Should the 16 steps of the Anapanasati sutta be practiced in a linear or non-linear way?

The Buddha appears to present mindfulness of breathing in the Anapanasati sutta as a linear process, beginning with the first contemplation on breath (in the first tetrad), moving onto the second, etc., then concluding with the sixteenth on relinquishment (in the fourth tetrad). Furthermore, the four contemplations within a specific tetrad are a linear sequence, so it seems that the larger structure should also be followed in a linear way. On the other hand, others mention that it is non-linear and one can go from the first tetrad on breathing to the fourth tetrad, for example (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Thanissaro Bhikkhu). Or is the answer a mix–perhaps we should start following the steps in a linear fashion, and then as our practice matures, we can be comfortable with a non-linear practice. The earlier discussion “How to practice Anapanasati (the 16 steps…)” touched on this. What do you think?

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Having observed the validity of progression in my own practice, I trust that awareness to pass through or linger in each stage as required. If I’ve just run around the block, lingering in breath awareness is natural. When switching from sitting to walking meditation, the change in breathing is slight, so awareness naturally flows almost immediately to the body sensations arising from walking. If someone tried to run me over as I walked down the street (yes that happened), I’d naturally linger a bit noticing unpleasant feelings. And if I only end up in, say, the second tetrad at the end of meditation, I just get up and move on.

The progression is natural, but we also meditate in the here-and-now, aware of and responsive to phenomena.

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that it’s within the scope of sati(pathanna) …mindfulness…

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I understand the four tetrads of Anapanasati to be a progression. For a non-linear approach the four frames of MN10 might be more appropriate.

Linear in the sense that you can not go to fourth Jhana without first going through the first Jhana.
Not linear in the sense that you have some qualities (lower) of fourth Jhana in the first jhana as well.
What you experience and how you explain it to someone is not the same.
Great thing about Buddha’s teaching is that it systmatise in a way non-linear experience teach you in a linear fashion without losing it is essense.
For Instance if you take Noble Eightfold Path it appears to be linear. But Right view contain all the other limbs of NEFP. The same way Right mindfulness incluse all other limbs of the NEFP as well. They are mutully inclusive not exclusive.

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See SN 54.2
Any single one of the 16 APS (anapana) steps can be combined in any way with any single one of the 7sb (awakening factors).

If you study Ajahn Lee’s method 2, or Ven. Thanissaro’s instructions on 16 APS, they usually have something like 7 steps, or something other than 16, but if you analayze it carefully they’re just the steps from 7sb and 16 APS that tend to be used the most often.

It’s easier to see the nuances of SN 54.2 when it’s not abbreviated.

SN 54.2 bojjhaṅga-suttaṃ (no peyalla)

SN 54.2 bojjh-aṅga-suttaṃ
SN 54.2 awakening-factors-discourse
“ānā-pāna-s-sati, bhikkhave,
Inhaling (&) exhaling mindfulness, monks,
bhāvitā bahulīkatā
Devleoped (&) pursued,
Mahap-phalā hoti mahā-nisaṃsā.
{is of} great-fruit {****} (&) great-benefit.
kathaṃ bhāvitā ca, bhikkhave, ānā-pāna-s-sati
How (is) {breath-mindfulness} developed,
kathaṃ bahulīkatā
how (is it) pursued,
Mahap-phalā hoti mahā-nisaṃsā?
{to be of} great-fruit (&) great-benefit?
idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu
here, monks, *******

STED (7sb+APS) ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ satta -(sam)-bojjh-aṅgaṃ

STED (7sb+APS) inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with seven awakening factors

1. Sati

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
sati-
(the) Mindfulness-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

2. Dhamma-vicaya-

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
Dhamma-vicaya-
(the) Dhamma-investigation-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

3.vīriya -

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
vīriya-
(the) Energy-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

4. Pīti -

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
pīti-
(the) Rapture-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

5. Passaddhi-

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
passaddhi-
(the) tranquility-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

6. samādhi -

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
samādhi-
(the) Concentration-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

7. Upekkhā -

ānā-pāna-s-sati-sahagataṃ
inhaling-&-exhaling-*-mindfulness-[practiced] together-with
upekkhā-
(the) Equanimity-
-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ
-***-awakening-factor;
bhāveti
Develop (that)!
viveka-nissitaṃ
seclusion (is) necessary
Vi-rāga-nissitaṃ
Dis-passion (is) necessary
nirodha-nissitaṃ
cessation (is) necessary
Vossagga-pariṇāmiṃ,
relinquishment (is what it) matures (into).

