Are the topics for recollection "just" recollections?

I remember that Bhante @sujato—I don’t remember in which thread—mentioned something along the lines that usually laypeople are taught just the topics for recollection like those on the Triple Gem etc. And I was wondering about the word “just”.

Especially when reading AN 5.179, I doubt that these recollections are just such a simple practice. There, they are called “blissful meditations in the present life belonging to the higher mind”—a phrase normally used for the jhānas.

Does that mean that the recollections are here equated to the jhānas, or does it at least mean that they, when well developed and perfected, lead into jhāna?

I am also curious what Venerables @Sunyo and @Vaddha think about this. (I often enjoy reading your discussions, and just would like to thank you here for these! :heart:)

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Hi Ayya – I’ll offer a few thoughts while we wait for the venerables to chime in.

From what I’ve seen, I don’t think the recollections are ever equated to the jhānas. In fact, I don’t think they’re ever explicitly connected to the jhānas either. But they’re certainly explicitly connected with samādhi, and, in my opinion, we can infer that they can serve the same function as satipaṭṭhāna practice, at least in terms of purifying the mind of the hindrances and gladdening the mind in preparation for jhāna attainment.

The early discourses frequently describe a particular causal sequence that results in samādhi. The initial step of this sequence (denoted as “x” just below) appears in many varied forms, but the rest of the sequence is remarkably consistent and proceeds like this:

x → pāmojja (gladness) → pīti (delight) → kāyopassaddhi (bodily tranquility) → sukha (pleasure) → samādhi

One of the most common things that can start off this sequence (at x) is recollecting any of the six recollections (the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, one’s pure moral conduct, one’s generosity, or the qualities one shares with those born into the heavenly realms). MN 7 and AN 6.10 are a couple of
examples of this.

AN 3.70 says that the recollections lead to the mind becoming clear, joy arising, and the defilements being given up. This sounds a lot like overcoming the hindrances at the end of satipaṭṭhāna practice and before entering jhāna.

At AN 6.26, Mahākaccāna also describes this purifying effect and goes even farther, saying that the six recollections are for the purification of beings, the overcoming of sorrow and crying, ending pain and dejection, the achievement of the method, and the realization of nibbāna. Personally, I don’t think this implies that the recollections alone can effect awakening, but, since you were wondering about the word “just”, it does seem that they’re more potent than people today give them credit for.

Regarding your note about the recollections being called the “higher mind,” one thing that might be relevant here is that when they’re called this, the term is usually ābhicetasika, while the term associated with the jhānas is usually adhicitta (also often translated into English as “higher mind”). I’ve always had the impression that adhicitta refers to a higher, more refined mind state than ābhicetasika.

Anyway, as I see it the recollections can help keep the mind pure and straight in daily life, and they can cause wholesome forms of joy and happiness to arise in the mind. If one stays with a recollection long enough (and/or if one is well-practiced enough with them), this wholesome joy can blossom into a very pure and collected state of mind (samādhi). From there the mind can be directed toward jhāna (or even dhammavicaya and the growth of insight).

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Thank you so much for your very thoughtful reply, @Christopher! You are much more thorough than I was when I wrote my question … :laughing:

Thank you in particular for pointing out the subtle difference between adhicitta and ābhicetasika, which I hadn’t quite noticed.

However in the context of the “blissful meditations in the present life”, it’s always ābhicetasika that is used, not only in AN 5.179; for example:

AN7.67:13.3: Evamevaṁ kho, bhikkhave, yato ariyasāvako sattahi saddhammehi samannāgato hoti, catunnañca jhānānaṁ ābhicetasikānaṁ diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārānaṁ nikāmalābhī hoti akicchalābhī akasiralābhī.
In the same way, when a noble disciple has seven good qualities, and they get the four absorptions—blissful meditations in the present life that belong to the higher mind—when they want, without trouble or difficulty,

In AN 5.179 it reads:

AN5.179:1.3: “yaṁ kañci, sāriputta, jāneyyātha gihiṁ odātavasanaṁ pañcasu sikkhāpadesu saṁvutakammantaṁ catunnaṁ ābhicetasikānaṁ diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārānaṁ nikāmalābhiṁ akicchalābhiṁ akasiralābhiṁ, so ākaṅkhamāno attanāva attānaṁ byākareyya:
“You should know this, Sāriputta, about those white-clothed laypeople whose actions are restrained in the five precepts, and who get four blissful meditations in the present life belonging to the higher mind when they want, without trouble or difficulty. They may, if they wish, declare of themselves:

In fact the only difference is that in the former example the word jhāna (absorption) is explicitly mentioned, while in AN 5.179 it is not. But what caught my eye was the fact that also in AN 5.179, four of the recollections were chosen, which makes the similarity in the formula quite apparent.

