Non-self in Satipaṭṭhāna

This is the beginning excerpt of the full paper found HERE.


The seminal Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is today one of the most studied discourses of the entire Pali canon. It serves to verify, investigate, intuit and internalize Dhamma through through contemplation of direct experience, that we may attain knowledge and vision of the way things are, and it is the historical basis of modern insight or vipassanā meditation. I intend here to show here what is rarely recognized, that the primary Dhamma teaching of concern in the first three of the four themes of satipaṭṭhāna (body, feeling, mind and dhammas) is that pivotal and most challenging teaching: non-self.

Briefly, the first three satipaṭṭānas correspond to three facets of the self as it is presumed to exist as a substantial, fixed thing. Each of the exercises within this scope challenges this presumption by demonstrating that bodily, percipient and mental evidence for the presumption is lacking, primarily through recognition the impermanence of the evidence in contrast with the presumption. It is the distinction between evidence and presumption that gives us the dichotomies referred to in “internal and external” and in “body in body.”

We will initially set aside the wide-ranging fourth satipaṭṭāna, each exercise of which takes up a recognized dhamma (Dhamma teaching) for experiential investigation and internalization. The exercises of the first three satipaṭṭhānas are quite different in that they make little or no reference to Dhamma in the exercises themselves, but rely on the common formulaic refrain that is, nonetheless rich in Dhamma. The refrain uniformly conveys the critical teaching of the three characteristics (tilakkhaṇa) of non-self, impermanence and suffering. To get a sense of the logic of the refrain, consider this passage from the Mahānidāna Suta:

*Now, Ānanda, one who says: “feeling is my self” should be told: “There are three kinds of feelings, friend: pleasant, painful, and neither pleasant not painful. Which of the three do you consider to be your self?” When a pleasant feeling is felt, no painful or neither pleasant not painful feelings is felt, but only pleasant feelings. When a painful feelings is felt, no pleasant or neither pleasant not painful feeling is felt, but only a painful feeling. And when a neither pleasant not painful feeling is felt, no pleasant or painful feeling.
*A pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, bound to decay, to vanish, to fade away, to cease – and so too is a painful feeling and a neither pleasant not painful feeling. So anyone who, on experiencing a pleasant feeling, thinks, “This is my self,” must, at the cessation of that pleasant feeling think: “My self has gone!” and the same with a painful and a neither pleasant not painful feeling. Thus whoever thinks: “feeling is my self” is contemplating something in this present life that is impermanent, a mixture of happiness and unhappiness, subject to arising and passing away. Therefore it is not fitting to maintain: “feeling is my self.” (DN 15 ii66-7).

We notice that this Mahānidāna passage considers the prospect that feeling is equivalent to the self, and argues that this is unsubstantiated. The teaching of non-self is that we presume the existence of a substantial, fixed self as an abstraction which is unsupported by the evidence, and which furthermore results in suffering. It is just as reasonable to consider that either body or mind is equivalent to the self. This explains the particular themes the first three satipaṭṭhānas: the body, feeling and the mind are three facets of this self that we presume to our detriment.

The Mahānidāna passage then considers the evidence for feeling being this presumed self and finds it wanting, primarily because whatever it is we experience as feeling is always fragmentary, situation-specific, and ever changing, that is, impermanent and lacking the substantial fixedness we presume the self to have. We could argue the same way about the body and the mind.

Now, let’s compare the Mahānidāna passage with the Satipaṭṭhāna refrain:

(1) In this way he abides contemplating body in the body internally, or he abides contemplating body in the body externally, or he abides contemplating body in the body both internally and externally.
( 2) He abides contemplating in body the nature of arising, or he abides contemplating in body the nature of vanishing, or he abides contemplating in body the nature of both arising and vanishing.
(3) Recollection that “the body exists” is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and proficiency.1
(4) He abides independent. He doesn’t cling to anything in the world.
… That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating body in the body. (MN 10)

I submit that the logic of the two passages is substantially the same:

In paragraph (1), what we contemplate “internally” is the observable bodily “evidence,” based on the instructions of the preceding exercise itself. I will call this contemplation “internal analysis.” What we contemplate “externally” is the body as a facet of the self, which is a “presumption” of a substantial, fixed thing. When we contemplate both “internally and externally,” we are asking, Are these the same? We discover that we cannot reconcile the presumption with the evidence. I will call these final two contemplations “external analysis.”

