- Breath Meditation Condensed
- Upasika Kee Nanayon
- Translated from the Thai by
- Copyright © Khao Suan Luang Dhamma Community 1995
There are lots of people who are ashamed to talk about their own defilements but who
feel no shame at talking about the defilements of others. Those who are willing to report
their own diseases -- their own defilements -- in a straightforward manner are few and far
between. As a result, the disease of defilement is hushed up and kept secret, so that we
don't realize how serious and widespread it is. We all suffer from it, and yet no one is
open about it. No one is really interested in diagnosing his or her own defilements....
We have to find a skillful approach if we hope to wipe out this disease, and we have to
be open about it, admitting our defilements from the grossest to the most subtle levels,
dissecting them down to their minutest details. Only then will we gain from our practice.
If we look at ourselves in a superficial way, we may feel that we're already fine just as
we are, already know all we need to know. But then when the defilements let loose with
full force as anger or delusion, we pretend that nothing is wrong -- and this way the
defilements become a hidden disease, hard to catch hold of, hard to diagnose....
We have to be strong in fighting off defilements, cravings, and illusions of every
sort. We have to test our strength against them and bring them under our power. If we can
bring them under our power, we can ride on their backs. If we can't, they'll have to ride
on our backs, making us do their work, pulling us around by the nose, making us
want, wearing us out in all sorts of ways.
So are we still beasts of burden? Are we beasts of burden because defilement and
craving are riding on our backs? Have they put a ring through our noses? When you get to
the point when you've had enough, you have to stop -- stop and watch the defilements to
see how they come into being, what they want, what they eat, what they find delicious.
Make it your sport -- watching the defilements and making them starve, like a person
giving up an addiction....See if it gets the defilements upset. Do they hunger to the
point where they're salivating? Then don't let them eat. No matter what, don't let them
eat what they're addicted to. After all, there are plenty of other things to eat. You have
to be hard on them -- hard on your "self" -- like this...."Hungry? Well go
ahead and be hungry! You're going to die? Fine! Go ahead and die!" If you can take
this attitude, you'll be able to win out over all sorts of addictions, all sorts of
defilements -- because you're not pandering to desire, you're not nourishing the desire
that exists for the sake of finding flavor in physical things. It's time you stopped, time
you gave up feeding these things. If they're going to waste away and die, let them die.
After all, why should you keep them fat and well fed?
No matter what, you have to keep putting the heat on your cravings and defilements
until they wither and waste away. Don't let them raise their heads. Keep them under your
thumb. This is the sort of straightforward practice you have to follow. If you're
steadfast, if you put up a persistent fight until they're all burned away, then there's no
other victory that can come anywhere near, no other victory that's anywhere near a match
for victory over the cravings and defilements in your own heart.
This is why the Buddha taught us to put the heat on the defilements in all our
activities -- sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. If we don't do this, they'll burn
us in all our activities....
If you consider things carefully, you'll see that the Buddha's teachings are all
exactly right, both in how they tell us to examine the diseases of defilement and in how
they tell us to let go, destroy, and extinguish defilement. All the steps are there, so we
needn't go study anywhere else. Every point in his doctrine and discipline shows us the
way, so we needn't wonder how we can go about examining and doing away with these
diseases. This becomes mysterious and hard to know only if you study his teachings without
making reference to doing away with your own defilements. People don't like to talk about
their own defilements, so they end up completely ignorant. They grow old and die without
knowing a thing about their own defilements at all.
When we start to practice, when we come to comprehend how the defilements burn our own
hearts, that's when we gradually come to know ourselves. To understand suffering and
defilement and learn how to extinguish defilement gives us space to breathe....
When we learn how to put out the fires of defilement, how to destroy them, it means we
have tools. We can be confident in ourselves -- no doubts, no straying off into other
paths of practice, because we're sure to see that practicing in this way, contemplating
inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness in this way at all times, really gets rid of our
The same holds true with virtue, concentration, and discernment. They're our tools --
and we need a full set. We need the discernment that comes with Right View and the virtue
that comes with self-discipline. Virtue is very important. Virtue and discernment are like
our right and left hands. If one of our hands is dirty, it can't wash itself. You need to
use both hands to keep both hands washed and clean. Thus wherever there's virtue, you have
to have discernment. Wherever there's discernment, you have to have virtue. Discernment is
what enables you to know; virtue is what enables you to let go, to relinquish, to destroy
your addictions. Virtue isn't just a matter of the five or eight precepts, you know. It
has to deal with the finest details. Whatever your discernment sees as a cause of
suffering, you have to stop, you have to let go.
