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Shamatha and Vipassana

personperson Don't believe everything you thinkthe liminal space Veteran
edited December 2020 in Meditation

I've heard it said that either of these techniques are able to get one up the mountain or across the river to liberation. Without any real depth of experience with them myself I conceptualize shamatha as a process where one slows down mental phenomenon to a point where it becomes much easier to see through them. Vipassana I see as a process where one becomes better at seeing through things where effectively mental phenomenon slow down. I imagine it something like at the end of the Matrix where Neo finally sees the code and things slow down for him .

Anyway, I tend to have a busy and curious mind and shamatha has been pretty elusive as a practice, I mostly focus on vipassana. So I'm curious as to others understanding of these methods and personal experiences with them.

Alex

Comments

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited December 2020

    In my experience, it's not about things slowing down; it's about more stability, focus, and observation. Concentration helps to make the mind more focused and able to stay at a point of attention rather than be carried away with streams of thought. It also can help the mind to become more tranquil and less turbulent, so things are more easily seen with attentiveness. And insight is the process of observing and learning from experience in an intimate and experiential way (i.e., not just intellectually), such as observing the inconsistency of phenomenon and the nature of consciousness and how that differs from our experience of it as a 'being.'

    lobsterAlex
  • They are often practiced together because they support each other in a way.

    The goal of Samatha is one pointed concentration that will go into the jhanas/dhyanas. This can remove impurities such as mental hindrances.

    Vipasana depends on a state of conscious awareness and leads to understanding of Buddhist doctrine.

    I think that some of the states on Samatha are not conducive to Vipasana because there isn't a conscious awareness. I've also heard it said that Samatha can become stressful to keep maintaining itself, whereas (I guess) vipasana is more sitting with whatever is there without needing to attain or maintain??

    Alex
  • In my experience, it's not about things slowing down; it's about more stability, focus, and observation.

    From my experience stability, focus, and observation is the initial experience. Both methods do eventually slow down the incessant monkey mind.
    I prefer samatha as there is a tendency in vipassana to tighten/concentrate. These are subtle differences. Some consider them part of the same tradition ...
    https://www.samatha.org/learn-samatha-at-home-2020

    Alex
  • Rob_VRob_V North Carolina Explorer

    There is no seperation of samatha/vipassana. They are two sides of a single coin.

    Many mediators share the same flawed thinking in that one 'style' of meditation has some merit over another; that one is effective and the other useless. They tend to make meditation the focus of meditation instead of letting the meditation drive itself.

    Although I don't practice Zen (I lean toward Thai Forest without the rituals), I have a deep respect for their ideal of shikantaza. Shikantaza carries the idea of just sitting. Nothing else. You come to the mat with zero expectation. No plan. All the stuff you've read stays out of the sacred space. You sit in whichever posture and attitude in which you're comfortable, and you let it happen. If "monkey mind" be the starting position, so be it. Wait it out, it'll pass. Itchy? It'll pass. Agitated? It'll pass.

    At the end of the day you will get out of your meditation the exact amount you put into it. Trying to wrest it into what you think it should be can only serve to make you unnecessarily exhausted.

    howコチシカAlex
  • Sam8Sam8 Hamilton, NZ Explorer
    edited December 2020

    My understanding was shamatha paves the way to vipassana- that is, calming and stilling the mind in mindfulness of the present moment leads to insight or "seeing things as they really are"- i.e. seeing through our illusions about what ceases suffering (indulging craving and attachment), and seeing the truth of what ceases suffering (letting go of craving and attachment), etc. Shamatha helps you realise these insights because it makes you completely content in the present moment, and you just know that this contentment can only exist without the presence of craving and attachment, being lost in thought, dwelling on past and future, locating happiness in the future after some goal has been reached, etc. This "knowing" is vipassana. In other words, vipassana is the result of shamatha, or what you learn from doing shamatha.

    At least, that's how I understood it.

    Shoshin1
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran

    @Sam8 said:
    My understanding was shamatha paves the way to vipassana- that is, calming and stilling the mind in mindfulness of the present moment leads to insight or "seeing things as they really are"- i.e. seeing through our illusions about what ceases suffering (indulging craving and attachment), and seeing the truth of what ceases suffering (letting go of craving and attachment), etc. Shamatha helps you realise these insights because it makes you completely content in the present moment, and you just know that this contentment can only exist without the presence of craving and attachment, being lost in thought, dwelling on past and future, locating happiness in the future after some goal has been reached, etc. This "knowing" is vipassana. In other words, vipassana is the result of shamatha, or what you learn from doing shamatha.

