The Mystery of the Breath Nimitta Or The Case of the Missing Simile
by Bhikkhu Sona
An essay on aspects of the practice of breath meditation.
 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 the 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)

 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 the meditator 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 been enshrined in the Visuddhimagga's
 description of the "patibhaganimitta" or "counterpart sign." It is
 important that new generations of western meditators not be misled
 by this probable historical error.

 The terms "nimitta" or "sign" and "patibhaganimitta" or
 "counterpart sign" are frequently referred to in this essay and it
 is best to clarify their meaning at the outset. 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.
 Extreme joy may be accompanied by a feeling of lightness of body
 and tears, these would be signs of joy. A doctor looks for certain
 signs which characteristically accompany certain illnesses. In the
 same way certain signs are characteristic of entering deep states
 of right concentration and are intrinsic to the jhanic state.
 According to the definitions found in Nyantiloka's "Buddhist
 Dictionary" (taken from commentarial sources) there are three
 types of nimitta. The first type is the parikamma-nimitta and
 refers to the perception of the object at the very beginning of
 concentration, it is also known as the "preparatory image." When
 the mind reaches a weak degree of concentration, a still unsteady
 and unclear image called the "counter-image" or "counter-sign"
 (the patibhaga-nimitta.) The appearance of this third type of
 nimitta signals the appearance of neighbourhood (or access)
 concentration, the state that precedes full jhanic absorption;
 both of these states share the same sign but differ only in the
 intensity of the component (state) factors. As mentioned in this
 definition, the counterpart sign is understood as a more refined
 and clarified version of the sign and is the natural result of
 heightened awareness and concentration. By knowing these signs,
 both the student and teacher are helped to assess the success or
 failure of the corresponding concentration attainments.

 The lavish quotations from the canon and commentaries which follow
 are necessary to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions on
 the matter.


 Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing (anapanasati) is one of the
 most important among the subjects or working grounds for
 meditation recommended by the Buddha. It is also one of the most
 popular meditation methods used by past and present generations of
 Theravada Buddhist practitioners seeking to complete the noble
 path of deliverance. The method is described in a number of suttas
 belonging to the Pali Canon (e.g.., M 118, M 10, D 22) however the
 suttas are quite concise and at times sparse in their treatment of
 meditation methods. Hence, one finds post-canonical exegetical
 works having as their main purpose the comment, explanation,
 complement or clarification of texts which may be deemed abstruse
 or lacking information within the canon.

 Concerning the subject of breathing meditation three such
 commentarial works, the Visuddhimagga (Vis., 5th century A.C., 1st
 Eng. edition 1956) the Vimuttimagga (Vim., 1st century A.C. ? 1st
 Eng. edition, 1961) and the Patisambhidamagga (Pat., 3rd century
 B.C.? 1st Eng. edition 1982) are at present available in English
 translation and used widely by both teachers and students as
 valuable references for clarifying key aspects of the practice.
 Traditionally, the Visuddhimagga, the latest work of the three,
 has been used and considered perhaps the most authoritative
 standard to be followed as a manual of meditation.

 On the subject of the sign (nimitta) and the counterpart sign (
 patibhaganimitta ) which arises during breath meditation, there
 are significant discrepancies between the descriptions found in
 the Visuddhimagga and the Vimuttimagga. Diverse written works by
 modern teachers mention the characteristics of sign and
 counterpart sign appearing during breath meditation. Often these
 descriptions take the classic simile description found in the
 Visuddhimagga, perhaps as a cautious attempt at not straying away
 from orthodoxy. However, as we show below this description of the
 sign (learning or counterpart) may turn out to be quite misleading
 and, as often expressed by frustrated meditators, unclear.

 In the Visuddhimagga description of mindfulness of breathing (Vis.
 VIII, 213-215) one reads:

 "213...So, too, the bhikkhu should not look for the
 in-breaths and out-breaths anywhere else than the place
 normally touched by them. And he should take the rope of
 mindfulness and the goad of understanding, and fixing
 his mind on the place normally touched by them, he
 should go on giving his attention to that. 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. So he can secure them with the rope of
 mindfulness, and, and yoking them in that same place and
 prodding them with the goad of understanding, he can
 keep on applying himself to the meditation subject.

 "214. When he does so in this way, the sign [see
 corresponding note after 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 or a cloud or a lotus
 flower or a chariot-wheel or the moon's disk or the
 sun's disk."

