Sati: the Analysis of a Word (Chapter 14)

For a text that is 2500 years old, the Sutta is remarkably easy to understand, so why is it so neglected? Part of the reason is the mistranslation and consequent misuse of its key term. In this chapter, I’ll try to answer just one question: what did the Buddha actually mean by sati, the word we now translate as ‘mindfulness’? As a result, this chapter is full of technical details and quotes from the traditional authorities. This is where I get pedantic. If you are new to the field, you don’t need to understand it all. It is quite sufficient to get the general drift. In particular, you will find that the original meaning of sati differs remarkably from the way modern writers describe mindfulness.

My principal sources are Buddhaghosa’s monumental 4th Century commentary, The Path of Purification; Soma Thera’s 1949 book, The Way of Mindfulness; Nyanaponika Thera’s 1962 book, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation; U Pandita’s 1992 book, In this Very Life; Analayo’s 2003 book, Satipatthana; and Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s 2008 article, Mindfulness Defined.

It is obvious from the way in which sati is used in the Sutta that it corresponds very well to the English word ‘attention’. Sati is also intimately linked to words that mean evaluation (sampajjana), goal-directed effort (atapi) and memory. These words are all found in the same sentence of the Sutta, and are traditionally analysed together. This cluster of functions matches what we understand from Cognitive Psychology. Attention never occurs as an autonomous function. Attention, judgment, memory and purpose all work together as the key executive skills of any rational adult.

Sati clearly means ’attention’ in the Sutta, but T.W. Rhys Davids thought he could improve on it. Rhys Davids was by far the most important translator of early Buddhist texts. In 1881, he decided to translate sati not as ‘attention’ but as ‘mindfulness’. As an adjective, ‘mindful’ has been in the English language since the 14th century, but Rhys Davids chose to revive the archaic noun form ’mindfulness’ as a translation for sati.

This had the unfortunate effect of changing the way we think about sati. It shifts it from a cognitive function (i.e. something we do) into a thing (i.e. a state of mind, or a meditation practice or a philosophy.) The ambiguities around the modern conception of mindfulness start right here.

The choice of ‘mindfulness’ was a poor decision but we are now stuck with it. It is a workable term but awkward in so many ways. Bhikkhu Bodhi is the most authoritative modern translator and he has no fondness for ‘mindfulness’. He was the editor of the Pali Text Society for many years, and was therefore the custodian of Rhys Davids’ legacy. Despite his undoubted loyalty, he still describes mindfulness as ‘a makeshift term.’

Thanissaro Bhikkhu also dislikes the word ‘mindfulness’. He speculates that Rhys Davids chose it because ‘being mindful’ would have associations with Anglican prayer for his late Victorian audience. As a Buddhist prosyletiser, Rhys Davids tailored his language to that audience.

As a result of his efforts, ‘mindfulness’ came to mean not ‘attention’ but a narrower subset. We tend to regard mindfulness as being good in a moral sense. We see it as referring to ‘right attention’ (samma-sati) rather than just ‘attention’ (sati). Rhys Davids saw mindfulness only as the kind of attention that is directed to a moral or spiritual goal. A sniper, in other words, would be seen as exercising ‘wrong attention’ (miccha-sati).

Likewise, modern writers and psychologists invariably talk about mindfulness as a ‘special kind of attention’, or as paying attention ‘in a particular way’, and they frequently qualify it with adjectives. Buddhist writers also like to retain the Buddhist moral associations of ‘mindfulness’, rather than let it revert to its true meaning.

I think this is a mistake that confuses and cripples the concept. It tangles up the universal cognitive function of attention with particular Buddhist or psychological goals. Let me emphasise this point: sati just means ‘attention’ and, as the Buddha’s original terminology recognises (samma-sati vs miccha-sati), it can be used for good or bad purposes.

Sustained attention (sati)

The German monk Nyanaponika was also uncomfortable with Rhys Davids’ term ‘mindfulness’. He affirmed the primary meaning of sati as ‘attention’ in his influential 1962 book: “Mindfulness is not a mystical state. It is on the contrary something quite simple and common, and very familiar to all of us. Under the term ‘attention’ it is one of the cardinal functions of consciousness without which there cannot be perception of any object at all.”

Since sati is a verb, not a noun, it more accurately means ‘to pay attention to’ or ‘to focus on’ something. For example, sati is used in the title of another meditation text called the Anapanasati Sutta. This translates in an uncomplicated fashion as ‘Paying Attention (sati) to the Breath (anapana).’ In other words, ‘to be mindful’ is ‘to hold something in mind’ or ‘to focus on something’.

