Walking the Tightrope


“This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief,Band PT
for the attainment of the true way, for the realisation of nibbāna namely, the four foundations of mindfulness.”

The Buddha—Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

Chapter 17 -Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)

PEMASIRI THERA: The seventh factor of the eightfold path is right mindfulness, sammā-sati. Sati is the Pali term for a wholesome, kusala, state of mind. It is the mind-state that is inseparably linked with wholesomeness, not mixed up with or touched by anything harmful. When we perform wholesome actions, sati is present. It is present when we are generous and present when we are kind. It is present when we maintain a meditation centre, when we observe the five or eight
precepts, and we follow the eightfold path. “All wholesome states of mind,” said the Buddha in the Aïguttara Nikāya, “are sati.” All.

Acts of generosity performed without expectations are acts being performed with sati. When we help people without expectation, we are helping them with sati. When you clean the floor in the meditation hall without any expectations, you are cleaning with sati. And when you perform any virtuous deed without expectation, you are performing it with sati. Sati is observing the five and eight precepts without expectation and it is following the eightfold path, without expectation. Actions performed with expectations are not being performed with sati. Acts of generosity in which there is an expectation of future becoming in a good plane, of praise, of fame, or of obtaining anything at all are not completely wholesome acts of generosity and thus are not being performed with sati. Generally, any act of generosity is a wholesome act, but at the point where expectations are present, there is no sati. In the same way, if we are observing precepts with the expectation to get to an eternal plane or to gain favourable future results, our state of mind has not reached the level of sati; our minds are mixed up with ignorance at that point. Even though making the effort to observe the precepts is a beneficial state of mind, there is no sati at the point where expectations are present.

The concept of a wholesome state of mind existed before Siddhārtha became the enlightened Buddha: people kept precepts and they practised generosity, kindness, and compassion. There already existed a tradition of developing a wholesome state of mind and this mind-state was called sati. People practised sati in an effort to attain favourable results, such as a birth in a permanent place where they would live in peace for all eternity. They did not practise sati to achieve anything beyond these types of results. Siddhārtha realised that practising sati in this way only led to decay and death, only perpetuated endless suffering in saüsāra, and set out on a quest to find a more satisfactory form of liberation. Eventually, Siddhārtha discovered that overcoming decay and death required turning the body, activities performed with the body, experiences of the body and the mind, and all the thoughts of the mind completely towards the wholesome and skilful. Training his body and mind in this way, Siddhārtha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, subsequently teaching liberating truths to all who wanted to listen. As a result of these teachings, the goal of practising sati changed from attaining conditioned results that are subject to decay and death, to one of going beyond decay and death and attaining the unconditioned—nibbāna. The Buddha called this way of practice the noble, ariyan sati, sammā-sati.

Through the practice of sati, we break free of saüsāra. Sati means we have no expectations whatsoever. There is only the thought that our existence in samsāra is dukkha and that there is decay and death here. Just to get beyond that, to overcome that, is the only thought in our minds. That is sati. Just that one thought in mind, that all we are looking for is to go beyond saüsāra, to go beyond decay and death.


Paying attention, manasikāra, is similar to sati: a mindful awareness is present. Attention, however, is only the faculty of our minds to observe phenomena. It is nothing more than this faculty of observance. Through paying attention, we turn
our minds towards objects of experience. Picture a room. There are many people in the room and a guard stands at its entrance. The guard’s duty is to open and close the door to the room, and that is all. He does nothing else. The guard never goes wandering around and talking with the people inside the room, and he never goes wandering around outside the room. No. The guard just remains at the entrance to the room, opening and closing the door. This room is our mind, the people in the room are the factors of our mind, and the guard who opens and closes the door is our faculty of attention. By using our faculty of attention, we turn our minds towards objects of experience. Paying attention is nothing more than turning our minds towards a variety of different objects. It is a neutral faculty that supports the performance of wholesome actions, neutral actions, and unwholesome actions. This is the nature of beings. An eel has a head like a snake and a tail like a fish. When an eel sees a snake, it turns its head towards the snake; when an eel sees a fish, it turns its tail towards the fish. Manasikāra is an eel. Sometimes it turns towards wholesomeness and sometimes it turns towards unwholesomeness.

DAVID: The cliché is that of a skilled thief.

