How do you define mindfulness (sati)?

Isn’t sati as ‘mindfulness’ confusing you guys? You collected so many quotes with “one who remembers and recollects”… sati simply isn’t mindfulness in this vipassana-ish sense we got used to. i understand that people won’t take ‘memory’ or ‘concentration’ but then at least we could simply use ‘sati’. we got used to ‘samadhi’ as well and it’s much more flexible to future understandings - we’re not translators after all - except @raivo :slight_smile:

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I’m not a translator either. I’ve just dabbled in it a bit because I find it helps to internalize the Teaching and often brings up important questions concerning topics that seem pretty clear at first glance.

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Sujato suggested ‘retention’, which I agree with.

Say you have a job in the army as a sniper. Every time a person is walking in the street of a town your army is occupying, you must shoot & kill that person, be they man, woman or child. To perform this task you require mindfulness. Instead of practising compassion & non-harming towards people, your duty is to kill them. This duty requires ‘mindfulness’ (‘sati’), namely, remembering to do you job rather than dozing off or letting compassion control your mind. This mindfulness is called ‘wrong mindfulness’ (‘miccha sati’).

It is not alertness & clear-mindedness but remembering to be alert & clear-minded. Alertness & clear-mindedness are the results of mindfulness rather than mindfulness itself.

We can examine our own mind when we do a task to examine what mindfulness really is. For example, if we must study for an examination but there is also a TV show we want to watch, it is mindfulness that remembers or keeps in mind the task we must do & generates the wisdom thought: “I cannot watch TV now; I must study for the exam”.

The Blessed One said, “Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together, saying, ‘The beauty queen! The beauty queen!’ And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing & dancing, so that an even greater crowd comes thronging, saying, ‘The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!’ Then a man comes along, desiring life & shrinking from death, desiring pleasure & abhorring pain. They say to him, ‘Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.’ Now what do you think, monks: Will that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, let himself get distracted outside?”

SN 47.20


"One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness…

"One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one’s right mindfulness…

"One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one’s right mindfulness…

"One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one’s right mindfulness…

“One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter & remain in right livelihood: This is one’s right mindfulness…”

MN 117


I didn’t mean to imply there are two different kinds on mindfulness, just that perhaps not every aspect of the mindfulness of a noble one must be (as strongly) present in the mindfulness of a worldling. So I agree about it being a matter of degree.

After some more sutta reading, I do find a strong connection between retention and sustained awareness, like Bhante Sujato said, and I don’t think it’s very easy to clearly separate the two meanings from each-other or sati from sampajañña and even wisdom and some other faculties often seem to be in the mix.

It’s pretty crazy how broad the concepts behind words get and how relative they are to other concepts when you start to dig into them deeper. Finding a suitable word to describe a certain concept is like trying to figure out what the green part of an apple tastes like.

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Say we must used a magnifying glass to light a fire. We must keep/uphold the magnifying glass at a certain angle to the sun & to the fuel so the light can converge onto the fuel and ignite it.

For me, what keeps holding the magnifying in the right place is ‘mindfulness’. Where as the light converging/uniting/concentrating through the magnifying glass is ‘samadhi’.

Thus, mindfulness is a ‘support’ for ‘samadhi’ rather than samadhi itself since what concentrates is the citta, such as in the term ‘citta ekaggatta’.

The Blessed One said: “Now what, monks, is noble (ariyo) right (sammā) concentration (samādhi) with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness (ekaggatā) of mind (cittassa) equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort & right mindfulness — is called noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions”.

MN 117

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[quote=“raivo, post:23, topic:3184”]
In AN 5.14, we have a definition for the power of mindfulness:

[quote=“raivo, post:23, topic:3184”]

In SN 48.9, we have a definition for the faculty of mindfulness:

these two are one and the same, the difference is only in the translation of satinepakkena as either mindfulness and alertness or mindfulness and discretion

i think in this thread we tentatively established that noble disciple (ariyasāvako) is anyone who follows the Dhamma, it may only require one small clarification as to whether it only refers to monastics or to lay practitioners as well

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I like the English term ‘discretion’.

