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Two varieties of mindfulness : comparing and contrasting the treatments of Satipaṭṭhāna given by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo and Mahāsi Sayādaw

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Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies


Chu, William
Shakya, Miroj
Long, Darui


Although satipaṭṭhāna meditation, the establishing of mindfulness (on body, feelings, mind, and dhammas) is a key teaching in the Buddhism of the Pāli Canon, it is presented differently in the Sutta Piṭaka and the later commentaries. Given the contemporary resurgence in interest in the concept and practice of mindfulness, it is worthwhile to examine the divergent interpretations of satipaṭṭhāna that originate from these sources. This divergence can be seen very clearly by comparing the treatments of satipaṭṭhāna given by Ajaan Lee Dhammadaro (1907-1961) of Thailand and Mahāsi Sayādaw (1904-1982) of Burma/Myanmar. Each greatly influenced modern Buddhist movements in the last century and each of their histories is certainly worthy of investigation on its own. Whereas Mahāsi Sayādaw is recognized for his contributions to the establishment of the vipassanā movement across Burma as well as overseas through support from U Nu, the first prime minister of Burma, Ajaan Lee is credited with bringing the Thai Forest Tradition’s teaching into the Buddhist mainstream in Central Thailand and beyond because of his mastery of concentration, his commitment to upholding ascetic practices, and his skill in giving Dhamma talks.

Given their claims to being grounded in scriptural authority, I examine to what extent their interpretations of satipaṭṭhāna in their treatises—especially Frames of Reference (1949) by Ajaan Lee and The Satipaṭṭhāna Vipassanā Meditation (1954) of Mahāsi Sayādaw—were actually adapted from the Canonical suttas’ presentation of meditation. The study begins by making a comparison of the suttas’ treatment of satipaṭṭhāna with that of the commentarial literature, focusing on the points of discrepancy to enable the reader to determine which texts Ajaan Lee and Mahāsi Sayādaw are drawing on. It continues first with a detailed account of each teacher’s formative years and a brief historical contextualization, and second, by means of highlighting critical technical terminology used in their treatments of satipaṭṭhāna, specifically, their understanding of key terms in meditation such as sati, sampajañña, ātappa, anattā, samādhi, and vipassanā. By comparing their treatment of satipaṭṭhāna, I argue that one of the main reasons why their core teachings diverge is because they draw on different foundational sources. In the areas where the suttas’ elaboration of satipaṭṭhāna differs from that of the commentaries, Ajaan Lee’s treatment is largely in line with the suttas, whereas Mahāsi Sayādaw’s theory is deeply rooted in the postcanonical commentaries. This comparative study thereby provides more detail and depth to a history of the development of the Thai Forest Tradition and the vipassanā movement.


Religious education
Philosophy of Religion
Burmese vipassanā movement
liberating insight
mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna)
Thai Forest Tradition
three characteristics

Degree Granter

University of the West



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