Samatha (or ???) Vipassana

The question whether to practise samatha or vipassana comes up again and again.

 In the early days of the Burmese Vipassana movement long debates were waged on which approach would be the correct one (samatha || vipassana, that is).

This question seems like a non-question. The Buddhas emphasis on the importance on samatha is clear while his whole teaching revolves around insight or ‘knowing and seeing’ as it was coined in the early days of his teaching.

So, being a joint vehicle, both the serious Buddhist concentration meditator and the enthusiastic vipassana meditator will meet at the same place in their meditation eventually – albeit from different routes.

However, while the uniqueness of the vipassana method is based on the simple fact that its discovery and explanation is only found in a Buddha-originating context – the attempt to develop strong insight without necessary groundwork in samatha meditation will simply prolong the journey (let alone what a lack in virtue might do in this regard…)

Below an excerpt from a recent chat which came across a similar topic and might shed some ideas on this subject:

kalyanamitta: … and these aggregates are still just concepts
 me: exactly…they are
  that is why also the jhana are, in fact, inferior
  to any vipassana insight
  everything else keep syou in the realm of rebirth…which
 kalyanamitta: really?
me: in other words means…it leaves you with nothing
 kalyanamitta: the buddha used jhana to see the three true knowledges, no?
 me: because, even if you were Warren Buffet and owned the planet…in 2 billion years from now, it would be nothing more than adream
 kalyanamitta: how is that different.
 me: he did not realize nibbana because of the jhanas
  he realized nibbana because of the 4 noble truth..which was his way of doing vipassana
 kalyanamitta: no, i know, but he used them to make his mind workable etc…
 me: but of course he prepared himself using the jhanas
  it is easier with strong concentration…vipassanas view will be sharp and crisp right away
 kalyanamitta: so, if my mind were to get the fourth jhana i could see the same things?
 me: yes….he did
  not necessarily
kalyanamitta: why not?
  he said, jhanas then three true knowledges
 me: if you are in the 4th jhana, your concentration is pretty darn sharp…but you need to archieve a feat of insight
 kalyanamitta: it sounded progressive
 me: yes, and it is
  but not conditioned
  not this causes that
  but this is a support for that
 kalyanamitta: yeah, he directed his mind to the three true knowledges
 me: exactly
  you got it
  that is the critical thing there
 kalyanamitta: so, why can’t we do that?
 me: we do
  actually that is what you do
 kalyanamitta: why do we have to label everything?
 me: in each moment, where you note a thought, or sound
  you direct your direct knowledge to suffering
  to the five groups of grasping
kalyanamitta: i don’t get it.
 me: okay,
  let me try
  you know the 5 groups, right?
 kalyanamitta: cause i don’t see my past lives or kamma or four noble truths
  when i see my leg hurts and note it lol
me: okay, just one sec here
  lets take the leg
 kalyanamitta: yes, form feelings perception mental formations and consciousness
 me: but do you know what they mean
  apply them on the moment when you feel your leg hurts
  where are your 5 groups there?
 kalyanamitta: sure.
  it all happens so fast
i know that there is form, or a mind made form, and that there is feeling, and then it is perceived, and then a thought occurs and then i’m consciouss about all this
  that’s all i got
 me: okay, let me help you
  and this is just a sample
  to show you that this is suffering we do observe in this little vipassana exercise, which actually is not little but the application of direct knowledge itself
so, there is the leg, which in reality is some tangible object
  we dont know that it is a leg
  there is something tangible
  then a feeling, lets say a painful
  then a perception, a numb, deep rudimentary mental perception of “the leg”
  that is perception.
kalyanamitta: ok
 me: then comes sankhara, which is the “imagination” of it, the “putting it into perspective”
  the next layer (like the OSI model, you know, of communication) []
 kalyanamitta: mental proliferation or fabrication
  which layer 1-7?
 me: this adds the relationship to it, like “there is my leg, beneath me, below..”
 kalyanamitta: 🙂
 me: we have only layer 1-5
kalyanamitta: lol
 me: and all of this is nested in consciousness, which in pali just means “the knowing”
  so these 5 are just categorizations
 kalyanamitta: yeah
