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Samatha (Pāli), śamatha (Sanskrit; also orthographically romanized to shamatha) "calm abiding," comprises a suite, type or style of Buddhist meditation or concentration practices designed to enhance sustained voluntary attention, and culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly for hours on end.[1] Samatha is a subset of the broader family of samādhi ("concentration") meditation practices.[2]


The Tibetan term for samatha is shiney (wylie: zhi-gnas). According to Jamgon Kongtrul, insight may be garnered by an exegesis of the etymology of śamatha and shiney:

The Tibetan term is shiné [shi-ne] (shi-gnas) and the Sanskrit is Shamatha. In the case of the Tibetan, the first syllable, shi, and in the case of the Sanskrit, the first two syllables, shama, refer to "peace" and "pacification". The meaning of peace or pacification in this context is that normally our mind is like a whirlwind of agitation. The agitation is the agitation of thought. Our thoughts are principally an obsessive concern with past, conceptualization about the present, and especially an obsessive concern with the future. This means that usually our mind is not experiencing the present moment at all.[3]

The semantic field of shi and shama is "pacification", "the slowing or cooling down", "rest".[4] The semantic field of is "to abide or remain" and this is cognate or equivalent with the final syllable of the Sanskrit, thā.[5]

General discussionEdit

Buddhists consider meditation to be an act of concentration on a particular object or idea, sometimes in conjunction with inquiry into the nature of the object, as with wisdom (P: paññā, S: prajñā) or insight (P: vipassanā; S: vipaśyanā) practices (such as those encountered in the dzogchen tradition).[6] Therefore, meditations from other religious traditions are sometimes referred to as a variation of samatha meditation that differ in the focus of concentration, such as breathing, scriptural passage, mantra, religious picture, a rock, body (as a representation of death), and so on. In this sense, samatha is not a strictly Buddhist meditation. Mindfulness (sati) of breathing (ānāpāna: ānāpānasati; S. ānāpānasmṛti[7]) is the most common samatha practice. 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.

For Buddhists, samatha is commonly practiced as a prelude to and in conjunction with wisdom practices.[6] Traditionally, in Buddhist meditation there are forty objects of meditation, although the breath as an object of meditation enjoys the widest popularity traditionally. Samatha can include other samādhi practices as well.

Samatha is commonly used in Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and various branches of the Pure Land tradition.

In the early suttasEdit

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

  • calm abiding (Pāli: samatha) which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;
  • insight (Pāli: vipassanā) which enables one to see, explore and discern "formations" (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).[8]

Through the meditative development of calm abiding, one is able to suppress the obscuring five hindrances. With the suppression of these hindrances, the meditative development of insight yields liberating wisdom.[9] Moreover, the Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining the unconditioned state of nibbana (Pāli; 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" who deliver the message of nibbana via the noble eightfold path.[10]

In the Four Ways to Arahantship Sutta (AN 4.170), Ven. Ānanda reports that people attain arahantship using calm abiding and insight in one of three ways:

  1. they develop calm abiding and then insight (Pāli: samatha-pubbangamam vipassanam)
  2. they develop insight and then calm abiding (Pāli: vipassana-pubbangamam samatham)[11]
  3. they develop calm abiding and insight in tandem (Pāli: samatha-vipassanam yuganaddham), for instance, obtaining the first jhāna and then seeing in the associated aggregates the three marks of existence before proceeding to the second jhāna.[12]

In the Pāli canon, the Buddha never mentions independent 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] 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.[13] Similarly, 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."[14]

Nonetheless, 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.[15]

Contemporary Theravāda interpretationsEdit

In the "New Burmese Method" or "Vipassana School" an approach to samatha and vipassana was developed by Mingun Jetavana Sayādaw U Nārada and popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw. Here samatha is considered an optional but not necessary component of the practice—vipassana is possible without it. Another Burmese method, derived from Ledi Sayadaw via U Ba Khin and S. N. Goenka, takes a similar approach. The Thai Forest tradition deriving from Ajahn Mun and popularized by Ajahn Chah, in contrast, stresses the inseparability of the two practices, and the essential necessity of both practices. Other Burmese traditions popularized in the west, notably that of Pa Auk Sayadaw, uphold the emphasis on samatha explicit in the commentarial tradition of the Visuddhimagga.

