Japanese is efficient and energetic. It would be interesting to look more into the backgrounds to this. The Visuddhimagga, incidentally, recommends a perfectly upright posture, with the vertebrae resting on each other like a pile of coins.

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Thanks Bhante, for the useful comments about Thai vs Japanese approaches, and the Visuddhimagga’s instructions on sitting posture.

And, of course, we have to be careful to not simply replace them with the “Commentary of Ajahn X”. Careful and reasoned analysis is needed, not wholesale declarations that “the commentaries are wrong”.

One of the problems with assessing the ancient commentaries that little is readily available in English: the Visuddhimagga, and commentaries on a few selected suttas (including the Satipatthana) being the exception. The vast majority of what I’ve read, seems to me somewhat boring: quite straightforward, and uncontroversial. I am reminded almost every day of the advice in the Visuddhimagga not to live east or west of the village one goes for alms, since then the sun will be in one’s eyes either going or coming. I happen to live west of where I live. Of course, I don’t go for alms, but I do walk into the sun in the morning or evening. Obviously I should have read the Visuddhimagga before purchasing my house… :slight_smile:

There are, of course, some key points where the commentaries disagree with some modern commentaries. But often the disagreement is just as great between the modern commentators, the classic example being over to what extent it is possible to hear or think when in jhana.

I’m therefore inclined to treat the ancient commentaries with no less or more skepticism than the modern ones…

It might be useful to get back to the point of this thread, which, as I recall, was the translation of the passage on stilling the breath. I am not clear on exactly the objection that @Mike had about this. The commentary that @Sujato quoted suggested that the stilling was not an active process. Is that also the interpretation that @Mike supports? Some teachers (notably Thanissaro) teach a much more active manipulation of the breath than most that I’ve encountered.

Is it possible to establish from the sutta passages whether the stilling of breath is intended to be just a passive process? Or perhaps it’s not well defined, and both the active and passive approaches are equally consistent with the suttas?


Dear Bhante @Sujato,

Just a little anecdote. Before I found the local Laos wat I go to nowadays, I used to help out at a Zen temple. One time the minister showed me how they do zazen. I was sitting on the cushion and nodded forwarded once. I was then told that I had to be tapped on my shoulder with a stick. I’ve only read about it, seen it in pictures and videos before but the actual feeling of being “tapped” on the shoulder didn’t ring with what I understood about how the Buddha taught meditation. I never again did zazen after that. Too rigid for my taste.

One thing I noticed in my own practice in the last five years, the more rigid (disciplined) the posture I tried, the less likely I had a good sitting. Nowadays, I just relax the body without it being too taught or too relaxed. I just listen to my body and adjust my posture to alleviate any irritations to the point where it doesn’t bother me as much. I usually sit half lotus but will sit in different postures as the body demands. Recently, whenever I don’t feel well, I would meditate lying down on my back (this was recommended to me by Dheerayupa).

My practice led me to this, a body too rigid, the mind wanders off. It’s adding more suffering to what already I’m suffering! A body too relaxed, same, the mind wanders off. I’m not giving the body it’s due respect.

A body neither too rigid nor too relaxed, the breathing gets pleasant by itself. When there is no bodily irritations for the mind to worry about, the mind is happy. I don’t have to control anything. It’s all natural. I always go for that feeling whenever I sit now. When I walk, I go for that effortless movement of the feet, enjoying that natural movement, as if I’m just gliding on the ground. It took five years to understand this but at least, I feel that I am in the right path, one can’t really progress in the practice if there is no pleasure to be felt!

And surely, this path and practice, is nothing but a happy and pleasant path, from the beginning, middle, and to the end, just as how the lord Buddha intended it to be.

with reverence, respect, and gratitude,


Dear mikenz66,

My understanding is that passambhayam is causative, and so whether we translate it “stilling” or “causing to cease” or “allowing to cease,” yes, it is an active process. It is an active mental practice, involving mindfulness of the body.

You asked Ven. Sujato:

Is it possible to establish from the sutta passages whether the stilling of breath is intended to be just a passive process?

This again presupposes that the object of stilling is the breath. My point is that the object of stilling, or causing to cease, is in fact kāyasaṅkhāraṁ, which does not mean the breath. It means the doing of the body.

I think that what Russell is describing is practice in the direction of “just sitting.” And I think just sitting means practice that is empty of kāyasaṅkhāraṁ.

Hence in the opening sentence of his masterwork Shobogenzo, Zen Master Dogen describes Zazen as 無為, non-doing, free of doing, empty of doing.

I agree with Russell that the way that Zazen tends to be taught nowadays, it tends to be full of doing, full of rigidity, not connected with emptiness. So if we can re-establish the connection with emptiness, with reference to the early discourses, that would be a wonderful thing, towards unity and the dispelling of sectarian ignorance.

the PTS dictionary as causative gives the form passambheti

whether passambhati in the sutta formula is transitive or not i think depends on its agent, the practitioner or the kayasankhara, or vice versa: if it’s intransitive the agent is invariably kayasankhara, if it’s transitive the agent is the practitioner

do the grammar or the syntax allow to determine who the agent is?

isn’t it a Gerund or Absolutive as explained in the paragraphs 470 & 472 of Duroiselle’s “A Practical Grammar of the Pāli Language” ?

Or we can say that it relates to two views (e.g. Thai natthitā / uccheda-dṛṣṭi ; Japanese attithā / śāśvata-dṛṣṭi ), each associated with a certain sitting posture, each somewhat off the middle way.

In the middle way, then, what is the right sitting posture?

In the middle way, there is no such thing as a right sitting position, no such thing as “perfectly upright posture.” But there might be such a thing as a right direction. There might be such a thing as sitting practice leading in the direction of cessation of suffering. There might be such a thing as practice leading in the direction of cessation of ignorance, habitual doings, divided consciousness, psycho-physicality, six senses, and so on… so that there is a cessation of this whole mass of suffering.