The Mystery Of The Breath Nimitta
As the title suggests, there is a significant puzzle to be solved by any meditator or scholar who tries to clearly understand the qualities of experience, which accompany the transition from mere attention to respiration to full immersion in jhanic consciousness.
I will attempt to show that there are good grounds for confusion on this matter as one traces the historical progression of the commentarial accounts from the Patisambhidamagga through the Vimuttimagga to the (later) Visuddhimagga.
Since the Visuddhimagga is so influential and so widely quoted by modern teachers, it would seem critical that it is reliable and, if in certain aspects it is not, then, with supporting evidence, to show clearly why it is not.
The body of this essay will show that a description of the mind of the jhanic meditator found in the Canon itself and quoted in the Patisambhidamagga as a simile involving a comparison of mind with a full clear moon, degenerates to a mistaken literalization of these images as internally produced visual data. Since the contents of mind are not easy to point to, the Buddha frequently used similes comparing visual and other sense objects with mental contents in order for meditators to clearly understand what they should be seeking and experiencing. In religious traditions of all kinds we often find a naive tendency to take literally what is meant as a simile. It seems this process has occurred somewhere along the line and has become enshrined in the Visuddhimagga's description of the patibhaganimitta or "counter-part sign." It is important that new generations of western meditators not be misled by this probable historical error.
The "sign" means a characteristic mark or phenomenon, which accompanies and helps identify an experience. For example, the flu is often accompanied by weakness and nausea; here nausea would be a sign of the flu.
Both of these states share the same sign but differ only in the intensity of the component (state) factors.
Hence, one finds post-canonical exegetical works having as their main purpose the comment, explanation, complement, or clarification of texts that may be deemed abstruse or lacking information within the Canon.
Concerning the subject of breathing meditation, three such commentarial works, the Visuddhimagga (Vis., 500 AC, 1st Eng. ed. 1956), the Vimuttimagga (Vim., 100 AC ?, 1st.Eng.ed. 1961) and the Patisambhidamagga (Pat., 300 BC ?, 1st.Engl.ed. 1982) are at present available in English translation.
Both teachers and students use them widely as valuable references for clarifying key aspects of the practice.
On the subject of the sign (nimitta) and counter-part sign (patibhaganimitta), which arise during breath meditation, there are significant discrepancies between the descriptions found in the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga.
...So too, the bhikkhu should not look for the in-breaths and out-breaths anywhere else than the place normally touched by them.
For as he gives his attention in this way they reappear after no long time, as the oxen did at the drinking place where they met.
214. When he does so in this way, the sign [see corresponding note, next paragraph] soon appears to him. But it is not the same for all; on the contrary, some say that when it appears it does so to certain people producing a light touch like cotton or silk cotton or a draught.
215. But this is the exposition given in the commentaries: It appears to some like a star or a cluster of gems or a cluster of pearls, to others with a rough touch like that of silk-cotton seeds or a peg made of heartwood, to others like a long braid string or a wreath of flowers or a puff of smoke, to others like a stretched-out cobweb or a film of cloud or a lotus flower or a chariot wheel or the moon's disk or the sun's disk. [Underlining mine].
A note taken from a commentary to the Visuddhimagga reads:
The following extracts are presented for the reader to assess whether a mix-up came about as a result of an error in the transmission (perhaps an error in written transcription) based on data obtained from earlier commentarial material such as the Vimuttimagga and the canonical Patisambhidamagga, or of having taken literally what originally was meant as a simile.
Namely, mindfulness of respiration.
Namely, air kasina."
Thus, as mentioned in the Patisambhidamagga (170., p.172):
...the bhikkhu sits, having established mindfulness at the nose tip or on the upper lip, without giving attention to the in-breaths and out-breaths as they approach and recede,...the body and cognizance in one who is energetic [in this endeavour] becomes wieldy,...his applied thoughts are stilled...[and] his underlying tendencies come to be done away with...
