Chapter Six

The Structure of Breath Meditation

The central focus of MN 118 is the description of the sixteen steps in mindfulness of breathing. These steps are the most precise meditation instructions in the discourses, and they appear at many spots throughout the Canon.

Listed in the origin story to the third rule in the monastic code (Pārājika 3), they are the only meditation instructions given in the Vinaya, the section of the Canon devoted to monastic discipline. This shows that they were considered indispensible guidance for those monks who might memorize only the Vinaya in the course of their monastic career.

In the discourses, the sixteen steps appear in many contexts. MN 62, for instance, lists them after a long set of other, preparatory, meditation exercises: contemplating the properties of earth, water, fire, wind, and space as not-self so as to develop dispassion for them; developing an attitude of imperturbability modeled on the imperturbability of earth, water, fire, and wind, so as not to be disturbed by pleasant or unpleasant sensations; developing the sublime attitudes of good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity to abandon ill will, harmfulness, resentment, and aversion; contemplating the unattractiveness of the body to overcome lust; and developing the perception of inconstancy to overcome the conceit, “I am.” These preparatory exercises equip the mind with tools for dealing with any unskillful thoughts that might come up in the course of breath meditation. In particular, they’re useful skills for gladdening, steadying, and releasing the mind—trainings described in steps 10, 11, and 12 of the sixteen, a point to which we will return in the next chapter.

AN 10:60 lists the sixteen steps as the last of ten perceptions, preceded by: the perception of inconstancy, the perception of not-self, the perception of unattractiveness, the perception of drawbacks, the perception of abandoning, the perception of dispassion, the perception of cessation, the perception of distaste for every world, and the perception of the undesirability of all fabrications. Again, these nine perceptions are useful tools in steps 10, 11, and 12 of breath meditation, and we will consider them further in the next chapter as well. The fact that the sixteen steps are classed as a “perception” (saññā) here shows that the term “perception” is not limited to memory of the past, and reflects the fact that the sixteen steps are related to the practice of concentration, inasmuch as the levels of jhāna up through the dimension of nothingness are termed “perception attainments” (AN 9:36).

The Saṁyutta Nikāya devotes an entire saṁyutta, or chapter, to breath meditation. In eight of its discourses, the sixteen steps are simply listed—sometimes with the rewards that come from practicing them, all the way to total release—but without relating them to other meditative practices. Other discourses in this saṁyutta, however, do mention some of the meditative practices that can accompany the sixteen steps. SN 54:2 lists the sixteen steps in conjunction with the seven factors for awakening; SN 54:8 states that they lead to all nine of the concentration attainments. SN 54:10 begins with the sixteen steps and relates them to the four establishings of mindfulness; four discourses—SN 54:13–16—relate the sixteen steps, through the four establishings, to the seven factors for awakening, and through them to clear knowing and release. This last depiction shows that breath meditation is not just a preliminary practice. It can lead all the way to the goal of the path.

As we have already noted, this is the structure of the way breath meditation is depicted in MN 118. And it’s important to note at the outset that this structure covers all three aspects of right view that right mindfulness must keep in mind: It provides a framework for understanding the practice of breath meditation. It provides, in the sixteen steps, instructions in the duties that follow from that framework. And it provides motivation for following the framework. In fact, the discussion of how the sixteen steps completes the practice of the establishings of mindfulness and the seven factors for awakening, culminating in clear knowing and release, is—in and of itself—an explanation of the motivation for practicing those steps. This fact is indicated by the statement introducing the structure of the discourse: “Mindfulness of in-&-out breathing, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit.” The remainder of the discourse can be read as an explanation of what those fruits and benefits are, and why they are enough to make you want to master the sixteen steps as skills.

The structure of MN 118 also provides an implicit answer to one of the primary questions concerning the practical application of the sixteen steps: the question of the order in which they should be practiced. The discourses that give the steps simply as a list, without relating them to the four establishings of mindfulness, seem to suggest that they should be practiced consecutively from one to sixteen. However, if you refer back to the section of Chapter Two where the steps are set out in bold type and read them carefully, you will notice that they don’t follow a clear linear sequence. The steps in the third tetrad appear especially out of sequence. Step 10, for instance—gladdening the mind—would appear to cover the same ground as steps 5 and 6, breathing in and out sensitive to rapture and pleasure. Step 11—steadying the mind—would appear to be presupposed at the very least by steps 4 through 8, which deal with calming bodily and mental fabrication. Step 12—releasing the mind—would appear on the surface to be the goal of all the steps that follow it in the last tetrad.

