An alternate reading (?) of the ending refrains of each section of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta MN10

Specifically regarding this portion:

1. ‘Atthi kāyo’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti.
2. Yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭis­sati­mattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati.
3. Evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati.

I was reviewing the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta yesterday and noticed that the way the first two sentences are split in the Pāli above is slightly different from the way the English is presented:

  1. Or mindfulness is established that ‘There is a body’, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness.
  2. They meditate independent, not grasping at anything in the world.
  3. This too is how a monastic meditates by observing an aspect of the body.

Now, I can barely call myself a student of Pāli, and I have access to atleast five different professional translations that agree with the rendering above, but it seems to me that it’s possible that there is a markedly different reading of the passage and I’m hoping for a bit of a sanity check, wondering whether anyone might be able to comment on why this isn’t technically tenable or even why this is saying the same thing:

  1. And moreover, they’re like: “There is a body”, having established mindfulness.
  2. In so far as they, with a measure of knowledge and mindfulness, meditate independently, not grasping at anything in the world, (3) this too (alt: just like that) is how a monastic meditates by observing an aspect of the body.

To belabour the semantic differences (afaict), this would mean that the “There is a body” ‘thought-bubble’ would not be sort of a seventh meditation possibility, but rather something of a marker that indicates whether mindfulness is successfully established by any/all of the preceding six items.

As for the reading of the second sentence, instead of further describing how well the monastic meditates, it would instead be saying that the monastic is doing mindfulness right (ie sentence 3 in the Pāli) as long as they’ve got enough mindfulness and knowledge to remain unattached and not grasp at anything.


Interesting question, let me look at the Pali text.

First thing is that punctuation is added by modern editors, and is not always accurate. In a case such as this, the parsing of the sentence may be influenced by the commentary. Also, the word order is generally not decisive in Pali grammar. So it is technically possible that the sentence has been misconstrued as you suggest. In fact I come across such cases from time to time, although it is rare to find one in such a well known passage.

Given this, our guide should be usage. What happens when we check the Pali canon for similar cases, where yāvadeva is used with the dative? A quick search on SC gives a few similar cases.

SN 21.3

Seyyathāpi, āvuso, himavato pabbatarājassa parittā pāsāṇasakkharā yāvadeva upanik­khepa­na-mattāya; evameva kho mayaṃ āyasmato ­mahā­mog­gallā­nassa yāvadeva upanik­khepa­namattāya.

As you can see, it is an identical construction, even using the same word, mattāya. Since mattāya is followed by evameva, we know for certain that it closes the previous phrase, rather than starting the next phrase.

AN 9.34 offers a similar passage:

Seyyathāpi, āvuso, sukhino dukkhaṃ uppajjeyya yāvadeva ābādh-āya; evamevassa te kāmasahagatā sañ­ñāmana­sikārā samudācaranti.

And again the use of evamevassa confirms that yāvadeva belongs with the previous phrase.

These passages indicate that this is a common idiom, and that the conventional reading of the satipatthana formula is correct. While it is of course possible that the idiom is used in a different way in the satipatthana formula, the onus is on you to prove that this is the case!

Having said which, in my A History of Mindfulness I looked at various different versions of this formula and concluded that there was some incongruity with it. However I was not able to solve the riddle to my satisfaction, and I haven’t looked at it since then.


Thank you bhante for taking the time to outline your thought process on this. It’s been a few months since I’ve done this sort of thing and I’m certainly encouraged that you find that there’s room here for an alternative reading. Prompted by your analysis, I’ve been able to do a slightly more thorough investigation and I’m hoping to get a better sense of whether the findings (just in the “Better Alternative” section below) hold any water.


First, if I may, I’d like to step back and better frame the task at hand.

Basically, it looks like we have four clauses/fragments:

  1. ‘atthi kāyo’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti
  2. yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭis­sati­mattāya
  3. anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati
  4. evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati

and of the total of eight possible combinations of the four, namely:

A. 1234
B. 123+4
C. 12+34
D. 12+3+4		<-- Conventional
E. 1+234		<-- "Alternative"
F. 1+23+4		<-- Mahāsaṅgīti 
G. 1+2+34
H. 1+2+3+4

– where D is the conventional reading, E is what I’ve presented above and F comes from the punctuation markings of the primary source –

we want to eliminate the impossible ones and consider the ones remaining.