Paragraph (2) brings the dhamma of impermanence into internal analysis, for the fragmentary, contingent and ephemeral nature of the internal evidence undermines uniquely well the presumption of the substantial, fixed self.

Paragraph (3) recognizes the practical usefulness of the external body, feeling and mind, that is, of the self, for instance, to cross the street without getting run over by an ox cart. But we dare not take them as more than conveniences, we take care to acknowledge their emptiness. This is a subtle point, and I’m glad to see it here.

Paragraph (4) is the sole (albeit oblique) reference in the refrain to the characteristic (lakkhaṇa) of suffering, but taking an optimistic perspective, as something abandoned along with clinging by means of this practice.

This dichotomy of evidence and presumption makes sense of the expression ‘contemplating body in the body,’ and of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ in the refrain. “Internal body” (which I translate grammatically into English as an indefinite collective) is bodily “evidence,” fragmentary, situation-specific, observable and ever changing. “The external body” (a singular definite) is one’s body “presumed” to exist as a substantial, fixed thing, since it is a facet of “the self.”2 “Contemplating both internally and externally” is to search for the external body/self on the basis of the evidence, failing, thereby “quelling” (subduing or pacifying) the presumption that it is there.

Since the refrain does not mention “self” or “no-self” directly, it is easy to miss the degree to which the satipaṭṭhāna is about non-self.3 The critically important teaching of non-self is somewhat unique among the dhammas and requires a distinct method of analysis, for we cannot directly verify a negative in experience. Each individual exercise in the first three satipaṭṭhānas is a kind of thought experiment that represents yet another way to deconstruct the presumption of the self, largely in terms of impermanence. This is virtually the sole function of the first three satipaṭṭānas, not as an intellectual exercise, but through repeatedly encountering the incompatability between the external body, feeling or mind and its internal evidence, to produce an intuitive, internalized understanding of non-self.4

Some readers may be scratching their heads or raising their eyebrows, wondering why anyone would want presumptively to equate feeling with the self. This role in the case of the body and of the mind seem clear: famously “I think, therefore I am,” and analogously “I physically occupy space, therefore I am!” Consciousness also fits well as a facet of self: recall the “pernicious view” of the bhikkhu Sāti, for instance, that it is consciousness that is reborn. 5 I surmise that, due to a close association between feeling and consciousness, feeling serves as a stand-in for consciousness. Together the body, consciousness and the mind give us a neatly construed self whose facets are a solid container, a space inside in which thoughts and emotions play our, and a window to the world outside.6

The kinship of feeling with consciousness can be appreciated if we first note that vedanā ‘feeling’ is in fact a gerund of the verb vedeti ‘sense, know, experience,’ and hence effectively literally means ‘being conscious of.’ Although the examples of vedanā repeated in the Pali formulas seem to be limited to immediate simple valuations of suffering, pleasure, or simply “mattering,” this factor is, in fact, the basis from which the entire world we are conscious of unfolds. For the Buddha:

All things … come together in feeling. (AN 9.14)

The causal influence of vedanā is described as follows:

With contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one thinks about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates. With what one has mentally proliferated as the source, perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man … (MN 18, i112-3)

Through feeling, leading to perception and proliferation of thought, we imagine the world that we are conscious of.

About this, the Buddha said,

In this fathom-long living body, along with its percep­tions and thoughts, lies the world, the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world. (AN 4.45)

The Pali word for ‘world’ (loka) is equated with consciousness, since it is consistently used in the sense of world we are conscious of, not some “objective” world largely beyond experience.7 This gives us the following facets, which correspond to the first three satipaṭṭhānas:

(1) the self as the body,
(2) the self as consciousness, and
(3) the self as the mind.

The way one presumes the self seem likely to include all three facets, but there are there are doubtlessly variations. In fact, the Mahānidāna Sutta also considers two alternatives to equating feeling with the self.

