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Ānāpānasati (Pali; Sanskrit: ānāpānasmṛti), meaning 'mindfulness of breathing' ("sati" means mindfulness; "ānāpāna" refers to inhalation and exhalation), is a fundamental form of meditation taught by the Buddha. According to this teaching, classically presented in the Ānāpānasati Sutta,[1] practicing this form of meditation as a part of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the removal of all defilements (kilesa) and finally to the attainment of nibbāna (nirvana).

In both ancient and modern times, anapanasati by itself is likely the most widely used Buddhist method for contemplating bodily phenomena.[2] Traditionally, anapanasati is used as a basis for practicing meditative concentration (samadhi) until it reached the state of full absorption (jhana). It is the same state, reached by the Buddha during his quest for Enlightenment.[3] In the Zen tradition, anapanasati is practiced with zazen or shikantaza (in the Soto tradition). Anapanasati can also be practised with other traditional meditation subjects including the four frames of reference[4] and mettā bhāvanā.[5]


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The Buddha's teaching in this matter was based on his own experience in using anapanasati as part of his means of achieving his own enlightenment.

The Ānāpānasati Sutta specifically concerns mindfulness of inhalation and exhalation, leading to an awareness of the entire body, and recommends the practice of ānāpānasati meditation as a means of cultivating the seven factors of awakening: sati (mindfulness), dhamma vicaya (analysis), viriya (persistence), which leads to piti (rapture), then to passaddhi (serenity), which in turn leads to samadhi (concentration) and then to upekkhā (equanimity). Finally, the Buddha taught that, with these factors developed in this progression, the practice of ānāpānasati would lead to release (Pali: nibbāna; Sanskrit: nirvana) from suffering (dukkha).

In the Indo-Tibetan Mahāyāna tradition

Two of the most important Mahāyāna philosophers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, in the Śrāvakabhūmi chapter of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra and the Abhidharma-kośa, respectively, make it clear that they consider ānāpānasmṛti a profound practice leading to vipaśyanā (in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha in the Sutra pitika).[6] However, as scholar Leah Zahler has demonstrated, "the practice traditions related to Vasubandhu's or Asaṅga's presentations of breath meditation were probably not transmitted to Tibet."[7] Asaṅga correlates the sixteen stages ānāpānasmṛti with the four smṛtyupasthānas in the same way that the Ānāpānasmṛti Sutra does, but because he does not make this explicit the point was lost on later Tibetan commentators.[8]

As a result, the largest Tibetan lineage, the Geluk, came to view ānāpānasmṛti as a mere preparatory practice useful for settling the mind but nothing more.[9] Zahler writes:

The practice tradition suggested by the Treasury itself--and also by Asaṅga's Grounds of Hearers--is one in which mindfulness of breathing becomes a basis for inductive reasoning on such topics as the five aggregates; as a result of such inductive reasoning, the meditator progresses through the 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 Gelukpa 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 (thal 'gyur, prasaanga) or syllogisms (sbyor ba, prayoga) with which Gelukpas were familiar. Thus, although Gelukpa scholars give detailed intepretations of the systems of breath mediation set forth in Vasubandu'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 neither the Gelukpa texbook writers nor modern scholars such as Lati Rinpoche and Gendun Lodro were in a position to conclude that the first moment of the fifth stage of Vasubandhu's system of breath meditation coincides with the attainment of special insight and that, therefore, the first four stages must be a method for cultivating special insight [although this is clearly the case].[10]

Zahler continues, "it appears . .that a meditative tradition consisting of analysis based on observation--inductive reasoning within meditation--was not transmitted to Tibet; what Gelukpa writers call analytical mediation is syllogistic reasoning within meditation. Thus, Jamyang Shaypa fails to recognize the possibility of an 'analytical meditation' based on observation, even when he cites passages on breath meditation from Vasubandhu's Treasury of Manifest Knowledge and, especially, Asaṅga's Grounds of Hearers that appear to describe it."[11]

Stephen Batchelor, who for years was monk in the Gelukpa lineage, experienced this firsthand. 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 dzog-chen, with the idea of 'awareness' [rig pa] do we find something similar.) For many Tibetans the very term 'mindfulness' (sati in Pali, rendered in Tibetan by dran pa) has come to be understood almost exclusively as 'memory' or 'recollection.'"[12]

