Sati/Mindfulness - Remembering what was Done & Said long ago?

One of the standard “definitions” of mindfulness, frequently recurring in the discourses, is that one “remember(s) and recall(s) what was said and done long ago”.
Do you think this refers specifically to remembering the teachings, as in, having to do with the oral tradition OR is it a more general memory as in “I remember Playschool being the manufacturer of the spinning mobile above my crib” and “I remember I ate bacon & eggs on Wednesday, August 14th, 10 years ago”.
Might be suggestive of this definition of sati not referring specifically to remembering Dhamma, since that is already taken up by the 1st “protector”.



The full definition of the faculty of mindfulness involves more than memory alone. From SN 48.9:

And what is the faculty of mindfulness? It’s when a noble disciple is mindful. They have utmost mindfulness and alertness, and can remember and recall what was said and done long ago. This is called the faculty of mindfulness.

Bhikkhu Anālayo has covered the relationship between mindfulness and memory is his 2018 article Once Again on Mindfulness and Memory in Early Buddhism. He cautions against equating mindfulness with memory and instead understands mindfulness to enhance memory.


Yea, it’s fairly multi-faceted in it’s definitions in the discourses. There’s also it’s role as protector and as gatekeeper. I was just referring to this one aspect of the broader definition. Bhikkhu Anālayo’s writing is actually what prompted this question. I don’t know of other commentators that share his idea about it being the quality that enhances memory.


I believe Ven Anālayo is wrong on this one. I think it is clear that mindfulness is not just a kind of attention that facilitates memory but is actually the ability to remember things. I think it’s easiest to just say the word sati is polysemous with two meanings, one related to memory, and one related to present attention and that they are connected to each other but still somewhat distinct.

We have a definition of sati as the ability to remember and we have suttas that talk about remembering the teaching as fulfilling sati/mindfulness as an awakening factor:

“Dwelling thus withdrawn, one recollects that Dhamma and thinks it over. Whenever, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwelling thus withdrawn recollects that Dhamma and thinks it over, on that occasion the enlightenment factor of mindfulness is aroused by the bhikkhu; on that occasion the bhikkhu develops the enlightenment factor of mindfulness; on that occasion the enlightenment factor of mindfulness comes to fulfilment by development in the bhikkhu. - SuttaCentral


The Satipatthana refrain includes three qualities- ardency, alertness and mindfulness, and they encompass memory, focus on the present, and effort. Thanissaro points out that experience can be made purposeful, and explains how the raw material of present experience can be shaped to escape from the round of samsara. This is achieved by applying memory of dhamma to events in the present for future benefit. These three are integrated in the process of mindfulness.

“ it (mindfulness) remembers lessons drawn from right view in the past—both lessons from reading and listening to the Dhamma, as well as lessons from reading the results of your own actions—that can be used to shape this activity in a more skillful direction: to act as the path to the end of suffering,”—“ Right Mindfulness”, Thanissaro.

“Dwelling thus mindfully, he discriminates that Dhamma with wisdom, examines it, makes an investigation of it. Whenever, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwelling thus mindfully discriminates that Dhamma with wisdom, examines it, makes an investigation of it, on that occasion the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states is aroused by the bhikkhu; on that occasion the bhikkhu develops the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states; on that occasion the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states comes to fulfilment by development in the bhikkhu.”— SN 46.3 SC

“Makes an investigation of it” means applying dhamma principles to events in everyday life, in particular impermanence. This may occur at the time in cases of well developed mindfulness, or it may be a later assessment of the event and putting it into a dhamma framework. This latter contemplation strengthens the threefold process of mindfulness. When the event is successfully interpreted in terms of dhamma, then the joy of insight arises.


The way I understand, remembering what was done & said long ago is Vitakka and Vicara.
There are two types of Vitakka and Vicara namely wholesome and unwholesome.
If you memorising the past and apply Buddha Dhamma, it is considered wholesome. Perhaps this is an aspect of Satipathana.
Mindless thinking is unwholesome and becomes suffering which is not recommended in Satipathana.

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Sati is definitely not ‘remembering what was done and said long ago’, according to SN47.2 . Sati is about awareness (sampajaana), in the mental direction of ‘restraining covetousness and distress in the world’ (vineyya loke abhijjhaadomanassa.m) (Choong Mun-keat, Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, p. 216)


I’m trying to understand the connection between these two meanings of sati.
Presumably one effect of practising nupassana (as per the Satipatthana Sutta) would be a clearer memory of the experiences we’ve had over time? I mean if you’re really noticing aspects of experience, then you’re more likely to remember them.

Recollecting one’s past actions is a way to make them more wholesome, with time, according to the Buddha’s advice to Ven Rahula. It is said that mindfulness, along with right view and effort, is required to cultivate each step of the path, and considering the general character of Pali concepts, it is likely to be broad(er) than what we are used to now.

But apart from what has been said above I would say that the five hindrances are a hindrance to remembering the vedas, according to the Buddha. They hinder sati as well, and therein share this quality.

