Samatha Buddhism


Samatha (Pāli) or śamathanota (Sanskrit, शमथ; Chinese, 止 zhǐ) is a Buddhist term often translated as "tranquility of mind" or "calmness of mind". The Pali Canon describes it as one of the two qualities of mind that develops (bhāvanā) in Buddhist meditation, the other being vipassana (perception).

Samatha is said to be achieved by practicing one-pointed meditation. This includes a variety of techniques to calm the mind. Samatha is common to many Buddhist traditions.


The semantic field of Tibetan shi and Sanskrit shama is "pacification", "slowing down or cooling down", "rest". The semantic field of Tibetan né is "to abide or remain" and this is analogous or equivalent to the Sanskrit final syllable, thā.

The Tibetan term for samatha is shyiné (Wylie: zhi-gnas). According to Jamgon Kongtrul, the terms refer to "peace" and "pacification" of the mind and thoughts.

Samatha and vipassana

The Buddha is said to have identified two primary mental qualities that arise from healthy meditative practice:

Samatha, abiding calm, which stabilizes, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;

Vipassanā, vision, which enables one to see, explore, and discern "formations" (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).

The Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining the unconditioned state of nibbana (Pali ; Skt.: Nirvana). For example, in the Kimsuka Tree Sutta (SN 35.245), the Buddha provides an elaborate metaphor in which serenity and insight are "the swift pair of messengers" delivering the message of nibbana through the noble eightfold path.

In the Sutta of the Four Paths to the State of Arahant (AN 4.170), Ven. Ānanda reports that people attain the state of arahant by using calmness and insight in one of three ways:

They develop calmness and then insight (Pāli: samatha-pubbangamam vipassanam).

They develop insight and then remain calm (Pāli: vipassana-pubbangamam samatham).

They develop calmness and insight together (Pāli: samatha-vipassanam yuganaddham), for example, by gaining the first jhāna and then seeing in the associated aggregates the three marks of existence before proceeding to the second jhāna.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha never mentions separate samatha and vipassana meditation practices ; instead, samatha and vipassana are two "qualities of mind" to be developed through meditation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes,

When [the Pāli suttas] describe the Buddha telling his disciples to go and meditate, they never quote him as saying "go and do vipassana," but always "go and do jhana." And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness technique.

In the few cases where they mention vipassana, they almost always combine it with samatha, not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person can 'gain' or 'be endowed with', and which must be developed together. .

Similarly, referring to MN 151, vv. 13-19, and AN IV, 125-27, Ajahn Brahm (who, like Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is from the Thai forest tradition) writes that

Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation ( vipassana ) and quiet meditation ( samatha ). In fact, the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful bliss born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of meditation itself. Calmness leads to insight and insight leads to calmness. "

Buddhist and Asian studies scholar Robert Buswell Jr. states that the most common method of meditation described in the Pali canon is one in which samatha is first performed to induce jhana and then jhana is used to continue with vipassana. Buddhist texts describe that all the Buddhas and their main disciples used this method. The texts also describe a method in which vipassana is performed alone, but this is less common.

Theravāda and the Vipassana movement.


In modern Theravada, liberation is believed to be achieved by understanding the transitory nature of phenomena. This is achieved by establishing sati (mindfulness) and samatha through the practice of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), using mindfulness to observe impermanence in bodily and mental changes, to gain knowledge (vipassanā (P: vipassanā ; S: vipaśyana), sampajañña) cq wisdom (P: paññā, S: prajñā) in the true nature of phenomena.

According to the Theravada tradition, samatha refers to techniques that help calm the mind. Samatha is believed to be developed through samadhi ("concentration"), which is thought to be the ability to place one's attention on a single object of perception.

One of the main techniques for this purpose is mindfulness of breathing (Pali: ānāpānasati). Samatha is commonly practiced as a prelude to and in conjunction with wisdom practices.

Samatha and jhana (dhyana) meditation are often considered synonymous by modern Theravada, but the four jhanas imply heightened awareness, rather than a narrowing of the mind.

Vetter points out that samadhi can refer to the four stages of dhyana meditation, but that only the first stage refers to strong concentration, from which the other stages, which include mindfulness, arise. According to Richard Gombrich, the sequence of the four rupa-jhanas describes two different cognitive states.

Gombrich and Wynne point out that, while the second jhana denotes a state of absorption, in the third and fourth jhana one comes out of this absorption, being aware of objects while being indifferent to them.

According to Gombrich, "later tradition has falsified the jhana by classifying them as the quintessential concentrated and calming type of meditation, ignoring the other, and indeed higher, element.