In what ways, Ānanda, do people regard the self? They equate the self with feeling:
1. “Feeling is my self,” or
2. “Feeling is not my self, my self is impercipient,” or
3. “Feeling is not my self, but my self is not impercipient, it is of a nature to feel.” (DN 15 ii66)

The first option is that self is simply equivalent to feeling. The second is that the self is equivalent to body, the facet which cannot perceive. The third is that the self is equivalent to mind, the facet that can perceive and emote, and from which feeling and consciousness arise. This gives us the first three satipaṭṭhānas as alternatives: body, feelings and mind, as reflecting these three facets of self.


  1. I deliberately avoid translating sati as ‘mindfulness,’ because this term has lost the original intention of Rhys David’s once apt translation. See my associated paper, How “mindfulness” got mislabeled. ‘Proficiency’ is my attempt to restore that intention.

  2. ‘Contemplating body in the body’ translates kāye kāyānupassī. Translating the locative kāye requires choice of a specific English preposition and either a definite or indefinite article; I choose ‘in the body’ for consistency with the present account of the external (or “whole”) body. kāyānupassī is a compound kāya+anupassī, literally ‘body-contemplating.’ I choose to translate kāya here as a noun, but without an article, to convey the collective sense of internal body as an unspecified range of bodily evidence.

  3. The “internally/externally/both” formula is attested in all parallel versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and found repeated in other correlates, but is more commonly part of the introduction (Sujāto 2012, 205).

  4. In the related paper The miracle of samādhi I show how samādhi facilitates such internalization through disrupting conceptualization.

  5. MN 38 i256-8.

  6. This is also roughly what your car gives you, which might explain why many of us identify with out cars.

  7. Hamilton (2000) is largely concerned with the implications of this point. She states (p. 140) that forgetting that the focus of Dhamma is the world of experience, leads to a lot of misunderstandings. See also Cintita (2021, 5-9).

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“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or externally on the body in & of itself, or both internally & externally on the body in & of itself.

Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the body, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body.

Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by [not clinging to] anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

—Digha Nikaya 22

As shown there are three divisions in this passage and they apply to different stages of practice- beginner, intermediate, and arahant.

“many of the exercises mentioned under the first stage
are incompatible with the practice described in the third. The first-stage exercises
make heavy use of verbal fabrication and concepts of “I” and “me”: “I will
breathe in experiencing the entire body”; “I am walking”; “I am feeling a
pleasant feeling not of the flesh”; “There is sensual desire present within me”;
“Mindfulness as a factor for awakening is present within me”; and so forth. In
the third stage, however, these concepts are dropped in favor of the simple
observation, “There is a body,” and so forth”


It’s important not to make the common mistake of subsuming everything to the stage of arahanthood, as self is a necessary component of the earlier stages (Anguttara Nikaya 3.40).

Hello. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta looks like just collection of excerpts compiled together from other suttas. For example, the kayanupassana part includes the phrase: “Trains oneself”, which is found in each higher stage of the Anapanasati Sutta but absent for the remainder of the Satipatthana Sutta. Or the cittanupassana part is taken from suttas referring to externally knowing the mind of others. The mind cannot really be “scattered” once the cittanupassana is reached therefore this also shows the Satipatthana Sutta is just a contrivance. Also, the term ‘samudaya’ is used incorrectly in the Satipatthana Sutta. ‘Samudaya’ means the arising of something together with an unwholesome state (SN 22.5; Patisambiddhamagga). There cannot be the ‘samudaya’ of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths is not a samudayadhammā.

Mahānidāna Suta

Might not it best to quote SN 22.59 to explain not-self rather than quote another late sutta, such as DN 15, which contains many questionable aspects?

Paragraph (2) brings the dhamma of impermanence into internal analysis, for the fragmentary, contingent and ephemeral nature of the internal evidence undermines uniquely well the presumption of the substantial, fixed self.

Not necessarily. In SN 22.1, the puthujjana assumes what is impermanent to be self.

The Pali word for ‘world’ (loka) is equated with consciousness

SN 12.44 says the world (loka) ceases while consciousness arises. The word ‘loka’ equates to dukkha in SN 12.44 and in AN 4.45.

sati as ‘mindfulness,’

Sati means mindfulness. It means recollection or remembrance. It does not mean proficiency.

all parallel versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

This only shows the parallel versions are also late contrivances/concoctions/fabrications.