The traditional commentators usually describe sati as what we would call sustained attention. For example, the Standard Meditation Practice in Chapter 1 involves paying sustained attention to the body. Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “Continuous attention is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of your attention and the purpose of your attention in mind.” Mahasi Sayadaw is the most famous theorist of the modern Vipassana movement. His successor, U Pandita, said: “The function of mindfulness is to keep the object always in view, neither forgetting it nor allowing it to disappear.”

Soma Thera says: “When one is strongly mindful of an object, one plants one’s consciousness deep into it, like a post sunk into the ground, and withstands the tempestuous clamour of the extraneous by a ‘sublime ignoring of non-essentials’. Mindfulness sticks to the business at hand”.

Buddhaghosa describes sati as having the characteristic of ‘non-distraction’, of ‘not floating’ or ‘not wobbling’ (or drifting or spacing out or fantasising). To be mindful is to focus on an object and stay with it against all the temptations to wander.

Buddhaghosa, and many teachers since, describe training the mind as like tying a wild elephant (or an ox or a calf or a puppy!) to a stake in order to tame it. At first the elephant will try to break free and return to the forest. Eventually it will lie down by the stake and become a docile and obedient servant. In a similar metaphor, Buddhaghosa says: ‘When a monk wants to tame his own mind which has long been spoilt by being reared on sensory data, he should tie it up to the post of the in-breaths and out-breaths with the rope of mindfulness.’

Buddhaghosa also describes mindfulness as: “seeing the object face to face”. U Pandita glosses this as: “walking straight towards someone who is walking towards you.” The Buddha uses a similar full frontal metaphor in the Sutta: The monk “focuses on the breath in front of himself”. In our Western tradition, Descartes likewise describes meditation as holding a “clear and distinct idea” on “the stage of the mind”. Because this mental space is invariably imagined as being in front of the body, it implies a sense of objectivity and clarity of vision.

The Pali texts contain many other metaphors, all of which imply judgment and discrimination. Sati is the mental quality of a shepherd watching over his flock. It is like a soldier on a watchtower, “looking for the glint of armour.” It is the guard at the city gate who decides who can enter and who can’t, and who directs the right visitor to the king. It is the skilful charioteer who can steer attention and control the passions. It is even compared to “a waggoner who ties the oxen to the yoke, greases the axle, and drives the waggon, making the oxen go gently.” These examples show that sati is always mindful for a purpose. It is certainly not a disengaged, mirror-like state of nonjudgmental acceptance.

Despite the mental effort involved, we can still distinguish sati from the one-pointed concentration called samadhi. With sati we typically retain a sense of the body and self, and a subject-object relationship. We still see and evaluate the object within the larger context of our long-term goals. Sati is about discrimination, evaluation and self-monitoring. Samadhi, on the other hand, is a more extreme quality of focus. It results in total absorption and a tunnel vision that loses sight of everything else. This is a valuable experience but it is somewhat different from sati.

To summarise, to be mindful is: to pay attention to something; to hold it in mind; to hold it ‘in front of you’; and even ‘to hold it down’. The Pali texts use words like ‘grasp’, ‘apprehend’ and ‘lock on to’ and ‘penetrate into.’ This is sati as selective, sustained attention.

Evaluation and judgment (sampajjana)

Sati is frequently combined with the term sampajjana into the phrase: sati-sampajjana. The word sampajjana literally mean ‘accurate understanding’. In practice it means ‘evaluation’ or ‘good judgment’, since this is its purpose. I’ve translated sati-sampajjana in the Sutta as ‘clearly understanding and mindful of…’ It is more usually translated as ‘clearly comprehending and mindful of…’ This phrase is so important that it occurs as a refrain throughout the Sutta.

Buddhaghosa said that well-established mindfulness is as immovable as “the king of mountains.” This refers to the importance of body-mind stillness (passaddhi) for good attentional control. “Whatever subject the monk adverts to, consciously reacts to, gives attention to or reviews, he will be able to enter deeply into it and understand its essence.” This deep understanding (of a thought, emotion, state of mind or behaviour) is sampajjana. But why would a monk want to do this?

Attention is never pure or disinterested. Whenever we pay attention to anything (sati), we do so in order to consciously or implicitly evaluate it prior to a response. This is sampajjana. At an absolute minimum we have to decide: “Is this useful or useless? Is this worth giving more attention to or not?” We have to make these judgment calls hundreds of times a day. Everything that grabs our attention demands a yes/no response.

