Ten Perceptions

The Girimananda sutta is a sutta delivered to a sick monk, Girimananda, who recovered from his sickness when he heard the ten saññā (perceptions) that the Buddha taught to Ānanda. Ānanda came to the Buddha and said, “Venerable Sir, Girimananda is sick. It would be good if you went to him out of compassion.” Rather than going himself, however, the Buddha considered with his eye of wisdom and saw that the appropriate cure would be these ten saññā, and so he taught them to Ānanda and said, “If you teach these to Girimananda, it may be that he gets better.”

The ten saññā describe a detailed progression for practice of the Buddha’s teaching. They are not exactly in order, but they come together in a fairly detailed explanation of our practice. These ten dhammas have to be experienced for oneself, but learning about them can be helpful for understanding the direction our practice should take. The easy part is remembering them, though; the hard part is understanding them. So once you see how hard it is to remember them, you can appreciate how difficult they must be to understand!

The perceptions are, in order:

1. aniccasaññā, the perception if impermanence;
2. anattasaññā, the perception of non-self;
3. asubhasaññā, perception of ugliness or loathsomeness;
4. ādīnavasaññā, perception of the disadvantages or the negative side;
5. pahānasaññā, perception of abandoning, giving up, removing;
6. virāgasaññā, perception of dispassion;
7. nirodhasaññā, perception of cessation;
8. sabbaloke anabhiratasaññā, perception of non-delight in the all worlds;
9. sabbasaṅkhāresu anicchāsaññā, perception of all formations as undesirable; and
10. ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing.

So the Buddha said, that reminding Girimananda of this ten things will cure him of his sickness. This is due to the power of the Buddha’s teaching manifested as dhammosadha (medicine of the truth). Some people may think, “We’re not sick. Why do we need this teaching?” but the power of the teaching is not just in making people well. The reason it makes people healthy to hear these ten perceptions is because of the power of the truth that they teach.

How do we know this? The only other set of dhammas the Buddha used for sick monks is the bojjhaṅga (factors of enlightenment). When Maha Mogallana was sick, when Maha Kassapa was sick, even when the Buddha himself was sick, He used the bojjhanga as a cure. Just hearing about the bojjhanga, the essence of the path to becoming enlightened, was enough to bring about physical health, even in the Buddha himself. So we can think of these ten perceptions as being on par with the teaching of the bojjhanga, and the bojjhanga are certainly not simply for curing sick bhikkhus.

The Buddha pointed out these ten perceptions, because they are most potent in recharging and giving encouragement and harmony to the mind, setting the mind right. So we should certainly pay close attention to these ten perceptions. We should try first to remember them, and it will remind us how to practice, and where our practice should lead us, remembering that this is the framework on which to base our practice.

Many of the perceptions actually sound quite negative, and it’s true that in some sense, Buddhism is a fairly negative religion. The Buddha taught four Noble Truths, and they are all about suffering. What’s the best we can hope for? Freedom from suffering. Happiness? Not a noble truth. And here we have these perceptions that we are asking people to develop: impermanence and loathsomeness, and so on. It seems to be a very negative teaching, and indeed some people try to argue that, based on teachings like this, Buddhism is an inherently negative religion.

It is quite dishonest to say such a thing, though; it means such people haven’t really made any effort to study the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha said that the mind is pure in and of itself – it’s already pure. The nature of the mind, the nature of reality? There is nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing that needs to be changed. We can be happy all the time, but for one important thing – suffering. Once we’re free from suffering, what should we worry about? What else should we need? If there were no suffering, why would we have to look for happiness? All we would have is happiness and calm. If there were never a state of suffering, then all that would be left is happiness and calm. Sometimes calm, sometimes happiness – never suffering. So, all you have to do is think for a second: what are the implications of not suffering?

