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Remembering Sati

Update Note: At this point here [USA Wednesday, February 10, 2010 5:19 AM] the preferred translation for 'sati' is to 'mind' which has the meaning of both remembering and paying attention.

On Sati as "Memory" versus Sati as "Paying Attention

On the one hand, in the case where 'satipaṭṭhana' is made out to be 'paying attention', we are being presented with an idea that we are not able to understand: "Pay attention and some mysterious development will occur which will give you Nibbāna."

On the other hand, using the word as it is defined: "memory", we get an instruction that fits in both with our own, first-hand experience and also with the stated goals of the Dhamma:

"Set up memory with regard to the body. Such that you remember that it is simply a body, and will end up in the charnel heap."

Looking back on (remembering) our personal experience we can see: Ah! Here is how I now think of such and such a middle-aged hag, and there is what I once considered to be "The fairest lass in the land". But remembering back I can clearly see that all the characteristics of that good woman towards whom I have utterly indifferent emotions now were quite present in her from the get go had I had my eyes open then.

Thinking in this way I can apply it to the present: This firm, ripe tomato I see in front of me in the vegetable store is now well known to me to have been grown in a hot house and to have been ... um ... handled by many; it will be flat tasting, like cardboard, a disappointment, dry. It is just an illusion.

See Dick Run

"I don't know what I saw in her!" is what the world says; but here in this Dhamma, we should say: "I know what I did not see in her! (Of course Jane was able to entrance Dick with trickery and promises — 'My love will never change ... I will be yours forever ... Our love will bring everlasting joy, I belongs to You' — we all know he's an idiot; there is no mystery in that.) It is that she was changeable, not mine, bound to bring pain." (Ladies please just reverse the case, I speak from my own experience, I know your experience is approximately the same.)

Using memory in this way there are countless classes of things, fields of classes, we can see we have "grown out of" ... using memory in this way we can access this view of the past to educate ourselves to the qualities of the present.

This is not the method: "I live in a body, living, paying attention to the body trying to see how it changes, is not mine, and will come to a painful end."

How come?

Because if we could see this with regard to the things of the present just by looking, there would be no problem.

This is the method:

"I live in a body, living, remembering that bodies I have known end up dead, and applying that understanding to this body."

How come?

Because we are able to say about the present:

"Like that, like this."

This is how we learn.

Let me state that another way:

"If you want to be free, set up your use of memory so as to focus on body, sense experience, emotions, and ideas, and continually contrast what you remember with what you see in the present this way: As that was changeable then, not mine then, and painful as a result then; so things will be changeable in the future, not mine in the future, and painful as a result in the future, and in the same way this here now is changeable, not mine, and painful, that is, if I remain attached to it."

Then so seeing you will be free of lust for body, free from anger at the disappointments of body, free from blindness concerning body, and free, seeing freedom, knowing freedom is freedom, one knows:

'Left behind is rebirth,
lived is the best of lives,
done is duty's doing,
no more hither and yon,
no more being any kind of it at any place of atness for me!'

Well, OK, that's a start, but the real trick is deeper even than just paying attention or just remembering ... see the following:



The Four Satipaṭṭhanas

This is from The Compilation The Saṅgīti-Suttanta Dīgha Nikāya III.33

This views the translation of "sati" as "memory," as above, as a description of the way examining body (etc) is intended to be used for the preparation of "mind" ("sati" for the preparation of "sati").

My view is that the two can reasonably be identified as the same thing in that all mental activity can be understood as memory in much the same way as all activity of a computer can be seen as use of memory.

Examining the Pāḷi:

Cattāro satipaṭṭhānā:
Idh'āvuso bhikkhu
kāye kāyānupassī viharati
ātāpā sampajāno satimā,
vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanssaṃ . . .
vedanāsu ...
citte ...
dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati
ātāpī sampajāno satimā
vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanassaṃ.

paṭṭha: "standing out" setting out or forth, undertaking, able;
paṭṭhahati to put down, set down, provide; causative II paṭṭhapeti to put out or up, to furnish, establish, give;
paṭṭhāna setting forth, putting forward

With regard to the meaning of the term "satipatthana," it is interesting to note that there is no "kaya-satipaṭṭhana" (setting up of mindfulness of body).

"Mindfulness of body (etc)" is an invention of the translators. What we have in the Satipaṭṭhana is the setting up of mind, the preparation of mind in four ways, four ways of satisfying the mind, four ways of setting up memory, etc, depending on one's preference for the translation of "sati" ... not the setting up of "four mindfulnesses" ("of" body, etc), memories, satisfactions.

