I’ve taken two extracts from the Buddha’s discourse on the Mindfulness of Breathing to illustrate some of the traditional approaches to this meditation practice.
This teaching, or sutta, is called “Anapanasati”, which literally means, “Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing.”
It’s a very pithy guide to the meditation practice, and you could literally spend a lifetime exploring the teachings that the Buddha outlines here. You could certainly write a whole book about it, and in fact Larry Rosenberg on the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center has done just that — his book is called “Breath by Breath.”
The first extract is part of the sutta’s preamble, which gives the background to the teaching, which was given at the end of the rainy season retreat. India is very wet for four months of the year, and the monks developed the habit of using this time as a period when they would meditate more intensively than usual.
This particular retreat period was going so well, that the Buddha decided that he would remain where he was for another full month. It seems there were already a lot of monks there, and that the retreat was focused heavily on meditation teaching. The Buddha’s announcement that he’d be staying at this particular place for longer caused many more monks to arrive. We’re told that,
“The elder monks (then) taught and instructed even more intensely. Some elder monks were teaching and instructing ten monks, some were teaching and instructing twenty monks, some were teaching and instructing thirty monks, some were teaching and instructing forty monks. The new monks, being taught and instructed by the elder monks, were discerning grand, successive distinctions.”
So the retreat was paying off!
We see here a very active, dynamic spiritual community, which is effect offers a series of ongoing spiritual workshops. Although many Buddhist monks in the East nowadays do not meditate much, or even at all, it was expected at this time that the entire purpose of being a monk (or nun) was to allow for intense spiritual practice of exactly this sort.