There's no attested use of sati as mindfulness in pre-Buddhist texts

In Buddhism, sati (Sanskrit smara or smṛti) has the primary senses “to remember” and to “be mindful”. It is normally considered the case that the sense of mindfulness is probably an innovation of the Buddha. However, a 1993 article by Konrad Klaus, On the Meaning of the Root Smṛ in Vedic Literature questions this, arguing that both senses are attested before the Buddha. This has been cited by Ven Analāyo so I wanted to check it out.

A close reading of the examples Klaus gives shows that they are ambiguous at best, and in fact the sense “memory” is probably better in all cases.

Klaus’s examples

Let’s dispense with the simple cases first. Klaus gives two examples from the Rig Veda. I compare these with the modern translation by Jamison/Brereton:

RV 7.104

  • Klaus: Give heed with rapid courses!
  • Jamison/Brereton: Keep this in mind!

RV 10.106

  • Klaus: you should give heed to the call
  • Jamison/Brereton: you will remember our instructions

In both cases Jamison/Brereton prefer the sense “remember, keep in mind”.

Note too that the translators say of 10.106, “There is no question this is the most frustrating hymn in the Rigveda.” So difficult is the text that they leave the middle verses, immediately preceding this line, untranslated. This is no solid ground from which to derive a fundamental meaning.

Maitrāyaṇīsaṁhitā 2.3.3[29, 18].

Klaus himself acknowledges that the sense “forgets” can apply.

Kena 4.4-6

Klaus calls this passage, “Rather difficult”, and says “one will probably agree that ‘to realize, to notice, to become aware of’ as a rendering of upasmarati is worth considering.” This is hardly decisive.

Chāndogya 7.13.1

While acknowledging that other translators agree on the sense “memory” here, Klaus argues that smara here bears the sense “attentiveness”. Klaus only considers the paragraph in question, but it appears as part of a much long chain of things.

In typical Upanishadic style, it is a dialogue that proceeds by question and answer to higher and higher conceptions of Brahma. Nārada starts off by saying that he has studied the Vedas and other literature, but he only knows the meaning of words. He seeks wisdom to overcome sorrow from Sanatkumāra.

The teacher then propounds a series of things, each of which is said to be better than the previous, with explanations as to why that is so.

Here’s a rough summary starting from the beginning of the chapter, i.e. the lowest and least.

  • nāma (name = texts)
  • vāc (speech, makes known texts)
  • manas (thought, holds text and speech, makes plans)
  • samkalpa (will, directs thought then speech)
  • citta (comprehension?)
  • dhyāna (meditation? focus? “The earth seems to be meditating. The space between the earth and heaven seems to be meditating. So also, heaven seems to be meditating. Water seems to be meditating. The mountains seem to be meditating. Gods and human beings also seem to be meditating.”)
  • vijñāna (understanding, by means of which one understands Vedas etc.)
  • bala (strength, health, vitality, by means of which one can gain understanding)
  • anna (food, if you fast you cannot understand things)
  • āpas (water, food depends on it)
  • tejas (fire, creates rain)
  • ākāśa (space, ether, stars are in it, through it one can hear what others are saying, one enjoys and suffers, and are born in it)
  • smara (memory? attentiveness?)

The relevant passage is:

If many people get together but their memory (attentiveness) fails, then they cannot hear or think or know anything. But if they remember (are attentive), they can then hear, think, and know. Through memory one knows one’s children and animals.

Good method proceeds from what is clear to what is less clear. And what is clear here is that the final sentence definitely refers to “memory” as the agent of recognition. What of the former part though? Perhaps this employs the dual uses also found in Buddhism?

Klaus argues that “memory is in no way connected with sensory perception”. This is simply untrue. Sensory perception must be learned, and it relies on what it knows from the past to make sense of the present. But this passage should not be interpreted in light of our ideas of how the mind works, but of how these words are used in this text.

Notice that of the three things that “memory” enables, two have already appeared in our text: thought (manas) and understanding (vijñāna). Both are defined in context in terms of scripture, which, if you recall, was the context of the entire passage. “Hearing” was not explicitly mentioned, but obviously includes the “hearing” (i.e. “learning”) of the Vedas that prompted the exchange.

That’s not all. The next item after smara is āśā, “hope, desire” (7.14.1).

Hope inspires a person’s memory, and one uses one’s memory to learn the mantras and perform rituals.

Thus:

  • the words connected with smara are associated with textual study
  • the second half of the smara discussion clearly means “memory”
  • in the passage following, smara also clearly means “memory of texts”.

So the sense of smara as “memory” (of texts) clearly predominates. In the paragraph in question, it seems to refer , not to any gathering, but to a gathering of people intent on studying and reciting the Vedas, and refers to the “true” hearing or more practically, “learning” that occurs when memory is present.

