Ānāpānasati | Mindfulness of Breathing


1. Ānāpānasati

Ānāpānasati (Pāḷi; Sanskrit Ānāpānasmṛti), meaning mindfulness of breathing (sati means mindfulness; ānāpāna refers to inhalation and exhalation),

is a form of Buddhist meditation originally taught by Gautama Buddha in several Suttas including the Ānāpānasati Sutta. (MN 118)

Ānāpānasati is now common to Tibetan, Zen, Tiantai and Theravāda Buddhism as well as Western-based mindfulness programs.

Simply defined, Ānāpānasati is to feel the sensations caused by the movements of the breath in the body as is practiced in the context of mindfulness meditation.

2. Origins in Buddhism

Ānāpānasati is a core meditation practice in Theravāda, Tiantai and Chan traditions of Buddhism as well as a part of many mindfulness programs.

In both ancient and modern times, Ānāpānasati by itself is likely the most widely used Buddhist method for contemplating bodily phenomena.

The Ānāpānasati Sutta specifically concerns mindfulness of inhalation and exhalation, as a part of paying attention to one's body in quietude,

and recommends the practice of Ānāpānasati meditation as a means of cultivating the 7 Factors of Enlightenment:

  1. sati (mindfulness),
  2. dhamma vicaya (analysis),
  3. viriya (persistence)
  4. pīti (rapture)
  5. passaddhi (serenity)
  6. Samādhi (concentration)
  7. upekkhā (equanimity).

Finally, the Buddha taught that, with these factors developed in this progression,

the practice of Ānāpānasati would lead to Release (Pāḷi: vimutti; Sanskrit mokṣa) from dukkha (suffering), in which one realizes Nibbāna.

3. Traditional sources

A traditional method given by the Buddha in the Ānāpānasati Sutta is to go into the forest and sit beneath a tree and then to simply watch the breath, if the breath is long, to notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, to notice that the breath is short.

While inhaling and exhaling, the meditator practises:

  1. training the mind to be sensitive to one or more of:
    the entire body, rapture, pleasure, the mind itself, and mental processes
  2. training the mind to be focused on one or more of:
    inconstancy, dispassion, cessation, and relinquishment
  3. steadying, satisfying, or releasing the mind.

A popular non-canonical method used today, loosely based on Buddhaghoṣa’s commentary the Visuddhimagga, follows 4 stages:

  1. repeatedly counting exhalations in cycles of 10
  2. repeatedly counting inhalations in cycles of 10
  3. focusing on the breath without counting
  4. focusing only on the spot where the breath enters and leaves the nostrils (i.e., the nostril and upper lip area).

Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa Kārikā also teaches the counting of breaths to 10 as does the dhyāna sūtras translated into Chinese by An Shigao.

This is organized into a teaching called the 6 aspects or the 6 means:

The practice starts with counting (gaṇana), which consists in counting breathing from 1 to 10.

When this is accomplished without any counting failure (doṣa), the practitioner advances to the 2nd step, i.e., pursuing (anugama),

which means intently following the inhalation as it enters the body and moves from the throat, through the heart, the navel, the kidneys, the thighs to the toes and then the reverse movement of the exhalation until it leaves the body.

Next come concentration (sthapana) which denotes focusing one's attention on some part of the body from the tip of the nose to the big toe.

In the 4th step, called observation (upalaksaṇa), the practitioner discerns that the air breathed in and out as well as form (rūpa), mind (citta), and mental functions (caitta) ultimately consists of the 4 Great Elements.

He thus analyses all the 5 aggregates.

Next follows the turning away (vivarta) which consists of changing the object of observation from the air breathed in and out to the wholesome roots of purity (kuśala mūla) and ultimately to the highest mundane dharma.

The last step is called purification (pariśuddha) and it marks entering the stage of realization of the Way,

which in Abhidharma literature denotes the stage of the stream entry (Sotāpanna) that will inevitably lead the adept to Nirvāṇa in no more than 7 lives.

4. Ānāpānasati sutta

Ānāpānasati is described in detail in the Ānāpānasati Sutta:

Breathing in long, he discerns, 'I am breathing in long';
or breathing out long, he discerns, 'I am breathing out long.'
Or breathing in short, he discerns, 'I am breathing in short';
or breathing out short, he discerns, 'I am breathing out short.'