    At least, that's how I understood it.

    That sounds right. I've heard it said several times that it works the other way around too, seeing through our illusions leads to a calming and stilling of the mind.

    Sam8
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran

    @Vimalajāti said:

    @person said:
    Without any real depth of experience with them myself I conceptualize shamatha as a process where one slows down mental phenomenon to a point where it becomes much easier to see through them. Vipassana I see as a process where one becomes better at seeing through things where effectively mental phenomenon slow down.

    Traditionally, time dilation only happens in the deep dhyānas and their dhyānāntaras (the near-dhyānas that go in-between and before the proper dhyānas).

    In Mahāyāna Buddhism, śamatha is first. Śamatha, or zhǐ, is literally "calming" or "stopping." The śamatha must be stabized in either the dhyānāntara of the first dhyāna or the first dhyāna itself. Vipaśyanā/vipassanā then uses the vitarkavicāra (discriminating mind) of the first dhyāna or lower. Higher dhyānas have different vipaśyanās, such as the vipaśyanā of the "body of rapture" experienced in the third dhyāna. The language of "body of rapture" is from the Dharmaguptaka Dīrghāgama. The rest of the presentation here is according to the Tiāntāi tradition:

    When the body comes in contact with a first tactile sensation, such as movement, and becomes a condition, this is vitarka ["examination"]. When the mind makes finer distinctions concerning the eight tactile sensations and its ten associated qualities, this is called vicāra ["reflection"]. Rejoicing now at attaining that which had not yet been attained in the past is called prīti ["joy"]. Calm pleasure in these attainments is called sukha ["bliss"]. Such quiescence is called ekāgratā ["one-pointedness"]. The five constituents are all the essence of samādhi. The five constituents arise together. It is like a mallet hitting a temple bell; there are differences, in that at first the sound is rough, but gradually it becomes finer. The five constituents are also like this. At first, there is abundant contact with the aspect of examination, but this does not hinder the others, such as reflection. If examination is strong, then reflection is not yet complete; when examination ceases, reflection becomes clear. Joy is already present from the beginning, and when reflection ceases, the constituent of joy is perfected. Bliss is already present from the beginning, though that bliss may not yet be full; when joy ceases, then bliss is perfected. One-pointedness is already present from the beginning in the movement of the other four constituents, but now when bliss ends, one-pointedness is perfected.

    (Ven Zhiyi, Mahāśamathavipaśyanā T1911.118b20 abridged)

    Following Ven Zhiyi's schema, the first dhyāna is a perfection of vitarkavicāra. With the cessation of vitarkavicāra, there is the perfection of bliss/joy. With the cessation of bliss/joy, there is the perfection of rapture. With the cessation of rapture, there is the perfection of one-pointedness. As the Platform Sūtra says, "The one-pointed heart is the mother of all samādhi."

    I am not a dhyānin though. I hover at trying to stabilize the dhyānāntara of the first dhyāna. Perhaps I have succeeded before, I have had some interesting experiences, but the śamatha is not stabilized: I cannot enter the state at will and stay there at will. So we know it is not a stabilized śamatha and even less an authentic dhyāna.

    Don't give up on śamatha. According to many narratives, it is impossible to do vipaśyanā without stabilized śamatha.

    From what I have heard regarding both being paths a certain degree of access samatha does have to come first before vipassana is possible. The two I remember specifically are Ajahn Brahm and Roger Jackson, both pretty reputable sources.

    Vimalajāti
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    There's some debate whether one must preceed the other, if both are done at the same time, or if they can be developed separately in order to achieve awakening. My personal opinion is that, more often than not, they work together and there's always a bit of both involved even though we may focus on one. And there are suttas that seem to suggest that a meditator may at least focus on one of the two and that that will in turn lead to the other and the development of release (e.g., AN 4.170). So rather than one having to come first, whichever is more compatible with one's personal temperament and faculties can be developed, and that development with open the way for the other so that they can work hand-in-hand towards release.

