Sati | Mindfulness


1. Sati | Mindfulness

Sati (Sanskrit: smṛti) is mindfulness or awareness, a spiritual or psychological faculty (indriya) that forms an essential part of Buddhist practice.

It is the 1st factor of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

Correct or right Mindfulness (Pāḷi: sammā-sati, Sanskrit: samyak-smṛti) is the 7th element of the Noble Eightfold Path.

2. Definition

The Buddhist term translated into English as Mindfulness originates in the Pāḷi term Sati and in its Sanskrit counterpart Smṛti.

The meaning of these terms has been the topic of extensive debate and discussion.

Smṛti originally meant to remember, to recollect, to bear in mind, as in the Vedic tradition of remembering Sacred Texts.

The term Sati also means to remember the teachings of scriptures.

In the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta the term Sati means to maintain awareness of reality, where sense-perceptions are understood to be illusions and thus the true nature of phenomena can be seen.

The Milinda Pañha (Questions of Milinda) explained that the arising of Sati calls to mind the wholesome dhammas such as:

  1. the 4 establishments of Mindfulness,
  2. the 5 faculties, the five powers,
  3. the 7 awakening-factors,
  4. the Noble Eightfold Path,
  5. the attainment of Insight.

Sati should be understood as what allows awareness of the full range and extent of dhammas; Sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value.

Applied to the Satipaṭṭhāna, presumably what this means is that Sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to remember that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skilful or unskilful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure.

However, scholars note that this has little to do with bare attention, the popular contemporary interpretation of Sati,

since it entails, among other things, the proper discrimination of the moral valence of phenomena as they arise.

Dhyāna (concentration) was probably the original core practice of the Buddha, which aided the maintenance of Mindfulness.

3. Etymology

The Sanskrit word Smṛti (स्मृति) literally means that which is remembered, and refers both to Mindfulness in Buddhism and a category of metrical texts in Hinduism.

In 1881, Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843-1922) 1st translated Sati into English Mindfulness in sammā-sati: Right Mindfulness; the active, watchful mind.

Davids explained,

Sati is literally 'memory' but is used with reference to the constantly repeated phrase 'mindful and thoughtful' (sato sampajāno);

and means that activity of mind and constant presence of mind which is one of the duties most frequently inculcated on the good Buddhist.

The English term Mindfulness already existed before it came to be used in a (western) Buddhist context:

It was first recorded as myndfulness in 1530 (John Palsgrave translates French pensee), as Mindfulnesse in 1561, and Mindfulness in 1817.

Morphologically earlier terms include Mindful (1st recorded in 1340), mindfully (1382), and the obsolete mindiness (ca. 1200).

Bhikkhu Bodhi also points to the meaning of Sati as memory:

The word derives from a verb, sarati, meaning to remember, and occasionally in Pāḷi sati is still explained in a way that connects it with the idea of memory.

But when it is used in relation to meditation practice, we have no word in English that precisely captures what it refers to.

An early translator cleverly drew upon the word Mindfulness, which is not even in my dictionary. This has served its role admirably, but it does not preserve the connection with memory, sometimes needed to make sense of a passage.

4. Practice

Originally, Mindfulness provided the way to Liberation,

- by paying attention to sensory experience, preventing the arising of disturbing thoughts and emotions which cause the further chain of reactions leading to rebirth.

In the later tradition, especially Theravāda, Mindfulness is an antidote to delusion (Pāḷi: Moha), and is considered as such one of the 'powers' (Pāḷi: bala) that contribute to the attainment of Nirvāṇa, in particular when it is coupled with clear comprehension of whatever is taking place.

Nirvāṇa is a state of being in which greed, hatred and delusion (Pāḷi: moha) have been overcome and abandoned, and are absent from the mind.

5. Satipaṭṭhāna - guarding the senses

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Sanskrit: Smṛtyupasthāna Sūtra) is an early text dealing with Mindfulness.

The Theravāda Nikāyas prescribe that one should Establish Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna) in one's daily life, maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of the 4 upassanā:

1) body, 2) feelings, 3) mind, and 4) dharmas.

Mindfulness provided the way to liberation, by constantly watching sensory experience in order to prevent the arising of cravings which would power future experience into rebirths.

Buddhadasa (1906-1993) also argued that Mindfulness provides the means to prevent the arising of disturbing thought and emotions, which cause the further chain of reactions leading to rebirth of the ego and selfish thought and behaviour.

Dhyāna were probably the original core practice of the Buddha, which aided the maintenance of Mindfulness.

6. Samprajaña, apramāda and atappa

Satī was famously translated as bare attention by Nyanaponika Thera.

Yet, in Buddhist practice, Mindfulness is more than just bare attention; it has the more comprehensive and active meaning of Samprajaña, clear comprehension, and apramāda, vigilance.

All 3 terms are sometimes (confusingly) translated as Mindfulness, but they all have specific shades of meaning.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has described Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's views on right Mindfulness and sampajañña as follows:

I should add that Ven. Nyanaponika himself did not regard bare attention as capturing the complete significance of Satipaṭṭhāna, but as representing only 1 phase, the initial phase, in the meditative development of Right Mindfulness.

He held that in the proper practice of Right Mindfulness, Sati has to be integrated with sampajañña, clear comprehension, and it is only when these two work together that Right Mindfulness can fulfil its intended purpose.

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, sati and sampajañña are combined with atappa (Pāḷi; Sanskrit: ātapaḥ), or ardency, and the 3 together comprise yoniso manasikara, appropriate attention or wise reflection.

7. Ānāpānasati - Mindfulness of breathing

Ānāpānasati (Pāḷi; Sanskrit: Ānāpānasmṛti), meaning Mindfulness of breathing (sati means Mindfulness; ānāpāna refers to inhalation and exhalation),

- is a form of Buddhist meditation now common to the Tibetan, Zen, Tiantai, and Theravāda schools of Buddhism, as well as western-based Mindfulness programs.

Ānāpānasati means to feel the sensations caused by the movements of the breath in the body, as is practiced in the context of Mindfulness.

According to tradition, Ānāpānasati was originally taught by the Buddha in several Sūtras including the Ānāpānasati Sutta. (MN 118)

The Āgamas of early Buddhism discuss 10 forms of Mindfulness:

The Ekottara Āgama emphasizes Mindfulness of Breathing more than any of the other methods, and provides the most specific teachings on this one form of Mindfulness.

8. Vipassanā - discriminating insight

Ānāpānasati, Mindfulness of breathing, is being employed to attain Vipassanā (Pāli), insight into the true nature of reality as impermanent and anatta, as lacking any permanent essence.

In the Theravāda context, this entails insight into the 3 marks of existence, namely the impermanence of and the unsatisfactoriness of every conditioned thing that exists, and non-self.

In Mahāyāna contexts, it entails insight into what is variously described as śūnyatā, dharmatā, the inseparability of appearance and emptiness (two truths doctrine), clarity and emptiness, or bliss and emptiness.

Vipassanā is commonly used as one of two poles for the categorization of types of Buddhist practice, the other being Śamatha (Pāli; Sanskrit: śamatha):

Vipassanā and Śamatha are described as qualities which contribute to the development of mind (bhāvanā).

Various traditions disagree which techniques belong to which pole. According to the contemporary Theravāda orthodoxy, Śamatha is used as a preparation for Vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight, which leads to liberation.

Vipassanā-meditation has gained popularity in the west through the modern Buddhist Vipassanā Movement, modelled after Theravāda Buddhism meditation practices, which employs vipassanā and ānāpāna (Ānāpānasati, Mindfulness of breathing) meditation as its primary techniques and places emphasis on the teachings of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.