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Mindfulness of Breathing from the Buddha

The Buddha praised mindfulness of breathing as the general practice he developed on his path to enlightenment. Of course, he taught other practices also, but those other practices were to be used to deal with specific short-term problems. For example, the perception of loathsomeness of the body was to be used to overcome lust.

The Buddha taught a study method for his teaching in the following quote:

“… All you to whom I have taught these truths that I have realised by super-knowledge should come together and recite them, setting meaning beside meaning and expression beside expression, without dissension, in order that this holy life may continue and be established for a long time for the profit and happiness of the many…” (D 29 : D iii 127).

The Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing, given by the Buddha, is an example of the Buddha applying this method himself. The Buddha would not give advice and then not follow it himself, that is, he would not be a hypocrite. How is this discourse an example? The discourse gives 16 steps, which details the practice of Mindfulness of Breathing, but then it compares the 16 steps to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (I’m sure the Buddha taught these, but there is a lot of evidence – a link to a 1.85MB PDF study – to show that the two discourses that elaborate the Four Foundations of Mindfulness have been changed a great deal over 2.5 millennia). The following table shows the comparison, also showing how Mindfulness of Breathing covers the two types of meditation: Calm and Insight. Some summaries of the discourse (as on Wikipedia linked to above as at 16th Feb 2012) miss the first step below and divide the second step into two parts.

Mindfulness of Breathing

It is healthy to doubt that the texts are 100% accurate. The Buddha does not expect blind faith and in applying his study method, one sees that his teaching is logical and consistent. The Stream-Enterer does not doubt the Buddha, Dhamma and Sa’ngha. Dhamma is not the same as the text or Buddhist Scripture (Tipi.taka) or the Words of the Buddha (Buddhavacana), just like speaking the word “water” into an empty glass, does not mean you can drink water from the glass. Dhamma is said to be timeless (akaaliko). Each new Buddha and Arahanta (perfected disciple) realise the same Dhamma, but Buddhist Scripture (Tipi.taka) or the Words of the Buddha (Buddhavacana) arise and pass away, along with Buddhism (Buddhasaasana). So they are kaaliko – affected by time.

I have faith that Dhamma can be found through studying Buddhist Scripture (Tipi.taka) or the Words of the Buddha (Buddhavacana), but I do not believe the Buddhist Scripture (Tipi.taka) has, or the Words of the Buddha (Buddhavacana) have been, maintained 100% purely. The main reason is, disciples have not applied the study method the Buddha gave above. The records of the Buddhist Councils do not even mention the study method, let alone apply it and the quote was the Buddha’s instruction to hold council to ensure his teaching would be maintained well. If we don’t study as he taught us to, how can expect to understand his teaching properly?

What we find in the discourse is a very neat comparison of the 16 steps and Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The 16 steps are put into four groups each with four steps and each group matches the consecutive Four Foundations of Mindfulness. I doubted various aspects of these 16 steps over the years and experimented with them, but in the end I think they have been maintained properly.

Traditionally it is understood that the topics of steps 11 and 12 are part of Calm practice and the topics of steps 13-16 are part of Insight practice. (The Theravadin commentator Buddhaghosa says Mindfulness of Breathing is ONLY Calm practice, which the evidence above shows to be wrong.) Some translators add the word “ever” to the first step to get “ever mindful s/he breathes in or out”. This word “ever” is not in the original text and it makes the practice impractical. One would STILL have wandering thought until one had mastered the eleventh step, which is unification of thought – samaadhi! Sometimes the third step is interpreted as “sensitive to the whole BREATH body (or whole body OF THE BREATH)”, but this cannot be so, because knowing that the breath is long or short, must involve knowing the whole breath (body). Therefore we can just understand it literally – “knowing the whole body”.

This links to the meditation practice, taught by S N Goenka, of scanning the whole body and shows this is only an elementary practice and NOT yet Insight (Vipassanaa). It is either only mindfulness of body, as indicated by the text, or additionally,  mindfulness of sensations. So the furthest that practice would go, is the second foundation of mindfulness, which are both in the realm of Calm practice only.

My explanation of the practice above is intended to make it very practical. Since the Buddha indicated this was his general practice, we need to know how it can be applied practically. I have taken “citta” to mean “thought”, as this makes the teaching more practical. Some evidence to support this from the texts and the tradition is the Discourse on the Benefits of Friendliness. There friendliness is said to be the practice for liberation of ‘citta’ (ceto-vimuttiyaa). The 12th step in this teaching of 16 steps, is about liberation of citta (ceto-vimutti). The practice of friendliness (mettaa) is traditionally taught as developing friendly thought (good or best wishes) towards all beings.