Alexander Wynne further explains that the dhyana -scheme is poorly understood. According to Wynne, words expressing the inculcation of consciousness, such as sati, sampajāno, and upekkhā, are mistranslated or understood as particular factors of meditative states, whereas they refer to a particular way of perceiving sense objects.

Through the meditative development of calm abiding, one is able to suppress the five obscuring hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, tiredness and drowsiness, excitement and depression, and doubt. With the suppression of these hindrances, the meditative development of intuition produces liberating wisdom.

Objects of meditation

Some meditation practices such as contemplation of a kasina object favor the development of samatha, others such as contemplation of the aggregates lead to the development of vipassana, while others such as mindfulness of breathing are classically used to develop both mental qualities.

The Visuddhimagga (5th century AD) mentions forty objects of meditation. Mindfulness (sati) of breathing (ānāpāna: ānāpānasati; S. ānāpānasmṛti) is the most common samatha practice. Samatha may also include other samādhi practices.

Signs and stages of joy.

Theravada Buddhism describes the development of Samatha in terms of three successive mental images or 'signs' (nimitta) and five stages of joy (Pīti). Pīti is a feeling of joy, gladness or ecstasy arising from the abandonment of the five hindrances in favor of concentration on a single object.

These stages are delineated by the Theravada exegete Buddhaghosa Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga (also in Atthasālinī) and the earlier Upatissa (author of the Vimuttimagga).

The five stages of joy are:

Mild joy (khuddaka piti) - Raises the hairs of the body.
Momentary joy (khanika piti) - arises momentarily as repeated lightning flashes
Raining joy (okkantika piti): showers the body, like waves, again and again and then disappears.

Uplifting joy (ubbega piti): sensations of lifting the body into the air.
Abundant joy (pharana piti): permeates the whole body touching all parts: signs of "access concentration".

The three nimittas are the preparatory sign, the acquired sign and the counterpart sign. These are certain images, perceptions or mental sensations that indicate a further refinement of the state of meditative awareness.

After the establishment of access concentration (upacāra-samādhi), one can enter the four jhanas, powerful states of blissful absorption in which the whole body is imbued with Pīti.


In the Theravada tradition there are several understandings of samatha.

In Sri Lanka, samatha includes all meditations directed at static objects.

In Burma, samatha comprises all concentration practices, aimed at calming the mind.

The Thai forest tradition derived from Ajahn Mun and popularized by Ajahn Chah emphasizes the inseparability of samatha and vipassana, and the essential necessity of both practices.

Indo-Tibetan tradition

Tibetan writers generally define the practice of samatha as when the mind remains fixed on a single object without moving. Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, for example, defines samatha as:

'fixing the mind on any object so as to keep it undistracted...focusing the mind on one object and keeping it in that state until it is finally channeled into a stream of attention and evenness.
According to Geshe Lhundup Sopa, samatha is:

'only a single-pointed concentration of the mind (cittaikagrata) on a meditative object (alambana). Whatever the object...if the mind can remain concentrated on its object in a concentrated, spontaneous and effortless manner (nabhisamskara), and for as long a period of time as the meditator desires, it is approaching the attainment of meditative stabilization (samatha).

Mahayana Sutras

Several Mahāyāna sūtras refer to śamatha, usually in conjunction with vipaśyanā.

One of the most prominent, the Jewel Cloud 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 śamatha or vipaśyanā, defining śamatha as "single-pointed awareness" and vipaśyanā as "seeing the nature of things. "

The Sūtra Unlocking the Mysteries (Samdhinirmocana Sūtra), a yogācāra sūtra, is also often used as a source of teachings on śamatha.

The Samādhirāja Sūtra is often cited as an important source of śamatha instructions by the Kagyu tradition, particularly through commentaries by Gampopa, although scholar Andrew Skilton, who has studied the Samādhirāja Sūtra extensively, reports that the sūtra itself "does not contain a significant exposition of meditation practices or states of mind. "


Śamatha promotes the right concentration aspect of the noble eightfold path. The successful outcome of śamatha is also sometimes characterized as meditative absorption (samādhi, ting nge 'dzin) and meditative balance (samāhita, mnyam-bzhag), and freedom from the five obscurations (āvaraṇa, sgrib-pa).

It can also result in the siddhis of clairvoyance (abhijñā, mgon shes) and magical emanation (nirmāna, sprul pa).

Factors in śamatha.

According to Culadasa (2015), "Samatha has five characteristics: stable, effortless mindfulness (samādhi), powerful mindfulness (sati), joy (pīti), tranquility (passaddhi), and equanimity (upekkhā). The complete state of samatha is the result of working with steady attention (samādhi) and mindfulness (sati) until joy arises.