Where our attention goes, our actions follow. As Joseph Goldstein puts it: “With clear comprehension (sampajjana), we know the purpose and appropriateness of what we are doing; we understand the motivations behind our actions.” If we don’t make conscious decisions at critical points, our automatic impulses will decide for us.

The word pajjana means ‘to know something’. The prefix sam acts as a reinforcer. Sampajjana means the right or true or accurate knowledge of something. For the monk, sampajjana meant recognising what was good and bad, useful or useless, in even the smallest matters, so he could control his behaviour and achieve his goals.

Sampajjana also means ‘seeing in depth’ or ‘seeing the essence’ of something. It also has connotations of brightness and alertness (i.e. full consciousness). It implies accuracy in judgment. Sampajjana fully developed is thus the capacity for the discriminating thought that is the precondition for Enlightenment. Analayo points out that sampajjana can range from basic forms of knowing to deep discriminative understanding.”

Ultimately, sampajjana is associated with the important Sanskrit word Prajna which means ‘wisdom’ or ‘direct knowing’ or even ‘Enlightenment’ itself. In particular, sampajjana means seeing things ‘as they really are’ (yatha-bhuta-nana-dassana). A monk would see everything as ‘suffering, impermanent and devoid of self’. This important insight is said to result in profound disgust and a resolution to abandon the world.

Soma Thera says sati acts like, “the Chief Adviser of a King, who is instrumental in distinguishing the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy.” The word sati implies this aspect of discriminating judgment even more strongly than does our English word ‘attention.’ This is why I usually translate sati as ‘the conscious perception and evaluation of something.’ The English word ‘attention’ on its own is not strong enough to carry the sense of discrimination and purpose inherent in sati.

Even when sati appears alone in the texts, sampajjana is always implied. In 1995 Bhikkhu Bodhi recalled a discussion he had with the elderly Nyanaponika. He said they were in full agreement that sati and sampajjana are both necessary for ‘right mindfulness’ (samma-sati). The functional unity of sati and sampajjana is always taken for granted by commentators. Sati-sampajjana thus means: ‘to hold an object in mind in order to accurately evaluate it prior to a response.’ This is what is implied by the frequently repeated phrase in the Sutta: clearly understanding and mindful of it”.

In Nyanaponika’s seminal book from 1962, he describes sati as the ‘stop, look and see clearly’ function that preceded intelligent action. Sati allows the shift from the automatic judgment that accompanies any perception, to a more conscious and accurate one. Nyanaponika says: “By pausing before action, one will be able to seize that decisive but brief moment when mind has not yet settled upon a definite course of action, but is still open to receive skilful directions.”

Nyanaponika goes on: “Mind has to choose, to decide and to judge. It is Clear Comprehension (sampajjana) which is concerned with that greater part of our life, the active part. It is one of the aims of Satipatthana practice that Clear Comprehension should gradually become the regulative force of all our activities, bodily, verbal and mental.”

Soma Thera likewise described sati-sampajjana as: “the analysis, reflection and discernment that leads to right, penetrative insight and clear comprehension.” He adds: “Mindfulness produces lucidity of thought, sound judgement and definiteness of outlook.” Notice that the word ‘mindfulness’ (sati) in the sentence above includes the meaning of ‘sound judgement’ (sampajjana). Soma Thera doesn’t try to make any distinction between sati and sampajjana, and doesn’t need to. They are traditionally seen as a functional unity.

Let’s summarise where we are up to. Sati means sustained attention. Sampajjana means evaluation or judgment. Sati-sampajjana means attention + evaluation, or ‘to focus on and evaluate’ something. The word sati, just like the English word ‘attention’, always implies an evaluative purpose, but sati-sampajjana spells it out unequivocally.

We can apply sati-sampajjana to anything. We could focus on a body sensation such as fatigue or pain or pleasure; a behaviour such as eating or watching TV; a decision to stop or start some activity; a sense perception such as a beautiful girl or a gust of wind; an emotional impulse; a mood such as sadness or frustration or elation. It could even be a thought or problem or a philosophic concept that deserves deeper analysis.

The Buddha suggested that we systematically contemplate our body sensations, emotions, states of mind and thought until we can do all of this consciously, and under all conditions. These four contemplations are goal-directed training disciplines, the four so-called satipatthanas. This is a huge task and no one would undertake it out of disinterested curiosity. We become mindful because it is very useful to do so.

