Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing
Thay taught meditation using the Anapanasati Sutta at nearly every retreat from the late 1990’s onward.
“When I discovered the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing, I felt I was the happiest person on Earth. These exercises have been transmitted to us by a community that has been practicing them for 2,600 years.” (Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching, p. 72)
“The Anapanasati Sutta, the Discourse on Mindful Breathing is something that every meditator has to learn, has to study. The day I discovered the Discourse on Mindful Breathing I felt as if I was the happiest person on earth, really a heritage. Suppose you go around and you discover a field where a lot of treasure is buried in it. You know that you have become a very rich person. You will be able to buy anything. That was my feeling when I discovered the Sutra on Mindful Breathing. I had the feeling that I had discovered a treasure and it made me very happy. That is why I have nourished the idea to translate it and to give commentaries to it, and to make suggestions as to how to make use of the Sutra on Mindful Breathing. Now that book* is available, a translation of the Discourse on Mindful Breathing from both Pali and Chinese, with commentaries and with suggestions as to how to apply mindful breathing into our daily life. If you are a serious practitioner you should learn about the techniques, the art of mindful breathing. It is very important. As soon as you embrace the practice you can feel better right away. It’s good to be home to yourself and your breath is already your home, the door of your home. Closing the door, going into the home, you know that you are already home.”
Dharma Talk, Dec. 12, 1999
Thay offered 21-day retreats on the Anapanasati in 1998 and 2006. In 1998, Thay said:
“There is only one page of reading for the whole twenty-one-day retreat. It is a sheet of paper that contains the names of the sixteen ways of breathing.” (Path of Emancipation, p. 5)
“In the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Anapanasmrti Sutra), the Buddha shows us how to transform our fear, despair, anger, and craving. The teaching is clear. We are going to learn the teaching and the practice. In order ot succeed in the practice, we need the energy of mindfulness. …
“Transformation and emancipation can only take place when insight is attained. insight is attained through the practices of stopping and looking deeply. Meditation is made up of two elements. the first is shamatha– stopping, concentrating, and calming. if you go to China, you will see this sign on the roads. It means “Stop.” I suggest you display this sign somewhere in your home. Facing it, you may like to practice mindful breathing for five or ten minutes so that you can realize stopping. The second element of meditation is Vipashyana. It means deep looking, inquiry, and observation. It is difficult to look deeply without stopping. If you are capable of looking deeply, it means you are able to stop.” (The Path of Emancipation, p.121.)
Enjoying our Breathing
The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is a reminder that we can use the sixteen exercises and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to bring our breath, bodies, and minds into harmony. We are able to use our breath to bring ourselves into a state of meditation, of stopping and looking deeply. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight.
The practice of resting, of stopping, is crucial. If we cannot rest, it is because we have not stopped. We have continued to run. We started running a long time ago. We even continue to run in our sleep. We think that happiness and well-being aren’t possible in the here and the now. That belief is inherent in us. We have received the seed of that belief from our parents and our grandparents. They struggled all of their lives and believed that happiness was only possible in the future. That’s why when we were children, we already had the habit of running. We believed that happiness was something to seek in the future. But the teaching of the Buddha is that you can be happy right here, right now. The conditions for your well-being and happiness are found in the present moment.
The subjects for full awareness suggested below can be divided into seven categories:
- Following the Breath in Daily Life,
- Awareness of the Body,
- Realizing the Unity of Body and Mind,
- Nourishing Ourselves with Joy and Happiness,
- Observing Feelings,
- Caring for and Liberating the Mind, and
- Looking Deeply in Order to Shed Light on the True Nature of All Dharmas.
Laypeople as well as monks and nuns should learn how to practice both the first subject (following the breath in daily life) and the fourth (nourishing ourselves with the joy of meditation). Every time you practice sitting meditation, you should always begin with these two subjects. Only After that should we go into the other subjects.
Every time you notice your state of mind becoming agitated, dispersed, or ill at ease, you should practice the fifth subject (observing in order to shine light on our feelings). The seventh subject (seeing things as they truly are) is the door that opens onto liberation from birth and death, and all those of great understanding have to pass through this door. This subject is the greatest gift the Buddha has given us. The first six subjects all involve stopping as well as looking deeply, but the seventh emphasizes looking deeply. Only after you have the capacity to concentrate your mind with great stability should you embark on this subject.
Seven Subjects for Full Awareness
Laypeople as well as monks and nuns should learn how to practice both the first subject (following the breath in daily life) and the fourth (nourishing ourselves with the joy of meditation). Every time you practice sitting meditation, you should always begin with these two subjects. Only After that should we go into the other subjects. Every time you notice your state of mind becoming agitated, dispersed, or ill at ease, you should practice the fifth subject (observing in order to shine light on our feelings). The seventh subject (seeing things as they truly are) is the door that opens onto liberation from birth and death, and all those of great understanding have to pass through this door. This subject is the greatest gift the Buddha has given us. The first six subjects all involve stopping as well as looking deeply, but the seventh emphasizes looking deeply. Only after you have the capacity to concentrate your mind with great stability should you embark on this subject.
5. “Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.”
6. “Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy.”