The best way to resolve this question is to look at the sixteen steps in the context provided by MN 118, for even though the discourse does not give an explicit answer to the question, its structure does provide an implicit one.

As we noted in Chapter Two, MN 118 states that each of the tetrads corresponds to one of the establishings of mindfulness. It explains the correspondence between the tetrads and the establishings with these statements:

The first tetrad: “I tell you, monks, that this—the in-&-out breath—is classed as a body among bodies…”

The second tetrad: “I tell you, monks, that this—careful attention to in-&-out breaths—is classed as a feeling among feelings…”

The third tetrad: “I don’t say that there is mindfulness of in-&-out breathing in one of lapsed mindfulness and no alertness…”

The fourth tetrad: “He who sees with discernment the abandoning of greed & distress is one who watches carefully with equanimity…”

At first glance, these explanations seem to raise more questions than they answer. To begin with, none of them makes specific reference to any of the steps in the four tetrads. Instead of citing the obvious references to body, feeling, and mind in the first three tetrads, the first three explanations give reasons that could apply to any stage in any form of breath-mindfulness. The fourth explanation is even more generic, and could apply to any form of meditation in which greed and distress are abandoned. In addition, the second explanation is especially counter-intuitive, in that it cites attention—which is normally classed under the aggregate of fabrication—as a feeling.

However, instead of seeing the generic quality of these explanations as a problem, we can understand it as providing an important insight. In the first three explanations, the object of meditation—the breath—is the same. This means in practice that keeping track of feelings and mind states in and of themselves does not mean abandoning the breath for another meditation object. After all, feelings and mind states are present in the sheer act of remaining focused on the breath. When you shift your frame of reference from body to feelings or to mind, you simply become more alert to a different aspect or dimension of what you’re already doing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any ability to stick successfully with the breath would not require developing sensitivity to the feelings and mind states involved in maintaining sustained attention. MN 118 simply offers you the choice of focusing your interest on whichever aspect seems most fruitful at any particular time.

Similarly with the fourth explanation: The abandoning of greed and distress indicates the successful performance of an aspect of the standard description of the establishing of mindfulness: subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. This, too, is a necessary part of breath meditation. Only when you can successfully abandon this sort of greed and distress—even if only temporarily—can you stay focused on the breath for any length of time. The act of subduing this greed and distress may require either equanimity or the exertion of fabrication, as we noted in Chapter Two, but when the greed and distress are successfully abandoned, you can simply look on them with equanimity.

So here, too, the discourse is offering you a choice as to where to focus your attention while you stay with the breath. If you want, even at the most basic stage of actually staying focused on the breath, you can note the presence of equanimity—which is one of the seven factors for awakening, which in turn is one of the themes of remaining focused on mental qualities in and of themselves—as the aspect of the process you want to observe. You see that skillful qualities such as equanimity can be made to arise in areas where they may not have functioned before. This provides both encouragement on the path and practical insight into the processes of cause and effect within the mind.

As for the question of why careful attention to in-and-out breaths would be classed as a type of feeling in the second explanation, remember that SN 22:79 describes the role of fabrication as an element in the actual experience of every aggregate, including feeling. The second explanation here implicitly focuses on this fact, noting that by paying attention to the breath, you actualize the experience of feelings connected to the breath that would otherwise remain only potential. In other words, the act of attention is part and parcel of the feeling it fabricates. This explanation also offers an important practical insight: The best way to maintain the sense of pleasure coming from careful attention to the breath is to keep attending to the breath. If you switch your focus totally to the pleasure, the pleasure will lose its foundation and soon dissolve away.

In these ways, the four explanations offer some important insights into understanding the sixteen steps. In particular, they show that the sixteen steps don’t necessarily follow a straight linear sequence. Instead, each tetrad can serve as an object of focus simultaneously with any of the other tetrads. As you practice breath meditation, you can remain focused on the second, third, or fourth tetrad while continuing to remain focused on the breath.

