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Translations of
Englishinsight, clear-seeing, special seeing, distinct seeing
(IAST: vipaśyanā)
Burmeseဝိပဿနာ (WiPakThaNar)
(Pinyin: guān)
(UNGEGN: vĭbâssânéa)
(Wylie: lhag mthong; THL: lhak-thong)
Glossary of Buddhism

Samatha (Pāli; Sinhala: සමථ; Chinese: ; pinyin: zhǐ[note 1]), "calm,"[1] "serenity,"[2] "tranquillity of awareness,"[web 1] and vipassanā (Pāli; Sinhala විදර්ශනා (Vidarshana); Sanskrit vipaśyanā), literally "special, super (vi-), seeing (-passanā)",[3] are two qualities of the mind developed in tandem in Buddhist practice. In the Pali Canon and the Āgama they are not specific practices, but elements of "a single path," and "fulfilled" with the development (bhāvanā) of sati ("mindfulness") and jhana/dhyana ("meditation") and other path-factors.[4][5] While jhana/dhyana has a central role in the Buddhist path, vipassanā is hardly mentioned separately, but mostly described along with samatha.[4][5]

The Abhidhamma Pitaka and the commentaries describe samatha and vipassanā as two separate techniques, taking samatha to mean concentration-meditation, and vipassana as a practice to gain insight. In the Theravada-tradition, vipassanā is defined as a practice that seeks "insight into the true nature of reality", defined as anicca "impermanence", dukkha "suffering, unsatisfactoriness", anattā "non-self", the three marks of existence.[6][7] In the Mahayana-traditions vipassanā is defined as insight into śūnyatā "emptiness" and Buddha-nature.

In modern Theravada, the relation between samatha and vipassanā is a matter of dispute. Meditation-practice was reinvented in the Theravada tradition in the 18th-20th century, based on contemporary readings of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and other texts, centering on vipassana and 'dry insight' and downplaying samatha.[8] Vipassana became of central importance in the 20th century Vipassanā movement[9] favoring vipassanā over samatha. Some critics point out that both are necessary elements of the Buddhist training, while other critics argue that dhyana is not a single-pointed concentration exercise.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • The Significance of Samatha (concentration) for Vipassana (insight)
  • Samatha VS Vipassana | Purpose of the better "technique"
  • Ask A Monk: Samatha and Vipassana
  • SamathaVipassana Bhavana - 40 Mins Meditation (Quiet Room)
  • La diferencia entre Samatha y Vipassana




Sanskrit: "tranquility";[6][1] "tranquility of the mind";[1] "tranquillity of awareness";[web 1] "serenity";[2] "calm";[1] "meditative calm";[1] "quietude of the heart."[1]

The Tibetan term for samatha is shyiné (Wylie: zhi-gnas).[10] The semantic field of Sanskrit shama and Tibetan shi is "pacification", "the slowing or cooling down", "rest."[10] The semantic field of Tibetan is "to abide or remain" and this is cognate or equivalent with the final syllable of the Sanskrit, thā.[11] According to Jamgon Kongtrul, the terms refer to "peace" and "pacification" of the mind and the thoughts.[10]


Vipassanā is a Pali word derived from the prefix "vi-" and the verbal root "-passanā":[3]

  • prefix vi-: "special," "super";[3] "in a special way," "into, through";[7] "clear."[12]
  • verbal root -passanā: "seeing";[3] "seeing," "perceiving";[7] "free from preconception."[12]

The literal meaning is "super-seeing,"[3] but is often translated as "insight" or "clear-seeing."[citation needed] Henepola Gunaratana defines vipassanā as "[l]ooking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing."[7] According to Mitchell Ginsberg, vipassana is "[i]nsight into how things are, not how we thought them to be."[12]

A synonym for vipassanā is paccakkha "perceptible to the senses" (Pāli; Sanskrit: pratyakṣa), literally "before the eyes", which refers to direct experiential perception. Thus, the type of seeing denoted by vipassanā is that of direct perception, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument.[citation needed]

In Tibetan, vipaśyanā is lhaktong (Wylie: lhag mthong). Lhak means "higher", "superior", "greater"; tong is "view, to see". So together, lhaktong may be rendered into English as "superior seeing", "great vision" or "supreme wisdom". This may be interpreted as a "superior manner of seeing", and also as "seeing that which is the essential nature". Its nature is a lucidity—a clarity of mind.[13]

Origins and development

Early Buddhism

According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "samatha, jhana, and vipassana were all part of a single path."[4] According to Keren Arbel, samatha and vipassana are not specific practices, but qualities of the mind which come to fulfillment with the development of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, including sati ("mindfulness") and jhana/dhyana (meditation").[5] In the sutta pitaka the term "vipassanā" is hardly mentioned, while they frequently mention jhana as the meditative practice to be undertaken. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes,

