18 Sep 2012

Teaching: Alan introduces some points from his translation of Asanga’s comprehensive explanations for mindfulness of breathing. While Asanga does not mentions following the breath at the tip of the nostril, he does mention following the flow of vital energies from nostril to navel, noting 4 stages: 1) inhalation, 2) pause at the end of inhalation, 3) exhalation, 4) pause at the end of exhalation. Asanga also presents several counting methods as support when needed: 1) counting each inhalation/exhalation, 2) counting each complete breath cycle, 3) counting forwards, and 4) counting backwards.
Meditation: mindfulness of breathing per Asanga. Set the mind at ease, without concerns of the 3 times. Let your awareness be still, illuminating the space of the body and in particular, the flow of the breath from nostril to navel. Note the energies at 1) inhalation, 2) the pause at the end of inhalation, 3) exhalation, 4) the pause at the end of exhalation. With each out breath, relax and release any rumination. Experiment with counting if you wish, but keep it very staccato.

Meditation starts at: 6:04

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For the past few evenings I’ve been polishing and correcting a translation I did 27 years ago (never published) of Asanga’s explanation of mindfulness of breathing. He lived in the fourth to the fifth century of the common era and together with Nagarjuna, he was really one of the two most important contemplative scholars of the entire Indian Mahayana Buddha’s tradition. So he speaks with enormous authority — Nagarjuna for the prajña (the great authority in Madhyamaka and so forth) and Asanga for Upaya (for skillful means). And shamatha is definitely in the realm of skillful means. So his presentation is found in the Shravaka Bhumi, or the stages of the shravakas (so one that is seeking their own individual liberation). And just in terms of my own very limited reading, it’s the most extensive and definitive presentation of mindfulness of breathing in the Indo-Tibetan tradition. It’s really quite extraordinary and so I thought I would share that with you. I am polishing it now, each evening spending half an hour, an hour, just polishing an earlier translation. And so that’s what I’d like to go to this morning. I didn’t bring the text. I just want to highlight a couple of points, we’ll go right to the practice.

I find it fascinating both for what he does explain — and he explains a lot of things that I don’t find in the Theravada tradition — but also things that are very prominent in the Theravada tradition, Asanga doesn’t even touch. For example the whole issue of focusing on the tip of the nostrils. He never mentions that. Or the acquired sign, the counterpart sign. No mention.

What he does say is — and I’m going to give just a synopsis of the beginning of the explanation — is in terms of the practice of mindfulness of breathing, what are you attending to? You are attending to the respiration. That’s what he said. Not a visualization of the breathing, not anything else, but just – you’re attending to the respiration. And then what’s the respiration? He said it’s the movement of vital energies from the tip of the nostrils down to the region of the navel. That passage way. He said: as you breathe in and the vital energies come from here, from the tip of the nostril, the vital energies then flow down to the region of the navel. As you’re breathing out, they flow from the region of the navel up, ok? So that’s what you’re attending to: the flow of vital energy.

He said in terms of the inhalation and exhalation there are two types. There’s (in terms of inhalation), there is the normal inhalation but then there’s also the pause at the end, what he calls interim inhalation and that’s the pause at the very end of the inhalation just before the exhalation begins. Think of it like a roller coaster. Been on a roller coaster? It goes up to the top and “wee” and then you go down. And then likewise, there’s exhalation, the natural exhalation and then there is the interim exhalation and that’s that pause at the end of the exhalation and he said a subtle respiration is still going on during those periods. What he doesn’t say is try to make an interim inhalation or exhalation. He does not say you know, force that, make it happen. But rather the same thing we’ve encountered before. Let it all flow and when this happens then just be aware that it’s happening.

Final point before we jump in because I’m eager to go back to the meditation, is counting, counting the breaths. He elaborates on this quite extensively. One method he gives is: end of inhalation [count] one, and end of exhalation [count] two, end of inhalation three, four . . . and in that way count one to ten. One count at the end of each in and then out breath. And then he says that’s counting individually, so you count for each side of the breath, each aspect or half of the breath. But then there’s counting by pairs and that’s where you count, just one count for the whole cycle. Then he says if you really want to start getting into it, you can count in a forward direction (well that’s one to ten), but you can also count in reverse: ten, nine, eight, seven and get down to one. So counting it forward and reverse and then he elaborates even more elaborate counting and I won’t go into the elaborate counting. I think I’ll read through it a bit this afternoon just so you get some impression of it.