For example, there are times when you find it most helpful to focus on how the breath is giving rise to feelings of rapture and pleasure; to the way these feelings (as mental fabrications, along with the perceptions you’re employing around the breath) are influencing the mind; and to how you can calm that influence. This would be an example of focusing on the second tetrad while simultaneously remaining focused on the first. At other times, you’ll find it more useful to see which ways the mind is in or out of balance—too sluggish, for instance, or too scattered—and then use the breath to bring it more into balance. This would be an example of focusing on the third tetrad while still focused on the first. And at other times, you will want to observe how you can develop the dispassion that will enable you to let go of any external preoccupations that threaten to pull you away from the breath. This would turn attention to the fourth tetrad while staying focused on the first.

The possibility of combining tetrads in this way is confirmed by noting how the Buddha’s four explanations can be mapped against the standard formula for the first establishing of mindfulness: “One remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world.” The reference to the breath as a “body among bodies” in the first explanation corresponds to the phrase “body in & of itself” in the formula. The reference to careful attention in the second explanation relates to the practice of remaining focused described in the formula. The reference to mindfulness and alertness in the third explanation is an obvious reference to two of the qualities that, according to the formula, are brought to the act of remaining focused on the body in and of itself: being alert and mindful. And the reference to abandoning greed and distress in the fourth explanation is a direct reference to the act of subduing greed and distress with reference to the world, which also is an aspect of the third mental quality brought to the act of remaining focused on the body in and of itself: ardency.

In other words, the Buddha is showing how the activity of the first establishing of mindfulness—and this establishing, like all the establishings, is basically an activity—contains aspects of all four establishings, any of which can be taken as a frame of reference. The practical implication here, as we have noted, is that the shift in focus from one frame of reference to another doesn’t require you to switch to a new meditation practice. It simply turns attention to another aspect of what you’re already doing. This is like mastering a new piece on the piano. Once you’ve got the notes down and it’s time to listen to how your playing sounds, you don’t stop playing to listen more clearly. You keep on playing, again and again, while you listen to the nuances of your touch and phrasing, and to the overall thoughts and emotions you’re conveying. This is what allows you both to develop more skill and to discover new things in the music.

Because these four establishings are the themes of right concentration, and because the mindfulness of breathing developed by the sixteen steps is termed a type of concentration (SN 54:7–12), we would thus expect the four tetrads to offer four different perspectives on the single process of how right concentration develops. And when we compare each of the tetrads with the descriptions of the stages of concentration, we find that they actually do correspond. This correspondence plays out both on the macro level—each tetrad corresponds, in its own way, to the overall map of the levels of right concentration—and on the micro level: Each gives specific directions on what to do each time you sit down to develop right concentration.

First, on the macro level: The first tetrad—discerning the breath as long or short, sensitizing yourself to the entire body, and calming bodily fabrication (the in-and-out breathing)—describes the progress of breath meditation up through the fourth jhāna. You start by maintaining focus on the breath and then, as you enter the first jhāna, develop a full-body awareness (DN 2). The breath grows progressively more refined and calm as you move through the jhānas until you reach the fourth, at which stage in-and-out breathing stops (SN 36:11).

The second tetrad—being sensitive to rapture, sensitive to pleasure, sensitive to mental fabrication (perception and feeling), and calming mental fabrication—describes the progress from the early stages of meditation up through the cessation of perception and feeling. Rapture is present in the first two jhānas; pleasure, in the first three. Perception plays a role in all the meditative attainments up through the dimension of nothingness (AN 9:36); as you go through these levels, the underlying perception grows more refined (MN 121). Similarly with feelings: From the rapture and pleasure of the first two jhānas, feelings grow more refined through the equanimous pleasure of the third, and then to the pure equanimity of the fourth, which forms a foundation for the next four formless attainments (MN 140). Finally, the total calming of perception and feeling occurs with the cessation of perception and feeling, the ninth attainment.

