Sati, sampajana, attention, and vinnana

I’m grateful to those who elucidated on sati in another thread.

This question is about the differences and relation between sati, sampajana, attention, and vinnana.

I understand Sati as the faculty of the mind that can recall that which was said and done long ago. i.e. I have heard the teachings of the Buddha and I recall in my mind the application of the dhamma in thought, speech and action.

I understand sampajana as the situational awareness of the mind where I am aware that there is a body, there are feelings, there are perceptions and there are mind activities that I need to deal with in an appropriately skillful way.

I understand attention as the function of the mind to turn towards and latch on to something. It’s part of namarupa which, along with feeling, perception, contact and intention, is the basis for what vinnana is conscious of. I don’t know the Pali word for attention.

I understand vinnana as the mind’s ability to be conscious of something, an aggregate of clinging, a magic trick that fosters wrong view and a sense of permanent self.

When I’m meditating, when I consider what is happening in the present, I can detect very subtle differences between sati, sampajana, attention, and vinnana.

Am I correct here? Incorrect? Does this serve a purpose?


An excellent OP, so thank you.
Practically speaking I find it difficult to distinguish between consciousness and attention. I find I’m conscious of what I’m paying attention to, at any one time. I understand vinnana to be sense-consciousness, the basic function of awareness.
I mostly practice satipatthana, which for me means paying attention in a more deliberate way. I usually work with the sense-bases.

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Also note that there is a foreground/background component to awareness. Attention is usually associated with foreground awareness. Background awareness is present but not quite with consciousness. As an example of background awareness, one might catch an object falling out of the refrigerator while one looks for food. The foreground awareness/attention is on the food. The background awareness instantly initiates and guides the catching action. And then the foreground attention refocuses to become conscious of what the hand has caught.

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So at any one time, does vinnana just apply to the foreground, where attention is currently placed?

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I believe consciousness comprises itself as well as the other four grasping aggregages but would defer to a monastic for precise instructions and clarification. Note that consciousness relies on memory (name and form) so it is more that just foreground attention. There are five grasping aggregates.

Isn’t it sanna that relies on memory? And isn’t vinnana just the basic function of consciousness, which arises in dependence on sense-base and sense-object?


I would defer to Bhikkhuni Dammadina to answer your insightful questions. Please read MN44 and let us know how that addresses your questions. I found that MN44 very very helpful, but it took months of repeated listening for me to arrive at the understanding we just discussed. I am still studying MN44.


Here is MN44 in Pali/English. I listen to the bilingual audio because it has more information than either alone.

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I’m about to shift this thread to the Discussion section. Thanks to those who have included reference to the suttas in your responses.


MN44 is an interesting sutta, but it describes how self-view results from clinging to the aggregates, and doesn’t appear directly relevant to this discussion.

I was thinking of the way consciousness is described in the suttas, here for example in the first paragraph of SN35.93:

As you’ll know there is a six-fold model of consciousness in the suttas (one for each sense-base), but I don’t think it copes very well with what we were discussing as foreground and background awareness. Personally I prefer a “torch-beam” model of consciousness, where the beam is focused on one area, with light-scatter semi-illuminating a wider area. Though again, I’m not entirely clear about the distinction here between consciousness and attention, or about the practical distinction between vinnana and phassa.

Then we have sati, which deliberately focuses the torch beam in particular directions, and adds some reflexive awareness to the process (or something!). And related to this, the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate attention

As usual, the challenge is reaching some consensus on what these terms mean (based on what the suttas describe), and then relating them to our own practical experience.


One of the difficulties with a torch-beam model is that it starts with the assumption of consciousness as a point source. That directly contradicts the dimension of infinite consciousness.

A soliton model of awareness is an example of a model that does not contradict the dimension of infinite consciousness. What is interesting about the soliton model is that also accounts for identity view as an illusion, since the soliton has no fixed boundary and merges seamlessly into the universal.

Infinite consciousness would be analogous to a light-bulb sending light out in all directions at the same time.
It does depend on what you think the dimension of infinite consciousness actually is.

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I’d be uncomfortable thinking about the light of awareness streaming from “me”. I’m more comfortable thinking about the light from all the universe impinging on these eyes. When these eyes die, that light will still shine on eyelids turning to dust.

You could also think about consciousness as a set of passive receptors (our sense organs), but again those receptors are in a particular spacial location at any one time. I am not going to be recieving the same sense-input as you, unless we are standing right next to each other.


I am thinking that the torch beam would be less like sati (the faculty of mind that facilitates remembering what was said and done) and more like the awareness of sampajana attending to a particular situation. Or the function of attention. By attention I’m thinking of manasikaro as it occurs in MN 12.2 as part of namarupa and is translated as attention. And wouldn’t vinnana be more of an unskillful operating platform of apprehending phenomena?

In the suttas vinnana just seems to be the basic function of sense-consciousness, which will always arise when the dyad of sense-base and sense-object is present. So while attention can be skillful or unskillful, I don’t understand how that would apply to vinnana. Without vinnana (sense-consciousness) how could there be sati or attention, or indeed any experience at all?

I guess that’s where I get a little fuzzy. Sense-consciousness will always arise in the dyad of sense-base and sense-object. Yet, vinnana is an aggregate of clinging, to be abandoned. Is the fork in the road the Bahiya/Malunkyaputta instructions of seeing only what is seen…not creating a vinnana based upon subjective input?

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I take the Bahiya Sutta as describing the cessation of self-view (“No you there…”). It doesn’t appear to describe the cessation of vinnana, or of the dyad it is based on.
In the suttas, self-view results from clinging to the aggregates, regarding them as me and mine.
All five aggregates are subject to clinging, but it’s the clinging which ceases, and not the aggregates. Or more accurately, its the aggregates subject to clinging which cease, just leaving “non-clinging” aggregates to carry on. This is confirmed by SN22.48, which describes both “plain” aggregates and aggregates subject to clinging.

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Yes. That is a model that I can build on to fit the EBTs. For example, we can think of consciousness as resonance of those passive receptors. And we can think of identity view as the feedback loop that results in that awful squeal that we have all heard in school auditoriums when the microphone picks up and amplifies what the speakers emit.

And it is echoed in MN121:

They understand: ‘This field of perception is empty of the perception of the defilements of sensuality, desire to be reborn, and ignorance.
There is only this that is not emptiness, namely that associated with the six sense fields dependent on this body and conditioned by life.’

Inputs subject to craving do seem to cause suffering.


I just want to add that I’m posting this not to make any intellectual points, but because I want to practice as closely to how the Buddha taught. I’m not a scholar by any means, I’m really looking for feedback on my questions and mode of practice, feedback particularly from the Sanga.

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One of the marvelous highlights of Bhante Sujato’s recent speech at Stanford was his explanation of the “principle of least meaning.” It is a profound insight into how one translates well. The temptation is to overlay one’s own interpretations and idiosyncratic views during translation. Yet Bhante Sujato worked very hard to say just the bare minimum required to catch all the meanings in the EBTs.

And because of his efforts, his translations allow all of us to find our own meanings in the EBTs. Thanks to his restraint, we can map our experiences to his translations and learn about the path of our own individual journeys. What emerges for each individual will be different. Yet what emerges upon deeper study will also be consistent because Bhante Sujato took equally great care to translate consistently. That consistency fosters a deep understanding of the EBTs.

Because of these two principles of translation, the best way to get feedback is actually to just read more suttas and verify that your understanding is consistent across all of the suttas you study. Insights from any particular session of study or meditation tend to not matter. What tends to matter are the recurring insights than inform your life and allow you to spread infinite metta, compassion, rejoicing and equanimity to all.

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