Satipatthāna Sutta – Structure

Revised September 1, 2016; October 29, 2017

This is the most important post on the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta. It sets the foundation. This is where 99% of the people should really get started. Please read this and then follow the posts in the “Living Dhamma” section, before trying to follow the rest of the Satipatthāna Sutta.

1. There are several web pages that provide Pāli version of the sutta and/or 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:
  • 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 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.

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

  • Most suttas don’t have the very brief summary, or uddēsa, but the Mahā Satipatthāna sutta has it in the very beginning; see the above link in #1 which provides the complete sutta in Pāli and English.
  • Then in the main body of the sutta, the concepts are outlined. In a verbal discourse (called a dēsanā), the concepts are described in detail and with examples. This is what I will be doing in these series of posts, i.e., to describe the concepts in detail.

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

  • The translation of that is, “This is one guaranteed way, monks, 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”.

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; people had attained Nibbāna before the Buddha delivered this discourse. But it is 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” comes from “nāna” or wisdom, and “adhigama” is “adhi”+”gama” or “higher way”. Translating Satipatthāna 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 Satipatthāna sutta provides a guaranteed way to attain Nibbāna, via purification of the being, i.e., via cleansing one’s mind.

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”

  • Of course, ,“Katame cattāro?”  is, “Which four? (cattaro pronounced, “chaththarō”).
  • And then it lists the four: kāyānupassanā, vēdanānupassanā, cittānupassanā, and dhammānupassanā. Notice that the phrase, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam” appears after each of the four.
  • This indicates the critical importance of this phrase. This is a the beginning of the purification process, by laying out the foundation; see, “Satipatthāna Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“. One HAS TO go through this process to reach the Sōtapanna stage.

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“. 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 stressful we feel a “fire”  in the heart. When it gets really bad, people say, “I could feel my heart burn” when an 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 Satipatthāna, one would not feel that “burning up” even upon hearing 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 makes a mind stressful; see, “What is “San”?“. The worst forms of “san” are the one’s that we instinctively know to be immoral: 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, “Satipatthana Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life” (you may need to control the volume at your computer):

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.

7. Then we have, “satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam“.  This is a highly condensed statement about the nature of this world. It needs to be analyzed as “sati ma vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam“, i.e., satimā is really two words: sati and ma.

  • The root cause of all suffering is extreme greed or “abhijjā” (which comes from “abhi” + “iccha” or strong craving or attachment). When that is not attained (which happens sooner or later), one gets depressed, this is dōmanassa.  It is important to remember that one does acts of hate with a dōmanassa mindset, because one is upset and deflated and angry.
  • Vineyya lōke” refers to this world where we are “bound to each other” via debt to each other; see, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation“.
  • And “satimā” comes from “sati” + ““, where “” means removal, but not the removal of sati. It combines “sati” with the rest of the phrase, “vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam”. 
  • Thus “sati ma vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam” means establishing 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.

8. Thus the verse, “ātāpī sampajānō, satimā vineyya lōke abhijjhā dōmanassam“, mean “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 on 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 Satipatthāna and ānāpāna bhāvanā.
  • The rest of the Satipatthāna sutta is on the details on how to go about achieving these goals.

9. This “cooling down” is done in four ways:  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 that has been accomplished to a certain extent, moral conduct will be increasingly automatic; one will “feel” when one is about to do something wrong; 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 to automatically be aware of immoral thoughts that come to the mind (cittānupassanā).
  • Thus it is 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.

10. The process of comprehension of anicca, dukkha, anatta starts with kāyānupassanā but all four can be cultivated simultaneously. It is said that if one totally focuses, Arahanthood can be attained in seven days. If one makes a less commitment, either Arahant or at least the Anāgāmi stage can be attained within seven years according to the Buddha.

  • Getting started on this process is described in detail in the section, “Living Dhamma“.

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 Jayanthi 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, keep midfulness with sati,  and make 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.

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 ditthi.

  • There are two levels of micchā ditthi: One is the 10 types of micchā ditthi removed via the mundane Path. Deeper removal comes with the grasping of anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • Thus we can see the critical role of the paññā indriya (wisdom). One can start on all four types of anupassanā, but especially cittānupassanā and dhammānupassanā begin to be cultivated when one becomes good in kāyānupassanā.
  • 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 other three anupassanā with increasing levels of samādhi.

Next, “Satipatthāna – Introduction“, ………

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