He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.'
He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.'
He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.'
He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.'

If it is pursued and well developed, it is said to bring great benefit:

This is how mindfulness of in-&-out breathing is developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit.

As for the training, the Ānāpānasati Sutta states:

On whatever occasion the monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world, on that occasion his mindfulness is steady & without lapse.

When his mindfulness is steady & without lapse, then mindfulness as a factor for awakening becomes aroused. He develops it, and for him it goes to the culmination of its development.

5. Modern sources

First, for the practice to be successful, one should dedicate the practice, and set out the goal of the meditation session.

One may decide to either practice Ānāpānasati while seated or standing or lying down or walking, or to alternate seated, standing, lying down and walking meditation.

Then one may concentrate on the breath going through one's nose:

the pressure in the nostrils on each inhalation, and the feeling of the breath moving along the upper lip on each exhalation.

Other times practitioners are advised to attend to the breath at the tanden, a point slightly below the navel and beneath the surface of the body.

Practitioners may choose to count each inhalation, 1, 2, 3,... and so on, up to 10, and then begin from 1 again.

Alternatively people sometimes count the exhalation, 1, 2, 3,..., on both the inhalation and exhalation.

If the count is lost then one should start again from the beginning.

The type of practice recommended in The Three Pillars of Zen is for one to count 1, 2, 3,... on the inhalation for a while, then to eventually switch to counting on the exhalation,

then eventually, once one has more consistent success in keeping track of the count, to begin to pay attention to the breath without counting.

There are practitioners who count the breath all their lives as well.

Beginning students are often advised to keep a brief daily practice of around 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Also, a teacher or guide of some sort is often considered to be essential in Buddhist practice, as well as the saṅgha, or community of Buddhists, for support.

When one becomes distracted from the breath, which happens to both beginning and adept practitioners, either by a thought or something else, then one simply returns their attention back to the breath.

6. Active breathing, passive breathing

Ānāpānasati is most commonly practiced with attention centred on the natural breath, without any effort to change the breathing:

This is an important difference from Hindu yogic breathing, which often involves holding a breath and regulating the breath rhythm with effort.

In the throat singing prevalent amongst the Buddhist monks of Tibet and Mongolia the long and slow outbreath during chanting is the core of the practice:

The sound of the chant also serves to focus the mind in one-pointed concentration Samādhi, while the sense of self dissolves as awareness becomes absorbed into a realm of pure sound.

In some Japanese Zen meditation, the emphasis is upon maintaining strength in the abdominal area (dantian or tanden) and slow deep breathing during the long outbreath, again to assist the attainment of a mental state of one-pointed concentration.

There is also a bamboo method, during which time one inhales and exhales in punctuated bits, as if running one's hand along the stalk of a bamboo tree.

7. Scientifically demonstrated benefits

The practice of focusing one's attention changes the brain in ways to improve that ability over time; the brain grows in response to meditation.

Meditation can be thought of as mental training, similar to learning to ride a bike or play a piano.

Meditators experienced in focused attention meditation (Ānāpānasati is a type of focused attention meditation) showed a decrease in habitual responding a 20-minute Stroop test, which may illustrate a lessening of emotionally reactive and automatic responding behaviour.

It has been scientifically demonstrated that Ānāpānasati enhances connectivity in the brain.

8. Stages

Formally, there are 16 stages – or contemplations – of Ānāpānasati.

These are divided into 4 tetrads (i.e., sets or groups of 4):

  1. The 1-4 steps involve focusing the mind on breathing, which is the 'body-conditioner' (Pāḷi: kāya-Saṅkhāra).
  2. The 2nd tetrad involves focusing on the feelings (vedanā), which are the 'mind-conditioner' (Pāḷi: citta-Saṅkhāra).
  3. The 3rd tetrad involves focusing on the mind itself (Pāḷi: citta).
  4. The 4th on 'mental qualities' (Pāḷi: dhamma).

Any Ānāpānasati meditation session should progress through the stages in order, beginning at the first, whether the practitioner has performed all stages in a previous session or not.

