Meditation on Breathing
Ven. Mahathera Nauyane Ariyadhamma
Gunawardana Yogashrama Galduwa, Ambalangoda, Sri Lanka
BODHI LEAVES NO. B 115
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY KANDY SRI LANKA
Buddhist Publication Society P.O. Box 61 54, Sangharaja Mawatha,
Kandy, Sri Lanka
Copyright 1988 by Gunawardana Yogashrama Charitable Trust
Originally delivered as a sermon under the Bodhi Tree at Kalutara.
Published as a Bodhi Leaf with the kind permission of the author.
Translated from the Sinhalese by Professor U.D. Jayasekera.
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution on DharmaNet
with permission from the publisher.
Transcribed by Steven McPeak. Formatted by John Bullitt.
Homage to the Blessed One, Accomplished and Fully Enlightened
Anapana sati, the meditation on in-and-out breathing, is the first
subject of meditation expounded by the Buddha in the Maha Satipatthana
Sutta, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. The
Buddha laid special stress on this meditation, for it is the gateway
to enlightenment and Nibbana adopted by all the Buddhas of the past as
the very basis for their attainment of Buddhahood. When the Blessed
One sat at the foot of the Bodhi Tree and resolved not to rise until
he had reached enlightenment, he took up anapana sati as his subject
of meditation. On the basis of this, he attained the four jhanas,
recollected his previous lives, fathomed the nature of samsara,
aroused the succession of great insight knowledges, and at dawn, while
100,000 world systems trembled, he attained the limitless wisdom of a
Fully Enlightened Buddha.
Let us then offer our veneration to the Blessed One, who became a
peerless world-transcending Buddha through this meditation of anapana
sati. May we comprehend this subject of meditation fully, with wisdom
resplendent like the sun and moon. Through its power may we attain the
blissful peace of Nibbana.
The Basic Text
~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~
Let us first examine the meaning of the text expounded by the Buddha
on anapana sati. The text begins:
"Herein, monks, a monk who has gone to the forest,
or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place,
sits down cross legged, holding his back erect,
arousing mindfulness in front of him."
This means that any person belonging to the four types of
individuals mentioned in this teaching--namely, bhikkhu (monk),
bhikkhuni (nun), upasaka (layman) or upasika (laywoman)--desirous of
practising this meditation, should go either to a forest, to the foot
of a secluded tree, or to a solitary dwelling. There he should sit
down cross-legged, and keeping his body in an erect position, fix his
mindfulness at the tip of his nose, the locus for his object of
If he breathes in a long breath, he should comprehend this with
full awareness. If he breathes out a long breath, he should comprehend
this with full awareness. If he breathes in a short breath, he should
comprehend this with full awareness. if he breathes out a short
breath, he should comprehend this with full awareness.
"He breathes in experiencing the whole body, he breathes out
experiencing the whole body": that is, with well-placed mindfulness,
he sees the beginning, the middle and the end of the two phases, the
in-breath and the out-breath. As he practises watching the in-breath
and the out breath with mindfulness, he calms down and tranquilizes
the two functions of in breathing and out-breathing.
The Buddha illustrates this with a simile. When a clever turner or
his apprentice works an object on his lathe, he attends to his task
with fixed attention: in making a long turn or a short turn, he knows
that he is making a long turn or a short turn. In the same manner if
the practitioner of meditation breathes in a long breath he
comprehends it as such; and if he breathes out a long breath, he
comprehends it as such; if he breathes in a short breath, he
comprehends it as such; and if he breathes out a short breath, he
comprehends it as such. He exercises his awareness so as to see the
beginning, the middle and the end of these two functions of breathing
in and breathing out. He comprehends with wisdom the calming down of
these two aspects of in-breathing and out-breathing.
In this way he comprehends the two functions of in-breathing and
out-breathing in himself, and the two functions of in breathing and
out-breathing in other persons. He also comprehends the two functions
of in-breathing and out-breathing in himself and in others in rapid
alternation. He comprehends as well the cause for the arising of
in-breathing and out-breathing, and the cause for the cessation of in
breathing and out-breathing, and the moment-by-moment arising and
cessation of in-breathing and out-breathing.
He then realizes that this body which exercises the two functions
of in-breathing and out-breathing is only a body, not an ego or "I."