The idea is that we are to use our understanding of the transient, painful, and impersonal nature of body (etc) in order to establish a "mental set." The idea is not that we are to use our mind, etc, to develop some kind of continuous, all encompassing awareness of the details of bodies (etc).

That this is the case is made even more clear looking at the case of Dhamma. We are to live seeing things "in terms of" the Dhamma, we are not to live paying attention to the Dhamma.

So the construction of this needs to be saying something like this: With regard to the body, we should look upon the body in such a way as to set up the mind.

Body Overseeing Body kāye kāyānupassī viharati: lives body overseeing body.[1]

ātāpā: (ā = to + tāpa = burn, heat, to torment) usually translated "ardent"; my personal preference is to see this as "aflame", reading the first part of this sentence: "... lives in a body seeing the body as aflame ..." but (as this produces contortions when dealing with the section on Dhamma) I will confine this rendering to my own version of the Satipaṭṭhana.

sampajāno: (san = one's own + pajana knowing) self-aware, (PED: thoughtful, mindful, attentive, deliberate) (Walshe: clearly aware; Rhys Davids: self-possessed)
satimā: of a mind

vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanssaṃ: restraining worldly ambitions and disappointments

This Way we arrive at this as a possible translation of the "Four Satipaṭṭhanas":

Four preparations of mind:

Here friends a beggar lives in a body reviewing the body, burning for comprehension of mind, restraining worldly ambitions and disappointments.
Here friends a beggar lives in a sense experience reviewing sense experience, burning for comprehension of mind, restraining worldly ambitions and disappointments.
Here friends a beggar lives in mental states or (states of the heart) reviewing mentao states, burning for comprehension of mind, restraining worldly ambitions and disappointments.
Here friends a beggar lives in The Word reviewing The Word, burning for comprehension of mind, restraining worldly ambitions and disappointments.



In the reference below, to an essay posted on Access to Insight Bhikkhu Thanissaro makes a similar observation to the one I make here concerning the idea that the idea that there are four satipaṭṭhanas out there to be cultivated is an incorrect one; that the idea is that there are four ways to bring about mind (or sati however you translate it.)

The Agendas of Mindfulness Thanissaro Bhikkhu[2]

Satipatthana is often translated as "foundation of mindfulness," which gives the impression that it refers to an object of meditation. This impression is reinforced when you see the four satipatthanas listed as body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. But if you look at the texts, you find that they teach satipatthana as a process, a way of establishing (upatthana) mindfulness (sati): hence the compound term. When the texts define the compound, they give, not a list of objects, but four formulas describing an activity.



G: "You say:[3] 'Here, Beggars, a Beggar finds himself some place to be alone-a (atsa no balogna! That's a noble loner). In a forest, at the root [mula] of some tree, out in an open field, on a heap of grass, or in an empty hut, [1, 2, 3, signed with the fingers], he sits down cross-legged Indian style, straightens his back up erect, remembers to put a look of satisfaction on his face, takes in [1, 2, 3, signed with the fingers] One, Two, Three, Deep, Deep, Deep satisfying breaths and lets it all go.'

"Could you explain the inclusion of the "look of satisfaction" in your translations? I can't seem to find a direct corollary to other translations, and I find it to be a helpful thing."

This is one of those places where I have a take that is completely different than any other out there, so if you seek out confirmation of this as a technique, you will need to go deeply into the details, and also, you will need to put the technique into practice as you appear to have done in order to give yourself the advantage of being able to see that, whatever anyone else may say, it works.[4]

Step 1. Retain in mind that the overall goal is: 'Letting go of one's downbound thirsts and angers and becoming upward-bound, bound up in nothing at all in the world.

Step 2. Remembering sati.

When I am trying to bridge the gap between my understanding of this word and the conventional understanding (mindfulness), I resort to discussions such as the above.

My real understanding of this word is that it is a very early word for describing a phenomena that was later variously interpreted "thinking" "remembering" "activity of mind" "mind" "paying attention" etc. My thesis is that to understand "satipaṭṭhana technique" one needs to understand the early meaning of the word.

That early meaning is a word that illustrates the phenomena experienced by an individual when he has, by use of his recollection of some known thing, solved an on-going problem.

The word itself illustrates the phenomena (you may have seen this elsewhere on this site[5]): "sa" means "one", "once", "own" from the onomat for the sound of a ray of the sun: saaaaaa (say: saa essa sa sun un one) (essa = essence, first, east); "ti" is the sound for "three", "this" (point to dick; more word play: one plus two = three), "thus".