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.[16]

In the Indo-Tibetan traditionEdit

Relevant sūtrasEdit

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) 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."[17] 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,[18] 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."[19]

Factors in śamathaEdit

In a formulation originating with Asaṅga (4th CE), śamatha practice is said to progress through nine "mental abidings" (S. navākārā cittasthiti, Tib. sems gnas dgu), leading to śamatha proper (the equivalent of "access concentration" in the Theravāda system) and from there to an exceptional state of meditative concentration called the first dhyāna (Pāli: jhāna; Tib. bsam gtan) which is often said to be a state of tranquillity or bliss.[1][20] Thus, it furthers the right concentration aspect of the noble eightfold path. The successful result of samatha 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).[21]

Asaṅga delineates the nine mental abidings in his Abhidharmasamuccaya and the Śrāvakabhūmi chapter of his Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra. It is also found in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṅkāra of Maitreyanātha. The system of the five faults and eight antedotes originates with Maitreyanātha's Madhyānta-vibhāga. The whole system is elaborated further in the three Bhāvanākrama texts (particularly the second one) of Kamalaśīla, a later author, and by generations of Tibetan commentators.[22] Thus the following shamatha formulation derives originally from the Yogācāra tradition.

To practice śamatha, one must select an object of observation (ālambana, dmigs-pa). Then one must overcome the five faults (ādīnava, nyes-dmigs):[21][23]

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

Using the eight antidodes (pratipakṣa, gnyen-po) or applications (abhisamskāra, ’du-byed pa):[21]

for laziness:
1. faith (śraddhā, dad-pa)
i. contemplate faults of distraction (vikṣepa, rnam-par gyen-ba)
2. aspiration (chanda, ’dun-pa)
3. exertion (vyayama, rtsol-ba)
4. pliancy (praśrabdhi, shin-sbyangs)
for forgetting the instruction:
5. mindfulness (smṛti, dran-pa)
for laxity and excitement
6. awareness (samprajaña, shes-bzhin)
for non-application
7. application (abhisaṃskāra, ’du byed-pa)
for overapplication
8. non-application (anabhisaṃskāra, ’du mi-byed-pa)

Six powers (bala, stobs) are also needed for śamatha:[24]

1. hearing (śruta, thos-pa)
2. thinking (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 enagagement (manaskāra, yid-la byed-pa) are said to be possible:[21]

1. forcible engagement (balavāhana, sgrim-ste ’jug-pa)
2. interrupted engagement (sacchidravāhana, chad-cing ’jug-pa)
3. uninterrupted engagement (niśchidravāhana, med-par ’jug-pa)
4. spontaneous engagement (anābhogavāhana, lhun-grub-tu ’jug-pa)

The Nine Mental Abidings (navākārā cittasthiti, sems-gnas dgu) are:[21]

1. placement of the mind (cittasthāpana, sems ’jog-pa)
2. continuous placement (samsthāpana, rgyun-du ‘jog-pa)
3. re-placement (avasthāpana, slan-te ’jog-pa)
4. close placement (upasthāpana, nye-bar ’jog-pa)
5. disciplining (damana, dul-bar byed-pa)
6. pacifying (śamana, zhi-bar byed-pa)
7. thorough pacification (vyupaśamana, nye-bar zhi-bar byed-pa)
8. one-pointedness (ekotīkarana, rtse-gcig-tu byed-pa)
9. placement in equipoise (samādhāna, mnyam-par ’jog-pa)
(10. śamatha, the culmination, is sometimes listed as a tenth stage)

Śamatha in mahāmudrā and dzogchen Edit

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 mediation, 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 mediation 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.[25]

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.[26]

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),[27] the others being vipaśyanā (Wylie: lhag-mthong), nonduality (advaya, Tib. nyime, Wylie: gnyis-med),[28] and spontaneous presence (anābogha or nirābogha, Tib. lhundrub, Wylie: lhun-grub).[29] These parallel the four yogas of mahāmudrā.

