What is "sati satiāyatane"?

A question to the Pali cracks among you: There is an expression in MN 73, MN 119, AN 3.101 and AN 3.102

…tatra tatreva sakkhibhabbataṃ pāpuṇissasi, sati satiāyatane

  • BB consistently translates as “…there being a suitable basis”
  • Sister Uppalavanna as “…for the development of that and other mental faculty”
  • Ananjadoti as “…while there is a basis for mindfulness”
  • Horner as “…whatever may be the plane”
  • Thanissaro as “…he can witness them for himself whenever there is an opening”

While it is clear where (not how) the translators translated āyatana (basis, faculty, plane, opening) - they differ strongly regarding the double-sati.
@sujato could you kindly share how you have translated this so far and how you dissolved this expression?

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The phrase is an idiom in locative absolute. Sati is of course “to be”, not “mindfulness”. Similar idioms (tasmiṁ sati, evaṁ sante) mean something like “in that case”, “this being so”, etc.

Normally in Pali a repeated phrase is distributive. The point of the repeated phrase is to emphasize that it applies everywhere, in every situation. And the phrase does, in fact, usually occur in the same sentence as other phrases having this sense (yassa yassatatra tatreva). However most of these renderings—which I believe are based on the commentary—are limiting; they take the phrase as reducing the scope of application.

Normally—or maybe everywhere—the phrase occurs at the end of a section on meditation, when one has developed all the requisite qualities; it is then the culminating phrase. It has always felt odd to me why we should reach the end of a passage exalting the power and might of meditation, only to add a caveat saying “conditions apply”.

In AN 5.68, for example, the Buddha uses it when speaking of his own development of meditation. It culminates the development of the iddhipada, and seems to mean “having developed these things, I was able to get all the following good stuff, i.e. the various psychic powers”. It is hard to see how a limiting sense might apply here.

Further, the notion that āyatana means "base’ is also commentarial; it rarely if ever has that sense in the EBTs. Rather, the sense of āyatana in the EBTs is “field, opening, dimension”. It has the basic meaning of something stretched out, a field or dimension of activity within which something can occur. So I agree with Thanissaro’s sense for this.

So rather than limiting the application, I take it as universalizing or distributing it.

Yassa yassa ca abhiññāsacchikaraṇīyassa dhammassa cittaṃ abhininnāmeti abhiññāsacchikiriyāya, tatra tatreva sakkhibhabbataṃ pāpuṇāti sati satiāyatane.
Whatever things realizable by direct knowledge that they extend the mind to for the sake of realizing by direct knowledge, they become capable of realizing them, in each and every case.

Or more idiomatically:

They become capable of realizing anything that can be realized by insight to which they extend the mind, in each and every case.


Excellent! Thanks for the detailed dissection. I’m actually currently working on āyatana and hope to present a sensible description of it in the EBT.