There is a lot of talk on breath, now what is breath? What's the meaning?

Is it form? What of it? Is it an action? Is it a perception? A feeling? How should it be taken, if to be taken, so that it would be used right, focused on it right?

Addition: It should be seen to be encouraged to give answers after own investigations on field, having investigated breath, in and of itself.

(Note: this is not given for exchange, stacks, trade or entertainment but as a means for liberation from this wheel.)

4 Answers 4


In the context of Anapanasati or Anapanasati Sutta this is the respiratory process of breathing in and out.


Ayya, how many kinds of formation are there?

Avuso Visākha, there are these 3 kinds of formation

  1. bodily formation, kāya,saṅkhāra

  2. verbal formation, vacī,saṅkhāra

  3. thought formation. citta,saṅkhāra

    But what, ayya, is bodily formation, what is verbal formation, what is thought formation?

Avuso Visākha,

  • The in-and-out breaths, are bodily formation.
  • Thinking and pondering are verbal formation.
  • Perception and feeling are thought formation.

But, ayya,'

  • why are the in-and-out-breaths bodily formation;

  • why are thinking and pondering verbal formation;

  • why are perception and feeling thought formation?


  • The in-and-out-breaths, avuso Visākha—these are states bound up with the body. Therefore, they are bodily formation.

  • Avuso Visākha, one, having first thought and pondered, then breaks out into speech. Therefore, thinking and pondering are verbal formation.

  • Perception and feeling—these are mentally-connected states, bound up with the mind. Therefore, perception and feeling are thought formation.

Cūla Vedalla Sutta

So the breath is of bodily formations.

Normal breathing, viz., non-volitional, involuntary, uncontrolled breathing is not an action. Controlled breathing like pranayama, is an action as it is volitional or voluntary. Bening mindful of the respiratory process displaces ignorance once sees clearly the true nature of things through the breath, but the same cannot be said about controlled breathing, hence the reason Buddha abandoned these practices as per Ariyapariyesana Sutta, Mahā Sīha,nāda Sutta, Maha Saccaka Sutta. Controlled breathing is an unskilful action which is rooted in ignorance, hence reaping future conditioning. Non-controlled breathing dissolves formations and does not create new formations hence is skilful action. So controlled and mindful breathing is an action with karmic results. Being unaware of the breath and everything else, i.e., one is not practising any of the 4 foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana), one is accumulating unskilful actions. When one is aware, i.e., practising any of the 4 foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana), but not necessarily of the breath but compatible with the Satipatthana Sutta and related Suttas, then one still is accumulating skilful action.

The breath as 2 aspects:

  • movement of the air element - this aspect of the breath can only be perception - this is sensed by the mind sense door. The air element can only be perceived but not be felt.
  • touch sensation of the breath - this can be felt and perceived - this is felt by the body sense door and subsequently the mind sense door.

The movement of the breath is a perception. Giri-m-ananda Sutta mentions breath as a perception (sanna).

The perceived aspect of breath meditation is the Samatha part and felt part of the breath meditation is the Vipassana part. When once feels the breath at some point one will see a counterpart sign where you feel the touch. When the perceiving part of the breath meditation becomes stronger one starts seeing a mental image.

Breath meditation covers all 4 foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana).

  1. First Tetrad: Contemplation of the Body (kāya)

    1. Discerning the in and out breathing (SA 8.10 begins with "he trains" in the first step)

    2. Discerning long or short breaths (Ekottarika Agama 17.1 version adds "warm" and "cool" breaths)

    3. Experiencing the whole body (sabbakāya). Pali versions add "he trains" in this step. Some Samyukta-Agama sutras meanwhile have "bodily-formations" in this step.[12]

    4. Calming bodily formations (kāya-saṃskāra)

  2. Second Tetrad: Contemplation of the Feeling (vedanā)

    1. Experiencing rapture (pīti)[14]

    2. Experiencing pleasure (sukha)

    3. Experiencing mental fabrication (citta-saṃskāra)

    4. Calming mental fabrication

  3. Third Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mind (citta)

    1. Experiencing the mind

    2. Satisfying the mind

    3. Steadying the mind (samādhi)

    4. Releasing the mind

  4. Fourth Tetrad: Contemplation of the Mental Objects (dhammā)

    1. Dwelling on impermanence

    2. Dwelling on dispassion (virāga). SA 8.10 instead has 'eradication'.

    3. Dwelling on cessation (nirodha). SA 8.10 instead has 'dispassion'.

    4. Dwelling on relinquishment (paṭinissaggā). SA 8.10 instead has 'cessation'.

Source: Anapanasati Sutta

  • So breathing in and out is not an action? Not watching an action, maybe a sequence? Upasaka?
    – user11235
    Jul 12, 2019 at 9:48
  • Updated the answer. Jul 12, 2019 at 10:14

The reason there is a lot of talk about breath is its intermediary function between voluntary and involuntary personal features in human beings. This is also a reflection on the strong emphasis which it has received as a symbolic or literal reference to subjective essence (spirit, soul).

