Dhamma in 4sp's dhamma-anupassana, and dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga, is principle/teaching, not "phenomena"

Ven. Bodhi translates dhamma as “phenomena”.
B.Sujato has “principles”:

They meditate observing an aspect of principles—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world.

from standard sammā sati formula:
(derived from ven. thanissaro’s)

  1. dhammā-(a)nupassī
    dhammesu dhammā-(a)nupassī viharati
    Mental-qualities-as mental-qualities he abides-in,
    ātāpī sampajāno satimā,
    (refrain:) ardent, aware, mindful,
    vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanassaṃ;
    Putting-away worldly greed-(and)-distress.
    evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sato hoti.
    Thus indeed, monks, (a) monk {is} mindful ****.

Ven. thanissaro uses “mental qualities” for dhamma. I think Thanissaro and Bodhi’s translation has been unduly influenced by late Theravada. The more comprehensively I’ve scanned the EBT’s, the more I’m convinced the primary meaning of “dhamma anupassana”, is closer to B. Sujato’s “principles”, by which I assume he means Principles according the truth of reality discovered by the Buddha.

But I’d go even farther and say, “dhamma”, in the context of 4sp (satipatthana, i.e. right remembering/sati), is not just any principle, but specifically, the dhamma principles that directly lead to viraga, nirodha, patinissago, nirvana. What that exact dhamma is in any given moment, will vary according to the skill level and stage of the practitioner.

dhamma as “phenomena” is too general and misses the point.

sati means “remembering”, or recalling to mind frequently what one has memorized by heart. establishing the 4th of the 4 rememberings (dhamma anupassana), means that we are frequently to remember, to bear in mind in this very moment, the particular dhamma/teaching/principle that will right now be the most pertinent to leading to viraga and nirvana.

In the last 4 steps of 16 APS (anapanasati), are explicitly stated to correspond with 4sp’s dhamma-anupassana.
13. anicca
14. viraga
15. nirodha
16. patinissaga

And several passages in the EBT, we see those exact 4 words, in that exact sequence, as the final steps leading to the moment of realizing nirvana/arahantship. (SN 54.8, AN 7.61).

There are also some sutta passages where the Buddha defines “dhamma” as those teachings that lead to dispassion/viraga.

Conclusion: Even though “dhamma” has such broad meaning like the english word “thing”, I’m almost 100% convinced now that dhamma in dhamma-anupassana is not phenomena or mental qualities. dhamma contemplation in 4sp means employing a specific teaching that is most relevant and necessary in the moment to bring one to realization of nirvana.

I don’t know the most concise way to express that, but I think “principle” or “teaching” is still too general.

maybe “contemplation of dispassion-principles”.


How about ‘mental phenomena’, as the sense object of mano.

Maybe ‘Teachings’ (with a capital T), or ‘dhamma teachings’ could fit? If you mean it is the cognitive function of the mind, deliberately ‘bringing to mind’ (sati) a specific teaching, to contemplate, let it work through your mind, suffice it and wriggle out any parts of the ‘world-view’ that sit in contradiction to the teaching - such as for example contemplating impermanence, but then contemplating the implication that reality has on many of the views one has which one takes for granted, but are based on the false implicit assumption of permanence.

Anālayo has this to say about it:

Most translators take the term dhammas in the Satipatthāna Sutta to mean “mental objects”, in the sense of whatever can become an object of the mind, in contradistinction to the objects of the other five senses. In regard to satipatthāna, however, this rendering appears strange. If the term dhammas were to refer to “objects of the mind”, then the other three satipatthānas should also be included here, since they too can become objects of the mind. Moreover, one of the exercises listed under the fourth satipatthāna is contemplation of the six senses together with their respective objects, so this contemplation of dhammas is not confined to the objects of the mind as the sixth sense only. In fact, the dhammas listed in the fourth satipatthāna, such as the hindrances and the aggregates, etc., do not naturally evoke the classification “mental objects”.1
[Note 1: Thaņissaro 1996: p.73. Patis II 234 simply suggests that whatever is not included in the previous three satipatthānas is to be understood as dhammas in this context. Sīiananda 1990: p.95, rejects a translation as “mental objects” and suggests leaving dhammas untranslated, a suggestion which I have followed. Alternative translations could be: “facts in general” (in Kalupahana 1992: p.74); “phenomena” (in Bodhi 2000: p.44, and in Jayasuriya 1988: p.161); “patterns of events” (in Harvey 1997: p.354); “conditions” (in Vajiranāņa 1975: p.59); or “principles” (in Watanabe 1983: p.16).]