I personally do not like Thanissaro’s translation ‘alertness’ since it lacks the ‘wisdom’ aspect of ‘sampajanna’. The old-fashioned ‘clear-comprehension’ or ‘comprehends readily’ is good enough for me.

My understanding of the old-fashioned distinction is that ‘sati’ is part of the concentration (samadhi) faculty and ‘sampajanna’ is part of the wisdom (panna) faculty.

To me, the English term ‘alertness’ sounds like concentration rather than wisdom.

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if i may correct you the word used in the compound in those quotations is nepakka

the rendering of alertness in AN 5.14 belongs to Ven Bodhi, but it isn’t true to its dictionary meaning of prudence, discrimination, carefulness

the rendering discretion is also his

the result of either inconsistency or of change in his views on suitable equivalents

Sorry, I had to tend to my nephew earlier and cut my post short. What I was aiming at, was this:

Just a few suttas after SN 48.9 (SN 48.12-18), the Buddha says (no time to type them here) that the arahant has completed and fulfilled the five faculties and if they are weaker than that, one is a nonreturner, still weaker, a once-returner … up to Dhamma-follower and faith-follower.

In SN 48.18, the Buddha says:

And Bhikkhu Bodhis note on this passage says (I’m paraphrasing a little) that while in this sutta these faculties are restricted to those at the minimum level of path-attainer, the Pali tradition beginning with the Abhidhamma, regards them as general wholesome capacities also possessed by worldlings.

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oh, if by nobles you meant all these levels, not just ariyapuggala, then i’ve misconstrued your statement

To me, it’s quite possible that “remembering what we must do” is more a part of wisdom than mindfulness and mindfulness (as not being distracted or being clearminded and focused) just enables that wisdom to shine forth.

Also the simile in SN 47.20 could be about the level or intensity of (right) mindfulness, not about it’s characteristics.

And I really don’t mean to destroy the last part of the post I’m responding to, but I seem to remember perhaps an Ajahn Brahmali talk or something where he said there’s something fishy about MN 117. I could be totally wrong about this.

yes, there’s this view that

MN 117 has been tampered with

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No problem Raivo. Just keep searching.

In my experience, the description of the operation of ‘mindfulness’ in MN 117 is an important distinction from the ordinary interpretations about ‘mindfulness’. When I first read it, I was so pleased to read a description of ‘sati’ that conformed with my own (pre-existing) view.

In my experience, practising ‘mindfulness’ following MN 117 or, alternately, the ‘ordinary interpretations’, results in a large divergence in methodology & thus results. I know which method I have chosen.

I would suggest many suttas are likely to not be the actual words of the Buddha. This in itself does not negate the dhammic validity of what is written in them; just as Ajahn Brahmali not being the Buddha himself does not explicitly negate the dhammic validity of words of Ajahn Brahmali. Thus MN 118 ends as follows:

Bhikkhus, if any recluse or brahmin thinks that this Dhamma discourse on the Great Forty should be censured and rejected, then there are ten legitimate deductions from his assertions that would provide grounds for censuring him here and now. If that worthy one censures right view, then he would honour and praise those recluses and brahmins who are of wrong view. If that worthy one censures right intention, then he would honour and praise those recluses and brahmins who are of wrong intention. If that worthy one censures right speech… right action…right livelihood…right effort…right mindfulness…right concentration…right knowledge…right deliverance, then he would honour and praise those recluses and brahmins who are of wrong deliverance. If any recluse or brahmin thinks that this Dhamma discourse on the Great Forty should be censured and rejected, then these are ten legitimate deductions from his assertions that would provide grounds for censuring him here and now.

Sorry but I would like to remind us all to avoid not throwing the baby with the bathwater when it comes to the MN117.

As per the commentaries, in the early Sangha this was a crucial part of any bhikkhu curriculum and the way it presents a gradual causation / foundation for the path to mature and flourish is very useful for anyone who wants to make sense of his/her practice of the Dhamma.

In other words, I think it is not right to just discard it because it makes use of Abhidhammic pedagogy. It is indeed a very pretentious thing.

All in all, there must have been a genuine and good reason for Abhidhamma to have been compiled and preserved. If we completely lost our ability to make sense of it, the fault is on us and not on those who came up with it.