    Jeffreypersonlobster
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    @Vimalajāti said:
    In Mahāyāna Buddhism, śamatha is first. Śamatha, or zhǐ, is literally "calming" or "stopping." The śamatha must be stabized in either the dhyānāntara of the first dhyāna or the first dhyāna itself. Vipaśyanā/vipassanā then uses the vitarkavicāra (discriminating mind) of the first dhyāna or lower. Higher dhyānas have different vipaśyanās, such as the vipaśyanā of the "body of rapture" experienced in the third dhyāna. The language of "body of rapture" is from the Dharmaguptaka Dīrghāgama. The rest of the presentation here is according to the Tiāntāi tradition:

    When the body comes in contact with a first tactile sensation, such as movement, and becomes a condition, this is vitarka ["examination"]. When the mind makes finer distinctions concerning the eight tactile sensations and its ten associated qualities, this is called vicāra ["reflection"]. Rejoicing now at attaining that which had not yet been attained in the past is called prīti ["joy"]. Calm pleasure in these attainments is called sukha ["bliss"]. Such quiescence is called ekāgratā ["one-pointedness"]. The five constituents are all the essence of samādhi. The five constituents arise together. It is like a mallet hitting a temple bell; there are differences, in that at first the sound is rough, but gradually it becomes finer. The five constituents are also like this. At first, there is abundant contact with the aspect of examination, but this does not hinder the others, such as reflection. If examination is strong, then reflection is not yet complete; when examination ceases, reflection becomes clear. Joy is already present from the beginning, and when reflection ceases, the constituent of joy is perfected. Bliss is already present from the beginning, though that bliss may not yet be full; when joy ceases, then bliss is perfected. One-pointedness is already present from the beginning in the movement of the other four constituents, but now when bliss ends, one-pointedness is perfected.

    (Ven Zhiyi, Mahāśamathavipaśyanā T1911.118b20 abridged)

    Following Ven Zhiyi's schema, the first dhyāna is a perfection of vitarkavicāra. With the cessation of vitarkavicāra, there is the perfection of bliss/joy. With the cessation of bliss/joy, there is the perfection of rapture. With the cessation of rapture, there is the perfection of one-pointedness. As the Platform Sūtra says, "The one-pointed heart is the mother of all samādhi."

    For anyone interested, this is also similar to the classic description of the first four jhanas in the suttas. In SN 45.8, for example, we have this definition of right concentration:

    And what, monks, is right concentration? (i) There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. (ii) With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. (iii) With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.' (iv) With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This, monks, is called right concentration."

    Vimalajāti
  • KeromeKerome Certainty is the enemy of wonder The Continent Veteran

    My experience is that you will feel drawn to one or the other, shamatha or vipassana, and it doesn’t much matter which you start off doing.

    But I do believe it is helpful to develop them in tandem, that if you do a lot of vipassana that it can be good to come back to shamatha and see whether there is something you need to pay attention to in the other stream of meditation.

    Certainly I began with vipassana and only came across shamatha later, and when I did I switched to it and started to develop calm of mind. I felt more drawn to it.

    person
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran

    I came up in the Tibetan Gelug system where there isn't much in the way of meditation until much further along on the path and in a time before the internet and the abundance of resources now available. So, I kind of had to muddle my way through learning how to meditate myself.

    Listening to a teacher today describe awareness of the body as a basis for meditation and feeling like they were describing my own practice experience. I wonder if I haven't been practicing some of these techniques but not having the mental or verbal framework for consciously understanding that is what I've been doing.

    lobster
  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Whitby, Ontario Veteran
    edited December 2020

    @Jason said:
    So rather than one having to come first, whichever is more compatible with one's personal temperament and faculties can be developed, and that development with open the way for the other so that they can work hand-in-hand towards release.

    Very interesting. This Pāli sutta does indeed say either one works and that neither necessarily goes before the other. Nonetheless, unless I'm quite mistaken, the Theravādin tradition will eventually also treat śamatha as a mandatory starting point/preparation.

    This happens when the deeply personal experiences of great sages become schematized and scholasticized by disciples who systematize. Ven Zhiyi was not the starter of a school. He conceived himself as a Madhyamaka votary of the Lotus Sūtra. Later, his students will call him the patriarch of the "Heaven's Pillar School" (Tiāntāi jiào).