What this satipatthāna is actually concerned with are specific mental qualities (such as the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors), and analyses of experience into specific categories (such as the five aggregates, the six sense-spheres, and the four noble truths). These mental factors and categories constitute central aspects of the Buddha’s way of teaching, the Dhamma.2 These classificatory schemes are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but constitute frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation. During actual practice one is to look at whatever is experienced in terms of these dhammas.3Thus the dhammas mentioned in this satipatthāna are not “mental objects”, but are applied to whatever becomes an object of the mind or of any other sense door during contemplation.

The expression “contemplation of dhammas” occurs also in the Ānāpānasati Sutta in relation to the last four of the sixteen steps for developing mindfulness of breathing, which are concerned with contemplating “impermanence”, “fading away”, “cessation”, and “letting go”.4At first sight, the four steps described here appear to be quite different from the mental factors and categories listed under contemplation of dhammas in the Satipatthāna Sutta. The Buddha’s reason for classifying these final four steps of mindfulness of breathing as contemplation of dhammas was that at this more advanced point of practice a meditator will have overcome desires and discontent, thereby becoming established in equanimity.5The commentaries indicate that this is a reference to the removal of the hindrances.
[Note 2:

Nāņamoli 1995: p.1193 1.157 explains: “in this context dhamma can be understood as comprising all phenomena classified by way of the categories of the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teaching”. Gyori 1996: p.24, in regard to contemplation of dhammas suggests that “the exercises… in this section are specifically intended to invest the mind with a soteriological orientation”.

3 In this context it is noticeable that the instruction for contemplation of dhammas employs the locative case twice, once for dhammas and again for the five hindrances, the five aggregates, etc. Thus one is to “contemplate dhammas in regard to dhammas in regard to the five hindrances, (etc.)”, that is, one contemplates phenomena “in terms of" the categories listed as dhammas. This way of introducing each contemplation differs from the earlier three satipatthānas. Cf. also S V 184, according to which the dhammas contemplated in this satipatthāna are conditionally related to attention, while body is related to nutriment, feelings to contact, and mind to name-and-form. This suggests that contemplation of dhammas requires the deliberate act of directing attention to its objects, in terms of the dhammas listed, to a stronger degree than the other satipatthānas. Carrithers 1983: p.229, explains that “the propositions of doctrine are transmuted into immediate perception, here and now”. Similarly Gombrich 1996: p.36, speaks of learning " to see the world through Buddhist spectacles”; while Gyatso 1992: p.8, suggests: “previously learned categories and skills inform present experience without being recollected as such”. Cf. also Collins 1994: p.78.

4 M III83.

5 M III84.]

7 6 Ps IV 142.

And so on. Interesting stuff.

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I think this is an opinion that is pretty common with non-vipassanavādin scholars.

Personally, I’ve thought in my own reflections that there could still be some ambiguity or word-play in the terminology though. Something like seeing the Principles/Teachings in the investigation of phenomena.

that’s a good idea. Or maybe just Dhamma with a capital D. Do you remember off hand what Ven. Analayo translated in 4sp for dhamma? I have the books and can look it up if you don’t.

Another idea less subtle than Dhamma:

[Buddha’s]-Dhamma (as) [Buddha’s]-Dhamma (he) continuously-sees; (like that he) dwells. Ardent, alert, remembering{what-the-heck-he-should-be-doing-in-this-very-moment-instead-of-living-in-a-fantasy-world}…

dhammesu dhamma anu-passi viharati
aataapii sampajaano satima…

Is it? Why not B.Bodhi and Ven. Thanissaro then?

My guess is that they (Ven. B. and T.) translate Dhamma in the sense “qualities” to be logically consistent with the first 3 of the 4sp, the specific details of how it operates. Teachings as “dhamma” in the 4th is somewhat incoherent if you apply it exactly in the way the first 3 4sp work.

But what I’ve found in the EBT is that in the service of making short, repetitive, easy to memorize formulas, sometimes complete logical coherence is violated. Another example, the standard 7sb (awakening factor) formula:

sati-sambojjhanga bhaveti: viveka nissitam viraga nissitam nirodha nissitam vossaggaparinamim.
(the remaining 6 of 7sb use the same exact refrain).

nissitam is usually translated as “dependent on”. but if you think about it, which direction is the dependency? It’s not clear.

So I’ve come to realize sometimes a repetitive formula is going to have some parts that aren’t perfectly logical and consistent, but in the service of the oral tradition in making an easy to memorize formula, the Buddha composed it in that way.

So in the repetitive 4sp formula, I see the 4th sp as breaking the logical consistency of the first 3.

