Märt Läänemets “On the Meaning of satipaṭṭhāna in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta: Some Non-standard Observations”


Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta (SP) is popularly considered as a standard textbook of Buddhist meditation. The four satipaṭṭhānas or ‘establishments of mindfulness’ described in it are taken as special kinds of meditation practices focusing on the contemplation of body, sensations, mind, and dharmas or theoretical issues of Buddha’s teaching. The key word of the discourse is sati/smṛti, often translated in the context of SP as ‘mindfulness’. Traditionally, practice of mindfulness is said to be the basis of vipassanā or ‘insight meditation’.

In this paper I offer a slightly different view of the term satipaṭṭhāna and its possible usage in the text. The original meaning of the word sati/smṛti is ‘memory, remembrance, recollection, thinking of or upon’ and that of upaṭṭhāna/upasthāna – ‘going near to, approach, access, standing near, presence etc.’ The compound then should be understood as ‘access through remembrance’ or ‘being near or present in remembering’. Thus, on the basis of the original or common meaning of the word and the manner how this compound is used in the text, it seems to me that satipaṭṭhāna is not meant there as a technical term of meditative practice but rather as a common descriptive word expressing the meaning ‘what should be remembered’ or ‘what one should permanently think of or bear in mind’. The matter of first importance is not the satipaṭṭhāna itself but the objects, the content of satipaṭṭhāna, i.e. body and its elements and movements, feelings or sensations, mind, and dharmas. Those four are the main categories of Buddhist training and education towards attaining nirvāṇa. The important technical term meaning the mental action or effort necessary to be applied in the learning and training process is, however, anupassanā ‘observing, reflecting upon’.