 [ note 58 ] "'The sign' is the learning sign and the
 counterpart sign, for both are stated here together.
 Herein, the three similes beginning with cotton are
 properly the learning sign, the rest are both. 'Some'
 are certain teachers. The similes beginning with the
 "cluster of gems" are properly the counterpart sign.
 (Paramattha-manjusa, Visuddhimagga Atthakatha)"

 The similes in the preceding sections (Vis 214-215) represent
 both tactile and visual sense perceptions. The quoted texts that
 follow are presented for the reader to assess whether this may be
 a mix up 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.

 The Vimuttimagga (p 68) in referring to the "discerning of
 qualities" for the diverse meditation subjects states that "
 subject of meditation seizes the sign through contact. Namely,
 mindfulness of respiration. And again, one subject of meditation
 seizes the sign through sight or contact, namely air kasina."
 These statements point to the fundamental difference in the types
 of meditation subjects in virtue of which they should be carefully
 distinguished when referring to them.

 A point to be stressed in this discussion is the fact that visual
 objects may be perceived during breathing meditation as an
 epiphenomenal occurrence for some meditators, in such cases a
 change of focus is possible by leaving the tactile percept of
 breath in order to take up the sign of a light-kasina. There is
 canonical reference as to the internal "perception of light"
 (e.g.. M 128, Pat. 547, p.117) However, if the meditator wished to
 remain attending to the characteristic sign of the breath he/she
 should remain focused exclusively on the tactile sensation of
 breath. 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..."

 Going back to the Visuddhimagga similes given above (Vis VIII,
 214-215) and comparing them with what one finds in the
 corresponding description in the Vimuttimagga (Mindfulness of
 Respiration, Procedure, pp. 158-159 see paragraph below) one finds
 that they are diametrically opposed as regards to the intended
 meaning. For 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
 respiration sign. ) The pertinent fragment from the Vimuttimagga
 is transcribed in full as follows for the reader to compare:

 "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. Also, it is likened to the pleasant feeling
 produced by a breeze. Thus, in breathing in and out, air
 touches the nose or the lip and causes the setting-up of
 air perception mindfulness. This does not depend on
 colour or form. This is called the image [ poor choice
 of words for a "tactile" nimitta! -Sona ] If the yogin
 develops the image 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. Through increasing in this way his whole body
 is charged with bliss. This is called perfection.

 "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
 images, he will be confused. [ ! ] Thus he fulfills
 overturning and does not gain the perception of
 respiration. If his mind becomes clear, the yogin does
 not experience confusion. He attends to respiration and
 he does not cause the arising of other perceptions.
 Meditating thus he is able to end confusion and acquire
 the subtle image. And he attends to respiration with
 mind that is free. That image is free. Because that
 image is free, desire arises. Desire being free, that
 yogin attends to respiration with equipoise. 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. Thus this yogin will
 reach the calm and sublime fourth meditation jhana. This
 is as was fully taught above." [ emphasis added ]

 These warnings not to be distracted are most likely 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" perhaps 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 adequate 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. This is a more refined simile than that found in the
 Visuddhimagga, which settles for the static image of "the touch of

 The sentence "This does not depend upon colour or form" make 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 percept lacking colour and form.
 What may be inferred from the sentence is that the sign is a
 tactile percept. Incidentally, in the Patisambhidamagga, the
 earliest and most extensive source treatise on breathing, there is
 no mention in the whole section on breathing meditation of a
 visual or "light" nimitta.

 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
 description follows thus;

 "Whose mindfulness of breathing in and out is perfect,
 well developed and gradually brought to growth according
 as the Buddha taught, 'tis he who illuminates the world
 just like the full moon free from cloud" (Pat III, 171,

 And "just like the full moon free from cloud:
 Defilements are like clouds, the noble one's knowledge
 is like the moon, the bhikkhu is like the deities son
 who possesses the full moon. As the moon 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)

 Here what is given canonically as a simile for the mind, in the
 Vimuttimagga is taken literally as visual percepts although,
 mercifully, given as images to which one should not pay attention.
 The Visuddhimagga however both mistakenly takes the similes
 "smoke," "mist," "dust," "gleam," "glows," "shines" and "moon," as
 literal visual images, but also misapprehends them as the
 counter-sign, ( the mark of success!) in direct opposition to the

 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 practise in later commentarial works. From the
 evidence presented in this note it may seem advisable to consider
 both the Vimuttimagga and the Patisambhidamagga as more reliable
 texts as far as breathing meditation is concerned.

 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 a diversity originates in the
 mere uniqueness of meditators' perceptions ( see quote, next
 paragraph.) Neither this explanation nor the need for it appear in
 the earlier commentaries.

