Ānāpānasmṛti in the Chinese Āgamas

Saṃyukta Āgama

The Saṃyukta Āgama is the oldest of the āgama collections. In the Chinese Saṃyukta Āgama translated by Guṇabhadra (T. 99), Za Ahan Jing (雜阿含經), most information on ānāpānasmṛti is to be found in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta (安那般那念相應). This section contains fifteen sūtras, SA 801–815. This section should give us sūtras that are generally older and more likely to be shorter, simpler, and earlier than those in the other āgamas. Because they are grouped together into one set, this is an especially important cluster of texts that likely represents the earliest collection of discourses on ānāpānasmṛti. The Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta of the Chinese Saṃyukta Āgama is paralleled by the Ānāpāna Saṃyutta of the Pali Saṃyutta Nikāya.

Characteristics of the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta

Among meditation methods in the Saṃyukta Āgama, ānāpānasmṛti has a special position. It is the only form of explicitly seated meditation that is given its own saṃyukta within the SA. The style of this section is unique as well, and is perhaps best contrasted with that of the Smṛtyupasthāna Saṃyukta (念處相應). In the Smṛtyupasthāna Saṃyukta, there is no mention of seated meditation. This saṃyukta further treats the Four Bases of Mindfulness as something which can be practiced as a bhikṣu enters a village (SA 615), in order to protect his mind from outside influences. The Smṛtyupasthāna Saṃyukta also contains a strong narrative element that includes illustrations, for example, about a small bird and an eagle (SA 617), monkey hunting (SA 620), acrobats (SA 618), a chef (SA 616), and the most beautiful woman in the world (SA 623). The stories are often colorful and humorous. The Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta (安那般那念相應) is completely different. The texts are short and formulaic, with extensive attention paid to the mechanics of seated meditation, and especially preparation for it.

In the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta, we are given detailed instructions about going to a forest or an empty room, where to sit, how to sit properly, and exactly how to prepare the mind for cultivating ānāpānasmṛti. The instructions for the practice itself are not general or abstract as they are for many other practices such as those in the Smṛtyupasthāna Saṃyukta. Instead, we are told exactly what to be aware of for each in-breath and out-breath, with sixteen practices conforming to the Four Bases of Mindfulness. This highly detailed approach to meditation is unique within the Saṃyukta Āgama, and perhaps reflects the ideas of a certain group of authors who had strong opinions and particular ideas about how this type of meditation ought to be practiced, and who believed that each detail was important enough that it should be memorized and followed.

The authors of the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta were not only exacting and demanding, but also a bit eremitic and fixated on quietude and purity. The bhikṣu is instructed to go to a forest or an empty room in order to practice ānāpānasmṛti. He is further advised to spend his time in the forest, away from troubles and conflicts, and to be careful not to eat or sleep too much. When the Buddha speaks of his own practice of ānāpānasmṛti, he gives a report of how he was cultivating ānāpānasmṛti for two months in seclusion. Much of the preparation for ānāpānasmṛti could also be described as a type of scripted spiritual hygiene, as the bhikṣu abandons negative mental traits and develops a mental purity apart from desires.

The impression left by the texts in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta is that its authors were exacting, demanding, opinionated, eremitic, avoidant, and puritanical. They do not seem to have been particularly creative, tolerant, flexible, or sociable. They did not care much about entertaining others or communicating their message in a charismatic way. They were simply concerned about the details of their practice, and how it should properly be carried out.

Mental and physical benefits of ānāpānasmṛti

In the Saṃyukta Āgama, the special function of ānāpānasmṛti is to cut off thoughts (斷覺想). This attribute is ascribed to it in the SA, and featured in later Buddhist literature as well. In SA 804, we see that if ānāpānasmṛti is cultivated assiduously (安那般那念修習多修習者), then thoughts are cut off (斷諸覺想). This is seen again in SA 815, in which a bhikṣu cultivates ānāpānasmṛti (修安那般那念) in order to sever thoughts (斷覺想).

In addition to the mental benefit of cutting off thoughts, some physical benefits are also attributed to ānāpānasmṛti. In SA 814, we see that having cultivating ānāpānasmṛti assiduously (修安那般那念多修習已), the body does not tire (身不疲倦), and the eyes are not troubled (眼亦不患). In SA 803, we see that cultivating ānāpānasmṛti causes the body to rest (身止息) and the mind to rest (心止息). Thus, ānāpānasmṛti was thought to preserve the health of the body and its faculties. SA 803 gives us the impression that these benefits can be attributed to profound physical and mental calm.

These physical benefits include not just ordinary health benefits, but also bliss that arises as a result of practice. We see again in SA 814 that having cultivating ānāpānasmṛti assiduously (修安那般那念多修習已), one blissfully abides in contemplation (樂隨順觀住), aware of the bliss (樂覺知), but not becoming attached to the bliss (不染著樂).

Spiritual benefits of ānāpānasmṛti

The spiritual benefits attributed to ānāpānasmṛti in SA 814 are even greater in number. In this text, cultivating ānāpānasmṛti is said to yield great fruit (得大果) and great benefit (大福利). Here the first major benefit, and one described in detail, is entering and abiding in the First Dhyāna (初禪具足住). The factors given for the First Dhyāna are separation from desires and from evil and unwholesome dharmas (離欲惡不善法), the presence of vitarka and vicāra (有覺有觀), and joy born of separation (離生喜樂). A bhikṣu who wishes to abide in the First Dhyāna is advised to cultivate ānāpānasmṛti (是比丘當修安那般那念), which leads to one fully abiding in the First Dhyāna (初禪具足住).

In SA 814, further spiritual benefits are enumerated at great length. It seems that whatever lofty goals the bhikṣu is seeking, ānāpānasmṛti can accomplish them. For example, ānāpānasmṛti is also said to lead to the second, third, and fourth dhyāna (第二第三第四禪), the Four Brahmavihārās (慈捨), and the Four Formless Samādhis (空入處、識入處、無所有入處、非想非非想入處). A bhikṣu who wishes to fully cultivate any of these states is told to cultivate ānāpānasmṛti (是比丘當修安那般那念).

