The Noble Eightfold Blog

Mindfulness of Breathing

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

for free distribution

You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever without the author’s permission, provided that: (1) such copies, etc. are made available free of any charge; (2) any translations of this work state that they are derived herefrom; (3) any derivations of this work state that they are derived and differ herefrom; and (4) you include the full text of this license in any copies, translations or derivations of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.

Table of Contents


Bhikkhus, when mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfill the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfill true knowledge and deliverance. - [MN 118.15]

The "Ānāpānasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing" [MN 118] - is the Buddha's most complete discourse on meditation. ("Sati" is "mindfulness" in Pāli, "ānāpāna" means "breathing".)

The Ānāpānasati Sutta has similarities in form and structure to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Like the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta it has four main sections: the body, feelings, the mind, and "dharmas". In the Ānāpānasati Sutta, these sections are called "tetrads", because each one is a set of four contemplations. Thus there are 16 total contemplations in the sutta:

  1. Contemplation of the body
    1. Breathing long
    2. Breathing short
    3. Experiencing the whole body
    4. Tranquilizing the bodily activities
  2. Contemplation of feelings
    1. Experiencing rapture
    2. Experiencing pleasure
    3. Experiencing mental activities
    4. Tranquilizing mental activities
  3. Contemplation of the mind
    1. Experiencing the mind
    2. Gladdening the mind
    3. Concentrating the mind
    4. Liberating the mind
  4. Contemplation of dharmas
    1. Contemplating impermanence
    2. Contemplating fading away
    3. Contemplating cessation
    4. Contemplating relinquishment

Before we go through each of these contemplations, I would like to emphasize some points made earlier. First of all, this list is given in a linear fashion, 1-16. That is one way to look at them, and there is a certain value in doing them precisely in that order.

However, as has often been noted, the Buddha's teachings are holographic. You can start at any point in the Buddha's teachings, and eventually you will cover everything (if you keep at it). In terms of practice, you may find that suddenly one of these contemplations arises of its own accord, or in doing these practices you find one that is particularly helpful or useful.

Some people feel that it is important to do these in the order given. Others argue just as strongly that you should practice in a way that lets them arise naturally. Personally I think that both ways of practicing have value, and both have weaknesses.

As to letting them arise naturally, I think it is very difficult to see them if you have not had some experience with them. It is worthwhile to spend a sitting doing each of the 16 contemplations for 5 or 10 minutes. This helps you become familiarity with all of them, and helps to keep them fresh in your mind.

On the other hand, sometimes one of them will arise. This happens on and off of the cushion.

Thus there are different approaches. The first is to use these practices in a linear, formal way. Do them 1-16 and see where that takes you.

Then there is the non-linear approach. You can just pick one contemplation and see what happens. Do it for one sitting, or a week, or a month, perhaps longer.

Or you can do the one that feels most useful in the moment. In order to do this, you watch the mind, and bring discernment to the fore. You ask questions about what will be most useful at the moment.

This is an important teaching. If you do just two things in your practice, cultivate virtue and practice mindfulness with breathing, these will take you a very long way, perhaps even to a final Awakening.

Breathing With the Body

And how, bhikkhus, is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?

Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body [of breath]’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body [of breath].’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillizing the bodily formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillizing the bodily formation.’ - [MN 118.16-17]

This passage should have a familiar feel to it by now. The four exercises here are as follows:

  1. Know the short breath.
  2. Know the long breath.
  3. Experience the whole body.
  4. Tranquillize the whole body.

The first two contemplations move from a simple awareness of breath, a change in focus that happens quite naturally. Most commentators agree it meant more than long and short here; he was talking about all the qualities of breath. As we become more familiar with breathing, we perceive subtle nuances in it.

Sometimes the breath is very fine, like silk or satin; it enters and exits freely. How wonderful just to be breathing! At other times it is coarse, more like burlap; it fights its way in out. Sometimes the breath is so deep and smooth that it affects the whole body, relaxing us profoundly. Other times it is so short and pinched, hurried and agitated, that our minds and bodies are like that, restless and uncomfortable.