The term adhicitta appears usually in the threefold division of the path as “higher ethics, higher mind, and higher wisdom”, like for example:

AN3.84:1.6: adhisīlasikkhāya, adhicittasikkhāya adhipaññāsikkhāyā”ti?
the higher ethics, the higher mind, and the higher wisdom?”

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Too bad I wasn’t quite correct! :smile: Good find with AN 7.67 — it seems that jhānas can also be called ābhicetasika. I would be surprised, though, if the reverse were true — are the recollections ever called adhicitta? In AN 3.89 and AN 3.90, the Buddha defines adhicitta as the four jhānas.

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It’s not only AN 7.67. The phrase “blissful meditations in the present life that belong to the higher mind” is always with ābhicetasika. If you search Bhante Sujato’s translations for “belong to the higher mind” you get 31 results, all of which have ābhicetasika in the Pali, except for two where it is abbreviated with … pe ….

Not that I am aware of.

The striking thing in AN 5.179 is simply that the formula that is used here fully corresponds to the one normally used with the four jhānas, just that the jhānas seem to be replaced by four recollections. That doesn’t mean this connection is drawn with all descriptions of the jhānas.

Not 100% sure what to make out of it, but, as you also say, we certainly can conclude that the potential of the recollections is very often underestimated.

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Yes, I see what you mean. Doing a quick search, I see that ābhicetasiko diṭṭhadhammasukhavihāro is always referring to the jhānas. Another quick search shows that ābhicetasiko, ābhicet-, and ābhicit- also only seem to refer to the jhānas, except in AN 5.179. I’m finally starting to see what you’re saying!

Which, in this case, are also the four factors of stream entry. I think the four recollections in AN 5.179, while they have overlap with the standard set of recollections, function a little differently here due to being undertaken by a stream-enterer. For a stream-enterer, reflecting on these factors of stream entry (which the stream-enterer has well established) is perhaps more potent than for someone who isn’t a stream-enterer, due to their aveccapasāda, experiential confidence.

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I remember this too and have often wondered how different it might be for me as a lay person to fully understand the Dhamma and progress on the path than if I were a monastic. I give the highest and most effort towards learning, understanding, practicing and living the Dhamma to the best of my ability, but as a lay person, my attention is divided between worldly effort and essential effort towards the N8FP. And the rules of the Vinaya couldn’t apply to me and I don’t even know what they are and couldn’t keep them as a lay person regardless. My understanding is that it is possible for a lay person to enter the stream. :smiley: How far can I really go as a lay person? Is there a difference between what to teach a monastic and a monastic?

with genuine metta

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I agree that the recollections are the most-taught practice to lay people in the early discourses. Maybe that’s because most lay people in ancient India, just like everywhere today, had little time or inclination for deeper practice. But there are also a lot of discourses teaching lay people the brahmavihāras, and even several showing that many lay people practiced satipaṭṭhāna regularly.

The Buddha seemed to feel that lay people could go as far as they were motivated to go, and the role models he set up for lay followers set a pretty high bar:

Bhikkhus, a male lay follower endowed with faith, rightly aspiring, should aspire thus: ‘May I become like Citta the householder and Hatthaka of Ālavī!’ This is the standard and criterion for my male lay disciples, that is, Citta the householder and Hatthaka of Ālavī.

Bhikkhus, a female lay follower endowed with faith, rightly aspiring, should aspire thus: ‘May I become like the female lay followers Khujjuttarā and Veḷukaṇṭakī Nandamātā!’ This is the standard and criterion for my male lay disciples, that is, the female lay followers Khujjuttarā and Veḷukaṇṭakī Nandamātā.