Paragraph (3) recognizes the practical usefulness of the external body, feeling and mind, that is, of the self, for instance, to cross the street without getting run over by an ox cart. But we dare not take them as more than conveniences, we take care to acknowledge their emptiness. This is a subtle point, and I’m glad to see it here.

The above commentary is difficult for me to understand.

(3) Recollection that “the body exists” is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and proficiency.

‘Atthi kāyo… upādiyati’ is probably the best aspect pointing to not-self, that is, seeing “there is body” rather than having the view “body is self”. But it looks like not-self is unambiguously introduced in dhammānupassanākhandhapabba about the five aggregates. Note: this section uses the terms samudayo & atthaṅgamo consistent with other suttas, such as SN 22.5 & AN 4.41. Samudayo & atthaṅgamo or udayabbayānupassī (in AN 4.41) refer to Dependent Origination & Cessation, rather than explicitly to impermanence (anicca). The Patisambiddhamagga, again, makes this clear about udayabbayānupassī. Again, this part of the Satipatthana Sutta is just text borrowed from other suttas to paste together the “collage” known as the Satipatthana Sutta. The forgery called the Satipatthana Sutta is so sloppy, with so many fingerprints left everywhere, it can hardly be called the Establishments of Proficiency Sutta or the Foundations of Proficiency Sutta. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Yes, the sutta (MN10) is in fact an expanded version from SN/SA suttas.

Paul, I am not familiar with Thanissaro’s analysis that you quote. Can you provide a complete citation, I’d like to take a closer look.

It seems quite apparent (at least to me) that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is a practice tutorial (probably of late composition), of twenty-one exercises to facilitate verifying and internalizing Dhammic teachings in one’s own experience. This is not a beginner’s practice, and arahants are beyond training, so it is intended for use “intermediates,” who still have a strong presumption of self, me and mine. Insofar as it facilitates the teaching of non-self, it refers to that which arahants have fully realized. That is what satipaṭṭhāna practice is for, so of course the differing perspectives are represented. I see nothing surprising about his. What you have marked as the third stage (my (3) + (4)) is simply an anticipation of the eventual result of this intermediate practice.

Non-self presents a particular problem for training, because it cannot be directly verified (you can’t prove a negative). Instead, the sutta repeatedly demonstrates that what we commonly experience as a manifestation self, such as various aspects of bodily experience, is incongruent with the level of permanence attributed to a fixed self. The evidence does not support the presumption. That is why non-self receives so much attention in the sutta.

That does not contradict my statement about how widely the sutta is studied. But I have no doubt that you are right about the sutta’s genesis. In fact the final form of most suttas is largely a cobbling together of fixed formulas found also in other suttas. But late suttas can be faithful to the Dhamma as well. There is an important methodological issue here: If we start with the premise that a text is a sloppy forgery, we will never take it seriously enough to recognize its possible merits. It may well be a coherent, logical expression consistent with the rest of Dhamma, but we fail to recognize it as such because we initially misinterpret it. If we do not start which that premise, in the worst case we can a establish a better argument that it is in fact a sloppy forgery. I have come to find the sutta pretty coherent and logical, though not perfectly so.

I’m not trying to explain non-self. I’m trying to explain how non-self is taught in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta through direct examination. That “the puthujjana assumes what is impermanent to be self” is exactly right. The sutta provides a means for the intermediate practitioner to investigate further and dispel this delusion.

You are quite right. Thanks for pointing this out. The world is “associated” with consciousness, at least for the person in training.

I realize “proficiency” sounds odd. But notice that proficiency is memory, the kind of memory involved in skilled performance of some task, like driving or playing the accordion. It is know-how rather than know-what. Buddhist practice is skilled performance based not only on book-knowledge of Dhamma (and Vinaya), but also on the degree that the Dhamma has been familiarized and internalized and brought to bear in the current practice situation, and eventually has become a matter of direct perception. I’ve written on the problem with the current understanding of mindfulness HERE, and justified my choice of ‘proficiency’ HERE.

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I think the Satipatthana Sutta falls into the sphere of an Abhidhammic-like fantasy about arising & passing. Meditation does not work like this; that a meditator sits down & sees all manner of different feelings & mental states arising & passing. The various “vipassana” practices concocted by the Burmese from the Satipatthana Sutta look like they fall into the sphere of brainwashing one self with various types of mental notings & imaginings.

