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Saṃprajanya (P. sampajañña; T. shes bzhin ཤེས་བཞིན་; C. zhengzhi), translated as "awareness", "introspection", "clear comprehension", etc., is a term of central importance for meditative practice in all Buddhist traditions. It refers to “The mental process by which one monitors one’s own body and mind. In the practice of śamatha, its principal function is to note the occurrence of laxity [dullness] and excitation [agitation].”[1]

Saṃprajanya is often described in conjunction with the term smṛti (P. sati; mindfulness) to describe the practice of meditation. For example, Taleg Kyabgon explains how the factors of smṛti (mindfulness) and saṃprajanya (awareness) work together within shamatha practice:

To counteract these two tendencies [dullness and agitation], we apply awareness. As we begin to develop and cultivate mindfulness regarding external objects, by focusing our minds on the breath, on our mental processes, and so on, it becomes possible to practice awareness. Without mindfulness it is almost impossible to be aware of these two fundamental obstacles to meditation, dullness or drowsiness and mental agitation. Even if no particularly disturbing thoughts are arising in the mind, or no strong, violent emotions are present, and there is a semblance of calmness, nevertheless there is no real sense of clarity. The mind is dull, which can lead to a feeling of drowsiness or stupor. This is harder to detect than mental agitation, the incessant inner chatter and dialogue and the upsurge of emotions that can disrupt our meditative state. Awareness should be applied to detect whether dullness or mental agitation is present.[2]

Saṃprajanya is the topic of the fifth chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara, where the meaning and implications of Saṃprajanya are described in detail.

Pali tradition

Four aspects

Pali sources identify four aspects of clear comprehension:[3][4]

  • purpose (Pāli: sātthaka): refraining from activities irrelevant to the path.
  • suitability (sappāya): pursuing activities in a dignified and careful manner.
  • domain (gocara):[5] maintaining sensory restraint consistent with mindfulness.
  • non-delusion (asammoha): seeing the true nature of reality (see three characteristics).

Within the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, sampajañña (clear comprehension) is invoked in tandem with sati (mindfulness):

Herein (in this teaching) a monk lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief;

he lives contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief;
he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief;
he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.[6]

According to Anālayo, clear comprehension develops out of mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati) and is subsequently present in tandem with mindfulness for all four satipaṭṭhāna-s.[7][6]

Sanskrit tradition

In the Sanskrit tradition, Saṃprajanya (T.shes bzhin) has slightly different meanings according to the context in which it is used:[8]

  • In teachings on meditation, and shamatha meditation in particular, it refers to the continuous and watchful awareness which oversees and checks whether or not one is still mindful of the object of meditation. It is the aspect of mind that knows whether or not one has become distracted, and, at the same time, is also aware of sense impressions. See also mindfulness.
  • In the context of the teachings on sila (discipline), such as in chapter five of the Bodhicharyavatara, it means "continually checking the status of one's body, speech and mind." See also mindfulness and conscientiousness.

Contemporary commentary

Critical to Right Mindfulness' purpose (Nyanaponika)

In a correspondence between Bhikkhu Bodhi and B. Alan Wallace, Bodhi described Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's views on "right mindfulness" and sampajañña as follows,

... 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.[9]

Use day and night (Nhat Hanh)

Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has written with regards to the aforementioned verse in the Satipatthana Sutra, on the topic of sampajañña, the following,

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[10] to be practised 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.[11]

Alternate translations

Saṃprajanya has been translated as follows:

  • awareness
  • introspection (Buswell, Wallace)
  • clear comprehension (Buswell, Payutto)[12]
  • clear knowing (Analayo)[13]
  • fully alert (Tanissaro)[14]
  • full awareness (Nhat Hanh)[11]
  • circumspection (Buswell)
  • attention
  • vigilance
  • discrimination

See also


  1. Wallace, B. Alan (2016). Heart of the Great Perfection. MA, USA: Wisdom publications. pp. 629 (e–book). ISBN 978-1-61429-236-4. Glossary=introspection (Tib. shes bzhin, Skt. saṃprajanya). The mental process by which one monitors one’s own body and mind. In the practice of śamatha, its principal function is to note the occurrence of laxity and excitation. 
  2. Traleg Kyabgon 2001, p. 64.
  3. Anālayo (2006), pp. 143-5; Bodhi (2005), p. 442, n. 34; and, Nyanaponika (1996), p. 46.
  4. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: 2014), s.v. saṃprajanya
  5. 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".
  6. 6.0 6.1 Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness, translated from the Pali by Nyanasatta Thera [1]
  7. Anālayo (2006), pp. 141-2.[2]
  8. RW icon height 18px.png Vigilance
  9. 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."
  10. 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.)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Nhat Hanh (1990), pp. 50-51.
  12. Commentary (543 B.C.); Payutto (1972) Dictionary of Buddhism; TW Rhys Davids (1921); Bodhi (2005), p. 283; and, Soma (2003), pp. 60-100.
  13. Anālayo (2006), pp. 141 ff.
  14. Thanissaro (1995).


External links

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