Rethinking parimukha … again!

This follows the post and discussion here:

In that post I said:

I’ve taken a closer look at Sanskrit sources, and I think there is a little more to that.

The commentary to Panini 4.4.29 has a nice explanation:

If pari has the force of exclusion (1.4.88) then parimukha will mean “a servant who always avoids the face of his master”, and if pari means “all round” then the word will mean “a servant who is always in the presence of his master”.

It seems pretty clear that the rather rare sense of “exclusion” for pari is not meant here, so we are left with the second. And it is from here that we get the sense “in the presence”. In fact, the passage in Panini is discussing the formation of the abstract noun pārimukhya, which is then given in Sanskrit dictionaries as meaning “presence”. This isn’t much, and I haven’t been able to trace it in any actual Sanskrit texts, but it is something.

An alert suttavadin will immediately notice that this is reminiscent of a famous sutta on satipatthana, the Sūdasutta (“Cooks”) at SN 47.8.

There, a foolish cook “serves” a master with dishes they dislike, while a clever cook observes what their master likes and dislikes and only gives what they like.

Now, the word to “serve” is paccupaṭṭhito. This is basically the same word that is the second element of satipatthana, namely upaṭṭhāna, with an added prefix that doesn’t change the meaning very much. The literal meaning of upaṭṭhāna is to “stand near”, and applied meanings include “attending to, serving”, “standing nearby (in attendance)”, “nursing, looking after”, “establishment”, “appearance, manifestation”.

So both upaṭṭhāna and parimukha, it seems, convey the sense of being in the presence of something or someone, while attending carefully. This is a nice meaning for mindfulness in meditation.

Sanskrit upasthāna

Let’s have more of a look at Sanskrit upasthāna. It has a similar range of meanings as upaṭṭhāna in Pali, but in addition, it’s commonly used in a religious sense, as in to worship, or enter reverently the place of god.

Rig Veda 2.41.21

May the adorable gods, devoid of malice, sit down today nigh to you both to drink the Soma.

The most common sense in the Śatapathabrāhmaṇ is to “stand near” the fire in worship (eg., i.e. to come into the presence of the god. It’s also used in the sense to “make come near”, or “bring into presence”, specifically in invoking the presence of Agni (,,,

Śatapathabrāhmaṇa puns on two meanings:

Thereupon he steps to (upa-sthā) the Gārhapatya fire. Twofold is the reason why he steps to the Gārhapatya: the Gārhapatya is a house, and a house is a safe resort, hence he thereby stays in a house, that is, in a safe resort. And, besides, what full measure of human life there is for him here, that he thereby attains (upa-sthā). This is why he steps to the Gārhapatya fire.

This shows us that, already before the Buddha, upasthāna had both a literal sense of “standing near”, “in the presence of”, as well as a more abstract sense of “attaining” or “establishing”.

It’s worth noting that in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the most common term in this sense is not upasthā “standing near”, but upās, “sitting near”.

The three stages of the gāyatrī, and the fourth

Now let’s look at an altogether more subtle passage, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 5.14, for which I’d recommend the translation of Radhakrishnan.

This passage analyzes the gāyatrī or sāvitrī mantra, the most important verse for brahmins, and one with which the Buddha was familiar. So familiar, in fact, that he specifies that it is recited in the gāyatrī metre, in accordance with the tradition of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka/Śatapatha, and against “some”, who in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 5.14.5 are said to teach it as an anustubh metre. Thus we have one clear and distinct point of contact between this Upanishadic passage and a statement by the Buddha.

The analysis of the gāyatrī here relates each of the three lines to a level or attainment or understanding.

  • The first line gives you the “three worlds”, i.e. secures benefits in the round of existence.
  • The second line wins you the “three knowledges”, i.e. the wisdom of the Vedas.
  • The third line is the breath or life force; or the organ of speech from which the Vedas arise.