These benefits extend also to spiritual powers. SA 814 states that if a bhikṣu wishes to obtain innumerable types of spiritual powers (得無量種神通力), or ṛddhi, then he should cultivate ānāpānasmṛti (是比丘當修安那般那念). Added to this are the divine ear (天耳智), knowledge of others’ minds (他心智), knowledge of former lives (宿命智), knowledge of birth and death (生死智), and knowledge of the destruction of outflows (漏盡智). Altogether these form the six types of superknowledge.

As for the spiritual goals available to the aspiring practitioner, SA 814 gives three: srotaāpanna fruit (須陀洹果), the sakṛdāgāmin fruit (斯陀含果), and the anāgāmin fruit (阿那含果). Notably, the fourth fruit is not found anywhere in SA 814. However, SA 804 specifies that one who cultivates ānāpānasmṛti assiduously (安那般那念修習多修習者) becomes immovable (不動搖), and obtains the ultimate nectar of immortality (得甘露究竟甘露), and may obtain the two fruits (得二果), the four fruits (四果), and the seven fruits (七果). SA 810 more explicitly states that cultivating ānāpānasmṛti assiduously (安那般那念多修習已) causes the Four Bases of Mindfulness to be fulfilled (能令四念處滿足). When the Four Bases of Mindfulness are fulfilled (四念處滿足已), the Seven Factors of Bodhi are fulfilled (七覺分滿足). With the fulfillment of the Seven Factors of Bodhi, there is illumination and liberation (明解脫滿足). Thus, it would seem that from the point of view of the authors of the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta, ānāpānasmṛti can indeed lead to arhatship and fulfillment of the Seven Factors of Bodhi.

Ānāpānasmṛti and the Seven Factors of Bodhi

Outside the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta, there is only one text in the SA that mentions ānāpānasmṛti by name. This is SA 746 in the Bodhyaṅga Saṃyukta (覺分相應), the group of sūtras about the Seven Factors of Bodhi. In SA 746, we are again told that cultivating ānāpānasmṛti assiduously (修習安那般那念多修習已) yields great fruit (得大果) and great benefit (大福利). A bhikṣu should have his mind fully engaged in ānāpānasmṛti (心與安那般那念俱) in order to cultivate the Bodhi factor of Mindfulness (修念覺分), in accordance with separation (依遠離), in accordance with desirelessness (依無欲), in accordance with cessation (依滅), tending towards abandonment (向於捨). Then it says that a bhikṣu does the same for each factor, even up to cultivating the Bodhi factor of Abandonment (乃至修捨覺分), with the same four qualities listed. These four qualities are also featured in SA 810, again with the Seven Factors of Bodhi.

SA 810 gives the most detailed treatment of ānāpānasmṛti as it relates to the Seven Factors of Bodhi. After the Buddha explains to Ānanda how ānāpānasmṛti can be practiced to fulfill the Four Bases of Mindfulness, then Ānanda asks how the Four Bases of Mindfulness can be cultivated (云何修四念處), causing the Seven Factors of Bodhi to be fulfilled (令七覺分滿足). The Buddha then speaks of how to abide in mindfulness of observing the body as the body (身身觀念住). Focused in mindfulness, and not being negligent (繫念住不忘), a bhikṣu skillfully cultivates the Bodhi factor of mindfulness (修念覺分). After this has been fulfilled, he proceeds to cultivate the Bodhi factor of discerning dharmas (修擇法覺分). From discerning dharmas, he obtains vigor (精勤) and cultivates the Bodhi factor of energy (修習精進覺分). Having cultivated this, his mind becomes joyful (心歡喜) and he cultivates the Bodhi factor of joy (修喜覺分). Having developed joy (歡喜已), his body and mind are pliant and calm (身心猗息), and he cultivates the Bodhi factor of pliancy (修猗覺分). Having fulfilled the Bodhi factor of pliancy, his body and mind have become blissful (身心樂已), and he obtains samādhi (得三昧), cultivating the Bodhi factor of samādhi (修定覺分). Having cultivated the Bodhi factor of samādhi, craving and sorrow are extinguished (貪憂則滅), and he obtains equality and abandonment (得平等捨), and cultivates the Bodhi factor of abandoning (修捨覺分), and doing so to fulfillment. The Buddha says that for sensations (受), the mind (心), and the base of mindfulness of dharmas as dharmas (法法念處), it is also such as this (亦如是說). Having cultivated the Seven Factors of Bodhi, illumination and liberation are fulfilled (滿足明解脫).

Preparation for ānāpānasmṛti

SA 803 is the first discourse in the collection to give a lengthy treatment to the practice of ānāpānasmṛti. This includes great detail about the manner in which one should start the practice of ānāpānasmṛti. The bhikṣu first enters a forest (入林中), or an empty room (閑房). He should be seated below a tree (樹下), or on the ground in a clear place (空露地). He adjusts his body and sits correctly (端身正坐), putting mindfulness before him (繫念面前). He then cuts off craving and affection (斷世貪愛), and develops purity apart from desires (離欲清淨). He then severs ill-will (瞋恚), drowsiness (睡眠), restlessness and remorse (掉悔), and doubt (疑). By cultivating these good dharmas (於諸善法), his mind attains resolve (心得決定). At this point he becomes far from the five obstructing afflictions of the mind (遠離五蓋煩惱於心) which cause one’s power of wisdom to weaken (令慧力羸), and which ultimately prevent one from going to Nirvāṇa (不趣涅槃).

