Sati in Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna – Two Meanings of Sati

February 4, 2019; revised August 2, 2019

This post is critical. Before one can do Ānapānasati or Satipatthāna meditations, one needs to understand what is meant bysati.”

Double Meanings of Words – Unique In Pāli with Deeper “Dhamma Meanings”

1. Many Pāli words have “double meanings.” As we will see below, that happens in other languages too.

  • However, the situation is unique in Pāli in the context of Buddha Dhamma, because some Pāli words have deeper meanings that are only to do with Buddha Dhamma.
  • An example that we have already discussed is viññāna. The ordinary meaning is “consciousness,” but the more profound meaning is “defiled consciousness.” In order to see the context in a given situation, one must know both meanings; see, “Connection Between Sankhāra and Viññāna.”
  • Therefore, unlike in other languages, one must have a more in-depth knowledge of Buddha Dhamma to see the deeper meanings of words like viññāna and sati.

2. One fundamental problem with English translations that we have today arises because most translators try to use dictionary translations. Many times, a dictionary may not list all possible meanings, especially the deeper meanings.

  • For example, in most Pāli dictionaries, “sati” is given the following two meanings: mindfulness and attention.
  • However, there is another more profound meaning that is only approximated by “mindfulness'” as we discuss below. The key is to figure out “mindful of what?”.
  • But let us first see why this is not a big problem in English (or any other language).
Double Meanings in English versus Pāli

3. In English novels or any other “mundane text,” two different meanings are commonly used even in the same paragraph of a document.

  • For example, the word right conveys two different meanings in the following sentence: These are the right directions; make a right turn at the first traffic light.
  • Following are more examples:
    Rose: My favorite flower is a rose. He quickly rose from his seat.
    Type: He can type over 100 words per minute. That dress is not her type.

(Read more at “Words with Multiple Meanings“).

4. The unique situation in Pāli is that words like “sati” have unique meanings that can be understood ONLY in terms of fundamental concepts and the context.

  • To comprehend the deeper meaning of some keywords, one must learn and understand that meaning.
  • It has nothing to do with one’s intelligence. If one has not heard that meaning from a Buddha or a true disciple of a Buddha, one can NEVER figure that out by oneself.
  • Since “sati” is a critical Pāli word that appears in the context of Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna, we should spend some time on it.
Mundane Meaning of Sati – Attention Can Lead to Bhava and Jāti

5. From the “mundane meanings” in #2 above, perhaps “attention” is the best. When we are engaged in a specific task, we need to keep our attention on that task.

  • For example, one needs to keep one’s attention to traffic while driving or paying one’s attention to a teacher who is teaching a new concept.
  • Another example is keeping one’s attention on a particular “thought object,” whether it is something one is looking at, listening to, studying, etc.

6. When one focuses one’s attention to get possession of a worldly thing, that is the “seed” for future bhava. That is a crucial point for those who would like to look into it.

Why the Mundane Meaning Is Not Enough for Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna

7. Now let us take some examples to see why “attention” and even “mindful” will not give the deeper meaning in the context of Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna.

  • Suppose a suicide bomber is assembling a bomb that he intends to use to kill many people. He must be paying careful attention to what he is doing, and that is the ordinary meaning of sati there.
  • Even the term “mindful” can be used to describe the mindset of a suicide bomber while assembling the bomb. He must be mindful of his task. If he makes even a slight mistake, he may trigger the bomb right there.
  • Therefore, that bomb maker must have attention and be mindful of his task. Obviously, he is not engaged in Satipatthāna.

8. We can see this in many other “mundane” examples too.

  • A surgeon doing a complicated operation must pay total attention to the task; he must be mindful of what he is doing.
  • The same applies to anyone doing any critical mundane task. Driving, studying, a nuclear scientist designing an atomic bomb that can kill millions of people, an engineer designing a crucial component for a spaceship, etc.
  • That is not the essential “sati” that one must have to cultivate Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna, even though one must ALSO pay attention and be mindful.

9. However, breath meditation only requires the ordinary meanings: one must be paying total attention to the breath, and one must be aware of that task.

