Satipatthana: deep/shallow vs long/short breath


I’m at the finishing touches with MN10 into Estonian in two versions (one “academic”, the other recitable, made possible by the structure of the target language and an existing ancient memory technique using rhyme and rhythm conditionally comparable to the meter used in MN10) after a longer pause.

There are a few things I keep obsessing about. One amongst the many is the “long breath” translation.

The question: Are there serious caveats in going with “deep breath” instead? It really makes sense in the target language. But, it is unorthodox compared to the dominating discourse across the majority of adoptions in different languages.

(Background: I took the approach of also comparing at many different language translations, comparing their solutions to adaption problems to the bits of personal experience, and the way the target language actually operates. Over the years I have always had trouble understanding what the anapana instructions of “long breath” and “short breath” really mean, explained any which way. Yes, I’ve heard the explanations, and yes, I heard the words, and yes, I sat, but they made relatively little sense compared to other alternatives running around in one’s head.

However, deep and shallow do seem to make sense, almost instantly. Both experientially and the way some languages talk about the breath nowadays. Also, in my language a doctor will never tell anyone to take a long breath whilst they are conducting auscultation with a stethoscope, for example. They will say: “Please breathe in deep, take a deep breath”.)

Just now I noticed that the MN10 English translation in the sutta section here also prefers ‘deep’, which also comes to life given the metaphor of the carpenter:

It is like a skilled carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice: when making a deep cut they would clearly know ‘I am making a deep cut’, and when making a shallow cut they would clearly know ‘I am making a shallow cut’.

As opposed to Bodhi’s:

Just as a skilled turner 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’;

And I’m really leaning towards deep and shallow myself as well. But. Many if not most translations seem to be going for a literal “long” and “short”. So I’m looking for arguments on either solution. I’m not a native English speaker so I cannot speak of the “feel” of Engish, but I can speak of the “feel” of my native tongue.


IMO (in my opinion) either will work. Steps 1 and 2 are preliminary steps, and whichever choice you go with it won’t be a game breaker in terms of giving misleading meditation instruction if your translation is slightly off.

What would be a game breaker, is if you mistranslate kāya in step 3. Kāya, like it is in every single one of the kaya-anupassana meditations in MN 119 (including 4 jhanas, first 4 steps of 16 APS), is the anatomical flesh and blood body. You get that wrong, and you will seriously mess up meditators who rely on your translation.


Issues like this, which will never be ever satisfactorily solved etymologically, to everyone’s satisfaction, shouldn’t be a stumbling block to delivering the rest of the text. Leave the term ambiguous and not ‘fixed’ so that people can see both (or all) sides of the issue - in Estonian. You don’t need to get into the whole issue of meaning, but stick to a simple translation for now. What we have now has been adequate for a generation, at least.

with metta

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Don’t keep a bad habit just because it’s common. :wink:


Thank you. Yes, I see that side of the argument very well. And in the case of the whole dance of kaya-s (which doesn’t translate quite translate with one single word like is the case in English) I tried to take special care to preserve that ambivalence as much as possible, whilst making it also readable (that is, it would still need to carry meaning the target language, it cannot just repeat the original stems if those stems are not used in the same manners ). That view, to some extent however, conflicts with the fact that translation is not always a straightforward activity, especially if the languages belong to different language trees all-together. I guess that is why there are different approaches to translation. So in some cases very clear decisions still seem necessary (not talking about the translation or adaption of suttas only), as they seem to influence the overall outcome due to no direct correspondences not existing, or, a more interesting case – direct correspondences seem to exist but due to the dominance of English on terminologies have become unusable, having been “used up” in other more known functions . The “decisions” problem becomes even more clear in the case the translation of poetry, which a curious affair. And actually, the truth is, MN10 was not stored in prose. Which makes it double curious.

Thank you. That is a good point, which then comes down to which path the translator takes – a maximally literal/academic one, or a precise but more readable one. Both have different stregths and weaknesses. Aösp. thanks for re-emphasizing the step 3 controversy.

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Spot on, relevant.

