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Samatha-Vipassana: Tranquillity and Insight, Hand-in-Hand

applying "transmission/gears" metaphor to anapanasati sutta


This is just a thought of mine. Kenneth Folk talks about the '3 speed transmission' and 'downshifting when things get difficult'. His 'transmission', though, shifts between fairly different approaches from different traditions (no complaints here, just setting up my point).

I've been sort of mentally wrestling with the anapanasati sutta for a while (MN 118), with its 16 steps. I used to drive myself nuts trying to jump around different steps. That was probably just my being neurotic, but I felt really unclear on how to deal with these 16 steps. I read Larry Rosenberg's book on the sutta multiple times, but it still felt vary vague and the 'condensed practice' wasn't really satisfactory to me.

However, I have lately been thinking of the 16 steps using KFD's metaphor of a transmission with 'gears'. So 1st/2nd gear would be just being aware of long/short breath. The metaphor of transmission/gears itself answers where you should be, as Kenneth Folk remarks in one of his videos, it is about where you are getting 'traction'. So if you are trying to calm the body at step 4 of the sutta, but not getting traction, then you downshift to 1st/2nd gear or 3rd gear. Or, if you are already quite calm and focused, you could shift into high gear (the fourth tetrad, the last four steps) and contemplate dhammas, because that is where you are able to get traction at that ponit. So it is like at 16 speed transmission, like a mountain bike with lots of gears for very steep hills.

Anyways, this might be only a slight rewording of a point that is already obvious to most people. But this just made sense to me. Interested in how others handle this same issue.


RE: applying "transmission/gears" metaphor to anapanasati sutta
9/11/13 12:06 PM as a reply to Mike H..
You would have to ask Kenneth himself for a definitive answer to your question. I encourage you to do that, as he would probably be happy to answer. He can be reached through his site, Kenneth Folk Dharma.

But my understanding is that the Anapanasati instructions are talking about jhana and the four foundations of mindfulness. These topics all fall under what Kenneth would call "first gear".

RE: applying "transmission/gears" metaphor to anapanasati sutta
9/11/13 12:14 PM as a reply to Mike H..
Unless what you're asking is whether or not there's something analogous here. In other words, is there a kind of "shifting" that occurs in Anapanasati, even if it's not the same shifting that Kenneth describes.

In answer to that question, I would say "sort of". There can be shifting in the sense that there is movement between the tetrads, and if you find that the mind is beginning to lose focus while in one of the tetrads, you can calm things down by returning to the sensations of the body, and once the body is calm, work your way back up.

The main difference, though, is that Anapanasati is a pretty linear thing, but Kenneth's 3-gear transmission is not. Kenneth says (paraphrasing), "If you can do 3rd gear, just do 3rd gear." But there's very little point in just jumping into the fourth tetrad in Anapanasati, because you're not tranquil or concentrated enough for work at that level to be fruitful. Instead, you build it up carefully, step by step, first calming the bodily fabrications, then the mental fabrications, and THEN looking at the development of skillful mental qualities in real time. It's a more careful, step-by-step thing in my experience that doesn't permit of too much jumping around.

One of my favorite essays on the Anapanasati Sutta is The Breath as a Vehicle for Liberation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who I think is friends with Larry Rosenberg.

RE: applying "transmission/gears" metaphor to anapanasati sutta
9/11/13 1:04 PM as a reply to Fitter Stoke.
Thanks Fitter - I have a similar understanding of Kenneth Folk's 3 speed transmission, where it isn't so linear as the anapansati sutta. And certainly, much of the anapansati sutta would just be 'first gear' in his system.

But I am sort of being inspired by his metaphor of the transmission, just as a way to help me understand this particular sutta. I will check our Thanissaro Bhikku's essay that you link to. I had listened to his multipart dhamma talk on the sutta a while ago, and that was also helpful.

Maybe a better metaphor with the anapansati sutta would be building a house, brick by brick, or something? You certainly don't start with the roof.

RE: applying "transmission/gears" metaphor to anapanasati sutta
6/2/14 4:21 PM as a reply to Mike H..
A very good book to reconcile these perspectives is Rosenberg's own most recent work, 3 Steps to Awakening.  From that book, it's clear that he is in line with the subset of Thai practice that emphasizes using the instructions of the sutta to widen out to a panoramic awareness. Yes, he says, you can use the same 16 steps to dive deep into hard jhana, but he considers that an optional development for those who are interested. There are definitely a few pieces of that Thai tradition that think anapanasati will lead you to wide-open embodied choiceless awareness rather than hard jhana, which is just more proof that these suttas have had a lot of readings over the millennia.

The book itself basically says, "Oops. I taught a lot of people via the Anapanasati Sutta, but a lot of my Western students got obsessed with the steps, so I have come up with a pared-down version based on Buddhadasa's concise method of anapanasati."  His three gears end up being:

1)Open breath awareness, focused on the whole body breathing. Unlike many versions of the sutta, this version doesn't have you pick a spot to watch the breath but has you just turn your attention wherever it shows up each moment, following the moving target.
2)Panoramic awareness, focused on the whole body breathing including feeling tones, thoughts, and other sensations. Breath is basically held onto as an anchor in the background, while the flow of whatever arises is the main object of concentration.
3)Pure choiceless awareness of whatever arises moment by moment without using the breath as an anchor. If the breath shows up, it's just one more thing that's there sometimes. This section has a lot of focus on the three characteristics.

In this treatment, Rosenberg admits to mostly doing #3 these days, and finding its benefits very special, but he still seems to de-emphasize ranking the gears, because of all the cycles that concentration power goes through.

For me, this system works pretty well, and worked out some of the kinks in my concentration I'd been stuck on the past year or so. But people have radically different ways of learning and sets of mental faculties from each other, so YMMV.