 "216. In fact this resembles an occasion when a number of bhikkhus
 are sitting together reciting a suttanta. 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 a spreading
 fruit tree giving cool shade.' For the one sutta appears to them
 differently because of the difference in their perception.
 Similarly this single meditation subject appears differently
 because of difference in perception. It is born of perception, its
 source is perception, it is produced by perception. Therefore it
 should be understood that when it appears differently it is
 because of difference in perception." (Vis VIII, 216)

 I am sure many a meditator has wondered why the Buddha had failed
 to mention the critical information of the "sign" and the
 "counter-sign" in breath meditation which the Visuddhimagga has
 deemed so critical to success in jhanic practice. We hope our
 essay has shown that the Buddha's description of the practise of
 breath meditation contains all necessary and sufficient
 information for success.

 I would add that the only sign of jhana which is reliable, is the
 description of the jhana factors given by the Buddha Himself and
 which apply in all cases, whether the meditation object is visual
 or tactile.

 I would further hope that the meditator realizes that the
 progressive clarity and refinements of his/her perception of the
 object of meditation is simply the "side-effect" of clarity and
 illumination of the still and focused mind.

 Lastly, I would emphasize that the object in respiration is
 contact with air. The quality of the air element is critically
 important to this meditation. If the Buddha were interested in
 mere sensations of contact then it would be simpler to touch one's
 nose with the fingers. The taking on of the lightness of air as an
 experience of the body is critical. As the Vimuttimagga says;

 "He feels as if his head were filled with air. Through increasing
 in this way his whole body is charged with bliss. This is called
 perfection." [ Previously quoted, emphasis added ]


 Location, Location, Location; A Small Related Matter

 A related secondary matter regarding the breath nimitta is, once
 again, a traceable misunderstanding which has evolved to its final
 form in the Visuddhimagga.

 A critical phrase is used in the suttas Four Foundations of
 Mindfulness and Anapanasati, that is: "parimukham satim
 upatthapetva," which is often translated as "setting mindfulness
 before him." One is then left to wonder why the Patisambhidamagga,
 the Vimuttimagga and the Visuddhimagga all confidently place the
 location of breath contact as the nostrils. And furthermore, we
 find in the three works; "either at the nose or lip." And here,
 Buddhaghosa, the editor, gives as explanation that a "long-nosed
 man can feel the breath at his nostril as it passes through his
 nose." A short-nosed man however, feels it on the 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 of the nostrils onto the upper lip. We are now
 missing the entire in-breath. Anyone claiming to feel the
 inhalation at the upper lip, I think, has a very good imagination.
 So it seems we have another puzzle.

 If we look back to the original sutta at the word "mukkha," it
 literally and sensibly means "entrance" or "mouth." If we give it
 this obvious meaning we have: "He fixes his attention at the
 'entrance' "; the entrance being either the nose or the mouth,
 they are assuming that the reader realizes that the meditator may
 be breathing either through his nose or his mouth. If he is
 breathing through his mouth he should direct his attention to air
 contact at the lip. It is very sensible advice really, for it
 would be a shame to have to give up breath meditation just because
 one had 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."

 Some modern teachers have suggested that it doesn't matter where
 the breath contact is located, probably in response to the phrase
 which occurs later on in the sutta: "Experiencing the whole body,
 he breathes in...", etc. And since the whole of the breath is not
 explicitly stated, they feel there is room for interpretation.
 This, unfortunately, overlooks the explicit location of "at the
 entrance" in the sutta, which the three commentaries agree on,
 whatever the later confusion may have been. 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 he is
 making a short turn, so too a monk, in breathing in a long breath
 knows that he breathes in a long breath, in breathing in a short
 breath, knows that he breathes in a short breath... and so trains
 himself thinking 'I will breath out, calming the whole bodily
 formation'" (D.22) The Buddha includes this apparently redundant
 simile for one reason. Similes are like pictures that are worth a
 thousand words and which usually survive the butcheries of
 translation. This is the Buddha's fail-safe mechanism to show that
 the 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.

 Basically all the commentaries manage to preserve this notion in
 the "simile of the saw." but unfortunately the mouth as location
 is overlooked by the time of the Visuddhimagga.

 I hope the above points will help clarify any confusion that
 meditators have come up against and that they may breath a sigh of
 relief as they move along the path.

 Bhikkhu Sona, Canada


 1) "The Path of Purification, Visuddhimagga" by Bhadantacariya
 Buddhaghosa, translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli, 5th
 ed. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. (1991)

 2) "The Path of Freedom, Vimuttimagga" by the Arahant Upatissa,
 translated from the Chinese by Rev. N.R.M. Ehara, Soma Thera and
 Kheminda Thera; Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka

 3) "The Path of Discrimination, Patisambhidamagga" Translated from
 the Pali by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli, 2nd ed. The Pali Text Society,
 Oxford (1997)


 Source: Arrow River Community Center, Canada,