- [Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath]

The first two contemplations are the only ones where the Buddha tells us to simply be with the experience. In the third contemplation we expand our field of awareness to encompass the entire body. This third contemplation has sometimes been called "the breath body". What we are aiming at is not simply to experience the physical body, but the entire energy field. What we nominally call the "breath" is really the breath energy. You can feel the breath energy anywhere in the body. You can breathe in and out through any place in the body. You have already been encouraged to try different spots in the body - especially the chakras - and see which ones are most prominent for you.

As you work with this exercise, look for places where the breath energy feels blocked. The sweeping exercises are good for that. As you move through the body, wherever there are sources of stress or tension, breathe through those areas. Eventually the energy will flow freely and easily, and you will feel the breath energy field of the whole body on the in-breath and the out-breath.

Experiment with this. As you breath in, feel the breath energy fill the whole body. On the out-breath, breathe out through one spot, or breathe out through the entire body. Feel the breath energy as a cocoon that envelops the physical body. A sense of ease and comfort will follow.

When the breath energy flows through the entire body, you fulfill the 4th contemplation. The body will be calm, and the mind will follow the ease of the body.

Breathing With Feelings

He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing rapture’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing rapture.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing pleasure’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing pleasure.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the mental formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the mental formation. ’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillizing the mental formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillizing the mental formation.’ - [MN 118.19]

In the first tetrad we calm the whole body, getting the field of breath energy to be open, feeling the whole breath body as it pulses in and out. When that happens, pleasant feelings will pervade the body. As you continue to breathe in and out and as the pleasant sensations fill the whole body, and when the pleasant sensations are very strong, you enter the first jhāna.

The word “joy” ("rapture/bliss", "pīti" in Pāli) is used in a number of contexts in the Buddha’s teachings. It is the primary factor of the first jhāna. It is a factor of Awakening. It is a step in the reverse chain of dependent co-arising. And in ānāpānasati it is the 5th contemplation, the first one in the feelings tetrad.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says that as a factor of Awakening, joy is not the same as the jhāna factor. The joy in that context is simply the joy of the practice. The joy of jhāna is quite distinctive. It is how you know that you have entered the first jhāna.

It is not clear to me how the Buddha means joy in this context. Clearly, as it comes after the bodily contemplations, and because it is in a sutta about meditation, it is a fruit of meditation, specifically concentration.

Until you attain jhāna, the joy will be the joy of the practice. Your mind will be more settled. You will feel happier. Joy is clearly an important part of the Buddha’s path.

Joy will eventually settle down into pleasantness, or “happiness” (Pāli: sukkha). There is serenity, peace calm. And this is the next contemplation. The mind will be quieter. It may even become completely still. This happiness is the primary quality of the second jhāna.

These steps do not necessarily happen sequentially, and they may happen in stages. With all of these practices simply do the best that you can. Here and there you will get a taste of the possibilities. You will have a brief moment where the body is calm and serene, and the mind is quiet. This happens when you are not trying to make it happen. If you back off the conscious effort, you will naturally fall into these states.

The next two contemplations follow the pattern of the first tetrad. In the first tetrad, we experienced the whole body, and then calmed the whole body. Here we open to "mental formations". Both Larry Rosenberg and Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu agree that what is meant here is the two aggregates, feelings (vedanā) and perceptions (sañña).

A good way to do the 7th contemplation is by sweeping. But in this case, instead of calming the body, note the feeling tone at each location. At the shoulder, what do you feel? Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Does it change from breath to breath? If it is unpleasant, can you change your breathing to make it more comfortable?

Also see if there is any pīti or sukkha. Is there an "unworldly" pleasant sensation. And what does the mind do with these sensations?

Then see what the mind does with feelings. What comes next? See how the mind goes from sense input to feeling to perception to thought, and before the feeling how the mind chooses to turn to a particular sense input. There is a choice about what gets attention. Your mind cannot process every sense input, so it chooses.

