Calm (vipassana) & Insight (samatha)

Introduction to Calm & Insight

The word samatha means ‘calm’ or ‘tran­quil,’ but the term gen­er­al­ly refers to the actu­al meth­ods of gen­er­at­ing tran­quil­li­ty and of devel­op­ing a deeply con­cen­trat­ed mind. The pur­pose of samatha is to attain the med­i­ta­tive absorp­tions (jhā­na). In samatha prac­tice one fix­es one’s mind on an object (āram­maṇa) until the mind is one-point­ed, which in Pali is called samād­hi (con­cen­tra­tion). When con­cen­tra­tion is prop­er­ly estab­lished the mind enters one of the jhā­nas. In the four fine-mate­r­i­al jhā­nas (rūpa-jhā­na or sim­ply jhā­na) one uses aspects of mate­ri­al­i­ty as the object of atten­tion. More refined than these are the four form­less jhā­nas (arū­pa-jhā­na), in which one uses imma­te­r­i­al objects as the object of atten­tion. Togeth­er these jhā­nas are called the eight ‘attain­ments’ (samā­pat­ti).

In jhā­na the mind is hap­py, peace­ful and bright; there is no dull­ness or dis­tur­bance; the mind is free from the hin­drances (nīvaraṇa). For the dura­tion of jhā­na, one is said to be free from the men­tal defile­ments (kile­sa). The defile­ments return, how­ev­er, when one exits jhā­na. The terms ‘ces­sa­tion as sup­pres­sion’ (vikkhamb­hana-nirod­ha) and ‘lib­er­a­tion as sup­pres­sion’ (vikkhamb­hana-vimut­ti) are used for this sup­pres­sion of defile­ment by con­cen­tra­tion. Pos­si­ble fruits of jhā­na are the five spe­cial pow­ers (abhiññā): psy­chic pow­er, telepa­thy, rec­ol­lec­tion of past lives, divine ear, and divine eye.

The word samatha often refers specif­i­cal­ly to con­cen­tra­tion (samād­hi). Equat­ing samatha with samād­hi is in accord with both the Abhid­ham­ma and the sut­tas, for no mat­ter which spe­cial pow­ers or attain­ments a per­son reach­es, the essence of tran­quil­li­ty med­i­ta­tion is concentration.1

Vipas­sanā means ‘clear insight.’ The term also refers to meth­ods of cul­ti­vat­ing wis­dom in order to see the truth, to see things clear­ly as they are, not as one imag­ines them to be with a vision dis­tort­ed by desire and aver­sion. This insight deep­ens until igno­rance and attach­ment are uproot­ed, at which point one’s impres­sions, per­cep­tions and atti­tudes are transformed.

The knowl­edge that grad­u­al­ly increas­es dur­ing this prac­tice of insight is called ñāṇa, of which there are many lev­els. The final and high­est knowl­edge is called vijjā, which com­plete­ly erad­i­cates igno­rance. A mind endowed with such knowl­edge is joy­ous, peace­ful and free. It escapes the clutch­es of defile­ments, which cor­rupt people’s thoughts and actions. An awak­ened per­son is not afflict­ed by defile­ments and need not strug­gle against them. This knowl­edge is the aim of insight med­i­ta­tion (vipas­sanā) and it leads to true and last­ing lib­er­a­tion. This absolute lib­er­a­tion is called ‘ces­sa­tion as sev­er­ance’ (samucche­da-nirod­ha) or ‘lib­er­a­tion as sev­er­ance’ (samucche­da-vimut­ti).2

The goal of tran­quil­li­ty med­i­ta­tion is jhā­na; the goal of insight med­i­ta­tion is ñāṇa.3 Peo­ple can prac­tise sole­ly samatha med­i­ta­tion, wish­ing to enjoy the fruits of such prac­tice: the jhā­nas and the supreme pow­ers (abhiññā). They may stop here, not con­cern­ing them­selves with insight med­i­ta­tion and the devel­op­ment of wis­dom. But a per­son prac­tis­ing insight med­i­ta­tion must rely on some lev­el of con­cen­tra­tion. They may attain jhā­na first and use jhā­na as a basis for insight, they may prac­tise insight first and then tran­quil­li­ty, or they may prac­tise both forms of med­i­ta­tion simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Those who are called ‘prac­ti­tion­ers of pure insight’ (sud­dha-vipas­sanā-yāni­ka) do not prac­tise tran­quil­li­ty in a ‘direct’ or ‘exclu­sive’ way—they do not attain jhā­na before devel­op­ing insight—but they still depend on tran­quil­li­ty in a broad sense: they still depend on con­cen­tra­tion. The ini­tial con­cen­tra­tion of some­one prac­tis­ing insight may be ‘tem­po­rary’ (khaṇi­ka-samād­hi). But at the point of attain­ing path and fruit (mag­ga-pha­la), con­cen­tra­tion is firm­ly estab­lished (appanā-samād­hi), reach­ing at least the first jhāna.