Few of us are now trying to extinguish all our passions and attain Nirvana, but sati has many other more tangible benefits. For example, focusing on the body helps us to relax at will (Chapters 1-8). Focusing on our actions will improve the outcomes (Chapter 9). Focusing on emotions helps us modulate them up or down, and understand our deepest values (Chapters 16, 17 and 19). Focusing on states of mind helps us boost the good states and dissolve the bad ones (Chapter 18). Focusing on thought and reflecting on how we think leads to the goal-directed, insightful thought that the Buddha valued so highly (Chapter 20-22).

Memory

It is quite obvious from the way it is used in the Sutta, that sati means ‘attention’. However its etymological root is actually ‘memory.’ We can interpret this in four ways. Firstly, sati refers to the cluster of associations that unconsciously supports every one of our perceptions. Without this, we wouldn’t be able to identify what a thing was or what it meant to us.

Secondly, sati refers to what Cognitive Psychology calls ‘working memory.’ To be mindful means ‘to hold something in mind’ (working memory) in order to evaluate it. If we hold it there long enough, it will get a foothold in short-term memory and we will be able to recall it later. If we do this repeatedly, it will eventually move from short term memory in the hippocampus into long term memory in the cortex. Sati is the goal-directed, discriminating attention (‘Don’t forget this!’) that is essential for all learning, and the Sutta is nothing if not a mind-training manual.

Thirdly, sati also means remembering our good and bad experiences in order to learn from them. Sati was regarded as essential for moral training and sense-restraint. It was described as the monk’s gatekeeper, or like a sentinel on a watchtower. Satis role was to guard the monk’s five sense-doors as Buddhaghosa says, “so that states of desire do not invade, pursue and threaten his virtue.”

The monk is expected to be mindful of his bad states of mind when they occur, but he should also notice and remember what leads up to them. He eventually controls his lust or anger not through heroic acts of will, but by remembering their antecedent causes. (“There are too many pretty girls down that street. Remember what happened last time!”)

Finally, sati means memory in the sense of ‘keeping in mind’ one’s goals and intentions in the face of contrary temptations. This is a very ordinary cognitive skill. It means remembering what you are doing so that you don’t get sidetracked en route. It is about staying focused and completing whatever you plan to do. For a monk, this meant remembering his goal of Enlightenment. For us, it means remembering what we are trying to achieve in both the short term and the long term.

Sati as a memory function was far more crucial in the Buddha’s time. The first monks didn’t have books or monastic routines to remind them what to do. They had to literally memorise the teaching to carry it with them as they roamed. Even the most junior monks would be able to recite certain texts such as the Sutta, while some monks were famous for developing phenomenal mental libraries. In the commentaries, this was regarded as an integral aspect of sati.

Thus, sati implies memory in several ways. It means ‘holding something in working memory’ or focusing on it; it means remembering what is important so we can learn from our experience; and it means remembering our values and goals to guide our actions. These uses of sati are all spelled out in other texts and in the extensive commentarial literature. They are all the natural consequences of deliberate attention.

Purposeful effort (atapi, viriya)

Sati has another dimension that is definitely missing from the modern understanding of mindfulness. It has a driving, purposeful energy to it. A monk is mindful because he is aspiring to nothing less than total Awakening. This means that sati is frequently linked with words that mean ‘intense, vigilant, ardent.’ The word atapi relates to tapas, the sacrificial fire of Vedic rituals. Metaphorically it refers to the inner heat, energy and ecstasy that the dedicated yogi generates to burn out his spiritual impurities. The persistent effort of atapi also leads to the blissful sensations (piti) that can occur in longer meditations.

U Pandita is perhaps the most important living authority on Vipassana. He says: “Mindfulness has come to be the accepted translation of sati into English. However this word has a kind of passive connotation that can be misleading. ‘Mindfulness’ must be dynamic and confrontative. I teach that mindfulness should leap forward on to the object, covering it completely, penetrating into it, not missing any part of it. To convey this active sense, I often prefer to use the words ‘observing power’ to translate sati rather than ‘mindfulness’.”

This approach may seem extreme but you can see his point. Atapi is the capacity for sustained mental effort in pursuit of a goal. In the example above, the goal is direct knowledge or insight into an object. With atapi, a goal is always implied, or its energy would be destructive. Atapi also implies that discrimination (sampajjana) and ultimate purpose are integral parts of sati.

