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 and for hours on end. Samatha is a subset of the broader family of samadhi ("concentration") meditation practices.
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.
The semantic field of shi and shama is "pacification", "the slowing or cooling down", "rest". The semantic field of né is "to abide or remain" and this is cognate or equivalent with the final syllable of the Sanskrit, tha.
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" (prajñā) or "insight" (vipassanā) practices such as Dzogchen. 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. Anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing, is the most common samatha practice. Shamata in its single-pointed focus and concentration of mind is cognate with the sixth 'limb' of Ashtanga Yoga or Raja Yoga which is Dharana or 'concentration'. For further discussion refer Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
For Buddhists, it is commonly practiced as a prelude to and in conjunction with "wisdom" practices. Traditionally, in Buddhist meditation there are 40 objects of meditation, although the breath as an object of meditation enjoys the widest popularity in contemporary society. Mindfulness of breathing or ānāpāna meditation which accompanies the Buddhist doctrine of rising and falling, can be used for both Samatha and vipassanā meditation. Samatha can include other samādhi practices as well.
In the Indo-Tibetan tradition
A number of Mahayana sutras address śamatha, usually in conjunction with vipaśyanā. One of the most prominent, the Ârya Ratnamegha Sutra (Cloud of Jewels 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." The Samdhinirmocana Sutra (Sutra Unlocking the Mysteries), a Yogācāra sutra, is also often used as a source for teachings on śamatha. The Samādhirāja Sutra is often cited as an important source for śamatha instructions by the Kagyu tradition, particularly via commentary by Gampopa, although scholar Andrew Skilton, who has studied the Samādhirāja Sutra extensively, reports that the sutra itself "contains no significant exposition of either meditational practices or states of mind."
Factors in śamatha
In a formulation originating with Asanga (4th CE), śamatha practice is said to progress through Nine Mental Abidings (S. navākārā cittasthiti, Tib. sems gnas dgu), leading to a tenth stage, an exceptional state of meditative concentration called the first dhyana (Pali: jhāna; Tib. bsam gtan) which is often said to be a state of tranquillity or bliss. 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 (āvarana, sgrib pa). It may also result in siddhis of clairvoyance (abhijñā, mgon shes) and magical emanation (nirmāna, sprul pa).
Asanga dilineates 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 anedotes orginates with Maitreyanātha's Madhyānta-vibhāga. The whole system is elaborated further in the three Bhāvanākrama texts of Kamalaśīla (particularly the second one), a later author, and by generations of Tibetan commentators. Thus the following shamatha formulation derives originally from the Yogācāra tradition.
- 1. laziness (kausīdya, le lo)
- 2. forgetting the instruction (avavādasammosa, gdams ngag brjed pa)
- 3. laxity (laya, bying ba) & 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 (pratipaksa, gnyen po) or applications (abhisamskāra, ’du byed pa):
- for laziness:
- 1. faith (śraddhā, dad pa)
- i. contemplate faults of distraction (viksepa, rnam par gyen ba)
- 2. aspiration (chanda, ’dun pa)
- 3. exertion (vyayama, rtsol ba)
- 4. pliancy (praśrabdhi, shin sbyangs)
- 1. faith (śraddhā, dad pa)
- for forgetting the instruction:
- 5. mindfulness (smrti, dran pa)
- for laxity and excitement
- 6. awareness (samprajanya, shes bzhin)
- for non-application
- 7. application (abhisamskāra, ’du byed pa)
- for overapplication
- 8. non-application (anabhisamskāra, ’du mi byed pa)
Six powers (bala, stobs) are also needed for śamatha:
- 1. hearing (śruta, thos pa)
- 2. thinking (cintā, bsam pa)
- 3. mindfulness (smrti, dran pa)
- 4. awareness (samprajanya, 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:
- 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:
- 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)
Śamatha in Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen
In the practice of Mahamudra tranquilty 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 mediation 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.
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.
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), the others being vipaśyanā (wylie: lhag mthong), advaya ("nonduality," Tib. nyimed, wylie: gnyis med), and anābogha or nirābogha ("spontaneous presence," Tib. lhundrub, wylie: lhun grub). These parallel the Four Yogas of Mahamudra.
Ajahn Amaro, one of the abbots of Abhayagiri Monastery and a longtime student in the Thai Forest Theravadin 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.
Relationship with vipashyana
Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche clearly charts the developmental relationship of the practices of śamatha and vipashyana:
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 practrice 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.
- Buddhist Meditation in the Theravada tradition
- How Meditation Works
- The Samatha Trust
- Buddhanet Main Page
- Buddhanet Meditation E-Books
- Photos of cushions and Samatha-practicing people
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