Procedure, pp.158-159; see paragraph below), one finds that they are diametrically opposed in apparent intended meaning.
Whereas the Visuddhimagga similes are given in terms of what one may find as the sign to be dwelled upon, in the Vimuttimagga one finds words of caution so as to abstain from attending to such perceptions (instead of attending to the tactile respiration sign).
The pertinent fragment from the Vimuttimagga is transcribed in full:
To the yogin who attends to the incoming breath with mind that is cleansed of the nine lesser defilements the image arises with a pleasant feeling similar to that which is produced in the action of spinning cotton or silk cotton.
This is called the image. If the yogin develops the image [sign] and increases it at the nose-tip, between the eyebrows, on the forehead or establishes it in several places, he feels as if his head were filled with air.
And again, there is a yogin: he sees several images from the beginning. He sees various forms such as smoke, mist, dust, sand of gold, or he experiences something similar to the pricking of a needle or to an ant's bite.
If his mind does not become clear regarding these different images, he will be confused [!].
And he attends to respiration with mind that is free.
Equipoise, desire and joy being free, he attends to respiration, and his mind is not disturbed. If his mind is not disturbed, he will destroy the hindrances, and arouse the meditation (jhana) factors.
This is as was fully taught above.
These warnings not to be distracted may be directly derived from the Mindfulness of Breathing discourse (M 118.26): "I do not say there is development of breathing for one who is forgetful, who is not fully aware."
The phrase "pleasant feeling similar to that which is produced in the action of spinning cotton or silk cotton" should be understood as the pleasant tactile sensation experienced at a certain point on the hand of the weaver who supports or guides, while at the same time spinning, a line of cotton.
The simile interpreted in this way is appropriate in the sense that the initial contact with the line is felt in a coarse way and eventually changes in quality (numbness, pressure, heat, etc.) to a different quality of perception by effect of the sustained friction.
The sentence "this does not depend on colour or form" makes it quite clear that the meditator should not expect the sign of respiration mindfulness as a visual image, since it is not possible to conceive of a visual perception lacking both colour and form.
A great mystery is solved when one realizes that most of the images ascribed to the counter-sign in the Visuddhimagga and to the "distractions" in the Vimuttimagga are found in the earlier Patisambhidamagga as part of a metaphorical description of the bhikkhu liberated from the defilements on account of his distinction in the practice of mindfulness of breathing. The descriptions follow:
Whose mindfulness of breathing in and out is perfect, well developed, and gradually brought to growth according as the Buddha taught, It is he illuminates the world just like the full moon free from cloud (Pat.III, 171, p.172).
As the moon when freed from cloud, freed from mist, freed from smoke and dust, delivered from the clutches of the Eclipse-Demon Rahu, gleams and glows and shines, so too the bhikkhu who is delivered from all defilements gleams and glows and shines. Hence "just like the full moon free from cloud" was said (Pat.III, 182, p.175). [Underlining mine]
The Visuddhimagga, however, both mistakenly takes the similes "smoke", "mist", "dust", "gleam", "glows", "shines", and "moon", as literal visual images, and also misapprehends them as the counter-sign, the mark of success!, in direct opposition to the Vimuttimagga.
One can only wonder how these metaphorical images, found at the end of the section describing breathing meditation in the Patisambhidamagga, eventually became literal visual events related to meditation practice in later commentarial works.
Only in the Patisambhidamagga is the material handled appropriately. Similes for the quality of mind such as "clear", "illumined", or "free from clouds", are treated as similes, and furthermore the simile images of "clouds", "mist", etc., are properly understood as impediments to that clarity.
The editors (traditionally Acariya Buddhaghosa) of the Visuddhimagga seem rather uncomfortable with the "diversity of perception" of the various nimittas for breath meditation and demonstrate their uneasiness by explaining that such diversity originates in the mere uniqueness of meditators' perceptions (see quote, next paragraph). Neither this explanation nor the need for it appears in the earlier commentaries.