There’s also an argument by negation: if smara is not memory, where is memory? We know it was crucial for the Vedic tradition. Several terms there already denote “awareness” in some way. Why do we need another? Of course, this kind of argument is always weak, but it does seem to me the passage as a whole is richer if we include memory.

I argued long ago, in A History of Mindfulness, that the Buddhist concept of memory evolved from the Brahmanical sense, particularly considering the manner in which “remembered” texts are rehearsed and recited. The Brahmin retires to a secluded spot for quiet, centers his attention on the most high, and brings to mind the sacred texts. They flow forth in an uninterrupted stream, manifesting in a present “flow state” of memory of the words of divinity.

It seems to me that this argument is still cogent. The sense of smara as “uninterrupted stream of awareness” in the present might be pre-figured by the Chāndogya passage, but there it is still tied to textual memory.

Perhaps other passages might illuminate this further, but I find Klaus’ arguments unconvincing.

Pre-Buddhist sati in the suttas

The suttas attribute sati to both the brahmanical (Upanishadic) and śramaṇa (Jain?) traditions.

  • Before his awakening, the Buddha studied with Upanishadic teachers, under whom he learned faith, energy, sati, samadhi, and wisdom, which he would later call the five faculties or powers.
  • While undergoing his ascetic training, in order to fulfill the practice of non-violence, he always had sati in stepping so as not to harm any insects.

As pointed out by Vaddha (see below), both these can be read as “keeping in mind”. Without more context we can’t really know how those traditions themselves understood sati. Perhaps they should be considered, along with the Chandogya passage, as bridging senses, moving from “memory”, “recollection”, “retention” towards “mindful awarenss in the present”.

In any case it is clear that the Buddha himself generously acknowledged the fact that he drew the idea of sati from his former teachers. It seems that this was a current usage. It is hardly surprising that pre-Buddhist texts don’t have any examples, as they only constitute a fraction of the language at the time.

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I’m not so sure, or not so clear on the distinction.

To step mindfully so as to avoid harm is ‘keeping the safety of animals in mind with every step,’ not just bear attentiveness of the present moment (which would often result in being oblivious to what one steps on if one is putting all their attention on the experience of stepping and not the surroundings).

We see the sense in your first examples from the RV in the translation ‘keep in mind.’ It seems ‘remembering’ and ‘bearing in mind’ both would apply to the walking: “Remember there are snakes on the forest paths!” That’ll make sure you’re attentive.

As for the faculties, I believe the same can be said to be true. The Buddha said he memorized and recited scripture with those teachers, presenting doctrines. Bearing those scriptures in mind and reflecting on them could contribute to the ‘sati’ there, leading ultimately into ‘samādhi.’ Especially if we keep in mind the definition of sati in the context of the five faculties: it’s the classic definition tying it to recalling what was said and done long ago.

Thanks for the post!

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Both good points! Lacking more context we should perhaps consider these as bridging senses, like the Chandogya.

I’ll adjust the text to acknowledge this, thanks.

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I am not sure if this is the case. The parallel to MN 26 in Chinese, MĀ 204, does not include sati or samādhi in what he learned from his teachers. This looks like a text-book example of lectio difficilior, in which the non-standard reading in the Chinese (three out of five “faculties”) has been normalised to the five indriyas in the Pali. It seems to me that when these passages are read together the evidence is weak.

I would add that the Buddha is here recollecting his previous practices. As such, he may well be using terminology that he developed later to accurately portray his past practices.

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A very good point. He wouldn’t have called his time under the rose apple tree “jhāna” when he was a boy. :pray:

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It’s more complicated than that. Analayo:

While according to the Pāli and Sanskrit versions these mental qualities comprise the five faculties (indriya), the Madhyama-āgama version lists only confidence, energy, and wisdom, thereby not including mindfulness and concentration. … The Lalitavistara and the Sanghabhedavastu list all five mental faculties, thereby agreeing with the Ariyapariyesanā-sutta and the Sanskrit fragments paralleling the Mahāsaccaka-sutta. The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, however, mentions only the set of three mental qualities found in the Madhyama-āgama account: confidence, energy, and wisdom.

His note 169 shows that the Dhg passage has a confusion, which doesn’t bolster confidence. Another reading speaks only of faith and wisdom, (i.e. the first and last), while Mahavastu—the ever-unreliable—has faith, energy and bala.

Since multiple Sarv sources have the five, MA must be an error or abbreviation, listing the first two and the last. Dhg Vinaya is clearly a later source, as is Mahavastu.

