Mindfulness of Breath

Extracting discussion of Mindfulness of Breath from Thanisarro Bhikkhu’s: “A Meditator’s Tools”. This is all from the introduction. It is so beautiful!

He makes a bold statement at the very beginning of the intro that sets the tone for the study guide:

Meditation is not simply a matter of bare attention. It is more a matter of appropriate attention, seeing experience in terms of the four noble truths and responding in line with the tasks appropriate to those truths: stress is to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These tasks involve processes of thought, analysis, and memory — which means that these processes, instead of being enemies of meditation, are actually the means by which Awakening is attained.

This feels like an ‘attack’ on the new-age ‘Zen’ kind of practice that is popular among my western friends. Maybe not. Maybe I’m reading that into it. But, the point is: Buddhist Meditation involves more than bare attention. Great.

Let’s learn all about what the Pali Canon has to say about Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing.

Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing

Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing and mindfulness immersed in the body are the primary themes for developing tranquility and insight so as to lead to strong concentration in terms of the four jhanas, or absorptions; and they develop jhana in such a way that it gives added power to tranquility and insight in leading the mind to release (§36).

Of all the meditation themes taught in the Canon, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing is treated in the most detail, and so it seems to have pride of place among the ten recollections. The Buddha himself, prior to his Awakening, apparently practiced this theme more than any other (§32). After his Awakening, he frequently continued to practice it as well (§40). However, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing and mindfulness immersed in the body play complementary roles on the path. To begin with, there is some overlap in the two, in that the first four steps of breath meditation are also listed as techniques in mindfulness immersed in the body. In addition, mindfulness immersed in the body — especially in its aspect as contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body — can handle strong defilements that in some cases do not respond to the tranquil concentration induced by mindfulness of in-and-out breathing (§53). At the same time, mindfulness immersed in the body can sometimes induce strong feelings of disgust and revulsion that cause the mind to respond in unskillful ways. When this happens, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing can help dispel those feelings and replace them with a feeling of refreshment that helps the mind stay skillfully on the path (§33). In this way, these two mindfulness practices work together to keep the mind balanced and on course.

Section 4 of ‘A Meditator’s Tools’

This section covers the practice of mindfulness of in-and-out breathing. It includes passages that discuss the conditions that enable this practice to give quick results (§29), and passages that go into detail as to how rewarding those results can be (§§30323340). Central to this section are the repeated references to the sixteen steps that comprise the Buddha’s approach to mindfulness of in-and-out breathing:

“[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ [3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ [4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication [in-&-out breathing].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’

“[5] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to rapture.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to rapture.’ [6] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to pleasure.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to pleasure.’ [7] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to mental fabrication [feeling & perception].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to mental fabrication.’ [8] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming mental fabrication.’

“[9] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.’ [10] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in gladdening the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out gladdening the mind.’ [11] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out steadying the mind.’ [12] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out releasing the mind.’

“[13] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy.’ [14] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on dispassion.’ [15] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on cessation.’ [16] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on relinquishment.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on relinquishment.'”

These sixteen steps show that the Buddha did not regard this practice simply as a preliminary to other, more advanced practices. These steps cover the entire path leading to full release. As §31 shows in its presentation of these steps, mindfulness of breathing does not simply mean staying with the breath in the present; it involves training the mind to develop a range of skills with each in and out breath.

The irony of these sixteen steps is that even though they are the Buddha’s most detailed meditation instructions, the Canon leaves unanswered a number of important questions concerning them. The most prominent question concerns how the sixteen steps are related to one another. Are they meant to be sequential, or can they be developed in a non-sequential way? Should the meditator try to cover all sixteen, or is it enough to focus on just one of the four tetrads making up the sixteen? And in either case, how is this done?

Different passages suggest different answers to these questions. The suttas that present the sixteen steps without further explanation seem to indicate that all sixteen steps are to be followed, and in a sequential way. Passage §30, however, equates each of the tetrads with a frame of reference, and then goes on to state that each frame of reference is sufficient to fulfill the seven factors for Awakening, which in turn lead to full release. This suggests that it’s enough to focus on any one of the tetrads. But in either case, the suttas don’t explain how one step leads to another. Perhaps this lack of explanation was an intentional part of the Buddha’s teaching style, forcing his students to make discoveries on their own. But it can be helpful to share a few thoughts on the matter based on what the suttas, taken together, seem to suggest.