So with each step we go deeper, into more subtle realms of knowledge. All these concepts—the three worlds, the three knowledges, the breath—are commonplaces in Buddhism.

But knowledge is not limited to words. So beyond the three lines of the verse is the “fourth” (turiya), which is visible, as it were, above the darkness, shining yonder above and beyond all that is dark. This is literally the sun, and metaphorically the knowledge of brahman and the self.

What’s interesting is that the interpretation shifts the verse from being a straightforward invocation of solar worship to a meditative and contemplative reading.

  • First we have the winning of the “three worlds”, which is essentially the aim of the Vedas themselves, their purpose being to ensure prosperity.
  • Then there is knowledge of knowledge, the three Vedas being regarded, not merely as effective poetic vehicles for invoking the gods, but as a source of wisdom. The Upanishads constantly emphasize that the true value of the Vedas only comes for “one who knows thus”.
  • Next we have the introduction of the breath. Throughout the Bṛhadāraṇyaka this is imbued with complex mystical significance, which, in my view, arises from the development of breath meditation, originally as a contemplation of that from which the Vedas arise. For if the Vedas are divine wisdom, and if they arise from divinity itself, then that divinity must be the breath.

This suggests that the breath, and the wisdom that arises from it, surpasses even the Vedas themselves. And our text goes so far as to suggest as much, saying that if there are two men, one of whom says he “hears” something, and one who “sees” it, we trust the one who sees. Personal vision and experience, i.e. the “visible fourth”, trumps the passed-down knowledge of the texts.

The breath, then, when contemplated properly in the light of the Vedas, leads beyond the breath itself to the “fourth”.

The course of practice here maps closely on that of Buddhism. Beginners do worldly acts of merit to secure prosperity with the “three worlds”. Then one undertakes learning the scripture, gaining wisdom so far as words go. Next one undertakes meditation, observing the breath. This leads to a realization of the transcendent truth.

This is all rather round-about, but I hope to have shown that this specific passage, for all its apparent mysticism and different context, shares more in common with Buddhism than one might think. Indeed, I believe it is likely that the Buddha studied this before his awakening.

How is this relevant? Because this chapter contains a rare use of upasthāna in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka. It begins verse 7, with “This is its upasthāna”. Here, upasthāna is variously translated as “salutation” or “veneration”.

But the passage that follows includes two rather different kinds of things. It starts with lines in salutation to the verse, then shifts over to various curses for enemies. It seems that true knowledge gives you a whole range of possibilities! The commentary says that upasthāna can be either blessings for oneself or curses for another. Perhaps a better translation, then, would be “invocation”, i.e. a “calling up”, which is coming closer to the Buddhist sense of “establishing”.

One implication of this is that upasthāna has a more active sense than simply “standing near”. And we find this, too, in the ideas of caring for, nursing, or attending on. So to establish mindfulness is to actively bring up the presence of mindfulness.

There’s another noteworthy detail here in verse 4:

That Gāyatrī protects the Gayas. The organs/breaths are the Gayas; so it saved the organs/breaths. Now, because it saved the organs/breaths, therefore it is called the Gāyatrī.

In the word Gāyatrī, the element gāya is derived from the sense “song”. But here it is identified with gaya in the sense "what has been conquered or acquired’, a house, household, family, goods and chattels, contents of a house, property, wealth. More specifically, it is the priests and others who attend to the verse whose organs/breaths are protected by the verse itself. Again, we see a parallel with Buddhism, as it is said that the Dhamma protects one who practices it.


As a translator, how does this help me? It doesn’t solve my problem per se, but it does suggest that the sense of “presence” applies to parimukha, rather than indicating a physical location specifically. And it tends to confirm my earlier suspicion, that parimukha is quasi-synonymous with ajjhattaṁ in the sense of “regarding oneself”, and also to upaṭṭhāna in the sense of “presence”. It also suggests that we should perhaps be looking for a rendering that is a little warmer than “establishing”, something that retains something of the sense of “care for”, “attend to”, “take care of”. But I’m not sure what that might be.