When [the Pāli suttas] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.[14]

According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, dhyāna constituted the original "liberating practice" of the Buddha.[15][16][17] Vetter further argues that the Noble Eightfold Path constitutes a body of practices which prepare one, and lead up to, the practice of dhyana.[18] Vetter and Bronkhorst further note that dhyana is not limited to single-pointed concentration, which seems to be described in the first jhana, but develops into equanimity and mindfulness,[19][20][note 2] "born from samadhi."[21] Wynne notes that one is then no longer absorbed in concentration, but is mindfully aware of objects while being indifferent to it,[22] "directing states of meditative absorption towards the mindful awareness of objects."[23]

A number of suttas mention samatha and vipassana as mental qualities that are to be developed in tandem.[24][note 3] In SN 43.2, the Buddha states: "And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Serenity and insight...."[25] In SN 35.245, the Kimsuka Tree Sutta, the Buddha provides an elaborate metaphor in which serenity and insight are "the swift pair of messengers" who deliver the message of nibbana (Pāli; Skt.: Nirvana) via the noble eightfold path.[note 4] AN 2.30, Vijja-bhagiya Sutta ("A Share in Clear Knowing"):

These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquility (samatha) & insight (vipassana).

When tranquility is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.
When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.

Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.[26]

In AN 4.170, the Four Ways to Arahantship Sutta, Ven. Ānanda reports that people attain arahantship in one of four ways:

Friends, whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of four paths. Which four?
There is the case where a monk has developed insight preceded by tranquility. [...]
Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquillity preceded by insight. [...]
Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquillity in tandem with insight. [...]
Then there is the case where a monk's mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma [Comm: the corruptions of insight] well under control.[note 5]

Disjunction of samatha and vipassana

Buddhaghosa, in his influential Theravada scholastic treatise Visuddhimagga, states that jhana is induced by samatha, and then jhana is reflected upon with mindfulness, becoming the object of vipassana, realizing that jhana is marked by the three characteristics.[27] One who uses this method is referred to as a "tranquility worker" (Pali: samatha yānika).[8] However modern Buddhist teachers such as Henepola Gunaratana state that there is virtually no evidence of this method in the Pali suttas.[28] A few suttas describe a method of "bare insight", or "dry insight" where only vipassana is practiced, examining ordinary physical and mental phenomena to discern the three marks.[8] Gombrich and Brooks argue that the distinction as two separate paths originates in the earliest interpretations of the Sutta Pitaka,[29] not in the suttas themselves.[30][note 6]

According to Richard Gombrich, a development took place in early Buddhism resulting in a change in doctrine, which considered prajna to be an alternative means to awakening, alongside the practice of dhyana.[31] The suttas contain traces of ancient debates between Mahayana and Theravada schools in the interpretation of the teachings and the development of insight. Out of these debates developed the idea that bare insight suffices to reach liberation, by discerning the three marks (qualities) of (human) existence (tilakkhana), namely dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and anicca (impermanence).[29] Thanissaro Bikkhu also argues that samatha and vipassana have a "unified role," whereas "[t]he Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, by contrast, state that samatha and vipassana are two distinct meditation paths."[note 7]

Gunaratana notes that "[t]he classical source for the distinction between the two vehicles of serenity and insight is the Visuddhimagga."[32] Referencing MN 151, vv. 13-19, and AN IV, 125-27, Ajahn Brahm (who, like Bhikkhu Thanissaro, is of the Thai Forest Tradition) writes that

Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm."[33]

Theravāda and the vipassana movement

By the tenth century meditation was no longer practiced in the Theravada tradition, due to the belief that Buddhism had degenerated, and that liberation was no longer attainable until the coming of the future Buddha, Maitreya.[6][note 8] It was re-invented in Myanmar (Burma) in the 18th century by Medawi (1728–1816), leading to the rise of the Vipassana movement in the 20th century, re-inventing vipassana meditation and developing simplified meditation techniques, based on the Satipatthana sutta, the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and other texts, emphasizing satipatthana and bare insight.[34][35] In this approach, samatha is regarded as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening concentration, in order for insight into impermanence to arise, which leads to liberation. Ultimately, these techniques aim at stream entry, with the idea that this first stage of the path to awakening safeguards future development of the person towards full awakening, despite the degenerated age we live in.[36][note 9]


According to the Theravada tradition, samatha refers to techniques that assist in calming the mind. Samatha is thought to be developed by samadhi, interpreted by the Theravada commentatorial tradition as concentration-meditation, the ability to rest the attention on a single object of perception. One of the principal techniques for this purpose is mindfulness of breathing (Pali: ānāpānasati).[38] Samatha is commonly practiced as a prelude to and in conjunction with wisdom practices.[38]

Objects of samatha-meditation

Some meditation practices such as contemplation of a kasina object favor the development of samatha, others such as contemplation of the aggregates are conducive to the development of vipassana, while others such as mindfulness of breathing are classically used for developing both mental qualities.[39]

The Visuddhimagga (5th century CE) mentions forty objects of meditation. Mindfulness (sati) of breathing (ānāpāna: ānāpānasati; S. ānāpānasmṛti[40]) is the most common samatha practice. Samatha can include other samādhi practices as well.