The question arises, if verbal fabrication ceases with the second jhāna, and the breath with the fourth jhāna, how can any of the sixteen steps apply to those attainments or to any of the higher levels of concentration? After all, all of the steps are done in conjunction with breathing, and steps 3 through 16 employ verbal fabrication in the act of training. The answer is that even though these forms of fabrication are not present in the higher levels of concentration, the mind will sometimes have to make a deliberate choice when moving from one attainment to the next (MN 121; AN 9:34; AN 9:41). This will require a moment of reflection in which you step back from your full focus before plunging in again. AN 5:28 illustrates this process with the image of a person standing watching a person sitting down, or a person sitting watching a person lying down. Verbal and bodily fabrication will resume during those moments of choice, which means that any of the sixteen steps could also be applied during those moments.

The third tetrad—becoming sensitive to the mind, gladdening it, steadying it, and releasing it—covers all the stages of training the mind. Gladdening the mind begins with the preliminary practices of practicing generosity, observing the precepts, and abandoning the hindrances, practices that give rise to a sense of wellbeing and joy that can induce the mind to settle down in concentration. The gladdening grows more refined as the mind progresses through the first three jhānas, experiencing rapture and pleasure. It culminates in the joy that accompanies the attainment of the goal (MN 137). Steadying the mind is also a process of progressive refinement up through the cessation of perception and feeling. Although each level of jhāna and each formless attainment grows increasingly steady as you go up the series, only the levels beginning with the fourth jhāna are said to be imperturbable (MN 106). Likewise, releasing the mind is a progressive process: You release the mind at least temporarily from the affliction of attending to perceptions of sensuality on entering the first jhāna, from the affliction of attending to perceptions of directed thought on entering the second jhāna, and so on up through the cessation of perception and feeling. Finally, release becomes total on reaching unbinding (AN 9:34).

The fourth tetrad—remaining focused on inconstancy, dispassion, cessation, and relinquishing—is, like releasing the mind, a process that develops through progressive levels of refinement while mastering concentration, and then goes beyond refinement with the attainment of total unbinding. When you’re trying to master concentration, you direct these contemplations to any object that would distract you from your theme. In other words, you focus these contemplations on anything that would provoke greed and distress with reference to the world outside of your concentration, seeing the distraction as composed of events (dhammas) that are inherently unworthy of attachment. In this way, you wean the mind from the distraction.

When concentration is fully mastered, you then turn these same contemplations onto the world of becoming created around the concentration itself. You see that it, too, is composed of dhammas that are inconstant—even though the inconstancy is very subtle—and from that insight you develop dispassion for the process of continuing to fabricate anything at all, even the most refined states of concentration. This dispassion puts an end to the passion that fuels fabrication, thus leading to cessation. At that point, everything—even passion for the deathless—is relinquished, and total unbinding occurs (AN 9:36).

In this way, each of the tetrads provides its own perspective on the overall development of right concentration on the macro level.

As for the micro level, we will discuss some of the practical issues surrounding each of the four tetrads in the next chapter. Here we will look at their role in giving rise to the seven factors for awakening, to show why MN 118 singles this topic out for attention.

The seven factors for awakening (sambojjhaṅga) constitute one of the seven sets of dhammas included in the wings to awakening (bodhi-pakkhiya-dhamma), the Buddha’s own list of his most important teachings (DN 16; DN 29; Ud 5:5). The seven sets overlap in many ways, and in some cases they differ primarily in the order in which they list the qualities needed to attain awakening. For instance, the five faculties and five strengths describe how concentration leads to discernment. The seven factors for awakening, on the other hand—like the noble eightfold path—describe how discernment leads to concentration. In other words, they describe the development of concentration in which insight plays a leading role. In this way they are congruent with the sixteen steps, for as we have noted, the sixteen steps show how to develop tranquility and insight in tandem when bringing the mind to concentration by focusing on how to understand and master the processes of fabrication.

This congruence appears in the overall pattern of the seven factors for awakening, which parallels the pattern of each of the four tetrads. The general pattern is one of observing and understanding the processes of fabrication so as to bring them to calm. In detail, the pattern is this: The factors for awakening are listed in an order where each factor builds on the ones before it: mindfulness, analysis of qualities (according to MN 117, this is the discernment factor, equivalent to noble right view), persistence, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity. MN 118 explains the natural progression from one factor to the next in this way, with mindfulness as a factor of awakening building on any of the four establishings of mindfulness:

Mindfulness: “On whatever occasion the monk remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & mindful—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world, on that occasion his mindfulness is steady & without lapse…” [Similarly with feelings in & of themselves, mind in & of itself, and mental qualities in & of themselves.]

