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Sampajanna-the Constant Thorough Understanding of Impermanence

-By Vipassana Research Institute

In the previous paper on sampajanna, we discussed sampajanna as it is defined etymologically in the Abhidhamma Pitaka and commentaries. In the present paper, we will discuss how sampajanna or sampajana 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 sampajanna.

Katama ca bhikkhave, samma-satisamma-sati? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kaye kayanupassi viharati atapi sampajano satima vineyya loke abhijjhadomanassam.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 sammasati or satipatthana, it is always with sampajanna. That means it is with panna (wisdom). Otherwise it is mere sati, which is mere remembrance or awareness.

In the Suttapitaka, the Buddha gave two explanations of the term sampajanna. In the Samyutta Nikaya, he defines sampajano as follows-

Kathanca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajano hoti? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu vidita vedana uppajjantividita vedana uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti; vidita sanna uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, 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 sampajana only when one realizes the characteristic of impermanence, and that too on the basis of experience of sensation (vidita vedana). If it is not realized through vedana, then it is merely an intellectualisation, because our fundamental contact with the world is based on sensation. It is directly through sensation that experience occurs. The statement further indicates that sampajana lies in experiencing the impermanence of vedana, vitakkavedana, vitakka (the initial application of the mind on an object) and sanna (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 sampajanna emphasises that it must be continuous. He states-

Kathanca bhikkhave bhikkhu sampajano hoti? Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu abhikkante patikkante sampajanakari hoti. Alokite vilokite sampajanakari hoti. Saminjite 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 how 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 chewing and drinking, eating and savouring understands impermanence thoroughly, in wearing the double fold robe, alms bowl and single fold robe (in the case of a monk), 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 sampajanna under kayanupassana in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta.

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

With proper understanding of the teaching of Buddha, it becomes clear that if this continuous sampajanna 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 panna. 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 sampajanna-pabba of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta-

Yatam care yatam titthe, yatam acche yatam saye; Yatam saminjaye bhikkhu, yatamenam pasaraye.
Uddham tiriyam apacinam, yavata jagato gati; Samavekkhita ca dhammanam, khandhanam udayabbayam.5

-Let one walk with restraint, stand with restraint, sit with restraint, lay down with restraint. Let the meditator bend with restraint, stretch with restraint, upwards, across, backwards, as long he is in the course of the world, observing 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-sampajannam na rincati.6 For a meditator who follows his advice on the proper practice of Vipassana, being sampajana without any interruption, the Buddha gives the following assurance-either the meditator will attain the highest stage (arahant) or the penultimate stage (anagamita).7

In order for meditators to understand the term sampajanna, 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. If the term sampajanna is translated too concisely into English its meaning can be lost. It has usually been translated as clear comprehension, bare comprehension, etc. At first glance, these translations appear to be correct. However, some have taken this to mean that one must merely have clear comprehension of bodily activities. Interpretations such as this may have had the effect of misleading some meditators on the path of Dhamma. To try and minimize any confusions for meditators the more wordy translation- 'the constant thorough understanding of impermanence'- has been chosen.

Notes: (All references VRI edition)

1. Digha Nikaya 2.402
2. Samyutta Nikaya 3.5.401
3. Anguttara Nikaya 3.8.83
4. Digha Nikaya 2.160
5. Anguttara Nikaya 1.4.12
6. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.251
7. Digha Nikaya 2.404