If the "on-going" problem is "What is missing in the sequence: one, ?, three"; what is the solution?


Sati is the experience one experiences having understood the question, having retrieved from memory the solution, and having solved the problem.

If the one level were not enough, the secondary meaning of the syllables is "once thus"; which is clearly enough, "memory."

Finally, what we understand to be thinking, perceiving, paying attention, remembering ... that is, every aspect of "mind," is, in fact, just remembering. (When you "pay attention" to your computer screen, what you are "seeing" is not the computer screen, but the image in your mind's eye, of sense impressions received at the eye, transmitted to the mind, and recompiled there for attention ... in other words, something that has happened in the past: i.e., a memory.)

So this is how sati becomes "mind."

Now as it happens, it is very rare that a word in the Pāḷi, (Pāḷi being the root of English), does not have some sort of direct equivalent in English. For the longest time, I could not find anything ... um ... satisfactory, until one time, looking in the dictionary I just decided to look at the sounds to see if there was anything that was derived from the root sati. And there was "satisfaction."[6]

We don't hear this word properly any more, but the meaning is the state of having had enough. Christ found "satisfaction" on the cross, for example. It is the state of having experienced penetrating knowledge and release. (That is a pun). Deep Deep penetration of understanding in the mind and physical release.

In the Satipaṭṭhana Sutta the entire theme is penetrating knowledge and release.

Ok then "pari-mukkham".

Pari = Pāḷi: pass+ari = around; a = to; ri = the sun; all-round

[Update Note: On this term now also see the extensive discussion: Sati-Parimukkham

PED: Mukha (nt.) [vedic mute mutus = "E." dumb = "Lat." silent, mūka vedic etc. snout, mule Ags. maul; mūla = "Ger." Ohg. ?myth?; word, mu_qos Gr. also softly; talk to muckazzen cry, māwen ?moo?; sound the cows make), (of moo mūgio Lat. mūgen, Mhg. omai, muka facere, mu cp. onomat., *mu, Idg. fr. mukha,] 1. the mouth; (uttāna- clear mouthed, i.e. easy to understand). - 2. the face; -ṃ karoti to make a face (i.e. grimace). -adho- face downward; opp. upari-; assu- with tearful face; bhadra- brightfaced; ruda- crying. - 3. entrance, mouth (of a river); āya- entrance (lit. opening), i. e. cause or means of income; ukkā- the opening of a furnace, a goldsmith's smelting pot. ubhato-mukha having 2 openings. sandhi- opening of the cleft. Hence: - 4. cause, ways, means, reason, by way of. -apāya- cause of ruin or loss. - 5. front part, front, top, in īsā- of the carriage pole. Hence: - 6. the top of anything, front, head, best part; adj. topmost, foremost

Every translator of this expression needs to give it a footnote that explains their translation, but their translations are all based on intellectual understanding, or even when they have sit-down experience, it is experience that is following the instructions of another so produces the expected response. Usually they come up with "brings the attention to the face, or forefront." Understand me that I am not saying this is wrong, just not very helpful; only part of the job.

Now way over elsewhere, you will find yourself being instructed to pay attention to what is happening at "the doors of the senses."[7] We are instructed to note that there are only three sensations experienced by the senses,[8] and these produce predictable responses: unpleasant sense experience produces evasive action; pleasurable sense experiences produce acquisitive action; and neutral sense experiences tend to be ignored.

Both evasive action and acquisitive action produce grasping, which is another word for tension: you need to tense the muscles in order to either get or get away.

Then we can notice, if we look, that there are more sense organs located in the region of the face (mug) than in any other location of the body.

And our goal here is?

To let go of grasping.

The first step, in the sequence of actions necessary to bring about letting go of grasping, is identification of those areas where one is grasping. This is "penetrating knowledge".

The second step is letting go. This is "release".

Penetrating knowledge and release are a word for satisfaction. Or "satisfaction" is a word for "penetrating knowledge" and "release".

Bringing a "look of satisfaction to the face" is a word for the complete technique. Doing it artificially, as a matter of training, will bring the attention to the problem for the beginner, for one who has some training, who is in the middle of his practice, it is a gentle reminder of the whole technique, for one at the end it is the entrance door to the jhānas, which allow for living at ease with this sackkacrappa in the hear and now.

Bringing the attention to the forefront will help, bringing the attention to the face will help more, understanding what it means to put a look of satisfaction on the face will do the job still more satisfactorily.[9]



I heard an expression last night from someone who I believe came from Washington State which had an echo of this that struck me as important to consider. The situation was a discussion of bringing issues people were not aware of to people's attention/awareness such that they would consider it important, think about it, and do something about it (actually more like not be able to forget it), and the idea was that such and such an action would accomplish this end. The expression was "... such and such will bring this front the mind." (Note not "in front of the mind" or "to the forefront", but almost like "confront", bring to a considered awareness).