§49 indicates that the steps are meant, among other things, to lead to the jhanas. Thus the practice of the sixteen steps, in one way or another, should relate to the practice of jhana. And there are at least two possible ways in which this can happen: one based on following the path of all sixteen steps, and the other based on following the path of one of the tetrads.

Taking the path of all sixteen steps:

Steps 1 and 2 involve two of the factors of the first jhana, directed thought and evaluation: directing one’s thoughts and attention to the breath in and of itself in the present, at the same time evaluating it as one begins to discern variations in the length of the breath. Some modern teachers maintain that the factor of evaluation here also includes taking one’s observations of short and long breathing as a basis for adjusting the rhythm of the breath to make it as comfortable as possible. Because the first level of jhana must be based on a sense of pleasure, this advice is very practical.

The remaining steps are willed or determined: one “trains oneself,” first by manipulating one’s sense of conscious awareness, making it sensitive to the body as a whole (step 3). Then one can begin manipulating the bodily sensations that become apparent within that full-body awareness, reducing them to a single sensation of calm by letting “bodily fabrication” — the in and out breathing — grow calm (step 4). As the breathing grows calm, it allows for easeful sensations of rapture and pleasure to grow prominent. A comparison between the stages of breath meditation and the similes for the jhanas (§49) suggests that steps 5 and 6 — being sensitive to rapture and pleasure — involve making these feelings “single” as well, by letting them suffuse the entire body, just as the bathman kneads the moisture throughout his ball of bath powder. With bodily fabrications stilled, mental fabrications — feelings and perceptions — become clearly apparent as they occur (step 7), just as tuning a radio precisely to a certain frequency eliminates static and allows the message sent by the radio station broadcasting at that frequency to become clear. These mental fabrications, too, are calmed (step 8), a step symbolized in the similes for the jhanas by the still waters in the simile for the third jhana, in contrast to the spring waters welling up in the second. What remains is simply a sense of the mind itself (step 9), corresponding to the level of fourth jhana, in which the body is filled from head to toe with a single sense of bright, radiant awareness.

Once this stage is reached, one can now turn one’s attention to consolidating one’s mastery of concentration. This is done by reviewing the various levels of jhana, focusing not so much on the breath as on the mind as it relates to the breath. This develops a sensitivity to the different ways in which the mind can be brought to the desired state for gaining greater tranquility or insight. For instance, if it needs to be gladdened (step 10), one can gladden it with refreshing breathing or with any of the inspiring recollections (see §16). If it needs to be steadied (step 11), one can develop full-body awareness and calm any disturbances that can be detected in terms of bodily or mental fabrication. In the process of mastering these skills, one also begins to grow sensitive to the different factors from which the mind can be released (step 12) as it goes through the different levels of jhana — for example, releasing it from sensuality by taking it to the first jhana, releasing it from directed thought and evaluation by taking it from the first jhana to the second, releasing it from rapture by taking it from the second level to the third, and so forth (§§38-39). One comes to see that, although the breath feels different on the different levels of jhana, the cause is not so much the breath as it is the way the mind relates to the breath, shedding the various mental activities surrounding its single preoccupation.

The mastery of concentration developed in steps 9-12 provides an excellent chance to develop discernment into the pattern of cause and effect in the process of concentrating the mind, in that one must master the causal factors before gaining the desired results in terms of gladness, steadiness, and release. This insight into cause and effect provides the basis for insight, the ability to see events in the mind simply as events, arising and passing away as part of a chain of causes and effects that also arise and pass away.