Detailed instructions for ānāpānasmṛti

SA 803 gives a detailed explanation of how ānāpānasmṛti can be cultivated in a way that implicitly conforms to the Four Bases of Mindfulness, but does not contain any reference to them. The sixteen practices are each a type of mindfulness (念) or awareness (覺知) with each inner-breath (內息) and outer-breath (外息). Here, inner-breath (內息) and outer-breath (外息) are probably mistakes in translation, better rendered as in-breath (入息) and out-breath (出息), respectively. The Pali parallel for this text, SN 54.1, has in-breath (assāsa) and out-breath (passāsa). The first four practices are for [1] mindfulness (念) of breaths that are long (息長), [2] mindfulness (念) of breaths that are short (息短), [3] awareness of the entire body (覺知一切身), and [4] awareness of calming all bodily formations (覺知一切身行息). The next four are [5] awareness of joy (覺知喜), [6] awareness of bliss (覺知樂), [7] awareness of mental formations (覺知心行), and [8] awareness of calming mental formations (覺知心行息). The next four are [9] awareness of the mind (覺知心), [10] awareness of gladdening the mind (覺知心悅), [11] awareness of stabilizing the mind (覺知心定), and [12] awareness of releasing the mind (覺知心解脫). The last four are [13] observing impermanence (觀察無常), [14] observing severance (觀察斷), [15] observing desirelessness (觀察無欲), and [16] observing cessation (觀察滅).

SA 807 gives another set of instructions for cultivating ānāpānasmṛti. This is a report by the Buddha of how he practiced ānāpānasmṛti in seclusion for a two month retreat. These practices are to be done with mindfulness of the in-breath (入息時念), knowing the in-breath as it really is (入息如實知), and mindfulness of the out-breath (出息時念), knowing the out-breath as it really is (出息如實知). The practices are for [1] mindfulness of long breaths (長息念), [2] mindfulness of short breaths (短息念), [3] knowing the entire body (一切身覺), and [4] calming bodily formations (身行休息). The remaining items are abbreviated, ending in observing cessation (乃至滅). At that time, the Buddha observes that coarse thoughts still abide (此則粗思惟住), and having calmed thought (我今於此思惟止息已), he should cultivate abiding in an even more subtle state, and abide in that (當更修餘微細修住而住). At that time, having calmed coarse thoughts (我息止粗思惟已), he enters an even more subtle state (即更入微細思惟), and abides there a long time (多住而住).

SA 810 gives a long set of instructions about how to cultivate ānāpānasmṛti (修安那般那念) in order to fulfill the Four Bases of Mindfulness (四念處滿足). Each practice is a type of mindfulness (念學) or awareness (覺知) with each in-breath (入息) and out-breath (出息). Abiding in mindfulness of the body as the body (身身觀念住) consists of [1] mindfulness of long breaths (長息念學), [2] mindfulness of short breaths (短息念學), [3] awareness of all bodily formations (一切身行覺知), and [4] mindfulness of calming bodily formations (身行休息念學). Abiding in mindfulness of sensations as sensations (受受觀念住) includes [5] awareness of joy (喜覺知), [6] awareness of bliss (樂覺知), [7] awareness of mental formations (心行覺知), and [8] awareness of calming mental formations (心行息覺知). Abiding in mindfulness of the mind as the mind (心心觀念住) includes [9] awareness of the mind (心覺知), [10] awareness of gladdening the mind (心悅覺知), [11] awareness of stabilizing the mind (心定覺知), and [12] awareness of releasing the mind (心解脫覺知). Abiding in mindfulness of dharmas as dharmas (法法觀念住) includes [13] observing impermanence (觀無常), [14] observing severance (觀斷), [15] observing desirelessness (觀無欲), and [16] observing cessation (觀滅).

SA 813 gives another explanation of how ānāpānasmṛti can be placed within the framework of cultivating the Four Bases of Mindfulness (修四念處). When the Buddha teaches this to Ānanda, he says that this is how to diligently cultivate the Four Bases of Mindfulness. Mindfulness of the body as the body (身身觀念) includes mindfulness of the in-breath (念入息), up to exhalation calming bodily formations (身行止息出息). Mindfulness of sensations as sensations (受受觀念) includes awareness of joy (覺知喜), up to awareness of calming mental formations (覺知意行息). Mindfulness of the mind as the mind (心心觀念) includes awareness of the mind (覺知心), awareness of gladdening the mind (覺知欣悅心), awareness of stabilizing the mind (覺知定心), and awareness of releasing the mind (覺知解脫心). Some practices here are abbreviated, and mindfulness of dharmas as dharmas (法法觀念) is not addressed in any detail.

SA 813 also uses an illustration of a person riding a carriage (人乘車輿) across a wild place with some difficulty (顛沛). For each of the Four Bases of Mindfulness, the carriage analogy is made with the carriage coming from one cardinal direction, flattening any clumps of earth (土堆) along the way. In this analogy, to practice one of the Four Bases of Mindfulness is like riding in a carriage in a specific direction. The clumps of earth, representing defilements, are flattened as a matter of course by this practice of mindfulness. A bhikṣu who practices this correctly is called one who diligently and skillfully cultivates the Four Bases of Mindfulness (比丘精勤方便修四念處).

The text of SA 813 includes rich illustrations and is framed entirely within the context of diligently cultivating the Four Bases of Mindfulness (精勤修習四念處), using each by name, and including vivid illustrations, but never mentioning ānāpānasmṛti. Meanwhile, SA 803 is framed entirely within the context of a bhikṣu assiduously cultivating ānāpānasmṛti (比丘修習安那般那念多修習者), without any mention of the Four Bases of Mindfulness, and without giving any illustrations. It seems likely that SA 813 originally came from the smṛtyupasthāna camp, since much of the style and terminology seem much more at home within that saṃyukta.

Ariṣṭa alternative method

SA 805 concerns an alternative method of cultivating ānāpānasmṛti. This method is spoken of by Venerable Ariṣṭa (阿梨瑟吒). SA 805 begins with the Buddha asking the bhikṣus if they have cultivated ānāpānasmṛti as he has taught. Then Ariṣṭa steps forward, pays his respects to the Buddha, and tells the Buddha that he has done so. He describes this has paying no mind to past formations (我於過去諸行不顧念), not giving rise to delight for future formations (未來諸行不生欣樂), and not giving rise to defiling attachment for present formations (於現在諸行不生染著). Regarding the internal and external obstructions and thoughts before him (於內外對礙想), they are skillfully removed (善正除滅). Ariṣṭa describes this as cultivating ānāpānasmṛti as taught by the Bhagavān (修世尊所說安那般那念). Notably, there is no mention of breathing in and out, or of the Four Bases of Mindfulness.