Thanks. :wink:

Hi, @frankk (and everyone else, of course)

Some time has passed but I thought I’d highjack my own thread (maybe should split it later, we’ll see). This is not a new dilemma, I believe. I wanted to revisit your point re: step 3. As it is worth it. Was my reading of the crux of your statement correct, that the kaya in the awareness of the breath portion of MN110 would be meaning only and only the anatomical body? And that those who have translated it as the “body of breath” or the “breath body” (based on the statement body/collection among bodies/collections) in this one specific instance have made a mistake/misrepresented the meaning? (It is interpreted in the other manner in quite a few places and sources, and I also saw it in some languages, German came to mind with Atemkörper as the equivalent).

kāya needs to be translated the same way as it is for all of the exercises in MN 119. You can’t translate it as “body” for all of these exercises:

(1. 16 APS first 4 steps)
(2. Four postures)
(3. S&S mindfulness and clear-comprehension)
(4. 31Asb: asubha, 31 body parts)
(5. Four elements)
(6.1 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: 3 days old, festering)
(6.2 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: various animals devour)
(6.3 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: skeleton with flesh)
(6.4 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: skeleton bloody)
(6.5 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: skeleton)
(6.6 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: skeleton bones scattered all directions)
(6.7 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: very white bones)
(6.8 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: pile of bones 4 years old)
(6.9 9siv: 9 cemetary contemplations: white powder)
(7.1 STED 4j: first jhāna + simile)
(7.2 STED 4j: second jhāna + simile)
(7.3 STED 4j: third jhāna + simile)
(7.4 STED 4j: fourth jhāna + simile)

and then inexplicably translate ‘kāya’ differently for 16 APS (anapana).
I hope all objective translators can see that, regardless of language. kāya needs to be translated consistently.

Even B. Sujato translates kāya as body here: MN 119

They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing out experiencing the whole body.
‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

Now as far as what ‘kāya’/body means, I’m happy to discuss that in great detail in another thread. But as far as translation is concerned, whatever the target language (english, german, etc.), I hope everyone can understand the need for consistency. If the Buddha has a secret special meaning for kaya/body for 16 APS, then surely out of the thousands of suttas in the EBT he would explain that, and it is in that/those suttas where people can learn the secret meaning of kaya.

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I thought of a thought experiment about letting someone else “restore” the translated passage back to its original form, say Pali, or in another one of the early languages such as Sanskrit. I looked at several Chinese Agama Suttas and cited examples. MN-118, SN 54.1, etc- Digha=Long, Rassa=Short. Why “Heavy / Light”?

One of the choices for translation is between “preserving the text” as close to the ancient record as possible, so it can survive for a long long time; or an attempt to “preserve the true meaning” (mindful that meaning is often in the mind of the translator).

Thank you for your thorough answer. We are in agreement here.

Just to make sure I understand you correctly: Could you still offer your reflection re: the follow-up question vis-a-vis the “body (of breath)” renderings by some teachers and authors being wrong/imprecise/undesireable or not, in your opinion?

I feel it would greatly help to clarify the point you were making.

(I have no skin in the game either way, I’m only interested in a good, precise and elegant translation, and your comment had me revisit/recheck a few things with extra care, and also raised some extra questions).

Why am I asking this:
In a language that does not use articles and are agglutinative, often the syntax of the translation will be determined semantically. Literal translation of anything Indo-European is sometimes impossible (without it becoming nonsense, that is). So even if one was to seemingly choose “the same word”, one would still need to know the exact/best semantic meaning of the original, to then adjust suffixes, word compounding and the use of words like “that” or “this” (which will heavily change meaning in a language that has no articles at all). In addition, in aggultinative languages, not only do suffixes compound toghether leaving the wrong impression of a new word (as we know, the horrific urban-legend untruth of the “13/33/333 Eskimo words from snow” arose from a lack of understanding of how those languages worked – if one really wanted to count, Inuit and Yupik seem to have less “words for snow” than English does), some suffix-compounding will result in a “new word with the same stem” and some will result in “the same word with a different suffix”.

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I hear you. There also seem to be different schools in this.

Say, the expression “it is raining cats and dogs” in English. If the translation aimed at exemplifying the use of metaphor, it could choose to translate that idiom literally. It would make absolutely no sense in the target language but it would illustrate how the English speakers of that time used idioms. For a meaningful adaption aimed at the common folk, it would be adapted to a corresponding “it is raining as if from the stem of (a/the) bean” in another language. A clear but less meaningful option would be “raining heavily”.