... it is my belief that we still have numerous of these old expressions hanging around in our language (I should say in our languages; I'd be willing to bet the Russians/Ukranians have a number we could profit from hearing even in translation) ... especially in the more rural areas ... and that these can be valuable tools for our understanding of the intent of quite a few Pāḷi terms.



Here's a trap I fall into related to this that needs to be avoided: after some time in a sitting session one will notice that tensions have reasserted themselves over the body and especially the face. At this time one needs once again to let go of these tensions, and putting a look of satisfaction on the face is a good way of doing this.

When this is done when some time has already been spent in the sitting session it is much easier to consciously notice that those tensions that are being let go of were intimately tied up in trains of thought that were themselves tied up in wanting which was dependant on the idea of self. This is the trap: Seeing these tensions drop off almost looks like one self is dropping off another self, or that one self is pulling away from another self (it is easy to see that the tensions that are being dropped were considered self before and it is easy to see that that was a mistaken idea, but it is not so easy to see that the seeing of that is being mistaken as self); here it is very important not to think like this or one will waste a lot of time in a push and pull match between the self one is trying to drop and the "self" one is identifying with at the moment as "the dropper of self."

The simile of the onion is convenient at this point: Remember that the situation is similar to peeling away the layers of an onion. Neither was the layer that was peeled away the onion nor is the next layer the onion, nor is any layer that may remain the onion, nor is it possible to say that there is any onion other than the layers.



Here is a sutta passage which I find hard to reconcile with the idea that "sati" is to be understood as "paying attention" or suchlike.

From: [DN 16] Dīgha Nikāya #16 (Rhys Davids translation in Buddhist Suttas, I. Chapter 4)

33. Now at that time a man named Pukkusa a young Mallian, a disciple of Alara Kalama's, was passing along the high road from Kusinara to Pava.

34. And Pukkusa, the young Mallian, saw the Blessed One seated at the foot of a tree. On seeing him, he went up to the place where the Blessed One was, and when he had come there he saluted the Blessed One, and took his rest respectfully on one side. And when he was seated Pukkusa, the young Mallian, said to the Blessed One: 'How wonderful a thing is it, Lord! and how marvelous, that those who have gone forth out of the world should pass their time in a state of mind so calm!'

35. 'Formerly, Lord, Alara Kalama was once walking along the high road; and leaving the road he sat himself down under a certain tree to rest during the heat of the day. Now, Lord, five hundred carts passed by one after the other, each close to Alara Kalama. And a certain man, who was following close behind that caravan of carts, went up to the place where Alara Kalama, was, and when he was come there he spake as follows to Alara Kalama:

'"But, Lord, did you see those five hundred carts go by?"

'"No, indeed, sir, I saw them not."

'"But, Lord, did you hear the sound of them?"

'"No, indeed, sir, I heard not their sound."

'"But, Lord, were you then asleep?"

'"No, sir, I was not asleep."

'"But, Lord, were you then conscious?"

'"Yes, I was conscious, sir."

'"So that you, Lord, though you were both conscious and awake, neither saw, nor heard the sound of five hundred carts passing by, one after the other, and each close to you. Why, Lord, even your robe was sprinkled over with the dust of them!"

'"It is even so, sir."

36. 'Then thought that man: "How wonderful a thing is it, and how marvelous, that those who have gone forth out of the world should pass their time in a state of mind so calm! So much so that a man though being both conscious and awake, neither sees, nor hears the sound of five hundred carts passing by, one after the other, and each close to him."

'And after giving utterance to his deep faith in Alara Kalama, he departed thence.'

37. 'Now what think you, Pukkusa, which is the more difficult thing either to do or to meet with — that a man being conscious and awake should neither see, nor hear the sound of five hundred carts passing by, one after the other, close to him, — or that a man, being conscious and awake, should neither see, nor hear the sound thereof when the falling rain goes on beating and splashing, and the lightning are flashing forth, and the thunderbolts are crashing?'

38. 'What in comparison, Lord, can these five hundred carts do, or six or seven or eight or nine or ten hundred, yea, even hundreds and thousands of carts. That certainly is more difficult, both to do and to meet with, that a man being conscious and awake should neither see, nor hear the sound thereof when the falling rain goes on beating and splashing, and the lightning are flashing forth, and the thunderbolts are crashing.'