  • I have explained in the post, “Breath Meditation Is Addictive and Harmful in the Long Run,” how “breath meditation” can provide a temporary relief, AND why that can be addictive and bad in the long run.
  • For one to engage in true Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna, one must have a particular “mindset” IN ADDITION to paying attention. That is being aware of the moral/immoral implications of one’s thoughts, speech, and actions.
  • As we will see below, that true Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna also involves speech and bodily actions. The Iriyāpatapabba section in Satipatthāna is ALL ABOUT physical actions. That cannot be done by sitting down and focusing on the breath. We will discuss that later in detail.
  • In order understand “sati,” we need to look at the ultimate goal of a Buddhist.
One Needs to be Mindful of the Goal in Buddha Dhamma

10. The ultimate goal is Arahanthood or Nibbāna, which is, “rāgakkhayō Nibbānam, dōsakkhayō Nibbānam, mōhakkhayō Nibbānam,” or “completely removing greed, anger, and ignorance from one’s mind.”

  • We don’t need to start there. But one embarks on the Path by gradually removing those three defilements from one’s mind.
  • One definition of Nibbāna is “cooling down (of the mind).” That “cooling down” can be experienced even at the beginning to some extent.

11. WHEN one is attracted to a sense input (IF it is enticing OR repulsive), that WILL lead to a burdened mind. Thoughts associated with greed or anger are unavoidable.

  • Therefore, one needs to be aware of such DEFILED thoughts, speech, and actions and stop them as they arise. That is the key to true Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna.
  • That particular mindset is “sati.”
Deeper Meaning of Sati Involves a Unique Mindset

12. Therefore, the meaning of “sati” in the context of Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna has a more specialized meaning. A suicide bomber making a bomb, or even a student intensely concentrating on learning a subject, will not have that sati.

  • This “deeper sati” is a “good mental factor” (a sōbhana cetasika). The sati cetasika is cultivated by learning Dhamma and eventually comprehending Tilakkhana.
  • This “sati” is VERY DIFFERENT from ordinary meanings. In the elementary version, it means “having a mindset to stay away from dasa akusala,” which is what one does when one follows the Eightfold Path.
  • In short, one’s attention would be focused NOT on an immoral or even a mundane task, but on getting rid of “immoral thoughts, speech, and actions” AND on cultivating “moral thoughts, speech, and actions.”

13. However, we can see that the ordinary meanings of “maintaining attention” or “being mindful” must ALSO be there during Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna.

  • One must keep the attention (sati) on “good things” and remove attention away (asati) from “bad things” too while keeping the “sati mindset.”
  • By the way, there is no “asaticetasika or a “bad mental factor”; it has only the ordinary meaning. Asati means keeping the mind away from any ārammana or any “thought object.”
  • Asati means “not being focused on a given thought object”. There is ONLY one meaning for asati.

14. I hope one can see why just paying attention or being mindful is not enough to cultivate Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna.

  • One must understand that “cooling down of the mind” has its origins in staying away from dasa akusala AND also actively engaged in moral deeds, speech, and thoughts.
  • In particular, it is essential to understand the importance of cultivating moral vaci sankhāra (conscious thoughts and speech); see, “Connection Between Sankhāra and Viññāna.”

15. When that is done consistently (keeping the mind on good things and off of bad things), over time it leads to Samma Sati. That, in turn, leads to Samma Samādhi completing the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • But one needs to know what is good and what is bad. What is bad is dasa akusala and what is good is dasa kusala, i.e., staying away from dasa akusala.
  • When one makes progress on the Path and starts comprehending Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta), one’s sati will grow. That will be lead to better samādhi.
The Goal Is Not To Remove All Thoughts From the Mind

16. I also need to mention a common mistake some people make. They think they need to get rid of ALL thoughts that come to the mind.

  • When one is engaged in Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna, one’s goals are two-fold: get rid of evil thoughts that come to the mind AND cultivate good thoughts.
  • Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna involves both “āna” or “assāsa” (taking in good things) and “āpāna” or “passāsa” (discarding bad things).

