The Role of Sati in the Process of Wisdom-Development
or the Eradication of Defilements

Appamada, or heedfulness, refers to the uninterrupted presence of sati in one's life and the constant use of it in one's daily tasks. Appamada makes one careful and prudent; it prevents one from falling, through error, into bad or harmful ways. It restrains; it reminds one not to become fascinated by enjoyable things and mindlessly indulge in them. It urges one not to become complacent, and stimulates one to make earnest efforts to continually push on. It makes one constantly conscious of one's duties, by providing a clear awareness of what needs to be done and what does not, what has been done already and what remains to be done. It helps one to perform one's various tasks with circumspection and precision. Thus, as has been stated before, appamada is of major significance in a system of ethics.

    At any rate, it may be seen that appamada has a wide-ranging ethical significance in regard to one's general conduct in life. It is called for in increasing degrees from the stage of keeping precepts right up to that of samadhi. It infuses these activities at every level in association with a large number of other dhammas, particularly vayama (effort), with which it is combined at all times. Looked at, however, solely in terms of the mind during the process of wisdom-development (the use of wisdom to cleanse the mind), appamada becomes that which gives devoted support and encouragement from without. At this level, attention is confined to the workings of the mind, and finely discriminates between the various phenomena present in a moment-by-moment analysis. It is at this stage that sati clearly fulfills its true function and plays the prominent role implied by its name.

    An understanding of the essential meaning of sati may be gained by contemplating its function on those occasions when its role is clearly distinguishable from that of other dhammas, most notably in the practice called satipatthana. On such occasions the function of sati may be summarized as follows:

    The primary feature of the working of sati is that it prevents the mind from drifting. It does not allow mental states to pass by unheeded. It prevents the mind from becoming agitated and restless. It is attentive, as if keeping its eyes on each impression that passes into consciousness and then bearing down on it. When one wishes to concentrate on a particular object, it maintains one's attention fixedly upon it, not allowing the object to drift away or disappear. By means of sati, one keeps placing the mind on the object, or recollecting it, not allowing oneself to let it slip from the mind. There is a simile likening it to a pillar, because it is firmly embedded in its object, or to a gate-keeper, because it watches over the various sense-doors through which sense-data pass, inspecting all that enters. The proximate cause for the arising of sati is a firm and clear perception of the object, or any of the different sorts of satipatthana that will be spoken of below.

    Looking at it from the point of view of ethics, one will discern both negative and positive aspects of the functioning of sati. Negatively, sati is a guardian. It restrains the mind from agitation, protects one from error, and prevents one from stumbling into undesirable mental states or situations. It allows no opportunity for unwholesomeness to enter the mind and prevents the misuse of thought.

    On the positive side, sati is the controller and inspector of the stream of sense-consciousness, mentality and all one's actions, ensuring that they all lie within desired parameters. It keeps the mind harnessed to its chosen object. It is thus the tool for laying hold of or clasping onto an object, and its action is rather like placing the object in front of the mind for consideration.

    In the Buddhist path of practice, there is great emphasis on the importance of sati as evidenced in the Buddha's saying that sati is required (i.e. should be employed) in every situation. Sati is also compared to salt, which must be used in every curry, and to a prime minister, who must be involved in every branch of government. Sati may either restrain the mind or support and sustain it, depending on the needs of the situation.[Vism.130, 162, 464]

    When considering in toto the features of sati's functioning as mentioned above, one will see the benefits aimed at in training in sati to be as follows:

1. The maintenance of the mind in a required condition by the monitoring of the cognitive process and the stream of thought, accepting only that which is conducive to it and barring all that which is not and thus, by channelling and stilling the thought-stream, facilitating the attainment of samadhi.

2. The enabling of the body and mind to dwell in a state which might be called 'self-sufficient' by virtue of the sense of spaciousness, relaxation and well-being intrinsic to it regardless of external circumstances -- a state wherein one is prepared to face any experience that might occur and to deal effectively with all of one's affairs.

