Satipaṭṭhāna – Introduction

Revised January 26, 2019; June 6, 2022

You may want to read the post: “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Structure“, which explains the basic layout of this long sutta. You can read it before or after reading this post.

1. First we need to figure out what “sati” means.  Bear with me as I use some key Pāli words because it is important to understand them correctly. Things will become clear as we proceed below. Again, first, try to read the post through without clicking on links, and then come back and read any relevant other posts as needed.

  • Sati is a “good” mental factor (sōbhana cetasika). Therefore, “sati” arises only in moral thoughts (kusala citta), and DOES NOT arise in akusala citta. As discussed in “Cetasika (Mental Factors)”, “good cetasika” do not arise in akusala citta (similarly, “bad cetasika” do not arise in kusala citta).
  • There is no “asaticetasika. Therefore, the word “asati” is NEVER used as the opposite of this “sati, which is a “good cetasika”.

2. However, there is another “mundane” meaning for “sati“,   which is “attention” or “mindfulness”. Therefore, one must be able to figure out which meaning is to be used in a given context (depending on the subject matter).

  • If one is not paying attention to the task at hand, then one is acting with “asati“, without being mindful of what one is doing or contemplating.
  • That way one can clearly see the two different meanings of “sati“.
  • Of course, in Satipaṭṭhāna, one is being mindful, but one MUST also know the deeper meaning too, in order to figure out what to be mindful about.

3. We can clarify the mundane meaning with the following examples: A suicide bomber has to pay close attention to wiring up the bomb; otherwise, he can detonate it accidentally.  A professional thief making plans for a grand robbery in minute detail needs to pay total attention to it too, in order to make sure he does not get caught.

  • The deeper meaning of “sati” is NOT involved in either case. The suicide bomber or the thief would not have that “sati“, the good mental factor.
  • More details on this “sati” can be found in the post: “Imasmim Sati Idam Hoti – What Does It Really Mean?“.

4. When a person stops and contemplates whether an action one is about to take has moral or immoral consequences, and carries out only those actions that have moral consequences, then that person is acting with “sati”, the “good mental factor”.

  • That is the “sati” in the MINDSET of a person engaged in Satipaṭṭhāna. Of course, he will be paying attention to catch any immoral thoughts that may arise in his mind.
  • Therefore, a person engaged in Satipaṭṭhāna will be using both types of “sati“.
  • Now let us see what is meant by patthāna in Satipaṭṭhāna.

5. Patthāna can mean establishment, preparation, or “to mold”. Therefore, “Satipaṭṭhāna” means the establishment of “sati”, or training the mind to act with “sati” as described above.

  • This training process comes in four steps, and that is why it is also called “Cattāro Satipaṭṭhāna” where ‘Cattāro” means four. Even though the four steps are interrelated, there is a sequence. The four steps are kāyānupassanā, vedanānupassanā, cittānupassanā, and dhammānupassanā.
  • The meaning of “anupassanā” is described in point #4 of “What do all these Different Meditation Techniques Mean?” in the Meditation section.

6. Buddha Dhamma is all about cleansing the mind; that is the key to real and lasting tranquility of the mind. A defiled mind generates defiled thoughts (citta). Defiled thoughts lead to defiled speech (with a time lag) and defiled actions (with an even longer time lag).

  • The sequence of cleansing the mind is backward: First control bodily actions, then (or simultaneously) control speech, and controlling thoughts (as they arise) is harder. This is important to understand, so let us look into the reasons.

7. As discussed in the Abhidhamma section, thoughts (citta) arise very fast; there are well over billions of cittā per second but of course we “experience” only “bundles of citta” accumulating for at least about 0.05 seconds. Even then it is not possible to control thoughts by sheer willpower.

  • But our thoughts are dictated by our character and habits (“gati”). And, these character qualities (gati) can be changed with a concerted effort by controlling one’s speech and actions. We have discussed “gati” in many posts spread over different sections.

8. This is why kāyānupassanā comes first in Satipaṭṭhāna. We first discipline ourselves by making sure we speak only moral words and do only moral actions. Both speech and actions arise from thoughts, but they come with a “time lag”. We first think that “this person has done something bad to me”, and then we start saying something bad to the person. But there is enough of a ‘time lag” to stop saying it.

  • We tend to take “bodily actions” with even longer delay than for speech. So, unless one is in a rage, there is enough time to catch oneself and stop any bad actions. Actually, when we get good at it and control both speech and actions, such instances of acting with rage will diminish with time and will go away. This is because the more we act with “sati”, the more that we give up bad “gati” and cultivate good “gati”.

9. Thus kāyānupassanā basically means “catching ourselves before we say or do something wrong”.

  • To put it in another way, what we need to accomplish with kāyānupassanā is to be aware of our speech and actions AT ALL TIMES. By now it must be clear why Satipaṭṭhāna cannot be restricted to a “formal sitting down meditation session”.
  • We say or do things in response to what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think. The speech or actions have time delays from the time we get the “input” from outside or even if generated by the mind itself. Even if we start saying something bad, we can catch ourselves and stop (and apologize if we hurt someone’s feelings). Even if get up to hit someone, we can realize the bad consequences of such an action and immediately stop. That is how one starts.

10. With practice, one’s gati will change, and such awkward instances will occur less and less. There are many posts on “gati” at the site, and there are some in the meditation section under, “Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati)”. Satipaṭṭhāna is basically a methodical way of doing Ānāpānasati. A scientific view is discussed in, “How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View”.

11. Therefore, it is easy to see that kāyānupassanā is the first and most important part of the Cattāro Satipaṭṭhāna.

  • When kāyānupassanā is practiced, one’s “gati” will gradually change and one will start to calm down. And one will not REACT to feelings on an impulsive basis, and thus it will be easier to practice the next stage of “vedanānupassanā”, i.e., “think about how to respond when certain feelings arise”.
  • When both those are practiced, “gati” will change to an extent that even initial thoughts will have “less venom”, and thus it will be easier to practice “cittānupassanā” or “think morally” automatically.
  • Finally, it will be easier to get into samadhi and to contemplate anicca. dukkha, anatta (or any other Dhamma concept), which is “dhammānupassanā”.

12. Thus one starts with kāyānupassanā first and then moves on to the other three “anupassanā”. When one completes all four one completes the process and will have “sammā sati” in full, which leads to “sammā samadhi” in full, i.e., Arahanthood.

  • Of course, that is normally accomplished in four stages, the first of which is the Sotāpanna stage.
  • Just like it is not possible to attend middle school without attending primary school, or to take college courses without passing high school, one needs to go through the four steps methodically. One needs to control one’s actions and speech first. That is what “kāyānupassanā” is about. We will discuss that in detail in the next post.
  • This does not mean that one should not do the other three while doing kāyānupassanā; it just means there is “not much benefit” in doing the other three unless one is actively engaged in stopping the “BIG EIGHT” done with speech and body; see, “2. The Basics in Meditation“.
  • And one does not stop doing kāyānupassanā, ever. It is not something to be done forcefully, it will become a habit. When one sees the benefits, one would want to advance. One just keeps incorporating the other three gradually and soon enough will be doing all four.  But kāyānupassanā is the FOUNDATION.

Next, “Kāyānupassanā – The Section on Postures (Iriyapathapabba)“, ………..

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