39. 'Now on one occasion, Pukkusa, I was dwelling at Atuma, and was at the Threshing-floor. And at that time the falling rain begun to beat and to splash, and the lightnings to flash forth, and the thunderbolts to crash; and two peasants, brothers, and four oxen were killed. Then, Pukkusa, a great multitude of people went forth from Atuma, and went up to the place where the two peasants, brothers, and the four oxen, lay killed.

40. 'Now at that time, Pukkusa, I had gone forth from the Threshing-floor, and was walking up and down thinking at the entrance to the Threshing-floor. And a certain man came, Pukkusa, out of that great multitude of people, up to the place where I was; and when he came up he saluted me, and took his place respectfully on one side.

41. 'And as he stood there, Pukkusa, I said to the man:

'"Why then, sir, is this great multitude of people assembled together?"

'"But just now, the falling rain began to beat and to splash, and the lightnings to flash forth, and the thunderbolts to crash; and two peasants, brothers, were killed, and four oxen. Therefore is this great multitude of people gathered together. But where, Lord, were you?"

'"I, sir, have been here all the while."

'"But, Lord, did you see it?"

'"I, sir, saw nothing."

'"But, Lord, did you hear it?"

'"I, sir, heard nothing."

'"Were you then, Lord, asleep?"

'"I, sir, was not asleep."

'"Were you then conscious, Lord?"

'"Even so, sir."

'"So that you, Lord, being conscious and awake, neither saw, nor heard the sound thereof when the falling rain went on beating and splashing, and the lightnings were flashing forth, and the thunderbolts were crashing."

'"That is so, sir."

42. 'Then, Pukkusa, the thought occurred to that man:

'"How wonderful a thing is it, and marvelous, that those who have gone forth out of the world should pass their time in a state of mind so calm! — so that a man being conscious and awake neither sees nor hears the sound thereof when the falling rain is beating and splashing, and the lightnings are flashing forth, and the thunderbolts are crashing." And after giving utterance to his deep faith in me, he departed from me with the customary demonstrations of respect.'



One needs to 'Pay Attention' during the 'Self-Control' phase of training, watching out for one's reactions at the sense doors. But this paying attention is not a goal, it is a means to an end: having become conscious of the detrimental effects of certain reactions, one abandons them, abandoning them one is free to move into higher forms of letting go.


[1] (See, for a discussion of the related concept "kaya-gata-sati", (remembering that which relates to body; usually also translated "Mindfulness of Body")The Ones #585. and
Thanissaro: Discourse on Mindfulness Emerssed in the Body (Majjhima Nikāya: 119. Kaya-gata-sati Sutta, III.88;
WP: Mindfulness of the Body, 949;
PTS: Discourse on Mindfulness of Body, III.129)

[2] The Agendas of Mindfulness Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The view that the Satipaṭṭhana is a process is also held by Bhk. Punnaji.

[3] The Great Master's Satisfaction Pastures, Satisfaction with Body

[4] What does that mean ... "It Works"? Strictly speaking in this system one judges by evaluating one's personal experience against the idea of whether or not good conditions are increasing and bad conditions are decreasing. In this case, using this technique, it is very easy to see tensions (places where grasping is going on), and once having identified them, to let them go.
Very often an Arahant is referred to or refers to himself as having "paid off his debt." How is this to be understood?
Imagine a baloon filled with air. Then imagine pressing on that balloon with the tip of the finger so as to form a deep impression. Then imagine that this impression is caused by grasping (the desire to make an ... ahum ... deep, lasting impression), this is having incurred debt. Grasping is a thing that is a "doing". The tension created by that grasping is something that needs to be maintained in order for that impression to remain. That, we might say, is the interest on that debt. The satisfaction of that debt is the release from that tension by letting go.

[5] At'sa u sati

[6] I am not saying here that the word "satisfaction" is, in fact, etymologically related to "sati", although I do not think the word just appeared in Latin out of nothing. I am just saying that there is a certain satisfaction in finding a word that both fits the meaning and sounds the same.
To round out the discussion, I should add that "paṭṭhāna" is easily translated "factor" or "faction." (From "pasture" or "manu(re)-factory" ... justa jok'n witcha)

[7] See: Self Control

[8] Satisfaction with Sense Experience

[9] See: Glossology: Satisfaction


Sangiti Suttanta in Pāḷi
PTS: Dialogs of the Buddha III, #33: The Recital, T.W. and C.A.F. Rhys Davids, trans., pp201
WP: The Long Discourses of the Buddha, #33: The Chanting Together, M. Walshe, trans., pp479

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