Imasmim Sati Idam Hoti – What Does It Really Mean?

August 5, 2018; revised January 26, 2019; May 2, 2019

1. “Imasmim sati idam hōti, imassa uppādā idam uppajjāti; imasmim asati idam na hōti, imassa nirōdhā idam nirujjhatī ti”. This is a famous phrase that appears in most suttā that describe Paṭicca Samuppāda (Dependent Origination).

  • It is usually translated as, “When there is this that is, with arising of this that arises; when there is not this that is not, with cessation of this that ceases”. That sounds like a Zen riddle!
  • But the Buddha never made his Dhamma into riddles. He always presented it in the simplest possible way. Some verses have become riddles, only because people have incorrectly translated them; they simply did not understand the true meanings or the significance of key Pāli words.
  • Another example is, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means“.

2. The key word in the verse that we are interested is “sati. All English translations that I have seen have left out this key word!

  • There are two meanings to the word “sati“. One is the mundane meaning “attention”.
  • It is actually that mundane meaning that should be used in this verse.

3. The deeper meaning of “sati” should be used in the context of Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā, for example.

  • That “sati” is a sōbhana cetasika, i.e., a good mental factor. The sati cetasika is cultivated by learning dhamma and eventually comprehending Tilakkhana.
  • However, that cetasika sati does not have a counterpart in asōbhana cetasika, i.e., there is no “asaticetasika.
  • In the verse, both “sati” and “asati” are mentioned. Therefore, “sati” in the context of the verse in question does not refer to the sati cetasika.

4. The word “sati” in “Imasmim sati idam hōti,..” is, however, still closely related to the mind. It just refers to keeping the mind focused on the task at hand, whether it is a “good” or “bad” task.

  • 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 mundane meaning sati there.
  • In a way, even the term “mindful” can be used to describe the mindset of the 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.
  • Obviously, he is not engaged in Satipaṭṭhāna.

5. That mundane meaning of “attention” is the meaning that should be used in analyzing the verse in question here: “Imasmim sati idam hōti,..”

  •  What it means in this context is, “to focus the mind on something (X)”. Then that “something” leads to the creation of  “another thing (Y)“. Even though X is ALWAYS mental, Y could be mental (nāma) or material (rūpa) or a combination of the two (nāmarūpa).
  • When the mind is set on getting something done, one makes vaci and kaya saṅkhāra accordingly, i.e., one thinks about how to get it done and acts accrodingly; that is the “sati” that is referred to in the verse.
  • When the mind does not focus on something (and does not make plans in the mind via vaci saṅkhāra, and carries out such plans), that is called “asati“. In that case, there is no reason that Y would arise.

6. As we will see below, making saṅkhāra is just the first step in a series of steps.

  • The mind can be set on getting done good or bad things. Keeping the attention on “good things” will lead to good outcomes (via good dhamma). Keeping the attention on “bad things” will lead to bad outcomes (via bad dhamma).
  • Therefore, in both cases (good or bad attention) will lead to a corresponding (good or bad) outcome. That is what is meant by “Imasmim sati idam hōti” or “keeping the attention on this will lead to that”.
  • What the eventual outcome (“that” is a “jāti“, the outcome or the end result) is described by Paṭicca Samuppāda: “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna“,….ending up in “bhava paccayā jāti“.

7. Of course, if one does not keep the attention on something, one will not be generating (good or bad) saṅkhāra about it. Thus, one will not initiate Paṭicca Samuppāda cycles: “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna“,….ending up in “bhava paccayā jāti“.

  • Therefore, if there is “asati” or “no attention on some task”, then there will be no reason for there to be an outcome“Imasmim asati idam na hōti“.
  • In other words, the mind will have no reason to generate new saṅkhāra to initiate Paṭicca Samuppāda processes.

8. Now we can understand half of the verse: “Imasmim sati idam hōti, “Imasmim asati idam na hōti“. That means “when the mind is focused on X that will give rise to Y, when the mind is not focused on X that will not give rise to Y”.

  • We have already figure out what is meant by “imassa uppādā idam uppajjāti” and “imassa nirōdhā idam nirujjhatī “.
  • This part states that what has ultimately come to being (uppajjāti) or the jāti is due to what first arose in the mind (uppādā), which are saṅkhāra.
  • Similarly, for something not to come to being (nirujjhatī), the corresponding cause should not arise in the mind (nirōdhā). If there is “asati” or “no attention”, then nothing can be realized: “no jāti (because no saṅkhāra generated to trigger Paṭicca Samuppāda processes).

9. So, now we can translate the whole verse: “when the mind is focused on this it will give rise to that, when the mind is not focused on this it will not give rise to that; this arising in the mind (uppādāwill give rise to that (uppajjāti), this not arising in the mind (nirōdhāwill stop that from coming to being  (nirujjhatī)”.

  • In very simple terms, this describes the key message of the Buddha:  if one does not generate any defilements in the mind, then one will not be reborn into this suffering-filled world.

10. How anything and everything in this world arises with the mind as the “creator” is explained in the doctrine of cause of effect or Paṭicca samuppāda.

  • Even though the process starts off with generating saṅkhāra (“avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“), it involves many other  steps (“saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa”, etcbefore the final thing manifests.
  • That is why this verse comes in many suttā just before introducing the Paṭicca samuppāda cycle starting with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“.

