English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Mindfulness: The Path to the Deathless
The Meditation Teaching of
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho


Watching the Breath (Anapanasati)

Anapanasati[1] is a way of concentrating your mind on your breath, so whether you are an expert at it already or whether you have given it up as a lost cause, there is always a time to watch the breath. This is an opportunity for developing 'samadhi' (concentration) through mustering all your attention just on the sensation of breathing. So at this time use your full commitment to that one point for the length of an inhalation, and the length of an exhalation. You are not trying to do it for, say, fifteen minutes, because you would never succeed at that, if that were your designated span of time for one-pointed concentration. So use this span of an inhalation and an exhalation.

    Now the success of this depends on your patience rather than on your will-power, because the mind does wander and we always have to patiently go back to the breath. When we're aware that the mind wanders off, we note what it is: it may be because we tend to just put in a lot of energy at first and then not sustain it, making too much effort without sustaining power. So we are using the length of an inhalation and the length of an exhalation in order to limit the effort to just this length of time within which to sustain attention. Put forth effort at the beginning of the exhalation to sustain it through that, through the exhalation to the end, and then again with the inhalation. Eventually it becomes even, and one is said to have 'samadhi' when it seems effortless.

    At first it seems like a lot of effort, or that we can't do it, because we aren't used to doing this. Most minds have been trained to use associative thought. The mind has been trained by reading books and the like, to go from one word to the next, to have thoughts and concepts based on logic and reason. However, anapanasati is a different kind of training, where the object that we're concentrating on is so simple that it's not at all interesting on the intellectual level. So it's not a matter of being interested in it, but of putting forth effort and using this natural function of the body as a point of concentration. The body breathes whether one is aware of it or not. It's not like pranayama, where we're developing power through the breath, but rather developing samadhi -- concentration -- and mindfulness through observing the breath, the normal breath, as it is right now. As with anything, this is something that we have to practise to be able to do; nobody has any problem understanding the theory, it's in the continuous practice of it that people feel discouraged.

    But note that very discouragement that comes from not being able to get the result that you want, because that's the hindrance to the practice. Note that very feeling, recognise that, and then let it go. Go back to the breath again. Be aware of that point where you get fed up or feel aversion or impatience with it, recognise it, then let it go and go back to the breath again.



The Mantra 'Buddho'

If you've got a really active thinking mind, you may find the mantra[2] 'Buddho' helpful. Inhale on 'Bud' and exhale on '-dho' so you're actually thinking this for each inhalation. This is a way of sustaining concentration: so for the next fifteen minutes, do the anapanasati, putting all your attention, composing your mind with the mantric sound, 'Bud-dho'. Learn to train the mind to that point of clarity and brightness rather than just sinking into passivity. It requires sustained effort: one inhalation of 'Bud' -- fully bright and clear in your mind, the thought itself raised and bright from the beginning to the end of the inhalation, and '-dho' on the exhalation. Let everything else go at this time. The occasion has arisen now to do just this -- you can solve your problems and the world's problems afterwards. At this time this much is all the occasion calls for. Bring the mantra up into consciousness. Make the mantra fully conscious instead of just a perfunctory passive thing that makes the mind dull; energise the mind so that the inhalation on 'Bud' is a bright inhalation, not just a perfunctory 'Bud' sound that fades out because it never gets brightened or refreshed by your mind. You can visualise the spelling so that you're fully with that syllable for the length of an inhalation, from the beginning to the end. Then '-dho' on the exhalation is performed the same way so that there's a continuity of effort rather than sporadic leaps-and-starts and failures.

    Just notice if you have any obsessive thoughts that are coming up -- some silly phrase that might be going through your mind. Now if you just sink into a passive state, then obsessive thoughts will take over. But learning to understand how the mind works and how to use it skilfully, you're taking this particular thought, the concept of 'Buddho' (the Buddha, the One Who Knows), and you're holding it in the mind as a thought. Not just as an obsessive, habitual thought, but as a skilful use of thought, using it to sustain concentration for the length of one inhalation, exhalation, for fifteen minutes.

    The practice is that, no matter how many times you fail and your mind starts wandering, you simply note that you're distracted, or that you're thinking about it, or you'd rather not bother with 'Buddho' -- 'I don't want to do that. I'd rather just sit here and relax and not have to put forth any effort. Don't feel like doing it.' Or maybe you've got other things on your mind at this time, creeping in at the edges of consciousness -- so you note that. Note what mood there is in your mind right now -- not to be critical or discouraged, but just calmly, coolly notice, if you're calmed by it, or if you feel dull or sleepy; if you've been thinking all this time or if you've been concentrating. Just to know

    The obstacle to concentration practice is aversion to failure and the incredible desire to succeed. Practice is not a matter of will-power, but of wisdom, of noting wisdom. With this practice, you can learn where your weaknesses are, where you tend to get lost. You witness the kind of character traits you've developed in your life so far, not to be critical of them but just to know how to work with them and not be enslaved by them. This means a careful, wise reflection on the way things are. So rather than avoiding them at all costs, even the ugliest messes are observed and recognised. That's an enduring quality. Nibbana[3] is often described as being 'cool'. Sounds like hip talk, doesn't it? But there's a certain significance to that word. Coolness to what? It tends to be refreshing, not caught up in passions but detached, alert and balanced.