Analysis of qualities: “Remaining mindful in this way, he examines, analyzes, & comes to a comprehension of that quality [any of the qualities or events present in the process of trying to establish mindfulness] with discernment…”

Persistence: “In one who examines, analyzes, & comes to a comprehension of that quality with discernment, persistence is aroused unflaggingly…”

Rapture: “In one whose persistence is aroused, a rapture not of the flesh arises…”

Calm: “For one enraptured at heart, the body grows calm and the mind grows calm…”

Concentration: “For one who is at ease—his body calmed—the mind becomes concentrated…”

Equanimity: “He carefully watches the mind thus concentrated with equanimity…”

The pattern of this progression—beginning with three factors equivalent to right mindfulness, right view, and right effort—recalls the description of the noble eightfold path in MN 117, in which these three path factors circle around the development of other path factors in leading to right concentration. The only difference is that in MN 117 the discernment factor precedes mindfulness, whereas here the establishing of mindfulness comes first.

This pattern is also related to the three qualities fostered in the establishing of mindfulness: ardency, mindfulness, and alertness. Starting with the qualities of mindfulness and alertness used to establish mindfulness in the first factor of awakening, you further develop mindfulness and alertness when you remember to analyze phenomena as they occur in terms of cause and effect, skillful and unskillful (SN 46:51) in the second factor of awakening. Then, in the third factor of awakening, you exert persistence (which here is equivalent to ardency) to develop the skillful and abandon the unskillful in such a way as to lead first to rapture, then to calm, concentration, and equanimity.

The inclusion of the factor of analysis of qualities in this process means that the first three factors for awakening add the quality of discernment to the three qualities fostered in the establishing of mindfulness. This addition parallels the way in which the sixteen steps implicitly encourage you to develop discernment and insight by looking for the role of fabrication with regard to body and mind, seeing how cause and effect operate in the process of fabricating skillful and unskillful states. It also, as noted above, parallels the way in which MN 117 describes the interaction of right view, right mindfulness, and right effort in fostering right concentration.

Building on this combination of ardency, alertness, mindfulness, and discernment, the remaining four factors for awakening begin with an active state—rapture—that provides the nourishment needed to keep the increased steadiness and calm of the mind from growing torpid and unhealthy. This rapture is then followed by the calming factors of calm, concentration, and equanimity.

This is the same pattern that operates explicitly or implicitly in each of the four tetrads. You sensitize yourself to a particular phenomenon—in terms of body, feelings, mind, or mental qualities—through mindful alertness, learning through experimentation and manipulation to understand that phenomenon in terms of fabrication and to analyze it in terms of cause and effect. Then you skillfully manipulate the causes of that fabrication so as to bring it to calm.

For instance, with the first tetrad: Steps 1 and 2, discerning long and short breathing, are a basic exercise in developing mindfulness and alertness, with the rudimentary amount of discernment needed to discern when the breathing is long or short. Step 3, breathing in and out sensitive to the entire body, raises the level of ardency as this is the first step in which you are said to “train” yourself. This step also raises the level of alertness, in that the range of your alert awareness is now consciously spread continuously to the entire body. This step is implicitly intended to bring about a realization of how the breath has an impact on the body, raising or lowering its level of energy, for in step 4 you are told to calm that impact by calming the breath (MN 44). Even though this step makes no explicit mention of inducing rapture, the progression of the seven factors states clearly that an important step in bringing the body to calm is first to induce a rapture “not of the flesh”: in other words, a state of rapture based on either the first or second jhāna (SN 36:31). As we have already seen from the map of the stages of concentration, the calming of bodily fabrication can lead all the way to the fourth jhāna, one of whose factors is equanimity not of the flesh. This would be equivalent to the seventh factor of awakening.

The second tetrad starts with two steps—5 and 6—that provide exercise in developing alertness: learning how to breathe in a way that allows you to be sensitive to rapture and pleasure. Step 5 is the first of the sixteen that explicitly refers to raising the energy of your practice before calming it down. Both of these steps, however, also implicitly require an element of discernment based on manipulation, for unless you learn to foster the causes for rapture and pleasure you won’t be able to maintain them continually as you pay attention to the breath. In step 7, the element of discernment becomes explicit, as you notice how feelings and perceptions—such as the perceptions by which you label feelings, and the perceptions that enable you to stay with the breath—have an impact on the mind. In step 8, you try to calm this impact by finding progressively more refined feelings—such as equanimity—and more refined perceptions to calm the mind.