11. What we discussed above becomes clear in the “Ari­yasāva­ka Sutta (SN 12.49)“. It starts with the statement: “Na, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa evaṃ hōti: ‘kiṃ nu kho—kismiṃ sati kiṃ hōti, kissuppādā kiṃ uppajjāti? Kismiṃ sati saṅkhārā honti, kismiṃ sati viññāṇaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati nāmarūpaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati saḷāyatanaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati phasso hōti, kismiṃ sati vedanā hōti, kismiṃ sati taṇhā hōti, kismiṃ sati upādānaṃ hōti, kismiṃ sati bhavo hōti, kismiṃ sati jāti hōti, kismiṃ sati jarāmaraṇaṃ hotī’ti?”.

Translated:Bhikkhus, a noble disciple is not confused by the question: ‘What in the mind becomes a cause? With the existence of what in the mind does what come to being? What in the mind becomes a cause for saṅkhāra? What in the mind becomes a cause for viññāṇa? What in the mind becomes a cause for nāmarūpa?… What in the mind becomes a cause for jarāmaraṇa?”.

12. The next verse: “Atha kho, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa aparappaccayā ñāṇamevettha hōti: ‘imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hōti, imassuppādā idaṃ uppajjāti. Avijjāya sati saṅkhārā honti; saṅkhāresu sati viññāṇaṃ hōti; viññāṇe sati nāmarūpaṃ hōti; nāmarūpe sati saḷāyatanaṃ hōti; saḷāyatane sati phasso hōti; phasse sati vedanā hōti; vedanāya sati taṇhā hōti; taṇhāya sati upādānaṃ hōti; upādāne sati bhavo hōti; bhave sati jāti hōti; jātiyā sati jarāmaraṇaṃ hotī’ti. So evaṃ pajānāti: ‘evamayaṃ loko samudayatī’ti“.

Translated: Bhikkhus, the noble disciple knows that what arises is dependent on what is cultivated in the mind: ‘When this exists in the mind, that comes to be; with the arising of this in the mind, that arises. When there is ignorance  in the mind  (avijjāya sati), saṅkhāra come to be (saṅkhārā honti). When there are saṅkhāra in the mind (saṅkhāresu sati), viññāṇa comes to be (viññāṇaṃ hōti). When there is viññāṇa in the mind  (viññāṇe sati), nāmarūpa come to be (nāmarūpaṃ honti), ….When there is bhavin the mind (bhave sati), jāti comes to be (jāti hōti). When there is jāti in the mind (jātiyā sati), jarāmaraṇa comes to be ( jarāmaraṇaṃ hotī). He understands thus: ‘In such a way the world arises (samudaya).’

13. Next verse is: “Na, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa evaṃ hōti: ‘kiṃ nu kho—kismiṃ asati kiṃ na hōti, kissa nirōdhā kiṃ nirujjhati? Kismiṃ asati saṅkhārā na honti, kismiṃ asati viññāṇaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati nāmarūpaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati saḷāyatanaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati phasso na hōti, kismiṃ asati vedanā na hōti, kismiṃ asati taṇhā na hōti, kismiṃ asati upādānaṃ na hōti, kismiṃ asati bhavo na hōti, kismiṃ asati jāti na hōti, kismiṃ asati jarāmaraṇaṃ na hotī’ti?”.

Translated:Bhikkhus, a noble disciple is not confused by the question: ‘Absence of what in the mind would not be a cause? With the cessation of what in the mind what would be stopped from arising? Absence of what in the mind (kismiṃ asati) saṅkhāra would not result (na honti)? Absence of what in the mind  viññāṇa would not result? ..Absence of what in the mind nāmarūpa would not result?… Absence of what in the mind jarāmaraṇa would not result?”.

14. And then: “Atha kho, bhikkhave, sutavato ariyasāvakassa aparappaccayā ñāṇamevettha hōti: ‘imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hōti, imassa nirōdhā idaṃ nirujjhati. Avijjāya asati saṅkhārā na honti; saṅkhāresu asati viññāṇaṃ na hōti; viññāṇe asati nāmarūpaṃ na hōti; nāmarūpe asati saḷāyatanaṃ na hōti … pe … bhavo na hōti … jāti na hōti … jātiyā asati jarāmaraṇaṃ na hotī’ti. So evaṃ pajānāti: ‘evamayaṃ loko nirujjhatī’ti.

Translated: Bhikkhus, the noble disciple knows that what arises is dependent on what is cultivated in the mind: ‘When this does not exist in the mind, that would not come to be; with the cessation of this in the mind, that is stopped from arising. When there is no ignorance  in the mind  (avijjāya asati), saṅkhāra do not come to be (saṅkhārā na honti). When  saṅkhāra cease to exist in the mind (saṅkhāresu asati), viññāṇa do not come to be (viññāṇaṃ na hōti). With the cessation of viññāṇa in the mind  (viññāṇe asati), nāmarūpa do not come to be (nāmarūpaṃ na honti), ….When there is bhavabsent in the mind (bhave asati), jāti would not come to be (jāti na hōti). When there is no jāti in the mind (jātiyā asati), jarāmaraṇa do not come to be ( jarāmaraṇaṃ na hotī). He understands thus: ‘In such a way the world ceases to exist (nirujjhatī), and thus the samsāric suffering ends.’

15. Finally, “Yato kho, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako evaṃ lokassa samudayañca atthaṅgamañca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako diṭṭhisampanno itipi … pe … amatadvāraṃ āhacca tiṭṭhati itipī”ti.

Translated: Bhikkhus, a noble disciple thus understands the origin and the ending of the world. He is knowledgeable about the true nature of this world, has the correct vision, and comes to attain Nibbāna“.

16. That is the complete sutta. It provides the basic reasoning behind Paṭicca samuppāda.

  • It is important to realize that all the steps in Paṭicca samuppāda involves the mind, up to the jāti stage.  When the jāti stage is arrives, the process is complete. That jāti which came into being, has to evolve naturally to its end.
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