    The word 'Buddho' is a word that you can develop in your life as something to fill the mind with rather than with worries and all kinds of unskilful habits. Take the word, look at it, listen to it: 'Buddho'! It means the one who knows, the Buddha, the awakened, that which is awake. You can visualise it in your mind. Listen to what your mind says -- blah, blah, blah, etc. It goes on like this, an endless kind of excrement of repressed fears and aversions. So, now, we are recognising that. We're not using 'Buddho' as a club to annihilate or repress things, but as a skilful means. We can use the finest tools for killing and for harming others, can't we? You can take the most beautiful Buddha rupa and bash somebody over the head with it if you want! That's not what we call 'Buddhanussati', Reflection on the Buddha, is it? But we might do that with the word 'Buddho' as a way of suppressing those thoughts or feelings. That's an unskilful use of it. Remember we're not here to annihilate but to allow things to fade out. This is a gentle practice of patiently imposing 'Buddho' over the thinking, not out of exasperation, but in a firm and deliberate way.

    The world needs to learn how to do this, doesn't it? -- the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- rather than taking machine guns and nuclear weapons and annihilating things that get in the way; or saying awful nasty things to each other. Even in our lives we do that, don't we? How many of you have said nasty things to someone else recently, wounding things, unkind barbed criticism, just because they annoy you, get in your way, or frighten you? So we practise just this with the little nasty annoying things in our own mind, the things which are foolish and stupid. We use 'Buddho', not as a club but as a skilful means of allowing it to go, to let go of it. Now for the next fifteen minutes, go back to your noses, with the mantra 'Buddho'. See how to use it and work with it.



Effort and Relaxation

Effort is simply doing what you have to do. It varies according to people's characters and habits. Some people have a lot of energy -- so much so that they are always on the go, looking for things to do. You see them trying to find things to do all the time, putting everything into the external. In meditation, we're not seeking anything to do, as an escape, but we are developing the internal kind of effort. We observe the mind, and concentrate on the subject.

    If you make too much effort, you just become restless and if you don't put enough effort in, you become dull and the body begins to slump. Your body is a good measure of effort: you make the body straight, you can fill the body with effort; align the body, pull up your chest, keep your spine straight. It takes a lot of will-power so your body is a good thing to watch for effort. If you're slack you just find the easiest posture -- the force of gravity pulls you down. When the weather is cold, you have to put energy up through the spine so that you're filling your body out, rather than huddling under blankets.

    With anapanasati, 'mindfulness of breathing', you are concentrating on the rhythm. I found it most helpful for learning to slow down rather than doing everything quickly -- like thinking -- you're concentrating on a rhythm that is much slower than your thoughts. But anapanasati requires you to slow down, it has a gentle rhythm to it. So we stop thinking: we are content with one inhalation, one exhalation -- taking all the time in the world, just to be with one inhalation, from the beginning to the middle and end.

    If you're trying to get samadhi (concentration) from anapanasati, then you have already set a goal for yourself -- you're doing this in order to get something for yourself, so anapanasati becomes a very frustrating experience, you become angry with it. Can you stay with just one inhalation? To be content with just one exhalation? To be content with just the simple little span you have to slow down, don't you?

    When you're aiming to get jhana (absorption) from this meditation and you're really putting a lot of effort into it, you are not slowing down, you're trying to get something out of it, trying to achieve and attain rather than humbly being content with one breath. The success of anapanasati is just that much -- mindful for the length of one inhalation, for the length of one exhalation. Establish your attention at the beginning and the end -- or beginning, middle and end. This gives you some definite points for reflection, so that if your mind wanders a lot during the practice, you pay special attention, scrutinising the beginning, the middle and the end. If you don't do this then the mind will tend to wander.

    All our effort goes into just that; everything else is suppressed during that time, or discarded. Reflect on the difference between inhalation and exhalation -- examine it. Which do you like best? Sometimes the breathing will seem to disappear; it becomes very fine. The body seems to be breathing by itself and you get this strange feeling that you're not going to breathe. It's a bit frightening.

    But this is an exercise; you centre on the breathing, without trying to control it at all. Sometimes when you are concentrating on the nostrils, you feel that the whole body is breathing. The body keeps breathing, all on its own.