This mindfulness and wisdom become helpful in developing greater and
more profound mindfulness and wisdom, enabling him to discard the
erroneous conceptions of things in terms of "I" and "mine." He then
becomes skilled in living with wisdom in respect of this body and he
does not grasp anything in the world with craving, conceit or false
views. Living unattached, the meditator treads the path to Nibbana by
contemplating the nature of the body.
This is an amplified paraphrase of the passage from the Maha
Satipatthana Sutta on anapana sati. This meditation has been explained
in sixteen different ways in various suttas. Of these sixteen, the
first tetrad has been explained here. But these four are the
foundation for all the sixteen ways in which anapana sati can be
The Preliminaries of Practice
~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~~~
Now we should investigate the preliminary stages to practising this
meditation. In the first place the Buddha indicated a suitable
dwelling for practising anapana sati. In the sutta he has mentioned
three places: the forest, the foot of a tree, or an isolated empty
place. This last can be a quiet restful hut, or a dwelling place free
from the presence of people. We may even consider a meditation hall an
empty place. Although there may be a large collection of people in
such a hall, if every one remains calm and silent it can be considered
an empty place.
The Buddha recommended such places because in order to practise
anapana sati, silence is an essential factor. A beginning meditator
will find it easier to develop mental concentration with anapana sati
only if there is silence. Even if one cannot find complete silence,
one should choose a quiet place where one will enjoy privacy.
Next the Buddha explained the sitting posture. There are four
postures which can be adopted for meditation: standing, sitting,
reclining and walking. Of these the most suitable posture to practise
anapana sati at the beginning is the seated posture.
The person wishing to practise anapana sati should sit down
cross-legged. For bhikkhus and laymen, the Buddha has recommended the
cross-legged Position. This is not an easy posture for everyone, but
it can be gradually mastered. The half cross-legged position has been
recommended for bhikkhunis and laywomen. This is the posture of
sitting with one leg bent. It would be greatly beneficial if the cross
legged posture recommended for bhikkhus and laymen could be adopted in
the "lotus" pattern, with the feet turned up and resting on the
opposite thighs. If that is inconvenient, one should sit with the two
feet tucked underneath the body.
In the practice of anapana sati, it is imperative to hold the body
upright. The torso should be kept erect, though not strained and
rigid. One can cultivate this meditation properly only if all the
bones of the spine are linked together in an erect position.
Therefore, this advice of the Buddha to keep the upper part of the
body erect should be clearly comprehended and followed.
The hands should be placed gently on the lap, the back of the
right hand over the palm of the left. The eyes can be closed softly,
or left half-closed, whichever is more comfortable. The head should be
held straight, tilted a slight angle downwards, the nose perpendicular
to the navel
The next factor is the place for fixing the attention. To
cultivate anapana sati one should be clearly mindful of the place
where the incoming and outgoing breaths enter and leave the nostrils.
This will be felt as a spot beneath the nostrils or on the upper lip,
wherever the impact of the air coming in and out the nostrils can be
felt most distinctly. On that spot the attention should be fixed, like
a sentry watching a gate.
Then the Buddha has explained the manner in which anapana sati has
to be cultivated. One breathes in mindfully, breathes out mindfully.
From birth to death this function of in-breathing and out-breathing
continues without a break, without a stop, but since we do not
consciously reflect on it, we do not even realize the presence of this
breath. If we do so, we can derive much benefit by way of calm and
insight. Thus the Buddha has advised us to be aware of the function of
The practitioner of meditation who consciously watches the breath
in this manner should never try to control his breathing or hold back
his breath with effort. For if he controls his breath or holds back
his breath with conscious effort, he will become fatigued and his
mental concentration will be disturbed and broken. The key to the
practice is to set up mindfulness naturally at the spot where the
in-breaths and the out-breaths are felt entering and leaving the
nostrils. Then the meditator has to maintain his awareness of the
touch sensation of the breath, keeping the awareness as steady and
consistent as possible.
The Eight Steps
~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~
To help practitioners in developing this meditation, the commentators
and meditation masters have indicated eight graduated steps in the
practice. These eight steps will first be enumerated, and then they
will be explained in relation to the actual meditative process.
