The essence of Buddhism is in the enlightenment of the Buddha. Many centuries ago in India, the wandering monk Gautama remembered a childhood experience of the first jhāna and realized that jhāna was the way to awakening (MN 36). He went to a quiet stretch of forest on the banks of a great river, sat on a cushion of grass under a shady fig tree, and meditated. The method of meditation that he used was ānāpāna-sati, mindfulness of the in and out breaths. Through this practice he entered jhāna, emerged, and quickly gained the insights of enlightenment. Henceforth he was called the Buddha.
The Buddha continued to teach ānāpānasati for the remainder of his life. It was the method that had given him enlightenment, the meditation practice par excellence, and he imparted that same method to all his disciples both in the monastery and in the city. The Anāpānasati teachings can be found in the original Buddhist texts as part of many suttas, but in particular as the Anāpānasati Sutta of the Majjhima collection (MN 118).
The Buddha described the practice of ānāpānasati as consisting of preliminary preparations followed by sixteen steps. The first twelve of those steps are instructions for entering jhāna, and the final four steps are instructions on what to do when you emerge.
A Quiet Place, a Comfortable Seat
Setting Up Mindfulness
You are now asked to set up mindfulness “in front of you.” To put something in front means to make it important. So this preliminary instruction is to establish mindfulness by giving it priority. Mindfulness is established by following the first two stages of the basic method of meditation in chapter 1—that is, through practicing present-moment awareness and then silent present-moment awareness. From what has been said so far, it should be obvious that when your attention is wandering through the past or into the future, you are not being mindful of what’s happening right now. Also, when you are thinking or even just noting, then your attention is on the words, not on the bare experience of now. But when you are silently aware of whatever it is that is happening now (right in front of your mind), then you have established the level of mindfulness required to begin ānāpānasati.
I have noticed that too many meditators go on to the breath too quickly, neglecting the preliminary instruction to establish adequate mindfulness first, and they run into trouble. Either they can’t keep the breath in mind at all or, worse, they tenaciously grasp the breath with so much willpower that they end up more stressed out than before they started.
The Sixteen Steps
The First and Second of the Sixteen Steps
Although the Buddha says to first experience long breaths and then experience short breaths, you do not need to control your breathing to fulfill the instructions. Controlling the breath produces only discomfort. Instead you are meant to observe the breath enough to know whether it is long or short. Even though this is not mentioned in the sutta, it is also fulfilling the instructions to observe the breath as neither long nor short, but somewhere close to the middle.
The reason for these instructions is that in the beginning you may find it uninteresting just to watch the feeling of air going in and out of your body, so this instruction gives you more to look at. It makes mindfulness of breathing more interesting. Sometimes I suggest to my students that at this stage they should notice which is longer, the in-breath or the out-breath. Is the gap between the inbreath and the next out-breath as long as the pause between the out-breath and the subsequent inbreath? Are the sensations of inbreathing the same as the sensations of out-breathing? This serves the same function as the Buddha’s instructions to experience long breathing and short breathing. It gives mindfulness more details to watch so it won’t get bored. Another method that belongs to this stage is to make a beautiful story around the in and out breathing. I suggest to my students to remember that the oxygen that they are breathing in is being constantly replenished by the plants in the gardens and forests. And that the carbon dioxide they are breathing out is the food of the same plants. So imagine that you are breathing in a precious gift from the flowers and the trees, and that you are breathing out an equally valuable gift to the green nature around you. Your breathing is intimately connecting you with all the vibrant vegetation. Such an uplifting way of perceiving your own breathing makes it more easy to follow.
In the Thai Forest Tradition they add a a mantra to the breathing. As you breathe in you think “Bud” and as you breathe out you think “Dho.”
These are the two syllables of the Buddha’s name (in Pāli nominative singular). Again, it serves to make the breathing easier to follow at this early stage.
‘The Sixteen Steps’ is continued next week 10th December 2021