Nevertheless, the Buddha replies to Ariṣṭa saying that this is indeed cultivating ānāpānasmṛti as he has taught (汝實修我所說安那般那念). Thus Ariṣṭa’s method is validated as conforming to cultivation of ānāpānasmṛti as taught by the Buddha. However, the Buddha says that there is another way that is superior. He then repeats the detailed instructions of SA 803. The Buddha then says that this is superior as surpasses Ariṣṭa’s cultivation of ānāpānasmṛti (勝妙過汝所修安那股那念).

SA 805 is curious because it gives us a different form of practice from what we see elsewhere in the Saṃyukta Āgama. How this method formed, and why it is considered to be a form of ānāpānasmṛti, is unclear. Yet the method cultivated by Ariṣṭa must have been significant and important enough to warrant inclusion in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta.

The example of Kapphiṇa

SA 806 makes an example of Venerable Kapphiṇa as one who excels in his cultivation of ānāpānasmṛti. After begging for alms and washing up as usual, Kapphiṇa takes his niṣīdana (尼師檀), or cushion, and enters the Andha Grove (安陀林), sitting below a tree (坐一樹下). He makes his body straight and unmoving (正身不動), and corrects his body and mind (身心正直) in supreme wondrous contemplation (勝妙思惟). The Buddha points out Kapphiṇa to the other bhikṣus, saying that he is sitting correctly with his body straight (正身端坐), unmoving in body and mind (身心不動), abiding in supreme wondrous abiding (住勝妙住). The bhikṣus then describe Kapphiṇa as sitting correctly with his body straight (正身端坐), skillfully preserving his body (善攝其身), not leaning and not moving (不傾不動), in supreme wondrous concentration (專心勝妙).

The Buddha says that if a bhikṣu cultivates samādhi (若比丘修習三昧), with body and mind peacefully abiding (身心安住), not leaning and not moving (不傾不動), abiding in supreme wondrous abiding (住勝妙住者), then this bhikṣu obtains this samādhi (此比丘得此三昧) which is unmoving and skillful (不勤方便), and what he desires is obtained (隨欲即得). When asked further about what samādhi this is, the Buddha replies with the detailed formula for ānāpānasmṛti, as found in SA 803. He then describes this as the samādhi of a bhikṣu seated correctly in contemplation (是名三昧若比丘端坐思惟), with body and mind unmoving (身心不動), in supreme wondrous abiding (住勝妙住).

Several important themes run through SA 806. Perhaps most noticeable is the very strong emphasis on sitting the correct way, with the body straight, correct and upright in both body and mind. This tallies well with SA 803, which describes preparation for ānāpānasmṛti using a detailed formula. The Buddha also makes a display of Kapphiṇa, choosing not to simply describe Kapphiṇa’s mental qualities, but instead to also show the bhikṣus how straight, upright, and correct his posture is, and to use this as some indication about the quality of his practice.

Just as SA 806 has a strong emphasis on physical and mental correctness, it also emphasizes that as Kapphiṇa is in samādhi, he is perfectly unmoving in body and mind. The Buddha also connects this perfectly motionless samādhi to the cultivation of ānāpānasmṛti, and uses the common formula found in SA 803. Thus from SA 806 we again see that cultivating ānāpānasmṛti follows an important principle seen throughout the Saṃyukta Āgama and Saṃyutta Nikāya—that mindfulness leads to samādhi. What is special about SA 806 is that it is a unique description that includes both detailed instructions for the form of mindfulness, including qualities of the contemplation, and also includes descriptions of the unmoving state of samādhi that results from it.

Five principles for ānāpānasmṛti

SA 801 is devoted to enumerating five beneficial dharmas which bring many rich benefits (多所饒益) for the cultivation of ānāpānasmṛti (修安那般那念). [1] The first is to abide in purity following the prātimokṣa rules (波羅提木叉律儀). [2] The second is to have few desires (少欲), few things (少事), and few affairs to attend to (少務). [3] The third is to have moderation in food and drink (飲食知量多少得中). [4] The fourth is to not sleep at the beginning of the night or at the end of the night (初夜後夜). [5] The fifth is to spend time in the forest (空閑林中), apart from troubles and conflicts (離諸憒閙). Throughout the text, there is an emphasis on a simple and minimalist lifestyle, being concerned only with essential matters, and spending time in the forest.

Ānāpānasmṛti alongside other meditations

SA 815 includes a short formula about four methods of meditation, and the benefits of each. This is the same formula seen in the Madhyama Āgama. In SA 815, we see that a bhikṣu cultivates contemplation of impurity in order to cut off craving and desire (修不淨觀斷貪欲). A mind of kindness is cultivated in order to cut off ill-will (修慈心斷瞋恚). Contemplating the impermanence of thoughts is cultivated in order to cut off self-pride (修無常想斷我慢). Ānāpānasmṛti is cultivated in order to cut off thoughts (修安那般那念斷覺想).

This formula is featured twice in the Madhyama Āgama, and seems more characteristic of that text. In the Saṃyukta Āgama, it only appears once, in SA 815, and even there it has all the appearance of being an artificial addition. It was likely an expansion of the phrase, repeated several times throughout the text, that a bhikṣu cultivates ānāpānasmṛti to cut off thoughts (修安那般那念斷覺想). Nevertheless, this one instance in the SA gives another example of this important formula followed throughout much of the later history of Buddhism.

Ānāpānasmṛti and impurity meditations

SA 809 features a long narrative about impurity contemplation (不淨觀), and how cultivating this practice to excess led to the mass suicide of as many as sixty bhikṣus. When the Buddha meets with the bhikṣus for the fifteenth day to recite the precepts (十五日說戒時), he asks why so many are missing, and then learns about the truth. Then the Buddha wishes to speak to the bhikṣus about how to abide in a subtle abiding (住微細住) in accordance with awakening (隨順開覺). Not giving rise to evil and unwholesome dharmas (未起惡不善法), they will quickly obtain rest (速令休息), which is like a great rain from the heavens (如天大雨). Not giving rise to the dust (未起塵) will cause them to obtain rest (能令休息). The Buddha then teaches the bhikṣus about how to cultivate by abiding in ānāpānasmṛti (修習安那般那念住).

