Sati really does mean ‘memory’

“Mindfulness” as we now understand it is the result a history of semantic change. This began in ancient times with the Pali word sati, which in origin means ‘memory’, and has somehow given rise to the modern term ‘mindfulness’, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Moreover, modern scholars have perhaps been far too hasty to dismiss ‘memory’ as its central meaning in the EBT. I hope to show here that sati barely strayed in the early times far afield from this central meaning.



2 Responses to “Sati really does mean ‘memory’”

  1. dbrisinda Says:

    Great writeup. It got me thinking about these things much more deeply than I otherwise would. Much appreciation. I have a few questions.

    Could dependent co-arising, seen as a natural extension of the six sense bases (physical senses/sense consciousness/contact => feeling => craving => …), be one category of Dhamma, from which to perceive the world? I.e., following experience as it develops through the process of dependent co-arising?

    Also, where would ‘thinking’ get categorized in satipatthana: cittanupassana?

    And what about the observation of external nature and phenomena, such as various processes in nature, including mineral/plant/animal kingdoms, subatomic/atomic/molecular processes, planetary processes, astronomical/cosmic processes, space, time, etc.? Would seeing these external processes of nature through descriptive Dhammic content then involve the practice of dhammanupassana?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Thinking is not really categorized in satipatthana. It certainly can arise in citta, or in dhammaa, i.e., in the 3rd and 4th anupassanaas. But thought can be involved in fabricating what we become convinced is a purely physical experience as well; it can be involved in all of the anupassanas.

      The phenomenal world is the world as we experience it. We do not experience the external world directly, even if we experience that there is an external world and that it is very tangible (in fact the brain is just sitting there in silence and darkness, collecting sense data one neural impulse at a time, so what we think is external reality must be fabricated internally). Atoms and other factors you mention are part of the phenomenal world only insofar as we have ideas about atoms, etc.

      The links of dependent co-arising are is a hugely important category of Dhamma that should be brought into satipatthana. As a set of conditional relations it invites us to look deeper into the various factors it refers to to see how they arise in experience only contingent on other factors. I would not call them an extension of the sense bases, since the sense bases are one of the factors preceded by other factors. In fact the experience of looking out on the (external) world through the senses is itself fabricated by consciousness and name-and-form.

      Good questions.


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