The eight steps are named: counting (ganana); following (anubandhana);
contact (phusana); fixing (thapana); observing (sallakkhana); turning
away (vivattana), purification (parisuddhi); and retrospection
(patipassana). These eight cover the whole course of meditative
development up to the attainment of arahatship.
Counting is intended for those who have never before practised anapana
sati. It is not necessary for those who have practised meditation for
a considerable period of time. However, as it is expedient to have a
knowledge of this, counting should be understood in the following
When the meditator sits down for meditation, he fixes his
attention at the tip of his nose and consciously attends to the
sequence of in-and-out breathing. He notes the breath as it enters,
and notes the breath as it leaves, touching against the tip of the
nose or the upper lip. At this time he begins to count these
There are a few methods of counting. The easiest is explained
thus: The first breath felt is counted as "one, one"; the second as
"two, two"; the third as "three, three"; the fourth as "four, four";
the fifth as "five, five" and so on up to the tenth breath which is
counted as "ten, ten." Then he returns to "one, one" and continues
again up to "ten, ten." This is repeated over and over from one to
The mere counting is not itself meditation, but the counting has
become an essential aid to meditation. A person who has not practised
meditation before, finding it difficult to understand the nature of
his mind, may think he is meditating while his mind runs helter
skelter. Counting is an easy method to control the wandering mind.
If a person fixes his mind well on his meditation, he can maintain
this counting correctly. If the mind flees in all directions, and he
misses the count, he becomes confused and thus can realize that his
mind has wandered about. If the mind has lost track of the count, the
meditator should begin the counting over again. In this way he should
start the counting again from the beginning, even if he has gone wrong
a thousand times.
As the practice develops, there may come a time when the
in-breathing and out breathing take a shorter course and it is not
possible to count the same number many times. Then the meditator has
to count quickly "one", "two," "three," etc. When he counts in this
manner he can comprehend the difference between a long in-breath and
out-breath and a short in-breath and out-breath.
"Following" means following the breath with the mind. When the mind
has been subdued by counting and is fixed on the in-breathing and
out-breathing, the counting is stopped and replaced by mentally
keeping track of the course of the breath. This is explained by the
Buddha in this manner:
"When the meditator breathes in a long breath, he
comprehends that he is breathing in a long breath;
and when he is breathing out a long breath, he
comprehends that he is breathing out a long
Herein, one does not deliberately take a long in-breath or a long
out-breath. One simply comprehends what actually takes place.
The Buddha has declared in the next passage that a meditator
trains himself thinking: "I shall breathe in experiencing the whole
body, and I shall breath out experiencing the whole body." Here, what
is meant as "the whole body" is the entire cycle of breathing in and
breathing out. The meditator should fix his attention so as to see the
beginning, the middle and the end of each cycle of in-breathing and
out-breathing. It is this practice that is called "experiencing the
The beginning, middle and end of the breath must be correctly
understood. It is incorrect to consider the tip of the nose to be the
beginning of the breath, the chest to be the middle, and the navel to
be the end. If one attempts to trace the breath from the nose through
the chest to the belly, or to follow it out from the belly through the
chest to the nose, one's concentration will be disrupted and one's
mind will become agitated. The beginning of the in-breath, properly
understood, is the start of the inhalation, the middle is continued
inhalation, and the end is the completion of the inhalation. Likewise,
in regard to the out breath, the beginning is the start of the
exhalation, the middle is the continued exhalation, and the end is the
completion of the exhalation. To "experience the whole body" means to
be aware of the entire cycle of each inhalation and exhalation,
keeping the mind fixed at the spot around the nostrils or on the upper
lip where the breath is felt entering and leaving the nose.
This work of contemplating the breath at the area around the
nostrils, without following it inside and outside the body, is
illustrated by the commentaries with the similes of the gatekeeper and
Just as a gatekeeper examines each person entering and leaving the
city only as he passes through the gate, without following him inside
or outside the city, so the meditator should be aware of each breath
only as it passes through the nostrils, without following it inside or
outside the body.
Just as a man sawing a log will keep his attention fixed on the
spot where the teeth of the saw cut through the wood, without
following the movement of the teeth back and forth, so the meditator
should contemplate the breath as it swings back and forth around the
nostrils, without letting his mindfulness be distracted by the
breath's inward and outward passage through the body.
