Putting smṛti back into sati (Putting remembrance back into mindfulness)

Bryan Levman


The word sati today is usually translated as “mindfulness”, despite the fact that it is derived from the Old Indic word smṛti meaning “remembrance”, “memory”, and “tradition”. Some scholars even distinguish between the two words as different in meaning, suggesting that sati usually refers to present awareness in the Pali scriptures, not to the past, as the word smṛti does. Since the Buddha was familiar with the Brahmanical teachings, including the six Vedāṅgas (linguistic analysis, etymology, etc.) which are part of the smṛti tradition, it is unlikely that he would have used the vernacular form of the word (sati) in a way inconsistent with its heritage. This article argues that the word sati incorporates the meaning of “memory” and “remembrance” in much of its usage in both the suttas and the commentary, and suggests that without the memory component, the notion of mindfulness cannot be properly understood or applied, as mindfulness requires memory for its effectiveness. Although sati is a polysemous word whose semantic field extends beyond mere memory (with overtones of mindfulness, wisdom, awareness, restraint, equanimity, etc.), the notion of memory is central to the denotative and connotative core of the word. 

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