This is why these saññas are most important. Negative things are most important, because they help us to let go of our defilements. They help us to let go of our craving, which is the cause of suffering. Once we see that the objects of our attachment are not really worth clinging to, not worth worrying about, not worth trying to control — “may they be like this; may they not be like that” – once we can see the suffering inherent in clinging, that true happiness doesn’t exist in anything outside of ourselves, only then can we find true peace and happiness.

The first two perceptions, aniccasaññā and anattasaññā, mean to see that the five aggregates and six sense bases are impermanent and non-self. Aniccasaññā is based on the five aggregates and anattasaññā is based on the six senses, but they’re actually saying the same thing. The aggregates and the senses are both impermanent and non-self. In the Anattalakkhaṇa sutta, the Buddha talks about the five aggregates as being non-self, but he explains it by saying they are impermanent, and if they’re impermanent, can you really say they’re self? What we mean by impermanent is not just that they change, but they arise and they cease.

Once you see impermanence, it’s not seeing, “Oh, it was like this before, and now it’s like this.” It’s seeing, “It was before, and now it’s gone.” Seeing that every experience is and then is gone, seeing that there actually is no “me” that’s changing. The person who existed when I was young, the person who will exist when I am old, all of these things are just moment-to-moment experience. There actually is no being. Life is much more fluid than we think, fluid in the sense of no static entity. For example, when you look at water, you think it’s a single thing – one body of water, but actually it’s many, many particles of water flowing together.

When you see this in regards to your stream of conscious experience, then you see anatta. You see anatta based on impermanence and based on suffering, because if it’s suffering, then you can’t say it belongs to you. If it causes you suffering, you shouldn’t cling to it; if you cling to it, it only causes you more suffering. You can’t control it, and you know that you can’t control it because it causes you suffering. If you could control it, it wouldn’t cause you suffering.

This is the theory, but the perception must arise in our practice. Impermanence, suffering and non-self are right here and right now. They’re in my voice. Notice when the voice stops, you’re still thinking about it. It’s still going through the mind, you can still remember the sound of it, and normally, because of that, we think of it as continuous. My voice is still there; it’s just sometimes noisy and sometimes quiet, but you think I’m talking, so when people make noise during the talk, you say, “Shh, the monk is talking now,” even though maybe the monk has stopped talking. Or someone interrupts you, and you say, “I’m in the middle of a talk. I’m giving a talk now.” We think like this. We think, “I’m talking to you now”, when actually there is only the experience of sound arising at the ear. Once I stop, the sound has stopped. Seeing this is our practice. When you see this, this is what leads you to understand non-self.

People have a hard time understanding non-self. What does it mean? Does it mean that I have no soul? Does it mean that I’m just a robot or just a physical organism? Really non-self is when you say to yourself, for example, “hearing, hearing,” and the mind expects the sound to go in this way or go according to its desire, to continue – that you will say, “hearing, hearing,” and there will always be something for you to hear. But then the sounds stop, and then you realize that actually it’s quite stressful, this experience of sound, since you don’t know when it’s going to start and when it’s going to stop. You see that the experience, the sound at your ear, your experience of hearing, is non-self.

Maybe it’s hard to understand if you’re not practicing, but I think with even a little practice you can understand. You can see that your experience is not under your control. You can’t make me start to talk. You can’t make the sound arise, so when you say, “hearing,” you feel this stress, this shaking up of the mind, where the mind used to think, “here I am listening, and I can sit here, and I’ll just listen, listen, listen,” but the listening only occurs because of the hearing.

It sounds so simple and dumb actually, like this can’t be the wisdom we’re looking for, but when you actually practice, you see how stressful it is for the mind, that the mind really is silly, the mind really is childish and ignorant in a kind of embarrassing way; intellectually we already know it, but the mind is betraying us. We already know that this is the case, but we don’t really know it. We expect everything to go according to our desires, according to our wishes, and so we suffer when it’s not according to our wishes. When we see this, we come to know that clinging and craving are the causes of suffering.