When a person meditates earnestly in this manner, seeing the
entire process, a joyous thrill pervades his mind. And since the mind
does not wander about, the whole body becomes calm and composed, cool
(iii) Contact and (iv) Fixing
These two aspects of the practice indicate the development of stronger
concentration. When the mindfulness of breathing is maintained, the
breathing becomes more and more subtle and tranquil. As a result the
body becomes calm and ceases to feel fatigued. Bodily pain and
numbness disappear, and the body begins to feel an exhilarating
comfort, as if it were being fanned with a cool gentle breeze.
At that time, because of the tranquility of the mind, the
breathing becomes finer and finer until it seems that it has ceased.
At times this condition lasts for many minutes. This is when breathing
ceases to be %felt%. At this time some be come alarmed thinking the
breathing has ceased, but it is not so. The breathing exists but in a
very delicate and subtle form. No matter how subtle the breathing
becomes, one must still keep mindful of the contact (phusana) of the
breath in the area of the nostrils, without losing track of it. The
mind then becomes free from the five hindrances--sensual desire,
anger, drowsiness, restlessness and doubt. As a result one becomes
calm and joyful.
It is at this stage that the "signs" or mental images appear
heralding the success of concentration. First comes the learning sign
(uggaha-nimitta), then the counterpart sign (patibhaga-nimitta). To
some the sign appears like a wad of cotton, like an electric light, a
sliver chain, a mist or a wheel. It appeared to the Buddha like the
clear and bright midday sun.
The learning sign is unsteady, it moves here and there, up and
down. But the counterpart sign appearing at the end of the nostrils is
steady, fixed and motionless. At this time there are no hindrances,
the mind is most active and extremely tranquil. This stage is
expounded by the Buddha when he states that one breathes in
tranquilizing the activity of the body, one breathes out tranquilizing
the activity of the body.
The arising of the counterpart sign and the suppression of the
five hindrances marks the attainment of access concentration
(upacara-samadhi). As concentration is further developed, the
meditator attains full absorption (appana-samadhi) beginning with the
first jhana. Four stages of absorption can be attained by the practice
of anapana sati, namely, the first, second, third and fourth jhanas.
These stages of deep concentration are called "fixing" (thapana).
(v) Observing -- (viii) Retrospection
A person who has reached jhana should not stop there but should go on
to develop insight meditation (vipassana). The stages of insight are
called "observing" (sallakkhana). When insight reaches its climax, the
meditator attains the supramundane paths, starting with the stage of
stream entry. Because these paths turn away the fetters that bind one
to the cycle of birth and death, they are called "turning away"
The paths are followed by their respective fruitions; this stage
is called "purification" (parisuddhi) because one has been cleansed of
defilements. Thereafter one realizes the final stage, reviewing
knowledge, called retrospection (patipassana) because one looks back
upon one's entire path of progress and one's attainments. This is a
brief overview of the main stages along the path to Nibbana, base on
the meditation of anapana sati. Now let us examine the course of
practice in terms of the seven stages of purification.
The Seven Stages of Purification
~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~
The person who has taken up the practice begins by establishing
himself in a fitting moral code. If he is a layman, he first
establishes himself in the five precepts or the ten precepts. If he is
a bhikkhu, he begins his meditation while scrupulously maintaining the
moral code prescribed for him. The unbroken observance of his
respective moral code constitutes purification of morality
Next, he applies himself to his topic of meditation, and as a
result, the hindrances become subjugated and the mind becomes fixed in
concentration. This is purification of mind (citta-visuddhi)--the mind
in which the hindrances have been fully suppressed--and this includes
both access concentration and the four jhanas.
When the meditator becomes well established in concentration, he
next turns his attention to insight meditation. To develop insight on
the basis of anapana sati, the meditator first considers that this
process of in-and-out breathing is only form, a series of bodily
events--not a self or ego. The mental factors that contemplate the
breathing are in turn only mind, a series of mental events--not a self
or ego. This discrimination of mind and matter (nama-rupa) is called
purification of view (ditthi-visuddhi).