SA 809 is unusual within the Saṃyukta Āgama and also unusual within this saṃyukta. The story primarily exists in the vinayas, where it serves a definite purpose in giving a narrative about suicide and taking life. The story seems to have crept back into the Saṃyukta Āgama as SA 809 and the Saṃyutta Nikāya as SN 54.9. Within these collections, it serves to warn monastics about the dangers of impurity contemplations while promoting and teaching ānāpānasmṛti as the safer alternative. SA 809 is also special because it is one of the very few places in the Saṃyukta Āgama to make significant mention of impurity contemplation (不淨觀). Unlike ānāpānasmṛti, contemplation of impurity has no saṃyukta in the SA, and is treated only rarely within the collection.

Madhyama Āgama

We can also look to the Chinese translation of the Madhyama Āgama, translated by Gautama Saṃghadeva (T. 26), as Zhong Ahan Jing (中阿含經). This collection also contains some materials on ānāpānasmṛti, but not very much compared with what is contained in the Saṃyukta Āgama. In the Saṃyukta Āgama, ānāpānasmṛti is a distinct practice that has its own saṃyukta along with detailed instructions, and benefits touted to no end. In the Madhyama Āgama, however, ānāpānasmṛti is not given a strong position, and is mostly subsumed under other practices. Impurity contemplations seem to have mostly displaced ānāpānasmṛti.

Presentation of ānāpānasmṛti

Ānāpānasmṛti is presented in various ways in the Madhyama Āgama. In MA 56 and 57, the practice of ānāpānasmṛti is referenced directly, as cultivating ānāpāna (修息出息入). In MA 81, the practice is found as one part of cultivating mindfulness of the body (修習念身). In MA 98, ānāpānasmṛti is found in the context of the Four Bases of Mindfulness, as part of mindfulness of the body as the body (觀身如身). MA 81 and MA 98 do not use the term ānāpānasmṛti or present it as a distinct practice. In these two sūtras, only the first four steps are used, and even then only embedded in other practices.

Cutting off random thoughts

MA 56 and MA 57 both contain a short formula explaining four different types of cultivation and their benefits. The formula is described in the exact same terms in both texts. We are told to about four dharmas to cultivate, and the benefits of each. We are told that cultivating contemplation of impurity (修惡露) severs desires (令斷欲). Cultivating kindness (修慈) severs hatred (令斷恚). Cultivating ānāpāna (修息出息入) severs chaotic thoughts (令斷亂念). Cultivating contemplation of impermanence (修無常想) severs self-pride (令斷我慢). Here again we see the role of ānāpānasmṛti in cutting off thoughts, in this case termed as chaotic or random (亂) thoughts. Of course, this is in line with yogic traditions that associate control of the breath with this same benefit.

Detailed instructions for ānāpānasmṛti

Instructions for ānāpānasmṛti are found in MA 81, on Mindfulness of the Body (念身), and in MA 98, on the Bases of Mindfulness (念處). In both sūtras they are given using the same formula and the same terminology, but ānāpānasmṛti in the Madhyama Āgama only exists as a form of Mindfulness of the Body, and does not extend to the sixteen practices seen in the Saṃyukta Āgama.

In MA 81 and MA 98, practicing mindfulness of the body is explained as follows. Mindful of the in-breath (念入息), he is aware and mindful of the in-breath (知念入息). Mindful of the out-breath (念出息), he is aware and mindful of the out-breath (知念出息). [1] For a long in-breath (入息長), he is aware of the long in-breath (知入息長), and for a long out-breath (出息長), he is aware of the long out-breath (知出息長). [2] For a short in-breath (入息短), he is aware of the short in-breath (知入息短), and for a short out-breath (出息短), he is aware of the short out-breath (知出息短). [3] He trains awareness of the entire body on the in-breath (學一切身息入), and awareness of the entire body on the out-breath (學一切身息出). [4] He trains stopping bodily formations on the in-breath (學止身行息入), and stopping verbal formations on the out-breath (學止口行息出).

The sequence presented in the Madhyama Āgama is very unique. While it is otherwise identical to the first four practices for cultivating ānāpānasmṛti as seen in the Saṃyukta Āgama, the fourth practice in the Madhyama Āgama includes halting bodily formations (止身行) on the in-breath, as usual, but halting verbal formations (止口行) on the out-breath. This is a pattern not seen in other traditions of ānāpānasmṛti. Because the sequence is repeated in identical terms in both MA 81 and MA 98, we cannot assume that it is simply a mistake. It may very well be a slightly different form of the practice with roots in a different textual lineage. Nevertheless, this sequence must have been rare or marginal because while this version of the Madhyama Āgama is associated with the Sarvāstivāda sect, the sequence seen here is not found in the mainstream Sarvāstivāda treatment of ānāpānasmṛti.

Dīrgha Āgama

No details of ānāpānasmṛti exist in the Dīrgha Āgama, which was translated by Buddhayaśas and Zhu Fonian, as Chang Ahan Jing (長阿含經).

Ekottarika Āgama

Some materials on ānāpānasmṛti can be found in the Chinese translation of the Ekottarika Āgama, translated by Dharmanandi and edited by Gautama Saṃghadeva (T. 125), called Zengyi Ahan Jing (增壹阿含經). In this collection there is a large sūtra, EA 17.1, about a teaching on ānāpānasmṛti given to Rāhula. It is the largest text on ānāpānasmṛti found in the āgamas, and it is a partial parallel to MN 62 and MN 118 in the Pali Canon. The Ekottarika Āgama also contains other scattered short teachings about ānāpānasmṛti, but nowhere near as extensive as what we see in the Saṃyukta Āgama.