Signs and stages of joy in samatha-meditation

Theravada Buddhism describes the development of samatha in terms of three successive mental images or 'signs' (nimitta)[note 10] and five stages of joy (Pīti).[note 11] According to the Theravada-tradition, pīti, a feeling of joy, gladness or rapture, arises from the abandonment of the five hindrances in favor of concentration on a single object.[42] These stages are outlined by the Theravada exegete Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga (also in Atthasālinī) and the earlier Upatissa (author of the Vimuttimagga). Following the establishment of access concentration (upacāra-samādhi), one can enter the four jhanas, powerful states of joyful absorption in which the entire body is pervaded with Pīti.

Variations in samatha

In the Theravada-tradition various understandings of samatha exist;[note 12]

  • In Sri Lanka samatha includes all the meditations directed at static objects.[44]
  • In Burma, samatha comprises all concentration practices, aimed at calming the mind.
  • The Thai Forest tradition deriving from Ajahn Mun and popularized by Ajahn Chah stresses the inseparability of samatha and vipassana, and the essential necessity of both practices.


In modern Theravada, liberation is thought to be attained by insight into the transitory nature of phenomena. This is accomplished by establishing sati (mindfulness) and samatha through the practice of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), using mindfulness for observing the impermanence in the bodily and mental changes, to gain insight (vipassanā (P: vipassanā; S: vipaśyana), sampajañña) c.q. wisdom (P: paññā, S: prajñā) into the true nature of phenomena.[38][45][46]

Vipassanā movement

The term vipassana is often conflated with the Vipassana movement, a movement which popularised the new vipassana teachings and practice. It started in the 1950s in Burma, but has gained wide renown mainly through American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield. The movement has had a wide appeal due to being open and inclusive to different Buddhist and non-buddhist wisdom, poetry as well as science. It has together with the modern American Zen tradition served as one of the main inspirations for the 'mindfulness movement' as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others. The Vipassanā Movement, also known as the Insight Meditation Movement, is rooted in Theravāda Buddhism and the revival of meditation techniques, especially the "New Burmese Method" and the Thai Forest Tradition, as well as the modern influences[9] on the traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand.

In the Vipassanā Movement, the emphasis is on the Satipatthana Sutta and the use of mindfulness to gain insight into the impermanence of the self. It argues that the development of strong samatha can be disadvantageous,[47] a stance for which the Vipassana Movement has been criticised, especially in Sri Lanka.[48][49] The "New Burmese Method" was developed by U Nārada (1868–1955), and popularised by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904–1982) and Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994). Other influential Burmese proponents include Ledi Sayadaw and Mogok Sayadaw (who was less known to the West due to lack of International Mogok Centres) as well as Mother Sayamagyi and S. N. Goenka, who were both students of Sayagyi U Ba Khin.[50] Influential Thai teachers are Ajahn Chah and Buddhadasa. A well-known Asian female teacher is Dipa Ma.

Stages of practice

Practice begins with the preparatory stage, the practice of sila, morality, giving up worldly thoughts and desires.[51][52] Jeff Wilson notes that morality is a quintessential element of Buddhist practice, and is also emphasized by the first generation of post-war western teachers. Yet, in the contemporary mindfulness movement, morality as an element of practice has been mostly discarded, 'mystifying' the origins of mindfulness.[51]

The practitioner then engages in anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing, which is described in the Satipatthana Sutta as going into the forest and sitting beneath a tree and then to simply watch the breath. If the breath is long, to notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, to notice that the breath is short.[53][54] In the "New Burmese Method", the practitioner pays attention to any arising mental or physical phenomenon, engaging in vitarka, noting or naming physical and mental phenomena ("breathing, breathing"), without engaging the phenomenon with further conceptual thinking.[55][56] By noticing the arising of physical and mental phenomena, the meditator becomes aware how sense impressions arise from the contact between the senses and physical and mental phenomena,[55] as described in the five skandhas and paṭiccasamuppāda. According to Sayadaw U Pandita, awareness and observation of these sensations is de-coupled from any kind of physical response, which is intended to recondition one's impulsive responses to stimuli, becoming less likely to physically or emotionally overreact to the happenings of the world.[57]