Citta the householder and Hatthaka of Ālavī were non-returners, as was Veḷukaṇṭakī Nandamātā. Khujjuttarā was at least a stream-enterer, but I’m not sure if she progressed further in that life.

Personally, I think it’s good to have lofty goals. Even if you don’t make it all the way, you’ll still go quite far!

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Hi Ven! :slightly_smiling_face:

As I read this sutta, it is, as often, a creative ways of teaching by the Buddha. I think that is indicated by the things you say here.

In short, when the Buddha says “I’ll teach you four blissful meditations”, everybody expects him to teach the four jhanas, like he always does… But not this time! He teaches something easier, more relatable to most laypeople, who generally have less time for meditation: namely, the four recollections.

These should not be underestimated, though, so in a sense they are also “blissful meditations”. It’s sort of like saying, you can still have great and beneficial meditation, even if you don’t attain the jhanas. Do these four “blissful meditations” instead. Even though not the full deal, these are also worthy of being called “higher mind”.

The word jhana must be purposefully omitted to show that these actually aren’t jhana. And there are only four of the six usual reflections, to still draw an analogy with the jhanas, even though they aren’t.

That it isn’t jhana proper can also be derived from the statement: “This is the first blissful meditation in the present life belonging to the higher mind, which they achieve in order to purify the unpurified mind and cleanse the unclean mind.” The purified and pure mind is the jhanas themselves, as in the standard statement, “When their mind has become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable” (e.g. MN51). This means the four recollections are still pre-jhana.

That’s how I read it, anyway. I hope that makes some sense.

If you listen to modern teachers, they often creatively use concepts from the suttas. Like, rephrasing the four truths in terms of happiness instead of suffering, for example. We know that’s not exactly what the Buddha meant, but it teaches something useful, especially to people newer to the Dhamma, for whom talking about suffering is too much. Teachers lighten it down a bit.

The Buddha himself was also a creative teacher. That’s always good to keep in mind when reading the suttas, because sometimes we get overly technical about them (me included).

What I do not understand, though, is how people who do these meditations can declare, “I am a stream-enterer! I’m not liable to be reborn in the underworld, and am bound for awakening.’” The crucial step of insight seems to be missing. Perhaps it means you can only really properly reflect on these things (especially the Dhamma) if you’re a stream winner.

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Hi Venerable, thank you for your kind reply! I’ve had most of the thoughts you explain myself, or in a similar way, yet I couldn’t come to a fully conclusive answer.

As @Christopher already pointed out, these four are called, when perfected, the “four factors of stream entry”. So even if the recollections aren’t jhāna, they must be connected in a way to states of mind that allow for deep insight.

This is also an interesting phrase. Even if the wording is somewhat different, it still amounts more or less to the same as the famous formula that occurs in the context of Sattipathana, but not only there:

… in order to purify sentient beings, to get past sorrow and crying, to make an end of pain and sadness, to discover the system, and to realize extinguishment

Even in AN 6.26 exactly this formula is applied to the six recollections (also pointed out by Christopher):

How this Blessed One who knows and sees, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha, has found an opportunity amid confinement; that is, the six topics for recollection. They are in order to purify sentient beings, to get past sorrow and crying, to make an end of pain and sadness, to discover the system, and to realize extinguishment.

So in this they are set on the same level as the four satipatthanas, in that they lead to jhanas and what comes after, up to extinguishment.

They probably cannot be exactly jhanas themselves for the simple reason that they do have a specific topic—they are “topics for recollection”—and during jhana, the only “topic” is the peaceful mind itself full of bliss.

Yes, and they can be considered as pathways or doors to jhana, perhaps. And at stream entry they become fully perfected, and then the step to jhana is even smaller.

I think I am coming closer to the thing.

And I think here too, we are getting closer.

The sutta is spoken to Anāthapiṇḍika, and Anāthapiṇḍika isn’t precisely a beginner. As far as I remember he has attained stream entry on his first encounter with the Buddha. So perhaps for him, these four recollections that are called the four factors of stream entry are in fact perfected, and using them as entry into meditation might just be similar as an experienced breath meditatior is using the breath.

I’ve heard of very experienced meditators that they start with breathing in, etc., and at the third breath they are already in jhana. So perhaps a very experienced “recollector” just thinks of the marvellous qualities of the Buddha, sighs in bliss, and disappears into jhana-land …? :slightly_smiling_face: Who knows!