Insight about the teaching from comparing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

As can be understood by the term “foundations”, one is not given up to move on the next, but each becomes established in our awareness, which gets deeper, so we can see subtler things. We see the body clearly, then, in the body we see sensations. Later related to sensations we see thoughts. Later related to the body, sensation and thought we see the underlying processes (dhammaa). In this way we see the Buddha’s teaching values the body (sensation – feeling) and mind (thought) unlike other philosophies or religions, which may blame the body for peoples’ suffering. (Some later interpretations of the Buddha’s teaching do this, when they say the Buddha attained the complete ending of suffering at the *end of his life* – not under the Bodhi Tree 45 years earlier – that earlier attainment is explained as only the *partial* ending of suffering due to *still having a body*.) The body is the basis of our practice. We are not trying to have an “out of body experience” but a fully embodied one, but one that clearly understands and values the mind/spirit/emotions also.

Now that we looked at some background, let’s look at the practice.

Prior to enumerating the 16 steps, the Buddha provides the following preparatory advice:

  1. seek a secluded space (in a forest or at the foot of a tree or in an empty place) – this indicates the restraint of the senses, which is part of morality (which is taught to precede meditation practice), it is an expression of renunciation of the pleasures of the five senses, which is part of Right Aspiration.
  2. sit dow to meditate – this comes from the aspiration to be kind to oneself, non-ill-will is also part of Right Aspiration
  3. keep your body erect and cross your legs – this comes from the aspiration to not harm oneself, a poor posture and discomfort is not good for oneself, so this is also part of Right Aspiration.

So, as we see with other teachings about the Path, Right Aspiration precedes Right Action.

One should sit up straight, but relaxed. It can also be done sitting in a chair, but the floor would be best. It may take some time to train to do so. Western people are not used to sitting on the floor after a few years of primary school. One’s back may ache after a short time, then just rest back against the wall or the chair for a little while and try again. After some time the muscles in one’s back will strengthen and one can sit independently.

Having done this, we can follow the steps as they appear, sequentially. The first two are just noticing. From the third the discourse says “s/he trains…” So from step three starts the training of meditation. As we become more aware of the whole body in step three, we notice stress or tension in some places, so step 4 would be relaxing the body. At this time we may become more aware of the heat in the body and, or the heartbeat.

At step five one would feel energised and may have goose-bumps and some jolts of the body, like minor electric shocks, as we feel the breath go very deep and we are relaxed. The breath supplies oxygen to the body and that is a pleasant thing, but we are usually not aware of the body’s response. (If you doubt breathing is pleasant, just try to stop breathing for a while and see what it feels like! Later texts say breathing is “neutral” because they have not developed this practice and are speaking from theory.) After that one may automatically breath a deep sigh and a have a light smile (happiness – step 6). In steps 7 & 8 one gets a clearer sense of emotion.

It is in the next sextionthat we directly start to train thought (the mind). To give up the unwholesome and develop the wholesome in the realm of thought is purifying the mind. This becomes very interesting and empowering.

In step 9 one becomes more aware of one’s wandering mind. In step 10 one encourages oneself with the reflection that one is developing oneself (body and mind) in a wholesome way that one had not before, or simply that one had noticed the wandering mind in step 9 and let go of it, something one would not usually do. In step 11 one determines to give up unwholesome, distracted thinking. One turns the thought back to the breath, going through the steps up to 8 again.

How we focus on the breath is by using three aspects of experience (two of thought and one of body). We use the power of thinking by: 1. directing our internal vision to an area of the body where we feel the breath (visual) and 2. by making a mental note “in/out” – we think “in/out” to ourselves (audio). We try to integrate thinking with feeling by focusing on the sensations (of the movement) of breathing (kinesthetic). As one’s mind focuses, one will see a light. The Buddha told monks to “develop the perception on light”. So this refers to step 11 of the 16 steps. One should focus on the breath, not on the light. We can focus on the breath and see the light as a background, but we cannot have wandering mind and see the light. It is one or the other. This is like when the film ends in the cinema, if the projectionist is too slow, we see a white light on the screen. We can’t have the movie images, and the white light. It’s one or the other.

As we become more aware of wandering thought, we see it is like being in a lit room at dusk and standing in front of a window. You can see your reflection in the window (wandering thought), but you can also focus on the objects outside. Most of the time we only focus on things outside then slip into automatic pilot. Then we are focusing on the reflections in the window.

In step 12 one is aware of the calm body and mind and develops the wish that all beings be well and happy, just as one is right now.

