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Smṛti (P. sati; T. dran pa དྲན་པ་; C. nian; J. nen; K. yŏm 念) is translated as "mindfulness," "awareness," "inspection," "recollection," "retention," etc. The meaning of smṛti/sati is sometimes glossed as "not forgetting", referring to either not forgetting one's practice instructions, or not forgetting to keep the mind focused on a particular object of meditation. This refers to keeping in mind a particular object of focus, such as the object of meditation (e.g. the breath), the meditation instructions, or one's vows, etc., and not letting the mind wander off in distraction. Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "as a mental factor it signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present, rather than the faculty of memory regarding the past."[1]

Smṛti/sati is identified in the following contexts:

Definitions for the mental factor of smṛti/sati

Pali tradition (Sati)

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

The word sati derives from a root meaning “to remember,” but as a mental factor it signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present, rather than the faculty of memory regarding the past. It has the characteristic of not wobbling, i.e. not floating away from the object. Its function is absence of confusion or non-forgetfulness. It is manifested as guardianship, or as the state of confronting an objective field. Its proximate cause is strong perception (thirasaññā) or the four foundations of mindfulness (see VII, §24).[1]

The Atthasalini sates:

Mindfulness has "not floating away" as its characteristic, unforgetfulness as its function, guarding, or the state of facing the object, as its manifestation, firm remembrance (sanna) or application in mindfulness as regards the body, etc., as proximate cause. It should be regarded as a door-past from being firmly established in the object, and as a door-keeper from guarding the door of the senses.[2]

Nina van Gorkom states:

There are many opportunities for generosity, for morality and for mental development, but we are often forgetful of kusala and we waste such opportunities. When mindfulness arises there is heedfulness of kusala and then the opportunity for kusala which presents, itself is not wasted. There has to be mindfulness with dana, with sila, with samatha and with the development of insight.[2]

Sanskrit tradition (Smṛti)

The Abhidharma-samuccaya states:

What is inspection? It is not to let what one knows slip away from one's mind. Its function is not to be distracted.[3]

The Khenjuk states:

Recollection means not forgetting a known object. It's function is to inhibit distraction.[4]

StudyBuddhism states:

Recollecting mindfulness (dran-pa) is not merely holding on to any cognized object without losing it as an object of focus. Here, it prevents mental activity from forgetting or losing a constructive object with which it is familiar. It has three characteristics:
  • The object must be something constructive with which we are familiar (‘dris-pa)
  • The aspect (rnam-pa) must be that it is focused on this object and does not forget or lose it
  • The function must be that it prevents mental wandering.
Thus, mindfulness is equivalent to a type of “mental glue” (‘dzin-cha) that holds on to the object of focus without letting go. Its strength spans the spectrum from weak to strong.[5]

Dawa Chödak Rinpoche states:

Drenpa is the seed of memory...our mind is always moving, touching this or that. If we have drenpa then we instantly remember, and we don’t touch... Drenpa is the horse’s bit. If drenpa is not there, the mind is like the wild horse. When you loose your drenpa, in that moment you are getting hesitation. Drenpa helps you to get you on the stage. It is memory. It is recollection. In that moment you are going to do a non-virtue and you remember your vows. That is drenpa. Forgetting is loss of drenpa.[6]

The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening states:

