Shamatha and Vipashyana: General Presentation

Buddhist practice is rich in methods for attaining perfect concentration. There are many levels and types of concentration, however, that the traditional texts present. When we learn about and understand their differences, we gain a clear roadmap of mental development to guide us on our spiritual path.

For any spiritual attainment, whether the development of love and compassion or the discriminating awareness of the nature of reality, we need excellent concentration. Without it, we cannot develop these good qualities in the first place, nor maintain them in our minds once we attain them. But the topic of concentration is complex and many different types and states of it appear in different contexts of the Buddhist teachings. Therefore, to know what the texts are talking about and what to develop at which stage of our development, we need to understand and clearly differentiate these states of concentration.

Different States of Concentration

Mental stability (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana) is one of the six far-reaching attitudes or six perfections. With it, our minds are no longer tossed by mental or emotional turmoil. To gain mental stability, we need to improve our concentration. The Sanskrit term for concentration may also be translated as “mental fixation” or “mentally fixating.” Concentration or mental fixation (ting-nge-'dzin, Skt. samadhi) is the abiding of the attention either on a specific object or in a specific state of mind, such as love or anger.

According to the Indian master Vasubandhu’s Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Skt. Abhidharmakosha), some level of mental fixation accompanies each moment of our experience. Thus concentration is a variable that spans the spectrum from full concentration to no concentration at all. When our concentration is perfected, our attention stays focused on its object without moving and is completely clear and alert. In other words, it is totally free of flightiness of mind and mental dullness, and cannot be distracted by anything. This level of mental fixation is called absorbed concentration.

When absorbed concentration focuses on the four noble truths, or more specifically on a lack of an impossible “soul” (selflessness) of persons or of phenomena – whether conceptually or non-conceptually – it is called total absorption (meditative equipoise) (mnyam-bzhag).

During a meditation session, immediately following a period of total absorption on the lack of an impossible “soul,” when absorbed concentration focuses on persons or phenomena being like an illusion, it is called subsequent realization or subsequent attainment (post-meditation) (rjes-thob). Subsequent attainment cognition of everything being like an illusion may sometimes continue while meditating on other topics and even in between meditation sessions, but it must always be induced first by total absorption on the lack of an impossible “soul” or voidness.

The Five Obstacles to Concentration

Improving our concentration requires working to eliminate the five obstacles to concentration:

  1. Flightiness of mind and regret (rgod-’gyod)
  2. Ill-will (gnod-sems)
  3. Foggy-mindedness and sleepiness (rmugs-gnyid)
  4. Intentions to experience desirable objects (‘dod-la ‘dun-pa) (the mind goes in that general direction)
  5. Indecisiveness (the-tshoms).

The five can be summarized by flightiness of mind (a subdivision of distraction or mental wandering) and mental dullness.

  • Flightiness of mind (rgod-pa) – this occurs when the “mental glue” of mindfulness loses its hold on the object of focus because of distraction by some desirable object or thought, or by thoughts of regret. We may lose our mental hold completely, just loosen it so that while still holding the object there is an undercurrent of thought, or we may merely experience a mental itchiness to leave the object.
  • Mental dullness (bying-ba) – this occurs when mindfulness loses its hold on the object because of the mental hold being loosened because of foggy-mindedness, sleepiness, or indecisiveness. We may lose our mental hold completely, just experience our minds being without sharp focus, or merely not being fresh and vivid in each moment.

Shamatha: A Stilled and Settled State of Mind

Shamatha (zhi-gnas), a stilled and settled state of mind (calm abiding), is attained exclusively with mental consciousness, not sensory consciousness. It is not merely a state of mind stilled of the obstacles to concentration and settled single-pointedly (rtse-gcig) on an object or in a particular state. Thus, it is more than just absorbed concentration. In addition, it has a further mental factor accompanying it: a sense of physical and mental fitness (pliability, flexibility).

A sense of physical and mental fitness (shin-sbyangs) is the mental factor of feeling totally fit to do something – in this case, remain totally concentrated on anything. It is both exhilarating and blissful, but in a non-disturbing way.

Of the two main types of meditation, discerning (analytical) (dpyad-sgom) and stabilizing ('jog-sgom), shamatha is an example of the stabilizing type. As such, it contains the mental factor of gross detection (rtog-pa). Having previously investigated an object, this mental factor adds detection of the main characteristic feature of the object to shamatha’s manner of cognizing it. In other words, shamatha focuses with absorbed concentration on an object, such as the breath, with a gross understanding of its main feature, such as impermanence.

The Indian masters Asanga and Kamalashila provide a long list of objects on which to develop shamatha, and specify the characteristic feature of each that gross detection focuses on. These objects include not only the breath and a visualized image of a Buddha, but also objects that will help cleanse our behavior or attitudes of troublesome states. For example, we can develop shamatha focused on our body with gross detection of its impurity, in order to overcome our attachment to it.

As a side product, shamatha brings extrasensory awareness (advanced awareness) (mngon-shes), such as the ability to see and hear things at a great distance and to be aware of other’s thoughts. In Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Skt. Bodhipathapradipa), the Indian master Atisha emphasized the importance of gaining these abilities to be better able to help others.

Vipashyana: An Exceptionally Perceptive State of Mind

Once we have attained shamatha and we have gross detection of the main characteristic feature of our object of focus, then while maintaining the same concentration level of shamatha, vipashyana (an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, special insight) adds the mental factor of subtle discernment (scrutiny).

