Anapanasati Sutta, part 2
This week we're continuing with our discussion of the Anapanasati Sutta. We covered the background of the discourse last week, so if you haven't read that article already it's probably better to start there.
Moving into the second tetrad, and the progression of the Anapanasati Sutta
In the first tetrad, we used the breathing first to establish a basic level of mindfulness, then proceeded to refine it by giving ourselves progressively subtler and more challenging tasks: to become aware of the lengths of the breaths in relation to one another; to expand our awareness to encompass the whole body, without losing the breathing in the process; and, finally, to incline towards calming bodily activity. This final step is important because bodily activity is comparatively coarse, and the second tetrad is going to ask us to look at something subtler, namely mental activity. If there's too much 'noise' from the body then we won't be able to detect the subtler aspects of experience that the second tetrad invites us to examine - or at least not so easily.
Actually, it's by no means impossible to turn the attention toward the subtler aspects of experience even without first calming the bodily activity. If we know what we're looking for, it's usually possible to tune into pretty much any aspect of experience. The challenge is to stick with it, and to perceive it clearly enough for the practice to have a significant impact on us. In the world of insight meditation, it's certainly possible to turn one's attention to impermanence right away, without any prior preparation - such an approach is commonly called 'dry insight'. The difficulty with dry insight is that our minds tend to be pretty unruly, easily distracted and prone to wandering for extended periods, so the meditation that results is not very efficient - perhaps you spend a few seconds looking at impermanence, then the mind wanders for a minute or two, then you realise what's happened and go back to looking at impermanence for another few seconds before the mind wanders again, and so on. With time and practice, of course, you'll get better at it, and the mind learns to stay with the inquiry more consistently. But another school of thought suggests that it's fruitful to spend some time stabilising and focusing the mind (e.g. with a samadhi practice of some sort) before moving on to insight practice - yes, it means you have to spend some time up front not doing insight practice, so you either have to sit for longer or have less time for insight work overall, but the trade-off is that the mind is calmer, clearer and better suited to the insight work, so the time you do spend on insight practice is much more efficient.
A common approach found in the early Buddhist discourses is to stabilise the mind through jhana practice (or sometimes Brahmavihara practice), then to shift gears and move into insight practice. That approach absolutely works and is very effective - it's what my teacher Leigh Brasington and I teach on jhana retreats, where we recommend structuring one's practice time to start with Brahmaviharas and jhanas, then shift into an insight practice taken from the Satipatthana Sutta or another source.
The Anapanasati Sutta does things a little differently, though. Here we have sixteen steps of one integrated practice that combines both samadhi and insight. As you'll see over the next few weeks, some steps are more explicitly aimed at the samadhi side (e.g. step 11, concentrating the mind) while others have a strong insight focus (e.g. steps 13-15, which are explicitly pointing to insight ways of looking), but the practice itself is also structured in a very clever way, starting with the coarser aspects of experience (which are both easier to focus on and easier to investigate at first) and then gradually leading the mind through progressively subtler experiences until the mind is in an ideal place to look for the deepest insights available to us.
So it's totally fine to pick out just a few steps of the Anapanasati practice and work with those - and that's what we'll be doing in my Wednesday night class over the next few weeks, because we won't have enough practice time to do all the prior steps as well as the tetrad we're focusing on that week. But it's also very helpful to bear in mind that the practice is structured in such a way that each step makes the subsequent step easier to access - so if you're having a hard time with a particular step, it might be worth revisiting the previous steps and spending more time there before moving on.
The second tetrad
Here's what the Buddha has to say:
One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing joy/rapture [piti]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing joy/rapture [piti].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha]; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing happiness/pleasure [sukha].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out experiencing mental activity [citta sankhara].' One trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara]'; one trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising mental activity [citta sankhara].'
