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

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Ok, I found it here:

The idea that the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad was composed by Yajñavalkya doesn’t really match with the history and composition of the texts themselves. Patrick Olivelle, in his introduction to his translation of the early upanisads, gives a brief overview of authorship and chronology and so forth.

For one, the BAU is actually a compilation text pulled from earlier texts that existed independently. You can see this in the separate lineage charts for various sections glued together and also in repeated passages with slight variation across different texts compiled into one. And the texts that do mention Yājñavalkya in the BAU are in third person about him in a lineage of received tradition.

It’s like saying the Anguttara Nikāya was composed by the Buddha: it’s a big overstatement.

And the Upanisads, take the BAU here, often include critiques of rituals and ritualistic brahmins, also saying that those who internalize the ritual in esoteric practices get greater reward than those who perform the ritual as is and get reborn. They also have various important scenes where Kshatriyas are attributed new ideas that the ‘brahmins’ never knew about or were ignorant of. Certainly, the texts were composed and passed down by brahmins, and so the specific literary reasoning behind some of these scenes is not entirely clear, but the Upanisads certainly were not mainstream literature everybody learns about.

If certain recensions and regions had a bend towards more internal readings, that’s different from them being initiated in esoteric internal ritual to escape samsāra. This was emerging, and even in the suttas we see cases of some brahmins who were leading more ascetic and internal lives, while others were wealthy householders involved in normal sacrifice. I’m not saying the BAU is all about escaping samsāra — it’s a diverse text — but much of its material is about esoteric theology, metaphysics and soteriology, etc.

I can’t recall a reference at the time being, but the Satapatha Brahmana was expanded on and added to over time, including after the life of the Buddha. And I believe this includes the BAU, the current recensions of which were likely not tacked on until later. If anyone knows more about this please let me learn :pray: Many scholars (not all) believe the BAU as we have it today was finished before the life of the Buddha, but it would have been a living text (as is clear internally) for some time and made mainstream later.

That’s my understanding of this.

Well, words mean different things to different people. What matters is that we understand the underlying term sati in the right way. So it’s good that you are reflecting on this!

I can assure you that the satisambojjhaṅga is present in all the EBTs, not just in the Pali.