Return to the stock Pali passage on meditation, here is a literal rendering. Notice the parallel constructions with the absolutive verb.

pallaṅkaṁ ābhujitvā “having folded (legs) cross-wise”
ujuṁ kāyaṁ paṇidhāya “having set the body upright”
parimukhaṁ satiṁ upaṭṭhapetvā “having established mindfulness in one’s presence”

And with the non-standard inclusion of ajjhattaṁ we have:

pallaṅkaṁ ābhujitvā “having folded (legs) cross-wise”
ujuṁ kāyaṁ paṇidhāya “having set the body upright”
kāyagatāya satiyā ajjhattaṁ parimukhaṁ sūpaṭṭhitāya “with mindfulness of the body well established in one’s presence internally”

Here, despite the -āya ending shared with the absolutive paṇidhāya, kāyagatāya satiyā … sūpaṭṭhitāya are not verbs but nominals, and should probably be read as instrumental. And here we can readily read ajjhattaṁ and parimukhaṁ as quasi-synonyms, both referring to the setting up of mindfulness inside oneself.

A similar construction occurs with:

ānāpānassati ca vo ajjhattaṁ parimukhaṁ sūpaṭṭhitā hotu
Let mindfulness of breathing be well-established in your presence internally.

So on reflection I think my former translation of “presence” was better, and my corrected translation “in front” worse. sighs


In one’s own visitation? Maybe epiphany has semantic sharing, except that refers to a visitation from the magi.

Gee, I only just saw your post. I posted in the old thread.

Umm…sorry…Pali novice here… Does this mean sūpaṭṭhitāya is not an absolutive? I’m scratching my head and feeling very stupid. Would it be okay to explain this a little…?

I wonder if what I said in the previous thread still works if sūpaṭṭhitāya is not an absolutive? I think Bhante @Sunyo said parimukhaṁ was an adverb. I was assuming that it was related to sūpaṭṭhitāya and that sūpaṭṭhitāya was an absolutive.

This is kinda (sorta) like what I was saying in the other thread. Only it doesn’t sound like it. I was suggesting that the active part of all this happens way before the mindfulness is there. But I guess, when one gets more practised and adept, and the early parts of the path are easy, one can cause mindfulness to arise easily and seemingly at will. Although, even this is because of a lot hard work undertaken over a long period of time!!

Just playing with this a bit… I know ‘priority’ and ‘presence’ are different words - clearly. But to me, when I think of making mindfulness a priority - I mean that I want it to become a presence.

Anyway, thanks (she says in a very small voice, hoping you’ll explain the Pali, if there is indeed anything further to be added.)

If you break up parimukha into pari + mukha, you can get the following from the Online Pali English Dictionary

pari = to bring across

Using your

mukha = presence, which I take to be sanna (the known)

pari+mukha = to bring across [the flood] the inner presence, i.e. the known/sanna or one’s true/inner face. Face, in this case, is what Zen calls the face before your parents were born.

Added later: If by the presence of the breath you mean to include the outer and inner body through the breathing I think that works, but you lose an allusion to “crossing over” and a link to another branch of Buddhism.

I’ve not seen the word ‘mukha’ defined as ‘presence’, but ‘parimukha’ can have the idiomatic sense of ‘in the forefront’ , ‘primary focus’, etc.

Maybe a bit like the expression “facing the x” (future, facts, music, etc. ).
The idiom is not really about one’s actual face.

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Maybe “call forth”? Kind of in between the 2…

I’ve heard in other traditions that the face especially reflects (mirrors) the state of “manas”.

It’s the inner or true face. The face before your parents were born.

To bring across is an allusion to crossing over the flood.

People may sometimes have a tendency to be a bit more literal and make it about space, location, etc., rather than about being present. But presence seems to make more sense in this context (i.e., being calm, collected).