If extra items were added, they would normally have been put at the end, not inserted in the middle. On the other hand, if items are dropped from abbreviation, they would be dropped from the middle, keeping the beginning and end.

I’m going to stick with the Pali on this one.

Yes, good points. Still, the point remains that the Buddha did not claim to have innovated the practice of mindfulness.

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Yes, I was aware of this. But the main issue is that we have different readings. The confusion may stem from the fact that the original reading was unusual. If it really was the five faculties from the start, you’d expect greater stability.

The Sarvāstivāda tradition is much more heterogenous than the Pali. I don’t know why this is the case, but there are some obvious possibilities. The Sarvāstivāda texts may have been edited and corrected with the help of different sources. Or, the very texts themselves may stem from different sources. Moreover, it is not clear to me where these Sanskrit fragments stem from. Are they from the earliest texts, or are they more related to later texts such as the Lalitavistara and the Saṅghābhedavastu?

There is the additional fact that MĀ 204 has several signs of being early. The text is missing some of the possibly questionable parts of the narrative found in the other versions, such as the Buddha’s doubts about whether he should teach and Brahma Sahampati’s subsequent request. MĀ 204 is also missing the idea that the Buddha-to-be learned theoretical aspects from his teachers. Although I haven’t read MĀ 204 (since it has not yet been released in English), my understanding is that it is a simpler and likely earlier version of MN 26.

But is this a standard way of abbreviating the five indriyas among the Sarvāstivādin texts?

This really depends on how it might have happened. If it was the result of a memory error that wrongly replaced the three factors with the five indriyas, then we would expect the standard pericope for the five to have been inserted.

I don’t know, but I’ve always found MĀ 204 to be a rather intriguing sūtra. It opens up a number of possibilities in our understanding of the Buddha-to-be.

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It is not really about sati. But i have the impression that Buddha had a very different idea of wisdom then his teachers.

It has been translated, by Charles Patton, and is on SuttaCentral. :pray:

Having looked at it, I actually don’t think there’s much difference in meaning. MA 204 still has the Buddha practicing sati and samādhi in seclusion. It actually makes it more explicit that he practiced deep meditation than MN26 in my opinion.

Before he had attained the dimension of nothingness, he realized that he had faith, energy, and wisdom — just as his teacher — and that he should use it to experientially verify the attainment. That would mean, at this point in the narrative, he specifically does not have samādhi or really practiced sati. He is using the basis of faith in the teaching, his energy, and his wisdom (presumably about theory and mental discernment) in order to attain it, assuming he is capable because he has the same skillset his teacher had before attaining it.

So MA204 still attests to sati and samādhi. It lists the 3 faculties before the Buddha had these last two. I would follow @sujato here then in the meaning, but @Brahmali in phrasing, as the MN26 phrasing makes less sense: the Buddha didn’t necessarily have samādhi yet before realizing the attainment.

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LOL! Yes, I should probably have checked SC!

I suppose there are two different questions here: (1) whether the word sati, as expressing “awareness”, existed prior to Buddhism; (2) whether anyone practiced sati regardless of whether the word was used in this way.

As to point (1), from the evidence provided by Bhante @Sujato, it would seem the answer is no. True, this finding does not tell us much about what was actually practiced before the Buddha, but it does tell us that the Buddha was an innovator who used language in a new way, which included expressing ideas around meditation with more clarity. We knew this already, but this provides another piece of evidence.

As to point (2), there is no doubt that both sati and samādhi as mental phenomena existed before the Buddha. These are naturally occurring mental states and as such will be experienced by a certain percentage of the population at any given time. The term “perennial philosophy”, used most famously by Aldous Huxley, is at least in part a reference to this.

There is, however, the deeper question of the difference between the right and wrong versions of these qualities, that is, micchāsati and micchāsamādhi vs. sammāsati and sammāsamādhi. What do these terms refer to? I think it is clear enough from suttas such as MN 117 that micchāsamādhi is real samādhi, but conjoined with wrong view. I believe we can say the same thing for sati: both the micchā version and the sammā version refer to awareness, but the micchā version is associated with wrong view. Now this distinction between the wrong and the right manifestation of these qualities matters because the five spiritual faculties concern only the latter. Sati or samādhi associated with wrong view is not part of the spiritual faculties. (We know this for a number of reasons, especially because the spiritual faculties are said to be had by the ariyas.) My point is that it would be strange for the Buddha to speak of a set of qualities that always refers to right view in a context when we know the view is wrong. Outside of well-defined contexts such as the spiritual faculties, words such a wisdom and faith acquire a much broader meaning, which means that the presentation in MĀ 204 is preferrable.