Realizing the inconstancy and unreliability of the events in this pattern (step 13) gives rise to the realization that they are also stressful and not-self: neither “me” nor “mine,” but simply instances of the first noble truth of suffering and stress. When this discernment goes straight to the heart, there occurs a sense of dispassion for any craving directed at them (step 14, which corresponds to the duty of abandoning the second noble truth) and an experience of their fading away and cessation (step 15, the third noble truth). Finally, one relinquishes attachment not only to these events (step 16), but also to the discernment that sees through to their true nature (thus abandoning the fourth noble truth that, now that it has been fully developed, has completed its tasks). This brings the seven factors for Awakening to completion in a state “dependent on seclusion… dispassion… cessation, resulting in letting go,” where “letting go” would appear to be equivalent to the “relinquishment” in step 16. When one is able simply to experience the act of relinquishment, without feeling that one is “doing” the relinquishing, one stands at the threshold to total release.

In this interpretation of the sixteen steps, the first two tetrads constitute the stage of familiarizing oneself with the potentials of concentration that can be attained by focusing on the breath, the third tetrad constitutes the stage of gaining insight to the patterns of cause and effect through mastering the concentration, and the fourth tetrad constitutes the stage of bringing the mind to a point of relinquishing all activity, even the activity of the path. These three stages correspond to the three stages of frames-of-reference practice described in detail in The Wings to Awakening.

Each of the four tetrads is sufficient for full release:

As for the interpretation in which each of the four tetrads is regarded as sufficient for full release, this is best understood by first looking at the underlying pattern of the seven factors for Awakening, which each tetrad is said to fulfill. The seven factors begin with mindfulness established on a particular frame of reference: the body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, the mind in and of itself, or mental qualities in and of themselves. This is followed by analysis of qualities (dhammas), which not only perceives the chosen frame of reference in terms of dhammas, but also how these dhammas may be skillful or unskillful (§35). Then follows persistence, which — as right effort — abandons the unskillful qualities and develops the skillful ones, leading to the factors of rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity. Thus the general pattern consists of (1) focusing on a particular frame of reference, (2) seeing it as dhammas, and (3) dealing with those dhammas in a skillful way so as to bring about calming and peace.

This is precisely the pattern followed in each of the four tetrads. As one stays focused on the breath as one’s basic theme to the point of giving rise to jhana, one has the choice of viewing the events of the developing concentration in terms of any one of the four frames of reference: the body (corresponding to the first tetrad), feelings (corresponding to the second), the mind (corresponding to the third), and mental qualities (corresponding to the fourth). As long as one’s practice is skillful, events will develop in line with the above pattern regardless of the chosen frame. Thus each tetrad provides a particular perspective on these events, as they relate to the corresponding frame of reference.

The first tetrad shows how the development of breath concentration registers in terms of the body. In steps 1 and 2, one becomes sensitized to the breath in terms of its length. In step 3, one becomes sensitive to the breath as a whole-body process (this corresponds to the full-body awareness described in the similes for the jhanas). In step 4, this full-body awareness enables one to see the breath as a process fabricating the experience of the body. This in turn inclines one to allow that fabrication to grow calm (step 4), creating feelings of rapture, pleasure, and ultimately, equanimity. According to §38, this can lead — in the fourth jhana — to the absolute stilling of the in-and-out breath, as the oxygen needs of the body decrease when the mind reaches a firm stillness.

The second tetrad shows how the development of breath concentration registers in terms of feelings. In steps 5 and 6, one becomes sensitive to feelings of rapture and pleasure as they begin to manifest in the course of developing concentration: first in a gentle way, then in stronger ways. In step 7, this sensitivity allows one to see the impact that these feelings have in fabricating the mind, together with the perceptions (mental labels) that allow for one to maximize this sensitivity and its impact in the first place. This in turn inclines one to allow these feelings and perceptions to grow calm (step 8). An example of calming feeling would be abandoning rapture for equanimity. An example of calming perception would be to perceive the body as a full energy field, rather than as a solid mass, thus making it easier for the in-and-out breathing to grow still. According to §38, this step-by-step process of calming can lead through the jhanas and into the formless states, culminating in the attainment of the cessation of perception and feeling.

