Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Structure

Revised September 1, 2016; October 29, 2017; February 16, 2020; April 21, 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. Please read this and then follow the posts in the “Living Dhamma” section before trying to follow the rest of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.

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, patiniddēsa.

  • Most suttā don’t have the very brief summary or uddēsa, but the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta has it in 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 are supposed to be described in detail, with examples, in verbal discourses (i.e., a dēsanā.) That is what I will be doing in these series of posts, i.e., describe the concepts in detail.
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 one 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”.
Two Key Points

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

  • It is not the only way to Nibbāna. Many had attained Nibbāna (by comprehending previously-delivered suttā) before the Buddha delivered the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. But this sutta provides a systematic, guaranteed way, of attaining Nibbāna at any level from “just cooling down” to the Arahant stage.
  • 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

4. 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

5. We will discuss “kāye kāyānupassi viharati” etc in subsequent posts, but let us look at that all-important common phrase, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam, that is common to all four “stations of mindfulness.” This needs to be evaluated in two parts: “ātāpī sampajānō” AND “satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam”.

  • 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.
  • And “ātāpi” is to remove that “fire” from the heart and the stress from the mind and calm the mind. This is the “cooling down”, “niveema“, “nivana” or early stages of Nibbāna.
  • When one cultivates Satipaṭṭhāna, one would not feel that “burning up” even upon hearing the tragic news. One will be able to “handle things” appropriately without taking drastic actions on the “spur-of-the-moment”.
  • 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

6. Therefore, “ātāpī sampajānō” means “remove the fire or heat from one’s mind by being aware of the ‘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.
Satimā Vineyya Lōke Abhijjhā Dōmanassam

7. Then we have, “satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam“.  This is a highly condensed statement about how to remove 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 strong craving or attachment). When one does not get what one desires, one gets depressed. That is dōmanassa.  It is important to 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 the maintenance of one’s sense faculties by being mindful of one’s actions at ALL TIMES.
A Key Idea Behind the Sutta

8. Thus the verse, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam“, means “get rid of the fire or heat in the mind by being aware 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 needs to focus on abstaining from immoral activities or dasa akusala.
  • As one makes progress, one can start also abstaining from extreme sense pleasures that may not hurt others. By that time, it will start becoming clear HOW and WHY extreme sense pleasures also lead to “fire or heat in the mind”.
  • 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 go about achieving these goals.
The “Cooling Down”

9. 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 major 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, helps to think with a clear head, which in turn helps with the understanding process.
Comprehension of Tilakkhana Will Accelerate Progress

10. 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 at, “Origin of Life.”
Further Analyses

11. The phrase “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam” has been analyzed by dividing into four components connected to viriya indriya, paññā indriya, sati indriya, and samādhi indriya in the “Lak­kha­ṇa­hā­ravi­bhaṅga” of the Nettiprakarana (or p. 50 of the Nettiprakana (Sri Lanka Buddha Jayaṃthi edition):

“..Tasmātiha tvaṃ bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharāhi ātāpī sampajānō satimā vineyya l­ōke abhij­jhā­dō­manas­saṃ”. “Ātāpī”ti vīriyindriyaṃ, “sampajānō”ti paññindriyaṃ, “satimā”ti satindriyaṃ, “vineyya lō­ke abhij­jhā­dō­manas­san”ti samādhindriyaṃ, evaṃ kāye kāyānupassinō viharato cattārō satipaṭṭhānā bhāva­nā­pāri­pūriṃ gacchanti.”.

  • Here “ātāpī” is viriya indriyasampajānō is paññā indriyasatimā is sati indriya, and “vineyya lō­ke abhij­jhā­do­manas­san” is samādhi indriya.
  • One sorts out “san” with paññā, keeps mindfulness with sati,  and makes an effort (viriya) to stay away frombad san” or dasa akusala, thus getting the mind to be free of abhijjā and dōmanassa and thus get to samādhi. And that should be done whenever possible, not only in formal meditation. Then one will be in samādhi all the time.
Connection to Dasa Akusala

12. 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 10 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 the 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“, ………

Print Friendly, PDF & Email