The Refinements of the Breath

August 3, 1956

When we sit in meditation, the important point is to be observant of the levels of the breath. The breath in the body has three levels: common, refined, and profound.

1. The common breath is the breath we breathe into the body. It comes in two sorts. (a) That which is mixed with impure or polluted air: When it goes into the lungs, it doesn’t all come out. The dregs hang on in the body. And when these dregs mix with the blood in the heart, they can cause the blood to be harmful to the body, giving rise to diseases. But these diseases don’t need to be treated with medicine. If we treat them using the breath, they’ll go away. (b) The other sort of common breath is that which is beneficial—the breath mixed with pure air. When it mixes with the blood in the heart, it’s beneficial to the body.

2. The refined breath is gentle and soft. It’s the delicate breath sensations derived from the in-and-out breath that permeate between the blood vessels and nerves. This breath is what gives rise to our sense of feeling throughout the body.

3. The profound breath lies deeper than the refined breath. It’s cool, spacious, empty, and white.

The refined breath that spreads to nourish the body is the important level of breath to use as a basis for observing all three levels of the breath. When this refined breath is spread fully throughout every part of the body, the body will feel light, empty, and quiet—but we’re still mindful and alert. The mind is stable and so is the sense of the body. When this is the case, we’re constantly mindful and alert. At this point, a bright light will appear in our sensation of the breath. Even though our eyes are closed, it’s as if they were open. We’ll feel as if the breath in our body had a white glow, like the mantle of a Coleman lantern bathed with light. This is the profound breath. The mind becomes serene and still; the body becomes serene and still.

The mind at this point is said to be in right concentration, which can lead to liberating insight. Liberating insight can cut away all concepts dealing with past and future. In other words, the mind is content to stay with the profound breath, the spacious and empty breath. As long as the mind hasn’t penetrated to this level of the breath, it isn’t free from hindrances. It doesn’t give rise to discernment; it has no true awareness. But when the awareness that comes from stillness gains power, it gives rise to strength and light. The mind and breath are both bright. When every aspect of the breath is equally strong, the profound breath becomes apparent: quiet and smooth, free from waves, motionless and resilient. The breath at this point isn’t affected by the in-and-out breath. The body is quiet, with no feelings of pain. It feels buoyant, saturated, and full, like the mantle of a Coleman lantern: There’s no need to pump, there’s no sound, the air inside seems still, and yet the light is dazzling. All that’s needed is the vapor of the kerosene, and the lantern will give off light.

The body is quiet, with no ups or downs, highs or lows. When the breath is smooth and level in this way, it makes the body feel light, empty, and quiet. This is called kāya-passaddhi: physical serenity. The mind, which stays with the quiet body, is termed citta-passaddhi: a serene mind. When the mind stays with this stillness, it becomes bright. This brightness comes from the mind’s being firmly centered. When the mind is firmly centered, it leads to insight.

When insight arises, we can be aware on the level of physical sensations (rūpa) and mental acts (nāma) that arise from the in-and-out breath. We’re aware of the common breath, the refined breath, and the profound breath. We can keep tabs on all three levels of the breath. When our awareness reaches this point, we can be said to know the breath, or to know sensation. Then we observe how these things affect the mind. This is called knowing mental acts. Once we can know both sensation and mental acts, we’ll know: ‘This is true awareness. This is how true awareness goes about knowing.’ As long as we can’t make the mind behave in this way, we can’t know. And when we can’t know, that’s avijjā, unawareness.

Unawareness is darkness. The common breath is dark, the refined breath is dark, the profound breath is dark. How harmful this darkness is for the body and mind, we don’t know: more darkness. Unawareness. Unawareness is like putting tar oil in a Coleman lantern. Avijjā has all the bad features of tar oil. It gives rise to nothing but trouble—darkness—for other people, at the same time being destructive to our own heart and mind, just as a fire fed with tar oil will give off nothing but black smoke. The more tar oil we feed it, the blacker the smoke—and then we go around thinking that our black smoke is something special, but actually it’s unawareness, i.e., unaware of the fact that it’s unawareness. So we get more and more wrapped up in our unawareness until we’re covered thick with soot.

Soot is a form of filth that gives rise to harm. When a fire gives off black smoke, its light is bad, the fire is bad, the smoke is bad. Bad smoke is the nature of unawareness; and because it’s bad, the knowledge it gives rise to is bad, the results it gives rise to are bad. These are all things that give rise to suffering and stress. This is the sort of harm that comes from unawareness.