I am changing the category to “discussion” because this isn’t actually a question that can be expected to have one precise answer.

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I’ll just pop in to note that third chapter of the Ekottarika Agama gives elaborations of the ten recollections that seem like meditative practices. The recollection of breath is the mindfulness of breath practice. The others take different forms, from visualizations to contemplative exercises.

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What are the ten recollections? In Pali, the usual number is six.

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The six recollections were apparently expanded to ten by adding breath, death, mindfulness of body, and peace. The set of ten is found in AN’s Book of Ones (AN 1.296-305), which is parallel with EA’s second chapter. EA then elaborates on them more in the third chapter.

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Oh, thank you so much for this! Interesting, the additions …

But what is remarkable in the context of our question is that any of these recollections is said to be enough to lead all the way to Nibbāna, both in Pali and Chinese!

… when developed and cultivated, leads solely to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.

:pray:


Now looking into the phrase “solely to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment”, we find the recollections (four of them) again in SN 55.12, and in DN 29 the same is said of the four jhānas. Elsewhere we find the phrase with the four sattipatthanas, the seven factors of awakening, the four iddhipadas, etc. Hmm …

In any case, the recollections do have quite some potential, I think that’s the least that we can conclude.

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Good to mention SN 55 collection, Sotāpati Saṃyutta.

There are all together “six qualities” (as merits, virtues, intrinsic worth) mentioned in this Sotāpati Saṃyutta of SN/SA:

The basic four qualities (the three faiths, Buddha-Dhamma-Saṅgha, and ‘morality’ sīla)

Deva-paths to the heavens (emphasising ‘non-malice’ abyāpajjha 無恚 in connection with the basic four qualities)

and ‘Charitable giving’ dāna 施 as “merit-yields, goodness-yields, happiness-nutriments”.

However, I am not sure why do you use the word/term ‘recollection’?

According to Sotāpati Saṃyutta of SN/SA, a major concept of the practices is about faith (pasāda) in reflections.

(See pp. 228-234, “(10) Stream-entry” in Choong MK’s Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism).

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@sabbamitta

I think the contributions from yourself and the folks here are about all I’d say on the matter as well.

I do think that the recollections are not standing in as the same thing as the jhānas, but as parallel meditations or abidings for folks, especially layfolk it seems in this specific context. I also think that the suttas do consistently paint these practices as quite powerful and they are of course recommended for monastics just as well as laity.

These recollections get their power mainly in the strong initial onset of joy, delight, and inner confidence. Whereas other practices like body contemplation are very much for overcoming sensuality, and mindfulness of breathing is more calming and less immediately joyful, these practices bring lots of wholesome joy and faith without requiring tons of time and without challenging sensuality. This makes them particularly good for laity who do not want to practice as much renunciation for sensual pleasures, or as an accessible daily practice to be uplifted. The suttas also recommend them for overcoming fear, so I think they can be applied effectively in many situations, not just sitting down or in formal walking. So a lay person out working, travelling, etc. could use these recollections to stabilize their mind in an elated reminder of their faith and spiritual values.

In this way, I do get the sense that they are kind of like the lay ‘four jhānas’ just as the suttas paint them, insofar as the jhānas are a kind of representation of the samana/renunciant life (they are the first major benefit in e.g. DN 2, and the first footsteps of the Tathāgata at MN 27, etc.). So in the time of the Buddha they were mostly — with exceptions of course — for monastics. The ‘pleasant abidings’ of devout laity then (here especially stream enterers, i.e. laity established in experiential faith and so unwavering in their appreciation of buddha/dhamma/sangha/sīla), are these joyful meditations. They are special because they are special qualities unique to stream enterers, so they are significant especially in representing the archetype upāsaka/upāsikā side of the fourfold assembly. In this context, at least.

I always found AN 6.26 which you pointed out particularly striking :slight_smile: Ven. Mahākaccāna praises the recollections quite highly, and as you say these can take place of satipatthāna practice. I think they are similar to mettā meditation. Many people like to do mettā: it is accessible, gives quick results of joy and uplift, and it does not require extreme renunciation to practice some here and there. But mettā is obviously very powerful with a lot of potential for cultivating samādhi and even liberation via the 7 awakening factors.