 me: the Buddha used for us to capture and better understand what quickly occurs in split seconds in each moment
  that is where he directed his attention to
  and he started simply recognizing it
 kalyanamitta: so, where is rebirth, for example, four noble truths. i don’t get it from the labeling, the connection. i don’t get it
 me: now the Buddha did this based on the jhanas which i entered before
  but thousands of his listeners in his sermons did not
 kalyanamitta: ask me to do by labeling you mean, right?
 me: they attained to all stages of enlightenement by applying this direct knowledge
  while listening to him
  they sure did not have all jhanas developed
  yes, the labeling
because what the labeling does is it stops your minds operations short
  like a grain of sand in a machine
 kalyanamitta: if they didn’t have jhanas, how can the regular mind with all the defilements and hindrances see anything of unbinding?
 me: into prolongs, artificially, the whole perception-proliferation-life creating machin our mind is made of
 kalyanamitta: ok
me: which allows us to break this whirlpool of
  consciousness on the one side and
  name (feeling, perception, imagination) and form (reall physical world) on the other hand
 kalyanamitta: just by paying attention is what your saying?
 me: once they break apart, which will happen in your vipassana the whole world breaks apart
amazing isnt it
  that is what the Buddha over and over calls
  “to see it as it is” (yathabhuta, nyanadassana, yoniso manasikaro)
  “direct knkowledge”
  etc etc
  so that is what he called in the early days “vipassana”
that term was introduced later in his life… that is my personal believe…so the term appears in the suttas
and the quintessence of this practice is all over the suttas…just the ‘coinage’ is different and of course the practice of adjoining concentration meditation was a given.
 kalyanamitta: i heard the same
 me: anyway…so what you do is quite extraordinary and the Buddhas system
 kalyanamitta: maybe by buddhaghosa
 me: well, there are only a view suttas which use vipassana but there are
  maybe some of his pupils started using that term
no problem…was long as we understand what this is all about
 kalyanamitta: ok
 me: my feeling is, that many people seem to know what vipassana is
  but actually have no clue what this really really is all about
  so, even if the buddha used the rocket lauchpad of jhana
  nobody has to
even listening to his sermons was enough for most to become stream enterers
  because they got to some first intrinsic insight using his direct seeing approach and experienced their “first nibbana”
  if you will
 kalyanamitta: but he always says go practice jhana and not go practice labeling things
 me: that is what i thought too, for many years
  now i do know that it is not the case
did you ever read the Samyutta NIkaya
 kalyanamitta: not the whole thing, no lol
  did you?!
 me: you get that impression if you read Majjhima…because there almost every sutta is about the approach (for monks! mind you)
  the appraoch based on the 3 vijjas, with jhana and then vipassana
kalyanamitta: yes, and that makes sense to me
 me: (oh yes, i did, in fact, read the  sutta pitaka several times – it is not such a marvelous task as it may seem)
  so, but if you go ahead and look at the Samyutta
 kalyanamitta: i don’t believe you
 me: especially
 kalyanamitta: !
 me: Khandha and Salyatana vaggas
  almost every sutta is on vipassana
  no mention of jhanas whatsoever
  hundreds of suttas
  all start like this
  let me find one for you
kalyanamitta: then why would he say in the dhammapada that when one has jhana he is close to unbinding?
 me: ah.too long
 kalyanamitta: yes, i’ve read similar ones before
 me: because, from a pragmatic and just pragmatic standpoint, someone with strong jhana of course has it easier to apply his laser like attention to SEE what is going on
it will only take LONGER for the vipassana meditator to SEE the same things…but then again: a hindu yogi with deep 4th jhana will not see the rising and falling of the 5 groups of grasping just because his mind is so concentrated…
 kalyanamitta: so, someone with my scatter mind is going to struggle lol
 me: sure
  and i am completely honest
  but the jhanas alone and in themselves would never rescue you
  you would still have to do vipassana at one point or the other
 kalyanamitta: so it seems stupid not to get jhana but then i’m back to square one
me: that is why my teachers (and i was myself VERY eager to get to the jhanas first) talked me out of it and said: first vipassana after some initial samatha…make sure you make this life count
 kalyanamitta: yes, but after!