Joy then gradually ripens into tranquility, and equanimity arises from that tranquility. A mind in samatha is the ideal instrument for achieving Insight and Awakening. "

Nine mental abodes

In a formulation originating in the Śrāvakabhūmi section of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra, The practice of śamatha is said to progress through nine "mental abiding" or nine stages of mind training (S. navākārā cittasthiti, Tib. Sems gnas dgu), leading to śamatha proper (the equivalent of "access concentration" in the Theravāda system), and from there to a state of meditative concentration called the first dhyāna (Pāli: jhāna ; Tib. bsam gtan) that is often said to be a state of tranquility or bliss.

An equivalent succession of stages is described in the Ten Ox-Pictures of Zen. The Nine Mental Abodes described by Kamalaśīla are:

Placement of mind (S. cittasthāpana, Tib. འཇོག་པ - sems 'jog-pa) occurs when the practitioner can place his attention on the object of meditation, but cannot maintain that attention for long. Distractions, mental dullness, and other obstacles are common.

Continuous placement (S. samsthāpana, Tib. རྒྱུན་དུ་འཇོག་པ - rgyun-du 'jog-pa) occurs when the practitioner experiences moments of continuous attention on the object before becoming distracted. According to B. Alan Wallace, this is when he can maintain his attention on the meditation object for about a minute.

Repeated placement (S. avasthāpana, Tib. བླན་ཏེ་འཇོག་པ - slan-te 'jog-pa) is when the practitioner's attention is fixed on the object for most of the practice session and he or she is able to realize immediately when he or she has lost his or her mental control over the object and is able to restore that attention quickly.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche suggests that being able to maintain attention for 108 breaths is a good benchmark for when we have reached this stage.
Close placement (S. upasthāpana, Tib. ཉེ་བར་འཇོག་པ - nye-bar 'jog-pa) occurs when the practitioner can maintain attention for the entire meditation session (an hour or more) without losing his or her mental control over the meditation object at all.

At this stage, the practitioner achieves the power of mindfulness. However, this stage still contains subtle forms of arousal and dullness or laxity.
Doma (S. damana, Tib. དུལ་བར་བྱེད་པ - dul-bar byed-pa), at this stage the practitioner achieves deep tranquility of mind, but must be aware of subtle forms of laxity or dullness, peaceful states of mind that can be mistaken for remaining calm.

By focusing on the future benefits of attaining Shamatha, the practitioner can elevate (gzengs-bstod) his or her mind and become more focused and clear.

Pacification (S. śamana,Tib. ཞི་བར་བྱེད་པ་ - zhi-bar byed-pa) is the stage during which subtle mental dullness or laxity is no longer a great difficulty, but now the practitioner is prone to subtle excitements. arising on the periphery of meditative attention.

According to B. Alan Wallace, this stage is reached only after thousands of hours of rigorous training.

Total pacification (S. vyupaśamana,Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཞི་བར་བྱེད་པ་ - nye-bar zhi-bar byed-pa), although the practitioner may still experience subtle excitement or dullness, they are rare and can be easily recognized and pacified by the practitioner.

A single point (S. ekotīkarana,Tib. རྩེ་གཅིག་ཏུ་བྱེད་པ་ - rtse-gcig-tu byed-pa) at this stage the practitioner can reach high levels of concentration with only slight effort and without being interrupted even by subtle laxity or excitement during the entire meditation session.

Balanced placement (S. samādhāna,Tib. མཉམ་པར་འཇོག་པ་བྱེད་པ་ - mnyam-par 'jog-pa)the meditator now effortlessly attains absorbed concentration (ting-nge-'dzin, S. samadhi.) and can maintain it for about four hours without a single interruption.

Śamatha, Tib. ཞི་གནས་, shyiné: the culmination, sometimes appearing as a tenth stage.

Five faults and eight antidotes

The textual tradition of Tibetan Buddhism identifies five faults and eight antidotes within the practice of śamatha meditation. The five faults identify obstacles to meditation practice and the eight antidotes are applied to overcome the five faults.

This formulation originates with de Maitreyanātha Madhyānta-Vibhaga and is elaborated upon in other texts, such as the stages of meditation (Bhāvanākrama) by Kamalaśīla.

