Practicing Early Buddhism: Practicing Mindfulness of In-and-Out Breathing

Practice of Early Buddhism: Practicing Mindfulness of In-and-Out Breathing

Among the 21 meditation objects, in-and-out breathing [ānāpāna] is mentioned first. In Chinese, in-and-out breathing has been transliterated as 安般 [ān-pán] and translated as 出入息 [inhalation and exhalation]. In the Mindfulness of Breathing Discourse (M118, the Ānāpānasati Discourse) in-and-out breathing appears as an independent subject. The Connected Discourses on Breathing (S54, the Ānāpānasaṁyutta Discourse) contains 20 discourses in all. Certainly, in-and-out breathing is a meditation object that deserves special attention.

Through what kind of practice did the Buddha obtain liberation? What method did he, himself, practice? The commentary to the Greater Discourse to Saccaka (M36, the Mahāsaccaka Discourse) of the Majjhima Nikāya describes the journey of the Buddha’s attainment of liberation. In it, the Buddha concluded that the first jhāna [that he obtained through being ‘mindful of in-and-out breathing’] is the way to obtain liberation.

In the Greater Discourse of Advice to Rāhula (M62), the Buddha teaches his only son, the Venerable Rāhula this mindfulness practice of in-and-out breathing. Various commentaries mention that the Venerable Ananda and other distinguished direct disciples of the

Buddha also obtained the Arahantship through the mindfulness practice of in-and-out breathing. Furthermore, in the commentary of the Dīgha Nikāya, it is explained that all Buddhas, self-enlightened ones [Pratyeka-Buddha], and direct disciples of the Buddha enjoy happiness in the present life by establishing mindfulness of in-and-out breathing. (DA.iii.763) Indeed, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing has a very special place within the Buddhist practice.

In the Path of Purification, the indisputable authority of Theravada Buddhism, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing is explained in detail. In the Path of Purification, the 16-step stock phrase explains the mindfulness practice of in-and-out breathing. (Vis.VIII.145) This stock phrase appears in all discourses of the Connected Discourses on Breathing [the Ānāpānasaṁyutta Discourse] as follows:

 

1.       “Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’

2.       Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’

3.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’

4.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquilizing the bodily formations’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the bodily formations.’

5.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing happiness’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing happiness.’

6.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing bliss’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing bliss.’

7.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the mental formations’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the mental formations.’

8.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquilizing the mental

formations’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the mental formations.’

9.       He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the [manner of] consciousness’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the [manner of] consciousness.’

10.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in gladdening the [manner of] consciousness’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out gladdening the [manner of] consciousness.’

11.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in concentrating the [manner of] consciousness’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out concentrating the [manner of] consciousness.’

12.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in liberating the [manner of] consciousness’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out liberating the [manner of] consciousness.’

13.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating impermanence’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating impermanence.’

14.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating fading away’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating fading away.’

15.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating cessation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating cessation.’ 

16.   He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating relinquishment’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating relinquishment.’”

 

Of these, 1 through 4 apply to body; 5 through 8 apply to feeling; 9 through 12 apply to consciousness; and 13 through 16 apply to mental objects of the four foundations of mindfulness.

In the Path of Purification, it is explained that “the first tetrad is set forth as a meditation object for a beginner. The other three tetrads are set forth as the contemplation of feeling, of consciousness, and of mental objects, for one who has already attained jhāna.” (Vis.VIII.186)

Specifically, in the Path of Purification, this mindfulness practice of in-and-out breathing is explained as “eight stages: 1) counting, 2) connexion, 3) touching, 4) fixing, 5) observing, 6) turning away, 7) purification, and 8) looking back on these.” (Vis.VIII.189)

This teaching correlates with the six steps of mindfulness practice as outlined in the Great Ānāpānasmṛti Discourse translated by Bhikkhu An Shigao:[1] 1) counting, 2) pursuing, 3) concentration, 4) observation, 5) the turning away, and 6) purification. This important teaching is also comparable to the six steps—1) counting, 2) following, 3) fixing, 4) contemplation, 5) shifting, and 6) purification—and 16 aspects of in-and-out breathing of the Discourse on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation (坐禪三昧經, the Zuochan Sanmei Jing) translated by Bhikkhu Kumurajiva.

In the Path of Purification, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing is explained in detail: “He fixes his mindfulness on the place touched (by the breaths).” (Vis.VIII 194) This is the most important explanation regarding the mindfulness of in-and-out breathing practice. This also is the foundation of the practice taught in various Early Buddhism meditation centers of Myanmar, southeast asia, etc.

[Introduction to Early Buddhism authored by Bhikkhu Kakmuk and translated by Nancy Acord]

The mindfulness of in-and-out breathing practice

has a special place in the Buddhism practice.

The Buddha became enlightened through this practice,

many direct disciples of the Buddha attained the Arahantship through this practice,

all Buddhas, and self-enlightened ones (Pratyeka-Buddha)[2] became enlightened through this practice.

[Introduction to Early Buddhism authored by Bhikkhu Kakmuk and translated by Nancy Acord]

 

 

[1] Bhikkhu An Shigao [148-180 CE] translated many Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese.

[2] A Pratyeka-Buddha attains enlightenment through his own efforts, but does not teach Dhamma to others.