Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Structure

Revised September 1, 2016; October 29, 2017; February 16, 2020; April 21, 2022; June 7, 2022


This post is the most important post on the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. It sets the foundation. This is where 99% of people should get started. 

1. Several websites provide the Pāli version of the sutta and its English translation. I believe that they all are incorrect translations, and as I proceed, I will explain why.

  • Here is a website that provides Pāli and English translations of the sutta side-by-side: Pāli Tipiṭaka – English Publication – Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta.
  • It is not the fault of those who took their time with good intentions to write those posts. That is how this sutta and others have been interpreted for more than a thousand years.
  • I will not follow the sutta sequentially, but you will be able to follow the relevant sections. Eventually, I hope to cover most of the sutta.
Three Levels of Explanations

2. As I explained in “Sutta – Introduction,” there are three ways of presenting Dhamma: uddēsa, niddēsa, and paṭiniddesa.

  • Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is in the niddesa version (i.e., provides an outline) but has the uddesa (very brief) version at the very beginning. See the above link in #1, which provides the complete sutta in Pāli and English.
  • In the main body of the sutta, the concepts are outlined. Those key concepts should be described in detail, with examples, in verbal discourses (i.e., a dēsanā.) That is what I will be doing in this series of posts, i.e., describing the concepts in detail.
  • Note that some suttas are in the uddesa version and require explanation in the niddesa and paṭiniddesa versions. Word-by-word translations of such suttas can lead to much confusion. See “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Uddēsa Version – Brief Summary

3. The uddēsa (or uddeso) starts with, “Ekāyano ayaṃ, bhikkhave, maggō sattānaṃ visuddhiyā, sokaparidevanaṃ samatikkamāya, dukkhadomanassanaṃ atthangamāya, nāyassa adhigamāya, nibbānassa sacchikiriyāya, yadidaṃ cattāro satipaṭṭhāna

  • Translation: “This is a guaranteed way, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the extinguishing of suffering and grief, the Noble way for gaining wisdom, for the realization of nibbāna. That is to say, the fourfold establishing of moral mindset”.
  • It is a “guaranteed way” to Nibbāna because it comes first in the “37 Factors of Enlightenment” required to get to Nibbāna.
Two Key Points

4. The main difference from the translation (conventional interpretation) given in the link in #1 above are the two phrases highlighted above:

  • The translation of “nāyassa adhigamāya” and “satipathäna”: “Nāya” (Sanskrit “nyāya) means “underlying principle.” It is grasped with “nāna” or wisdom, and “adhigama” is “adhi”+”gama” or “higher way”. Translating Satipaṭṭhāna as “moral mindset” is not too bad, but I will discuss “satipatthāna” in the next post.
  • So, the essence of that verse is that the method described in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta provides a guaranteed way to attain Nibbāna via purification of the being, i.e., via cleansing one’s mind.
“Four Stations” of Mindfulness

5. The next phrase is, “Katame cattāro? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassi viharati ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam.  Vedanāsu vedanānupassi viharati ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam. Citte cittänupassī viharati ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam. Dhammesu dhammānupassi viharati ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam”

A Key Phrase Relevant to All Four

6. The “Lakkhaṇahāravibhaṅga” of the Tipiṭaka Commentary Nettipakarana explains the meaning of the verse, “kāye kāyānupassī viharāhi ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.” (p. 50 of the නෙත්තිප්පකරණ in Sri Lanka Buddha Jayanthi edition in Pāli/Sinhala languages.)

To quote: Tasmātiha tvaṁ bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharāhi ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ”. Ātāpī”ti vīriyindriyaṁ, “sampajāno”ti paññindriyaṁ, “satimā”ti satindriyaṁ, “vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassan”ti samādhindriyaṁ,.”

Translated:Ātāpī, sampajāno, satimā, and vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassan” are, respectively, “viriya indriya, paññā indriya, sati indriya, and samādhi indriya.”

  • Note that those are four of the five indriya that are required for the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • One would already have the “unshakeable faith” (saddhā indriya) when one gets on the Noble Path.

7. That all-important common phrase, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam, is common to all four “stations of mindfulness.”

  • Sampajāna comes from “san” + “pajāna” or sorting out “san” the things that make a mind stressful; see, “What is “San”?“. The worst forms of “san” are the ones that we instinctively know to be immoral. They include killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and getting intoxicated.
  • Sampajāna is closely related to “sampādēta” as in the Buddha’s last words: “..appamadēna sampādēta” or “..make haste and sort out san“. Here sampādēta is “san”+”pādēta” or again sort out “san”.
  • When one has done “sampādēta,” one becomes “sampajannō”: One knows what is right and what is wrong automatically; it has become a habit.
  • This critical verse is discussed in the following dēsanā from the post, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life” (you may need to control the volume at your computer):
Ātāpī Sampajānō

8. Therefore, “ātāpī sampajānō” means “make an effort to act with paññā.” That involves getting rid of ‘san‘ or “immoral tendencies”. They also go by the names “kilesa” and “asōbhana cētasika“; see “What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika“.