    As an example, take for instance the first sentence of the above Tiāntāi-derived exegesis of the dhyānāni:

    Following Ven Zhiyi's schema, the first dhyāna is a perfection of vitarkavicāra.

    But here's the kicker: not once, not once at all, does Ven Zhiyi in Mahāśamathavipaśyanā use the term "perfection of vitarkavicāra." This is a scholasticism, a schema, inferred from the other named "perfections." And none of these perfections are the famous six (or ten if we're being inclusive) perfections of the bodhisattva.

    Ven Zhiyi's personal experience and comments on his meditation become later "doctrine." They become universalized, and people try to intuit systems based on this personal experience. This leads human religions to generate concepts like "the perfection of vitarkavicāra."

    person
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited December 2020

    @Vimalajāti said:

    @Jason said:
    So rather than one having to come first, whichever is more compatible with one's personal temperament and faculties can be developed, and that development with open the way for the other so that they can work hand-in-hand towards release.

    Very interesting. This Pāli sutta does indeed say either one works and that neither necessarily goes before the other. Nonetheless, unless I'm quite mistaken, the Theravādin tradition will eventually also treat śamatha as a mandatory starting point/preparation.

    This happens when the deeply personal experiences of great sages become schematized and scholasticized by disciples who systematize. Ven Zhiyi was not the starter of a school. He conceived himself as a Madhyamaka votary of the Lotus Sūtra. Later, his students will call him the patriarch of the "Heaven's Pillar School" (Tiāntāi jiào).

    As an example, take for instance the first sentence of the above Tiāntāi-derived exegesis of the dhyānāni:

    Following Ven Zhiyi's schema, the first dhyāna is a perfection of vitarkavicāra.

    But here's the kicker: not once, not once at all, does Ven Zhiyi in Mahāśamathavipaśyanā use the term "perfection of vitarkavicāra." This is a scholasticism, a schema, inferred from the other named "perfections." And none of these perfections are the famous six (or ten if we're being inclusive) perfections of the bodhisattva.

    Ven Zhiyi's personal experience and comments on his meditation become later "doctrine." They become universalized, and people try to intuit systems based on this personal experience. This leads human religions to generate concepts like "the perfection of vitarkavicāra."

    There's actually a variety of approaches in the Theravada tradition. There are those who teach samatha as a beginning point/prerequisite (likely because the breath is an easier starting point than the three characteristics or dependent co-arising, or because they view samatha necessay for developing jhanas, and jhanas as necessary for the development of true insight). There are those who teach what's often called "dry insight" or vipasanna (which one often finds taught by those who study the Abhidhamma and especially in the Burmese tradition, which largely evolved into the western insight meditation movement). There are those who teach them in tandem or at least highlight the ways they work together (e.g., Thanissaro Bhikkhu based on suttas like AN 2.30). And there are even those who believe that meditative attainments are lost to us and don't really encourage mediation at all, but rather study of the texts (partially based on the idea that the true Dhamma would only last 500 years per AN 8:51, which was the predominate idea found in places like Thailand before the birth of the kammatthana movement, which in turn made mediation a more widespread practice).

    person
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited December 2020

    I'm sure there are teachers and commentaries that suggest samatha must preceed vipassana, but I think there bigger debate is actually whether or not the development of true insight and awakening requires the attainment of jhana states vs. general mindfulness.

    lobsterVimalajāti
  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Whitby, Ontario Veteran
    edited December 2020

    @Jason said:
    I'm sure there are teachers and commentaries that suggest samatha must preceed vipassana, but I think there bigger debate is actually whether or not the development of true insight and awakening requires the attainment of jhana states vs. general mindfulness.

    What a scary debate, for so many on the Internet are so invested in their alleged mastery of the Dharma! I can only imagine that, to be fair very valid, discussion being hijacked by Internet narcissists who want to tell us about how they achieved nibbāna at the age of 4 and the samāpatti of endless space in the womb of their mother.

    I think the most out-to-lunch thread I ever read on a Buddhist chat forum was a bunch of "self-proclaimed āryas" of various stripes all getting together to agree that "mettā" meant "not wishing that bad things befall others" because they didn't want the Buddha telling them to unselfishly love people. Any kind of love at all is for Christians supposedly.