Virtue is something that gets very subtle and precise. Letting go, giving up,
renouncing, abstaining, cutting away, and destroying: All of these things are an affair of
virtue. This is why virtue and discernment have to go together, just as our right and left
hands have to help each other. They help each other wash away defilement. That's when your
mind can become centered, bright, and clear. These things show their benefits right at the
mind. If we don't have these tools, it's as if we had no hands or feet: We wouldn't be
able to get anywhere at all. We have to use our tools -- virtue and discernment -- to
destroy defilement. That's when our minds will benefit....
This is why the Buddha taught us to keep training in virtue, concentration, and
discernment. We have to keep fit in training these things. If we don't keep up the
training as we should, our tools for extinguishing suffering and defilement won't be
sharp, won't be of much use. They won't be a match for the defilements. The defilements
have monstrous powers for burning the mind in the twinkling of an eye. Say that the mind
is quiet and neutral: The slightest sensory contact can set things burning in an instant
by making us pleased or displeased. Why?
Sensory contact is our measuring stick for seeing how firm or weak our mindfulness is.
Most of the time it stirs things up. As soon as there's contact by way of the ear or eye,
the defilements are very quick. When this is the case, how can we keep things under
control? How are we going to gain control over our eyes? How are be going to gain control
over our ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind? How can we get mindfulness and discernment in
charge of these things? This is a matter of practice, pure and simple...our own affair,
something by which we can test ourselves, to see why defilements flare up so quickly when
sensory contact takes place.
Say, for instance, that we hear a person criticizing someone else. We can listen and
not get upset. But say that the thought occurs to us, "She's actually criticizing me."
As soon as we conjure up this "me," we're immediately angry and displeased.
If we concoct very much of this "me," we can get very upset. Just this fact
alone should enable us to observe that as soon as our "self" gets involved, we
suffer immediately. This is how it happens. If no sense of self comes out to get involved,
we can remain calm and indifferent. When they criticize other people, we can stay
indifferent; but as soon as we conclude that they're criticizing us, our "self"
appears and immediately gets involved -- and we immediately burn with defilement. Why?
You have to pay close attention to this. As soon as your "self" arises,
suffering arises in the very same instant. The same holds true even if you're just
thinking. The "self" you think up spreads out into all sorts of issues. The mind
gets scattered all over the place with defilement, craving, and attachments. It has very
little mindfulness and discernment watching over it, so it gets dragged every which way by
craving and defilement.
And yet we don't realize it. We think we're just fine. Is there anyone among us who
realizes that this is what's happening? We're too weighted down, weighted down with our
own delusions. No matter how much the mind is smothered in the defilement of delusion, we
don't realize it, for it keeps us deaf and blind....
There are no physical tools you can use to detect or cure this disease of defilement,
because it arises only at sensory contact. There's no substance to it. It's like a match
in a matchbox. As long as the match doesn't come into contact with the friction strip on
the side of the box, it won't give rise to fire. But as soon as we strike it against the
side of the box, it bursts into flame. If it goes out right then, all that gets burned is
the matchhead. If it doesn't stop at the matchhead, it'll burn the matchstick. If it
doesn't stop with the matchstick, and meets up with anything flammable, it can grow into
an enormous fire.
When defilement arises in the mind, it starts from the slightest contact. If we can be
quick to put it out right there, it's like striking a match that flares up -- chae --
for an instant and then dies down right in the matchhead. The defilement disbands right
there. But if we don't put it out the instant it arises, and let it start concocting
issues, it's like pouring fuel into a fire.
We have to observe the diseases of defilement in our own minds to see what their
symptoms are, why they're so quick to flare up. They can't stand to be disturbed. The
minute you disturb them, they flare up into flame. When this is the case, what can we do
to prepare ourselves beforehand? How can we stock up on mindfulness before sensory contact
The way to stock up is to practice meditation, as when we keep the breath in mind. This
is what gets our mindfulness prepared so that we can keep ahead of defilement, so that we
can keep it from arising as long as we have our theme of meditation as an inner shelter
for the mind.
The mind's outer shelter is the body, which is composed of physical elements, but its
inner shelter is the theme of meditation we use to train its mindfulness to be focused and
aware. Whatever theme we use, that's the inner shelter for the mind that keeps it from
wandering around, concocting thoughts and imaginings. This is why we need a theme of
meditation. Don't let the mind chase after its preoccupations the way ordinary people who
don't meditate do. Once we have a meditation theme to catch this monkey of a mind so that
it becomes less and less willful, day by day, it will gradually calm down, calm down until
it can stand firm for long or short periods, depending on how much we train and observe
Now, as for how we do breath meditation: The texts say to breathe in long and
out long -- heavy or light -- and then to breathe in short and out short, again heavy or
light. Those are the first steps of the training. After that we don't have to focus on the
length of the in-breath or out-breath. Instead, we simply gather our awareness at any one
point of the breath and keep this up until the mind settles down and is still. When the
mind is still, you then focus on the stillness of the mind at the same time you're aware
of the breath.