3. The ability, in the state of samadhi, to guide the cognitive process and the stream of thought and to alter or expand the fields of their activities in various dimensions.

4. The ability to take hold of a meditation object and, as it were, to lay it down in front of the mind so that subsequent investigation by the wisdom-faculty may proceed with optimum clarity as a basis on which wisdom can be developed and brought to perfection.

5. The purification of all volitional actions of body, speech and mind and liberation from compulsive indulgence in defilement and subjugation to craving and clinging, and the informing (in combination with sampaja˝˝a) of one's actions with wisdom, an entirely purified logic.

    The fourth and fifth benefits listed here are the goals of an advanced stage of development, and may be obtained only through a specially prescribed method of practice that, according to our definition of sammasati, is the Four Satipatthana.


Satipatthana as Sammasati

'Satipatthana' is sometimes translated as 'the Foundations of Mindfulness' and sometimes as 'the Establishing of (i.e. governance by) Mindfulness'. Technically, it is the method of practice that makes use of sati most fruitfully, as indicated in the Buddha's words in the Maha Satipatthana Sutta:

"This is the one way, O Bhikkhus, for the purification of beings, for the passing beyond sorrow and lamentation, for the cessation of pain and distress, for the attainment of the Supramundane Path, for the realization of Nibbana, namely, the Four Satipatthana." [D.II.290; M.I.55]

    The development of satipatthana is a very popular method of Dhamma-practice and is highly praised and revered. It is considered to incorporate both samatha (calm) and vipassana (insight) cultivation. The wayfarer may choose either to develop samatha until the attainment of absorption before developing vipassana based on the Four Satipatthana as a way of reaching his goal, or he may develop satipatthana-vipassana in dependence on only an initial level of samadhi, the minimum that is sufficient for his purposes.

    Vipassana is an important principle of Buddhist practice which, though widely known, is also widely misunderstood, and is thus a matter deserving some clarification. The following basic outline of satipatthana will help to provide a better understanding of the meaning of vipassana, from its essential nature to its field of actions and its variations, as well as the extent to which its application is possible in daily life and what the benefits of such application may be. However, there is no intention to make a thorough study of vipassana here. The aim is merely to convey as much of an understanding of it as can be obtained from looking at the essential features.

    In brief, the main elements of satipatthana are as follows:

1. Kayanupassana, contemplation or mindfulness of the body:

(a) Anapanasati: going to a secluded place, sitting cross-legged and focusing sati on one's inhalations and exhalations.

(b) Iriyapatha: Focusing on posture, clearly perceiving the present mode of disposition of the body, whether standing, walking, sitting, or lying down.

(c) Sampaja˝˝a: maintaining clear comprehension in every kind of action and movement, e.g., moving forward, looking around, stretching out the arm, dressing, chewing, eating, drinking, urinating, excreting, waking up, going to sleep, speaking and keeping silent.

(d) Patikulamanasikara: contemplating one's body, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, as a repository of a large number of unattractive constituents.

(e) Dhatumanasikara: contemplating one's body by considering it separated into its four constituent elements.

(f) Navasivathika: looking at corpses in nine different stages of decay, from one newly dead to one reduced to crumbling bones, and, in each case, applying what is seen to oneself, reflecting that one's own body must meet a similar fate.

2. Vedananupassana, mindfulness of feeling: i.e. when a feeling of pleasure, pain, or indifference arises, whether associated with sensual desires or unassociated with them, one has a clear perception of it in its actuality at the moment of occurrence.

3. Cittanupassana, mindfulness of mind: i.e. how the mind is at a given moment -- for instance, whether sensual desire is present in it or not, whether aversion is present in it or not, whether it is agitated or concentrated, liberated or still fettered, etc., one has a clear perception of the underlying state of mind, in its actuality in the present moment;

4. Dhammanupassana, mindfulness of dhammas:

(a) Nivarana[4] (hindrance): clear perception, in that moment, of whether any of the Five Hindrances is present in the mind or not, the way in which as-yet unarisen hindrances arise, how hindrances already arisen may be abandoned, and how hindrances already abandoned may be prevented from re-arising.

