Sampajañña - the Constant Thorough Understanding of Impermanence

Vipassana Research Institute

In this paper, we will discuss how sampajañña (or sampajano) is explained by the Buddha in the suttas and how the term can be correctly translated into English.

Whenever the Buddha was asked to describe sati (mindfulness or awareness), his explanation invariably included the term sampajañña.

Katam ca, bhikkhave, samma-sati? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kaye kayanupassi viharati atapi sampajano satima, vineyya loke abhijjha-domanassam.1

And what, meditators, is right awareness? Here, a meditator dwells ardently, with constant thorough understanding and right awareness, observing the body in the body, having removed craving and aversion towards this world (of mind and matter).

From this it becomes evident that according to the Buddha, whenever there is samma-sati or satipatthana, it is always with sampajañña. That means it is with pañña (wisdom). Otherwise it is mere sati, which is mere remembrance or awareness.

In the Sutta Pitaka, the Buddha gave two explanations of the term sampajañña. In the Samyutta-nikaya the Buddha defines sampajano as follows:

Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajano hoti? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno vidita vedana uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti; vidita sañña uppajjanti, vidita upahahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti; vidita vitakka uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti. Evam kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajano hoti.2

And how, meditators, does a meditator understand thoroughly? Herein, meditators, a meditator knows sensations arising in him, knows their persisting, and knows their vanishing; he knows perceptions arising in him, knows their persisting, and knows their vanishing; he knows each initial application (of the mind on an object) arising in him, knows its persisting, and knows its vanishing. This, meditators, is how a meditator understands thoroughly.

In the above statement, it becomes clear that one is sampajano only when one realizes the characteristic of impermanence, and that too on the basis of experience of sensation (vidita vedana). If this is not realized through vedana, then it is merely an intellectualization, as our fundamental contact with the world is based on sensation. It is through sensation that direct experience occurs. The statement further indicates that sampajano lies in experiencing the impermanence of vedana, vitakka (the initial application of the mind on an object) and sañña (perception). Here we should note that impermanence of vedana is to be realized first because according to the Buddha:

Vedana-samosarana sabbe dhamma.3

Everything that arises in the mind is accompanied by sensation.

The second explanation given by the Buddha of sampajañña emphasizes that it must be continuous. He states:

Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajano hoti? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu abhikkante patikkante sampajanakari hoti. Alokite vilokite sampajanakari hoti. Samiñjite pasarite sampajanakari hoti. Sanghati-patta-civara-dharane sampajanakari hoti. Asite pite khayite sayite sampajanakari hoti. Uccara-passava-kamme sampajanakari hoti. Gate thite nisinne sutte jagarite bhasite tunhi-bhave sampajanakari hoti.4

And how, meditators does a meditator understand thoroughly? Again, meditators, a meditator in going forwards and backwards understands impermanence thoroughly, in looking straight ahead and sideways understands impermanence thoroughly, in bending and stretching understands impermanence thoroughly, in wearing the robes and carrying the bowl understands impermanence thoroughly, in chewing and drinking, eating and savouring understands impermanence thoroughly, in attending to the calls of nature understands impermanence thoroughly, in walking, standing, sitting, sleeping and waking, speaking and remaining silent understands impermanence thoroughly.

The same passage has been repeated in other suttas, including the section on sampajañña under Kayanupassana in the Mahasatipatthana-sutta.

The emphasis on the continuity of sampajañña is very clear. One should develop constant thorough understanding of impermanence in whatever one does: in walking forward and backward, in looking straight and sideways, in bending and stretching, in wearing robes and so on. In sitting, in standing and even in sleeping one has to experience constant thorough understanding of impermanence. This is sampajañña.

With proper understanding of the teaching of the Buddha, it becomes clear that if this continuous sampajañña consists only of the thorough understanding of the processes of walking, eating and other activities of the body, then it is merely sati. If, however, the constant thorough understanding includes the characteristic of arising and passing away of vedana while the meditator is performing these activities, then this is pañña. This is what the Buddha wanted people to practise.

The Buddha describes this more specifically in a passage from the Anguttara-nikaya, using language that is bound to bring to mind the sampajana-pabba of the Mahasatipatthana-sutta:

Yatam care yatam titthe, yatam acche yatam saye, yatam samiñjaye bhikkhu, yatamenam pasaraye, uddham tiriyam apacinam, yavata jagato gati, samavekkhita ca dhammanam khandanam udayabbayam.5

Whether the meditator walks or stands or sits or lies, whether he bends or stretches, above, across, backwards, whatever his course in the world, he observes the arising and passing away of the aggregates.

Thus the emphasis is on the continuity of awareness of anicca (impermanence) with the base of body sensation. The Buddha frequently stressed that the meditator should not lose the thorough understanding of impermanence even for a moment: sampajaññam na riñcati.6 For a meditator who follows his advice on the proper practice of Vipassana, being sampajano without any interruption, the Buddha gives the following assurance: either the meditator will attain the highest stage (arahata) or the penultimate stage (anagamita).7

Every language, however rich it may be, has its limitations and we cannot expect even the richest of languages to be capable of giving precise equivalents to the technical Pali words used by the Buddha. If the term sampajañña is translated too concisely into English its meaning can be lost. It has usually been translated as "clear comprehension," "bare comprehension," etc. Superficially these translations appear to be correct. Some have taken this to mean that one must merely have clear comprehension of bodily activities. The limitations of this translation may have had the effect of misleading some meditators on the path of Dhamma. The Buddha clearly emphasized the thorough understanding of anicca in all bodily and mental activities. Therefore, to understand the term sampajañña, we have translated it as: "The constant thorough understanding of impermanence." It is felt that this translation conveys more fully the precise meaning of the term used by the Buddha.

This article is available in the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal.

1. Digha-nikaya , VRI 2.234; PTS 2.314
2. Samyutta-nikaya VRI 3.255-6; PTS 5.180-1
3. Anguttara-nikaya, VRI 3.159; PTS 4.339
4. Digha-nikaya VRI 2.75; PTS 2.95.
5. Khuddaka-nikaya, Ittivuttaka, Catukkanipata VRI 84; PTS 120
6. Samyutta-nikaya VRI 2.203; PTS 4.206
7. Digha-nikaya VRI 2.235 ; PTS 2.314