Five faults
To practice śamatha, one must select an object of observation (ālambana, dmigs-pa). Then one must overcome the five faults (ādīnava, nyes-dmigs):

1. laziness (kausīdya, le-lo).
2. Forgetting instruction (avavādasammosa, gdams-ngag brjed-pa).
3. Laxity (laya, bying-ba) and excitement (auddhatya, rgod-pa). Laxity may be gross (audārika, rags-pa) or subtle (sūksma, phra-mo). Lethargy (styāna, rmugs-pa) is also often present, but is said to be less common.
4. Non-application (anabhisamskāra, 'du mi-byed-pa).
5. [Over]application (abhisamskāra, 'du byed-pa).

Eight antidotes
The following eight antidotes (pratipakṣa, gnyen-po) or applications (abhisamskāra, 'du-byed pa) can be applied to overcome the five faults:

For laziness:
1. faith (śraddhā, dad-pa).
2. Aspiration (chanda, 'dun-pa).
3. Effort (vyayama, rtsol-ba).
4. Flexibility (praśrabdhi, shin-sbyangs).
For forgetfulness of instruction:
5. Sati (smṛti, dran-pa).
For laxity and excitement:
6. Awareness (samprajaña, shes-bzhin).
For non-application:
7. Application (abhisaṃskāra, 'du byed-pa).
For over-application:
8. Non-application (anabhisaṃskāra, 'du mi-byed-pa).

Six powers

Six powers (bullet, stobs) are also needed to śamatha:.

1. Listening (śruta, thos-pa).
2. To think (cintā, bsam-pa).
3. Mindfulness (smṛti, dran-pa).
4. Awareness (samprajaña, shes-bzhin).
5. Effort (vīrya, brtson-'grus)
6. Familiarity (paricaya, yong-su 'dris-pa).

Four modes of mental engagement

Four modes of mental engagement (manaskāra, yid-la byed-pa) are said to be possible:

Forced engagement (balavāhana, sgrim-ste 'jug-pa).
2. Interrupted engagement (sacchidravāhana, chad-cing 'jug-pa).
3. Uninterrupted commitment (niśchidravāhana, med-par 'jug-pa).
4. Spontaneous engagement (anābhogavāhana, lhun-grub-tu 'jug-pa).

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 state of mind, which will allow us to move naturally into a state of tranquility without effort or trickery.

In order for the mind to become calm, we need to suspend the value judgments we impose on our mental activities it is essential that we do not try to create a state of tranquility but let the mind enter tranquility naturally. This is an important notion in the Mahamudra tradition, that of non-doing.

We don't do tranquility meditation, we allow tranquility to arise on its own, and it will do so only if we stop thinking of the meditative state as something we have to actively do In a manner of speaking, catching yourself in the act of distraction is the real test of tranquility meditation, because 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 the Mahāmudrā] The Mahamudra style of meditation does not encourage us toward the different levels of meditative concentration traditionally described in exoteric meditation manuals.

  From the Mahamudra Viewpoint, we should neither desire meditative balance nor have an aversion to discursive thoughts and conflicting emotions, but view both states with equanimity.

Again, the important point is not whether meditative balance is present, but whether we are able to maintain awareness of our mental states. If disturbing thoughts arise, as they certainly will, we must simply recognize these thoughts and emotions as transitory phenomena.

For the Kagyupa, in the context of mahāmudrā, śamatha through mindfulness of the breath is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition to taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating vipaśyanā on that basis.

Very similar is the śamatha approach found in dzogchen semde (Sanskrit: mahāsandhi cittavarga).

In the semde system, śamatha is the first of the four yogas (Tib. Naljor, Wylie: rnal-'byor), the others being vipaśyanā (Wylie: lhag-mthong), nonduality (advaya, Tib. nyime,Wylie: gnyis-med), and spontaneous presence (anābogha or nirābogha, Tib. lhundrub, Wylie: lhun-grub). These are parallel to the four yogas of mahāmudrā.

Ajahn Amaro, a long-time student of Ajahn Chah's Thai forest tradition, has also trained in the dzogchen semde śamatha approach with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He found similarities in the two traditions' approaches to śamatha.

Relationship to vipaśyanā.

Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche clearly traces the developmental relationship of śamatha and vipaśyanā practices:

The way these two aspects of meditation are practiced is that one begins with the practice of shamatha; on the basis of which, vipashyana or lhagthong practice becomes possible.

Through a practice of vipashyana is based on and continued 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.

Similar practices in other religions

Meditations from other religious traditions can also be recognized as samatha meditation, differing in the focus of concentration. In this sense, samatha is not a strictly Buddhist meditation.

Samatha, in its single-pointed mental focus and concentration, is related to the sixth "limb" of aṣṭanga yoga ', rāja yoga, which is concentration (dhāraṇā). For more information, see the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.

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