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Sampajañña (Pāli; Skt.: samprajaña) means "clear comprehension,"[1] "clear knowing,"[2] "constant thorough understanding of impermanence,"[3] "fully alert"[4] or "full awareness,"[5] as well as "attention, consideration, discrimination, comprehension, circumspection."[6]

Sampajañña is a Pali term used in Theravada suttas; the equivalent Sanskrit term samprajaña is found in Sanskrit texts employed (in translation) by a variety of meditation teachers such as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and in the Tibetan tradition.

From the Pali Canon

Clear comprehension is most famously invoked by the Buddha as a type of mindfulness practice in the Satipatthana Sutta:

"Again, monks, a monk is one who acts with clear comprehension when going forward and returning; ... looking ahead and looking away; ... bending and stretching his limbs; ... wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl; ... eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting; ... defecating and urinating; ... walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent."[7]

In another person's words, this type of mindfulness is associated with transitions and activities. The Satipatthana Sutta identifies this as an individual body-related mindfulness practice separate from what one might practice when assuming a static "posture" (such as walking, standing, sitting or lying down) or engaging in a deeper type of mindfulness.[8]

Canonical commentary

While the nikayas do not elaborate on what the Buddha meant by sampajañña, the Pali commentaries analyze it further in terms of four contexts for one's comprehension:[9]

  • purpose (Pāli: sātthaka): refraining from activities irrelevant to the path.
  • suitability (sappāya): pursuing activities in a dignified and careful manner.
  • domain (gocara):[10] maintaining sensory restraint consistent with mindfulness.
  • non-delusion (asammoha): seeing the true nature of reality (see three characteristics and anatta).

Contemporary commentary

Critical to Right Mindfulness' purpose (Nyanaponika)

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 in the following fashion:

... I should add that Ven. Nyanaponika himself did not regard “bare attention” as capturing the complete significance of satipaṭṭhāna, but as representing only one phase, the initial phase, in the meditative development of right mindfulness. 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.[11]

Use day and night (Nhat Hanh)

In regards to the aforementioned Satipattāna Sutta's verse on sampajañña, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

This exercise is the observation and awareness of the actions of the body. This is the fundamental practice of the monk. When I was first ordained as a novice forty-eight years ago, the first book my master gave me to learn by heart was a book of gathas[12] to be practiced while washing your hands, brushing your teeth, washing your face, putting on your clothes, sweeping the courtyard, relieving yourself, having a bath, and so on.
... If a novice applies himself to the practice of [this] ... exercise, he will see that his everyday actions become harmonious, graceful, and measured. Mindfulness becomes visible in his actions and speech. When any action is placed in the light of mindfulness, the body and mind become relaxed, peaceful, and joyful. [This] ... exercise is one to be used day and night throughout one's entire life.[5]

See also


  1. Bodhi (2005), p. 283; and, Soma (2003), pp. 60-100.
  2. Anālayo (2006), pp. 141 ff.
  3. VRI (1996), pp. 8-11.
  4. Thanissaro (1995).
  5. 5.0 5.1 Nhat Hanh (1990), pp. 50-51.
  6. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 690, entry "Sampajañña."
  7. Bodhi (2005), p. 283.
  8. Anālayo (2006), pp. 141-2.
  9. Anālayo (2006), pp. 143-5; Bodhi (2005), p. 442, n. 34; and, Nyanaponika (1996), p. 46.
  10. While the other three types of sampajañña have standard English translations, gocara has been translated in a variety of ways. Gocara (Pāli) generally means "pasture" or "grazing," based on go (cow) and cara (walking). Thus, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 254, provides a somewhat literal definition of gocara-sampanna as "pasturing in the field of good conduct." See also Anālayo (2006), p. 56, where, for instance, he notes: "A discourse in the Anguttara Nikāya compares the practice of satipatthāna to a cowherd's skill in knowing the proper pasture for his cows." In this article, the translation of gocara as "domain" is based on Bodhi (2005), p. 442, and Nyanaponika (1996), pp. 49-51. Alternatively, Soma (2003), pp. 61, 64, translates gocara as "resort," while Anālayo (2006), pp. 143, 145, uses the literal translation of "pasture."
  11. Wallace & Bodhi (2006), p. 4. 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."
  12. A gāthā (Pāli) is a verse of four half-lines (Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921-25, p. 248). For Nhat Hanh, these verses generally bring ones awareness cheerfully back to the simple task at hand. Perhaps Nhat Hanh's most famous gatha is:
    Breathing in, I calm my body,
    Breathing out, I smile.
    Dwelling in the present moment,
    I know this is a wonderful moment. (Nhat Hanh, 1990, p. 46.)


  • Anālayo (2006). Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications. ISBN 1-899579-54-0.
  • Nhat Hanh, Thich (trans. Annabel Laity) (1990). Transformation and Healing : the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness . Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press. ISBN 0-938077-34-1.
  • Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) (1996). Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness. Seattle, WA: Vipassana Research Publications of America. ISBN 0-09-649484-0.
  • Wallace, B. Alan and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Winter 2006). The nature of mindfulness and its role in Buddhist meditation: A correspondence between B. Alan Wallace and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. Unpublished manuscript, Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, Santa Barbara, CA.

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