At this point you don't focus directly on the breath. You focus on the mind that is
still and at normalcy. You focus continuously on the normalcy of the mind at the same time
that you're aware of the breath coming in and out, without actually focusing on the
breath. You simply stay with the mind, but you watch it with each in-and-out breath.
Usually when you are doing physical work and your mind is at normalcy, you can know what
you're doing, so why can't you be aware of the breath? After all, it's part of the body.
Some of you are new at this, which is why you don't know how you can focus on the mind
at normalcy with each in-and-out breath without focusing directly on the breath itself.
What we're doing here is practicing how to be aware of the body and mind, pure and simple,
in and of themselves....
Start out by focusing on the breath for about 5, 10, or 20 minutes. Breathe in long and
out long, or in short and out short. At the same time, notice the stages in how the mind
feels, how it begins to settle down when you have mindfulness watching over the breath.
You've got to make a point of observing this, because usually you breathe out of habit,
with your attention far away. You don't focus on the breath; you're not really aware of
it. This leads you to think that it's hard to stay focused here, but actually it's quite
simple. After all, the breath comes in and out on its own, by its very nature. There's
nothing at all difficult about breathing. It's not like other themes of meditation. For
instance, if you're going to practice recollection of the Buddha, or buddho, you
have to keep on repeating buddho, buddho, buddho.
Actually, if you want, you can repeat buddho in the mind with each in-and-out
breath, but only in the very beginning stages. You repeat buddho to keep the mind
from concocting thoughts about other things. Simply by keeping up this repetition you can
weaken the mind's tendency to stray, for the mind can take on only one object at a time.
This is something you have to observe. The repetition is to prevent the mind from thinking
up thoughts and clambering after them.
After you've kept up the repetition -- you don't have to count the number of times --
the mind will settle down to be aware of the breath with each in-and-out breath. It will
begin to be still, neutral, at normalcy.
This is when you focus on the mind instead of the breath. Let go of the breath and
focus on the mind -- but still be aware of the breath on the side. You don't have to make
note of how long or short the breath is. Make note of the mind staying at normalcy with
each in-and-out breath. Remember this carefully so that you can put it into practice.
The posture: For focusing on the breath, sitting is a better posture than standing,
walking, or lying down, because the sensations that come with the other postures often
overcome the sensations of the breath. Walking jolts the body around too much, standing
for a long time can make you tired, and if the mind settles down when you're lying down,
you tend to fall asleep. With sitting it's possible to stay in one position and keep the
mind firmly settled for a long period of time. You can observe the subtleties of the
breath and the mind naturally and automatically.
Here I'd like to condense the steps of breath meditation to show how all four of the
tetrads mentioned in the texts can be practiced at once. In other words, is it possible to
focus on the body, feelings, the mind, and the Dhamma all in one sitting? This is an
important question for all of us. You could, if you wanted to, precisely follow all the
steps in the texts so as to develop strong powers of mental absorption (jhana), but
it takes a lot of time. It's not appropriate for those of us who are old and have only a
little time left.
What we need is a way of gathering our awareness at the breath long enough to make the
mind firm, and then go straight to examining how all formations are inconstant, stressful,
and not-self, so that we can see the truth of all formations with each in-and-out breath.
If you can keep at this continually, without break, your mindfulness will become firm and
snug enough for you to give rise to the discernment that will enable you to gain clear
knowledge and vision.
So what follows is a guide to the steps in practicing a condensed form of breath
meditation....Give them a try until you find they give rise to knowledge of your own
within you. You're sure to give rise to knowledge of your very own.
The first thing when you're going to meditate on the breath is to sit straight and keep
your mindfulness firm. Breathe in. Breathe out. Make the breath feel open and at ease.
Don't tense your hands, your feet, or any of your joints at all. You have to keep your
body in a posture that feels appropriate to your breathing. At the beginning, breathe in
long and out long, fairly heavily, and gradually the breath will shorten -- sometimes
heavy and sometimes light. Then breathe in short and out short for about 10 or 15 minutes
and then change.
After a while, when you stay focused mindfully on it, the breath will gradually change.