Number three is asubhasaññā. This perception is also very useful for meditators. Knowledge of loathsomeness arises naturally in vipassanā meditation, but some people practice meditation on loathsomeness: They break up the body into parts: hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, and so on – all thirty-two parts of the body. They break it up and look at one part, the hair on their head for example, and they come to realize how this hair is actually like some kind of moss growing on a dung pile. You don’t have to imagine how disgusting it is because, if you don’t shower or shampoo your head, your hair becomes oily and smelly. What is the hair? It’s like grass that’s stuck in the scalp, feeding off of blood and oil. Where is the hair growing? It’s growing in the oil and blood and the skin of your head. Then the hair on your body: chest hair, armpit hair and so on, and when we focus on it and think about it, we see it too is actually quite disgusting.

This sort of thing is hard for some people to hear. Those who practice insight meditation will have no problem with it, but for a larger audience, loathsomeness can be difficult to appreciate in the right light. People will want to argue that it can be dangerous to think like this, how people might develop low self-esteem or even hate themselves as a result. It is true that this sort of meditation only works for certain individuals, specifically those who are infatuated with the body. Even then, it can only repress the defilements, since the lust is a part of the addiction process in the mind and the brain, which is not really connected to infatuation with the body. All this meditation can do is remove our attachment to the body, it can’t remove our attachment to the pleasant feelings associated with the body. Still, it is an important part of our practice to come to see the body clearly so that we don’t use it to create more attachment. Once we see the body clearly as it is, we will cease to use it as a means to find happiness.

The best way to understand loathsomeness, though, is through vipassana meditation, because then it is a natural realization. The point is not to become disgusted about the body, the point is to realize that we don’t have to feel self-conscious about ourselves. The body smells; that smell is natural. We don’t think, “I’ve got to get rid of this, because my body should be beautiful, sugar and spice and all things nice, and smell like roses and clover.” We stop thinking like that, and we realize that it is just as it is. It’s not good or bad. We have none of the self-consciousness about how we look or how we smell. You can become ashamed sometimes as a monk when you remember that you didn’t wash your robes for a week and haven’t showered in a few days and someone invites you somewhere and you get in the car and you realize that you’re not really as fragrant as might be desired, but that’s just a reason not to get in cars; it’s not a reason to be ashamed.

Sometimes you do have to fit in, and so you shower and you wash your clothes. But you stop looking at the body as, “Oh, I’m getting old or thin or flabby.” People look at things in quite a different way when they haven’t practiced. People are always telling me: “You look thinner than before,” but the funny thing is that I get this every month or so. Every time I see some people, they say, “you look thinner than before.” I think if I was actually getting thinner, I would have died by now. So I always say, “oh yes, I feel very light. That’s good. I’m lighter than before.” So, asubha means removing the perception of beauty in the body. When you practice vipassanā, just watching the feet, you’ll start to see the truth of the body.

The human body should be seen as a bit of a mistake, I think. This is hard to stomach because we’re thoroughly entrenched in this mistake, but the human body is not such a wonderful thing. It’s more wonderful than, say, a worm’s body or even a dog’s body, but it’s still kind of like someone built a house and didn’t do a very good job at it. We could have been built a lot better, no? We could imagine maybe what an angel looks like. We could add wings or an aura, or at least straight teeth and perfect eyesight. We could actually smell like roses and clover; that would be nice.

So when we meditate, we start to realize that the human body is not so beautiful, and that’s useful for us to let go of it, because there is nothing intrinsically good about being human. There is no benefit to this body we have taken up as “ours”. The only benefit to being born a human is that you can interact with and learn from other humans like the Buddha. If we weren’t born human, if we were born as a worm or an ant or a dog, we couldn’t have the chance to learn the Buddha’s teachings. This is why the Buddha said it’s very good to be born a human, but intrinsically there’s nothing good about it, so as humans we have to come to realize this and rise above even the human realm.