The harm caused by unawareness is like a wood-fire. A wood-fire makes us sweat and—as if that weren’t enough—its light is red and fierce like the light of the sun. Whatever it’s focused on will go up in flames. Any place a wood-fire burns for a long time will become black with soot, in the same way that a person who builds a wood-fire gets himself all dirty. His face and arms get black, his clothes get black, but because he sees this blackness as his own, he doesn’t take offence at it. Just like an infected sore on his body: No matter how dirty or smelly it may be, he can still touch it without feeling any revulsion. But if he saw the same sore on someone else, he’d be so repulsed that he couldn’t stand to look at it and wouldn’t even want to go anywhere near.

Anyone whose mind is wrapped up in unawareness is like a person covered with open sores who feels no embarrassment or disgust at himself. Or like soot on our own kitchen walls: Even though we see it, we simply see it, without any sense that it’s ugly, disgusting, or embarrassing. But if we saw it in someone else’s kitchen, we’d want to run away.

Unawareness is what kills people. Unawareness is a trap. But ordinarily a trap can catch only dull-witted animals. Sharp-witted animals usually don’t let themselves get caught. If we’re stupid, unawareness will catch us and eat us all up. If we live under the sway of ignorance—if we aren’t acquainted with the three levels of breath in the body—we’ll have to reap harm. To know them, though, is to have right mindfulness. We’ll know the causes of our actions and their results. To know this is to be mindful and alert. Our body and actions will be clear to us, like a fire that’s bright in and of itself. Where does its brightness come from? From the energy in the kerosene. So it is with the profound breath. It’s quiet in the body, like a Coleman lantern glowing dazzlingly bright: It’s quiet, as if no air had been pumped into it at all.

This is kāya-passaddhi, physical serenity. As for the mind, it’s crystal clear all around. And like the glow coming off the mantle of the lantern, it’s of use to people and other living beings. This is what’s meant by ‘pabhassaram idaṁ cittaṁ’—the mind is radiant. When we can keep the mind pure in this way, it gains the power to see what lies deeper still—but as of yet we can’t know clearly. We’ll have to make our strength of mind even more powerful than this: That’s vipassanā, clear-seeing insight.

When vipassanā arises, it’s as if we put kerosene directly on the mantle of a lantern: The fire will flame up instantly; the light will dazzle in a single flash. The concepts that label sensations will disappear; the concepts that label mental acts will disappear. All labeling and naming of things will disappear in a single mental instant. Sensations are still there, as always; mental acts are still there, as always, but the labels that take hold of them are cut, just like a telegraph line: The transmitter is there, the receiver is there, the line is there, but there’s no connection—the current isn’t running. Whoever wants to send a message can go ahead and try, but everything is quiet. So it is with the heart: When we cut through labels and concepts, then no matter what anyone may say to us, the heart is quiet.

This is vipassanā, an awareness beyond the sway of unawareness, free from clinging and attachment. The mind rises to the transcendent, released from this world. It dwells in a ‘world’ higher than the ordinary worlds, higher than the human world, the heavenly and the Brahma worlds. This is why, when the Buddha gained the knowledge of unsurpassed right self-awakening, a tremor went through the entire cosmos, from the lowest reaches of hell up through the human world to the worlds of the Brahmas. Why? Because his mind had gained full power so that it could part its way up above the Brahma worlds.

For this reason, we should reflect on the common breath we’re breathing right now. It gives rise to benefits mixed with harm. The refined breath nourishes the blood vessels and nerves. The profound breath adjusts the breath sensations throughout the body so that the breath is self-sufficient in its own affairs. The earth property, the fire property, and the water property all become self-sufficient in their own affairs. And when all four properties are self-sufficient, they become equal and balanced, so there’s no turmoil in the body. The mind is self-sufficient, the body is self-sufficient, and we can stop worrying about them, just like a child we’ve raised to maturity. The body and mind each become mature and independent in their own affairs.

This is termed paccattaṁ: We see on our own and become responsible for ourselves. Sandiṭṭhiko: We can see clearly for ourselves. Akāliko: No matter when, as soon as we reflect on the three levels of the breath we immediately gain comfort and ease. To speak in legal terms, we’ve come of age. We’re no longer minors and have full rights to our parents’ legacy in accordance with the law. To speak in terms of the monastic discipline, we no longer have to stay under our teachers because we’re fully able to look after ourselves. And to speak in terms of the Dhamma, we no longer have to depend on teachers or texts.

What I’ve been saying here is aimed at giving us a sense of how to apply our powers of observation to the three levels of the breath. We should attend to them until we gain understanding. If we’re observant in keeping tabs on the three levels of the breath at all times, we’ll reap results—ease of body and mind—like an employer who constantly keeps tabs on the workers in his factory. The workers won’t have a chance to shirk their duties and will have to set their minds on doing their work as they’re supposed to. The result is that our work is sure to be finished quickly, or to make steady progress.