Watch for the process of perception. See how the mind takes the sense input and names it. Car. Airplane. Wind. Sometimes you will hear a common sound, like a bird chirping, and for just the slightest moment the brain cramps up, and we don't recognize the sound. Our perception has taken a microscopically brief holiday. Then the mind snaps back, and you think "bird," and for a moment you wonder what that was all about.

Another type of perception is judgment. The word “judgment” is a little problematic. There is, of course, good judgment, judgment that comes from wisdom and discernment. Then there is judgment that is hypercritical, that turns everything into like and dislike, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. This is an excellent way to suffer. The less critical you are, the more you see things according to their characteristics, or, more precisely, how you experience those characteristics: hot and mild, sweet and sour, and so forth. This is a smoother path through life.

The objective in the 8th contemplation is to be aware of feelings and perceptions, and then to dial them back a bit, to soften them, to "tranquillize" them. Sweeping is also excellent for this step. The Buddha is walking us through a process of abandoning stress and agitation and toward a calmer, happier state of mind. Quietly your wisdom - the ability to discern - grows as well. Insights - both mundane and transcendent - arise. It is like an agitated pond of water becoming still. The water becomes clear and you can see to the bottom.

...there comes an occasion when [a bhikkhu's] mind becomes internally steady, composed, unified, and concentrated. Then the path is generated in him. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he is pursuing, developing, and cultivating this path, the fetters are abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted. - [AN 4.170]

Breathing With the Mind

He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the mind’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the mind.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in gladdening the mind’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out gladdening the mind.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in concentrating the mind’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out concentrating the mind.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in liberating the mind’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out liberating the mind.’ - [MN 118.20]

The 9th contemplation - experiencing the mind - is very powerful. Most people spend their lives without any awareness of what is going on in their minds. Life for them is a simple case of reactivity and habit. They never exercise any choice over what is arising in the mind.

The 9th contemplation invites us to look inward and watch what is going on. It is like standing aside by one step and watching our minds from an objective perspective. We have already seen this in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, where the Buddha invites us to look at our minds and ask, "Where is the mind now?" Is there lust or not? Is there hatred/aversion or not? Is there delusion/confusion or not? Is the mind exalted, unsurpassed, concentrated, liberated?

Seeing the mind gives us an opportunity to break the habitual, reactive way in which we normally operate. Someone cuts you off in traffic, you see the anger arise, and you can let it pass. You can see that you do not have to let the anger control what happens next. You may even be able to conjure up some love and compassion for the other driver. You can see how that person has to live with uncontrolled aggression, and how much stress that must cause them.

Another interesting question to ask is, "What is the mind telling me?" Remember our committee, the Chicago City Council? Which member is speaking at the moment? What is that committee member telling us? Is it working us into a frenzy over some imagined slight? Is it telling us to indulge our craving, our greed? Is it telling us to be patient, kind, and generous?

This topic has been mentioned before, but it is worth repeating here. In the "Dvedhāvitakka Sutta: The Two Kinds of Thought" [MN 19] discourse the Buddha describes a moment during his quest for Awakening where he decides to divide his thoughts into two categories:

Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will, and thoughts of non-cruelty'. - [MN 19.2]

You can think of this more generally as asking the question, "Is this thought of long term benefit to me and others?" If it is not, you should abandon it:

This leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.’ When I considered: ‘This leads to my own affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to others’ affliction,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This leads to the affliction of both,’ it subsided in me; when I considered: ‘This obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna,’ it subsided in me. - [MN 19.3]

Conversely, if the thought is of long term benefit to you and others, it should be developed and supported:

This does not lead to my own affliction, or to others’ affliction, or to the affliction of both; it aids wisdom, does not cause difficulties, and leads to Nibbāna. - [MN 19.8]

This is a deeply profound insight by the Buddha, and it shows his pragmatism. He is asking a simple question, "Is this thought beneficial, or not?"

