So-Called Breathing Meditation
A notice on the mistranslation of Ānāpānasati.
Eisel Mazard, September, 2011, in Saskatchewan
All Rights Reserved, All Wrongs Reserved
§1. Is it possible that a dictionary, made by mortal hands, could be wrong? Not merely in a technical or trivial manner, but profoundly wrong? Could an error of this kind have far-reaching consequences in the translation of sacred texts, that few are, perhaps, willing to contest or question openly? In almost any cultural context, the answer is an inevitable “yes” –and yet my earlier works probing problems of this kind have been met with many obstreperous declarations of “no!” In the study of dead languages, the dictionary is often our only partner in conversation, and we are, perhaps, reluctant to quarrel with it.
This article examines a single (unsettling) example of just how badly wrong a dictionary could be –and, in fact, the more recent dictionaries have gone further astray than the earlier one in this case. The doctrine concerned is so-called “breathing meditation” in Buddhism, and the error in translation concerns that very concept of breathing itself.
§2. The PTS dictionary (Rhys-Davids & Stede, 1925) contains a truly remarkable entry on this subject: it contradicts itself, and belies a larger problem of self-contradiction in English interpretations. The very short entry for Apāna (s.v.) reads, “breathing out, respiration (so Ch. no ref. in P. Canon?). On Prāṇa & Apāna see G.W. Brown in J. Am. Or. Soc. 39, 1919 pp. 104-112.”
The statement in parenthesis is, presumably, an allusion to the earlier dictionary by Childers (abbreviated to Ch.); what is much more remarkable is that the reference following (to Brown, 1919) completely contradicts the definition offered just before it (i.e., contradicting the three words “breathing out, respiration”).
You might well expect that subsequent dictionaries would have probed further into this problem (that is noted, however obliquely, in a source that shall soon enough reach its centennial); on the contrary, that one note of warning was dropped entirely from the entry to be found in the (incomplete) Critical Pali Dictionary (C.P.D., now available online, though never to be completed) and was ignored by Margaret Cone in her new dictionary.
Cone (2010, s.v. Apāna) offers the following few words in her definition: “The vital air which goes downwards; the out-breath; respiration.” Perhaps I should say that the warning (of Brown, 1919) is half-ignored and half-obfuscated in this entry, as the concept of “air which goes downward” leaves something up to the imagination.
3. The material presented by Brown (1919) will not surprise specialists in mainstream Hinduism; numerous specialists and practitioners have assured me that the Yoga exercises alluded to, above, have remained in common use, with the same system of winds incorporated into commercialized Yoga lessons offered everywhere from the YMCA to Taipei, with modern Rishikesh somewhere in-between.
It is always assumed that prāṇa and apāna were the first of the group of breath-words to appear, and that, consequently, whenever they are used together, they mean in-breathing and out-breathing. This is a mere assumption which has no evidence to support it. On the contrary, the evidence is against it. [Brown, 1919, p. 104]
These basic facts would very much surprise anyone who regarded the PTS translations as authoritative. Brown proposes the view that these words (prāṇa and apāna) reflect an ancient concern with the distinction between gasses found in different parts of the body. This might be a minor question in the interpretation of the Vedas, but it entails a radical reinterpretation of certain passages of the Buddhist canon that are now widely interpreted as describing (so-called) “breathing meditation”:
Apāna is regularly a special air (vāyuvitśeṣaḥ) which carries off the excrements. Prāṇa is in the heart, mouth and nose; it goes to the navel and there meets with apāna, which circulates in the lower intestines, thighs, abdomen, and lower parts of the body generally. (Śāṇḍ. 1.4; Śrīj. 4.23 ff.; Triś. 75, and numerous others.) The airs meet in the navel, instead of the heart, in these books, because to the yogins the navel, and not the heart, is the center of the body and the system of breaths. Very numerous passages speak of drawing up apāna and uniting it with prāṇa, thus restraining both—one of the chief exercises in Yoga. …[T]he locality of the breaths is discussed in Amṛtabindu 35 ff. Prāṇa is in the hṛdaya, or heart and lungs, apāna in the gudā or lower intestinal region. Samāna is in the navel, udāna in the neck, vyāna diffused thruout [sic] the body. All the other statements in these Upanishads conform to this classification. … [W]e find a description of the vital airs in Mait. 2.6. Prajapati tries to enter the body, but can not do so until he divides himself into the five vital airs. Of these, prāṇa is the one which rises upward, ūrdhvam utkrāmati. Apāna moves about below—avāñ saṁkrāmati. Apāna can not mean inbreathing here, for it is said to receive the refuse of the food eaten. It is evident that the directional prefixes pra and apa are here used with relation to the heart; prāṇa rises above it and apāna circulates below it. [Brown, p. 108]