As I mentioned last week, each tetrad is associated with one of the four satipatthanas - and the second tetrad is associated with the second satipatthana, on vedana. There's a discussion of vedana in my series on the Satipatthana Sutta, so check that out if you aren't familiar with the term and would like to know more. In brief, though, vedana is that quality of experience which indicates whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It's often translated as 'feeling' or 'feeling tone', because vedana is about 'how something feels', but we have to be a bit careful, because we're not talking about emotions here. Vedana is 'feeling' in the sense of 'this feels nice' as opposed to 'I feel angry about xyz'.
The practice given for exploring vedana in the Satipatthana Sutta is pretty straightforward - simply bring mindfulness to the vedana of your experience! In practice, when Leigh and I are teaching it, we'll often start by pointing people toward the vedana of a specific type of experience - noticing the vedana of sounds - and then invite people to broaden their practice to include the vedana of other types of sensations as well.
The Anapanasati Sutta takes a different approach. It begins by pointing specifically to pleasant aspects of experience of increasing levels of subtlety, piti and sukha (more on those terms later!). Then, rather than staying with vedana but broadening out to include neutral and negative vedana, it actually goes even further and broadens out to mental activity as a whole - making a similar move to the one we saw last week in the first tetrad, where after having spent time tuning in to subtle aspects of the breath, we then opened up the awareness to encompass the whole body. The final step of the second tetrad also parallels the final step of the first tetrad - last week, the final step was 'calming bodily activity', while this week we have 'tranquilising mental activity'. So, once again, the practice invites us into the experience of one of the satipatthanas through a specific window, then broadens out our view before allowing things to settle down even further, making an even more subtle layer of experience available as we prepare to move into the third tetrad.
Focusing on the pleasant - piti and sukha
The first two steps of the second tetrad open up a bit of a minefield of terminology. The first step invites us to breathe in and out experiencing piti, and the second invites us to breathe in and out experiencing sukha. Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these as 'rapture' and 'pleasure' respectively, while Bhikkhu Analayo gives them as 'joy' and 'happiness' respectively. Personally, I first learnt these terms in the context of my teacher Leigh's presentation of the jhanas, where piti is a physical sensation of energy in the body (which can show up as tingling, heat or a kind of electrical or sexual sensation) and sukha is an emotional bliss, joy or happiness, both of which show up in the first few jhanas.
So who's right? Well, I'm certainly not qualified to disagree with renowned scholars like Bhikkhu Bodhi or Bhikkhu Analayo, but I've practised enough with Leigh to have a very palpable sense of his interpretation of the terms. Perhaps we can split the difference and avoid having to pick a side, however.
At the end of the first tetrad, we practised calming bodily activity - allowing the physical body to relax so that we could experience subtler sensations. Anyone who has spent time doing energy practices (qigong, kundalini yoga, ...) or practices which result in 'energetic sensations' (jhanas, chanting, ...) will know that the sensations we experience in those practices are subtler than the coarse body sensations of muscular tension and so forth. In fact, too much muscular tension typically prevents us from having those energetic experiences (which is why practices like qigong and yoga place emphasis on relaxing and opening up the body). So as we 'calm bodily activity' at the end of the first tetrad, a range of subtler experiences become available to us - some of which are very pleasant. We can experience pleasure in the subtle body (which, if focused upon deeply, can lead to rapturous states of consciousness), and we can experience positive emotional states of various sorts (joy, happiness, delight), arising simply out of the calm, focused, subtle nature of the mind at this point in the practice. Generally speaking, the emotional states are subtler than the physical ones, so as the mind settles deeper and deeper, the progression is typically one that moves from the physical to the subtle body to the purely mental.
Thus, one way to put this into practice might be as follows:
Focusing specifically on pleasant aspects of experience is a pretty smart move. By definition, it's a nice experience, which makes it intrinsically rewarding - and so it's generally easier for the mind to rest here and continue to become calmer and more focused than if we were paying close attention to unpleasant, difficult or distressing aspects of our experience, which are more likely to trigger a 'flinch' reaction. So although we're only focused on a small subset of the total sphere of vedana available to us (remember the 'guided tour' analogy from last week's article!), the result will get our minds into a good place to go deeper still.
