This 2022 revised edition is based on the 2016 edition, with minor typographic and reference corrections.
The following acronyms are used in this book. Each one refers to a book in the Pali version of the Sutta Piṭaka (Basket of Discourses) from the Buddhist Canon. For more information see suttacentral.net
One of the most common unquestioned assumptions among Buddhist meditators is that satipaṭṭhāna is synonymous with vipassanā. This assumption, it seems, often is a result of reading the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas1 in isolation without carefully considering the context in which satipaṭṭhāna is used throughout the suttas. When the broader view of the entire Sutta Piṭaka is taken into account, it becomes clear that such an assumption is, at best, only partially correct.2 In this short study I will investigate the various contexts in which satipaṭṭhāna appear and in particular consider its relationship with samādhi.3
Samādhi and the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas
The Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas are often understood as being only concerned with vipassanā meditation. But there is nothing intrinsic to the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas that allows one to conclude thus. Indeed, there are several aspects of these suttas that point to satipaṭṭhāna also being concerned with samatha and samādhi, calm and stillness.
The first of these aspects is the inclusion of the first tetrad of the Ānāpānasati Sutta in the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas.
Ānāpānasati is usually regarded as a samādhi practice, and there seems to be no reason why it should be regarded otherwise here.4 Moreover, the Ānāpānasati Sutta states that each of its four tetrads fulfils each of the four satipaṭṭhānas.5 It then concludes:
“Bhikkhus, that is how mindfulness of breathing, when developed and cultivated, fulfils the four satipaṭṭhānas.”6
And it is not only the ānāpānasati part of the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas which relates to samādhi. The cemetery contemplations, for example, are elsewhere specifically said to be samādhi practices:
“And, monks, what is the effort of guarding? Here, monks, a monk guards a favourable object of samādhi which is present in him: the perception of a skeleton, the perception of a worm-infested corpse, the perception of a livid corpse, the perception of a festering corpse, the perception of a fissured corpse, the perception of a bloated corpse.”7
Indeed, it seems that all the satipaṭṭhāna practices have a samādhi aspect. Take the standard passage which concludes each exercise of the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas:
“In this way he contemplates an aspect of the body internally, or he contemplates an aspect of the body externally, or he contemplates an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … phenomena internally and externally.”8
Then consider the following passage which relates the internal contemplation directly to samādhi:
“Here a monk contemplates an aspect of the body internally, energetic, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed desire and aversion for the world. Contemplating an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … phenomena internally, he is rightly stilled (sammā samādhiyati), rightly purified.”9
Satipaṭṭhāna and Samādhi Outside of the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas
The above should be sufficient to at least suggest that samādhi is an integral part of satipaṭṭhāna. However, to be able to make a strong case for this relationship, and to consider in more detail what it involves, it is necessary to look beyond the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas to the broader use of satipaṭṭhāna in the Sutta Piṭaka.
In the threefold division of the Buddhist Path, into sīla (virtue), samādhi, and paññā (wisdom), satipaṭṭhāna is classified under samādhi, not under paññā:
“Right effort, right mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna),10 and right samādhi (the jhānas)11 - these states are included in the category of samādhi. Right view and right intention—these qualities are included in the category of wisdom.”12
If satipaṭṭhāna were equivalent or closely related to vipassanā rather than samādhi, would it not be included in the category of wisdom rather than the category of samādhi?13
The most important relationship between satipaṭṭhāna and samādhi that emerges from a broad reading of the suttas is that the practice of satipaṭṭhāna leads to samādhi:14
“The four satipaṭṭhānas are the bases of samādhi.”15
“The repetition, development, and cultivation of these same qualities (satipaṭṭhāna and right effort) is the development of samādhi.”16
“‘I will contemplate an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … phenomena,17 energetic, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed desire and aversion for the world.’ It is in this way, monk, that you should train.
“When, monk, this samādhi has been developed and made much of in this way, you should develop this samādhi with initial and sustained application, you should develop it without initial application but with a remainder of sustained application, you should develop it without initial and sustained application, you should develop it with rapture, you should develop it with comfort, you should develop it with equanimity.”18
The last part, “initial and sustained application ... with equanimity,” is a reference to the jhānas.19 Note how satipaṭṭhāna practice is first called “this samādhi” and then said to lead on to the jhānas.
“So too, monks, here some foolish, incompetent, unskilful monk contemplates an aspect of the body, energetic, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed desire and aversion for the world. While he contemplates an aspect of the body, his mind does not become stilled (samādhiyati) ...
“So too, monks, here some wise, competent, skilful monk contemplates an aspect of the body, energetic, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed desire and aversion for the world. While he contemplates an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … phenomena, his mind becomes stilled (samādhiyati) ...