Indeed, I think this is a nice topic for discussion and study: what might have been the good reasons for the creation of the Abhidhamma?

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Bhante, what about this in AN 4.30:

It could be due to Bhikkhu Bodhis translation choices, but from this it seems to me that sammasati is more about not being confused / having clarity of mind and sammasamadhi about the mind not wandering off.

I’ve come across this muddle-mindedness as an antonym for mindfulness (or perhaps established mindfulness) in a few suttas, AN 8.30 is an example:

Your thoughts on the original Pali would be greatly appreciated…


What about “recollection” for sati?

We all know, for example, that the attractive objects of the senses (including the mind) are anicca, dukkha and anattā.

In daily life though, do we really look at things in this way, when various forms of dainty “dishes” appear? Sati could be seen as the “recollection” that enables us to do so, to bring our minds to see things as they REALLY are, in other words living with indriyasamvara. A sort of living up to what one knows only too well - IN THEORY.

Sampajañña would be “having one’s wits about one”, “clear-headedness”, keeping the mind alert and in the present, not drifting of into past or future - or theories. “Age quod agis”, as they say - do what you are doing.

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this is traditional translation of anussati which to be sure is based on the sati root but i think may have a narrower application

Here’s my translation of this passage:

Sammāsatiñce bhavaṃ dhammapadaṃ garahati paṭikkosati, ye ca hi muṭṭhassatī asampajānā samaṇabrāhmaṇā te bhoto pujjā te bhoto pāsaṃsā.
If you reject the basic principle of right mindfulness, then you must honor and praise those ascetics and brahmins who are unmindful, with no situational awareness.

Sammāsamādhiñce bhavaṃ dhammapadaṃ garahati paṭikkosati, ye ca hi asamāhitā vibbhantacittā samaṇabrāhmaṇā te bhoto pujjā te bhoto pāsaṃsā.
If you reject the basic principle of right samādhi, you must honor and praise those ascetics and brahmins who are scattered, with wandering minds.

As you can see, muṭṭhassatī is translated by BB as “muddle-minded” and by me as “unmindful”. Both are correct, I feel mine is a little more idiomatic.

We’re both using “wandering” for vibbhanta. This term is essentially used only in this kind of context and to describe a mendicant who has disrobed. The underlying meaning is to “spin, whirl” like a wheel. I’m not entirely happy with “wandering” here; perhaps “go astray”.

In any case, it’s a little hard to draw too much of a conclusion from these short phrases, since they are essentially just employing standard antonyms.


since i’m a stranger to the suttas, my knowledge on this is weak. but i think this might be helpful ; bhikkhu Analayo mentions something like this in his “perspectives on satipatthana, 2014”

44 In the case of mindfulness of breathing, for example, as pointed out by Bodhi 2011: 32, “the breath is something occurring in the present, not in the past, which means that in this context sati is attentiveness to a present event, not recollection of the past.” Thus when Gethin 2011: 270 conceptualizes the same practice to mean that “one has to remember that what it is one should be doing is remembering the breath”, I think his usage of the term “to remember” is intended to be understood in a rather broad sense, as a way of reflecting the fact that mindfulness holds things in mind and. thereby performs a function akin to remembering, but not in the sense that during mindfulness of breathing one is actually remembering something from the past. While I appreciate Gethin’s attempt to bridge the sense of sati as present-moment awareness and its nuances related to memory, I think it can become problematic if the aspect of remembering is given excessive emphasis. An example is Ṭhānissaro 2012: 86, who having confined sati to memory then has to find another term for present-moment awareness, which he allocates to clear knowing,sampajañña. His take on sati then makes it difficult for him to appreciate the qualities of receptivity and bare observation in mindfulness to such an extent that the satipaṭṭhāna instructions on their own appear incomplete to him and in need of supplementation; cf. Ṭhānissaro 2012: 150. In order to avoid such problems, I think we have to handle the memory aspect of mindfulness in a way that allows for the _essential qualities of sati as a receptive form of present-moment awareness to remain._

so,can Sati be defined as ;" bare attention",“receptivity”,"awareness of the present moment?

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