conclusion

evaṃ bhāvitā kho, bhikkhave, ānā-pāna-s-sati
thus developed ***, **********, {***-****-*-****}
evaṃ bahulīkatā
thus pursued,
Mahap-phalā hoti mahā-nisaṃsā”ti.
{breath-mindfulness} {is of} great-fruit (&) great-benefit.’
dutiyaṃ.
(end of sutta)
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Thank you for that question. This is something I asked myself for a few years now. Only recently I came across a statement by Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi (SN, Introduction p. 1516):

The sixteen steps are not necessarily sequential but to some extent overlap; thus they might be called phases rather than steps.

Venerable Bhikkhu Anālayo in „Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna“ gives examples of „A Flexible Approach to Practice“ the sixteen steps or items of ānāpānassati.

This motivated me to look into the SN for suttas that have to say something to this issue. My primary concern is to examine and scrutinise the views and impressions of mine, that I have built up over time.
What follows is a loosely arranged selection of my notes I have so far.

In MN118 and SN 54.13 and 14, ānāpānassati is the one thing which, when developed and cultivated, fulfils four things (satipaṭṭhāna), these four … seven things (sambojjhaṅga), these seven … two things (knowledge and liberation).

The ānāpānassati-practice starts with going to a secluded place, sitting down with the legs crossed and straightened body, setting up mindfulness and breathing in and out - just mindful. The 16 items are then presented in a linear fashion and later on are divided into four sets of four items each, corresponding to the four satipaṭṭhānas. The parallel of SN54.13 (SĀ810) introduces the correlation of each tetrad with its corresponding satipaṭṭhāna directly after introducing the items. The moment one is practicing an item (of a certain tetrad) one is practicing the corresponding satipaṭṭhāna - I think the tetrads and the corresponding satipaṭṭhānas are inseparable.

According to SN47.8 (The Cook) someone competent picks up the sign of their own mind and chooses the most suitable satipaṭṭhāna. Fitting this to the ānāpānassati-practice would mean, that one might choose from the four tetrads the most suitable for that particular moment/session.

Whenever the satipaṭṭhānas are practiced, unmuddled mindfulness is established and on that occasion the awakening factor of mindfulness is aroused, developed and it goes to fulfilment by development. Then the bojjhaṅgas are developed or described in sequence. But SN46.4 (Clothes) describes that it is possible to choose to dwell in particular bojjhaṅga. And in SN46.53 (Fire) it is said, that there are occasions on which it is timely or untimely to develop certain bojjhaṅgas (according to their tranquillising or exciting influence), except for the factor of sati, which is always useful. Some items of the 16fold ānāpānassati protocol might also be of exciting or tranquillising nature and therefore suitable to choose on different occasions for balancing the mind.

The very first two items (knowing breathing in/out long; knowing breathing in/out short) can be seen as a constantly available feedback. When the body and/or the mind are troubled, the breath is becoming coarse with high probability - et vice versa.

In the end, I think, ānāpānassati is linear and non-linear.

If this is against the meaning of the suttas or maybe too far-fetched, please point out my mistakes and misconceptions.

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Thanks for sharing that. You (frankk) mention that any single one of the 16 APS steps can be combined with any single one of the seven awakening factors. Perhaps I have an overly simplistic perspective, but if the 16 APS contemplations are viewed as a step-by-step process, whose ultimate goal is to develop all of the seven awakening factors, I don’t think that any single one of the 16 APS contemplations alone can be combined with any single one of the seven awakening factors. Let’s take the 5th enlightenment factor, passaddhi (calm)–I don’t quite understand how that can be combined with the 5th APS contemplation (which is piti/rapture/joy)–calm (the 5th enlightenment factor) and rapture (the 5th APS contemplation) seem like different things. However, as part of the progression through the 16 APS contemplations, we do experience calm (as part of the 4th contemplation), and thus we have cultivated that 5th enlightenment factor. It’s as if the 16 APS contemplation steps lead you down a path, and at the end of the path is a circle of seven stones–the 7 enlightenment factors. Any single one APS contemplation will not get you there, but you need to do all 16. What do you think?

This is a helpful summary of perspectives on anapanasati across various discourses–thank you for sharing this. I agree with you that different aspects of the 16 APS contemplations are relevant in different situations. My point is that one must first know all 16 contemplations in order to know when to invoke them. Thus, perhaps the best way to begin with APS is to actually go through all 16 steps, even in a limited fashion, then one has the knowledge to invoke them in a non-linear way as needed, however always starting with the first tetrad to develop focus on the breath. Thus, first learn APS in a linear way, then return to it in a non-linear way where we can start with the breath, then examine what mental volitions are inside us, and decide at that time whether to practice the second, third or fourth tetrad.