I’ll use the example of vassa in MN10, that prompted this thread. I went out of my way to find a solution in which I could use the stem “rain” whilst making it mean a year with only minor or no learning on behalf of the reader who sees it for the first time (we do not express years via “rain”, it is meaningless at first). I think I managed to find one. Agglutinative languages have nifty tricks. The easy way out would have been “a year” but that would be the same as “raining heavily” - correct but stropped of it’s original meaning. Also, a common year vs 12 months counted between the beginnings of two Monsoons could be argued to be different things, so if one can, it can be argued to be a good thing to find a win-win solution. That takes, of course, a lot, sometimes a lot-lot more energy and time.

I’ll post detailed pali/english audit, evidence to support my summary in a day or two (or three…). But to summarize:

The English translations of kāya as “body of breath” has no EBT support. I’m not even sure there is late Abhdhamma support or justification. The English translators who wrongly translate “body of breath” are doing it based on the authority f Vism., a late Theravada work that contradicts early Theravada Abhidhamma, early Theravda canon such as KN Ps, and a common sense straight forward reading of the EBT.

  • The EBT school of Sarvastivada, such as the SA and MA agamas supports the kāya as anatomical body (see b. Analayo’s books)
  • Sarvastivada commentary supports kāya as anatomical body in such works as Dhyana samadhi sutra, with such an explicit simile for step 3 of 16 APS there is no possible way it can mean anything other than physical body
  • Sarvastivada Abhidhamma also has kāya as anatomical body
  • Early Theravada canonical/paracanonical such as KN Ps supports kāya as having two parts, a mental body and an anatomical body. But NOT a mental body divorced from a physical body. It says kaya refers to BOTH mental AND anatomical.
  • Early Theravada and early Te Abhidhamma, such as Vimt. (vimutti magga), on the 16 APS chapter, explicitly and clearly explains 16 APS in terms of anatomical body, and how to take it into the 4 jhanas. They explain the wind kasina has two types: A tactile sensation, and a visualization. Since breathing is a tactile experience, they rightly explain that one does not use the visual kasina of wind, but the tactile sensation kasina of wind as the entry into jhana with 16 APS. Vism acknowledges that wind kasina has 2 ways as Vimt, but with no explanation why one would ignore the tactile sensation, just tells you to go with a visual breath nimitta as the way into jhana, making it no different than earth kasina.

I believe other EBT schools represented by the Agamas like mahasanghika also support kaya as anatomical body. B. Analayo’s book would mention if the case was otherwise I think.

So summarizing with a timeline of EBT to modern times: Vism. seems to be the only one proposing kaya is a mental body of breath completely divorced from physical. And unfortunately, the victors write the history books and exert a much stronger influence than would be justified if one were to carefully survey the evidence from the EBT schools. Hopefully with clear pali+english audits people can see the truth clearly for themselves and we can move forward with correct translations of kāya as the anatomical body in 16 APS.

400 BCE: Pari-nibbāna of the Buddha
237 BCE, KN Ps, canonical Theravada
1 CE, Vimutti-magga by Arahant Upatissa, early Theravada
409 CE Dhyāna Samādhi Sutra
411 CE Tattvasiddhi-sastra 成實論, treatise on various schools of Abhidhamma
500 CE, Visuddhi-magga, late Theravada Abhidhamma, “body/kāya” redefined as mind
1960 CE, Ajahn Lee (Dhammadaro), Theravada, Ajahn Mun Thai Forest tradition
2012 CE, Bhante Gunaratana, "Meditation on Perception", Theravada lineage from Sri Lanka
2013 CE, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Theravada, Ajahn Mun Thai Forest tradition

I’ve give the detailed treatment on this later, but the one place in the EBT people have tried to claim supports body as “body of breath” comes from this passage:

SN 54.10, MN 118, a breath body of air element is also part of the physical body

(i. Contemplation of the body)
7“Whenever (..a monk is doing steps 1 to 4 of STED 16 APS...)
—on that occasion the bhikkhu dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, ... (STED kāya anupassana of 4sp) ... in regard to the world.
taṃ kissa hetu?
For what reason?
kāya-(a)ññatar-āhaṃ, ānanda, etaṃ vadāmi yadidaṃ —
I call this a certain kind of body, Ānanda, that is,
breathing in and breathing out.

this is called cherry picking and quoting out of context

When you examine the passage in full, what’s going on is the Buddha is trying to explain how the breath, which is a tactile sensation kinaesthetic experience, but doesn’t leave behind an obvious physical residue that is visible, how does that map into the 4sp (satipatthana) of body, feelings, mind, and Dhammas?