  1. Contemplation of the body
    1. Breathing long (Knowing Breath)
    2. Breathing short (Knowing Breath)
    3. Experiencing the whole body
    4. Tranquillising the bodily activities
  2. Contemplation of feelings
    1. Experiencing rapture
    2. Experiencing bliss  
    3. Experiencing mental activities   
    4. Tranquillising mental activities  
  3. Contemplation of the mind
    1. Experiencing the mind
    2. Gladdening the mind
    3. Centring the mind in samādhi
    4. Releasing the mind
  4. Contemplation of Dhammas
    1. Contemplating impermanence
    2. Contemplating fading of lust
    3. Contemplating cessation
    4. Contemplating relinquishment

9. In the Theravāda tradition

According to several teachers in Theravāda Buddhism, Ānāpānasati alone will lead to the removal of all one's defilements (kleśa) and eventually to Enlightenment.

Ven. Webu Sayadaw (1896-1977) has said of Ānāpānasati:

This is a shortcut to Nibbāna, anyone can use it.

It stands up to investigation and is in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha as conserved in the scriptures. It is the straight path to Nibbāna.

Ānāpānasati can also be practised with other traditional meditation subjects including the 4 frames of reference and mettā bhāvanā, as is done in modern Theravāda Buddhism.

10. In the Chinese tradition

In the 2nd century, the Buddhist monk An Shigao (fl. c. 148-180 CE) came from Northwest India to China and became one of the 1st translators of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

He translated a version of the Ānāpānasmṛti Sūtra between 148 and 170 CE:

This version is a significantly longer text than what appears in the Ekottara Āgama, and is entitled, The Great Ānāpānasmṛti Sūtra.

At a later date, Buddhacinga, more commonly known as Fotudeng (231-349 CE), came from Central Asia to China in 310 and propagated Buddhism widely:

He is said to have demonstrated many spiritual powers, and was able to convert the warlords in this region of China over to Buddhism.

He is well known for teaching methods of meditation, and especially Ānāpānasmṛti:

Fotudeng widely taught Ānāpānasmṛti through methods of counting breaths, so as to temper to the breathing, simultaneously focusing the mind into a state of peaceful meditative concentration.

By teaching meditation methods as well as doctrine, Fotudeng popularized Buddhism quickly.

According to Nan Huai-chin (1918-2012):

Besides all its theoretical accounts of emptiness and existence,

Buddhism also offered methods for genuine realization of spiritual powers and meditative concentration that could be relied upon.

- This is the reason that Buddhism began to develop so vigorously in China with Fotudeng.

As more monks such as Kumārajīva, Dharmānanda, Gautama Saṁghadeva, and Buddhabhadra came to the East, translations of meditation texts did as well, which often taught various methods of Ānāpānasmṛti that were being used in India.

These became integrated in various Buddhist traditions, as well as into non-Buddhist traditions such as Daoism.

In the 6th century, the Tiantai School was formed, teaching the One Vehicle (Skt. Ekayāna), the vehicle of attaining Buddhahood, as the main principle,

and 3 forms of śamatha-vipaśyanā correlated with the meditative perspectives of emptiness, provisional existence, and the mean, as the method of cultivating realization.

The Tiantai School places emphasis on Ānāpānasmṛti in accordance with the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā.

In China, the Tiantai understanding of meditation has had the reputation of being the most systematic and comprehensive of all.

The founder of the Tiantai school, Zhiyi (538–597), wrote many commentaries and treatises on meditation:

Of these texts, Zhiyi's Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā (Xiao Zhiguan), his Mahā Śamatha Vipaśyanā (Mohe Zhiguan), and his 6 Subtle Dharma Gates (Liu Miao Famen) are the most widely read in China.

Zhiyi classifies breathing into 4 main categories:

  1. panting,
  2. unhurried breathing,
  3. deep and quiet breathing,
  4. stillness or rest.

Zhiyi holds that the 1-3 kinds of breathing are incorrect, while the 4th is correct, and that the breathing should reach stillness and rest.

Venerable Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), who taught Chan and Pure Land Buddhism, also taught that the external breathing reaches a state of stillness in correct meditation:

A practitioner with sufficient skill does not breathe externally. That external breathing has stopped, but the internal breathing functions.