The practitioner also becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness.[58] This noticing is accompanied by reflections on causation and other Buddhist teachings, leading to insight into dukkha, anatta, and anicca.[59][58] When the three characteristics have been comprehended, reflection subdues, and the process of noticing accelerates, noting phenomena in general, without necessarily naming them.[60][45][46]

According to Thai meditation master Ajahn Lee, the practice of both samatha and vipassana together allows one to achieve various mental powers and knowledges (Pali: abhiññā), including the attainment of Nirvana, whereas the practice of vipassana alone allows for the achievement of Nirvana, but no other mental powers or knowledges.[61]

Vipassanā jhanas

Vipassanā jhanas are stages that describe the development of samatha in vipassanā meditation practice as described in modern Burmese Vipassana meditation.[62] Mahasi Sayadaw's student Sayadaw U Pandita described the four vipassanā jhanas as follows:[63]

  1. The meditator first explores the body/mind connection as one, nonduality; discovering three characteristics. The first jhana consists in seeing these points and in the presence of vitarka and vicara. Phenomena reveal themselves as appearing and ceasing.
  2. In the second jhana, the practice seems effortless. Vitarka and vicara both disappear.
  3. In the third jhana, piti, the joy, disappears too: there is only happiness (sukha) and concentration.
  4. The fourth jhana arises, characterised by purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. The practice leads to direct knowledge. The comfort disappears because the dissolution of all phenomena is clearly visible. The practice will show every phenomenon as unstable, transient, disenchanting. The desire of freedom will take place.


Samatha meditation and jhana (dhyana) are often considered synonymous by modern Theravada, but the four jhanas involve a heightened awareness, instead of a narrowing of the mind.[38] Vetter notes that samadhi may refer to the four stages of dhyana meditation, but that only the first stage refers to strong concentration, from which arise the other stages, which include mindfulness.[21][note 13] According to Richard Gombrich, the sequence of the four rupa-jhanas describes two different cognitive states.[20][note 14][note 15] Gombrich and Wynne note that, while the second jhana denotes a state of absorption, in the third and fourth jhana one comes out of this absorption, being mindfully aware of objects while being indifferent to it.[22] According to Gombrich, "the later tradition has falsified the jhana by classifying them as the quintessence of the concentrated, calming kind of meditation, ignoring the other – and indeed higher – element.[20] Alexander Wynne further explains that the dhyana-scheme is poorly understood.[64] According to Wynne, words expressing the inculcation of awareness, such as sati, sampajāno, and upekkhā, are mistranslated or understood as particular factors of meditative states,[64] whereas they refer to a particular way of perceiving the sense objects.[64][note 16]

Northern tradition

The north Indian Buddhist traditions like the Sarvastivada and the Sautrāntika practiced meditation as outlined in texts like the Abhidharmakośakārikā of Vasubandhu and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra. The Abhidharmakośakārikā states that vipaśyanā is practiced once one has reached samadhi "absorption" by cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthānas).[65] This is achieved, according to Vasubandhu,

[b]y considering the unique characteristics (svālakṣaṇa) and the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇā) of the body, sensation, the mind, and the dharmas.

"The unique characteristics" means its self nature (svabhāva).

"The general characteristics" signifies the fact that "All conditioned things are impermanent; all impure dharmas are suffering; and that all the dharmas are empty (śūnya) and not-self (anātmaka).[65]

Asanga's Abhidharma-samuccaya states that the practice of śamatha-vipaśyanā is a part of a Bodhisattva's path at the beginning, in the first "path of preparation" (sambhāramarga).[66]

The Sthavira nikāya, one of the early Buddhist schools from which the Theravada-tradition originates, emphasized sudden insight: "In the Sthaviravada [...] progress in understanding comes all at once, 'insight' (abhisamaya) does not come 'gradually' (successively - anapurva).[67]"

The Mahāsāṃghika, another one of the early Buddhist schools, had the doctrine of ekakṣaṇacitta, "according to which a Buddha knows everything in a single thought-instant".[68][citation not found] This process however, meant to apply only to the Buddha and Peccaka buddhas. Lay people may have to experience various levels of insights to become fully enlightened.