(4:54) But he makes this point and that is, he said the counting is taught for people of dull faculties. Now I would invite you at this time not to immediately leap up and assume that you are a person of dull faculties. I generally do. But maybe not this time. Just consider, he says that this is for people of dull faculties because this helps them stabilize the mind, it helps their mind not to wander so much and so forth, for obvious reasons. But he said for those people of sharp faculties, they’re not really drawn to the counting because they simply hear the explanation of counting the breath, they immediately get it and they don’t want to do it. They just want to go to the gist of it without cluttering up the practice with all the invasion of the counting. And so he says what you get is [with] a person of sharp faculties, you get it. The count is like (and now I’m definitely interpreting) a speed bump. And it’s a speed bump at the very end. That is, you’re really taking note of the very end of inhalation and the very beginning of exhalation. And then you’re specifically noting the very end of exhalation and the very beginning of inhalation. Now you can do that with counting, like dropping a stone there, bum, bum, bum. But then ok, but I get it. But now why do I need to drop a stone? I’m just going to be very attentive and especially attentive to the beginning and ending of every single inhalation and exhalation. And he said, so people of sharp faculties don’t do the counting. They don’t like to do it, they just go right, they get the point and then they go right into the practice. Ok, let’s do that now.


Settle your body in its natural state and your respiration in its natural rhythm.

Set your mind at ease by releasing all concerns, hopes and fears, concerning the future and the past and even about the present. In utter simplicity let your awareness remain still in this present moment, clearly illuminating the space of the body and the flow of the breath from the nostrils down to the level of the navel. And here’s the interpretation I shall now place on this, inspired by the practice of settling the mind in its natural state. I suggest that you do not follow the breath up and down, up and down but rather let your awareness rest in stillness like space. And attend to this sub-space of the body and within that sub-space the flow of sensations from the nostrils down to the region of navel, noting the flow of energy during the course of inhalation, during the pause (even if it’s very brief) at the end of inhalation, the flow from the navel up to the nostrils during exhalation and the pause during interim exhalation.

(12:00) As always let the breath flow as naturally, as effortless as possible, releasing all the way through the end of the out breath until the next breath flows in all by itself. Then you may experiment with counting either with one count at the end of inhalation, second count at the end of exhalation or one count for the entire cycle, counting one through ten, one through ten. And you may experiment going forward order, one, two, three, or reverse order ten, nine, eight, etc. If you do count, see that the count is very staccato; that you don’t let it drag through the breath, that it’s just like a punctuation mark, just alerting you, stabilizing your attention, drawing you back from rumination in case you’ve strayed.

(15:45) So recall in the practice of settling the mind in its natural state that the entry is to distinguish between the stillness of your own awareness and the movements of the mind. And now, maintain the stillness of your awareness and attend to the movements of the breath. In both cases, utterly without preference, without involvement, without intervention, without control, without preference, just observe your body breathe impersonally relinquishing all control.

(19:11) Arouse your attention and focus during each inhalation so that there’s no room for rumination to intervene and break up the continuity of your mindfulness. And then as the breath flows out, deeply relax while maintaining the flow of mindfulness, but so relax that if ruminations [and]wandering thoughts do occur, they’re instantly released, blown away by the gentle out breath.

(21:32) While your mindfulness is focused on the respiration, periodically check up with introspection to see that your body remains settled in its natural state. Especially see that the muscles of your face are all relaxed, loose, the forehead open and spacious, eyes soft. And of course monitor the flow of mindfulness itself, recognizing the occurrences of excitation and laxity and apply the remedies as needed. Let’s continue practicing now in silence.

Transcribed by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Revised by Aaron Morrison

Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Posted by Alma Ayon


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