SN 47.10 talks about attending to an inspiring theme when the body or mind become sluggish/agitated. I would lump these recollections together with reflections on the brahmavihāras. One could stay with just these, or do them as a supplement, or use them in special circumstances like when busy, afraid, or what have you. We definitely shouldn’t underestimate them! Sādhu to this wonderful post.

Thank you for this — very interesting! It’s all quite standard, but I found it interesting how this uses the equivalent of Pāli parimukham satim upatthapetvā for every recollection quite explicitly. Of course, we see this in other places in the EBTs, but this kind of structure really drives home that parimukham is not unique to a physical spot for the breath to contact, at least not as conceived by the compilers of this sūtra/āgama.

This is off topic from the current thread, but it’s related and been on my mind: do you have any insight about the practice of 身念 in the āgamas @cdpatton ? You may have read Tse Fu Kuan’s work on mindfulness and kāyagatāsati. But there he points out what others have noticed as well: the term ‘kāyagatāsati’ is understood in the Theravāda tradition mostly as meaning the anatomical parts practice, or other body contemplations in MN 119. But the usage in other suttas outside of that compilation text seems to indicate it is something else, or broader, and the Sarvāstivādin parallel may shed some light on the origins of it.

I’m wondering what impression the sources you’ve been working with give of 身念 / kāya(gatā)sati to you. How do the texts seem to understand the term and the practice?

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HI Ven I don’t disagree fundamentally with anything you say, but to clarify

escorted by around five hundred lay followers, :wink:

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Yes, you are right. And it is in fact true that teachings are often addressed to the “weakest” members of a group. It happens for example a number of times that Sāriputta asks a question, not because he doesn’t know the answer, but in order for it to be explained to others present in the assembly.

Thank you all so much for your contributions! I know at least one person who is practicing these recollections a lot for many years now, and you can literally watch the progress they are making in their way of thinking and behaving and general attitude—this is just so uplifting! :heart:

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I tend to think it was a catchall for contemplation of mortality. The Theravada understanding is a bit narrow, and maybe that was because they understood it more as part of the four abodes of mindfulness. But even their version of the contemplations that it encompasses are mainly about mortality or the problems of having a body in the present. The biggest and broadest collection of contemplations is found in the Sariputra Abhidharma, which catalogues 34 different mindfulness of body exercises. It became quite broad as a category for some traditions.

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I find this makes sense, but certain contexts make it seem somewhat different. One classic example are the suttas on the pot of oil and the six animals.

At SN 47.20 (SA 623), mindfulness of the body (kāyagatāsati) is given with a simile of walking carefully with a bowl of oil on one’s head, not looking at a busy crowd with a dancing woman, lest someone cuts off their head. The Chinese parallel interestingly has a somewhat more nuanced phrase, and it defines this practice of mindfulness of the body as all four abodes of mindfulness.

At SN 35.247, we see:

Take a mendicant who sees a sight with their eyes. If it’s pleasant they hold on to it, but if it’s unpleasant they dislike it. They live with mindfulness of the body unestablished and their heart restricted.

In the same way, when a mendicant has not developed or cultivated mindfulness of the body, their eye pulls towards pleasant sights, but is put off by unpleasant sights. Their ear … nose … tongue … body … mind pulls towards pleasant ideas, but is put off by unpleasant ideas. …
Take a mendicant who sees a sight with their eyes. If it’s pleasant they don’t hold on to it, and if it’s unpleasant they don’t dislike it. They live with mindfulness of the body established and a limitless heart.

It looks like there are 3 parallels listed on SC: SA 1170, SA 1171, EA 38.8. Here, ‘mindfulness of the body’ is what ties down the senses and allows the mind to be unoccupied by various contacts. It is liked to a ‘firm pillar’. Eventually, the senses (likened to six animals tugging at a rope) lie down beside the pillar.

‘A strong post or pillar’ is a term for mindfulness of the body.

At SN 35.245 and SA 1175, there is a simile of a city with six roads going in and a gatekeeper guarding what comes in and goes out. The city is said to be the body (kāya), the six roads the six senses, and the gatekeeper mindfulness.