The PTS dictionary entry is misleading at best, and, at worst, it offers a very strange sort of lie that at the same time directs us to a publication that disproves its basic premise. As aforementioned, the (subsequent and incomplete) Critical Pali Dictionary and the very recent work of Margaret Cone contain no such contradiction: they simply affirm the misleading interpretation (in the vaguest terms possible) without any note or notice to the contrary. If Cone had been misled by the earlier Pali dictionaries, she didn’t need to look any further than the correlating Sanskrit dictionaries (including the moth-eaten work of Monier-Williams) for a contrasting opinion on apāna. §4. In reading a recent publication by Kuan Tse-Fu (2008) I was reminded of the pervasive influence of misleading dictionary entries and mistranslated passages on so-called “breathing meditation”. Instead of the common English term “exhale”, Kuan (2008, p. 72–3) uses the term “out-breath” and “breathe out”, followed by the (tenuous) suggestion that this breathing is “perhaps just through the nose as people normally do”. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the terms in question neither mean “exhale”, nor “out-breath” in the Pali canon.
While Brown does not want to scandalize us with the explicit use of the English language, he clearly does not mean that “this air” we are discussing departs through the lungs (nor is it “exhaled” through the nose or mouth when it “carries off the excrements”, as quoted above!). While the role of this breath in digesting food is explicit in the primary sources that Brown quotes, he is satisfied to use the euphemism of “abdominal breath” in his conclusion –but we do not normally use the word “breath” in English when describing the function of “the stomach, bowels and kidneys”. In Brown’s own words, however, “The conclusion is that prāṇa and apāna should consistently be translated as thoracic and abdominal breaths respectively.” [Ibid. p. 112]
In plain English, what he calls “abdominal breath” is flatulence –and the mistranslation of the corresponding passages of the canon is very nearly the apotheosis of farting. So-called “breathing meditation” is not at all what millions of Buddhists have been lead to believe: many passages of the PTS translations (old and new) are grossly misleading, and, in one important aspect least, they are flatly wrong (e.g., PTS MN vol. 1, p. 55 et seq.; D.N. vol. 2, p. 290 et seq.; S.N. vol. 5, p. 141 et seq.; and, in translation, e.g., Woodward, 1930, p. 287 etc. etc.). Even new works of original scholarship that deserve praise in other respects (like Kuan, 2008, cited above) continue to reproduce this error, in one form or another, affirming the PTS translations and being affirmed by them.
Is it the case that we reproduce this error (in the 21st century) “unquestioningly”? Is this part of our contemporary culture of not questioning the authority of the dictionary, or does it relate more to the power that one text seems to have when it is validated by reference to another? Or is it the case that some scholars intentionally (and knowingly) expurgate these passages?
§5. In looking around for some text from the liminal stages of this mis-translation’s ascent to seeming orthodoxy, I found one very interesting voice of ambivalent assent –sequestering his dissent into a long footnote.
In 1932, I imagine that Paravahera Vajirañāṇa was writing in difficult circumstances: he had been invited to study at Cambridge university from what was then the colony of Ceylon. A man who was already a religious authority figure in his native land (and native language) was now the pupil of British professors who certainly knew less of Buddhism than he did himself (though they knew rather more about the business of writing a PhD thesis). He had been placed at the center of academic prestige, and brought there from the imperial periphery, however, as a penniless monk and self-made scholar, was not in a position to challenge the opinions of his superiors and supervisors (aside from those who own their own racing boats, I wonder if anyone at Cambridge really is).