There are many translations for...smriti. It is most commonly translated as “mindfulness” (the Pali for this term is sati...). This key factor has been translated in Gateway to Knowledge as “recollection” and in Mind in Buddhist Psychology as “inspection.” It names the capacity to stay with an object of focus, so that one does not become distracted. Whatever the focus of the mind is, it doesn’t slip away. It doesn’t forget or go away from whatever it focuses on; it can stay with that object of awareness.
Remember that this factor of mindfulness is one of the two major factors which are cultivated in shamatha meditation... The function of inspection here is that we won’t be so easily distracted. A good calm-abiding meditator can stay with whatever "channel [of perception]"[7] they have chosen to focus on. They won’t just have one moment of seeing (channel 1) and then lots of moments of being absorbed by other channels. They can stay with the chosen object, the chosen channel, moment after moment; they will not be distracted. The name for that capacity to stay with an object is inspection, or more commonly “mindfulness.” This is the primary way in which this factor is known. Buddhist practitioners are trying to be sufficiently calm to be able to mindfully stay focused on the object they choose, without being distracted.
But this factor of inspection also has another meaning, one that seems rather different from the technical definition of mindfulness as it is usually understood. This other sense of mindfulness is what is termed “memory.” We say that someone has a “good memory” or has a “poor memory.” What does that mean? This same factor of inspection accounts for both the capacity to bring into present experience something that occurred in the past (memory) and the ability to stay with it (mindfulness). A person who has a bad memory cannot so easily select and bring into present experience something that has previously occurred.
... “inspection,” “recollection,” “mindfulness,” or “memory” are different ways of talking about the same function, which is the capacity to stay with whatever is chosen as an object of focus.[8]


Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

The word derives from a verb, sarati, meaning “to remember,” and occasionally in Pali sati is still explained in a way that connects it with the idea of memory. But when it is used in relation to meditation practice, we have no word in English that precisely captures what it refers to. An early translator cleverly drew upon the word mindfulness, which is not even in my dictionary. This has served its role admirably, but it does not preserve the connection with memory, sometimes needed to make sense of a passage.[9]

Robert Sharf states:

The interpretation of the term sati/smṛti has been the source of considerable research, discussion, and debate... Smṛti orginally meant “to remember,” “to recollect,” “to bear in mind”; its religious significance can be traced to the Vedic emphasis on setting to memory the authoritative teachings of the tradition. Sati appears to retain this sense of “remembering” in the Buddhist Nikāyas: “And what, bhikkhus, is the faculty of sati? Here, bhikkhus, the noble disciple has sati, he is endowed with perfect sati and intellect, he is one who remembers, who recollects what was done and said long before.”
Moreover, the faculties of recollection and reflection are unarguably central to a variety of classical Buddhist practices associated with smṛti, including buddhānusmṛti or “recollection on the Buddha,” which typically involves some combination of recalling the characteristics of the Buddha, visualizing him, and chanting his name.
Even in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, the term sati retains a sense of “recollecting” or “bearing in mind.” Specifically, sati involves bearing in mind the virtuous dharmas so as to properly apprehend, from moment to moment, the true nature of phenomena. At least this is the explanation found in early Pali exegetical works such as the Milindapañha, in which Nāgasena explains sati as follows:
Just as, Your Majesty, the treasurer of a king who is a cakka-vattin causes the cakka-vattin king to remember his glory evening and morning [saying], “So many, lord, are your elephants, so many your horses, so many your chariots, so many your foot soldiers, so much your gold, so much your wealth, so much your property; may my lord remember.” Thus he calls to mind the king’s property. Even so, your Majesty, sati, when it arises, calls to mind 'dhammas that are skillful and unskillful, with faults and faultless, inferior and refined, dark and pure, together with their counterparts: these are the four establishings of mindfulness, these are the four right endeavors, these are the four bases of success, these are the five faculties, these are the five powers, these are the seven awakening-factors, this is the noble eight-factored path, this is calm, this is insight, this is knowledge, this is freedom. Thus the one who practices yoga resorts to dhammas that should be resorted to and does not resort to dhammas that should not be resorted to; he embraces dhammas that should be embraced and does not embrace dhammas that should not be embraced. Just so, Your Majesty, does sati have the characteristic of calling to mind. . . .
Just as, Your Majesty, the adviser-treasurer of the king who is a cakka-vattin knows those things that are beneficial and unbeneficial to the king [and thinks], “These things are beneficial, these unbeneficial; these things are helpful, these unhelpful.” He thus removes the unbeneficial things and takes hold of the beneficial. Even so, Your Majesty, sati, when it arises, follows the courses of beneficial and unbeneficial dhammas: these dhammas are beneficial, these unbeneficial; these dhammas are helpful, these unhelpful. Thus the one who practices yoga removes unbeneficial dhammas and takes hold of beneficial dhammas; he removes unhelpful dhammas and takes hold of helpful dhammas. Just so, Your Majesty, does sati have the characteristics of taking hold.[10]
Buddhaghosa provides a similar gloss in his Path of Purification:
By means of it they [i.e., other dhammas] remember, or it itself remembers, or it is simply just remembering, thus it is sati. Its characteristic is not floating; its property is not losing; its manifestation is guarding or the state of being face to face with an object; its basis is strong noting or the satipaṭṭhānas of the body and so on. It should be seen as like a post due to its state of being firmly set in the object, and as like a gatekeeper because it guards the gate of the eye and so forth.[11]
Rupert Gethin has undertaken a careful analysis of such passages, and notes that sati cannot refer to “remembering” in any simple sense, since memories are, as Buddhists are quick to acknowledge, subject to distortion. Rather, sati “should be understood as what allows awareness of the full range and extent of dhammas; sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value. Applied to the satipațțhānas, presumably what this means is that sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to "remember" that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure." (Gethin 1992, p. 39). In short, there is little that is “bare” about the faculty of sati, since it entails, among other things, the proper discrimination of the moral valence of phenomena as they arise.[12]