There’s also the fact that the suttas talk about ‘asubhabhāvanā’ and ‘asubhasaññā’ rather frequently as a specific practice, and elsewhere ‘kāyagatāsati.’ They could refer to more or less the same thing, but it seems to be referring either to something else or something broader. The Sarvāstivādin Mindfulness of the Body Sutta MA 81 (parallel at MN 119) seems to perhaps be closer to an older original compilation, even though it is longer, as pointed out by Tse Fu Kuan. It seems that the Theravādins may have subtracted the exercises from the original source texts that do not have to do with the ‘kāya’ itself, identical with kāyānupassanā (as you mentioned). The jhāna similes are left because they mention the ‘kāya.’ But the other exercises (perception of light, reviewing sign, cutting off thinking) are from the same source texts for this compilation, so it seems less likely that these harder readings (not about the kāya per se) would just happen to be added later from the same source material in the Sarvāstivādin recension.

This leads some to think that ‘kāya’ here must refer to the six-sense experiencer, rather than the physical body. Bhikhu Anālayo interprets the above practice related to sense restraint as being a form of whole-body proprioceptive awareness where one monitors the sense impingements coming in to the body with mindfulness and a degree of separation to have a broad mind.

One counter example, potentially, is AN 9.11 (parallels: EA 37.6; MA 24)

Sir, someone who had not established mindfulness of the body might well attack one of their spiritual companions and leave without saying sorry. Suppose they were to toss both clean and unclean things on the earth, like feces, urine, spit, pus, and blood. The earth isn’t horrified, repelled, and disgusted because of this.

There is a list of examples given in this sutta, and several of them talk about the body being repulsive, mortal, similar to elements, etc. And it uses the phrase in a way similar to the above examples. So here one gets the impression that it may be about having contemplated the mortality and materiality of the physical body to a degree of disenchantment and detachment.

There is an interesting related phrase, which seems to be left completely unexplained in the early texts:

Kāyagatāsati sātasahagatā. — Mindfulness of the body that is full of pleasure.
(DN 34; SN 16.11; SA 1144; SA2 119: DA 10)

It occurs first and foremost in the Kassapa Saṁyutta (SN 16), as an instruction the Buddha is reported to have given to Mahākassapa. Then it is listed in the DN 34 compilation. I wonder, do you know how the Northern Abhidharma texts or commentaries define and explain this term? It seems at DA 10, the phrase is “謂常自念身” which does not mention pleasure; you translate it as “constant mindfulness of oneself.” There is a difference in the Sarvāstivādin SA version, which mentions “常念其身” but it gives it in a longer context:

『我當正觀五陰生滅,六觸入處集起、滅沒,於四念處正念樂住,修七覺分、八解脫身作證,常念其身,未甞斷絕,離無慚愧,於大師所及大德梵行常住慚愧。』」如是應當學!

There is no translation I know of above. It seems to be talking about the eight liberations (of the “body”-witness (kāyasakkī I assume is the Pāḷi equivalent, for someone who personally attains the eight liberations) and other topics. It does have “於四念處正念樂住” which seems to be referring to joy/happiness parallel to Pāḷi ‘sātasahagatā,’ but here again it references all four abodes of mindfulness for what Pāḷi knows as ‘kāyagatāsati.’ This fits the overall theme I see where ‘kāyagatāsati’ referring to the six-sense person encompasses all four abodes of mindfulness, as Kuan proposed.

SA2 119 seems about the same, but the phrase on the body is different:

宜應專意觀五受陰增長損減,常應觀彼六入生滅,安心住於四念處中,修七覺意,轉令增廣,證八解脫,繫念隨身,未曾放捨,增長慚愧。

“繫念隨身” seems closest to the Pāli wording ‘kāyagatāsati.’

One potential ‘clue’ for the term is a recurring phrase at MA 81, which seems to be explaining how each exercise listed fulfills mindfulness of the body:

如是比丘隨其身行便知上如眞。

It seems this would be implying that it is ‘following the body’s action/activity’ with understanding that is crucial to mindfulness of the body in this discourse.

There’s just some lack of clarity around the term, IMO, in the early texts. But it may be just as you say, mortality reflections and awareness of the body from the perspective of detachment and disenchantment.