Most people get hung up on the idea of right and wrong. The Buddha asks a very different question. Is this thought useful? Suppose all politicians in the world starting asking that question? Suppose instead of perpetuating fear and hatred generation after generation, arguing over old slights, real and imagined, they starting asking where does that lead? What does it get you?

The issue of right and wrong goes away. The real question is, "What is the benefit?" If there is no benefit, then abandon it.

There are many aspects to this 9th contemplation. In addition to seeing the general state of the mind, you can look even more deeply into its processes. Watch your thoughts as they arise. With skill you can see them arise and pass away. You can learn to cut them off, stop them in mid-track. Even prior to the thought you can see the energy that precipitates the thought, and then you can keep it from manifesting. You can see how energies in the body precipitate thoughts.

As this happens, and as you get more skillful, you can depersonalize thinking. You see that thoughts are simply thoughts. They are not "me". The mind has a mind of its own, but you do not have to be a slave to it. You don't have to do what it is telling you to do.

With this contemplation, we can turn the old way of thinking and reacting into a more skillful process of thinking, seeing, and evaluating. Is this thought useful or not? Do I want to keep it and act on it, or do I want to throw it away? We are beginning to reclaim control over our lives.

The Buddha is telling us to work with these mind states, cultivating the wholesome ones and abandoning the unwholesome ones, but many times we can't do that - yet. And that is fine. Again, do not use this as an exercise in frustration. See the thought, and if it is unwholesome see if you can work with it. But if you can't right now, that is fine. Just seeing it puts you well ahead of the game. If all else fails, just be with it. This will at least take some of the energy out of it.

And on the positive side of things, you support and enhance the really good thoughts. You don't let them pass you by. You see how much happier the mind is when it is working in a wholesome, virtuous way. These thoughts will manifest more and more, and your own happiness increases directly as a result. And this leads to the 10th contemplation which is "gladdening the mind".

When people are first introduced to the idea that you can make your mind happy, it usually raises a few eyebrows. The implication is that you can somehow turn on a switch, and go from being stressed to happy. And that is pretty much what it is.

You should work with this exercise however it works for you. Here is what I have found in my practice. As you work with the breath, you find a way of breathing that is calm and relaxed. That pleasant feeling permeates the whole body. And you can turn to that pleasant way of breathing whenever you want. This is insight working with concentration. You are more self-aware, so you can see when the mind is in a negative, unwholesome mind state. Then you apply the pleasant breath, and you can immediately feel a slight uplifting in the mind. Everything relaxes a notch or two.

This also plays into dependent co-arising. You are catching the mind in a negative state. This prevents the mind from going into a negative feedback loop, where the mind goes deeper and deeper into the abyss. You break the feedback loop.

Gladdening the mind works very well off the cushion. During the day you can catch the mind in an unwholesome state and apply conscious breathing. Usually these are mildly negative states (a.k.a. "grumpy mind"), and being just mildly negative they lend themselves particularly well to uplifting.

It is difficult to do this if the mind is deeply anxious or very angry. But another benefit to what we are doing is that the strength and frequency of unwholesome states diminishes.

It is also worth saying something about deeply troubled states like depression. There are some teachers who think that meditation is a panacea for everything that ails you. They are particularly adamant about not using medications for psychological problems. I think this is a very dangerous position. Conditions like depression must be taken very seriously. If you need medication or psychotherapy or whatever else is required, then do it.

Meditation is often used in the West as a form of psychotherapy. Depending on the issue, it can be helpful for that. But meditation and therapy have different aims. The purpose of therapy is to help people who are having trouble functioning in the world and making them functional. That is a noble goal. For people who are not functioning, becoming functional is extremely important.

But you can be functional and still have a lot of stress. The Buddha is helping us to see the deeply rooted suffering that is caused by clinging. The purpose of meditation is to free you entirely from stress and suffering.