The reality of meditation is as samadhi develops, certain salient meditation objects manifest. Thus when when samadhi is establish upon breathing, it is quite easy for the mind to naturally see the coming & going of the respective in-breaths & out-breaths & various qualities/aspects of the breathing. But when it comes to feelings or the mind, it is not easy for a beginning yet proficient meditator to directly & precisely see the arising & passing of these mental phenomena. Possibly a meditator that emerges from the 4th jhana can observe a stream of feelings & perceptions arising & passing with various ordinary sense contacts. But for a samadhi developer, as described in the Anapanasati Sutta, the feelings that are considered to be worthy meditation objects are rapture & happiness. These feelings are the salient sense object and the meditator experiences these feelings for a significant period of time before they finally calm. While during this experience the meditator certainly can discern fluctuations in the intensity & vibrations of these feelings, overall, the experience of feelings in the Anapanasati Sutta is the realistic prolonged & thorough experience of those pleasant feelings rather than a theoretical Abhidhammic-like fantasy about the “flashing” of feelings & mental states “arising” & “passing”.

As I mentioned, suttas such as AN 4.41 & MN 122 literally refer to observing the rise & fall of attachment in relation to the five aggregates. Thus, the terms samudaya & atthaṅgama used in AN 4.41 & MN 122 appear to be about observing the rise & fall or growth & cessation of attachment (upadana), as again described in SN 22.5. Further, as already posted, the Patisambiddhamagga confirms this literal interpretation of the meaning of samudaya & atthaṅgama used in AN 4.41, MN 122 & SN 22.5.

Therefore, the use of the terms samudaya & vaya in the Satipatthana Suttas that suggest the mere appearance & disappearance of body, feelings, mind & Dhamma sounds contrary to the Dhamma and may actually place the Satipatthana Suttas as even later than the Patisambiddhamagga. The problematic SN 47.42 would also fall into this genre of very late suttas improperly using the term samudaya.

Another sign of lateness is the teaching of the six contacts, six feelings, six perceptions, six intentions, six cravings, six applied thought & six sustained thought found only in DN 22 is also found in the Patisambiddhamagga.

The point I am making is I think the Satipatthana Sutta is misleading for practitioners, who may gain the idea they will sit in meditation & observe phenomena flashing in & out of consciousness. I think this potentially becomes a “fantasy” or “self-suggestion” or “brainwashing” and causes practitioners to understate the significance, potential, goals & aspiration of meditation. It is not “direct seeing” of impermanence & not-self aggregates/phenomena . :slightly_smiling_face:

SN47.42 (= SA 609) is clearly associated with the series of causal condition (nidana), similar to the four aharas ‘nutriments’ in SN 12.11-12, 63-64; SA 371-378 (in the Nidana Samyutta of SN/SA). Cf.:
Pages 202-204 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (221.5 KB)

SN 47.42 (= SA 609) is not about samatha, the practice of ‘mindfulness’ sati (in the Satipatthana Samyutta of SN/SA).

I appreciate the concern that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta may be late, and don’t disagree with the points made above. However, I am not so concerned with this issue in the context of my current research. Let me explain why. I’ve found that the sutta has an almost entirely coherent logic, and is very consistent with the body of earlier teachings, perhaps with a little fraying around the edges. Moreover, I note that the various correlates share in common the following important features:

  • the four categories of body, feeling, mind and dhammas,
  • the qualities of ardency, comprehension, proficiency and “having put aside … grief for the world,” and
  • the threefold mode of analysis in terms of “internal,” “external” and “both internal and external,” as well as the language “body in/as body,” etc.

What is missing in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is a clear statement concerning,

  • the integration of samādhi as an essential factor in satipaṭṭhāna practice.

But since this source is the most comprehensive text on satipaṭṭhāna it is convenient to use it to orient my discussion, in spite of its lateness.

I’ve been looking hard and writing about satipaṭṭhāna for the last couple of years. It’s always surprised me how little in the early satipaṭṭhāna texts we interpret consistently or convincingly. I’ve been focusing on the bulleted points above. My papers can be found HERE.