John D. Dunne suggests that the translation of sati and smṛti as mindfulness is confusing and that a number of Buddhist scholars have started trying to establish "retention" as the preferred alternative.[13]

Alternate translations for smṛti/sati

The terms sati/smriti have been translated as:

  • Attention (Jack Kornfield)
  • Awareness
  • Concentrated attention (Mahasi Sayadaw)
  • Inspection (Herbert Guenther)
  • Mindful attention
  • Mindfulness
  • Recollecting mindfulness (Alexander Berzin)
  • Recollection (Erik Pema Kunsang, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, John D. Dunne)
  • Reflective awareness (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu)
  • Remindfulness (James H. Austin)[14]
  • Retention (John Dunne)
  • Self-recollection (Jack Kornfield)

Distinction from "Bare attention"

Georges Dreyfus has expressed unease with the definition of mindfulness as "bare attention" or "nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness", stressing that mindfulness in Buddhist context means also "remembering", which indicates that the function of mindfulness also includes the retention of information. Dreyfus concludes his examination by stating:

The identification of mindfulness with bare attention ignores or, at least, underestimates the cognitive implications of mindfulness, its ability to bring together various aspects of experience so as to lead to the clear comprehension of the nature of mental and bodily states. By over-emphasizing the nonjudgmental nature of mindfulness and arguing that our problems stem from conceptuality, contemporary authors are in danger of leading to a one-sided understanding of mindfulness as a form of therapeutically helpful spacious quietness. I think that it is important not to lose sight that mindfulness is not just a therapeutic technique but is a natural capacity that plays a central role in the cognitive process. It is this aspect that seems to be ignored when mindfulness is reduced to a form of nonjudgmental present-centered form of awareness of one’s experiences.[15]

Robert H. Sharf notes that Buddhist practice is aimed at the attainment of "correct view", not just "bare attention":

Mahasi’s technique did not require familiarity with Buddhist doctrine (notably abhidhamma), did not require adherence to strict ethical norms (notably monasticism), and promised astonishingly quick results. This was made possible through interpreting sati as a state of "bare awareness" — the unmediated, non-judgmental perception of things "as they are," uninflected by prior psychological, social, or cultural conditioning. This notion of mindfulness is at variance with premodern Buddhist epistemologies in several respects. Traditional Buddhist practices are oriented more toward acquiring "correct view" and proper ethical discernment, rather than "no view" and a non-judgmental attitude.[16]

Jay Garfield, quoting Shantideva and other sources, stresses that mindfulness is constituted by the union of two functions, calling to mind and vigilantly retaining in mind. He demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of morality – at least in the context of Buddhism from which modern interpretations of mindfulness are stemming.[17]

Smṛti-based practices

Smṛti is the focus of specific practices.


Ānāpānasati ("mindfulness of breathing"), is a form of meditation that focuses on feeling the sensations caused by the movements of the breath in the body, as is practiced in the context of mindfulness.


