Following the breath is not mindfulness of breathing | A teaching by Luang Por

I have already mentioned that concentrating on the breath is not right concentration. 

Why is that? It is because it has nothing to do with wisdom. 

The reason that it is nothing to do with wisdom, and can never lead to wisdom, is that you simply follow the breath inside the nostril or inside the body. What does this have to do with knowledge or insight? The air is an outside object, just like the wind from the outside touching the nose, there is no difference with the contact of the air and the nostril, or with any other bodily sensation. 

You may indeed become calm, but it is the calm of wrong concentration. The fact of being able to achieve calm, or even higher states of mind, does not mean that the practice is right. It is possible, even through wrong concentration, to practice jhana and achieve immaterial states of consciousness, such as the jhana from the teachers of prince Siddhatta, Alara and Udaka, leading to the formless realms – yet  Prince Siddhatta had abandoned this, he taught us to develop mindfulness instead. Many people misinterpret the mindfulness he taught. 

How to practice mindfulness of breathing correctly? 

We have to focus on the action of breathing that is from the mind. This is all about wisdom because the breath originates from the mind. Awareness of the breath at the moment when the consciousness at the nose arises is not the right way. It is body consciousness, having nothing to do with the development of the mind. The development of the mind is not done through the consciousness of the body, nor the eye, ear, nose or tongue. It relates only to the awareness of the mind. You have to realise that the origin of the breath is from the mind, not from the consciousness of the nose.

This fact is not something that we normally are aware of. It is only right mindfulness that knows and sees it arise within the mind. 

When we know with mindfulness, within our heart, we will be aware that the breathing originates at the same place, at the same time. It comes from the heart. Breathing does not originate from the nose or the body – it is purely from the mind. It is called citta sankhara, an action that is formed by the mind. The mind goes on with breathing; it is the mind that breathes, the mind that drags the breath in and out, or to be more precise, gives the order to the body of moving to drag the breath in and out. But we don’t know that, we don’t see it normally, so we have to bring attention to the mind and go on with breathing. The mind must bring attention (vitakka) to inhaling, , and also bring attention to exhaling when exhaling.

If we are not mindful enough, we cannot achieve it, and if we throw it away, we can never find the wisdom that is right there. It’s very important to realise that mindfulness is not the normal, automatic awareness that everyone already has. We have to work to become aware of our mind, to be able to see the mind as it gives the order to breathe. It is here that we have to pay attention. Know and breathe, be aware of the mind right at the moment that it gives the order of breathing. Otherwise, we will not know where the mind is. 

Since it is difficult to bring our attention to know in this way, not something we do instinctively, we might not realise it immediately. We can also make the mistake of thinking that we, ourselves, are deliberately breathing, we will try to control the breath by force. This is not correct; we need to awaken the mindfulness that sees how the mind breathes, as it continues to do whether we are mindful or not. 

Mindfulness simply knows, it does not do the action of breathing or any other action. Although it is born from the mind, within the mind and knows the mind, it is not one and the same thing. It is like the antivirus which is built within the software of a computer; it is not the same as the computer software, but it surveys and guards the software. For the mindfulness that leads to wisdom, we need to create this antivirus for the software that is our mind. 

Knowing before or knowing after?

Usually if people want to pay attention to breathing, they follow the breath and know about breathing after the mind has already given the order to the body to breathe; breathing so that the air touches some part of the body, and only then becoming aware. They might be paying attention to the stomach rising and falling, for example, or to the tip of the nose, or to other sensations of breathing in the body. But if you only know you are breathing after you breathe, then it means you are not mindful. 

To practice rightly, you have to know clearly that there is awareness, before breathing. You have to know that you are going to inhale before you actually do: that is mindfulness. If we merely follow the breath, we only have body consciousness, knowing nothing about the mind. The action of inhaling is already finished when we realise it, the air is already gone inside. That is why, if the breath comes first and then awareness right after, there is no real mindfulness yet. It is a normal mind, with normal awareness.

It is the same with posture and body movements: you have to know, to be mindful that you are going to sit before sitting. You must be mindful right at the moment of the action of sitting, know that the mind is giving the order to the body to sit; it’s not correct to know after you have already sat. Similarly, it’s not correct to know you are standing only after you already stood. You have to know first and then stand, know first and then walk. 

This is not something to do only once a day: it should be in all our movements, all our positions. Even simply going to sleep normally, without being mindful, is already sure to be clouded by unawareness, and tanha. Normally people will not even realise their own position when they lay down, or they may just know afterwards that they are lying down. We must know first and then lie down, be mindful and then go to sleep. 

Ordinary knowing vs knowledge of Dhamma

This is about wisdom, which is difficult; while consciousness at the body is an easy matter. Concentration is an easy matter too. The kind of knowing that can follow the breath, or become aware afterwards when one is lying down, is ordinary. You don’t need to learn how to know this. Breathing occurs naturally without needing any special mindfulness, that is why all animals breathe without mindfulness or without having to know about breathing; the cow and the buffalo are also able to know in the ordinary way of knowing, which is of no benefit, no wisdom. To follow the breath is the easiest thing, any child can do it. So if you like something comfortable and easy, go for wrong concentration. 

However, we cannot use this ordinary awareness, which everyone has already, to remove ignorance. If your aim is to remove ignorance then you need to learn the way to know with wisdom. How can you remove your ignorance when you don’t even know how to know?