When a bhikkhu asks, " What does this sutta appear like to you?" , one says, "It appears to me like a great mountain torrent," another "To me it is like a line of forest trees," another "To me it is like spreading fruit tree giving cool shade."
Therefore it should be understood that when it appears differently it is because of difference in perception (Vis. VIII, 216, p.278).
I am sure many a meditator has wondered why the Buddha had failed to mention the critical information of the "sign" and "counter-sign" in breath meditation, which the Visuddhimagga has deemed so critical to success in jhanic practice.
I would add that the only sign of jhana which is reliable, and which applies in all cases, is the description of the jhana factors given by the Buddha Himself, whether the meditation object is visual or tactile.
I would further hope that the meditator realizes that the progressive clarity and refinements of his or her perception of the object of meditation are simply the "side-effects" of clarity and illumination of the still and focused mind.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: A SMALL RELATED MATTER
Furthermore, we find in the three works: "either at the nose or lip."
A short-nosed man however, feels it on his upper lip.
This is a strange bit of business if one thinks about it, because even if one is a "short-nosed man" one can only feel the exhalation of warm air out the nostrils onto the upper lip. We are now missing the entire in-breath.
So it seems we have another puzzle.
It is very sensible advice really, for it would be a shame to have to give up breath meditation just because one has a cold or a plugged nose! So we see what began as a straightforward location of breath contact at the nose or mouth, i.e. "the entrance", slowly take on the perplexing addition of a "long-nosed and a short-nosed man."
The debate over the meaning of this phrase came about at a very early time (see quote from the original note in the Patisambhidamagga, below), and in fact all three commentaries have opted for mukha as nose or mouth.
Hence "has the sense of outlet" is said.
The meaning expressed by all these words is: Having made mindfulness an embraced outlet.
But some say that "has the sense of embracing'" stands for "embracing as the meaning of mindfulness," and that "has the sense of outlet" stands for "door of entry and exit as the meaning of in-breaths and out-breaths."
Then what is meant is: Having established mindfulness as the embraced outlet of the in-breaths and out-breaths.(Note 14, Engl. Ed.; PsA 350-1)
But the breath as a "whole body" is explicitly mentioned in the Anapanasati Sutta, though not in the Satipatthana Sutta the phrase means the same: "I say, monks, that of bodies this is one, that is to say breathing-in and breathing-out" (Majjhima Nikaya, PTS edition, III.83, p.125; the footnote states that "...
It also overlooks the simile which immediately follows the explicit location, i.e.,
"As a turner or his apprentice, while making a long turn, knows that he is making a long turn, or in making a short turn, knows that he is making a short turn, so too a monk, in breathing in a long breath, knows that he breathes in a long breath,
This is the Buddha's failsafe mechanism to show that as a lathe worker fixes his attention one-pointedly with his chisel on a single spot while the wooden spindle is in ceaseless motion, the meditator does likewise at the "entrance spot" while the breath continuously flows past.
All of this does not mean that there is only one way to attain serenity using the breath. If someone has developed a technique that issues in jhana and which does not follow the explicit instructions that is fine too. Whatever works. SUMMARY
Attend to the sensation of breath/air wherever it enters and exits the body.
If visual perceptions arise, ignore them.
If the mind wanders do not allow it. Return to only the point of contact of breath.
Hold attention on the spot throughout the entire duration of in-breath and out-breaths.
The sensation or perception of sensation of moving air will change to a static feeling, this is the sign of the mind stilling.
Dwell on this airy, buoyant quality, which should pervade the head. One should experience a cool and airy emptiness of the head. This may extend throughout the body. This is a further "sign" of increasing stillness.
Remain with this airy lightness as an experience to focus upon.
All hindrances should have fallen away and the five jhana factors will be present to a degree that may be weak, medium or strong.
Refer to the Anapanasati Sutta for further instructions.