  • When one starts making progress, one could start to avoid tendencies for extreme sense pleasures as well.
  • Note that “tāpa” (pronounced “thāpa”) means heat; when we get really stressed, we feel a “fire”  in the heart. When it gets really bad, people say, “I could feel my heartburn,” when a piece of especially poignant news comes through. Thus, “ātāpi” removes that “fire” from the heart and the stress from the mind and calms the mind. This is the “cooling down”, “niveema, “nivana,” or early stages of Nibbāna. When one makes an effort (viriya), the result is ‘cooling down.”
Satimā Vineyya Lōke Abhijjhā Dōmanassam

9. Then we have, “satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam“.  This is a highly condensed statement about removing abhijjā and dōmanassa by being mindful of one’s actions at ALL TIMES.

  • The root cause of all suffering is extreme greed or “abhijjā” (which comes from “abhi” + “icchā” or intense craving or attachment). When one does not get what one desires, one gets depressed. That is dōmanassa.  One must see that one acts with hate with a dōmanassa mindset because one is upset, deflated, and angry. 
  • Thus “sati ma vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam” means establishing a moral mindset and moral conduct in order to be free from the debt-ridden world and to be relieved from abhijjā and dōmanassa. This is the key to “cooling down”; see “Living Dhamma” for details.
  • Both Satipaṭṭhāna and Ānāpānasati Bhavanā describe how to achieve that. The “Indriyabhāvanā Sutta (MN 152)” also describes the basic idea of maintaining one’s sense faculties by being mindful of one’s actions at ALL TIMES.
A Key Idea Behind the Sutta

10. Thus, the verse, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam” means “making an effort to act with wisdom by being mindful (sati);  that will lead to the gradual reduction of kilesa or defilements and by removing extreme greed (abhijjā) that leads to a depressed mind (dōmanassa) through discipline (vineyya).”

  • In the first stage, one must focus on abstaining from immoral activities or dasa akusala.
  • Therefore, the phrase, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam” is the key to both Satipaṭṭhāna and ānāpāna bhāvanā.
  • The rest of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta is on the details of how to achieve these goals.
The “Cooling Down”

11. This “cooling down” happens in four ways. They are kāyānupassanā, vēdanānupassanā, cittānupassanā, and dhammānupassanā.

  • These are somewhat sequential in the sense that one needs to start with taking care of significant sources of abhijjā and dōmanassa with kāyānupassanā. This is basically the same as sila or moral conduct. One needs to be aware that one’s actions and speech need to be moral, i.e., to abstain from dasa akusala as much as possible.
  • Once one achieves that to a certain extent, moral conduct will follow. One will “feel” when one is about to do something wrong. That means one will become “sensitized”. But initially, it takes an effort to pause and think of the consequences.
  • With the mind clear of the worst hindrances, then it will be easier to learn Dhamma with dhammānupassanā, be easier not to REACT to feelings (vēdanānupassanā) but to take time and evaluate consequences, and automatically be aware of immoral thoughts that come to the mind (cittānupassanā).
  • Thus it is a gradual process. Each advance helps with gaining confidence in one’s actions, helps not to just react to feelings, and helps to think with a clear head, which in turn helps with the understanding process.
Comprehension of Tilakkhana Will Accelerate Progress

12. The process of comprehension of Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta) starts with kāyānupassanā, but all four can be cultivated simultaneously. The Buddha stated that if one makes an all-out effort, Arahanthood can be attained in seven days. If one makes less commitment, either Arahant or at least the Anāgāmi stage is attained within seven years, according to the Buddha.

  • Getting started on this process is described in detail in the section “Living Dhamma.”
  • Another deeper approach is discussed in “Origin of Life.”
Connection to Dasa Akusala

13. Finally, kāyānupassanā basically tackles dasa akusala done with actions and speech (moving body parts), as we will see in the next section. The harder part comes with those done directly by the mind, especially micchā diṭṭhi or wrong views.

  • There are two levels of micchā diṭṭhi. First, the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi were removed via the mundane Path. Removal of the deeper wrong views comes with the grasping of anicca, dukkha, and anatta.
  • Thus we can see the critical role of the paññā indriya (wisdom). One can start on all four types of anupassanā. However, when one becomes good in kāyānupassanā, the other three types of anupassanā cultivate to some extent too.
  • The key is to get started with kāyānupassanā and make an effort (viriya). Then wisdom (paññā) will grow together with mindfulness (sati), and one will automatically get into the other three anupassanā with increasing levels of samādhi.

Next, “Satipaṭṭhāna – Introduction“, ………

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