It’s much better to be born as an angel than as a human. You can practice meditation much easier. So many angels became enlightened in the time of the Buddha because they could sit still in meditation for months on end. But being an angel is still not as good as being born a brahma. In the rupa-brahma realms, it’s even easier to become enlightened. Your mind is so pure that you’re able to understand the whole universe. And the suddhavāsa brahmas, where the anāgāmis live, are an even better place to be born. An anāgāmi is someone who is free from all anger and all greed for sensuality, and so they are born in the purest existence possible.

So as human beings we have our work cut out for us because obviously we have some very, very coarse defilements that have caused us to be born in this very, very coarse body that we have to feed and clothe and clean and take care of. The Buddha said that the human body is like a sack with nine holes in it, filled with loathsome things. Here we are, carrying this sack around; this porous sack with nine holes, leaking blood and pus and urine and feces and earwax and spit and snot and all the wonderful stuff that oozes out of this sack that we are carrying around. Seeing in this way is quite useful for helping us let go of the body. It makes us wake up and see our mistake, taking this body as beautiful. This nine-holed sack, oozing and leaking. You can count the nine holes; see if you can find them all. They are all there. So that’s asubhasaññā.

Number four is ādīnavasaññā, seeing the disadvantages of clinging. This has very much to do with the last one, actually, because the Buddha talks about the ādīnava of the body, the problem with clinging to the body. The problem isn’t simply that the body is not beautiful, there’s more to it than that. There is eye disease, ear disease, nose disease, tongue disease, sicknesses of the heart, sicknesses of the kidneys, the liver, the stomach; sickness of the blood, sickness of the skin; so many sicknesses, all of which are a danger for us as long as we cling to the body. The real problem with the body is the many, many kinds of suffering that come because we have a body; not only is it leaking, but it’s poisonous as well. It’s contaminated as well; afflicted with cancer, diabetes, heart disease; even just a simple cold or flu. Every year we get sick with the flu or a cold, or some such sickness. As we get older, we run the risk of all kinds of disease; stomach problems, skin problems, teeth problems.

I read a story once about a girl who suddenly went crazy, and they didn’t know why. She was a normal girl who suddenly went insane, totally uncontrollable, and they found that she had an impacted wisdom tooth that was hitting a nerve, and the nerve was going to the brain and causing the brain to malfunction. When they removed the wisdom tooth, she got better. This sort of thing can happen to our body.

This doesn’t mean we should hate or loathe the body or even disregard it; we should take care of it, just as when we have a wound, we should take care of the wound. An arahant still takes care of their body. They take care of it as they would a festering wound or an injury that never fully heals, something that always has to be dressed and the bandages changed. Sometimes you have to pull something out like a tooth or an organ, like the appendix. Anyone who says, “the body is perfect,” just look at the appendix. People can die from appendicitis, let alone the many other incurable sicknesses of the body. This is the ādīnava of the body.

Really, though, the problems with the body are insignificant in comparison to the problems of the mind. We think, “Well, if I’m born an angel, then I’ll have a perfect body.” Even sometimes as a human, it is possible to have good physical health for many years. As a result, we can become quite negligent, not interested in things like meditation or insight wisdom. We might not be able to see the dangers because we say, “well, maybe one day I will be sick, but how can I take that as a meditation subject?” As long as the mind contains impurity, however, it doesn’t matter what state the body is in. Some people are very, very sick, but their mind is pure, like Maha Mogallana or Maha Kassapa. Their minds were so pure, and yet their bodies still got sick; and so likewise, those of us who are still in good health, our minds can become very sick.

Seeing the problems with the body is very useful for helping us give up kāma tanhā (desire for sensuality), but looking at the mind is much more useful for giving up bhāva tanhā (desire for becoming) and vibhāva tanhā (desire for not becoming), wanting things to be like this or like that, wanting to create, wanting to become. When we see how dangerous the mind can be if we let it chase after its desires, it can actually be quite shocking.