Those who practice meditation should know how to nourish themselves with the joy and happiness of meditative concentration in order to reach real maturity and help the world. Life in this world is both painful and miraculous. The violet bamboo, the yellow chrysanthemum, the white clouds, and the full moon are all wondrous expressions of the Dharmakaya, the body of the Dharma. Your body, even though it is impermanent, without an independent self, and subject to suffering, is also infinitely wondrous. The joy of beginning to meditate is like leaving the busy city and going off to the countryside to sit under a tree. We feel ourselves filled with peace and joy. What a relief!
Mental formations are psychological phenomena. There are fifty-one mental formations according to the Vijñanavada school of the Mahayana, and fifty-two according to the Theravada. Feelings are one of them. In the seventh and eighth breathing exercises, mental formations simply mean feelings. They do not refer to the other fifty mental formations. In the Vimutti Magga, we are told that mental formations in these exercises mean feelings and perceptions. It is more likely that mental formations here simply mean feelings, although feelings are caused in part by our perceptions.
Some feelings are more rooted in the body, such as a toothache or a headache. Feelings that are more rooted in our minds arise from our perceptions. In the early morning when you see the first light of day and hear the birds singing, you might have a very pleasant feeling. But if once at this time of day you received a long distance telephone call that your parent had suffered a heart attack, the feeling that comes from that perception may be painful for many years.
When you feel sad, do remember that it will not last forever.
Liberating the Mind and Looking Deeply
Subject Six: Caring for and Liberating the Mind
9. “Breathing in, I am aware of my mind. Breathing out, I am aware of my mind.”
10. “Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy.”
11. “Breathing in, I concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I concentrate my mind.”
12. “Breathing in, I liberate my mind. Breathing out, I liberate my mind.”
These four exercises refer to how our breath can help free our minds. In the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, we are taught to observe “the mind in the mind.” We can observe mental formations in the spirit of nonduality, with no barrier between the subject and object of observation.
When we look at the blue sky, the boundary between the observer and the infinite blue of the sky disappears, and we feel a deep contact between ourselves and the blue sky. When a grain of salt standing next to the sea asks, “How salty is the sea?” he is told that the only way to know is to jump into the sea and become one with it.
Mind here is composed of psychological phenomena that exist as seeds in our store consciousness. We have the chance to become aware of them when they manifest as mental formations in our mind consciousness. As soon a mental formation arises, you should breathe in and out and identify it. As you continue to observe it, you can see its connection with the whole of your mind.
The meaning of the ninth breathing exercise is: “I breathe in and out and identify the mental formation that is present at this moment in me.”
Subject Seven: Looking Deeply in Order to Shed Light on the True Nature of all Dharmas
13. “Breathing in, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas. Breathing out, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas.”
14. “Breathing in, I observe the disappearance of desire. Breathing out, I observe the disappearance of desire.”
15. “Breathing in, I observe cessation. Breathing out, I observe cessation.”
16. “Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.”
The thirteenth breathing exercise proposed by the Buddha aims at looking deeply to shed light on the impermanent nature of all dharmas. All phenomena, whether physiological, psychological, or physical, without exception, are impermanent. The meditation to look deeply at the impermanent nature of all phenomena is one of the basic practices. If we hear someone talking about impermanence, we may think we understand. But understanding impermanence is not a matter of words or concepts, but a matter of practice. Only through our daily practice of stopping and looking deeply can we experience the truth of impermanence.
The Buddha advised us to look into the nature of the object of our desire so that reality can reveal itself strongly, and then we will no longer be caught in a wrong perception. Each of us has objects of desire, of craving. We believe that if we cannot get what we want, we cannot be happy, and we chase after these objects. The Buddha advises us to look deeply into that object, using mindfulness and concentration, so that it reveals its true nature. This is the aim of the exercise, “Experiencing non-craving, I breathe in.” We might desire wealth, believing that if we don’t have a lot of money, we cannot be happy. Those of us who have a lot of money know that it can make us very unhappy. Money is not an element of our happiness. With money, we may feel that we have power. That power can bring us a lot of suffering because it is often linked with notions of self, discrimination, delusion, and ignorance. Looking deeply into the object of our desire, our craving, we see that it is not really an object to chase after.
We should not think that letting go means letting go of everything. We do not let go of reality. We let go of all our wrong perceptions about reality. If we cannot let go of our wrong ideas, we cannot enter the world of reality. According to Tang Hoi, letting go means first of all letting go of ideas concerning self and life span. We have an idea that we began to exist the day our mothers gave birth and that the day we are buried, we cease to exist. We say we are our bodies, and outside of our own bodies we do not exist. “Breathing in, I let go of my idea of my body as myself.” “ Breathing out I let go of my idea that this period of fifty to one hundred years is my life span.”
Hanh, N. T. (2008). Breathe, You Are Alive: The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (20th anniversary ed.). Parallax Press.
The following videos ard talks in which Thay taught the exercise outlined in the Anapanasati Sutta (sansrkit: Anapanasmrti Sutra).
First two tetrads: https://youtu.be/HLi6ZuRpsvo?t=3129
Tetrad three and four: https://youtu.be/lY6MfxIbtKw?t=1834