“That wise, competent, skilful monk gains pleasant dwellings in this very life, and he gains mindfulness and clear comprehension.”20
The phrase “pleasant dwellings in this very life” is a common synonym in the suttas for the four jhānas.21
Thus a pattern emerges whereby the four satipaṭṭhānas constitute the practice and development of samādhi, eventually leading to the four jhānas, sammāsamādhi. This relationship between the satipaṭṭhānas and samādhi is in fact made very explicit in the suttas:
“It is indeed to be expected, venerable sir, that a noble disciple who has faith, energy, and mindfulness, will gain samādhi, will gain one- pointedness of mind, when he has created a foundation through relinquishment. That samādhi of his, venerable sir, is his faculty of samādhi.”22
“For one of right mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna), sammāsamādhi (the jhānas) springs up.”23
Satipaṭṭhāna and Vipassanā
The above survey presents the most important evidence on the context in which satipaṭṭhāna occurs throughout the suttas. Having thus shown that the usual purpose of satipaṭṭhāna is the attainment of samādhi, it is necessary to consider the relationship between satipaṭṭhāna and vipassanā.
Firstly, it should be noted that the prevalence of a direct link between satipaṭṭhāna and samādhi does not necessarily mean that satipaṭṭhāna is all about samatha meditation. Rather, it means that, whether one practices samatha or vipassanā, in both cases the purpose of satipaṭṭhāna is the attainment of samādhi.
Secondly, the question arises as to what happens after samādhi: is there such a thing as post-samādhi satipaṭṭhāna, and if so, what does it involve? In this context it is important to note that a number of suttas make it clear that satipaṭṭhāna practice can take one all the way to the end of the Buddhist Path, for example:
“Bhikkhus, these four satipaṭṭhānas, when developed and cultivated, are noble and liberating; they lead one who acts upon them to the complete destruction of suffering.”24
For satipaṭṭhāna to be able to take one to full awakwening, it seems required that it must include post-samādhi vipassanā, i.e. deep insight.25 But a direct relationship between satipaṭṭhāna and vipassanā is never explicitly mentioned in the suttas.26 To establish such a link it is necessary to broaden the inquiry to include other terms that also signify insight, such as ñāṇa, dassana, and yathā-bhūta-ñāṇa- dassana. This broadened inquiry brings to light the following interesting passage:
“Come, friends, contemplate an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … phenomena, energetic, clearly comprehending, unified, serene, stilled, with one-pointed mind, in order to know the body according to reality (yathā-bhūta-ñāṇa).”27
Note how this passage differs significantly from the standard satipaṭṭhāna formula found almost everywhere else. It is two differences in particular that are important in the context of this study: Firstly, the insight aspect relates to the deep insights of seeing reality as it actually is (yathā-bhūta-ñāṇa); secondly, using a string of related terms - unified, serene, stilled, with one-pointed mind - the passage puts a strong emphasis on samādhi. The implication is that satipaṭṭhāna should be practiced for the purpose of deep insight only after samādhi has been achieved.28 It thus seems clear that there is such a thing as post-samādhi satipaṭṭhāna and that its purpose is deep insight.29
Two Stages of Satipaṭṭhāna
From the above it emerges that satipaṭṭhāna normally should be considered as a practice leading to samādhi and under special circumstances as a practice leading to deep insight. Furthermore, it appears that these two aspects of satipaṭṭhāna can be divided into two quite distinct stages. In accordance with the natural progression of meditation practice,30 the first stage of satipaṭṭhāna is about attaining samādhi. Once samādhi has been achieved (i.e. the necessary condition for deep insight is in place), the mind is equipped to uncover the true nature of the five aspects of personality31 and realise the successive stages of awakening. This is the second stage of satipaṭṭhāna. Such a two-stage division of satipaṭṭhāna is in fact explicitly described in the suttas:
“... so these four focuses of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna) are the bindings for the mind of the noble disciple in order to subdue his habits from lay life, to subdue his distress, fatigue, and fever from lay life, and in order that he may attain the true way and realise extinguishment (nibbāna).
“Then the Tathāgata trains him further: ‘Come, bhikkhu, contemplate an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … phenomena, but do not think thoughts of sense desire.’”32
Here the first stage of satipaṭṭhāna serves the purpose of abandoning refined hindrances.33 This is part of the path leading to samādhi. The second stage of satipaṭṭhāna is here characterised by sense desire having been abandoned, something suggesting that samādhi has been attained.34
Almost all sutta passages that deal with the place of satipaṭṭhāna in the broader scheme of the Buddhist path, show that satipaṭṭhāna is a condition for samādhi. It must therefore be concluded that the main purpose of satipaṭṭhāna is to bring the mind to samādhi. This result is important because it contradicts the common misunderstanding that satipaṭṭhāna is only concerned with vipassanā.
The second important conclusion that can be drawn from the above discussion is that satipaṭṭhāna as a deep insight practice, leading to insight into the true nature of the aspects of personality (khandhas), only begins after samādhi has been attained. This conclusion is in line with a common theme in the suttas:
“When there is right stillness (sammāsamādhi), for one who has right stillness, the cause is in place for knowledge and vision of things according to reality (yathā-bhūta-ñāṇa-dassana).”35
AN: Aṅguttara Nikāya. References are to chapter (nipāta) number and sutta number as in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.
DN: Dīgha Nikāya. References are to sutta number, section number (only for some suttas), and paragraph number as in Maurice Walshe’s translation.
MN: Majjhima Nikāya. References are to sutta number and paragraph number as in Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.
SN: Saṃyutta Nikāya. References are to chapter (saṃyutta) number and sutta number as Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.
Wisdom & Wonders