The third tetrad is closely related to the second, in that it shares the task of calming the mind, but here the focus begins with the mind itself. Step 9 is an exercise in mindful alertness, as you try to stay observant of the state of the mind. Step 10, like step 5, is an exercise in raising the energy level of the mind by gladdening it (SN 46:51 suggests that this be done only when the mind is sluggish); whereas steps 11 and 12 move more in the direction of calming it through making it steadier and releasing it from anything that afflicts it—such as the affliction of sensuality that would keep it from getting into jhāna, or any of the factors in the lower levels of jhāna that would keep it from attaining the higher ones (AN 9:34).

The fourth tetrad is also an exercise in calming the mind. On the beginning level of developing concentration, this tetrad is focused primarily on abandoning the hindrances to concentration. Step 13, remaining focused on inconstancy, combines an alertness practice with a discernment practice, as you try to see ways in which each of the hindrances and their objects are inconstant and thus incapable of providing any reliable pleasure or happiness. As AN 7:46 points out, the perception of inconstancy leads naturally to the perception of stress and not-self, both of which lead naturally to dispassion. In other words, you see that a happiness based on anything inconstant is inherently stressful, and thus not worthy of claiming as “me” or “mine.” The resulting dispassion is the theme of step 14. When dispassion for the hindrances and their objects becomes well developed, steps 15 and 16—remaining focused on cessation and relinquishment—also follow naturally, as the hindrances cease through lack of passion for the process of fabrication that would keep them going, after which you can relinquish even the contemplations needed to bring them to cessation. With that, the agitation caused both by those hindrances and by their abandoning is replaced with equanimity. This is the first level of how the mind is calmed by the exercises in this last tetrad.

On a more advanced level, when concentration is fully developed, the same process is applied to the concentration itself. You focus on the inconstancy of the fabricated aggregates present in any of the jhānas in a way that leads to dispassion for all fabrications. When dispassion is total, the act of fabrication ceases and even the path factors of discernment and concentration can be relinquished. This is how the exercises in this last tetrad bring the mind to the radical calm of total release.

As MN 118 points out, any one of these tetrads can help bring the seven factors for awakening to the culmination of their development. The parallels in the pattern for each tetrad and for the seven factors help to explain why this is so.

However, as we have had frequent occasion to notice, the four tetrads are not radically separate. They cover four aspects of a single process. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could master mindfulness of breathing without making use of all four tetrads, as you need to keep reading the state of your concentration. When you see that it needs improvement, you decide to focus on whichever of these four aspects is most in need of attention. The ability to read your mind in this way would come both under step 9 in the sixteen steps—breathing in and out sensitive to the mind—and under the first two factors for awakening: mindfulness and analysis of qualities. If the mind needs to be fed a particular type of feeling, that would bring in the second tetrad; and this, often, will require the help of steps 3 and 4 in the first tetrad. If the mind is harassed by distractions, that would require bringing in the other steps of the third tetrad and all four steps of the fourth. In this way, even though your main focus of concentration may be the breath, there is no way you can avoid bringing all four tetrads—and all four establishings of mindfulness—to bear on the process of developing right concentration in line with the seven factors for awakening.

Of course, as MN 118 points out, the sixteen steps don’t stop there, for the seven factors for awakening, when fully developed, bring about the ultimate goal of clear knowing and release—release here meaning the total release of unbinding, and not just the temporary release of concentration. As the discourse shows, this requires augmenting the seven factors with three qualities—seclusion, dispassion, and cessation—so that they result in letting go. Here again, the sixteen steps are involved. “Seclusion” is a reference to the mental seclusion beginning with the first jhāna, which requires the development of all four tetrads. The remaining terms are direct references to the steps in the fourth tetrad—“letting go” being synonymous with relinquishment—as the themes of inconstancy, stress, and not-self are focused on the fabrication of concentration itself, enabling the mind to develop the dispassion that leads to the total cessation of all fabrications, and from there to the total release that comes from totally letting go.

