Category: Buddhist Meditation
The word samatha means “serenity” or “tranquility.” Serenity is often used as a synonym for concentration, one-pointedness of mind, and undistractedness in Buddhist meditative practice. Samatha is one of the mental factors found in wholesome states of consciousness that allows the experience of inner peace attainable only through strong mental concentration. Samatha meditation is the type of practice that helps you develop this strong mental concentration, which also serves as an aid in attaining insight.
The Buddha taught that there are two things that contribute to the attainment of knowledge: Samatha (serenity) and Vipassana (insight). Samatha is the one that frees the mind from impurities and inner obstacles. It also gives the person who practices meditation greater penetrative strength. If you develop Samatha, then you also develop your mind. When your mind is developed, you are then able to abandon greed, hate, delusion, and other Klesas (defilements).
Samatha and Vipassana
Buddhists generally divide the subject of meditation into two interconnected systems: Samatha bhavana (the development of serenity) and Vipassana bhavana (the development of insight). Samatha bhavana or Samatha meditation is aimed at focusing the mind on an object in a steady manner while Vipassana meditation is a way of investigating the object.
Since the attainment of Vipassana (insight) requires a certain degree of concentration, Samatha meditation helps in achieving this. Although it seems logical to first develop Samatha before Vipassana, some teachers claim that the two can be developed simultaneously.
Samatha and Vipassana are not separate paths of practice, but are complementary ways of experiencing the nature of events as they occur in the present moment. With Samatha, you experience calmness and bliss, which help prevent the manifestations of sensual desire, anger, or restlessness that can occur when the mind is trapped against its will in the present moment. With Vipassana, you get a clear view of events as they actually occur. This helps keep serenity from becoming stagnant and dull.
Samatha can provide a great sense of joy and bliss, but these can quickly diminish after meditation. Some people develop a sense of attachment to these experiences and therefore overlook the importance of developing insight through Vipassana meditation. Thus, if you have attained some level of skill with Samatha, you must also make an effort to develop Vipassana or vice versa.
Samatha Meditation and the Jhānas
The Jhānas (states of meditative absorption) can be developed both in Samatha and Vipassana meditation, but they essentially belong to Samatha. Jhānas are states of profound awareness which result from focusing your mind upon a single object with such power of attention that a total immersion in the object takes place.
Jhānas perform two functions for the person who makes use of Samatha as their vehicle for enlightenment:
First, they provide a basis of mental purity and tranquility needed for undertaking the work of developing insight. Before wisdom can arise, your mind must first be calm and concentrated. This can only be possible if your mind is freed from the Five Hindrances to Meditation. Jhānas serve as powerful instruments for overcoming these hindrances.
Second, the Jhānas serve as objects to be examined with Vipassana (insight) in order to discern the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self.
A person who practices Samatha meditation is called a Samathayanika or "one who makes serenity his vehicle." A Samathayanika first attains one of the eight mundane Jhānas and then develops insight by means of which he reaches the “supramundane path” containing wisdom under Right View and the “supramundane Jhānas” under Right Concentration.
Note that “mundane” refers to that which belongs to the world of the Five Aggregates while “supramundane” refers to that which is beyond the world of the Five Aggregates. This basically means that a Samathayanika first follows the teachings with a commonsense understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path. As his understanding gets deeper and deeper through constant study and practice, his insight eventually reaches its climax and, at some unexpected moment, a sudden radical change takes place. When this happens, he gains a powerful and penetrative insight into the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. He gains a superior understanding of the Eightfold Path factors, hence his knowledge becomes "supramundane." (See The Four Paths/Stages Of Enlightenment or The Buddha’s Middle Way for more info)
Practicing Samatha Meditation
If you want to start practicing Samatha meditation, here are some articles that may help:
1. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana)
2. Mindfulness Meditation on the Breath (Anapanasati)
3. The States of Meditative Absorption (Jhānas)
4. The Five Factors of the First Jhāna
5. How To Reach The States of Jhāna
6. The Four Bases of Spiritual Power (Iddhipada)
7. Dharana: One-Pointedness or The Perfect Concentration Of Mind
Mindfulness meditation, especially of the breath, is classically used for developing both Samatha and Vipassana (the first two articles explain why). Meditation practices such as contemplation of an object favor the development of Jhānas. Articles 3-5 contain the stuff you need to know about these Jhānas. Article 6 explains how you can use concentration to attain spiritual powers. Lastly, Samatha, in its one-pointedness of mind, is similar with the sixth limb of Rāja yoga called Dharana. If might be helpful if you read this as well.