Ten Forms of Mindfulness

Ānāpānasmṛti is featured in the Ekottarika Āgama as one of ten forms of mindfulness (十念). These are [1] mindfulness of the Buddha (念佛), [2] mindfulness of the Dharma (念法), [3] mindfulness of the Bhikṣu Saṃgha (念比丘僧), [4] mindfulness of discipline (念戒), [5] mindfulness of giving (念施), [6] mindfulness of devas (念天), [7] mindfulness of resting (念休息), [8] mindfulness of ānāpāna (念安般), [9] mindfulness of the body (念身), and [10] mindfulness of death (念死). These ten forms of mindfulness are briefly introduced in the first varga, the preface (序品第一). Then the second varga is exclusively about the ten forms of mindfulness (十念品第二), and the third varga teaches the ten forms of mindfulness in detail (廣演品第三).

For each of the ten forms of mindfulness, in EA 2.1–10, the Buddha tells the bhikṣus that if they cultivate one dharma (當修行一法), and cultivate this one dharma extensively (當廣布一法), then as a matter of course they will obtain spiritual powers (便成神通), eliminate random thoughts (除諸亂想), and obtain the fruit of śramaṇas (獲沙門果), and be caused to enter Nirvāṇa (自致涅槃). In the third varga, EA 3.1–10 also list these benefits, but add that they will have fame and renown (便有名譽), obtain the great fruit (成大果報), have various skillful provisions (諸善普具), and arrive at the station of the unconditioned (至無為處). These benefits are attributed to every one of the ten forms of mindfulness.

Cutting off thoughts

EA 17.1 includes a subtle reference to the special role of ānāpānasmṛti in cutting off thoughts. The Buddha tells Rāhula that if he cultivates the dharma of ānāpāna (修行安般之法), then all thoughts of worry and sorrow will be eliminated (所有愁憂之想皆當除盡). Here the important term 想 means an idea, notion, concept, or thought. As in the Saṃyukta Āgama and the Madhyama Āgama, here ānāpānasmṛti is again touted as having the benefit of cutting off such thoughts. Later when Rāhula asks the Buddha for instruction, he speaks of how to eliminate worry and sorrow (除去愁憂), and be without various thoughts (無有諸想). After the instructions given to Rāhula, the Buddha speaks in terms of being without disturbing thoughts of worry and sorrow (無愁憂惱亂之想). The translation of these passages was done very carefully in order to use 想 in forms such as 愁憂之想 and indicating clearly that the underlying thoughts (想) are eliminated.

Preparation for ānāpānasmṛti

In EA 3.8, the Buddha teaches that a bhikṣu first corrects his body and mind (正身正意), sits cross-legged (結跏趺坐), places mindfulness at the fore (繫念在前). Without any other thoughts (無有他想), he focuses on mindfulness of ānāpāna (專精念安般).

In EA 17.1, the Buddha teaches using the example of a bhikṣu (若有比丘) who enjoys dwelling in a quiet place where there are no people (樂於閑靜無人之處). He then corrects his body and mind (正身正意), and sits cross-legged (結跏趺坐). Without any other mindfulness (無他異念), he focuses his mind on the tip of his nose (繫意鼻頭).

This preparation for ānāpānasmṛti is different than what we have seen in the Saṃyukta Āgama. In the SA, the bhikṣu goes to the forest, or to an empty room. However, in the EA, the hypothetical bhikṣu simply enjoys going to a quiet place where there are no people (閑靜無人之處). The preparations given in the SA are more elaborate, but the SA does not include instructions to cross the legs, as seen in the EA (結跏趺坐). The SA tells us that the bhikṣu has mindfulness at the fore (繫念面前), as we see in EA 3.8 (繫念在前), while the EA 17.1 tells us that a bhikṣu should focus on the tip of his nose (繫意鼻頭). Finally, the discourses in the EA contain no instructions about cutting off hindrances, as seen in the SA.

Detailed instructions

In EA 3.8, ānāpānasmṛti is taught in some detail. [1] If there is a time when the breath is long (若息長時), he should observe and know that his breath is long (當觀知我今息長). [2] If there is a time when the breath is short (若復息短), he should observe and know that his breath is short (當觀知我今息短). [3] If his breath is very cold (若息極冷), he should observe and know that his breath is cold (當觀知我今息冷). [4] If his breath is warm (若復息熱), he should observe and know that his breath is warm (當觀知我今息熱). [5] He completely observes the body (具觀身體), fully observing and knowing it from the head down to the feet (從頭至足皆當觀知). [6] If there is a breath long or short (若復息有長短), he should also observe it as long or short (當觀息有長有短), with the mind fixated on the body (用心持身), knowing the breath long or short (知息長短), fully knowing it (皆悉知之), investigating the breath in and out (尋息出入), discriminating fully (分別曉了). [7] If the mind is focused on the body (若心持身) and there is awareness of a breath long or short (知息長短), he should also be aware of it (亦復知之), counting (?) the breath long or short (數息長短), discriminating fully (分別曉了).

In EA 17.1, the instructions for ānāpānasmṛti are given in a somewhat more conventional way. [1] For a long out-breath (出息長), he knows the breath is long (知息長), and for a long in-breath (入息長), he knows the breath is long (知息長). [2] For a short out-breath (出息短), he knows the breath is short (知息短), and for a short in-breath (入息短), he knows the breath is short (知息短). [3] For a cold out-breath (出息冷), he knows the breath is cold (知息冷), and for a cold in-breath (入息冷), he knows the breath is cold (知息冷). [4] For a warm out-breath (出息暖), he knows the breath is warm (知息暖), and for a warm in-breath (入息暖), he knows the breath is warm (知息暖). [5] He completely observes the in-breaths and out-breaths of the body (盡觀身體入息出息), fully aware of them all (皆悉知之). [6] If there are times when there is breathing (有時有息), he knows that it exists (知有), and when there is no breathing (又時無息), he is aware that it does not exist (知無). [7] If there is an out-breath conditioned by the mind (若息從心出), then he is aware that it is an out-breath conditioned by the mind (知從心出), and if there is an in-breath conditioned by the mind (若息從心入), then he is aware that it is an in-breath conditioned by the mind (知從心入).