The later Indian Mahayana scholastic tradition, as exemplified by Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, saw śamatha as a necessary prerequisite to vipaśyanā, and thus, one needed to first begin with calm abiding meditation, and then proceed to insight.[citation needed] In the Pañjikā commentary of Prajñākaramati (Wylie: shes rab 'byung gnas blo gros) on the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, vipaśyanā is defined simply as "wisdom (prajñā) that has the nature of thorough knowledge of reality as it is.[69]


A number of Mahāyāna sūtras address śamatha, usually in conjunction with vipaśyanā. One of the most prominent, the Cloud of Jewels Sutra (Ārya Ratnamegha Sutra, Tib. 'phags-pa dkon-mchog sprin-gyi mdo, Chinese 寶雲經 T658, 大乘寶雲經 T659) divides all forms of meditation into either śamatha or vipaśyanā, defining śamatha as "single-pointed consciousness" and vipaśyanā as "seeing into the nature of things."[70]

The Sūtra Unlocking the Mysteries (Samdhinirmocana Sūtra), a yogācāra sūtra, is also often used as a source for teachings on śamatha. The Samādhirāja Sūtra is often cited as an important source for śamatha instructions by the Kagyu tradition, particularly via commentary by Gampopa,[71] although scholar Andrew Skilton, who has studied the Samādhirāja Sūtra extensively, reports that the sūtra itself "contains no significant exposition of either meditational practices or states of mind."[72]

Vipassana - prajna and sunyata

The Mahayana tradition emphasizes prajñā, insight into śūnyatā, dharmatā, the two truths doctrine, clarity and emptiness, or bliss and emptiness:[73]

[T]he very title of a large corpus of early Mahayana literature, the Prajnaparamita, shows that to some extent the historian may extrapolate the trend to extol insight, prajna, at the expense of dispassion, viraga, the control of the emotions.[46]

The Mahayana Akṣayamati-nirdeśa refers to vipaśyanā as seeing phenomena as they really are, that is, empty, without self, nonarisen, and without grasping. The Prajnaparamita sutra in 8,000 lines states that the practice of insight is the non-appropriation of any dharmas, including the five aggregates:

So too, a Bodhisattva coursing in perfect wisdom and developing as such, neither does nor even can stand in form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness...This concentrated insight of a Bodhisattva is called 'the non-appropriation of all dharmas'.[74]

Although Theravada and Mahayana are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice however, may reflect emphasis on insight as a common denominator: "In practice and understanding Zen is actually very close to the Theravada Forest Tradition even though its language and teachings are heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism."[75][note 17]

East Asian Mahāyāna

Chinese Buddhism

In Chinese Buddhism, the works of Tiantai master Zhiyi (such as the Mohe Zhiguan, "Great śamatha-vipaśyanā") are some of the most influential texts which discuss vipaśyanā meditation from a Mahayana perspective. In this text, Zhiyi teaches the contemplation of the skandhas, ayatanas, dhātus, the Kleshas, false views and several other elements.[77] Likewise the influential text called the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana has a section on calm and insight meditation.[78] It states:

He who practices 'clear observation' should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are unstationary and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction; that all activities of the mind arise and are extinguished from moment or moment; and that, therefore, all of these induce suffering. He should observe that all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly. He should also observe that the physical existences of all living beings in the world are impure and that among these various filthy things there is not a single one that can be sought after with joy.[79]


The Zen tradition advocates the simultaneous practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā, and this is called the practice of silent illumination.[80] The classic Chan text known as the Platform Sutra states:

Calming is the essence of wisdom. And wisdom is the natural function of calming [i.e., prajñā and samādhi]. At the time of prajñā, samādhi exists in that. At the time of samādhi, prajñā exists in that. How is it that samādhi and prajñā are equivalent? It is like the light of the lamp. When the lamp exists, there is light. When there is no lamp, there is darkness. The lamp is the essence of light. The light is the natural function of the lamp. Although their names are different, in essence, they are fundamentally identical. The teaching of samādhi and prajñā is just like this.[80]

The emphasis on insight is discernible in the emphasis in Chan Buddhism on sudden insight (subitism),[67] though in the Chan tradition, this insight is to be followed by gradual cultivation.[note 18]

Indo-Tibetan tradition

In Tibetan Buddhism, the classical practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā is strongly influenced by the Mahāyāna text called the Bhavanakrama of Indian master Kamalaśīla. Kamalaśīla defines vipaśyanā as "the discernment of reality" (bhūta-pratyavekṣā) and "accurately realizing the true nature of dharmas".[81] According to Thrangu Rinpoche, when shamatha and vipashyana are combined, as in the mainstream Madhyamaka approach of Shantideva and Kamalashila, through samatha disturbing emotions are abandoned, which thus facilitates vipashyana, "clear seeing". Vipashyana is cultivated through reasoning, logic and analysis in conjunction with Shamatha. In contrast, in the siddha tradition of the direct approach of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, vipashyana is ascertained directly through looking into one's own mind. After this initial recognition of vipashyana, the steadiness of shamatha is developed within that recognition. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, it is however also common in the direct approach to first develop enough shamatha to serve as a basis for vipashyana.[82] Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche charts the developmental relationship of the practices of śamatha and vipaśyanā:

The ways these two aspects of meditation are practised is that one begins with the practice of shamatha; on the basis of that, it becomes possible to practice vipashyana or lhagthong. Through one's practice of vipashyana being based on and carried on in the midst of shamatha, one eventually ends up practicing a unification [yuganaddha] of shamatha and vipashyana. The unification leads to a very clear and direct experience of the nature of all things. This brings one very close to what is called the absolute truth.[83]


Tibetan writers usually define samatha practice as when one's mind remains fixed on a single object without moving. Dakpo Tashi Namgyal for example, defines samatha as:

by fixing the mind upon any object so as to maintain it without distraction . . . by focusing the mind on an object and maintaining it in that state until finally it is channeled into one stream of attention and evenness.[84]

According to Geshe Lhundup Sopa, samatha is:

just a one-pointedness of mind (cittaikagrata) on a meditative object (alambana). Whatever the object may be . . . if the mind can remain upon its object one-pointedly, spontaneously and without effort (nabhisamskara), and for as long a period of time as the meditator likes, it is approaching the attainment of meditative stabilization (samatha).[84]

Śamatha furthers the right concentration aspect of the noble eightfold path. The successful result of śamatha is also sometimes characterized as meditative absorption (samādhi, ting nge ’dzin) and meditative equipoise (samāhita, mnyam-bzhag), and freedom from the five obstructions (āvaraṇa, sgrib-pa). It may also result in the siddhis of clairvoyance (abhijñā, mgon shes) and magical emanation (nirmāna, sprul pa).[85]

According to Culadasa (2015), "Samatha has five characteristics: effortlessly stable attention (samādhi), powerful mindfulness (sati), joy (pīti), tranquility (passaddhi), and equanimity (upekkhā). The complete state of samatha results from working with stable attention (samādhi) and mindfulness (sati) until joy emerges. Joy then gradually matures into tranquility, and equanimity arises out of that tranquility. A mind in samatha is the ideal instrument for achieving Insight and Awakening" [86]


Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism employed both deductive investigation (applying ideas to experience) and inductive investigation (drawing conclusions from direct experience) in the practice of vipaśyanā.[note 19][note 20] According to Leah Zahler, only the tradition of deductive analysis in vipaśyanā was transmitted to Tibet in the sūtrayāna context.[note 21] In Tibet direct examination of moment-to-moment experience as a means of generating insight became exclusively associated with vajrayāna.[89][note 22][note 23]

Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen

Śamatha is approached somewhat differently in the mahāmudrā tradition as practiced in the Kagyu lineage. As Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche explains,

In the practice of Mahamudra tranquility meditation [...] we treat all thoughts as the same in order to gain sufficient distance and detachment from our current mental state, which will allow us to ease naturally into a state of tranquility without effort or contrivance [...] In order for the mind to settle, we need to suspend the value judgments that we impose on our mental activities [...] it is essential that we not try to create a state of tranquility but allow the mind to enter into tranquility naturally. This is an important notion in the Mahamudra tradition, that of nondoing. We do not do tranquility meditation, we allow tranquility to arise of its own accord, and it will do so only if we stop thinking of the meditative state as a thing that we need to do actively [...] In a manner of speaking, catching yourself in the act of distraction is the true test of tranquility meditation, for what counts is not the ability to prevent thoughts or emotions from arising but the ability to catch ourselves in a particular mental or emotional state. This is the very essence of tranquility meditation [in the context of Mahāmudrā] [...] The Mahamudra style of meditation does not encourage us toward the different levels of meditative concentration traditionally described in the exoteric meditation manuals [...] From the Mahamudra point of view, we should not desire meditative equipoise nor have an aversion to discursive thoughts and conflicting emotions but view both of these states with equanimity. Again, the significant point is not whether meditative equipoise is present but whether we are able to maintain awareness of our mental states. If disturbing thoughts do arise, as they certainly will, we should simply recognize these thoughts and emotions as transient phenomena.[91]

For the Kagyupa, in the context of mahāmudrā, śamatha by means of mindfulness of breathing is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating vipaśyanā on that basis.[92]

Quite similar is the approach to śamatha found in dzogchen semde (Sanskrit: mahāsandhi cittavarga). In the semde system, śamatha is the first of the four yogas (Tib. naljor, Wylie: rnal-’byor),[93] the others being vipaśyanā (Wylie: lhag-mthong), nonduality (advaya, Tib. nyime,Wylie: gnyis-med),[94] and spontaneous presence (anābogha or nirābogha, Tib. lhundrub, Wylie: lhun-grub).[95] These parallel the four yogas of mahāmudrā.