This is also the type of thing that I would be interested in reading about in translation notes. Translation choices are always interesting, as well as non-Buddhist sources for comparison, etc.

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So, basically, I think what you’re suggesting is something like:

With (mindfulness) called upon: presence internally.

Having evoked/called upon the presence (of) mindfulness…

In the texts, this phrase (I think) eventually leads into the Jhana formulas. When I think about this now, after all this recent discussion, the implication is that at this stage, one is already highly evolved, especially as the Buddha’s standards in the suttas were pretty high!

To be able to just call upon the high level of mindfulness that is required to be able to let go so much, and with effortless ease, is not where most of us are at. We’d be lucky to experience a small sliver of this.

Again, suggesting a quite high level of practise already.

I can’t help wondering what this means in terms of the possibilities that exist and the emphasis or direction we should cultivate as meditators.

To give such reverence to something, means to give it a lot of attention, to see it as being important, to ‘make much of it’. The practical implications are rather important, aren’t they?

I can’t help noting that ‘priority’ works nicely too. And I can’t help thinking that parimukha has more in common with upaṭṭhāna, than it does with ajjhattaṁ.

Thanks for the cool post Bhante. :pray:t5:

Bhante, what about ‘mindful in/of the present [moment]’? Isn’t that kinda the basic starting point of meditation? Attending to whatever is present :slight_smile:

Yes, it’s a bit confusing because it follows two phrases with absolutives (pallaṅkaṃ ābhujitvā ujuṃ kāyaṃ paṇidhāya) and paṇidhāya has an absolutive ending in -āya.

But sūpaṭṭhita is an adjective from the past participle, and sūpaṭṭhitāya can be instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, or locative. It agrees with kāyagatāya satiyā, both of which are similarly ambiguous, but the most obvious sense would be instrumental (“with”).

According to DPD, the absolutives in this root family take the -tvā ending.

Sure. I mean, I think all these different meanings are in a similar semantic space, I don’t think it practically matters all that much. I am just possessed by a demon that makes me want to figure things out!

If you did. You probably shouldn’t though. :wink:

I mean, that’s the question at hand. So far as I can determine, it only occurs in the passages I have cited, so we can’t make general statements about its meaning other than what we see here.

Indeed, yes.

Yes, something like that.

Indeed yes.

Well it’s relative. This is the middle of the Gradual Training, when the basic practices have been mastered and one is embarking on meditation.

Yes, I think there’s an emotional resonance in these words that the rather clinical term “establish” doesn’t really capture.

Yes, I was conscious of that. Again, it’s close to the meaning, but upaṭṭhāna (and probably parimukha) seem to be spatial rather than temporal terms. So yes, to be “in ones presence” means to be “in the present (moment)”.


Reading the discussion above, including @Vimuti’s, responses it strikes me that this is a quality of ‘receptivity’. If it’s just presence, then that doesn’t account for the attentiveness.
Or maybe I’m missing the point of this conversation!



Although some of the arguments here seem somewhat of a long shot, the general idea that parimukkha in a way emphasizes the “present” and “established” idea, is something that I think is contextually more appropriate than some other interpretations.

On the traditonal “around the face/nose/mouth” idea, I earlier thought that passages which use the parimukkha phrase outside of Anapanassati are rather rare, so may include it accidentally. But they are not that uncommon and in some context the accident would be too obvious to be overlooked by the redactors/reciters. So I don’t think it can mean that overall.

A hypothesis cannot be tested in isolation. At a minimum, it must be tested against a null hypothesis. Explanatory power is a criterion for accepting a hypothesis. Considering the literal meaning of two words combined is not absurd. Words are coined this way. Arupa is A+rupa. Meanings can drift afterward and become more abstract or generalized or take on different connotations, but they typically start as literal meanings.