    I needed a facepalm emoticon and I still don't have one. Alas! But yes, that is the debate, what you mentioned. I have heard people debate whether awakening itself occurs in the first dhyāna with the four nobles truths as the focus via vitarkavicāra.

    I think people have a want to map out the path before they walk it, and this leads to the proliferation of grounds and paths. They want to know where they are going. It's very human. The "pathers" measuring their paths either themselves or with śāstras, etc., remind me of Ven Sēngzhào's characterization of Buddhists as those who run out to measure the śarīrastūpa of the Buddha's parinibbāna in vain:

    Thus the Sage’s wisdom embraces all things yet it is never belabored; his bodily form fills the eight directions but this brings him no distress. If you add to him, he will not overflow; if you subtract from him, he will not be lessened. How could anyone take literally the story that he contracted dysentery on the way to Kuśinagara, that his life ended under the twin trees, that his mind ceased in the regal casket, and that his body was cremated on a pyre? Yet all the while the deluded, investigating the traces of his extraordinary responsiveness, cling to the evidence of their eyes and ears. Carpenter’s square and ruler in hand, they go about trying to measure the Great Square: they want to find the Perfect belabored by knowledge and distressed by bodily form. “He discarded being to delve into nonbeing,” they claim, and then assign to him the corresponding names.

    Surely what they do is not picking words of subtlety from the realm beyond speech, or pulling the root of mystery from the vacuous field.

    (Venerable Sēngzhào 肇論 Zhào's Essays T1858.158a4)

    Keromeperson
  • KeromeKerome Certainty is the enemy of wonder The Continent Veteran

    I think that’s absolutely true @Vimalajāti people do want to know where they are going. But it’s largely futile trying to figure this out because of uniqueness.

    Vimalajāti
  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Whitby, Ontario Veteran
    edited December 2020

    At the same time, at least for me, there is "at least some" element of the path to liberation that isn't unique to each person as much as each person is in some way unique.

    I think there is some utility in taking on faith the general principles of the various ways the Dharma is disclosed if they seem sensible either abstractly or because they've produced something that seems edifying. Where it becomes a bit suspect is when you have suddenly 40+ bhūmis. Something's become excessive. Or when you have the whole path to Buddhahood set out in a textbook. Something's up. If that were really how to do it, the Buddha would have written a sacred text like a Buddhist Koran. Instead, it is said he founded a community.

    JasonhowKeromeperson
  • howhow Veteran Veteran

    The human condition is the product of an incalculable delusion and as such should be an expected force to reckon with at any stage of practice.
    Pair this with a loose conglomeration of aggregates, flavor with a kaleidoscopically diverse range of karmic influences, stir in the innate chaos of existence (at least from the ego's point of view) and you've just described your average practitioner.
    Trying to shoe horn anyone into a "one size fits all" spiritual play book is just a membership drive that better befits a tribal mentality than a path towards suffering's cessation.

    lobster
  • KeromeKerome Certainty is the enemy of wonder The Continent Veteran

    You’re right @how but it is a good idea to give the masses some idea of where they are going. They like having a path. But for real seekers it is different, I think finding a true teacher, one who can help you overcome your unique hindrances on your journey, is the reason why the Buddha founded his community.

    lobster
  • meanwhile ... a small interlude ...

    The Bodhi of Baby Jesus Yoda

    ... and now back to the impotent important debate

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran
    edited December 2020

    I tend to think of all the elements of Buddhism as ingredients. Walking the path according to each individual's unique position and disposition is a matter of knowing which of those ingredients to use at any particular time, which is what a skilled teacher should be able to help with. Knowing all the teachings and lists isn't really the Buddhist path.

    Jeffreylobster
  • @person that triggers the thought in me a memory of my teacher saying that something brings people to give Buddhism a chance. Before they know how to spell the word Buddhism they have a sense of what they are hoping to find in it. And then they learn many teachings with the lists and so forth. For me it was surprising to learn that my intellect as I aged I have learned some of the lists but I also forget things. My mother asked me if what happened to my dog dying was what "samsara" is (as misfortune) and I could respond to that question but I might have gotten some things wrong and it was more important to try in the moment to explain that than it would be to have a vast memory of things I suppose? So we learn the lists but we also forget or are slow learning important pieces like what is samsara as my example.

    person
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