(b) Khandha (aggregate): comprehension of the nature of each khandha, how it arises and how it ceases.

(c) Ayatana (sense-base): clear perception of each of the internal and external sense-bases and of the fetters that arise dependent on them, how those already arisen may be abandoned and how those already abandoned may be prevented from re-arising.

(d) Bojjhanga[5] (limbs of enlightenment): clear perception, in that moment, of whether or not any of the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment is present in one's mind, how those as-yet unarisen may arise and how those already arisen may be developed to fullness.

(e) Ariyasacca: clear and authentic perception of each of the Four Noble Truths.

    In the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, at the end of every one of the above clauses, there is an identical refrain:

"The bhikkhu contemplates the body[6] in the body internally (i.e. one's own body), contemplates the body in the body externally (another's body), or contemplates the body in the body both internally and externally. He contemplates arising in the body; he contemplated dissolution in the body; he contemplates both arising and dissolution in the body. He possesses clear mindfulness of the existence of the body, solely to the extent necessary for a bare knowledge of it, sufficient for it to serve as an object of recollection. Thus he lives independently, clinging to naught in the world."


The Essence of Satipatthana

One may see from the salient points of satipatthana summarized above that satipatthana (and this includes vipassana) is not a principle that necessarily demands for its practice either withdrawal from society into seclusion or a fixed time schedule. Consequently, many wise teachers have encouraged its integration into daily life.

    In essence, the teaching of satipatthana informs us that our lives have just four areas which require the watchful eye and governance of sati, namely, (1) the body and its behaviour, (2) the various feelings of pleasure and pain, (3) the different states of mind and (4) dhammas. Conducting one's life with sati guarding over these four points will help to ensure a freedom from danger and suffering and a life of clarity and well-being, culminating in the realization of the ultimate truth.

    One may also see from the outline of satipatthana above that, in practice, sati is never employed alone, but always in conjunction with other dhammas. One such dhamma, which is not specifically mentioned in the text, is samadhi, which must be present, at least in a weak form, sufficient for the purpose in hand.[7] The three dhammas singled out by name in the definition of sammasati above are:

1. Atapi (there is effort). This refers to Samma Vayama (Right Effort), the sixth factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, which entails guarding against and abandoning what is unwholesome and creating and maintaining what is wholesome.

2. Sampajano (there is clear comprehension). This refers to the wisdom-faculty.

3. Satima (there is mindfulness).

    A noteworthy clause is the second, 'Sampajano', rendered as 'There is clear comprehension (sampaja˝˝a)'. Sampaja˝˝a is a dhamma which usually appears coupled with sati. Sampaja˝˝a is the wisdom-faculty (pa˝˝a). Thus the training in sati is one element in the process of wisdom development. Sampaja˝˝a (pa˝˝a) is the clear and penetrative understanding of the object or action fixed upon by sati in regard to its purpose, its nature and the way to proceed in relation to it, free from delusion and misunderstanding.

    The subsequent phrase, "... eradicating covetousness and distress with regard to the world ...", demonstrates the attitude that results from the possession of sati-sampaja˝˝a as being one of equanimity and freedom, a state unbound by defilements, whether rooted in attachment or in aversion.

    The phrase, shared by every clause, "... he sees arising and dissolution ...", points to the contemplative understanding of those things in terms of the Three Characteristics, resulting in a perception and experience of them as they actually exist. The phrase, "... mindfulness of the existence of the body ...", for example, refers to an awareness of the body in its actuality, without clothing it in conceptualizations, interpretations, or attachments, not labelling it as a person or as self, as 'him' or 'her' or 'me' or 'my body'. This attitude is thus one of freedom, independent, in that it is untied to any external condition, and is without any grasping at the things of the world with craving and clinging.