But you have to get there one step at a time. The Buddha taught "the gradual approach to Awakening":

The main paradigm for the gradual training found in the Majjhima Nikāya is that laid out in MN 27 and MN 51; alternative versions are found at MN 38, MN 39, MN 53, MN 107, and MN 125, and some of the more important variations will be briefly noted. The sequence opens with the appearance of a Tathāgata in the world and his exposition of the Dhamma, hearing which the disciple acquires faith and follows the Teacher into homelessness. Having gone forth, he undertakes and observes the rules of discipline that promote the purification of conduct and livelihood. The next three steps - contentment, restraint of the sense faculties, and mindfulness and full awareness - are intended to internalise the process of purification and thereby bridge the transition from virtue to concentration. Alternative versions (MN 39, MN 53, MN 107, MN 125) insert two additional steps here, moderation in eating and devotion to wakefulness.

- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, Majjhima Nikāya, Introduction]

You can see how his system of training proceeds step by step. This is growing a garden. Your practice will grow at its own pace, just as seeds grow and bear fruit as time and circumstances dictate. You start where you are, and if that means taking medication or going into therapy, then that is what you do. Be your own best friend.

The next two steps are "concentrating the mind" and "liberating the mind". Anytime the word "concentration" is used, it means jhāna. I think concentration here refers to the third jhāna, although it may mean any of the material jhānas. The reason I think this means the third jhāna is because we have already seen the first two jhānas. And the 12th contemplation is liberating the mind. This as I understand it means the fourth jhāna. The primary quality of the fourth jhāna is equanimity, and equanimity is liberating.

However, even without being in a state of jhāna, you can still work with these two exercises. Just get as concentrated as you can, and then focus on equanimity. See phenomena arise and let them be. Do your best to not chase after pleasure and to avoid pain.

Also, apropos of practicing without attaining jhāna, Larry Rosenberg translates the 11th contemplation as steadying the mind. That may be a more helpful way to think of it until you are able to attain jhāna.

By the time you have mastered the 12th contemplation, the mind is well prepared to delve into dharmas.

Breathing With Dharmas

He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating impermanence’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating impermanence. ’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating fading away’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating fading away.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating cessation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating cessation.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in contemplating relinquishment’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out contemplating relinquishment. - [MN 118.21]

The Yaksa asked, "What is the most wonderful thing?"

Yudhisthira Maharaj replied, "The most wonderful thing is that although everyday innumerable humans and their animals go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal".

- [Mahabharata, Meditation 128: The Lake of Death]

Larry Rosenberg calls the fourth tetrad "breathing with wisdom". We are now in the realm of the transcendent teachings of the Buddha.

The 13th contemplation is impermanence - annica - which we have already discussed in Three Characteristics. Now we look at it more deeply. This is the primary object of our meditation. Now we take the idea of impermanence and experience it directly.

Everything in life is impermanent, yet we live as if that is not the case. We treat our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, our bodies as if they have some permanent essence. Even our consciousness is conditioned and constantly changing. And trying to cling to something that is impermanent is like grabbing at a wave in order to stop from drowning.

In order to be free from the delusions of impermanence, we have to see deeply how it works, and see how our mind insists on clinging to impermanent things.

You can work with impermanence in many ways. In daily life you can begin to see the impermanence of everything. Your house? Will it be there in 100 years, 1,000 years? Your car, especially a new one? It is an old, beat-up car waiting to happen.

This is not intended to get you depressed. Just because a flower will only bloom for a short time doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it. In fact, its impermanence is part of the joy. Enjoy the new car. Just know that in the ebb and flow of life, it will have its day and then that day will be over.

Note again this message of the Buddha: the problem is clinging. If you let go of the clinging, you can still enjoy the new car. It is even more enjoyable because the enjoyment is not rooted in delusion.

Adapting to impermanence is like body surfing. You go with the flow - literally. And this makes the dance of life less stressful. We stop pitting ourselves against the universe. Usually we are in contention with the world around us. That is like standing in the waves and letting them beat down on us. That is how we usually live. Body surfing is a lot more fun.

The Navajo have a lovely word: "hozhoni." It means "beauty", but it is the beautify that comes from being in harmony.