Ajahn Amaro, one of the abbots of Abhayagiri Monastery and 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.[30]

Relationship with vipaśyanāEdit

Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche clearly 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.[31]

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wallace, A: 'The Attention Revolution', Wisdom Publications, 1st ed., 2006, p.6
  2. Wallace, A: 'The Attention Revolution', Wisdom Publications, 1st ed., 2006, p.131
  3. Ray, Reginald A. (Ed.)(2004). In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-849-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) p.69.
  4. Ray, Reginald A. (Ed.)(2004). In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-849-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) p.69.
  5. Ray, Reginald A. (Ed.)(2004). In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-849-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) p.70.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Wallace, A: 'The Attention Revolution', Wisdom Publications, 1st ed., 2006, p.164
  7. although this term is also used for vipassanā meditation
  8. These definitions of samatha and vipassana are based on the Four Kinds of Persons Sutta (AN 4.94). This article's text is primarily based on Bodhi (2005), pp. 269-70, 440 n. 13. See also Thanissaro (1998d).
  9. See, for instance, AN 2.30 in Bodhi (2005), pp. 267-68, and Thanissaro (1998e).
  10. Bodhi (2000), pp. 1251-53. See also Thanissaro (1998c) (where this sutta is identified as SN 35.204). See also, for instance, a discourse (Pāli: sutta) entitled "Serenity and Insight" (SN 43.2), where the Buddha states: "And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Serenity and insight...." (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1372-73).
  11. While the Nikayas identify that the pursuit of vipassana can precede the pursuit of samatha, a fruitful vipassana-oriented practice must still be based upon the achievement of stabilizing "access concentration" (Pāli: upacara samādhi).
  12. Bodhi (2005), pp. 268, 439 nn. 7, 9, 10. See also Thanissaro (1998f).
  13. Thanissaro 1997
  14. Brahm (2006). Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond, Wisdom Publications, Inc.
  15. See, for instance, Bodhi (1999) and Nyanaponika (1996), p. 108.
  16. The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation by Richard Shankman. Shambhala: 2008. ISBN 1590305213
  17. "How to practice Calm-Abiding Meditation," Dharma Fellowship, [1],
  18. Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Vol. II Shambhala Publications. pg 19
  19. "State or Statement?: Samādhi in Some Early Mahāyāna Sūtras." The Eastern Buddhist. 34-2. 2002 pg 57
  20. The Practice of Tranquility & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation by Thrangu Rinpoche. Snow Lion Publications; 2 edition. 1998 ISBN 1559391065 pg 19
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism By Lati Rinpoche, Denma Locho Rinpoche, Leah Zahler, Jeffrey Hopkins Wisdom Publications: December 25, 1996. ISBN 086171119X pgs 53-85
  22. Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions by Leah Zahler. Snow Lion Publications: 2009 pg 23
  23. Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions by Leah Zahler. Snow Lion Publications: 2009 pg 5)
  24. Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism By Lati Rinpoche, Denma Locho Rinpoche, Leah Zahler, Jeffrey Hopkins Wisdom Publications: December 25, 1996. ISBN 086171119X pgs 54-58
  25. Mind at Ease, by Traleg Kyabgon, Shambhala Publications, pgs 149-152, 157
  26. Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra tradition by Dan Brown. Wisdom Publications: 2006 pg 221-34
  27. [2]
  28. Unbounded Wholeness by Anne C. Klein, Tenzin Wangyal. ISBN 0-19-517849-1 pg 349)
  29. Unbounded Wholeness by Anne C. Klein, Tenzin Wangyal. ISBN 0-19-517849-1 pg 357, 359
  30. Ajahn Chah's 'View of the View'", in Broad View, Boundless Heart by Ajahn Amaro.[3]
  31. Ray, Reginald A. (Ed.)(2004). In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambala. ISBN 1-57062-849-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) p.76.

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