    To further elucidate this matter, a few important phrases from the Pali text will here be translated and briefly explained:

1. Kaye kayanupassi (contemplating the body in the body).
This phrase refers to seeing the body simply as a body, or as a meeting place or assembly point for the various organs which are its component parts. It means not seeing the body as being 'him' or 'her' or 'me' or 'this person' or 'that person', nor as belonging to anyone; not seeing a man or a woman, for example, in hair of the head or hair of the body or a face. In other words, one sees directly in accordance with the truth, in agreement with the actual state of the body; what one sees corresponds to what one is looking at, i.e. one looks at a body and sees a body, rather than looking at a body and seeing 'Mr. Smith' or someone hateful or someone attractive. This accords with the saying of the old masters, "One does not (usually) see what one is looking at. One sees, on the contrary, what one has truly not seen. Not seeing truly, one becomes attached; and, when one is attached to something, there is no liberation."[8]

2. Atapi sampajano satima (there is effort, clear comprehension and mindfulness).
In other words, there is Samma Vayama (Right Effort), Samma Ditthi (Right View) and Samma Sati (Right Mindfulness), the three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path which must always be employed in conjunction for the development of every aspect of the Path.[9]

(a) Effort (vayama) energizes the mind. It prevents the mind from becoming discouraged or depressed, from dilly-dallying or regressing, and so gives no opportunity for unwholesome dhammas to arise. It is a force which urges the mind to press on, and which encourages the growth of the various wholesome dhammas.

(b) Clear comprehension (sampaja˝˝a) is the wisdom-faculty which contemplates and fully comprehends the object brought into focus by sati and prevents delusion from arising in regard to it. It correctly understands the way in which the object actually exists.

(c) Mindfulness (sati) is that which fixes onto the object, enabling one to keep abreast of it at every moment, not allowing it to slip from the mind or to become unclear or confused.

3. Vineyya loke abhijjhadomanassam (he destroys covetousness and distress with regard to the world).
When one practises in this way, the mind becomes spacious and bright, and neither desire and attachment nor sorrow and aversion can overwhelm it.

4. Atthi kayoti panassa sati paccupatthita hoti yavadava nanamattaya patissatimattaya (he has clear mindfulness of the existence of the body only to extent that will serve to make it an object of gnosis (˝ana) and recollection).
Sati focuses clearly and directly on the truth that the body is merely the body, that no being, person, man, or woman is implied by it. There is perception of the body merely for the sake of the development and enhancement of sati-sampaja˝˝a, not in order to indulge in fanciful daydreams or senseless proliferations. The same applies in the case of feelings, mind and dhammas.

5. Anissito ca viharati (and he dwells independently).
His mind is free, not tied to any condition. He does not give his heart away to any thing or person. Speaking technically, he doesn't rely on craving and views as a support; he is unaffected by them. When encountering some experience, for example, he is directly aware of the thing being experienced in its actuality, without resorting to craving and views to colour and embellish it and to lull him into indulgence. In short, he doesn't entrust his powers of thought, his imagination, or his happiness to craving and views.

6. Na ca ki˝ci loke upadiyati (clinging to naught in the world).
He does not grasp at or attach to anything at all, whether form, feeling, perception, volitional formation, or consciousness as being self or belonging to self.