Mental activity - citta sankhara
Steps 7 and 8 invite us first to become aware of 'citta sankhara' and then to 'tranquilise it'. But what the heck is a citta sankhara?
Again, the terminology here is a bit fiddly and has multiple popular translations. 'Citta' is usually translated as 'mind', but also has connotations of 'heart' - sometimes you'll encounter the term 'heart/mind', which is an attempt to convey the fact that, whereas Western cultures posit a strong distinction between 'mind' (the rational thinky bit) and 'heart' (the emotional/intuitive feely bit), Asian cultures don't.
'Sankhara' means something like 'making together', and can be translated variously as 'formation(s)', 'fabrication(s)', 'concoction(s)' and so forth. In this instance, it's indicating the various things 'made by the mind' - thoughts, emotions, and so on - so I tend to follow Leigh in translating it as 'mental activity'.
In modern times we have a very different understanding of the mind compared to the time of the Buddha. There's evidence that the Buddhist understanding of psychology evolved over time - what's found in the earliest discourses tends to be quite simple, then it becomes a bit more elaborate in the later discourses, and more elaborate still in the Abhidhamma (the 'higher teachings', texts composed after the Buddha's death) and subsequent commentaries. The later Buddhist traditions in the Mahayana also developed detailed models of 'mind', which don't always line up with what's in the early teachings. In the Western world two and a half thousand years later, the legacy of Freud and Jung has powerfully impacted how we understand the nature of mind, thoughts, subconscious and so on, so we have yet another picture of what's going on.
Rather than try to pick apart every possible interpretation of the terminology, though, it's perhaps more helpful for the purposes of practice to take a step back and see what the overall strategy is here. We've used the first two steps of this tetrad to get a 'foot in the door' of the world of mental activity, by focusing on aspects of experience that particularly strike us as pleasant. (In the Buddhist understanding, vedana is regarded as a mental phenomenon, whether the vedana is associated with a physical or a mental stimulus.) Now, just as we broadened out the scope of our awareness to take in the whole body at the equivalent point in the first tetrad, we open up our awareness to become aware of the full breadth of our mental activity.
Step 7 is a tricky step! Meditation practices often focus on the body because it's so much easier to work with than the mind. One thought leads to another with very great rapidity, to borrow a phrase from S.N. Goenka - before you know it, you've been sucked into a train of thought, and the meditation is forgotten. But if we've spent some time on the preceding steps and built up some stability of mind, it becomes possible to be more broadly aware of thoughts and emotions coming and going without getting drawn into them - and so we can 'safely' open up our awareness to include mental activity as a whole.
Once we've successfully made the move into step 7, and we have a general awareness of our mental activity coming and going while remaining anchored on our ever-present mindfulness of the breath, we can then move into step 8 - tranquilising mental activity.
Step 8 contains the same subtle trap as step 4 - the problem of how to 'actively relax'. Any positive action we take in relation to our mental activity is going to introduce more energy into the system, but in order to tranquilise it, we need less energy overall. It's like we have a jar containing some water and some sand, and the jar has been thoroughly shaken up so that the sand is swirling all around and the water is totally opaque. How do we get the water to be clear (assuming we can't take the lid off and filter it!). Shaking up the jar even more won't work, and even well-meaning things like subtly, gently tilting the jar from side to side won't help. The best thing we can actually do is to put the jar down on a table and leave it totally alone. Then, little by little, the sand will sink to the bottom of the jar, and eventually the water will become clear quite naturally. This isn't something we can make happen, and it definitely isn't a process that we can 'speed up' by applying more effort - quite the opposite. All we can do is to leave it alone and wait patiently.
When that happens, we'll be ready to move into step 9 and the third tetrad - which we'll explore next week!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!