As Batchelor noted, however, in other traditions, particularly the Kagyu and Nyingma, mindfulness based on ānāpānasmṛti practice is considered to be quite profound, particularly as an integral component of the practices of Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen, respectively. For the Kagyupa, 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 vipaśyanā on that basis.[13] The prominent contemporary Kagyu/Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa, 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."[14] Although the Gelukpa allow that it is possible to take the mind itself as the object of meditation, they traditionally discourage it with "what seem to be thinly disguised sectarian polemics against the Nyingma Great Completeness [Dzogchen] and Kagyu Great Seal [mahāmudrā] meditations."[15]

Trungpa made the group practice of ānāpānasmṛti a cornerstone of his teaching in the West, although this is almost unheard of in the Tibetan tradition, where some form of visualization, syllogistic reasoning, or virtuous qualitiy is the typical meditation object of choice (outside of the context of Mahāmudrā) and group practice invariably comprises chanting and ritual.

In the Pañcakrama tantric tradition ascribed to (the Vajrayana) Nagarjuna, ānāpānasmṛti counting breaths is said to be sufficient to provoke an experience of vipaśyanā (although it occurs in the context of "formal tantric practice of the completion stage in highest yogatantra").[16][17]

The practice

The practice of ānāpānasati varies. Typically, one begins by sitting in a comfortable position, with the back and neck straight, in a comfortable and peaceful environment.

If the breath is short, the meditator should simply observe that the breath is short. If the breath is long, the meditator should simply observe that the breath is long.[18]

While inhaling and exhaling, the meditator practises:

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

Tutors will explain that, in an untrained mind, thoughts constantly arise, disturbing the focus. They arise and fall away, like waves in an ocean. If one disregards them, they slowly wither and disappear. On the other hand, if one pays them attention, one is soon lost in a web of thoughts.

In this tradition there are two types of thoughts: thoughts from the past and thoughts about the future. These may bring happiness or sadness. It is said that, when left unattended, the mind will flit from one thought to another, wandering aimlessly.

Practitioners are tutored to avoid their practice being disrupted by passing thoughts and to nudge themselves into concentrating on their breathing again.

A popular non-canonical method used today, loosely based on the Visuddhimagga, follows four stages:

  1. counting each breath at the end of exhalation
  2. counting each breath at the beginning of inhalation
  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).[19]

Stages of Ānāpānasati

Formally, there are sixteen stages — or contemplations — of ānāpānasati. These are divided into four tetrads (i.e., sets or groups of four). The first four steps involve focusing the mind on breathing, which is the 'body-conditioner' (Pali: kāya-sankhāra). The second tetrad involves focusing on the feelings (vedanā), which are the 'mind-conditioner' (Pali: citta-sankhāra). The third tetrad involves focusing on the mind itself (Pali: citta), and the fourth on 'the truth' (Pali: dhamma). (Compare right mindfulness and satipatthana.)

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.[citation needed]

Satipatthana Anapanasati Tetrads
1. Contemplation of the body 1. Breathing long First Tetrad
  2. Breathing short
  3. Experiencing the whole body
  4. Tranquillising the bodily activities
2. Contemplation of feelings 5. Experiencing rapture Second Tetrad
  6. Experiencing bliss
  7. Experiencing mental activities
  8. Tranquillising mental activities
3. Contemplation of the mind 9. Experiencing the mind Third Tetrad
  10. Gladdening the mind
  11. Centering the mind in samadhi
  12. Releasing the mind
4. Contemplation of Dhammas 13. Contemplating impermanence Fourth Tetrad
  14. Contemplating fading of lust
  15. Contemplating cessation
  16. Contemplating relinquishment
Table 1. The Four Satipatthanas and the Sixteen Phases of Anapanasati.

Meditation with breath

Anapanasati is a core meditation practice in Buddhism, especially in the Theravada school, and is largely centered around attention to the unregulated breath, rather than controlling the breathing. (See Pranayama.) Anapanasati is not however the only breathing-based type of Buddhist meditation. For example, in the Buddhist meditation practices of Tibet, Mongolia and Japanese Zen meditation, control of the breathing is an important element.