Finally, there are four other Pali terms that reflect different aspects of sati. Vitakka-vicara literally mean ‘selective, sustained attention’. Vitakka means the circling around, or the orienting of the mind, toward the object. Cognitive psychology tells us that this is the first stage of focusing on anything at all. Vicara comes next. It mean ‘sustained’ attention, or locking on the object and staying with it uninterruptedly. Vitakka-vicara leads to the undistracted streaming of attention in one direction, and it is regarded as the entry into the first of the jhanas, or trance states.

The term dhamma-vicaya (which is the second of the seven Factors of Enlightenment) explains why you would do this. This means looking deeply (vicaya) into the mental phenomena that arise (dhamma) in meditation. For a monk, this meant seeing that every single perception is impermanent (anicca) a potential source of suffering (dukkha), and devoid of any lasting identity (anatta), and should therefore be abandoned. We are not monks, so when we examine any sensation, thought, impulse or emotion, we are likely to have different interpretations, but the same principle applies. When we look into something (dhamma-vicaya) for long enough, be it a few seconds or a few minutes, we will accurately know its true value for good or ill in our lives.

When we put all these different aspects of attention together as a mind-training program, we have Vipassana. This term literally means ‘repeated deep seeing’, and it is sometimes translated as ‘penetrating insight’. It has the kind of purposeful drive that is reflected in U Pandita’s comments above.

Mindful versus mindless

The Buddha understood sati as discriminating self-observation for the purpose of awakening. The Sutta says: “The monk lives intently (atapi) contemplating his body, clearly understanding (sampajjana) and mindful (sati) of it.” Sati is ‘attention’. Sampajjana is ‘evaluation.’ Sati-sampajjana is ‘the conscious perception and evaluation of something.’ The primary role of sati is to make good decisions in all matters, big or small. Above all, the Satipatthana method trains the executive functions of a mature adult: attention, judgment, memory, will-power and goal-directed effort.

So how did mindfulness come to be described instead as ‘a state of nonjudgmental acceptance’? Today’s writers are more likely to describe it as savouring the present, tasting the raisin, and firmly resisting the lure of thought and action. As Kabat-Zinn puts it: “You are already everything you may hope to attain, so no effort of the will is necessary… You are already it.”

Although this is nothing like Satipatthana, we do find it throughout Buddhism, almost from the beginning. Its most obvious sources nowadays are Burmese Vipassana, Tibetan Dzogchen, and Chinese and Japanese Zen. These are the so-called ‘Tranquillity’ or ‘No-thought’ practices based almost entirely on sitting. These typically emphasise stillness and passivity; an abandonment of thought, analysis, discrimination or learning, and an uncritical acceptance of the flow of the moment.

These practices usually aspire to a ‘non-dual’, ‘mirror-like’ state of Pure Consciousness, or Buddhamind (bodhicitta), or luminosity, or ‘bare attention’ or emptiness (sunyata). There are literally dozens of technical terms and metaphors for this ideal state. Despite their intellectual poverty, tranquility meditations are often regarded by their practitioners as being the very quintessence of the Buddha’s teaching. As Dogen put it: “Zazen is the ultimate practice. This is indeed the True Self. The Buddhadharma is not to be sought outside of this.”

In contrast, many scholars, monks and the Buddha himself have repeatedly criticised these practices as being more mindless than mindful. They are narcotic and potentially addictive. A No-thought meditator is seen as doing ‘dead-stump’ or ‘bronze buddha’ practice. He has ‘fallen into emptiness’ or is suffering a ‘Zen sickness.’ Buddhaghosa would probably regard this kind of complacent tranquility as ‘the near enemy’ lurking within any meditation practice. According to Robert Sharf, Kamalashila (740-795) said that there is a special Hell for yogis who believe that the goal of meditation is No-thought: they will face 500 eons in the zombie realm of beings without minds.

Tranquility meditations, as an escape from the world and its rational reference points, can easily reinforce a kind of narcissistic self-absorption. As Sharf puts it, the practitioner “can lose touch with the socially, culturally and historically construed world in which he or she lives.”  The ‘nonjudging’ aspect can also suggest he has abandoned his moral compass and sense of common humanity. A modern meditator can easily lapse into a kind of mystical, ‘Be Here Now’ ideology. This quietistic abnegation of thought and action can be found in many religions including Christianity. It is related to virtues such as faith and surrender, but it is a very long way from the Satipatthana Sutta.

Tranquility meditations are satisfying, healthy and restful, and their simplicity makes them easy to market. They are a good and probably essential first step for any meditator, but they are also a honey-trap for tired and lazy minds. Above all, they can blind us to the full dynamic potential of mindfulness.

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