He’s is not saying you discard the physical body from your meditative awareness in 16 APS. What he’s saying is that the breath body, is also one (of many) types of bodies of the “physical”/rupa body.

Because otherwise, one might think if the main focus were the breath, that is not really “physical” like awareness of body postures, 31 body parts, etc. So the Buddha is reassuring them, saying, the breath is also part of the physical body, and you are not neglecting kaya anuassana by making the breath the primary focus of your attention.

Just as in the next tetrad, the Buddha says the “breath” is also a "vedana "among “vedanas”. So by focusing primarily on breath, you are not neglecting vedana-anupassana (of 4sp).

Similarly, buy focussing exclusively on breath, he explains how that also fulfills citta-anupassana and Dhamma-anupassana.

He is not saying kāya only means “body of breath” and you should discard the physical body from your meditative awareness.

If he had intended that meaning, he would definitely be more clear in explaining that. From all the evidence of various EBT schools, commentary, and various Abhdhamma schools, we have to conclude kāya is referring to anatomical body in 16 APS.

Consider the hypothetical scenario where Vism. is correct, that kāya means, only of “body of breath”, and one should actively ignore awareness of anything physical in our meditative experience. This would mean that:

  • KN Ps (just 200 years after the Buddha’s passing), early Abhidhamma, and all the other EBT schools, were fooled by the Buddha’s poor explanation and it took the wise and incomparable late Theravada Vism. commentators to correctly deduce what the Buddha truly meant, 1000 years later.
  • The Buddha is really poor at communicating. When he says body, most of the times he means “body”, but sometimes it means “mind only - completely ingnore the body!”
  • If you can’t trust the Buddha to accurately communicate what he means by “body”, what can you really trust about anything he says?

This is why it’s important to understand kāya in 16 APS correctly. If you have to use convoluted byzantine “reasoning” with cherry picking and quoting out of context, it’s probably not valid. Because if it is valid, it means the Buddha was a lousy communicator and you can’t trust that you understand any word he’s using. When he says “up”, sometimes he means “down”.

I personally didn’t think the Buddha was a lousy communicator:

And how is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated so as to fulfill the four kinds of mindfulness meditation? Whenever a mendicant knows that they breathe heavily, or lightly, or experiencing the whole body, or stilling the body’s motion—at that time they’re meditating by observing an aspect of the body—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world. For I say that the in-breaths and out-breaths are an aspect of the body. That’s why at that time a mendicant is meditating by observing an aspect of the body—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world. MN118 SuttaCentral

It’s clear to any person wishing to distort the teachings that the breath as said above, in the Mindfulness of breathing sutta, is considered as part of the body, and therefore fulfils the Body foundation of the Four foundation of mindfulness. Combine that with this sutta excerpt:

“In-breathing and out-breathing, friend Visākha, are bodily, these things are bound up with the body, therefore in-breathing and out-breathing is a bodily process. MN44 SuttaCentral

There is no reason to confuse this. It doesn’t contradict any teaching about the body being felt in the jhanas, in any way.

I don’t think you understand the issue and what’s at stake. No one is saying that to focus entirely on the breath, that one would not be fulfilling the kāya of anupassana. The problem is late theravada in Vism. is not just saying that.

They’re effectively saying, by translating step 3’s kāya as “body of breath” instead of “body”, that ONLY body of breath fulfills kaya-anupassana for 16 APS and ALL OTHER BODIES the Buddha talked about in various 4sp contexxts ARE NOT LEGAL BODIES TO USE in 16 APS.