But there is more. If sati and samādhi do not belong in MN 26, it leads to the interesting possibilities that Ālāra Kalāma and Rāma did not even have micchāsamādhi (or micchāsati). This opens up new avenues for our understanding of this whole episode. If they did not have samādhi of any kind, then the terminology in MN 26 which seems to say they were practicing the immaterial attainments may in fact refer to a lesser kind of pre-jhāna samādhi. This in turn would explain why the Buddha-to-be recalled his jhāna attainment as a child rather than his experiences under his two teachers. The whole story then comes together rather nicely.

We still need to explain the use of the terminology referring to the immaterial attainments. I would suggest this could be due to the Buddha using these terms differently in his developed spiritual system compared to the pre-Buddhist ascetics. Or it could be that the wrong terminology has been applied.

In the end, I don’t know, and I doubt there is any final answer to be found. However, these alternative readings are interesting, and drawing out their implication can occasionally lead to important discoveries. And so I think it is a useful exercise, even if in the present case it does not lead to any major change in our understanding.

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Dear Bhante,

I’m sorry if it’s a bit of OOT, but how do we know that Alara Kalama dan Udaka Ramaputta are Upanishadic teachers, not sramana teachers? [If I’m not mistaken Bronkhorst said the two are from sramanic tradition, not brahmanical tradition.] And is there any evidence that the five faculties (and the last two formless meditative attainment) taught by them are found in Upanishad?

Thank you :anjal:

What does this stand for?

While the Upanishads were later folded into the brahminic tradition, at the Buddhas time, the Brahmins were still following the vedas, and the Upanishads were being composed by the renegades.

I’m sorry if I used the abreviation frequently used in online forum of my country here. It stands for out of topic :grin:

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I’ve discussed this several times on this forum, the answer is yes, they are definitely Brahmanical teachers. Have a search, and if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, let me know.

Also, check my notes for MN 26.

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Where are you getting this stuff from? The Brihadaranyaka is the last book of the Satapatha Brahmana, and was composed by Yajnavalkya. Sramana traditions may have influenced Brahmanism of the time, as Vedism had been in the area for several centuries already. But the Upanishads have always been Brahmanical works.

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Oh okay… :thinking: I was under the impression that the Upanishads were from like… new religious movements… perhaps coming from Brahminism but against the orthodoxy of the time. So you’re saying that orthodox Brahmins of the time would have been following the Upanishads? :pray:

“Brahmanism” was like a whole thing across a whole region, and it was no more unified than “Hinduism” is today. But generally speaking, the Brahmins of the “west” (Kurupancala) were said to be more invested in ritualism, while those of the east (the Kosalan brahmins) were more amenable to the philosophical and contemplative innovations of the Upanishads. Their founder was Yajnavalkya, and the leader at the time of the Buddha was Pokkharasati.

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Oh, okay. Thanks, Bhante :pray: For some reason I thought the more “liberal” Brahmins were a tiny minority. Didn’t realize they were actually the dominant group in Kosala. Your comparison to the pluralism of contemporary Hinduism makes sense. I guess I was comparing Brahminism at the time to the well-established, centuries-old religions I’m familiar with (e.g. the Catholic Church). But it makes sense that they wouldn’t have had the same level of centralized control back in those days. Thanks for the clarification :smile::pray:

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Translating Sati as awareness is a bit problematic, i feel.

For example: in a hurry, very aware of what one must still do (shop, go to a meeting), one can lower the thermostate. Unattentively, heedless, almost without noticing what one is doing, because one is not really present in the moment, lost in the hurry and plans. Some time later, one doubts if one has lowered the thermostate. One does not know this. Because the mind was not really present while doing this. There was no sati but there was the awareness that saw the thermostate and also the awareness that it must be lowered and which lowered it.

Any vinnana, any moment of an awareness of something, has not always sati, according the Abhidhamma system. This is also real. One can be very aware of thoughts and totally unaware of the smells that the house is burning. :slight_smile: One can also do things on autopilot and without presence.
One can be totally lost in conceivings and do things wihout any sati, any presence.

Sati refers to that mental factor that we can call presence, i believe. Presence is the opposite of being lost in daydreams, plans, thoughts, mental pictures, being distracted, muddle-minded. etc. If the mind has no presence, while doing things, it also tends to forget those things.
Bodhi describes in his translation of the Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma. Sati is…“attentiveness to the present”. This is presence.

Practicing sati is also connected with knowing what to do and not to do. Connected with effort too (MN117). Sati is in the sutta’s often mentioned together with sampajanna. Maybe this combination is unique for how Buddha used sati? For example, sati in business is different from how sati is used in Buddhism. But i cannot really imagine a spiritual Path without Sati.

sati is also mentioned in satta bojjhaṅgā, and I can’t find any parallels for it. Not sure if that’s significant.