Vajirañāṇa left us with one long footnote that provides an irreconcilable contrast to the interpretation that precedes and follows it, and provides me with evidence that there was at least one western-educated monk of that era who was aware of the absurdities of western interpretations of Buddhism that were then ascendant –though he was evidently constrained to agree with them.
In this one convoluted footnote, covering most of a printed page, Vajirañāṇa (1962, p. 232) offers the conclusion that the meaning of the Pali word passāsa is, in fact, equivalent to the Sanskrit usage of prasvāsa “as the expulsion of the abdominal wind”. The euphemism is familiar from Brown (as quoted above), and, generally, many euphemisms of this kind were inspired by the pioneering translations of Deussen (both Brown and Vajirañāṇa explicitly criticize Deussen’s work as an overly-vague precedent, though neither elects to be much more explicit themselves).
This footnote is buried in the midst of a long exposition on (so called) breathing meditation. Whereas the antinomy found within the PTS dictionary entry is hardly surprising to me personally, I might pause to ask why an author such as Vajirañāṇa (with his own sources of doctrinal authority) would publish a tract on meditation that he knew to be wrong (leaving us this footnote to prove the point that he was aware of the paradoxes he was now trafficking in). The result is a text that appears to wholeheartedly embrace a form of meditation its author knew had no basis in the canon –and that was contradicted by it.
The particular text I have cited here was very much produced in-between two worlds that are themselves difficult to reconcile: Vajirañāṇa’s doctoral thesis was produced from 1933 to 1936 at Cambridge University, England, under the supervision of E.J. Thomas. This is worth meditating on, because such a large portion of what we presume to know about Theravāda Buddhism relies upon texts that were fashioned in a crucible of this kind. As with the history of anthropology, European scholars relied upon native informants and colleagues (whose contribution is often uncredited, and whose own bias and suasion we are sometimes left for us to guess at); as with the history of colonialism, a minority of local scholars elevated their own status through the imperial system of education –but, in so doing, they placed themselves in a cultural crossfire.
§6. To mention another influential monk (who was influenced by the PTS but who was also confident enough to challenge their publications on occasion), I am left to wonder whether or not Ñāṇamoli avoided the English term “exhale” because he was implicitly aware of the same problem in the primary source texts. Ñāṇamoli consistently used more awkward wording along the lines of “out-breathing”. In one text by Ñāṇamoli (1952) I count 116 uses of terms equivalent to “out-breath” (including words like “out-breathing”, etc.), but zero uses of “exhalation” (including “exhaling”, etc., as equivalent). Unlike Vajirañāṇa, it is possible that Ñāṇamoli was unaware of the problem; but, if so, this is a peculiar consistency.
He was similarly consistent, without any footnote indicating his misgivings, in using “out-breaths” throughout his translation of the Visuddhimagga (Ñāṇamoli, 2001, e.g., p. 289) and in calling the practice as a whole “Mindfulness of Breathing” (p. 260).
§7. Some might object that the mistranslation is merely part of the European tradition of bowdlerization (i.e., censorship) of anything related to the body. On the latter subject, I might note a recent work by Derrett (2006) that offers a study of the “squeamish silences” (p. 5) of I.B. Horner in producing PTS translations of Vinaya materials.
A comparison to literary censorship (i.e., bowdlerization) would trivialize the problem: in reading these mis-translations of flatulence as “out-breathing”, we are not merely missing the precise sense of the original, we are losing an important aspect of the cultural context and the intended meaning of the primary source text. We are not merely expurgating the text to suit European politesse, we are completely obliterating the ancient Indian philosophy of the body (and the elements that comprised it) –preventing an English-language reader from even being able to guess at the thesis and thematic interest of the original text.
The special association of this (so-called) “abdominal breath” with death has a direct bearing on mindfulness of one’s “final out-breath” (i.e., at death) discussed in Mahā-Rāhulovāda suttanta (MN No. 62, esp. BJT vol. 2, p. 150, PTS vol. 1, p. 425–6), among other places. Clearly, this “final breath” is not one that exits through the nose (nor the mouth) and the thematic association of the whole exercise (concerning the winds) with death and impermanence becomes far clearer if we can discard the PTS consensus, and catch up with Brown’s warning of 1919.