  it seems logical to a, master jhana, b, label things
me: but not necessarily the full blown mastery of the same. it makes sense that if you look at what is happening in your mind in the labelling fashion day in day out though from a samsara-freedom aspiring standpoint
 kalyanamitta: what does strong vipassana mean?
 me: (in a monastery setting that is 3 months)
kalyanamitta: oh
 me: that you wil lbreak through A LOT of delusions and attachments
  day and (almost all) night
  like in the time of the Buddha
  so, it is still doable
  now the question is, what do you pragmatically do from here
fight with the stupid hindrances and bad sourroundings to get to some unstable jhana for the next years
 or you try to just train for better concentrationa nd then go for a REAL vipassana hard core retreat in a few years for 3 months
 kalyanamitta: i don’t know.
 me: or you do some “dry” vipassana with whatever concetntration you got for the next couple of years with definitely a lot of insights at the same time.. all viable options
kalyanamitta: is there peace in my mind from labeling things?
 me: no, but from seeing the rising and falling of the six sense objects
  that peace (eventually) will be final
kalyanamitta: but, what about in the meantime?
 me: and labeling == stopping and seeing == realizing the start and end of sense objects == seeing them breaking down == disgusted == turning away == (eventually) nibbana
 kalyanamitta: i guess
 me: see, i see for your current “life” and time you got two alternative routes
either take it very slowly and do not expect anything big but steadily work on your concentration
 kalyanamitta: ok
me: and then maybe plan ahead for some very serious multi-month vipassana retreat…there are lots of places some with good teachers too, where you can just do that
use the concentration you have now and you might from time to time archieve (stumble over) using each of your free time for vipassana meditation at home with the intention to leave the jhanas alone, develop more insight, make your precious life count and also plan to do some strong vipassana whenever you life allows for it
kalyanamitta: i guess
 me: OR: if you are really really obsessed with jhana first route, in a couple of years, when you have time for it, find a teacher for jhana practise and do that first but those teachers are rare also and you still have to add the insight job on top of it, which is what got you started in the first place 🙂
Know pali? This link might be for you:
At the time of the Buddha, it seems, many of the “recluses” where doing some form of concentration anyways. Now of course instead of focusing on Indra, Agni or Varuna the Buddha pointed them to the development of insight, using what they got, clearing away any mysticism of concentrated states by a logical and rational clear-cut definition of meditative absorptions – the jhanas – and pointing them towards the enlightened trick of clear unwavering self observation, satipatthana:
“Yā kho, āvuso visākha, cittassa ekaggatā ayaṃ samādhi; cattāro satipaṭṭhānā samādhinimittā; cattāro sammappadhānā samādhiparikkhārā. Yā tesaṃyeva dhammānaṃ āsevanā bhāvanā bahulīkammaṃ, ayaṃ ettha samādhibhāvanā”ti.
The one-pointedness of the mind, Brother Visakha, that is called concentration.
The four foundations/anchorages/pillars of remembering are the objects of concentration.
The four right efforts are the requisites of concentration.
And the repeated and habitual practice and development of these things, this is called “Development of concentration” . MN 44 [pi] [en]
In today’s Buddhist terminology though, the one-pointedness part would be looked at separately and understood as samatha or concentration meditation, whereas the second part, the vipassana-style meditation would be considered an insight meditation approach. In this paragraph above we see that this whole exercise was (yet) perceived as the development of concentration  – calmness, concentration and eventually the witnessing power of unshakeable remembering “atthi kayo” (there is a body), “atthi vedana” (there is a feeling), “atthi citta” (there is a mind), “atthi dhammo” (there is a mind object) – to be the earliest form of insight meditation. The terminology wasn’t yet as frozen as it is today, after 2500 years, but unlike today, the people who spoke about it knew what they meant 🙂
In any case, from here, the next look would be the Salayatana and Khandha Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya to see how the early Vipassana instructions further developed and what parts of the instruction are more important than others.
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  1. aaloka