If one has never practiced insight meditation, most people think that the mind is a great thing. We think, “I like this, I like that, I want this, I want that, but I can control it.” Once we meditate, we realize no, you can’t, not even a bit. When lust comes up, when the desire for something comes up, there is no hope of denying it. It is a very dangerous thing. The mind will drag you, kicking and screaming, to the candy store to get what it wants, and if you want to get it out, you have to drag it, kicking and screaming, out of the candy store. You don’t want to go, and it doesn’t want to leave, and you fight. We have to fight with our mind. If we’re not careful, it will overwhelm us for sure, time and again. If you look at bad monks, even monks who at one time had good intentions and wound up on the wrong path, monks who abuse children or drink alcohol, for example, you can see how dangerous the mind can be. Alcoholics, drug addicts, even addicts to sensuality can get into very difficult states because of their own minds. So this is ādīnavasaññā, number four.

Number five is pahānasaññā. This is starting on the path. Actually, this is a positive perception, since it says that we can actually give free ourselves from suffering. The Buddha said we should never lose sight of the fact that it’s possible, that the path exists. If it didn’t exist, he wouldn’t have taught it. He said, “If it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t tell you follow the path. If you couldn’t abandon these things, I wouldn’t tell you to abandon them.” He could have said, as everyone else says, “Ah, live with it.” So we see that the Buddha wasn’t pessimistic. He was, if anything, optimistic, because ordinary people say, “Ah, life is suffering, so, live with it! Make the best of it.” That’s really pessimistic, or some might say, “realistic”, because they think there is no hope for something better. Some people might think that the Buddha was not realistic, but certainly he was not pessimistic. He said, “No, don’t settle for this. Don’t settle for such a horrible state of affairs, don’t settle for any suffering at all. There is a way to become totally free from suffering.”

For most people, however, ordinary life seems like a wonderful state of affairs, just like pigs in the mud, or dung beatles in a dung pile; they are very content in their filth, but humans who see them will think, “what a horrible way to live!” In the same way, though ordinary people take great delight in lives filled with suffering, those who have practiced meditation come to realize that this state of affairs is truly horrible, because they have begun to actually pay attention to how much needless suffering there is.

The Buddha said there is a way out. We don’t have to put up with this. We can be free. We can be happy. We can be totally free from suffering. Pahānasaññā means giving up the causes of suffering, seeing clearly the suffering in clinging, seeing the truly undesirable nature of those things we cling to. When you have pain, just looking at it, teaching your mind, this baby of a mind, that it is impermanent, unsatisfying and uncontrollable – that clinging to it can only bring suffering; until the mind says, “Oh, I understand now, let’s let it go!” This is pahānasaññā. The practice of vipassanā is pahāna. When you see the impermanence, suffering, and non-self in all things, the mind abandons the desire for them. The pinnacle of vipassanā is this abandoning.

With abandoning, there is dispassion, the mind released. There is the mind without greed, virāgasaññā. With the dispassion, then there is cessation. So these ones go actually quite quickly. They go together. Giving up brings dispassion, and from dispassion comes freedom, nirodha. This is the standard description of the process of enlightenment:

nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati. vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti.

With weariness, one becomes dispassionate. With dispassion, one is freed. In one who is free, there is the knowledge, “I am freed!”

This is nirodhasaññā, the knowledge of the cessation of suffering that comes when you let go, when you don’t have the craving; when you don’t cling, because you’ve let go. So this is seven.