Watch it change for as many minutes as you like, then be aware of the whole breath, all of
its subtle sensations. This is the third step, the third step of the first tetrad: sabba-kaya-patisamvedi
-- focusing on how the breath affects the whole body by watching all the breath
sensations in all the various parts of the body, and in particular the sensations related
to the in-and-out breath.
From there you focus on the sensation of the breath at any one point. When you do this
correctly for a fairly long while, the body -- the breath -- will gradually grow still.
The mind will grow calm. In other words, the breath grows still together with the
awareness of the breath. When the subtleties of the breath grow still at the same time
that your undistracted awareness settles down, the breath grows even more still. All the
sensations in the body gradually grow more and more still. This is the fourth step, the
stilling of bodily formations.
As soon as this happens, you begin to be aware of the feelings that arise with the
stilling of the body and mind. Whether they are feelings of pleasure or rapture or
whatever, they appear clearly enough for you to contemplate them.
The stages through which you have already passed -- watching the breath come in and
out, long or short -- should be enough to make you realize -- even though you may not have
focused on the idea -- that the breath is inconstant. It's continually changing, from in
long and out long to in short and out short, from heavy to light and so forth. This should
enable you to read the breath, to understand that there's nothing constant to it at all.
It changes on its own from one moment to the next.
Once you have realized the inconstancy of the body -- in other words, of the breath --
you'll be able to see the subtle sensations of pleasure and pain in the realm of feeling.
So now you watch feelings, right there in the same place where you've been focusing on the
breath. Even though they are feelings that arise from the stillness of the body or mind,
they're nevertheless inconstant even in that stillness. They can change. So these changing
sensations in the realm of feeling exhibit inconstancy in and of themselves, just like the
When you see change in the body, change in feelings, and change in the mind, this is
called seeing the Dhamma, i.e., seeing inconstancy. You have to understand this
correctly. Practicing the first tetrad of breath meditation contains all four tetrads of
breath meditation. In other words, you see the inconstancy of the body and then
contemplate feeling. You see the inconstancy of feeling and then contemplate the mind. The
mind, too, is inconstant. This inconstancy of the mind is the Dhamma. To see the Dhamma is
to see this inconstancy.
When you see the true nature of all inconstant things, then keep track of that
inconstancy at all times, with every in-and-out breath. Keep this up in all your
activities to see what happens next.
What happens next is dispassion. Letting go. This is something you have to know for
This is what condensed breath meditation is like. I call it condensed because it
contains all the steps at once. You don't have to do one step at a time. Simply focus at
one point, the body, and you'll see the inconstancy of the body. When you see the
inconstancy of the body, you'll have to see feeling. Feeling will have to show its
inconstancy. The mind's sensitivity to feeling, or its thoughts and imaginings, are also
inconstant. All of these things keep on changing. This is how you know inconstancy....
If you can become skilled at looking and knowing in this way, you'll be struck with the
inconstancy, stressfulness, and not-selfness of your "self," and you'll meet
with the genuine Dhamma. The Dhamma that's constantly changing like a burning fire --
burning with inconstancy, stress, and not-selfness -- is the Dhamma of the impermanence of
all formations. But further in, in the mind or in the property of consciousness, is
something special, beyond the reach of any kind of fire. There, there's no suffering or
stress of any kind at all. This thing that lies "inside": You could say that it
lies within the mind, but it isn't really in the mind. It's simply that the contact is
there at the mind. There's no way you can really describe it. Only the extinguishing of
all defilement will lead you to know it for yourself.
This "something special" within exists by its very nature, but defilements
have it surrounded on all sides. All these counterfeit things -- the defilements -- keep
getting in the way and take possession of everything, so that this special nature remains
imprisoned inside at all times. Actually, there's nothing in the dimension of time that
can be compared with it. There's nothing by which you can label it, but it's something
that you can pierce through to see -- i.e., by piercing through defilement, craving, and
attachment into the state of mind that is pure, bright, and silent. This is the only thing
But it doesn't have only one level. There are many levels, from the outer bark to the
inner bark and on to the sapwood before you reach the heartwood. The genuine Dhamma is
like the heartwood, but there's a lot to the mind that isn't heartwood: The roots, the
branches and leaves of the tree are more than many, but there's only a little heartwood.
The parts that aren't heartwood will gradually decay and disintegrate, but the heartwood
doesn't decay. That's one kind of comparison we can make. It's like a tree that dies
standing. The leaves fall away, the branches rot away, the bark and sapwood rot away,
leaving nothing but the true heartwood. That's one comparison we can make with this thing
we call deathless, this property that has no birth, no death, no changing. We can also
call it nibbana or the Unconditioned. It's all the same thing.
Now, then. Isn't this something worth trying to break through to see?...