This ‘’knowing’’ refers to knowledge of Dhamma; specifically, discernment in regards to mindfulness of the body. It is not the ordinary way to know things, it is knowing with wisdom, all about wisdom. For higher wisdom, we need to create the mindfulness to know your own mind. In regard to mindfulness of breathing, it means knowing the mind as it forms the action of inhaling. 

If we practice right mindfulness, it must be done for the sake of removing craving and attachment, removing greed and aversion, directly working to remove these things. If we are aware that we are sitting only when we are seated, we will have already sat down with greed, aversion and ignorance without knowing. It is often the attachment to bodily comfort that will seek automatically for a place to sit, looking for the most comfortable chair, for example. But if we are mindful before we sit, we will be able to have the self-discipline as to whether we should sit or not, because there will be no greed or aversion in our minds. There is no space for greed or aversion and mindfulness to exist within the mind at the same time. 

 In the same way, mindfulness of breathing is purely to remove greed and unhappiness; if we are mindful in the right way, we will have no craving, wrong view or attachment during the time we breathe. However, we should be very clear that satipatthana meditation is all about removing kilesa while living, knowing right at the moment we do things; not about sitting in one place for a fixed period of time. Whatever action we do, whatever position we take – sitting, standing, walking and breathing – all must be done to remove greed, aversion, ignorance. All is done to remove craving, attachment and wrong view. We meditate in this way for the sake of the particular contentment that comes from having no more unwholesomeness within us, removing them from our bodily actions, our speech and our mind. The practice must directly work to remove them; if not, it’s all just wrong concentration. 

Wrong concentration, on the contrary, will end up being done for the sake of our craving and our greed, even if our aim in the beginning is to follow the Buddha’s teaching. Attachment, desire and wrong view are all linked together; we want to keep our wrong view because it’s easier, more enjoyable. The stickiness to pleasant feelings is called Vedana-upadana-kkhando.  It is an attachment to feelings, the happiness from doing something. If we enjoy the calm feeling of concentrating on the sensation of breathing, especially if we practice to have this calm agreeable feeling, we are obviously wrong, we already have this stickiness, this craving and this wrong view all together. We cannot use craving, attachment, greediness or wrong view to create peace. Peace comes from getting rid of these things and being free of them, only then it is right. It can never be that we create peace through merely practicing concentration; that is pure wrong view. This kind of practice, any form of normal concentration, is all built on craving and attachment, it has nothing to do with getting rid of kilesa. When someone has some desire to sit, searches for happiness in sitting whether in meditation or not, he is already having craving and attachment. Having those, one thinks that it is the right way, since we already feel happy, there’s nothing more to do.

Yet Dhamma is not that. It’s not about finding happiness from pleasant feelings. The meaning and aim of practicing Dhamma is that all these things should be destroyed. 

Postscript: Wrong views

While concentration is an easy matter, wisdom is a difficult matter. People always choose the easy way out, but you won’t be able to achieve anything that way – least of all wisdom.The wisdom from right view is very difficult to find: everywhere it is hidden by wrong view, by not knowing. If we can let go of the wrong view, everything will become easy. It is the wrong view that blinds us and makes all things difficult. Whatever we do will be difficult, and even walking or sitting, which are the main postures, will be wrong. We can’t blame ourselves when it goes wrong, because it is always the wrong view that prevents us from doing right things. It’s the wrong view that leads us down wrong paths, and we don’t even realise it. 

 If you keep choosing the easy way out and don’t let go of the wrong view, you will not be able to practice correctly and you will not be able to attain wisdom throughout your whole life, because your practice goes along a path that is not the path to wisdom. You have to be clear which is the path to wisdom. How to know? Being mindful of your mind is the way to know clearly. 

Without wisdom, you cannot teach. If you don’t have wisdom of your own, you cannot do it. You can only do it when you have wisdom from the right view and the noble eightfold path. I had to figure it out for myself without any living teacher. Without being one who is set on the eightfold path, one cannot teach. The teaching will not be right, because wrong view is killing the right view. One having wrong view will teach according to the wrong view, not the right view, not the right path. In the same way when you do it by yourself you will follow the wrong view, take the easy way out and practice wrong concentration. As long as we do not have the right view it will always be wrong view. Due to the wrong view, you will think and do it your own way, follow your own idea. And the teaching goes on everyday, about sitting, standing, walking and lying. Ajahn X, Ajahn Y and Ajahn Z will go on with different subjects and different methods. 

It is quite difficult to explain this thing. When somebody is looking for advice, I have to choose the right words. If I cannot find the right words, when they listen, they will not understand and there won’t be any good result after teaching. Therefore, before I dare to say anything, I must make sure that the words are right. When I dare to speak, there will be no arguments. Not because you are not allowed to argue, but because there is nothing to argue about because my words go into details and are correct. 

It is very difficult to teach the right vipassana. Satipatthana and vipassana are purely about wisdom. It is difficult to realise it or see it or understand it from listening. It is also difficult for the one who tries to express this knowledge, because it is hard to make it easy for people to understand. I don’t know if what I said will offend anyone. If it does not, then there must be enough cause for them to consider, and not just accuse that it is wrong, with no reason, no explanation about being beneficial or detrimental, wholesome or unwholesome. That which is pure without any taint of unwholesomeness is very difficult to teach.

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