Ajahn Amaro, a longtime student in the Thai Forest Theravādin tradition of Ajahn Chah, has also trained in the dzogchen semde śamatha approach under Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He found similarities in the approaches of the two traditions to śamatha.[96]

Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen use vipaśyanā extensively. This includes some methods of the other traditions, but also their own specific approaches. They place a greater emphasis on meditation on symbolic images. Additionally in the Vajrayāna (tantric) path, the true nature of mind is pointed out by the guru, and this serves as a direct form of insight.[note 24]

Similar practices in other religions

Meditations from other religious traditions may also be recognized as samatha meditation, that differ in the focus of concentration. In this sense, samatha is not a strictly Buddhist meditation. Samatha in its single-pointed focus and concentration of mind is cognate with the sixth "limb" of aṣṭanga yoga, rāja yoga which is concentration (dhāraṇā). For further discussion, see the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.

See also


  1. ^ Also romanized to samatha; Tibetan: ཞི་གནས་, Wylie: zhi gnas, THL: shyiné; English: "calm" or "tranquility"
  2. ^ Original publication: Gombrich, Richard (2007), Religious Experience in Early Buddhism, OCHS Library
  3. ^ See the Tatiyasamādhisutta ("Four Kinds of Persons Sutta"), AN 4.94. See also Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005). "In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon," pp. 269-70, 440 n. 13. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 9780861714919. See also Thanissaro (1998d) Archived 2018-10-13 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 1251-53. See also Thanissaro (1998c) Archived 2019-09-01 at the Wayback Machine (where this sutta is identified as SN 35.204).
  5. ^ Bodhi (2005), pp. 268, 439 nn. 7, 9, 10. See also Thanissaro (1998f) Archived 2013-06-19 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Brooks: "While many commentaries and translations of the Buddha's Discourses claim the Buddha taught two practice paths, one called "shamata" and the other called "vipassanā," there is in fact no place in the suttas where one can definitively claim that."[30]
  7. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu: "This description of the unified role of samatha and vipassana is based upon the Buddha's meditation teachings as presented in the suttas (see "One Tool Among Many" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). The Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, by contrast, state that samatha and vipassana are two distinct meditation paths (see, for example, The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation by H. Gunaratana, ch. 5)." ("What is Theravada Buddhism?". Access to Insight. Access to Insight. Archived from the original on 21 August 2013. Retrieved 17 August 2013.)
  8. ^ Sharf 1995, p. 241: "In fact, contrary to the image propagated by twentieth-century apologists, the actual practice of what we would call meditation rarely played a major role in Buddhist monastic life. The ubiquitous notion of mappo or the "final degenerate age of the dharma" served to reinforce the notion that "enlightenment" was not in fact a viable goal for monks living in inauspicious times."
  9. ^ * Fronsdal: "The primary purpose for which Mahasi offered his form of vipassana practice is the attainment of the first of the four traditional Theravada levels of sainthood (that is, stream entry; sotapatti) through the realization of nibbana, or enlightenment."[36]
    * Robert Sharf: "The initial "taste" of nibbana signals the attainment of sotapatti-the first of four levels of enlightenment-which renders the meditator a "noble person" (ariya-puggala) destined for release from the wheel of existence (samsara)in relatively short order."[37]
  10. ^ The three nimittas are the preparatory sign, the acquired sign and the counterpart sign. These are mental images of the meditation object, but are also understood as perceptions or sensations whiçh arise in the course of practice. They indicate the level of refinement of the state of meditative awareness.
  11. ^ Five stages of joy:[41]
    1. Slight joy (khuddaka piti) - Raises the hairs of the body
    2. Momentary joy (khanika piti) - Arises momentarily like repeated flashes of lightning
    3. Showering joy (okkantika piti)- Washes over the body, like waves, again and again and then subsides
    4. Uplifting joy (ubbega piti) - Sensations of lifting of the body into the air
    5. Suffusing joy (pharana piti) - Pervades the whole body touching every part - signals 'access concentration'.
  12. ^ A 2008 book by Richard Shankman entitled The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation comparatively surveys the treatment of samatha in the suttas, in the commentarial tradition of the Visuddhimagga, and among a number of prominent contemporary Theravāda teachers of various orientations.[43]
  13. ^ Vetter: " put it more accurately, the first dhyana seems to provide, after some time, a state of strong concentration, from which the other stages come forth; the second stage is called samadhija"[19] [...] "born from samadhi."[21]
  14. ^ Original publication: Gombrich, Richard (2007), Religious Experience in Early Buddhism, OCHS Library
  15. ^ Gombrich: "I know this is controversial, but it seems to me that the third and fourth jhanas are thus quite unlike the second."