Also you cannot me mindful without the intention to be mindful and one of the way in which this seems to work (at least for me) is that there must be a need to be mindful, along with the ability to remember to be mindful. Mindfulness can suppress small defilements, and therefore is likely to be an abhisankhara or a forceful mental fabrication. Memory is also a complex fabrication of an event in the past. Memory along with mindfulness can arise spontaneously from situations that are threatening - so a traumatic memories are triggered by emotive current environmental triggers, and heightened scanning (read ‘mindfulness’) is also a feature of post-traumatic stress. So memory and mindfulness do have common roots. They both also take one out of the current work flow, and is introspective, to a degree.

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Well, you have to remember what satipaṭṭhāna is in order to practice it, no? It seems clear enough that the exercises for developing mindfulness in the satipatthana are dealing with present-tense experience. So there we have sati as remembering and as bearing-in-mind. I think a nice, clear illustrative example that also fuses the two is imagine being instructed in Dhamma by the Buddha himself. He’s passing through your village, perhaps never to return. Also, you don’t have pen/paper nor electronic devices. What would be the quality of mind you would bring to that listening experience, in order to not-forget it?

I think this topic is getting a bit de-railed though, the OP was meant to draw a distinction between remembering Dhamma and remembering events.

Sati is not just bare awareness/observation. The overall practice has purpose and is evaluative too (cultivating some attributes and trying to remove some less skillful qualities). That only makes sense within a dhammic framework, which has to be borne in mind during practice.

I suppose maybe that’s why Rhys Davids picked mindfulness as a sati translation. The ordinary meaning of “mindful” carries the connotation of keeping important facts or information to the fore of one’s mind when one is doing something, e.g. mindful of the icy driving conditions, I carefully drove my car to work.

Of course, the term got overloaded with a lot more different connotations and varying understandings later in a modern Buddhist context. Maybe that’s what happened with the original sati term too. I think “bearing in mind” as well as “memory” were some of its original meanings. Maybe as for “mindfulness”, it then got overlaid with extra meaning in the Buddha’s teaching system.

Another interesting parallel is that the Old and Middle English versions of “mindful”, ġemyndful and myndefull seemed also to have the meaning “of good memory”! Maybe the original general sati meaning lumped both memory and bearing things in mind into one mental faculty, and perhaps it wasn’t a big leap to suppose that being good at bearing-in-mind tasks would also strengthen general memory (and importantly recalling suttas and dhamma teachings).


Dhammasanghani - Book Enumerating Phenomena (Theravadin Abhidhamma) has this for Sati in the context of jhana;

What on that occasion is the faculty of mindfulness?

The mindfulness which on that occasion is recollecting, calling back to mind; the mindfulness which is remembering, bearing in mind, the opposite of superficiality and of obliviousness; mindfulness as faculty, mindfulness as power, right mindfulness—this is the faculty of mindfulness that there then is.

The Vibhanga - Book of Analysis (Theravadin Abhidhamma) in the chapter on ‘Attending to Mindfulness’ explains Sati in the context of Satipatthana thus;

‘Mindful.’ Herein, what is mindfulness? That which is mindfulness, recollection, recall, mindfulness, remembrance, bearing (in mind), not losing, not confusing, mindfulness, the Faculty of Mindfulness, the Strength of Mindfulness, Right Mindfulness: this is called ‘mindfulness.’

With this mindfulness he is endowed, truly endowed, having attained, truly attained, being possessed, truly possessed, furnished (with it). Because of this ‘mindful’ is said.


What strikes me is how different these descriptions of sati look to the practice of nupassana described in the Satipatthana Sutta.

Can you clarify what you meant?
As i understand it the Vibhanga reference deals with clarifying the word-for-word meaning of instruction such as found in the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, wherein each word in the instruction is explained semantically. Therefore it is not intended to describe a practice of ie kayanupassana but to clarify the particular word in the instruction of kayanupassana, in particular the word ‘mindful’ therein.

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I just meant the contrast between remembering stuff and present-moment observation. Very different meanings for the same word.

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Actually, for me the salient characteristic of mindfulness is the ability for immediate recall. If I walk mindlessly daydreaming, I cannot recall my surroundings even as I walk around parked cars. If I walk mindfully, I can recall that which was just seen–the flash of light from a passing car, the waving of a shadow of a tree in the wind.


As in:


What’s it like when you lose present-moment observation? Kind of like forgetting, eh? Likewise, for getting back into a contemplation, it’s a remembering, no?

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Sure, you could say there is remembering to pay attention.
But that seems quite different to remembering things from long ago, or bearing in mind dhamma principles.

It seems to me that sati is one of those words in the suttas that takes on different meanings in different contexts, like “dhamma” and “sankhara”. Perhaps we don’t need to rationalise or attempt to explain these different meanings, just to recognise and accept them.


“You can only remember what you actually experienced.”