    Regardless of which approach one may take, important thing is to ‘practice’ the 4th Noble Truth isn’t it? Some people seem to take just meditation as the practice. Hence the samatha/vipassana confusion, I think.

    And I’ve come across the ‘labeling’ instructions only from very recent teachers. Haven’t seen any similar instructions in Pali canon. Have you? This feels quite distant from Lord Buddha’s vibhajjavadhi approach to me.

    • theravadin

      Hi Aaaloka & thanks for your comment.

      I agree, important is the practice of the noble eightfold path. Which is a training in moral discipline (sila), the basis for mental discipline (samadhi) leading towards deeper and deeper wisdom and transforming insight (panna) and resulting in freedom *as you know :-)*.

      As a tendency, Western Buddhists usually neglect moral virtue and generosity but are very eager to develop their mind (with whatever motivation – least of which will be to overcome samsara) – while Eastern Buddhists emphasize giving and seem to stop right there in their practice – unfortunately not utilizing their amazing good karma :-).
      A perfection of the path, as you indicated, will only succeed if one balances all spiritual powers, as the Buddha suggested:

      As i tried to show in several posts on this blog, i first was very opposed to the “labeling” technique myself, coming from a jhana centric interpretation of the suttas. However, studies in theory and practice have lead me to believe, that this “labeling” technique as described by modern vipassana teachers has its very roots in the pali canon, even in the suttas.
      However, our interpretation/translation of terms like “sati” (lit. ‘remembering’ maybe even better ‘Noting’) and and ‘yoniso manasikara’ (attending thoroughly/lit. from the womb, i.e. where [the sense impressions etc] are born) may have hidden a great big deal of these vipassana techniques in the suttas. If you are interested in further sharing my little ‘research’ on this:


      • aaloka

        Hi Theravadin,
        Looking back now, I realize that my views have changed on ‘labeling’ & ‘labeling’ seem to be a very good translation for ‘pajaanaathi’ in sathipattana!


  2. theravadin

    Hi Aaloka,

    Literally – and that is undisputed by anyone – pajaanaati means “to know” (i.e. an experiential real time knowing). If you will, I argue that the “Labeling” in fact triggers that kind of “knowing” by helping us stay at the object. It thus fullfills the early idea behind sati which was not that separated from samatha as it appears nowadays. There is naturally always some degree of concentration necessary if we want to “know” what is happening right now. That is why I think the “iti” (direct/indirect speech/thought particle in pali language) found in so many meditative passages IS MEANT TO STAND FOR what we would call “labeling” nowadays. Using a short label in form of a “tagging” like thought (not discursive thinking!!!) will LEAD or SUPPORT the knowing, pajaanaati.

    When you internally use a short thought like this: “This is impermanent” – and you do that whenever a sense object manifests in “your” consciousness (better: whenever there is contact, based on vinnyana-nama-rupa resulting in a feeling) ‘this is impermanent’, ‘this is not myself’ then what you do is you facilitate of course your direct knowing&seeing of these experiences while they occur. Eventually even this tagging/labeling will disappear when the knowing and seeing gets really strong. But this is definitely the way to start the process of insight.

    Nothing else is it the Buddha advices us to do. Not easy, definitely, but he is very clear on the topic…and so as you can see in some of the other posts I tried to explain why I think it is necessary to not simply “drop” the translation of “ti” and “iti” because they denote the label which when used will lead to deeper knowing of our 5 groups of grasping, i.e. of the current moment, of NOW (on a very deep level, deep enough, to eradicate tanha for good).

    Thanks for your feedback, metta and much aaloka to you, aaloka 🙂

  3. sweetblablag

    Hi Theravadin,
    I’m new to your blog, but have found the information presented very useful. I have a question regarding building a solid foundation in jhana and dry insight. I’ve attended 2 Vipassana (Goenka) retreats in the past 4 months, but only recently found out about the history of the practice and the jhana route. I have the time and am willing to dedicate the rest of the year to gaining a proper foothold in the practice at a retreat. Would you happen to have a recommendation on a monastery that teaches jhana and vipassana? I’ve looked into the Pa Auk monastery, but I didn’t know how well I would fare there being a beginner, although I do have the determination to walk that path. Any thoughts are appreciated.

  4. poster

    Tibetan Buddhism says the only correct meditation is the UNION of Shamatha and Vippasana (Mahamudra). There is no ‘or’. There is no choice. Both need to be applied at the same time.

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