17. Another way to say this is that one needs to see the difference between “dhamma” and “adhamma.” Dhamma are the “good, moral deeds” and adhamma are the “bad, immoral deeds.”

  • As we have discussed before, adhamma leads to a stressed mind and dhamma leads to a calm mind at a fundamental level.
  • At the next level, strong adhamma or “highly immoral deeds” have terrible consequences in the future, especially in future lives (rebirths in the lowest four realms). On the other hand, strong dhamma or “highly moral deeds” lead to good rebirths in the higher realms.
  • We discussed dhamma/adhamma in the previous post. I want to mention another aspect of it now.
What are Dhamma and Adhamma?

18. In many suttas, the Buddha has clearly stated that dasa akusala are adhamma, and that staying away from those is dhamma. For example, in the “Dhamma Sutta (AN 10.182)“: “katamo ca, bhikkhave, adhammo? Pāṇātipāto … pe … micchādiṭṭhi“, i.e., basically dasa akusala.

  • There are many suttas where the Buddha describes adhamma as dasa akusala or opposites of the eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • On the other hand, dhammas are dasa kusala and the eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path.

19. This act of keeping the mind (sati) on “good things” and keeping it away (asati) from “bad things” is the key to Buddhist meditation: Satipatthāna, Anāpānasati.

  • Both require keeping the mind focused on “good things” and stopping it from focusing on “bad things.”
  • When that is done consistently, over time it leads to Samma Sati (or always keeping the mind on good things), and then to Samma Samādhi, completing the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • But one needs to know what is right and what is bad. What is bad is dasa akusala and what is right is dasa kusala, i.e., staying away from dasa akusala.
Dhamma Are the Things to “Bear,” and Adhamma Are the Things One Should Not “Bear”

20. What is meant by “dhamma” here is “what one bears in mind” or “the mindset.” One thinks, speaks, and acts according to that mindset.

  • But as we have seen, what one thinks, speaks, and acts are called sankhāra. And “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” means one’s viññāna is based on one’s sankhāra; see, “Connection Between Sankhāra and Viññāna.”
  • Then Paticca Samuppāda leads to “bhava paccayā jāti.” Therefore, when one generates “bad sankhāra,” one ends up creating “bad jāti” for oneself (both during this life and in future lives).

21. Now, “bad sankhāra” are generated when one bears “bad dhamma.” “Good sankhāra” are created when one takes “good dhamma.”

  • That is the basis of Paticca Samuppāda, and its connection to “sati.”
  • When one gradually gets rid of “bad dhamma” by staying away from dasa akusala and cultivates “good dhamma” by engaging in moral deeds, one cultivates “sati” via Satipatthāna/Ānapānasati.
Sati Included in Five of the 37 Factors of Enlightenment

22. There are “37 Factors of Enlightenment” that the Buddha said are critical to attaining Nibbāna, and thus must be cultivated.

  • The importance of the word “sati” is apparent since it appears in 5 of the 37 factors in different forms.
  • Sati is in the Five Faculties (Panca Indriya), Five Powers (Panca Bala), Four Factors of Mindfulness (Cattārō Satipatthāna), Seven Factors of Enlightenment (Saptha Bojjanga), and the Eightfold Noble Path (Ariya Atthangika Magga); see, “37 Factors of Enlightenment“.

23. When Ānapānasati/Satipatthāna cultivated, all 37 factors get cultivated automatically, and one attains Nibbāna.

  • For example, according to the Ānāpānassati Sutta (MN 118): “..Ānāpānassati, bhikkhave, bhāvitā bahulīkatā cattāro satipaṭṭhāne paripūreti. Cattāro satipaṭṭhānā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satta bojjhaṅge paripūrenti. Satta bojjhaṅgā bhāvitā bahulīkatā vijjāvimuttiṃ paripūrenti.”
  • Translated: “..Ānāpānassati, when used (bhāvitā) and used frequently (bahulīkatā), completes (paripūreti) four types of Satipatthāna. Cattāro satipaṭṭhāna, when used and used frequently, completes Sapta Bojjanga. Sapta Bojjanga, when used and used frequently, completes the full release (Nibbāna or Arahanthood)”.
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