The third tetrad charts the development of breath concentration in terms of the mind. In step 9, one simply becomes sensitive to the state of the mind’s awareness as it focuses on the breath in the present moment. In response to that sensitivity, one can use the breath to induce desired states in the mind. If the mind needs gladdening (step 10), one can breathe in ways that induce rapture and pleasure. (If this can’t be accomplished with the breath, §16 suggests using any of the recollections that will produce the desired effect.) If the mind needs steadying (step 11), one can bring it to strong states of jhana by developing a strong, full-body awareness, and by allowing both bodily fabrication and mental fabrication to grow calm. As concentration develops, one can release the mind (step 12) from the affliction of sensuality by bringing it into jhana, and from the “afflictions” of the lower jhanas (§§38-39) by bringing it to the higher jhanas. This process of release, if it involves only the jhanas, is temporary, but if it leads to the release of Unbinding, it is total and permanent.

The fourth tetrad describes the development of breath concentration in terms of mental qualities (dhammas). To be sensitive to mental qualities, one first has to be sensitive to their arising and passing away. Thus the first step is to look for their inconstancy (step 13), to see when they arise, how they arise; when they pass away, how they pass away. As one is developing concentration based on the breath, one has to watch both for the inconstancy of the unskillful qualities that block concentration — the hindrances — and for the skillful qualities that nurture it: the factors for Awakening (§34). In seeing the hindrances simply as events, one can pull away from them, weigh their allure and drawbacks, and develop dispassion for them (step 14). Because one feels dispassionate toward them, one no longer participates in fabricating them. Thus they cease (step 15). On this preliminary level, however, the cessation is temporary, and lasts only as long as concentration can be maintained.

However, the practice of dealing with the hindrances in this way strengthens the first three factors for Awakening: mindfulness, analysis of qualities, and persistence. In watching these factors as events, one focuses on their inconstancy with a different agenda in mind: instead of trying to develop dispassion for them immediately, one tries to understand the causal factors behind their arising and passing away so that the factors for Awakening can be brought into being more often and maintained for longer periods of time (§34). This process, combined with the continued absence of the hindrances, allows one’s concentration to grow stronger and more solid.

As one attains the higher jhanas, one is in a position to change tactics. One can now view the lower jhanas in terms of their inconstancy so as to induce dispassion for them, too (step 14). This tactic can be applied to higher and higher levels of jhana as one’s powers of concentration and insight advance. Here again, the sense of dispassion at first leads only to temporary cessation (step 15). But as this process continues, there come stages of realization in which various hindrances and fetters are totally relinquished once and for all (step 16), yielding the ultimate in calm and release.

Thus in this interpretation, each of the four tetrads of mindfulness of in-and-out breathing charts the way in which meditation progresses as seen from a particular point of view. They all touch on the same process — with the same three-step dynamic of (1) sensitizing, (2) viewing as dhammas, and then (3) calming — showing how this process appears simultaneously from different frames of reference. In the course of one’s practice, one is likely to shift among all four of these frames of reference, for they are all interrelated. For example, in gladdening the mind, one focuses on the breath to calm bodily fabrication, and on feelings of rapture and pleasure as means of inducing gladness. In becoming sensitive to the entire body, one naturally notices mental qualities that interfere with whole-body awareness, and mental qualities that nurture it. However, as the practice develops, individual meditators will tend to focus on one frame more than the others. The four tetrads show how, regardless of the chosen frame, all four frames can simultaneously be brought into line with the basic pattern of the seven factors for Awakening.


Regardless of which of these two interpretations one follows — and it is possible in practice to follow both — mindfulness of in-and-out breathing is obviously a method in which tranquility and insight develop in tandem. As §37 shows, tranquility is a matter of allowing the mind to settle and become unified; insight, a matter of regarding experience in terms of fabrications. In the Buddha’s practice of mindfulness of in-and-out breathing, the mind is brought to stillness and unity through watching the breath — and its attendant feelings and mind-states — in terms of fabrication, and allowing those fabrications to grow calm. Calm is thus attained through insight, insight through calm. Perhaps it was because this method progresses in such a balanced way that the Buddha used it as his preferred theme of meditation, and taught it more frequently and in more detail than any other.


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