7. Ajjhattam va ... bahiddha va (internally ... externally).
Teachers have differed in their explanations of this phrase, but the consensus of opinion in the Commentaries is that 'internal' refers to oneself and 'external' refers to others.[10] Such an interpretation agrees with the Abhidhamma texts, which elucidate the meaning of the term clearly, e.g., "And how does a bhikkhu see the mind in the mind externally? Here, when the mind of another person is lustful, he clearly perceives that that is so, etc."[11] Some people might wonder at this point whether it is proper to go prying into the affairs of other people's bodies and minds, and how in fact one could see the truth of them anyway. As for this, we take it quite simply to be that the aim of the training is to use sati with all of the things with which we must have dealings, and to perceive in them no more than what is actually there. In our daily lives it is inevitable that we will have to have dealings with other people, and those dealings should be mindful ones. Our perceptions of others should accord with the way they are and be based only on direct personal experience, not exceeding what has been discerned by us in the course of our dealings with them. (If one possesses the gnosis (˝ana) enabling one to read others' minds, then one's 'knowledge' should not exceed the bounds of that gnosis. If one does not possess that gnosis, there is no need to be inquisitive.) In that way, one will not proliferate and work oneself into a turmoil regarding other people, and give birth to such dhammas as greed and aversion. If one doesn't know the mental states of others, or lives alone, it doesn't matter; it is not an essential part of the practice. There is no question of being required to monitor other people's behaviour in order to detect the states of their bodies and minds.

    One way of summarizing the above would be to say that the development of satipatthana entails a dwelling with sati and sampaja˝˝a which ensures that the image of self which the mind of Ignorance creates and fashions can find no gap through which it can insinuate itself into one's thoughts and create problems.

    Some scholars in the West have looked at comparisons of satipatthana with contemporary methods of psychotherapy. In their assessment of the relative merits of the two systems, they have come to the conclusion that satipatthana provides better results. Moreover, in that it is a method which may feasibly be practised by anyone by himself, and, as its value is not restricted to times of mental abnormality but may normally be employed for good mental health, it is of wider application.[12] However, these views will not be discussed here; instead, there will be a further summary of the prominent features of satipatthana, this time in terms of contemporary modes of thought.

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4. The Nivaranas (hindrances to the working of the mind) are five-fold, namely: kamachanda (sensual desire), byapada (ill-will), thinamiddha (sloth and torpor), uddhaccakukkucca (agitation and anxiety), and vicikiccha (sceptical doubt). [Back to text]

5. The Bojjhanga (Limbs of Enlightenment) are: sati, dhammavicaya (investigation of dhammas), viriya (effort), piti (bliss), passaddhi (calm), samadhi  and upekkha (equanimity). [Back to text]

6. The word 'body' may be changed to 'feelings', 'mind', or 'dhammas', according to the case. [Back to text]

7. This is called vipassanasamadhi and occupies a level between khanika (momentary) samadhi and upacara (close to absorption) samadhi. [Back to text]

8. D.N. Commentary. The phrase, 'the body in the body' is glossed in several different ways by the commentators, with an overall emphasis on the aim of the contemplation. One interpretation, for example, takes it as focusing on the body without muddle, attending, in the body, only to the body -- not to feelings, mind-states, or dhammas associated with it. Another takes it to mean attending to the smaller parts which comprise the body as a unit, distinguishing the different components and looking at them individually, (continued) until one sees that the whole body is nothing other than a congregation of smaller constituents, that there is nobody there, no 'Mr. A' or 'Ms. B'. It thus implies the analysis of a composite unit, the dismantling of a complex structure, and is an endeavour comparable to that of removing all the leaves and the spadix of a banana tree and finding no heart-wood, no essential tree. (The phrases, 'feelings in feelings', 'mind in mind', and 'dhammas in dhammas' may be understood in the same way.) [Back to text]

9. This agrees with the principle enunciated in the Cattarisaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, Uparipannasaka, 258-278). As for the equation of atapi with samma vayama, see Vibhanga, 437-439. [Back to text]

10. For example: Digha Nikaya Commentary, Vol. II, 498; Majjhima Nikaya Commentary, Vol. I, 385; Vibhanga Commentary, 283, 286. [Back to text]

11. For example: Vibhanga, 445-447. It may be noted that there is an exposition of the psychic power that vouchsafes a penetration of the minds of others appearing at Digha Nikaya, Silakkhandhavagga, 135. [Back to text]

12. See N. P. Jacobson, Buddhism, The Religion of Analysis, Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 93-123. [Back to text]