These sequences are much different than what we have seen in the Saṃyukta Āgama and the Madhyama Āgama, and also very different from Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda meditation traditions. The sequences in EA 3.8 and EA 17.1 also seem to be quite different from each other, or at least their later stages are described in very different language. EA 17.1 seems to be the more conventional and reliable of the two, whereas the last two steps in EA 3.8 appear to be an explanation rather than a normal translation. The idiosyncratic nature of these sequences of seven steps again brings into question which monastic sect the Ekottarika Āgama comes from, and under what circumstances was it translated?

Advancing from ānāpānasmṛti

In EA 17.1, after Rāhula practices ānāpānasmṛti, his mind becomes free from desires (欲心便得解脫). With vitarka and vicāra (有覺有觀), and joy and peace from the mindfulness (念持喜安), he roams in the First Dhyāna (遊於初禪). When vitarka-vicāra come to a rest (有覺有觀息), there is the joy of inner seclusion (內自歡喜), focused unity of mind (專其一心), joy of samādhi (三昧念喜), and without vitarka-vicāra (無覺無觀), he roams in the Second Dhyāna (遊於二禪). Without further mental joy (無復喜念), he maintains awareness of physical bliss (自守覺知身樂), the same as that of the Noble Ones (諸賢聖), and roams in the Third Dhyāna (遊於三禪). When suffering and joy are extinguished (彼苦樂已滅), there are no more worries or sorrows (無復愁憂), and without suffering or joy (無苦無樂), with only pure mindfulness (護念清淨), he roams the Fourth Dhyāna (遊於四禪). These factors of the Four Dhyānas are again different from what we typically see. The factors for the first two dhyānas are especially different. The phrasing used is also unusual, as Rāhula does not “enter” or “abide” in the dhyānas, but rather “roams” in them (遊於).

In EA 17.1, after Rāhula passes through the Four Dhyānas, he continues to cultivate further. The text says that from this samādhi (彼以此三昧), his mind is pure, without the dust of defilements (心清淨無塵穢), and his physical body is pliant (身體柔軟). At this point he cultivates higher knowledges. Usually there are six, but in EA 17.1, only the last three of these appear. First he gains knowledge of his former lives (知所從來). At the beginning he is aware of just one life, but then a few, and eventually incalculable eons of past lives. Then with the Divine Eye (天眼), he sees the birth and death of sentient beings, and understands how they go to different destinies according to their own actions. Finally, he gains knowledge of the destruction of outflows (成盡漏心), and his mind obtains liberation from the outflows of ignorance (無明漏心得解脫). At this point he becomes an arhat (阿羅漢).

General progression from ānāpānasmṛti

In EA 17.1, we see that there is a general progression in the text. First Rāhula cultivates ānāpānasmṛti. After this, the mind of desires has been set free (欲心便得解脫), liberated from the multitude of evils (無復眾惡). Following this, Rāhula cultivates through the Four Dhyānas. After cultivating the Four Dhyānas, Rāhula remains in samādhi, and from this samādhi (彼以此三昧), his mind is pure without defilements (心清淨無塵穢) and his physical body is pliant (身體柔軟). He then cultivates the higher knowledges, ending with knowledge of the destruction of outflows (成盡漏心). From destroying all outflows, his mind is liberated and he becomes an arhat (阿羅漢). Thus the progression is illustrated in three phases: cultivating ānāpānasmṛti, cultivating the dhyānas, and cultivating the higher knowledges.

This progression is quite different from that seen in the Saṃyukta Āgama. In the SA, a bhikṣu cultivates ānāpānasmṛti in order to fulfill the Seven Factors of Bodhi, beginning with the first factor of mindfulness, and ending with the seventh factor of abandoning. The Ekottarika Āgama, by contrast, focuses rather on cultivating ānāpānasmṛti in connection with the Four Dhyānas and liberation through the higher knowledges.

Brahmavihāras and ānāpānasmṛti in EA 17.1

In EA 17.1, the Buddha admonishes Rāhula that he should observe the impermanence of form (觀色為無常), along with the other skandhas (痛想行識皆悉無常). Because Rāhula was admonished, he stays at the Jeta Grove and does not go to the city of Śrāvastī to beg for alms. Instead, he sits at the foot of a tree and single-mindedly (一心) contemplates the impermanence of form, and the other skandhas. When the Buddha returns from the city of Śrāvastī, he goes to the tree and tells Rāhula that he should cultivate the dharma of ānāpāna (修行安般之法), because it can eliminate every thought of worry and sorrow (所有愁憂之想皆當除盡).

Rather than teach ānāpānasmṛti, though, the Buddha first teaches Rāhula the Four Brahmavihāras, saying that Rāhula is still cultivating incorrectly, still with desires and impurity. Following this teaching on the brahmavihāras (慈悲喜護), the Buddha then departs again. Rāhula begins to wonder how he can cultivate ānāpānasmṛti. He then goes to the place of the Buddha and asks how he can cultivate ānāpānasmṛti to eliminate worry and sorrow (除去愁憂), to be without such thoughts (無有諸想), and obtain the great fruit (獲大果報), and taste the sweet nectar of immortality (得甘露味). The Buddha then praises Rāhula for asking this question, and gives Rāhula instructions on ānāpānasmṛti.

The closest parallel to EA 17.1 in its narrative is MN 62. This text has a similar introduction to that in EA 17.1, with the Buddha admonishing Rāhula that he should observe the impermanence of form, as well as the other skandhas. In MN 62, however, we see that Rāhula asks the Buddha about how to practice ānāpānasmṛti, but the Buddha then gives Rāhula a long and detailed teaching on contemplation of the Five Elements, followed by the brahmavihāras, and two other contemplations. Only after lengthy teachings on these other forms of meditation does the Buddha actually respond with an answer to what Rāhula has asked about.

By comparing MN 62 and EA 17.1, it seems obvious that the basic beginning of the narrative, which includes contemplating the impermanence of the skandhas, is shared between the two texts. However, the other forms of meditation such as contemplation of the Five Elements, and the practice of the brahmavihāras, are not part of the basic narrative. They have no clear place in these discourses and no attempt is made to connect their practice to ānāpānasmṛti.