PEMASIRI THERA: Yes. When a thief breaks into a house, he uses his faculty of attention, manasikāra. He is very aware of walking, speaking, and all movements. Maybe he breaks in through the roof. If a thief makes a mistake and gets caught, we say: “Hey. You have no sati.” But it is wrong to say this because actions performed with sati are free of expectations and of course a thief expects to gain something. Therefore, his form of attention is not sati. Having no expectations whatsoever, even when performing good actions, is the cause for attaining nibbāna. ‘No expectations’ is the cause for nibbāna—that’s radical. When people who are new to meditation forget something, we also say: “Hey. You have no sati.” We say this in order to develop their mindfulness, but after a while we have to explain to them what is sati and what is just paying attention, manasikāra. But to help meditators who are just starting to develop a practice, we say: “You have no sati.” Right now, I am doing many different things and I place my eyeglasses on the table. After our discussion, I will get up and go somewhere. There’s a chance I will forget that just now I placed my eyeglasses on the table. “Pemasiri,” some people might say, “has no sati. That teacher has no mindfulness.” But these people are wrong to say that because my forgetfulness is not a lapse in sati. It’s true, I may be paying little attention to where I place my eyeglasses, but I am still carrying on with my sati, my wholesome state of mind. That is all that is happening. Many people think forgetfulness is a lapse in sati. We can’t say that.

Even while practising sati correctly, a very good meditator sometimes forgets things—he can have a bath at the well and forget his bar of soap or he can brush his teeth and forget his toothbrush. The meditator forgets the bar of soap or the toothbrush because he is not turning his attention, his manasikāra, towards the bar of soap or towards the toothbrush. Instead, at that particular moment in time the meditator is turning his attention towards some other object of experience, such as his mind. The meditator is simply not turning his faculty of attention towards the bar of soap or the toothbrush, and as a result forgets them. Paying attention, manasikāra, is merely the faculty of being aware of an object of experience, any material or immaterial object of experience. It is nothing more than this. Through our faculty of attention, we shift our minds from one object of experience to another object of experience; our attention continually changes from one object to another, and then to another. It is just the faculty of being attentive to what is happening. If we direct our attention towards remembering everything that happens, we shall remember everything that happens. Paying attention, manasikāra, is purely the turning of the mind towards an object of experience. We connect our minds with whatever object of experience we direct our attention towards. These objects of experience can be wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. Manasikāra is not necessarily connected to a wholesome state of mind. This is not sati. Sati is a wholesome state of mind, a wholesome conscious state of being, which is only ever associated with beneficial experience and is never associated
with harmful experience. Entirely mindful of behaviour, people who maintain sati never let their minds fall away from a wholesome state. They are always directing their attention towards wholesome objects of experience. The guard at the entrance to their minds only opens the door to wholesomeness and never opens the door to unwholesomeness. If the man who forgets the bar of soap is a good meditator and is practising sati correctly, he is always turning his attention
towards beneficial objects. He forgets the bar of soap simply because he does not turn his attention towards the bar of soap. Forgetting the bar of soap does not mean his mind is falling away from a wholesome state of being, from sati. It only
means there was no attention paid to that particular object of experience, the bar of soap. Nothing more.

In translated western meditation books, I have read explanations of sati that cannot be agreed with whatsoever, not in the slightest. In one of these books, a conversation between a meditation student and his teacher is used to illustrate the
concept of sati.

“Did you meditate?” asked the teacher.
“Yes,” said the student. “I was practising sati.”
“Where did you leave your shoes?”
“Near the door.”
“Which side of the door?”
“I don’t remember.”

The student forgets where his shoes are, but knows he took them off somewhere near the door. “Then you have no sati,” said the teacher. “Get out!” And the teacher chases the student away. If the student were a good meditator, he did all of his actions with sati and it is still possible for him to have forgotten where he left his shoes. At the time he took off his shoes, he may have simply not directed his wholesome state of mind towards taking off his shoes. Nothing else. Because good meditators perform all of their activities—bathing, teeth brushing, removing shoes, or whatever—with a beneficial state of mind, they are performing their activities with complete sati.

This student may have forgotten where he left his shoes simply because his sati was turned towards some other experience such as his mind and was not turned towards his shoes. Only that may have been lacking for this student. If this were
the case, the student’s mind did not fall away from wholesomeness. He did maintain his sati. To teach these two separate concepts—sati and manasikāra—as if they were the same concept is a major mistake. Sati is different from manasikāra: a wholesome state of mind is not the same as simply paying attention to something. It took me a long time before I understood the difference between these two concepts. When I was a young meditator, I made the effort to perform all of my actions with a beneficial state of mind: without expectations and without letting my mind fall into an harmful state. But sometimes I forgot where I left some belonging of mine. “You,” said my teacher, “have no sati.” “What then,” I asked, “is sati and what is just remembering everything?” I noticed I could be quite attentive while I performed unwholesome and harmful actions, and I also noticed I generally later remembered even these unwholesome and harmful actions. So however much I meditated, I had some doubt that sati was just being attentive and remembering, and this doubt became a problem for me. I respected my teachers because I knew they were teaching me in the correct Pathway, but I had a problem with this particular aspect of their teachings that emphasised attention and remembering. Only when I started to read the Tipiñaka did I begin to understand the difference between manasikāra and sati. The Buddha spoke about manasikāra and sati as two separate topics. Manasikāra is quite different from sati. Manasikāra simply supports all of our states and actions. The guard’s duty, our faculty of attention, is just to open and close the mind-door to the factors of the mind. That is all. Just be there and perform that duty: open and close the minddoor. Manasikāra helps us perform all of our actions, whether they are beneficial, neutral, or harmful. When manasikāra helps us to perform harmful actions, it is connecting with ignorance. Sati, on the other hand, never connects with ignorance and only supports the performance of wholesome actions. Sati only ever connects with wisdom, paññā. Nothing connects with sati except wisdom—
absolutely nothing. This is what sets sati apart from manasikāra. Admittedly, when we diligently train in paying attention to the objects of our experience, we develop a heightened level of mindful awareness that functions much like sati.