SN 46 is the bodhi-anga awakening factor samyutta, so you can bet the first few suttas in there are probably going to be very important.

in the 3rd sutta, here’s the explanation of sati and dhammavicaya. Based on this sutta, Dhamma is not “phenomena” or “qualities”, but is Dhamma-which-leads-to-viraga-and-nibbana. Notice sati “remembers” that teaching, that Dhamma.

sati-sam-bojjhanga is equivalent to 4sp, and
dhamma in dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga is the same Dhamma-teaching in 4sp’s dhamma-anupassana

To be more precise, what I assert is “Dhamma” in Dhamma-vicaya and Dhamma-anupassana PRIMARILY means Dhamma-liberative-teaching. Maybe the Buddha intended it to have a secondary meaning of “phenomena/mental qualities”, I’m open to that possibility and would like to see people present some EBT excerpts that support it.

(1. Sati)

(the beginning of the sutta a monk is inspired listening to a dhamma talk by a senior)
So tathā vūpakaṭṭho viharanto
He, thus withdrawn, dwelling,
taṃ dhammaṃ anus-sarati anu-vitakketi.
that Dhamma (he) recollects (and) thinks-over,
Yasmiṃ samaye, bhikkhave, bhikkhu
on-the occasion, monks, a-monk
tathā vūpakaṭṭho viharanto
thus withdrawn, dwelling,
taṃ dhammaṃ anus-sarati anu-vitakketi,
that Dhamma (he) recollects (and) thinks-over,
sati-sam-bojjh-aṅgo tasmiṃ samaye
mindfulness-awakening-factor on-that occasion
bhikkhuno āraddho hoti;
(the) monk has-aroused;
sati-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ tasmiṃ samaye
mindfulness-awakening-factor on-that occasion
bhikkhu bhāveti;
(the) monk develops;
sati-sam-bojjh-aṅgo tasmiṃ samaye
mindfulness-awakening-factor on-that occasion
bhikkhuno bhāvanā-pāripūriṃ gacchati.
(the) monk has-developed-(and)-fulfilled *******.

(2. Dhamma-vicaya)

So tathā sato viharanto
He, thus mindfully dwelling,
taṃ dhammaṃ paññāya
that Dhamma (with) discernment,
pa-vicinati pa-vicarati
(he) discriminates, (he) evaluates,
Yasmiṃ samaye, bhikkhave, bhikkhu
on-the occasion, monks, a-monk
tathā sato viharanto
thus mindfully dwelling,
taṃ dhammaṃ paññāya
that Dhamma (with) discernment,
pa-vicinati pa-vicarati
(he) discriminates, (he) evaluates,
Dhamma-vicaya-sam-bojjh-aṅgo tasmiṃ samaye
Dhamma-investigation-awakening-factor on-that occasion
bhikkhuno āraddho hoti;
(the) monk has-aroused;
Dhamma-vicaya-sam-bojjh-aṅgaṃ tasmiṃ samaye
Dhamma-investigation-awakening-factor on-that occasion
bhikkhu bhāveti;
(the) monk develops;
Dhamma-vicaya-sam-bojjh-aṅgo tasmiṃ samaye
Dhamma-investigation-awakening-factor on-that occasion
bhikkhuno bhāvanā-pāripūriṃ gacchati.
(the) monk has-developed-(and)-fulfilled *******.
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I just looked it up. For the 4 SP he gives:

  • Body
  • Feelings
  • Mind
  • Dhammas

He then splits dhammas into subcategories (you can see all this from the contents page):


Leaving it untranslated can be good sometimes, but it is also passing the buck onto the reader. We could just leave it all translated! Sometimes what I like to do for a translation is give both, for example if I were to chose ‘Teachings’ I could put ‘Teachings (dhammā)’ or something like that. And I like the above also, giving the Pāli and then the English for subcategories.

Jhāna is a term I much prefer to be left untranslated. Some words are far better to learn in the original, otherwise you get thrown of by translations like ‘meditation’, not knowing which technical term is actually being referred to in the original. But dhamma, I think is often unfair to do that with, since the reader is usually not in a position to understand what it means, due to the many varied meanings of the word dhamma. So I think the translator has a responsibility to find exactly what it does mean in this context, and then convey that to the reader. And if they include the Pāli in brackets or footnotes, all the better!

Alternatively leave dhamma in Pāli and put the explanation in brackets or a footnote (hopefully not an endnote, those are so annoying!)

Still has issues I think. It is Buddha’s phenomena? Or a particular phenomena he discovered (such as the deathless element), so we say it’s his? Or do you mean his teachings? So we are left with confusion.