Satipaṭṭhāna ("Foundations of Mindfulness") is a well-known practice that focuses on "mindfulness" of one's body, feelings, mind, and phenomena. This practice is presented in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.

Combined with Samprajaña and apramāda

In Buddhist texts, "mindfulness" is often presented in conjuction with samprajaña ( "clear comprehension") and apramāda ("vigilance").[18][note 1]

In a publicly available correspondence between Bhikkhu Bodhi and B. Alan Wallace, Bodhi has described Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's views on "right mindfulness" and sampajañña as follows:

He held that in the proper practice of right mindfulness, sati has to be integrated with sampajañña, clear comprehension, and it is only when these two work together that right mindfulness can fulfill its intended purpose.[19][note 2]

Ten forms of smṛti

The Ekottara Āgama of the Chinese Canon indentifies ten forms of smṛti:[20]

  1. mindfulness/recollection of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti)
  2. mindfulness of the Dharma
  3. mindfulness of the Sangha
  4. mindfulness of giving
  5. mindfulness of the heavens
  6. mindfulness of stopping and resting
  7. mindfulness of discipline
  8. mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasmṛti)
  9. mindfulness of the body
  10. mindfulness of death

According to Nan Huaijin, the Ekottara Āgama emphasizes mindfulness of breathing more than any of the other methods, and provides the most specific teachings on this one form of mindfulness.[21]

See also


Search for videos:

Selected videos:

  • Abhidhamma Concept of Attention - Rupert Gethin
    Description: A comprehensive presentation of the Theravada concept of 'Mental States' and the 'Thought Process' given at the Mind and Life seminar organized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The discussion becomes interesting with the practical inquiries and contrasting views of the other Abhidharma traditions posed by His Holiness. (Includes detailed discussion of the meaning of sati and smriti.)


  1. [I]n Buddhist discourse, there are three terms that together map the field of mindfulness [...] [in their Sanskrit variants] smṛti (Pali: sati), samprajaña (Pali: Sampajañña) and apramāda (Pali: appamada).[18]
  2. According to this correspondence, Ven. Nyanaponika spend his last ten years living with and being cared for by Bodhi. Bodhi refers to Nyanaponika as "my closest kalyāṇamitta in my life as a monk."


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Mindfulness (sati).
  2. 2.0 2.1 van Gorkom 1999, Cetasikas, Mindfulness (sati)
  3. Yeshe Gyeltsen 1975, s.v. Inspection.
  4. Mipham Rinpoche 2004, s.v. Recollection.
  5. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors, StudyBuddhism
  6. Drenpa (Kunzang Dechen Chodron)
  7. This is a reference to the six channels of perception within dhatu analysis. See eighteen dhatus.
  8. Goodman 2020, s.v. Chapter 11.
  9. Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi: Translator for the Buddha
  10. Milindapañha 37–38; trans. Gethin 1992, pp. 37–38.
  11. Visuddhimagga XIV, 141; trans. Gethin 1992, p. 40.
  12. Sharf 2014, pp. 942-943.
  13. Lecture, Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, c 18:03 [1] Archived November 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. James H. Austin (2014), Zen-Brain Horizons: Toward a Living Zen, MIT Press, p.83
  15. Dreyfus 2010.
  16. Geoffrey Samuel, Mindfulness or Mindlessness: Traditional and Modern Buddhist Critiques of "Bare Awareness"
  17. "Mindfulness and Ethics: Attention, Virtue and Perfection" by Jay Garfield
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Mindfulness and the Mind," by Subhuti. Madhyamavani Online
  19. "The Nature of Mindfulness and Its Role in Buddhist Meditation" A Correspondence between B.A. wallace and the Venerable Bikkhu Bodhi, Winter 2006, p.4
  20. Nan Huaijin. Working Toward Enlightenment: The Cultivation of Practice. York Beach: Samuel Weiser. 1993. pp. 118-119, 138-140.
  21. Nan Huaijin. Working Toward Enlightenment: The Cultivation of Practice. York Beach: Samuel Weiser. 1993. p. 146.


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