The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta[note 1] (Majjhima Nikaya 10: The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), and the subsequently created Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 22: The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), are two of the most celebrated and widely studied discourses in the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism, acting as the foundation for contemporary vipassana meditational practice. These suttas (discourses) stress the practice of sati (mindfulness) "for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the extinguishing of suffering and grief, for walking on the path of truth, for the realization of nibbāna."[note 2]
While elements of the Satipathana sutta can be found in the Samyutta Nikaya and the Samyukta Nigama, which belong to the oldest strata of the Buddhist suttas, the elaborate Maha Satipatthana Sutta exists only in the Theravada Digha Nikaya. Bhante Sujato postulates that the sutta was compiled from elements from other suttas as late as 20 BCE.
satipaṭṭhāna is a compound of sati, mindfulness; and either paṭṭhāna, "foundation," or upaṭṭhāna, "presence." The compound term can be interpreted as sati-paṭṭhāna ("foundation of mindfulness") or sati-upaṭṭhāna, "presence of mindfulness". According to Anālayo, the analysis of the term as sati-upaṭṭhāna, "presence of mindfulness," is a more etymologically correct derivation as upaṭṭhāna appears both throughout the Pali Canon and in the Sanskrit translation of this sutta; whereas the paṭṭhāna is only found in the Abhidhamma and post-nikaya Pali commentary.
In regard to the prefix "Maha-" in the Pāli title of DN 22, this simply means "great," or "larger" and likely refers to DN 22's expanded section on mindfulness of the Four Noble Truths.
In the Pali Canon, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is the tenth discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya (MN 10). In the Pali Text Society (PTS) edition of the Canon, this text begins on the 55th page of the first volume of its three-volume Majjhima Nikaya (M i 55).
As for the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, this is the 22nd discourse in the Digha Nikaya (DN 22). In the PTS edition of the Canon, the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta begins on the 289th page of the second volume of the PTS' three-volume Digha Nikaya (D ii 289).
In the Chinese Canon, the Nian Chu Jing (念處經, Smṛtyupasthāna Sūtra), based on a Sarvastivadin source, is found on page 582 of the Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 1, Madhyama Āgama No. 26. Another similar sutra is in the Ekottara Agama (EA 12.1) and it is called the Ekayāna sutra, Direct Path sūtra.
An early Smṛtyupasthāna Sūtra version also survives inside some of the large Prajñāpāramitā sutras (Tibetan and Chinese), one of which has been translated into English by Edward Conze. These passages on mindfulness are treated as the first element in the 37 wings to awakening. According to Bhante Sujato, "This version of the satipaṭṭhāna material displays a refreshing simplicity that may indicate that it lies close to the early sources."
There does exist in Tibetan translation a "Saddharma Smṛtyupasthāna Sūtra" () but this is a very large early Mahayana sutra and is an entirely different text. Bhante Sujato completed an extensive comparative survey of the various recensions of Sutta, entitled A History of Mindfulness.dam pa'i chos dran pa nye bar bzhag pa'i mdo//dampé chödren panyé barzhak pé do
The Satipaṭṭhāna material, including the various meditation objects and practices, is treated in various later Abhidharma works such as the Theravada Vibhanga and Paṭisambhidāmagga, the Sarvastivada Dharmaskandha, the Jñānapraṣṭhāna, the Śāriputrābhidharma and the Arthaviniscaya Sutra.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 10, the Buddha identifies four "foundations of mindfulness" or "frames of reference," on which he contemplates or focusses after leaving behind the wordly life: kāyā (body), vedanā (sensations/feelings aroused by perception), cittā (mind/consciousness), and dhammas (elements of the Buddhist teachings). The sutta then gives an overview of Buddhist practices, under these four headings:
The Sarvāstivāda Smṛtyupasthāna Sūtra differs in some ways from the Theravada version, including postures as the first contemplation instead of breathing for example. According to Bhante Sujato, it seems to emphasize samatha or calm abiding, while the Theravadin version emphasizes Vipassana or insight. The text also often refers to 'bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs' instead of just male bhikkhus.
A section on Smṛtyupasthāna is found in various Tibetan and Chinese recensions of large Prajñāpāramitā sutras, such as the 25,000 line version translated by Edward Conze. This skeletal version of the Smṛtyupasthāna is incorporated into the larger sutra and thus appears as part of the Buddha's discourse to Subhuti. It only outlines specific practices for the contemplation of the body, the other three satipatthanas are simply enumerated.
According to Rupert Gethin, "[t]he sutta is often read today as describing a pure form of insight (vipassanā) meditation that bypasses calm (samatha) meditation and the four absorptions (jhāna)." Yet, in the older Buddhist tradition, mindfulness aided in abandoning the five hindrances, which then leads into the first jhana.[note 8] According to Gethin, the early Buddhist texts have "a broadly consistent vision" regarding meditation practice. Various practices lead to the development of the factors of awakening, which are not only the means to, but also the constituents of awakening.
Gethin, followed by Polak and Arbel, notes that there is a "definite affinity" between the bojjhaṅgā, the seven factors of awakening, and the four jhanas, which actualize the Buddhist practices aiming at calming the mind. According to Gethin, satipatthana and anapanasati are related to a formula that summarizes the Buddhist path to awakening as "abandoning the hindrances, establishing [...] mindfulness, and developing the seven factors of awakening." This results in a "heightened awareness," "overcoming distracting and disturbing emotions," which are not particular elements of the path to awakening, but rather common disturbing and distracting emotions.
According to Sujato, samatha and vipassana are complementary elements of the Buddhist path. Satipatthana explicates mindfulness, the seventh limb of the eightfold path, and is to be understood as an integral part of this path.
Polak, elaborating on Vetter, notes that the onset of the first dhyana is described as a quite natural process, due to the preceding efforts to restrain the senses and the nurturing of wholesome states. According to Grzegorz Polak, the four upassanā do not refer to four different foundations of which one should be aware, but are an alternate description of the jhanas, describing how the samskharas are tranquilized:
There are a variety of ways that one could use the methods described in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta including:
Based on these two dimensions the commentary's recommended personality-based satipaṭṭhāna is reflected in the grid shown at right.
Soma (2003, p. xxiv) adds that all practitioners (regardless of their character and temperament) should also practice mindfulness of Postures (moving, standing, sitting, lying down) and Clear Understanding, about which he writes: "The whole practice of mindfulness depends on the correct grasp of the exercises included in the two parts referred to here."