The biological factors are obvious. As mammals we need respiration to survive as part of our sustained organic process. This is part of what constitutes human experience. We breathe, and this continues or we expire. The variable character of this breathing, however, is the focus of a number of liberation instructions or ideologies ostensibly disclosing meaning and purpose.

The reason that focal practices of the Dharma include attention to breath is its rhythmic, ever-present, and involuntary nature. We may learn to loosen our self-control and begin to enter into a condition of repose (calm reflection).

There is no requirement as to breath's role in doctrine or practice. As part of disciplines such as pranayama it may become an exclusive tool to help one move toward liberation. In certain Buddhist practices it may function as an element of practice while meditating having no influence upon breathing while so doing.


The Buddha did not teach to focus on breath. The question is non-sequitur.

The Buddha taught to abandon craving. When craving is abandoned, the mind will be quiet, silent & still. When the mind is quiet, silent & still, the breath will "visit" the mind. When the breath "visits" the mind, the mind remains unconcerned & detached about the breath and merely experiences the "visitor" as the "visitor" is.

It is similar to when a monk goes on alms round. Women, with their filial lusts, wish to feed the monk. The monks accepts the alms food but does not pursue the women. Similarly, the Noble Meditator does not pursue the breath. Instead, like the monks on alms round, the Noble Meditator maintains Noble Silence and allows the breath to visit or give.


Breath is a physiological process which can be voluntary or involuntary. When you don't try to control it, it proceeds at an involuntarily regulated pace. That's similar to blinking. When your eyes are open, they automatically blink once in a while. Breath is quite regular in its frequency, unlike blinking. Your heartbeat is also involuntary and regularly paced, but you usually cannot feel it (unless you have palpitations).

So, breath, is the only physiological process that I know of, which fulfills all these criteria: it proceeds involuntarily at a relatively regular pace and it can be felt through it's effects on the nostril, upper lip, movement of abdomen or movement of rib cage. It's frequency is also not too slow and not too fast, for observation of its effects.

Now how does that relate to Buddhism?

Well, the regularly paced change of effects on the nostril, upper lip, movement of abdomen or movement of rib cage that can be felt by a person, are sensations (vedanā). Not the breath itself, but the effect of the physiological process of involuntary breathing, causes detectable and observable sensations.

And how is this useful in Buddhism?

There is nothing mystical about the mind-breath connection in Buddhism, unlike prāṇāyāma in Hindu Hatha Yoga.

In meditation, the observable sensation (vedanā) caused by breathing is physically rooted and is something that the mind doesn't control, which the mind can use as an object to track, in order to cultivate concentration, instead of becoming bored and distracted.

If the meditator tries to observe something that his mind created, he might get carried away in imagination.

If the meditator tries to track an unchanging sensation like the sensation of his palm, he might get bored and fall asleep.

However, breathing is not imagined by the mind, and changes at a regular pace, so it makes a good meditation object for cultivation of concentration. Of course, the meditator could still get distracted or bored or fall asleep, but at least when he remembers that he had drifted off, he can come back to the observable sensation caused by breathing.

  • "Breath is a physiological process", given by God, accidentally... or maybe an act of will, react? Good to investigate what's the matter with breath.
    – user11235
    Jul 14, 2019 at 3:30
  • Did breath come about due to being created by God or accidentally? Well, that's answered by the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow.
    – ruben2020
    Jul 14, 2019 at 3:40
  • No, not at all, since one investigating the breath looks after the cause. Good if starting to get breath known, suffereing known. It's called Maha-puta, great-"seed" btw. investigation defender Ruben.
    – user11235
    Jul 14, 2019 at 4:08
  • What's the cause of "a physiological process", what is breath?
    – user11235
    Jul 14, 2019 at 4:09

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