Steps 13 to 16 are Insight practice. This is not restricted to sitting meditation. We take time out to review what we have seen about the body, sensations and thought. We reflect that they are impermanent and not useful to cling to, actually clinging to them IS suffering (not causes suffering) within ourselves and would lead us to harm others. We consider how these three and interrelated.

Here we try to develop understanding of the causes of both negative and positives states of body and mind. As we understand them more, we put our energy into the positive ones, those that do not harm oneself or others and we can skilfully give up the negative ones – not by suppression, but by understanding and disenchantment and they gradually lose their power. We start to question, for example, “Is there any pattern or relationship between wandering thought and the breath?”

These are the sixteen steps in summary:

16 steps only

As you become more aware of your wandering mind, you may see that it is practically continuous. Have you ever felt the calming effect of the sound of waves breaking on the sea-shore? Well such is the effect of awareness of breathing and the breath is with us all the time. Imagine if you could swap the incessant wandering-mind-background-noise, which is so stressful, as much of it is worry about the future or sadness about the past, for the calming to and fro of the breath!! It can be done and will best be done following the general principles of the teaching above. There must be awareness of the body posture, developing a good (relaxed) posture, either sitting, standing, walking or lying down. One should develop awareness of ones sensations, if one is getting tired or there is pain, one should respond appropriately, change posture.

We don’t just sit and watch the pain, as pain is a message that something is wrong. If we really believe the Buddha’s teaching is compatible with science, then we must listen to doctors who say just that. Sitting a long time when the body is not used to it, is a form of self punishment. The only pain we must “bear” is that pain of aging or that which is inflicted by others e.g. that of hearing unpleasant speech or being beaten. To show that the pain of sitting a long time is created by our intention to sit and is not intrinsic to life, we can just stand up and see if the pain lasts. That the pain goes away doesn’t prove it is harmless. People have suffered trouble with their sciatic nerve due to not listening to the body, to pain and acting appropriately.

Mindfulness of breathing does not have to stop with sitting, or only be done in sitting. There have been Buddhist teachers who teach it in all activities. I heard of a famous monk in Myanmar who did so, but I’ve forgotten his name. Of course there is also Ven Thich Nhat Hanh, who introduces the idea of bringing mindfulness of breath into everyday life with the use of the Mindfulness Bell (or mindfulness clock program – for PC, there is also an online version which is cross-platform and you can get it for Android Mobile Phones and for iPhone).

This bell rings every now and then during meetings or general activities in the Plum Village communities of Ven Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches to stop what one is doing when one hears the bell and to breathe mindfully three times. That is a nice practice, but does not yet incorporate the practice of mindful breathing fully into everyday life. One must stop one’s everyday activity to mindfully breathe. We need to become aware of our breath while we continue to do the very same activity. (I don’t know if Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this.) That way one can see very clearly that it is not the activity that causes the suffering, but the uncontrolled mind. When the body and mind are working together (whatever we are doing) we are relaxed and peaceful. (There are a few activities, that I believe cannot be done without suffering, such as killing another human being. That would be why the major religions and civilised societies teach against it.)

In walking meditation, one should be aware of sensations and make a mental note of one’s “left (step), right (step)”. One will start to notice how one is walking (quickly, heavily…), just like above, one started to notice how one was breathing (long, short). One should try to walk lightly not walking on one’s heals with a “thump, thump”. We might not be aware we are doing this in the start. This is actually not good for the body – jarring the joints. We should use our whole foot to cushion our step. One should become aware of the whole body walking, but we may start with the touch of the feet on the floor and increase to the touch of clothes, wind, sun etc. on one’s skin and one can progress through the steps as detailed above. The following table shows how the first four steps are different for walking:

the first four steps of mindful walking

So what would it mean ‘walking aware of the whole body’? It would mean walking and not only being aware of the foot touching the floor, but of other bodily functions, the most obvious being breathing. So, one would start to notice how long the in- and out-breaths last in relation to walking, e.g. now I’m walking and breathing in, now I’m walking and breathing out. The Buddha saw that we can be aware of more than one thing at a time, though we can think of only one thing at a time. It’s a bit like specific focus (which we label or make a mental note of, which is also the major physical activity) and background, which we can be aware of at the same time (but not focused on it).

There are some activities, such as typing on a computer (what I’m doing now Smile) that preclude making a mental note, because I am dealing with words, but I still can develop awareness of my posture and sensations in my body (the background). (And of course, I should place the computer screen, keyboard and mouse at the right (ergonomic) height and take proper breaks using such programs as: Workrave.)

Good luck in your practice. May you attain the total ending of suffering in this very life.


One response

  1. Colin Westwood

    Thanks for a wonderful perspective. Colin.

    March 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

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