The premise of a self directing meditation might be worth reconsidering with some caution, since that self-directed attention would be volitional. However, being familiar with the entire 16 steps, centered awareness just itself moves according to need. The concern about volitional direction of meditation (i.e., “now I’m going to meditate on mind because I want to”) is that in skipping a tetrad (e.g., feeling), one may leave unacknowledged formations (e.g. feelings) simmering and pulling this way and that.

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This concept of “self-directed meditation” is an interesting one. On the one hand, there is the perspective that meditation should be a passive process of observing/accepting. Alternatively, others propose a more active effort that is “self-directed”. I used to mostly practice the first approach, but frankly found it very limiting. Reading the Anapanasati Sutta, it seems that the Buddha is encouraging us to intentionally move from one step to another by clearly delineating these 16 contemplations. There is the problem of “volitional direction” that you mention, but isn’t the action of even deciding to meditate a volition? I think the simile of the raft is relevant here–the idea being that we use tools (volitions, self-direction) when we need them, but when we outgrow them, we can leave them on the shore and continue our journey. Thank you for sharing your perspective

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Ah. We both thought the other was recommending self-directed when in fact we both were recommending otherwise. :joy::pray:

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This is a big topic, and I don’t have time to get into now, but I’ll just say IMO that it’s a lot more helpful for one’s practice if you approach 16 APS and 7sb with the attitude that there are infinite possibilites in combining steps, rather than following the more mainstream approach of MN 118 where it seems to have to follow a sequence of going in order within 16 APS, and then the 4sp, and finally the 7sb. MN 118 IMO just obfuscates and confuses one in what they’re supposed to do. Whereas Ajahn Lee’s 7 steps in Method 2, or Ven. Thanissaro’s however many steps similar to Ajahn Lee’s 7 steps, you can identify where in the 7sb and 16 APS they drew their sequence from. Whereas Vism’s interpretation of 16 APS, suddenly there’s a whole cast of new characters (nimitta, kasina, etc) no where to be found in the EBT suttas on 7sb and 16 APS.

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Recursively linear, in line with everything above. Well-honed mindfulness can show one where best to hook in in the present moment.

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Yes, but not too much responsive…otherwise we’ll be nourishing the fire, that fire that the more it consumes , the more it wants to consume…

not sure if this has been said above, but I think it’s a natural process rather than something you ‘do’, so the stages ‘happen’ rather than the meditator deciding when to make them happen. Makes sense?

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These steps are like trying to tame a horse.

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I recognize the simile, but also was caught by the phrase…

I’ve never tamed a horse, but I have tamed a feral cat, and calmed animals in distress, and trained. Seems to take metta and dispassion as much as knowledge and a plan.

In training an animal, there are some things which must be learned well, with repetition. Some things might be taught most effectively by appealing to the animal’s natural and individual interests or proclivities. Other things which don’t have that foundation have to be built on skills and experience and understandings which have developed over time.

Why is taming a horse such a great metaphor? A wild horse seems a frightened confused sometimes angry powerful animal with a tendency to bolt, but great capacity to function as a partner or servant… Well tamed, it enjoys that state. Badly tamed, it might never achieve such relationship or function in the current life.

:slight_smile: Please excuse my rambling, if it just seems rambling.

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Ajahn Brahm responds to the question if MN118 is linear here:

If the time link doesn’t work, it was at 1:11:26.

My understanding of both Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s and Ajahn Brahm’s explanations is that the besides the first two steps in the first tetrad, all four tetrads and 16 steps are linear.

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In terms of a linear development, the first step is to become one with right view because the Buddha taught this sutta to ariyans first and thus that is the prerequisite for developing and cultivating mindfulness of breathing.
If one understands rightly what right mindfulness is, then such a person, who still has work to be done (the as yet unattained) ,can turn that right mindfulness towards the breath, and because he sees the breath rightly he develops further in dispassion etc whether he attends to body,feeling,mind,mental states in regard to the breath, in no specific order.

I cannot find a passage where it says that by following this’step by step’ ,one will attain right view.
But only do I read that it is the other way around i.e right view first, then if you so wish, you can attend to the breath to finish the job or abide pleasantly having finished the work.