We are born into this world and someday we will die. That makes each moment even more precious. It is a reminder not to waste our time.

Another way to work with impermanence is to go back through the previous 12 contemplations, and look each one in terms of impermanence. Even the jhānas are conditioned. They arise and pass away. The breath arises and passes away. Thoughts arise and pass away. Feelings arise and pass away. You may recall that in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, for each Foundation of Mindfulness, one of the instructions was to contemplate the arising and vanishing of each one. For the body:

Or else he abides contemplating in the body its nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in the body its nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in the body its nature of both arising and vanishing. - [MN 10.5]

Here we have a reformulation of the same exercise. The exercise here is to see everything in terms of its impermanence.

The next three contemplations are leading us step-by-step to final release, to final liberation, to freedom from suffering. Of course, that is a tall order, and not likely to happen for some time. Still, you can get a taste of that freedom (i.e., fake it until you can make it). You can hover around that territory, and maybe get a view from afar. In everything you have learned so far, this is the first time that we have broached the experience of Awakening. It is now time to sniff around that territory and see what we can learn.

In order to see deeply into the impermanent nature of phenomena, the mind must be still. If the mind moves all the time you cannot see into the impermanence of phenomena. It is like trying to look through a vibrating telescope.

This stillness is deep and profound:

Try to be mindful, and let things take their course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a still forest pool. All kinds of wonderful animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.

- [Ajahn Chah, A Still Forest Pool]

This experience of stillness may feel a little frightening at first. It threatens the dysfunctional members of the committee. They can't go there, and they are going to resist. All of our neurotic conditions and habits are under attack, and they are not going to go lightly.

Tap into the feeling of deep inner peace that comes with this stillness. Play past any anxiety or fear that comes up and find the deep satisfaction in stillness. There is a deep, profound contentment there. Find it. Tap into it. Savor it.

Larry Rosenberg says that silence is very shy. It will go away at the slightest provocation. So we have to guard it like the rare jewel that it is. We have to create the space in which it can arise. Forceful effort will not work here. The effort must be very gentle, and very soft. It is like enticing a wild animal to trust you enough to eat from your hand.

When you can do this, even for the briefest moment, you get a sense of the possibilities of this practice. Now you can see the futility of chasing after sense pleasures, which are completely unreliable.

In the "Māgandiya Sutta: To Māgandiya" [MN 75] the Buddha uses a rather graphic simile of a leper who uses coals from a charcoal pit to cauterize his sores. Later, that leper becomes cured of his leprosy, and he sees another leper doing the same thing. The Buddha asks if the cured leper would envy the uncured leper for "his burning charcoal pit or his use of medicine?” (The answer is rhetorical.)

The Buddha goes on with the simile:

Suppose, Māgandiya, there was a leper with sores and blisters on his limbs, being devoured by worms, scratching the scabs off the openings of his wounds with his nails, cauterizing his body over a burning charcoal pit. Then his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a physician to treat him. The physician would make medicine for him, and by means of that medicine the man would be cured of his leprosy and would become well and happy, independent, master of himself, able to go where he likes. Then two strong men would seize him by both arms and drag him towards a burning charcoal pit. What do you think, Māgandiya? Would that man twist his body this way and that? - [MN 75.15]

In other words, what the man at one time sought as a cure for his pain he now sees as painfully repulsive.

This is what we are aiming toward, to replace the crude, risky and dangerous pursuit of sense pleasures with the "unworldly pleasure" of concentration and meditation. This is not the final goal, but it is an intermediate milestone on the path to Awakening. We are replacing the risky and dangerous pleasures of the senses with the "pleasure born of seclusion".