It would seem that the movements of the abdomen connected with breathing were associated with apāna, while the observation of the settling of the abdomen after death, the activity of the bowels, and other phenomena occurring after the cessation of respiration—things easily noted in connection with both human beings and sacrificial animals—would have fixed the idea, in an earlier age than that of the Upanishads, that this special air was a peculiarly vital one, and carried on its activities, at least in some cases, even after prāṇa had departed, and hence was in a measure independent of it. [Brown, p. 109]
In plain English: after a corpse ceases to inhale (or exhale) it may still produce wind of another kind (i.e., “the settling of the abdomen after death”, above). Indeed, the expansion (or bloating) of the corpse’s digestive tract after death is one of the most visually striking features in the days (of decay) before a funeral, and is now explained by natural science as a consequence of the biotic activity of micro-organisms within the intestines (i.e., the bacteria of our entrails do not rely on the life of the mind to do their work, and, if the circumstances allow, they will contribute to the breakdown of the corpse itself after death, much as they contribute to the breakdown of food while the body is alive). There’s nothing supernatural about this “final breath”, but it is both awful to be hold, and a natural source of awe, in any era or cultural context.
In cultures that set corpses aflame upon an open pyre (after a prescribed number of days of decomposition), the departure of these gasses will (at least in some cases) be easily observed. The primacy of the pyre for both ancient Buddhist and Hindu funerals is in obvious harmony with the interpretive direction Brown has suggested here. This is indeed a gruesome aspect of the human life-cycle that few urbanized people now observe (and that Western funerary culture avoids observing); it could easily inspire some philosophical consideration on anyone’s part, and it would be a meditation very different from what so-called breathing meditation has become today. In expurgating the text, we miss the point.
§8. It is also noteworthy that Brown finds “that these words are not primarily action-nouns”, [p. 105] i.e., amongst the ancient Hindus (prior to the advent of Buddhism, in all likelihood) the terms were simply nouns. I would suggest that it is reasonable to think of these “airs of the body” as substantivized cultural concepts in the same sense that Europeans formerly thought of “humors of the body”. There is certainly no contradiction in a culture imagining the body to be composed of impalpable (and perhaps invisible) constituents that are indicated as if they were palpable nouns (i.e., even if nobody thinks of melancholy as a tangible liquid in contemporary Europe, the substantive sense of the noun relates to a now-outmoded medical assumption).
This entails a correlating contradiction between the Buddhist view of the self (qua no self) and the entire Hindu narrative of the creator-god Prajāpati imparting the first breath into the body prior to birth.
If we discard the PTS definitions of the terms (that, as I say, have gone unchallenged in the more recent dictionaries) we come to a very clear explanation of Buddhaghosa’s (commentarial) concern with relating these winds to the formation of the embryo, and with refuting the magical belief in the unity of these winds, for all the same reasons that Buddhists opposed the magical unity of any type of soul (consider, e.g. PTS Vsm. p. 283, translated by Pe Maung Tin (1923–1931), vol. 2, p. 325 as, “…thus he knows they are not in one [sic?] within the mother’s womb…”; and compare the commentator’s concern with the infant’s first breath at PTS Vsm. p. 271–272, a subject that Ñāṇamoli’s translation (2001, p. 291) apparently struggled with, introducing the notion of sneezing in square brackets and significantly shifting the thematic interest of the text).
The issue seems to come up again in the post-canonical Pali source Milindapañha, where there is a short passage debating the identity of wind/breath (vāto) with one’s true self or soul (and, I note, the Rhys-Davids translation of 1890 chooses to use “breath” in this case [bk. 2, ch. 1, p. 48] but the terminology in the Pali here is not the same as in the canonical passages discussed). I mention this only as an example of the enduring (or recurring) cultural interest in the winds (as “humors of the body”) having a special link to personal identity –an interest that resonates with the most ancient extant myths of Prajāpati (and that were clearly incompatible with Buddhism as a then-new religion).