In the throat singing so widely prevalent in the Buddhist monasteries of Tibet and Mongolia[20] the long 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 samadhi, while the sense of self dissolves as awareness becomes absorbed into a realm of pure sound. In Zen meditation, the emphasis is upon maintaining "strength in the abdominal area" [21] (dantian or "tanden") and slow deep breathing during the long outbreath, again to assist the attainment of a mental state of one-pointed concentration.


  1. ^ In the Pali canon, the instructions for anapanasati are presented as either one tetrad (four instructions) or four tetrads (16 instructions). The most famous exposition of four tetrads — after which Theravada countries have a national holiday (see uposatha) — is the Anapanasati Sutta, found in the Majjhima Nikaya (MN), sutta number 118 (for instance, see Thanissaro, 2006). Other discourses which describe the full four tetrads can be found in the Samyutta Nikaya's Anapana-samyutta (Ch. 54), such as SN 54.6 (Thanissaro, 2006a), SN 54.8 (Thanissaro, 2006b) and SN 54.13 (Thanissaro, 1995a). The one-tetrad exposition of anapanasati is found, for instance, in the Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119; Thanissaro, 1997), the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22; Thanissaro, 2000) and the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10; Thanissaro, 1995b).
  2. ^ Anālayo (2006), p. 125.
  3. ^ "A Sketch of the Buddha's Life". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  4. ^ In regards to practicing anapanasati in tandem with other frames of reference (satipatthana), Thanissaro (2000) writes:
    At first glance, the four frames of reference for satipatthana practice sound like four different meditation exercises, but MN 118 [the Anapanasati Sutta] makes clear that they can all center on a single practice: keeping the breath in mind. When the mind is with the breath, all four frames of reference are right there. The difference lies simply in the subtlety of one's focus.... [A]s a meditator get more skilled in staying with the breath, the practice of satipatthana gives greater sensitivity in peeling away ever more subtle layers of participation in the present moment until nothing is left standing in the way of total release.
  5. ^ According to Kamalashila (2004), one practices anapanasati with mettā bhāvanā in order to prevent withdrawal from the world and the loss of compassion.
  6. ^ Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions by Leah Zahler. Snow Lion Publications: 2009 pg 107-108)
  7. ^ Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions by Leah Zahler. Snow Lion Publications: 2009 pg 108)
  8. ^ Zahler 119-126
  9. ^ Zahler 108
  10. ^ Zahler 108, 113
  11. ^ Zahler 306
  12. ^ The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. by Stephen Batchelor. Parallax Press Berkeley: 1990 pg 8
  13. ^ Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra tradition by Dan Brown. Wisdom Publications: 2006 pg 221-34
  14. ^ The Path is the Goal, in The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Vol Two. Shambhala Publications. pgs 49, 51
  15. ^ (Zahler 131-2)
  16. ^ Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra tradition by Dan Brown. Wisdom Publications: 2006 pg 221
  17. ^ A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Go Lotsawa's Mahamudra Interpretation of the Ratnagotra-Vighaga. by Klaus-Dieter Mathes, Wisdom Publications 2008 pg 378[1]
  18. ^ Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No. 118, Section No. 2, translated from the Pali
  19. ^ Kamalashila (2004). Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications; 2r.e. edition. ISBN 1-899579-05-2. . Regarding this list's items, the use of counting methods is not found in the Pali Canon and is attributed to the Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. According to the Visuddhimagga, counting (Pali: gaṇanā) is a preliminary technique, sensitizing one to the breath's arising and ceasing, to be abandoned once one has consistent mindful connection (anubandhā) with in- and out-breaths (Vsm VIII, 195-196). Sustained breath-counting can be soporific or cause thought proliferation (see, e.g., Anālayo, 2006, p. 133, n. 68).
  20. ^ The One Voice Chord
  21. ^ Tanden: Source of Spiritual Strength

See also



Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Anālayo (2006). Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications. ISBN 1-899579-54-0.

Further reading

  • Mindfulness with Breathing by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1996. ISBN 0-86171-111-4.
  • Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg. Shambhala Classics, Boston, 1998. ISBN 1-59030-136-6.
  • Tranquillity and Insight by Amadeo Sole-Leris. Shambhala, 1986. ISBN 0-87773-385-6.

External links


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