Subtle discernment (dpyod-pa) is an active understanding of the fine details of the nature of the object of focus, having previously scrutinized them thoroughly. It does not imply verbal thinking, although it may be induced by verbally thinking. Thus, of the two main types of meditation, discerning and stabilizing, vipashyana emphasizes discerning.

Further, in addition to shamatha’s sense of physical and mental fitness at being able to maintain absorbed concentration on an object for as long as we wish, vipashyana has a second sense of physical and mental fitness present. The additional sense of fitness is the sense of feeling totally fit to discern and understand fully the subtle details of anything. Vipashyana is not necessarily focused on voidness (emptiness) or on the four noble truths, although most commonly in sutra it is. It can be focused on any of the objects on which we have focused for attaining shamatha.

Thus, if a state of mind is one of vipashyana, it is pervasive that it is a state of the joined pair: shamatha and vipashyana. In a joined pair (zhi-lhag zung-‘brel), one of the items – in this case, shamatha – is attained first, and then the second item – in this case, vipashyana – is joined to it. Therefore, although we may work on vipashyana before attaining shamatha, we cannot actually attain vipashyana without having first attained shamatha.

Summary

Mental stability, concentration, absorbed concentration, total absorption, subsequent attainment, shamatha and vipashyana are each a distinctive type of concentrated mind. When we understand their differences, then in meditation practice we will be able to attain each individually, without muddling them up out of ignorance or confusion.

Questions

Is it possible to attain some level of going to some high meditations – like to go from shamatha to vipashyana to tantra and dzogchen – without having developed the concentration with shamatha?

I don’t think so. I think that all the various meditation instructions and manuals that I have read or heard require that we certainly need to develop concentration first. Now, whether or not you need to develop the full definitional level of shamatha is something else. In tantra, for example, there are special methods for being able to develop shamatha and vipashyana simultaneously. So in each system there can be different ways in which you achieve shamatha and vipashyana.

Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind, so it is stilled of all mental wandering and dullness, and it is settled, focused on either an object or a certain way of perceiving things. So it is 100% like that, fully concentrated. Plus it has a sense of fitness, which is an exhilarating sense (but not in a disturbing way) of physically and mentally being able to just stay focused on anything, as long as you want. So it is like if you are physically trained very, very well, then you have this sense of physical fitness that you can do almost anything. It is a very exhilarating state.

And then definitional or true vipashyana is, on top of shamatha, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind that is able to perceive anything, and has an additional sense of fitness.

So whether it is dzogchen meditation or regular tantra meditation or whatever, it will have these components.

In recent times, very often there are teachers coming to Ukraine and Russia who give teachings on profound topics like tantra or like atiyoga, and also, for example, the ten-day course of vipashyana is also widely available. So my question is, first, whether it makes sense to attend those teachings if I have not developed shamatha strongly enough. And secondly: Why do teachers teach that at all, if there is no strong basis of shamatha in the students?

First of all, it is very difficult to attain shamatha (although in the texts it says that if you work very hard, you can attain it within three months). To attend any teaching, it is necessary to concentrate. If you go there and you just sleep through the whole lecture, or you are mentally wandering or distracted throughout the lecture, it is pointless. So we need to have at least some level of concentration to attend any lecture and to have it be worthwhile. It does not necessarily have to be complete shamatha. In fact, if we wait until we have achieved complete shamatha, we may never go to any lectures!

Tibetans are absolutely firm believers in future lives. When teachers teach these advanced topics, very often they say that they are doing this in order to plant seeds for your future lives; they do not expect that you will understand or practice advanced skills in this lifetime. And that is the way that many lay Tibetans (and even monks and nuns), go to teachings – to plant seeds for future lives. So from the Tibetan side, the teachers are thinking in a completely different way as to why they teach these things, as compared to how we, as Westerners, would think.

And then you need to consider the organizers at the Dharma centers. If the Dharma center organizers offer a course in tantra or dzogchen or some esoteric topic, that topic will attract more people than if they offered a course on refuge, or some other topic that seems more mundane. The Dharma center organizers have the pressure of paying the rent of the Dharma center, and paying for the teacher to come, and so on. So there are samsaric, economic reasons as well. And also there is a little bit of that from the Tibetan side, though not as strong, because while they do not insist on what they teach (well, some do), still they have a tremendous pressure to bring back money in order to feed the monks in their monastery. That is really a very real pressure that they have, and so it is to their benefit to have a large audience. We do not live in an ideal world, unfortunately.

So when these teachers come, and they teach very advanced topics, if the choice is going or not going, then in many ways it is best to go. But we should not be pretentious and think that: “I am so advanced that I can actually practice all of this right now, in this lifetime.” And the reverse is also true: we should not be discouraged, thinking, “Oh, this is too advanced, it’s impossible for me to ever be able to practice this.” The longer that one practices (we are talking about decades and decades), then the more you realize that you need to go back to the beginning, and work on these very, very crucial initial steps. Without the initial steps, everything beyond that does not make any sense, does not have any substance to it, and is just empty words. We should strive to think: “What am I doing to prepare for being able to continue on the path in my future lives? How seriously am I taking that issue? And what concrete steps am I taking in that direction?” To reach that level, to be sincere, that is extraordinary.