Upatthana, Upatthahati - just cognitive or also affective?

The Pali term upatthana, having the connotation of “standing by” and “sitting near”, is often translated as “presence” or “attending” and hence Satipatthana as “presence of mindfulness” or “attending with mindfulness”. See for example Analayo’s works.

Generally there seems to a sense of focusing on the cognitive aspect of the term. However if one sees how a similar term is used in the Vedas - mainly upasana - one also sees that here an affective quality to the Sanskrit term seems to prevail, and hence it tends to get translated as “worship” and “reverence”.

Interestingly the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary seems to have a broader definition of the term which includes some terms which indicate some affective character to Upatthahati as well:

Upaṭṭhahati, & °ṭṭhāti (upa + sthā, cp. upatiṭṭhati) 1 (trs.) to stand near or at hand (with Acc.), to wait on, attend on, serve, minister, to care for, look after, nurse (in sickness) Vin. I, 50, 302; IV, 326; M. III, 25; S. I, 167; A. III, 94; V, 72; Sn. 82 = 481 (imper. °ṭṭhahassu); J. I, 67 (ppr. °ṭṭhahamāna), 262 (ppr. °ṭṭhahanto); IV, 131; V, 396; Dpvs II. 16; PvA. 19, 20.—aor. upaṭṭhahi PvA. 14, 42, 82.—inf. upaṭṭhātuṃ A. V, 72; PvA. 20.—ger. upaṭṭhahitvā PvA. 76.—grd. upaṭṭhātabba Vin. I, 302; PvA. 20.—pp. upaṭṭhita (q. v.).—2. (intrs.) to stand out or forth, to appear, to arise, occur, to be present M. I, 104 sq.; A. IV, 32; J. IV, 203 (mante anupaṭṭhahante since the spell did not occur to him); V, 207; Miln. 64; ThA. 258. ‹-› aor. upaṭṭhāsi J. I, 61; IV, 3; PvA. 42.—Caus. I. upaṭṭheti; Caus. II. upaṭṭhapeti & °ṭṭhāpeti (q. v.).—Pass. upaṭṭhīyati J. IV, 131 (ppr. °ṭṭhiyamāna), & upaṭṭhahīyati A. III, 94 (ppr. °ṭṭhahiyamāna). (Page 141)


I’m particularly interested by the terms “care for”, “nurse” etc, which indicate that upatthana is not just a neutral “presence” or “attending”.

So I guess my question is, is there textual evidence from the EBTs that this term has a certain affective quality, mainly one of caring and nursing, in the context of meditation (in the sense of “caring for” the meditation object or the meditation process itself, etc)?

This is a good point, and the historical context is important. As a matter of personal conduct, upaṭṭhāna does indeed refer to serving or nursing, and has a warm, close connotation.

It’s meaning in the pre-Buddhist texts is a little more obscure, but is probably not unrelated. The basic sense seems to have been “getting close to god”, in the sense of serving or paying homage.

We have to be a little careful in the use of words like “worship”, because in the western sphere, there is a definite distance between the follower and the deity, an unbridgeable gap, and worship is the word for what we on this side of the gap do. But in Indic culture, gods might equally “worship” humans (or “pay homage” might be better). And the word upaṭṭhāna reflects this: we use the same word for our relationship with deity as we would for our relationships with each other.

That being said, I don’t think the use of the word in Buddhist meditation texts is particularly emotional as such. Even words that have an emotional connotation don’t exhibit that unless it’s the right context. A word like “nurse”, for example, can be felt as emotional in a phrase like “she nursed her anger”, but that isn’t the case if we say “The nurse took away my bed pan!”

I think a word like “presence” carries a nice connotation. These days I use simply “mindfulness meditation” for satipaṭṭhāna, which also I think has a quiet emotional resonance.

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Well I definitely wouldn’t want to go as far as saying that the term is strongly emotional, only subtly so.

Its interesting because some Buddhist teachers (I’m thinking of Thich Nhat Hanh as an example) seem to teach breath meditation with a much more emotive and affective character than others using much more “emotion words” than other teachers who focus on cognitive terminology.

It’s probably a matter of taste and subjective preference, for some this is more helpful than using terms which focus on presence and attention. But it does seem to me like the term upatthana can lend itself to mean a kind of tending and caring for the breath with a tender kind of feeling towards it, similar to how one would take care of a plant for example.

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Yes, I agree.

Ajahn Brahm is another teacher who strongly emphasizes the emotional connection with the breath. I remember him at one talk saying, “Hold the breath like it was a baby—like it was your baby”. That’s not really the kind of thing monks usually say to other monks!

In the Pali, I think it’s sometimes the case that emotionality of the content gets obscured by the formalism of the language. Perhaps that’s unavoidable, but there’s also another step where that emotional connection gets further distanced in translation. It’s not just terminology, the syntax and phrasing is just as important. Anyway, I try to be aware of this and where possible phrase things to sound like people actually speaking to each other.


Oh, I like that! Figures Ajahn Brahm would say that. I like his use of a puppy for metta as well.

There is another emotional nuance about it being one’s protection: this sutta about the quail:
SN 47.6.

with metta