Viable Readings

I eliminate A because I don’t see a way to make sense of the resulting reading.
B seems to work and avoids the problem of yāvadeva needing to belong to the former phrase when followed by evam while retaining the semantic features of E.
I keep C because it seems to be semantically possible, ie in the sense that “anissito viharati…” is just another way that the monastic meditates in addition to the seven coming from the list prior.
I eliminate G and H because they both require clause 2 (“yāvadeva…”) to be able to stand on its own and I don’t see how that can make any sense.

So, now we’re left with five different structurings, of which three are novel:

B. 123+4		<-- "Better Alternative"
C. 12+34		<-- "List-of-eight"
D. 12+3+4		<-- Conventional
E. 1+234		<-- "Alternative"
F. 1+23+4		<-- Mahāsaṅgīti

I would add that I managed to dig up a couple resources that may clue us in on the reasons for the sentence markings in the Mahāsaṅgīti’s. From a note on, we’re given a fragment of VRI’s translation along with a concise summary of the issue at hand and in a transcript of the Satipatthana course lectures of the Goenka tradition, we’re given a detailed explanation of the Mahāsaṅgīti reading.

I’ll use the rest of the space here to show how B could work (afaict, of course).

B: “Better Alternative”

To be clear, I’d like to (instead of what’s in the original post, ie E) propose:

‘Atthi kāyo’ti vā panassa sati paccupaṭṭhitā hoti—yāvadeva ñāṇamattāya paṭis­sati­mattāya anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati.

Evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati.

which I would render as:

And moreover, mindfulness gets established like this: “There is a body.”, but only so long as—with enough knowledge, with enough meticulousness—they meditate independent and not grasp anything in the world.

Monastics, this too is how a monastic meditates by observing an aspect of the body.

I explore two aspects of this reading that I think could immediately be considered problematic:

  • Is there a precedent for the given sentence structure, ie roughly in the form {independent sentence}+{‘yāvadeva-qualifier’ of the preceding sentence, while including an action of its own}?
  • Can -mattāya be the instrumental of the feminine mattā?

For the former, I ran through all usages of “yāvadeva” in the Nikāyas and found just about three passages that have a chance at fitting the bill:

MN 36

Na kho panetaṃ, aggivessana, evaṃ daṭṭhabbaṃ; yāvadeva viññāpanatthāya tathāgato paresaṃ dhammaṃ deseti.

SN 12.63

“Nanu te, bhikkhave, yāvadeva kantārassa nittharaṇatthāya āhāraṃ āhāreyyun”ti?

SN 47.21

“yānimāni, āvuso bhadda, kusalāni sīlāni vuttāni bhagavatā, imāni kusalāni sīlāni yāvadeva catunnaṃ satipaṭṭhānānaṃ bhāvanāya vuttāni bhagavatā”.

While the latter two examples indicate that yāvadeva-clauses can be as complex as in the proposed reading while still in ‘-āya’ , I found the first example to line up most convincingly with the proposed sentence structure.

Admittedly, I’m out of my depth in providing a more rigorous explication at this point, given the state of my studies :-/…

As for the second leg, regarding -mattāya, a search through the same revealed a single case where it’s least ambiguously in the instrumental:

MN 91:

Byañjanaṃ kho pana bhavaṃ gotamo byañjanamattāya āhāreti, na ca byañjanena ālopaṃ atināmeti.

He adds sauces in the right proportion; he does not exceed the right amount of sauce in the mouthful. (tr. Bodhi)

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s rendering of this section of the sutta that describes the Buddha taking food, I’m considering perhaps that in translating for a non-Indian audience for whom eating curries with one’s hand is rather foreign, something gets lost here. I render it as:

Furthermore, there being curry, Gotama eats with [just] enough curry, and does not [inundate] the morsel [of food between his fingers] with curry.

I think this is (potentially) a clear example of -mattāya in the instrumental (I don’t think the dative can make sense here, even as an idiom) , and therefore, mattā as the undeclined form, allowing for the “with enough knowledge and mindfulness” reading above.

Admittedly, the passage does not involve yāvadeva and none of the few passages that do, ie of the form “yāvadeva…-mattāya”, unambiguously have -mattāya in the instrumental.

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