To give a simile, the Buddha as the consummate physician, left us a 16 step recipe for medicine to cure a nasty and fatal cancer. Step 3 calls for us to use an entire common household vegetable commonly used in cooking in the medicine. And a straightforward reading of the recipe is proven through actual empirical tests to work as advertised, curing cancer, by a straightforward reading of the EBT recipe. And it works for Te early commentary, Te Vinaya, Vimt., Sarvastivada EBT, Sarvastivada Vinaya, Sarvastivada Abhdhamma, early Te Abhidhamma.

Then along comes Vism. They say step 3 of the recipe does not mean all common vegetables that one typicaly uses in cooking. It must be a bitter melon. One must use the entire bitter melon, and only bitter melon. And they point to the Buddha’s own commentary that says, “A bitter melon is one type of common vegetable, and can be used for that common vegetable in the reciple.”

Do you understand now?

16 APS is the crown jewel of meditation topics, and the Buddha’s instruction on it are terse. You can not screw up step 3 that badly like Vism. and not incur massive heavy karmic consequences from that. So as a translator, even if you think bitter melon is the best vegetable of all, if you’re going to change the Buddha’s recipe to say, “only an entire bitter melon can be used” from “an entire common vegetable should be used”, you best be aware of the karmic consequences of doing that.

Hypothetically, let’s say I’m a translator, I’m a believer that bitter melon is the best. But I look at the evidence laid out, I see the empirical results of all the other EBT schools, that they got great results using vegetables other than bitter melon.

And let’s say I really love bitter melon, and I’m allergic to most other vegetables so can’t just try it out on myself and see if it works well. What should I do in the translation of the recipe? I really believe in bitter melon.

Understanding karma, and considering the effects of what would happen if I translated instructions for the cure for cancer to “bitter melon” when there’s lots of visible evidence from other people that “any common vegetable” would work for that medicine, wouldn’t I choose my words very carefully in the translation?

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@frankk Anumodana. Your patience and effort in explaining this in such elaborate detail is much appreciated. And will influence my adjustment of wording as well.


I’ve added my detailed notes on 16 APS step 3 “entire body”, with pali+english audit to the thread “UPED user friendly…” ,
entries under 16 APS and kāya.

The way sutta central renders the mother nature breathing doesn’t show as clearly as if you view my notes with firefox’s standard unicode font emojis:

The second emoji is like Vism. You only pay attention to the breath at a tiny spot near your nostrils and mouth, and actively try to blot out any awareness of the rest of your entire anatomical body.

The first emoji is like the standard EBT interpretation, the whole body, like the mother nature breathing water/breath of life, pervades, suffuses the entire body with breath energy.

The Dhyana samadhi sutra describing step 3 of 16 APS is especially beautiful:

Thanks for bringing our attention to Bhante Sujato’s translation in which he elects to use the words deep and shallow cuts in the carpenter simile. It seems the Buddha’s similes contain lots of wisdom, some subtle and perhaps not commonly known. Here is a good example. I suspect when recollecting the sutta while practicing, the descriptions of breath as either heavy and shallow are going to be more helpful to me than previous translations such as short or long.

Considering the simile and the words we commonly use to describe different types of breath, deep and shallow seem to pack the most meaning when reading and trying to understand these instructions, even with regards to describing the breath. That said, the subtle, fine breath that sometimes emerges from meditation is not adequately described by shallow breath. That’s because, in part the most common form of respiratory dysfunction is chronic shallow breathing. Shallow breathing is also associated with anxiety attacks.

Perhaps that’s why Bhante Sujato decided to translate the pali to heavy or light breath instead of deep or shallow. I wonder if there are other reasons? As you mention, long and short seems even less effective since people rarely if ever say, for example, “I was breathing really long after walking up the hill.” We do commonly say, “I was breathing heavy or deeply.”

In summary, it seems to me that deep and shallow would be good choices for describing the characteristics of the breath in the sutta and for describing the cuts of a carpenter. One challenge seems to be that in english, shallow breaths, tend to describe a negative breathing pattern. Perhaps using more than one word to describe these two characteristics of breath might be helpful. In my mediation, I’m going to play around with heavy and light, deep and shallow when being mindful of the breath. I’ve also heard the word subtle and/or fine used to describe the “light” breath.