Number eight is sabbaloke anabhiratasaññā, seeing that birth in the sensual realms, as a human, even as an angel, birth as a brahma in the material brahma realms, like a ball of light or a god with form, or birth in the immaterial brahma realms of infinite space, infinite consciousness or nothingness, or total quietude of mind, not even seeming to have perception, seeing that all of these are undesirable; not wanting to be born as a human again, not wanting to be born in heaven, seeing that rebirth itself has no benefit. This one, I think, is quite difficult. A person really must be an arahant to experience this perception, so at this stage in the practice, it is more than we can hope for. We don’t have to worry so much, but we understand it, and at the very least, we give up the world that we’re in, for example the world of being born as a non-Buddhist, being born as a wicked child, with temper tantrums when we were young, mean to our parents who tried their best to love and look after us, who was nasty to our teachers and who got in all sorts of trouble. We try our best to not make the mistakes that we made before. We become disenchanted with where we have come from. At the very least, we can give up our desire for such worldly evil.

Even a sotāpanna can come back and be born as a human; though it seems more likely that a sotāpanna would be born in heaven given their purity of mind. Either way, they haven’t given up their desire to be reborn. What they have given up, however, is the defilements of mind that could lead them to be reborn in a world of suffering – the animal, ghost or hell worlds. We should all try our best to see clearly enough to at least recognize the fact that life in any of these realms would be intense suffering, and that they should be avoided at all costs. Some people think that rebirth as an animal would be quite pleasant; a meditator who has seen clearly the truth of things will not harbor such ideas; they will rather be horrified at the thought of being born in such a state of intense ignorance, helplessness, and suffering.

Even rebirth in heaven, however, should not be desired by one who truly wishes to be free from suffering. There is a story of a monk who practiced walking meditation all night, every night, and, because he hadn’t eaten enough food, there arose some sort of nerve damage, and he died while doing walking meditation. His concentration was quite strong, but the body couldn’t handle it. This is why we tell meditators not to fast. Even though your mind can take it, the body will collapse without enough food. This happens sometimes, where a meditator decides to fast and then reaches a point where they can’t continue in the practice. Even though their mind is okay, the body can’t handle it. So this is why we eat at least a little bit every day.

For the monk in this story, however, it was too late. He died and was born in heaven. He wasn’t enlightened, but the commentary says that if you die in meditation, you will certainly be reborn in heaven based on that good karma. Now of course this can’t mean that simply by walking back and forth or sitting still one will be born in heaven. A person may have nasty thoughts during meditation and be born in a bad place as a result of them, but for one who is honestly trying to develop their mind, even if they don’t give rise to insight or tranquility, at least the merit of their good intention in line with truth, purity, and wisdom, will lead them to heaven as the commentary says. So, he was born an angel prince in heaven, with a great host of attendant female angels, who recognized him as their prince and said, “Oh, here’s our new lord and master.” They assumed he would be keen to partake in the pleasures of heaven, so they enjoined him to “come, dance and sing!” and so on. The new angel, however, didn’t realize that he had died, and so he thought he was still a monk and that these women had come to the monastery. As a result, he didn’t even look at them, inclining his head downward and trying to focus on his meditation practice, afraid he might become attracted by their beauty. This is likely the reason he was born as a prince in heaven surrounded by nymphs in the first place; he must have been very much attracted to such a state.

Eventually, the nymphs brought him to understand that he was no longer a monk and argued that therefore he shouldn’t act like a monk; he was reborn as an angel and so he should act like an angel. They brought out a large mirror so he could see himself decked out as an angel prince. Because of his dedication to the practice, he was shocked, and straight away went to find the Buddha. He was horrified at being born in the “grove of delight”, calling it the “grove of delusion”. He said, “This is where I have been born. I was looking for a gold medal, and all I got was a handful of turnips.” So he went to see the Buddha, and the Buddha encouraged him that nothing need be done besides what he had undertaken before his death; by continuing the same practice in heaven, he could still win the gold medal.

