Anapanasati is a central teaching of Buddhism but it is commonly misunderstood. Literally the term means “breathe-in-breathe-out-mindfulness”. It is commonly taken to refer to a meditation exercise in which the attention is focussed upon the breathe, mindfulness being taken to mean attention. Though extremely widespread, this is a misreading, as I have discovered by reading other materials on anapanasati and mindfulness in the Pali texts.
Sati is mindfulness, but mindfulness is not really conscious attention and is certainly not conscious attention to whatever happens to be passing by. The term mindfulness was chosen to translate the term sati by the early translator of texts, Thomas Willioam Rhys Davids (1843-1922) who had in mind the passage in the King James Bible “My son be mindful of the Lord our God all thy days”.
Mindfulness means to keep something important in mind. In the case of Christianity, what is to be kept in mind is God; in the case of Buddhism, what is to be kept in mind is Buddha and Dharma. Mindfulness, therefore, means what the Japanese call nembutsu. Everybody who is on a spiritual path has an anchor for their commitment, a word, phrase or image that indexes the whole. For a Christian it might be the image of Christ or of the cross. For a Buddhist, that of Buddha or the Dharma Wheel. In Buddhism it might also, often, be the thought of one’s teacher. When in the Satipatthana Sutta it says to set one mindfulness before one, this means to visualise it, which, often, would mean, imagining that one is sitting in the presence of the Buddha or of one’s teacher. So we know from the Satipatthana that the disciple should make some special times when he or she consciously and deliberately visualises his or her particular mindfulness object. The import of anapanasati, however, is that it is not only at special times that one should have mindfulness present. One should be mindful of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha all of one’s days, or, as unremittingly as breathing in and breathing out. Thus it is sometimes said that one should “mount one’s practice upon the breathe.” This is the same idea.
Now if we reflect upon this we realise that the breathing actually goes on whether one is paying attention to it or not. In fact, the major part of the time that one is breathing one is paying no attention to it at all. Breathing goes on even when one is asleep. Mindfulness, therefore, does not mean conscious attention. Mindfulness means having something in one’s heart that is so well established that it is part of you and does not need constant effort to sustain it. This is like loving one’s mother: one does not cease to love her when she is out of one’s mind or when one is busy doing something else or even when one is asleep. The Dharma should be thus established. This is what is meant by having faith. One can then bring one’s mindfulness to consciousness whenever needed as a support for one’s spiritual life or as a foundation for Dharmic investigation, as in satipatthana or as per the seven factors of enlightenment in which investigation comes immediately after mindfulness.
To repeat, therefore, anapanasati is not paying attention to the breath, it is having the Three Jewels as integrated into one’s being and as unremitting as breathing is. This is the continuous nembutsu that Shan Tao and Honen talk about. They understood the meaning of Shakyamuni’s teaching. Many others have erroneously tried to turn it into a bag of psychological tricks, but Buddhism is a religion and you can have faith in it all the days of your life.