If it is his teachings, then maybe better to simply translate it!


exactly. and I totally agree the problem with leaving “Dhamma” untranslated, as Ven. Analayo did. But probably somewhere he defines Dhamma with capital “D” means Teaching.

I think most people would figure out Buddha’s Dhamma (Buddha means enlightened or awakened) is a “teachings that lead to liberation”, but I appreciate your well thought out analysis. There is no perfect translation because we’re all biased and imperfect receivers.

“principles” makes me think Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple treat contemplating gravity is doing Dhamma anupassana.

I want to convey it’s not just principles, not just any true teachings, not even the whole handful of leaves, it’s just one leaf that’s the most important leaf at the moment directly impacting you and your urgent need to realize viraga…nirvana.


I thought about this recently. What I noticed is that the more I advanced in the knowledge of the texts, the more my list of words I would prefer to be untranslated increase, and I suppose that an expert in Pali would prefer to have most of the text left untraslated because he is well aware of all the shortcomings associated with any choosen translations… So now I’m quite ok with translations that translate every words, even the usual culprits (dhamma, Thathagata etc).

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He has a whole chapter on it. So in that context I think it’s fine to leave it untranslated. I think when it comes to just the root text translation, that’s when we need either a translation or a concise explanation in brackets or footnotes.

It also depends on 1) what you’re looking for and why you are looking at the text (which in this case would be the translated text), - such as, are you doing research into ‘dhamma’ meaning ‘phenomena’, or ‘mental phenomena’, or a particular state, for example? If so, leaving it untranslated won’t help this person.

And 2) yes, our biases, such as how we usually read the term ‘dhamma’. The translator here has an opportunity to help with both cases.

Yes I don’t like that. In a different context, Ajahn Sujato uses that for dhammaṭṭhitatā and ‘dhammaniyāmatā’, though qualified as ‘natural principles’: ‘the regularity of natural principles’ and ‘the invariance of natural principles’.

I think that’s better than Bodhi’s ‘the stableness of the Dhamma’ and ‘the fixed course of the Dhamma’ which I find thoroughly confusing and potentially very misleading.

But I am leaning more to something like ‘the state of things’ and ‘the fixed nature of things’. Or perhaps ‘phenomena’ rather than ‘things’. And maybe ‘natural order’ rather than ‘state’. Such as one of these:

  • ‘the state of the phenomenal’
  • ‘the natural order of the phenomenal’
  • ‘the state of phenomena’
  • ‘the natural order of phenomena’

How about ‘appropriate teaching’, or ‘appropriate skilful teaching’ or something like that? And could make that [appropriate skilful] teaching. Maybe not those exact words if you don’t feel they fit, but there might be a couple you think would.

Ha ha ha, yeah I noticed that happening too :joy:
But now that we have this website, I just go to Ajahn Sujato’s parallel translation with the Pāli to locate the sentence I want to know what really says, even if I am working from a different English translation. Very handy!

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Sorry guys I made a mistake in quoting the second of Bodhi’s translations. It’s edited now but in case you read it before I corrected it…

This paper by Bhikkhu Cintita may be relevant to this thread:

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Dhamma in Dhammanupassana is confusing. I started with dhamma as in dhamma-concepts (ways of listing… 4NT, 7 bojjanga etc) and now leaning towards ‘principles’. There is a experience of raw phenomena, but wisdom (panna) makes sense of it and sees patterns in it (anicca, dukkha, anatta, causality, insubstantiality, etc.). However this then is seen as principle (nyaya?) that is applicable to all time and space. The Five hindrance meditation, developing the seven factors of enlightenment, how the Four noble truths are applied are principles that can be applied from one Buddha, to the next.

with metta

Dhamma-vicaya is very well defined, for example, in Ahara sutta:

"Ko ca, bhikkhave, āhāro anuppannassa vā dhammavicayasambojjha’ngassa uppādāya, uppannassa vā dhammavicayasambojjha’ngassa bhāvanāya pāripūriyā? Atthi, bhikkhave, kusalākusalā dhammā sāvajjānavajjā dhammā hīnapa.nītā dhammā ka.nhasukkasappa.tibhāgā dhammā. Tattha yonisomanasikārabahulīkāro – ayamāhāro anuppannassa vā dhammavicayasambojjha’ngassa uppādāya, uppannassa vā dhammavicayasambojjha’ngassa bhāvanāya pāripūriyā.


And kusalā dhammā are “skillful ways of behavior”:


In the Buddha’s framework, anger or equanimous observation are mental actions, and hence are included in behavior.

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