Many years ago I trained in this manasikāra aspect of the teachings and now, if I decide from this moment on that I am going to pay good attention to every action I perform, every action I perform will be with an attentive state of mind. All of my physical actions—even the blinking of my eyes—will be experienced with good attention and afterwards I shall be able to recall most of these actions. But this is not sati as there is no development of wisdom, no progress. Development requires turning our attention away from unwholesome objects and towards wholesome ones. When we do this, our attention is called yoniso-manasikāra. And because sati is always part of the state of mind associated with wholesomeness, yoniso-manasikāra supports the development of sati. Paying attention comes easily and automatically, but paying attention in a completely wholesome way, with yoniso-manasikāra, does not come automatically; it takes effort and development.

The Buddha once taught five hundred thieves. Having already developed their faculties of attention to very high levels, the thieves just needed the wisdom to turn their harmful attention into beneficial attention. Upon hearing the word of
the Buddha, the thieves let go of their expectations and cravings, and they attained Clear Comprehension. When the Buddha described sati, he generally included the term sampajañña. Sampajañña means clearly seeing the characteristics of existence. With sampajañña, we are conscious of an experience as it arises and we are conscious of it as it passes away. Sampajañña is clear comprehension. There is a clarity of consciousness. Connecting sati with sampajañña, sati-sampajañña means our wholesome state of mind and our clarity of consciousness are well developed; we never make a mind-state arise that is divorced from wholesomeness. We are fully aware of our actions and consider our actions, right in the midst of performing them, with wisdom. At this well-developed level of clarity, all of our physical actions, feelings, and mental states are wholesome. Every act and experience that takes place in our mental processes is made into something wholesome and beneficial.

When we work with sati-sampajañña, we work with right understanding and right thought. We differentiate mentality from materiality, and we work with wisdom. Each morning, the sun chases away the darkness of the night. We see
objects that we didn’t see during the night and there is no doubt in our minds as to the identity of these objects. There is no confusion. When the rays of the morning sun strike a pure dewdrop, the pure dewdrop gives a wonderful reflection of the morning sun. The light of the sun shines in the pure dewdrop. The sun is nibbāna, darkness is ignorance, the pure dewdrop is a mind in sati, and seeing clearly is sampajañña. Purity combined with seeing clearly is sati-sampajañña. The pure, clear mind of sati-sampajañña is in the light of nibbāna. It is a bright state of mind. And, even though this state of mind is only a reflection of nibbāna and has not yet truly attained nibbāna, it shines just like nibbāna as it is not mixed up with any ignorance. A state full of wisdom, there is no confusion regarding experiences. Any object, anything, that comes into our field of experience is known without confusion. When we are in the light of nibbāna, in sati-sampajañña, we know the true nature of existence. The darkness of our ignorance is chased away and we see objects with clarity and understanding.

Another dewdrop is muddy. Not reflecting the morning sun, it is a mind mixed up with ignorance. With no sati-sampajañña, no wholesome state of mind and no clarity of consciousness, the muddy dewdrop never shines like nibbāna. Never.
When we train in sati-sampajañña, we act skilfully at all times in our lives, and easily make our way. We consider our meditation practice and our routine daily lives as one and the same, united. With our meditation practice woven into every part of our lives, we can be involved in any activity without conflict because we are always seeing clearly and are always free from expectations. When we have sati-sampajañña, we are the pure dewdrop and nibbāna shines. Two kinds of people have sati-sampajañña: arahats and meditators who mindfully perform all of their actions without expectations. There is no clinging or aversion, only seeing clearly. To be free of suffering, we must develop our sati-sampajañña.

Ch. 17 – Right Mindfulness from  Walking the Tightrope  “Walking the Tightrope – Talks on Meditative Development with Pemasiri Mahathera” – David Young Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka

VIDEO about Nibbana and Sati – Venerable Pemasiri Mahathera

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