  16. ^ Wynne: "Thus the expression sato sampajāno in the third jhāna must denote a state of awareness different from the meditative absorption of the second jhāna (cetaso ekodibhāva). It suggests that the subject is doing something different from remaining in a meditative state, i.e. that he has come out of his absorption and is now once again aware of objects. The same is true of the word upek(k)hā: it does not denote an abstract 'equanimity', [but] it means to be aware of something and indifferent to it [...] The third and fourth jhāna-s, as it seems to me, describe the process of directing states of meditative absorption towards the mindful awareness of objects."[23]
  17. ^ Khantipalo recommends the use of the kōan-like question "Who?" to penetrate "this not-self-nature of the five aggregates": "In Zen Buddhism this technique has been formulated in several koans, such as 'Who drags this corpse around?'"[76]
  18. ^ This "gradual training" is expressed in teachings as the Five Ranks of enlightenment, the Ten Bulls illustrations that detail the steps on the path, the "three mysterious gates" of Linji, and the "four ways of knowing" of Hakuin Ekaku.
  19. ^ Corresponding respectively to the "contemplative forms" and "experiential forms" in the Theravāda school described above
  20. ^ Leah Zahler: "The practice tradition suggested by the Treasury [Abhidharma-kośa] .. . — and also by Asaṅga's Grounds of Hearers — is one in which mindfulness of breathing becomes a basis for inductive reasoning on such topics as the five aggregates; as a result of such inductive reasoning, the meditator progresses through the Hearer paths of preparation, seeing, and meditation. It seems at least possible that both Vasubandhu and Asaṅga presented their respective versions of such a method, analogous to but different from modern Theravāda insight meditation, and that Gelukpa scholars were unable to reconstruct it in the absence of a practice tradition because of the great difference between this type of inductive meditative reasoning based on observation and the types of meditative reasoning using consequences (thal 'gyur, prasaanga) or syllogisms (sbyor ba, prayoga) with which Gelukpas were familiar. Thus, although Gelukpa scholars give detailed interpretations of the systems of breath meditation set forth in Vasubandu's and Asaṅga's texts, they may not fully account for the higher stages of breath meditation set forth in those texts [...] it appears that neither the Gelukpa textbook writers nor modern scholars such as Lati Rinpoche and Gendun Lodro were in a position to conclude that the first moment of the fifth stage of Vasubandhu's system of breath meditation coincides with the attainment of special insight and that, therefore, the first four stages must be a method for cultivating special insight [although this is clearly the case].[87]
  21. ^ This tradition is outlined by Kamalaśīla in his three Bhāvanākrama texts (particularly the second one), following in turn an approach described in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.[88] One scholar describes his approach thus: "the overall picture painted by Kamalaśīla is that of a kind of serial alternation between observation and analysis that takes place entirely within the sphere of meditative concentration" in which the analysis portion consists of Madhyamaka reasonings.[88]
  22. ^ According to contemporary Tibetan scholar Thrangu Rinpoche the Vajrayana cultivates direct experience. Thrangu Rinpoche: "The approach in the sutras [...] is to develop a conceptual understanding of emptiness and gradually refine that understanding through meditation, which eventually produces a direct experience of emptiness [...] we are proceeding from a conceptual understanding produced by analysis and logical inference into a direct experience [...] this takes a great deal of time [...] we are essentially taking inferential reasoning as our method or as the path. There is an alternative [...] which the Buddha taught in the tantras [...] the primary difference between the sutra approach and the approach of Vajrayana (secret mantra or tantra) is that in the sutra approach, we take inferential reasoning as our path and in the Vajrayana approach, we take direct experience as our path. In the Vajrayana we are cultivating simple, direct experience or "looking." We do this primarily by simply looking directly at our own mind."[89]
  23. ^ Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche also explains: "In general there are two kinds of meditation: the meditation of the paṇḍita who is a scholar and the nonanalytical meditation or direct meditation of the kusulu, or simple yogi. . . the analytical meditation of the paṇḍita occurs when somebody examines and analyzes something thoroughly until a very clear understanding of it is developed. . . The direct, nonanalytical meditation is called kusulu meditation in Sanskrit. This was translated as trömeh in Tibetan, which means "without complication" or being very simple without the analysis and learning of a great scholar. Instead, the mind is relaxed and without applying analysis so it just rests in its nature. In the sūtra tradition, there are some nonanalytic meditations, but mostly this tradition uses analytic meditation."[90]
  24. ^ Thrangu Rinpoche describes the approach using a guru: "In the Sūtra path one proceeds by examining and analyzing phenomena, using reasoning. One recognizes that all phenomena lack any true existence and that all appearances are merely interdependently related and are without any inherent nature. They are empty yet apparent, apparent yet empty. The path of Mahāmudrā is different in that one proceeds using the instructions concerning the nature of mind that are given by one's guru. This is called taking direct perception or direct experiences as the path. The fruition of śamatha is purity of mind, a mind undisturbed by false conception or emotional afflictions. The fruition of vipaśyanā is knowledge (prajnā) and pure wisdom (jñāna). Jñāna is called the wisdom of nature of phenomena and it comes about through the realization of the true nature of phenomena.[97]


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