So too, Māgandiya, in the past sensual pleasures were painful to touch, hot, and scorching; in the future sensual pleasures will be painful to touch, hot, and scorching; and now at present sensual pleasures are painful to touch, hot, and scorching. But these beings who are not free from lust for sensual pleasures, who are devoured by craving for sensual pleasures, who burn with fever for sensual pleasures, have faculties that are impaired; thus, though sensual pleasures are actually painful to touch, they acquire a mistaken perception of them as pleasant. - [MN 75.16]

The 14th contemplation follows naturally as we see the futility of seeking happiness through what is inconstant and unreliable:

“Householder, suppose a vulture, a heron, or a hawk seized a piece of meat and flew away, and then vultures, herons, and hawks pursued it and pecked and clawed it. What do you think, householder? If that vulture, heron, or hawk does not quickly let go of that piece of meat, wouldn’t it incur death or deadly suffering because of that?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a piece of meat by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom…clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder. - [MN 54.16]

In the 14th contemplation - fading away - what is fading away is the clinging.

There are two possible reactions to suffering in life. One is confusion and despair. The other is a determination to find a way out. You have deep faith - deep conviction - that there is a solution to the problem.

This is what the Buddha did. He left a life of luxury, and endured countless, often excruciating, experiences in order to find an answer. He had to have an unshakeable conviction that an answer existed. We have the benefit of his experience. He had to do it all on faith.

The inimitable Robert Thurman says, "Wouldn't it have been a bummer if after all that effort the Buddha found out that ultimately life really is just hopeless?"

...when the Buddha attained Enlightenment, [it] means ... that he came to understand the nature of reality precisely, exactly, and thoroughly.

...[he could have] come to the exact understanding of reality and [gone], Oh no, what a bummer! Oh, that’s really awful! I mean, that’s what we might suspect reality is: a bummer. We’re all scared of that.

So the discovery on which Buddhism is based is that the nature of reality itself is bliss: it is happiness. The world is made of happiness. It is the fabric of the world. Nirvāṇa of the Four Noble Truths: nirvāṇa is the one that is actually real.

- [Robert Thurman, "Aurora Forum at Stanford University, 24 April 2008"]

All that we have done and all that we are doing is to see into the futility of clinging to what is impermanent, inconstant, and unreliable. The reason that it has taken us so long to get to even discussing this topic - much less being able to realize it through direct experience - is because our conditioning and habits are so deeply ingrained the other way. What could be more obvious than the fact that good food, sex, happy relationships, lovely music, etc., are the keys to a happy life? This is a very hard sell. We have to see deeply into why this is a bad strategy.

It isn't that these things cannot be enjoyed. But if there is clinging, that is going to be quite a problem. And our mind - which, after all, has a mind of its own - has to be convinced that a) clinging to sense pleasures is a bad strategy and b) there is something better.

As our practice deepens, those sense pleasures are going to look more and more like the toys that we loved as children, but now look on with mild amusement. We are trying to grow up and mature, and see a way of attaining happiness that surpasses the child-like.

As strategies for happiness go, this is the graded scale:

  1. sense pleasures - poor
  2. jhāna (meditative absorption) - better
  3. nirvāṇa (nibbana) - best

The more we see into the inconstancy of phenomena, the more the clinging will fade away. Cultivating the 13th contemplation will naturally lead to the 14th. Our clinging will fade away. We lose interest. The Buddha uses the word "dispassion":

The last four contemplations are like the slow-motion movie. In actual practice, if you have been sitting long enough to reach this point, they might happen quite rapidly, because they're almost the same thing. The Buddha slows them down to see their subtle nuances.  The key to them all is number thirteen. If you see into impermanence in a profound way, the others follow quite naturally.

The keyword in the fourteenth contemplation is rendered as "fading away", But the word in Pāli is "viraga" and is sometimes rendered "becoming dispassionate". Your passion to cling to things, to attached to them, diminishes. The wording in the fifteenth contemplation is even more difficult. The Pāli word "nirodha" is sometimes used as a synonym for nirvāṇa. A literal translation would be "unbinding". The unbinding of the mind from greed, hatred, and delusion. It denotes the distinguishing of the fire. This contemplation has to do with cessation, which can be seen in this context as a form of liberation.