In the Chinese translation parallel MA 81 this phrase occurs three times

Where is the corresponding phrase in MN 119? The above appears to be very important given that it appears three times. The alternative hypothesis that parimukha = pari+mukha is an explanation. I understand the reluctance to accept this, but it is clear that the meaning of the word is not resolved. Opening up the candidate pool might be a necessity here.

If I can chime in.

Whatever the meaning, it will be closely related to the form and function of “mindfulness”. That term is accurately defined in the suttas, but there seems to be a great deal of disagreement about what “sati” means in the general sense when it comes to the question “what is awareness?”

I prefer “to the fore” myself. And I will explain why.

There seems to be a conscious field surrounding vision. It can be clearly noted at night when there’s but a little light illuminating the darkness. That effervescent “glow” which appears on objects in the moonlight, for example. Or, alternatively, we can see it when we close our eyes. Or, we can even pierce through it when approaching states of sleep (to the degree that visions are obtained on the verge of it).

I think we can be attentive to this field both actively and passively.

In the active sense, we almost need to “exert our will” upon external reality and solidly “establish” mindfulness on visible objects in so far as they are, sort of, “swimming” in the conscious field.

This seems to be more difficult than the passive approach which, respectively, establishes a clear focus on visible objects by simply “submitting” to the sense media. Maybe some of us are aware of how colours “just seem brighter” and “sharper”.

And, of course, we can be inattentive altogether. We can let sense data flow in and out of us like white noise, never taking note of any of it or specifically bringing it into focus. This, I think we can mostly all agree, is what it means to “not be mindful”.

So, I think it is the active or passive “establishment” of mindfulness “to the fore” which arises as a type of coalescence (passively or actively) with the conscious field.

Now, the conscious field, so far as I can tell, is an extension of the body. And peering into it whilst also releasing it can serve the purpose of relaxing the body.

Likewise, this carrys over quite fluidly to feelings, the mind, and mental phenomenon.

So, I would take parimukha rather idiomatically the way it’s been translated as “to the fore” - meaning “with relation to external reality in so far as the conscious field extends to it.”

Thanks y’all!

I think the issues are are we trying to achieve:

  1. a state we can take “off the cushion” that is felt in a detached way and without self. (Right Mindfulness)
  2. a state where the physical body is not felt and where the body is completely limp. (Right Samadhi)
  3. both.

I choose #3. The directions appear to be split into two parts, the parimukha phase and the rest. I believe that the parimukha part is centered around the feeling and muscle tone of the eyes and the visual field with depth.

My concern about relating parimukha to breathing is that it seems to avoid the first step and plunge the meditator into the second step. Maybe I am wrong about this. I would be interested in your feedback about the issues I brought up.

Well, what I am trying to achieve is to understand these words in their historical context, which is the entirety of my actual post, and which not a single commentator has acknowledged or engaged with at all. :person_shrugging: So maybe a discussion of what these words feel like to you belongs in a different thread? :pray:


Hi Venerable, I don’t think I said that. :slight_smile: Just to be clear, in the previous thread (and our Pali classes) I believe we only discussed the stock phrase, which definitely has an absolutive upaṭṭhapetvā. Bhante Sujato is here talking about a unique passage found in Ud8.7. I never looked at that in detail so I would be surprised if I said anything about it.

As to parimukham being an adverb, it depends a bit on how you interpret the meaning of the phrase, but that’s what it looks like, at least in the stock phrase.

Hi Bhante,

It’s hard to engage with texts you aren’t that familiar with, but I very much appreciate such analysis. In a sense Buddhist textual studies seem to be still in their infancy, with most scholarship, starting with the commentaries themselves, not considering external context or texts of other traditions.

Still, parimukha stays obscure to me for now. :wink:


For me the most interesting thing is the passage on the Gayatri, which admittedly is tangential to the main topic, but is a really interesting example of how Yajnavalkya bridged from a classic Vedic text towards something that is much closer to “Buddhism”. I stumbled upon it while researching upasthāna. Those unexpected connections are the most exciting.