So even heaven is not enough; we shouldn’t think that being reborn in heaven will necessarily make our practice easier. One shouldn’t think that, “I don’t have to work hard in this life; as long as I am born in heaven, then I’ll be happy and free and able to dedicate myself to the meditation practice.” We have to be careful to set our hearts on the goal, not getting sidetracked by any positive experience, either in this world or the next. If we don’t gain any special attainment in this life, we must make an ardent wish that in the next life we may continue to practice. Be clear in your mind what is important. Don’t get caught up by positive experiences. Don’t have this abhirata, this delight in any world, in any existence. Be clear that “if I’m born in heaven, I’m going to be like this monk and continue my meditation, even teach the nymphs how to meditate if necessary.”

There are many Buddhists in heaven, and if you find them, you can practice with them, but there are many non-Buddhists in heaven, and if you hook up with them, there’s no telling where it will lead you, just like how rich people become negligent in their opulence, not thinking to do any good deeds, and are reborn in realms of suffering as a result. Even angels can be reborn in hell if they are obsessed with pleasure and afraid of loss. So this is sabbaloke anabhiratasaññā. Even the brahma realms are not worth clinging to, as evinced by the story of the brahma who was eventually reborn as a pig.

Number nine, following up on the last, means seeing that all sankhāras are undesirable. This is the final attainment for arahantship; the giving up of all sankhāras. Sankhāra are actually one type of loka – the loka mentioned above was satta loka, the world of beings. sankhāra loka means the world of formations. Not delighting in the world of beings means not delighting in conceptual reality, but sankhāra loka means ultimate reality. Coming to see that all sankhārā are impermanent, unsatisfying and uncontrollable; losing all desire, as was already explained in regards to pahānasaññā – giving up; seeing that the world is made up of sankhāras, made up of formations, made up of experiences, and being able to see experiences for what they are without any attachment.

The last of the ten perceptions is that which is meant to allow us to realize the other nine. Once we understand all of this theory about impermanence and so on, we have to actually practice to realize these perceptions for our selves. So, the Buddha ends the set of perceptions with ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing. When we practice mindfulness of breathing, actually, mindfulness of the body and mind, we will understand impermanence, non-self, and all of the other perceptions naturally. We will understand the nature of all sankhāras as undesirable, we will understand the truth of experience, reality, and the world.

The Buddha taught repeatedly that mindfulness of breathing has many benefits. He said, “santo ceva paṇīto ca asecanako ca sukho ca vihāro uppannuppanne ca pāpake akusale dhamme ṭhānaso antaradhāpeti vūpasameti”. The meaning is that mindfulness of breathing:

1. santo – is peaceful
2. paṇīto – is subtle
3. asecanako – is unadulterated
4. sukho vihāro – is a pleasant abiding
5. uppannuppanne pāpake akusale dhamme ṭhānaso antaradhāpeti vūpasameti – verifiably overcomes, extinguishes all kinds of arisen evil, unwholesome states.

For this reason, the Buddha gave mindfulness of breathing prominence in his teaching; even in the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, mindfulness of breathing comes first.

What is the experience of breathing? It is simply the breath coming into the body and leaving it; the expansion of the stomach when the air comes in and the contraction when it goes out; a cold feeling when the air comes in and then a hot feeling as the breath goes out. All of these are a part of ultimate reality, and this is where our practice must begin; by understanding these experiences for what they are, and coming to see them as the basis for reality. The point of the tenth perception is to remind us that Buddhism is a practical teaching. It is not taught for the purpose of intellectualizing, to think or ponder or doubt about; it is to realize the truth for ourselves through the practice.

The perceptions the Buddha taught to Ānanda in the Girimananda Sutta only have meaning in regards to the meditation practice: walking and sitting, being aware of the four satipaṭṭhānā, starting with ānāpānasati, then mindfulness of the postures of the body, vedanā, cittā and dhammā – the hindrances, the senses, etc. This teaching can only be understood by one who undertakes the practice of insight meditation in this way; it should be clear from this sutta that the Buddha’s teaching is profound and not subject to intellectual speculation. This is what should be expected, of course; only investigation of reality can allow one to understand the truth.