- [Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath]

Cessation is not annihilation. What is ceasing is stress, a.k.a., suffering/dukkha. It is the Third Noble Truth. The cessation of stress comes in stages. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition. How much suffering ceases will depend on the depth of our practice. But once again we see how the path is not all-or-nothing. It happens gradually, i.e., the gradual training. This is good news. It means that you see how stress is lessening and happiness and liberation are increasing as your skill increases. It is a positive feedback loop.

Finally we reach the final step on the path, relinquishment. It is the process of letting go. You let go because there is nothing to hold on to.

What is there to let go of? you might ask, since the fifteenth contemplation saw the cessation of the formation. But in the fourteenth and fifteenth contemplations, it is still possible for a self to be present, watching these processes and taking credit for the wise discernment it sees with such subtlety and depth. In the sixteenth, that last vestige of self disappears and there is just the seeing. You relinquish any trace of ownership and give up any clinging whatsoever, even to the practice itself.

- [Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath]

The Buddha ends this discourse by describing how Mindfulness of Breathing fulfills the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Seven Enlightenment Factors, and the "Fulfillment of True Knowledge and Deliverance". I mention this because there are those who say that there is no relationship between the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and the Ānāpānasati Sutta. They say that the similarities are coincidental. But not only can you see clearly that there is a great deal of interweaving between the two, the Buddha himself states that Mindfulness of Breathing fulfills the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

The Buddha's teachings are multi-dimensional. They are quite rich, and there is a temptation to over-simplify what he is trying to get us to "keep in mind". This is one reason why the second factor of enlightenment - investigation and curiosity - is so important. Think of the thing that you find most interesting in life. You probably know quite a lot about it. You know a lot about it because you find it interesting.

When I was in high school I knew a group of guys who were pretty unengaged when it came to anything intellectual or academic. But when we hit our teenage years they got really interested in cars. They used to go to the local drag strip and race on Saturdays. Some of them started racing stock cars. They could tell you anything about cars. They could rebuild transmissions and carburetors, they could bore out an engine block and put in bigger pistons, they knew how to make engines faster, they knew all the rules for sportsman and modified class stock cars, what you could and could not legally do to an engine. So how did this otherwise intellectually unengaged group get so knowledgeable and so highly skilled when it came to what is an amazingly complex machine, the automobile? They loved it. They were engaged. They were interested in everything about cars.

This practice may - at times - seem quite complex. But you do not have to be a geographer to make a trip across the country. You just have to know how to follow a map. You just have to follow the directions. This isn't about having a high IQ. It is about having a big heart.

This principle was brought home to me some years ago when I taught a ten-week introduction to vipassana meditation. The group included two Ph.D.s with the special interest in Buddhism and an intense Marxist from Yugoslavia with a Ph.D. in political science. The Marxist made his attitude toward religion clear: it was a subject for idiots. He was learning meditation because his girlfriend had raved about it and he was afraid he'd lose her if he didn't show some interest. The Buddhists, on the other hand, were quite reverent.

At the end of the ten weeks, the Marxist had done beautifully, growing inwardly a great deal because he had followed the instructions and practiced every day. The Buddhist scholars, on the other hand, had gotten nowhere. They had tremendous interest in the Buddha's mind but very little in their own. The whole point of meditation was lost on them.

- [Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath]


In this chapter we looked at the Buddha's teaching on ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing. He divides mindfulness of breathing into four "tetrads":

  1. The body
  2. Feelings
  3. The mind
  4. Dharmas (wisdom)

The contemplations of the body are:

  • Breathing long
  • Breathing short
  • Experiencing the whole body
  • Tranquilizing the bodily activities

The contemplations of feelings are:

  • Experiencing rapture
  • Experiencing pleasure
  • Experiencing mental activities
  • Tranquilizing mental activities

The contemplations of the mind are:

  • Experiencing the mind
  • Gladdening the mind
  • Concentrating the mind
  • Liberating the mind

And the contemplations of dharmas - wisdom - are:

  • Contemplating impermanence
  • Contemplating fading away
  • Contemplating cessation
  • Contemplating relinquishment