Thursday, June 30, 2011

Shamatha and Vipashyana (Samatha and Vipassana) [Revised]

Recently I've been finding it useful to frame my practice within the paradigm for meditation known as shamatha-vipashyana, or "calm and insight". This framework was developed by the early Buddhists and influential throughout all Buddhist schools.  Shamatha is translated as calm, serenity, tranquil abiding, concentration,and stopping and is known as samatha in Pali, shi-ne in Tibetan, shi in Japanese.  Vipashyana is insight or "seeing", known as vipassana in Pali, lhatong in Tibetan, kan in Japanese. It seems to me that a yogi, in Buddhaghosa's sense of "a practitioner", should always be engaged in one of the two of these practices.

Shamatha would include mindfulness of the breath (Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana) and mindfulness of the body (Theravada, Zen). It would include awareness of the inner body (Eckhardt Tolle, Jean Klein, Hathayoga), mantra-japa (Hindu yogas, Vajrayana, Pure Land), awareness of inner stillness (Robert Adams, Eckhardt Tolle), lovingkindness meditation (Theravada), visualizations (Vajrayana, Hindu tantra), chanting (all traditions), puja (all traditions), etc.

These practices all free the mind and body from negativity, bring calm and focus, strength and healing, and bring good qualities and blessings. All of these practices have the function of "putting aside all evil, taking up the good". These lines come from the Buddha's famous summary of the teaching of all the Buddhas: "put aside all evil, take up the good, purify the mind". This is chanted frequently in Theravadin monasteries, like the one I lived in:

Sabba papassa akaranam (not doing evil)
Kusalassa upasampada (taking up the good)
Sacitta pariyodapanam (purifying this mind)
Ettam Buddhanasasanam (this is the teaching of the Buddhas).

The last practice here, that of purifying the mind, here refers to vipashyana.

Vipashyana, or insight, is the practice which rids the mind of its fundamental root impurity: delusion. Practices which fall under vipashyana would include koan practice (Zen), atma-vichara (Advaita Vedanta), analytical contemplation of emptiness or the nature of the mind (Vajrayana, Advaita), or contemplation of the three perceptions of inconstancy, not-self, and stressfulness (Theravada).

According to the masters of the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism (Dhammayutika Kammathana) the way to practice is to practice vipashyana whenever one has the energy for it, and when one becomes too tired (or it could be said, too weak or overcome with negativity) shamatha. The Buddha compared these two practices to the two wings of a bird.

Another interesting version of shamatha-vipashyana is the meditation practices of Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches many practices which involve stopping and coming back to simple awareness of something, then shifting one's understanding in relation to it. The simplest of these involve coming back to the breath and calming body and mind (shamatha) and then altering one's experience of one's own emotions for the better, or reflecting on a daily activity in a deeper way (vipashyana).

Some may be aware that some traditions speak of "the union of shamatha and vipashyana" or assert that when properly understood they are "not two". The Zen tradition asserts this (see the Platform Sutra for one example). My understanding is that this refers to a type of mental state of alertness and non-grasping where the act of calming the mind and the act of insight are effectively one thing: a direct plunge into the ever free nature of the fundamental mind, one's "original nature" or "mind ground" (Zen) or the Atman/True Self (Vedanta). This is obviously an advanced practice. In Soto Zen it is called "shikantaza" and is taught to be the correct way to practice Zazen (seated meditation). In the Mahamudra tradition of Tibet this "direct relaxation into the nature of mind free from grasping" is known as the union of Shamatha and Vipashyana. It involves a direct recognition of the ungrasping, or free, nature of awareness and the ability to abide directly in that. Many Advaita teachers- for example Robert Adams, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Papaji and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, all sometimes taught this effortless abidance as what-one-already-is, called in Tamil summa iruppadu.

My understanding is that this state of mind is both accessible directly as in Zen and Dzogchen practice, and is also the ultimate fruit of properly practiced shamatha and vipashyana- ie., it is the extreme development of the balanced practice of shamatha and vipashyana.

In my own practice these days I find that during the day I often practice either shamatha or vipashyana, or both in tandem, either in terms of simple anapanasati or in working with Thich Nhat Hanh's practices. When I sit I practice their union as shikantaza.

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