Ānāpānasmṛti across the āgamas

The role of ānāpānasmṛti

The role of ānāpānasmṛti varies significantly between the four major Chinese āgamas. In the Saṃyukta Āgama (T. 99), the practice of ānāpānasmṛti receives its own special saṃyukta with 15 sūtras. While much can be gained from these texts, the overall role of ānāpānasmṛti within the Buddhism of the Saṃyukta Āgama is less clear. Outside the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta, there is only one sūtra in the entire collection that mentions the practice at all (SA 746). It is almost as if the practice is invisible to the rest of the Saṃyukta Āgama.

If ānāpānasmṛti in the Saṃyukta Āgama could ever be said to exist in any significant sense outside its own small cluster of texts, then its sixteen practices would have to be considered as just one way to practice the Four Bases of Mindfulness. Even within its own saṃyukta, detailed instructions on ānāpānasmṛti are clearly modeled upon the Four Bases of Mindfulness, although the extent of this admission varies from one text to the next. Nevertheless, for ānāpānasmṛti to receive its own saṃyukta must have required some significant support and focused effort from within the Buddhist community.

Ānāpānasmṛti within the āgamas all but vanishes in the Madhyama Āgama (T. 26). In this collection, the practice is only mentioned by name twice in passing, and only as one of four methods of cultivation. As in the Saṃyukta Āgama, the Madhyama Āgama presents ānāpānasmṛti as being especially effective in cutting off random thoughts. In other sūtras of the Madhyama Āgama, however, ānāpānasmṛti only appears in highly abbreviated form as part of different ways to meditate upon the body. In the Dīrgha Āgama (T. 1) we see yet another change as mindfulness of the Buddha becomes the main practice introduced.

With these radical shifts in content, we might think that support for ānāpānasmṛti died out within the Buddhist community by the time of the Madhyama Āgama. However, the Ekottarika Āgama (T. 125) helps tell a different story. The Ekottarika Āgama contains an assortment of texts on the subject, and the main new development for meditation in the Ekottarika Āgama is the scheme of ten forms of mindfulness. This is highly significant. The expansion of meditation methods into four (MA) and then ten (EA) demonstrates that ānāpānasmṛti was never replaced. The number of standardized meditation methods simply increased.

Buddhist meditation texts tell us the same story: that ānāpānasmṛti maintained popularity despite little reference to it in later āgamas. Among the first wave of Buddhist texts translated into Chinese in the second and third century were meditation manuals featuring ānāpānasmṛti as a very important form of meditation. Thus we can conclude that the lack of texts concerning ānāpānasmṛti in the Madhyama Āgama and Dīrgha Āgama must be explained by the idea that these collections were meant to be expansions upon existing āgama literature, and were not meant to be representative. New texts on ānāpānasmṛti were not needed in the Madhyama Āgama and Dīrgha Āgama because the subject was already given an early canonical location within the Saṃyukta Āgama.

Interpretations of practice

Because the Chinese āgamas were preserved in translation, the translations also serve to some extent as useful historical interpretations of the texts. We can combine the different interpretations to gain some useful commentary on the practice. For ānāpānasmṛti, the steps that are shared to some extent across the āgamas are the first four practices associated with mindfulness of the body.

SA 810 and SA 813 both describe the first four steps as abiding in the mindfulness of observing the body as the body (身身觀念住). MA 81 describes it as cultivating mindfulness of the body (修習念身). MA 98 calls it observing the body as the body (觀身如身).

SA 807 tells us that when there is an in-breath (入息), we should know the in-breath as it really is (入息如實知), and when there is an out-breath (出息), we should know the out-breath as it really is (出息如實知). MA 81 and MA 98 tell us that mindful of the in-breath (念入息), he is aware and mindful of the in-breath (知念入息); mindful of the out-breath (念出息), he is aware and mindful of the out-breath (知念出息).

  1. Long Breaths: SA 803, SA 810, and SA 813 have when the breath is long (息長). SA 807 has mindfulness of long breaths (長息念). MA 81 and MA 98 have that when the in-breath is long (入息長), he knows the in-breath is long (知入息長), and when the out-breath is long (出息長), he knows the out-breath is long (知出息長). EA 3.8 has if there is a time when the breath is long (若息長時), then he should observe and know that his breath is long (當觀知我今息長). EA 17.1 has for an out-breath that is long (出息長), he knows the breath is long (知息長), and for an in-breath that is long (入息長), he knows the breath is long (知息長).

  2. Short Breaths: SA 803, SA 810, and SA 813 have when the breath is short (息短). SA 807 has mindfulness of short breaths (短息念). MA 81 and MA 98 have that when the in-breath is short (入息短), he knows the in-breath is short (知入息短), and when the out-breath is short (出息短), he knows the out-breath is short (知出息短). EA 3.8 has that if there is a time when the breath is short (若復息短), he should observe and know that his breath is short (當觀知我今息短). EA 17.1 has for an out-breath that is short (出息短), he knows the breath is short (知息短), and for an in-breath that is short (入息短), he knows the breath is short (知息短).

  3. The Entire Body: SA 803 has awareness of the entire body (覺知一切身). SA 807 also has awareness of the entire body (一切身覺). SA 810 has awareness of all bodily formations (一切身行覺知). MA 81 and MA 98 have that he trains mindful of the entire body on the in-breath (學一切身息入), and mindful of the entire body on the out-breath (學一切身息出). EA 3.8 has that he completely observes the body (具觀身體), fully observing and knowing it from the head down to the feet (從頭至足皆當觀知).

  4. Calming Bodily Formations: SA 803 has awareness of the calming of bodily formations (覺知一切身行息). SA 807 and SA 810 have resting or calming bodily formations (身行休息). SA 813 has calming bodily formations (身行止息). MA 81 and MA 98 both have that he trains halting bodily formations (止身行).

By comparing translations in this way for overlapping practices, we can understand a range of interpretations for those practices. We can know something of how they were understood by translators such as Guṇabhadra (SA), Gautama Saṃghadeva (MA), and Dharmanandi (EA), and perhaps even something of how these practices were popularly understood by Buddhist monastics during the middle period of Indian Buddhism.

First published: 2016-06-05
Last updated: 2016-07-22

^ top