    Sometimes we get too serious about everything -- totally lacking in joy and happiness, no sense of humour; we just repress everything. So gladden the mind, be relaxed and at ease, taking all the time in the world, without the pressure of having to achieve anything important: nothing special, nothing to attain, no big deal. It's just a little thing; even when you have only one mindful inhalation during the morning, that is better than what most people are doing -- surely it is better than being heedless the whole time.

    If you're a really negative person then try to be someone who is kinder and more self-accepting. Just relax and don't make meditation into a burdensome task for yourself. See it as an opportunity to be peaceful and at ease with the moment. Relax your body and be at peace.

    You're not battling with the forces of evil. If you feel averse towards anapanasati, then note that, too. Don't feel that it is something you have to do, but see it as a pleasure, as something you really enjoy doing. You don't have to do anything else, you can just be completely relaxed. You've got all you need, you've got your breathing, you just have to sit here, there is nothing difficult to do, you need no special abilities, you don't even need to be particularly intelligent. When you think, 'I can't do it', then just recognise that as resistance, fear or frustration and then relax.

    If you find yourself getting all tense and up-tight about anapanasati, then stop doing it. Don't make it into a difficult thing, don't make it into a burdensome task. If you can't do it, then just sit. When I used to get in terrible states, then I would just contemplate 'peace'. I would start to think, 'I've got to ... I've got to ... I've got to do this.' Then I'd think, 'Just be at peace, relax.'

    Doubts and restlessness, discontent, aversion -- soon I was able to reflect on peace, saying the word over and over, hypnotising myself, 'relax, relax'. The self doubts would start coming, 'I'm getting nowhere with this, it's useless, I want to get something.' Soon I was able to be peaceful with that. You can calm down and when you relax, you can do anapanasati. If you want something to do, then do that.

    At first, the practice can get very boring; you feel hopelessly clumsy like when you are learning to play the guitar. When you first start playing, your fingers are so clumsy, it seems hopeless, but once you have done so for some time, you gain skill and it's quite easy You're learning to witness to what is going on in your mind, so you can know when you're getting restless and tense, averse to everything, you recognise that, you're not trying to convince yourself that it is otherwise. You're fully aware of the way things are: what do you do when you're up-tight, tense and nervous? You relax.

    In my first years with Ajahn Chah, I used to be very serious about meditation sometimes, I really got much too grim and solemn about myself. I would lose all sense of humour and just get DEAD SERIOUS, all dried up like an old twig. I would put forth a lot of effort, but it would be so strung up and unpleasant, thinking, 'I've got to ... I'm too lazy'. I felt such terrible guilt if I wasn't meditating all the time -- a grim, joyless state of mind. So I watched that, meditating on myself as a dried stick. When the whole thing was totally unpleasant, I would just remember the opposites, 'You don't have to do anything. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Be peaceful with the way things are now, relax, let go.' I'd use that.

    When your mind gets into this condition, apply the opposite, learn to take things easy. You read books about not putting any effort into things -- 'just let it happen in a natural way' -- and you think, 'All I have to do is lounge about.' Then you usually lapse into a dull, passive state. But that is the time when you need to put forth a bit more effort.

    With anapanasati, you can sustain effort for one inhalation. And if you can't sustain it for one inhalation, then do it for half an inhalation at least. In this way, you're not trying to become perfect all at once. You don't have to do everything just right, because of some idea of how it could be, but you work with the kind of problems as they are. But if you have a scattered mind, then it is wisdom to recognise the mind that goes all over the place -- that's insight. To think that you shouldn't be that way, to hate yourself or feel discouraged because that is the way you happen to be -- that's ignorance.

    With anapanasati, you recognise the way it is now and you start from there: you sustain your attention a little longer and you begin to understand what concentration is, making resolutions that you can keep. Don't make Superman resolutions when you're not Superman. Do anapanasati, for ten or fifteen minutes rather than thinking you can do it the whole night, 'I'm going to do anapanasati from now until dawn.' Then you fail and become angry. You set periods that you know you can do. Experiment, work with the mind until you understand how to put forth effort, how to relax.

    Anapanasati is something immediate. It takes you to insight -- vipassana. The impermanent nature of the breath is not yours, is it? Having been born, the body breathes all on its own. In and out breaths -- the one conditions the other. As long as the body is alive, that is the way it will be. You don't control anything, breathing belongs to nature, it doesn't belong to you, it is not-self. When you observe this, you are doing vipassana, insight. It's not something exciting or fascinating or unpleasant. It's natural.



1. Anapanasati: literally, 'mindfulness' (sati) of the in and out breath. [Back to text]

2. Mantra: a word of religious significance, the repetition of which is a meditation device. [Back to text]

3. Nibbana: Peace through non-attachment, otherwise spelt 'Nirvana'. [Back to text]

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |


Updated: 3-5-2000

Return to "Buddhist Meditation"

Top of Page