One who has reached this stage comprehends the process of
in-and-out breathing by way of the conditions for the arising and
cessation of the bodily and mental phenomena involved in the process
of breathing. This knowledge, which becomes extended to all bodily and
mental phenomena in terms of their dependent arising, is called the
comprehension of conditions. As his understanding matures, all doubts
conceived by him in respect of past, future and present times are
dispelled. Thus this stage is called "purification by the transcending
After having, understood the causal relations of mind and matter,
the meditator proceeds further with insight meditation, and in time
there arises the wisdom "seeing the rise and fall of things." When he
breathes in and out, he sees the bodily and mental states pass in and
out of existence moment after moment. As this wisdom becomes clearer,
the mind becomes illumined and happiness and tranquility arise, along
with faith, vigour, mindfulness, wisdom and equanimity.
When these factors appear, he reflects on them, observing their
three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. The
wisdom that distinguishes between the exhilarating results of the
practice and the task of detached contemplation is called
"purification by knowledge and vision of the true path and the false
path." His mind, so purified, sees very clearly the rise and cessation
of mind and matter.
He sees next, with each in-breath and out-breath, the breaking up
of the concomitant mental and bodily phenomena, which appears just
like the bursting of the bubbles seen in a pot of boiling rice, or
like the breaking up of bubbles when rain falls on a pool of water, or
like the cracking of sesamum or mustard seeds as they are put into a
red-hot pan. This wisdom which sees the constant and instantaneous
breaking up of mental and bodily phenomena is called "the knowledge of
dissolution." Through this wisdom he acquires the ability to see how
all factors of mind and body throughout the world arise and disappear.
Then there arises in him the wisdom that sees all of these
phenomena as a fearsome spectacle. He sees that in none of the spheres
of existence, not even in the heavenly planes, is there any genuine
pleasure or happiness, and he comprehends misfortune and danger.
Then he conceives a revulsion towards all conditioned existence.
He arouses an urge to free himself from the world, an all consuming
desire for deliverance. Then, by considering the means of releasing
himself, there arises in him a state of wisdom which quickly reflects
on impermanence, suffering and egolessness, and leads to subtle and
deep levels of insight.
Now there appears in him the comprehension that the aggregates of
mind and body appearing in all the world systems are afflicted by
suffering, and he realizes that the state of Nibbana, which transcends
the world, is exceedingly peaceful and comforting. When he comprehends
this situation, his mind attains the knowledge of equanimity about
formations. This is the climax of insight meditation, called
"purification by knowledge and vision of progress."
As he becomes steadfast, his dexterity in meditation increases,
and when his faculties are fully mature he enters upon the cognitive
process of the path of stream-entry (sotapatti). With the path of
stream-entry he realizes Nibbana and comprehends directly the Four
Noble Truths. The path is followed by two or three moments of the
fruit of stream-entry, by which he enjoys the fruits of his
attainment. Thereafter there arises reviewing knowledge by which he
reflects on his progress and attainment.
If one continues with the meditation with earnest aspiration, one
will develop anew the stages of insight knowledge and realize the
three higher paths and fruits: those of the once-returner,
non-returner, and arahant. These attainments, together with
stream-entry, form the seventh stage of purity, purification by
knowledge and vision. With each of these attainments one realizes in
full the Four Noble Truths , which had eluded one throughout one's
long sojourn in the cycle of rebirths. As a result, all the
defilements contained within the mind are uprooted and destroyed, and
one's mind becomes fully pure and cleansed. One then realizes the
state of Nibbana, wherein one is liberated from all the suffering of
birth, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
Births like ours are rare in samsara. We have been fortunate to
encounter the Buddha's message, to enjoy the association of good
friends, to have the opportunity to listen to the Dhamma. As we have
been endowed with all these blessings, if our aspirations are ripe, we
can in this very life reach the final goal of Nibbana through its
graduated stages of stream entry, once-returner, non-returner and
arahatship. Therefore, let us make our life fruitful by developing
regularly the meditation of anapana sati. Having received proper
instructions on how to practise this method of meditation, one should
purify one's moral virtue by observing the precepts and should
surrender one's life to the Triple Gem.
One should choose a convenient time for meditation and practise with
utmost regularity, reserving the same period each day for one's
practice. One may begin by briefly reflecting on the abundant virtues
of the Buddha, extending loving-kindness towards all beings, pondering
the repulsiveness of the body, and considering the inevitability of
death. Then, arousing the confidence that one is walking the very road
to Nibbana walked by all the enlightened ones of the past, one should
proceed forth on the path of meditation and strive with diligent