With internal breathing there is no exhalation through the nose or mouth, but all pores on the body are breathing.

A person who is breathing internally appears to be dead, but actually he has not died. He does not breathe externally, but the internal breathing has come alive.

In the Indo-Tibetan tradition

In the Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Ānāpānasmṛti is done to calm the mind in order to prepare one for various other practices.

The most important Mahāyāna philosophers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, in the Śrāvaka-bhūmi chapter of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra and the Abhidharma-kośa, respectively, make it clear that they consider Ānāpānasmṛti a profound practice leading to Vipassana.

However, the practice traditions related to Vasubandhu's or Asaṅga's presentations of breath meditation were probably not transmitted to Tibet.

Asaṅga correlates the 16 stages of Ānāpānasmṛti with the 4 smṛtyupasthānas in the same way that the Ānāpānasmṛti Sūtra does, but because he does not make this explicit the point was lost on later Tibetan commentators.

As a result, the largest Tibetan lineage, Gelug, came to view Ānāpānasmṛti as a mere preparatory practice useful for settling the mind but nothing more:

The practice tradition suggested by Vasubandhu in Treasury of Manifest Knowledge and also by Asaṅga in Grounds of Hearers was one in which mindfulness of breathing becomes a basis for inductive reasoning on such topics as the 5 aggregates;

as a result of such inductive reasoning, the meditator progresses through the Śrāvaka (hearer) paths of preparation, seeing, and meditation.

It seems at least possible that both Vasubandhu and Asaṅga presented their respective versions of such a method, analogous to but different from modern Theravāda insight meditation,

and that Gelugpa scholars were unable to reconstruct it in the absence of a practice tradition because of the great difference between this type of inductive meditative reasoning based on observation and the types of meditative reasoning using consequences (prasaṅga) or syllogisms (prayoga) with which Gelugpas were familiar.

Thus, although Gelugpa scholars give detailed interpretations of the systems of breath meditation set forth in Vasubandhu’s and Asaṅga's texts, they may not fully account for the higher stages of breath meditation set forth in those texts.

It appears that a meditative tradition consisting of analysis based on observation—inductive reasoning within meditation—was not transmitted to Tibet; what Gelugpa writers call analytical meditation is syllogistic reasoning within meditation.

Stephen Batchelor, who for years was monk in the Gelugpa lineage, experienced this first-hand. He writes:

Such systematic practice of mindfulness was not preserved in the Tibetan traditions.

The Gelugpa lamas know about such methods and can point to long descriptions of mindfulness in their Abhidharma works, but the living application of the practice has largely been lost.

(Only in Dzogchen, with the idea of 'awareness' (rig pa) do we find something similar.)

For many Tibetans the very term 'mindfulness' (sati in Pāḷi) has come to be understood almost exclusively as 'memory' or 'recollection.'

However, in other traditions, particularly the Kagyu and Nyingma, mindfulness based on Ānāpānasmṛti practice is considered to be quite profound means of calming the mind to prepare it for the higher practices of Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā.

For the Kagyu, in the context of Mahāmudrā, Ānāpānasmṛti is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating Vipassana on that basis.

The prominent contemporary Kagyu/Nyingma master Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987), echoing the Kagyu Mahāmudrā view, wrote,

your breathing is the closest you can come to a picture of your mind. It is the portrait of your mind in some sense.

The traditional recommendation in the lineage of meditators that developed in the Kagyu-Nyingma tradition is based on the idea of mixing mind and breath.

The Gelugpa allow that it is possible to take the mind itself as the object of meditation, however, the Gelugpa discourage it with what seems to be thinly disguised sectarian polemics against the Nyingma Great Completeness (Dzogchen) and Kagyu Great Seal (Mahāmudrā) meditations.

In the Pañca Krama tantric tradition ascribed to Nāgārjuna, Ānāpānasmṛti counting breaths is said to be sufficient to provoke an experience of Vipassana (although it occurs in the context of formal tantric practice of the completion stage in highest Yoga-tantra).

12. International Ānāpānasati Day

Many countries are following 20th June to celebrate Ānāpānasati day worldwide.