I am not at all suggesting that the commentaries (of Buddhaghosa) are univocal with the more ancient (canonical) texts, nor that they accurately reflect the most ancient Indian cultural assumptions; on the contrary, if Ñānamoli’s translation is correct (and that is a considerable “if”, along with the reliability of the text he’s translating) we would observe a significant shift in assumptions in comparing the more ancient map of the winds within the body (as summarized by Brown, above) to Ñānamoli’s rendering (2001, p. 302, §197) where the downward wind proceeding from the navel is said to exit through the nose. We miss out on another chance at corroborating evidence in the same source because Buddhaghosa shows very little interest in commenting on the canonical concept of awareness during the final “out-breath” at the time of death (Ñāṇamoli, 2001, p. 316) –perhaps just because the commentator is more interested in the subject of foreknowledge of the time of one’s death.
§9. In closing, why are new works such as Kuan Tse-Fu’s thesis still hampered by mistranslations that were already refuted (or, at least, refutable) roughly one hundred years ago? If the meaning of Āpāna was not obscure to Brown in 1919, how is it possible that it has been made obscure in the years since then? How is it possible that a brand new translation of these Pali materials (if it is indeed new) makes the same mistakes all over again? John Joseph Holder (2006, p. 43 & 44) renders the same absurdity into English, with the obfuscatory wording of “out-breath(s)” now confidently replaced by “exhale(s)”. Holder offers footnotes on obvious words like Ajjhattaṃ (on the same page) but offers no explanation of “exhalation” (etc.) nor any other words that are actually dubious (nor that have caused problems for prior generations of translators and commentators).
The reciprocal relationship between the PTS dictionary and the PTS translations has been a unique and far-reaching influence in the history of Theravāda Buddhism: each of the old PTS sources seems to vindicate the others, and numerous monastic authors have lent their religious authority to these (avowedly secular) interpretations, often simply through imitation of them. I have written articles dealing with other aspects of the PTS’s strange legacy in the past, but this question of so-called “breathing meditation” is outstanding because the misinterpretation directly intersects with both principle and practice for many thousands of Buddhists (and what they presume to be an orthodox method of meditation).
However, separate articles would need to address the extent to which the same misinterpretation could have had independent sources within Asia. The most influential Chinese text on this subject, the Ān bān shǒu yì jīng (安般守意經, T. 602) is very much in the process of re-interpretation at this moment, after the discovery of significant new manuscripts in 1999. (Zacchetti, 2010) It has only been recently revealed that this Chinese interpretation of (so called) breathing meditation is not really a translation of an ancient Indian source at all, nor is it directly attributable to An Shigao [安世高] as had been for so long believed (the convoluted history of the text is discussed in detail by Zacchetti, 2010, and briefly by Nattier, 2008, p. 60–64). However, it has certainly been massively influential in the struggle of the Chinese to adapt ancient Indian concepts and practices into their own language and culture (Zacchetti, 2010, p. 422, suggests that it was massively influential prior to the fifth century A.D.; on the creation of distinctively Chinese meditation practices from putatively Indian sources in the centuries immediately thereafter, see Buswell, 1989).
This Chinese tracts were certainly vague enough to inspire an array of meditative practices (出息入息, etc.) and, at least theoretically, I have to allow the possibility that they had been historically influential in mainland Southeast Asia prior to (or to a greater extent than) the translations of the PTS. Frankly, I doubt it; the most likely conduit for such influence, if any exists, would be European misconceptions about Chinese Buddhism as applied to Southeast Asia, and entirely modern cultural exchange (comparable to the arrival of Japanese Zen in Bangkok).
The great advantage that “new” studies had over ancient ones was simply ease of reference: a book printed and bound in Europe was easier to get ahold of (and find the correct page of) than a hand-written manuscript (even in Burma, and even in Ceylon). A colleague (here unnamed) has pointed out to me that the whole drift of the PTS misinterpretation could be refuted by a definition found in (pre-modern, Pali-only) lexical sources such as the commentaries (and sub-commentaries) to the Abhidhānappadīpikā. However, it deserves to be asked: how many monks were capable of mustering the manuscripts to mount such evidence (in the 20th century), and how many would be motivated to do so? If any did mount such a challenge, where now could we find any evidence that it occurred? In what medium would their dissenting opinions now be preserved?