This last stage of the practice is described in several passages in the discourses. We have already noted, in Chapter Three, one of the primary relevant passages—in AN 9:36—and will have occasion to discuss it further below. Here are two other similar passages showing how this sort of analysis can be applied to any level of jhāna—while you are in the jhāna—up through the dimension of nothingness. With higher levels, it can be applied only after withdrawing from them. To save space, we will cite only the descriptions of how this analysis is applied to the first jhāna:

“There was the case where Sāriputta—quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful qualities—entered & remained in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Whatever qualities [dhammas] there are in the first jhāna—directed thought, evaluation, rapture, pleasure, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, & attention—he ferreted them out one after another. Known to him they arose, known to him they became established, known to him they subsided. He discerned, ‘So this is how these qualities, not having been, come into play. Having been, they vanish.’ He remained unattracted & unrepelled with regard to those qualities, independent, detached, released, dissociated, with an awareness rid of barriers. He discerned that ‘There is a further escape,’ and pursuing it he confirmed that ‘There is.’” — MN 111

Ven. Ānanda: “There is the case where a monk… enters & remains in the first jhāna.… He notices that ‘This first jhāna is fabricated & willed.’ He discerns, ‘Whatever is fabricated & willed is inconstant & subject to cessation.’ Staying right there, he reaches the ending of the effluents. Or, if not, then—through this very Dhamma-passion, this Dhamma-delight and through the total wasting away of the five lower fetters—he is due to arise spontaneously [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world.” — MN 52

In each case, the act of seeing the jhāna as a willed, fabricated activity—rather than a manifestation, say, of a metaphysical or cosmic substrate—is what allows for the dispassion that leads to letting go. Because the mind’s entrapment was due to its own clinging, and not to any restriction enforced from outside, the act of letting go is what effects full release.

The standard analogy here is of the way in which a fire goes out. That, in fact, is what unbinding (nibbāna) means. According to the physics taught at the time of the Buddha, the property of fire exists in a calm, latent state to a greater or lesser degree in all objects. When “provoked” (kuppa) it seizes and clings to its fuel. It goes out—literally, it was said to be “released” (mutta)—when it lets go of its clinging to the fuel. For this reason, the agitated flames of a burning fire were viewed as an ideal image for the way in which the mind suffers from the agitation of clinging to the aggregates (Iti 93). The act of a fire’s going out was equally ideal as an image for the peace and calm that come when the mind gains release through letting go.

This, then, is the general structure of how mindfulness of breathing progresses to freedom from suffering and stress. The four tetrads deal with four aspects of the act of establishing mindfulness to bring the mind to concentration: both on the macro level, corresponding to the standard maps of how concentration progresses to awakening, and on the micro level, giving instructions on what to do when you sit down to develop right concentration.

The first three tetrads—dealing with body, feelings, and mind—cover aspects of the practice that play a role in keeping the mind focused on the breath: body covering the object of the focus, feeling being the feelings engendered by continued attention to the breath, and mind covering the qualities of mind—mindfulness and alertness—brought to the activity of remaining focused, along with the mind states strengthened by maintaining focus.

The fourth tetrad—dealing with mental qualities—plays a role at one remove from the activity of keeping focused on the breath. In the beginning stages, it hovers around the process of staying focused, fending off any distractions that would disturb the focus. It does this by viewing those distractions as dhammas—mere events or actions—in a way that induces dispassion for them. At more advanced stages, it observes the process of staying focused from the same standpoint with the purpose of developing dispassion for that process, thus leading to total release.

So instead of being a linear guide to meditation, the four tetrads deal with processes of breath meditation that occur simultaneously, offering you the choice of where to focus attention so as to develop both tranquility and insight while fostering stronger states of concentration. In other words, when focused on the breath, you can see how feelings and mind states—along with the mental qualities involved in keeping distractions at bay—are functioning or malfunctioning. This allows you to direct your efforts toward correcting any lack or imbalance. When concentration is fully mastered, you can use the same fourfold perspective to develop the dispassion needed for cessation and total letting go.

The structure of this practice is important to keep in mind because it gives perspective both on how to handle the four tetrads in practice—the topic of the next chapter—and on the practice of the four establishings in general: the topic of the chapters after that.