In the 20th century, such voices of dissent (that could, hypothetically, have come from traditional monastic scholars) were easily drowned out, and certainly did not appear in academic journals (traces of them can be found in Sinhalese newspapers once in a while, and in colonial and missionary archives more rarely); there were rewards for accommodating oneself to the European enthusiasm for Buddhist meditation (however garbled in translation it may be) and there were no rewards for deterring it. Sadly, in that era as in this one, very few would be willing to regard a sub-commentary to a Pali text (that almost nobody has heard of) as more authoritative than a book printed in England, with the imprimatur of some learned society upon it. It should be needless to say that I disagree with this knot of cultural attitudes that I have been describing; for better or worse, the technology of the book itself has had a powerful effect on the Southeast Asian imagination. During the same few centuries that the hard-bound volume, with page numbers and index, re-defined the form and content of the Buddhist canon, the custodian class that was once revered for producing and keeping hand-written manuscripts progressively disappeared. The manuscript-writing classes were a diffuse population capable of debating orthodoxy (and employed in pleading legal cases, with canonical concepts at their disposal before a feudal court) –even if they were rarely inclined to do so. By contrast, the mass-produced book devolves from the expertise of a very small number of scholars, often very remote from the common run of monks and men (be it under royal patronage in Thailand, under junta patronage in Burma, or under academic patronage in Europe); it is not merely that books are difficult to debate with, but that they do not sustain a class of debaters, as the local production of manuscripts did before. The age of scribes was not an intellectual paradise: it was an era of slavery. However, the extinction of this custodian class has been coeval with the redaction, translation, and re-canonization of Buddhist tradition.
As I say, I am not aware of any monks that made use of indigenous lexicography (like the commentaries to the Abhidhānappadīpikā) to mount a counter-argument. Many modern meditation masters (from the 19th century forward) have been directly influenced by European publications, and either had no indigenous source of information about (so-called) breathing meditation to counterpose to the European interpretation, or else came to accommodate themselves to this interpretation while knowing that it was invalid (as Vajirañāṇa evidently did).
Another necessary aspect of this error’s (religious and secular) authority is the very low level of communication between scholars of different specializations: what is common knowledge amongst experts on the Vedas is certainly not known to the small number of people working on the Pali canon, and similar gulfs of mutual ignorance (and invidious silence) separate the study of India from Southeast Asia, and the study of the latter from East Asia, and so on. Several experienced scholars of ancient Buddhism (known to me personally) have responded with surprise (if not amusement) at this lexical anomaly, while other were surprised simply because the fact is well known in Sanskrit and Vedic studies, and yet unknown in Buddhist studies. It seems to have been a mistranslation that was sustained within the small domain of Theravāda studies, despite overwhelming evidence from surrounding provinces of ancient Indian literature. Such evidence only emerges when we are looking for it, or are willing to hear it from unexpected sources. The refusal to hear such things is a very religious aspect of supposedly secular research into Buddhist doctrine.
§10. I have an enduring concern that the system of education in the decadent west conditions us to be uncritical of dictionaries: our skepticism is directed everywhere except at the definitions that are presupposed in our inquiries. In the response to both my earlier work and earlier drafts of this article, I’ve been reminded that the same scholars who would gleefully run roughshod over all of Buddhism’s hallowed ground still cling to the dictionary as sacrosanct –as if it were something quite different from a collection of articles or old hypotheses.
One reviewer wrote to me that I should not question the dictionary unless I could create a new one to replace it; another correspondent, less hostile, simply begged me not to draw attention to errors made by old authorities that are simultaneously outmoded and revered. Sadly, if we do not point out and critique such mistakes of the past, they are ever new –and it is because I see such errors “recycled” (in the scholarship of both East and West) that I am motivated to rouse such debates out of dusty corners.
A dictionary definition speaks with one voice only because it marks one moment in a debate. The results, however, remain perpetually debatable.
Brown, George William. 1919. “Prāṇa and Apāna”, in: The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 39, p. 104-112.
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Zacchetti, Stefano. 2010. “The nature of the Da anban shouyi jing (T 602) reconsidered”, in: J.I.A.B.S. Vol. 31, No. 1-2 (dated 2008 but actually published in 2010) p. 421-484.