How­ev­er extra­or­di­nary the jhā­nas or psy­chic pow­ers may be, if they result exclu­sive­ly from tran­quil­li­ty med­i­ta­tion they are still ‘mun­dane’: they lie with­in the domain of unawak­ened beings.4 Exam­ples of such accom­plish­ments are the psy­chic pow­ers of Ven­er­a­ble Devadatta,5 the tem­po­rary eman­ci­pa­tion of Ven­er­a­ble Godhika,6 and the sto­ries in the texts of monks, rishis and laypeo­ple who attained jhāna.7

Con­cen­tra­tive attain­ments and super­nor­mal pow­ers result­ing from tran­quil­li­ty med­i­ta­tion were acces­si­ble before the Buddha’s time.8 Those indi­vid­u­als who achieved these attain­ments came from oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions and pre­ced­ed the Bud­dha, for exam­ple Āḷāra Kālā­ma who reached the third form­less jhā­na and Udda­ka Rāma­put­ta who attained the fourth form­less jhāna.9 These attain­ments are not the goal of Bud­dhism since they do not bring about true deliv­er­ance from suf­fer­ing and defile­ment. There were monks of oth­er tra­di­tions who hav­ing attained the four jhā­nas main­tained wrong view and claimed that abid­ing in these jhā­nas is equiv­a­lent to Nib­bā­na, a claim the Bud­dha repudiated.10

The true pur­pose of tran­quil­li­ty med­i­ta­tion in Bud­dhism is to gen­er­ate con­cen­tra­tion to use as a basis for insight.11 A cul­ti­va­tion of this insight sup­port­ed by con­cen­tra­tion leads to the final goal of Bud­dhism. Some­one with the spe­cial qual­i­ty of reach­ing this high­est goal and being endowed with the excep­tion­al fruits of tran­quil­li­ty med­i­ta­tion will be admired and revered. But some­one who has attained only the fruits of insight is still supe­ri­or to some­one who has attained jhā­nas and psy­chic pow­ers yet remains unawak­ened. The con­cen­tra­tion of non-return­ers who have not achieved the eight jhā­nas or the five supreme pow­ers (abhiññā) is still con­sid­ered ‘com­plete.’ It is secure and stead­fast since no defile­ments exist to erode or dis­turb it. This is not true of those who attain jhā­na or psy­chic pow­ers but do not cul­ti­vate insight or attain path and fruit (mag­ga-pha­la). Although their lev­el of con­cen­tra­tion may be excep­tion­al, there is no guar­an­tee of its sta­bil­i­ty. They are still sus­cep­ti­ble to being over­whelmed by defile­ment. Even the con­cen­tra­tion of stream-enter­ers and once-return­ers can be dis­turbed and weak­ened by sen­su­al lust. Their samād­hi is there­fore still con­sid­ered ‘incomplete.’12

This sub­ject of calm and insight is con­nect­ed to the deliv­er­ance by wis­dom and deliv­er­ance of mind dis­cussed below.


1 The Abhid­ham­ma, e.g.: Dhs. 61, 64, 68. The sut­tas, e.g.: A. I. 61 (explained at AA. II. 119). At A. III. 373, in ref­er­ence to the five spir­i­tu­al fac­ul­ties (indriya), samatha replaces samād­hi, and vipas­sanā replaces paññā. 

2 [Trans­la­tor: samucche­da: ‘cut­ting off,’ ‘destroy­ing.’]

3 Although samatha can lead to the five abhiññā, which are lev­els of ñāṇa, this attain­ment must be pre­ced­ed by jhā­na. The mind that is suit­ably endowed with samād­hi then uses the pow­er of jhā­na to attain this next stage of knowl­edge. Strict­ly speak­ing, samatha ends at jhā­na; it does not go beyond nevasaññānāsaññāy­atana-ñāṇa (see: Vis­mṬ.: Paññāb­hā­vanānisaṁsa-nid­de­sa-vaṇṇanā, Nirodhasamāpatti-kathā-vaṇṇanā).

4 E.g.: Vism. 370–72.

5 Vin. II. 184–5; J. IV. 200. 

6 S. I. 120–21.

7 E.g.: Vism. 689; J. II. 274; SnA. I. 70; [1/87].

8 MA. IV 165.

9 M. I. 164–6, 240.

10 D. I. 36–7.

11 The supreme con­cen­tra­tion is that which aids wis­dom in dis­pelling the defile­ments and facil­i­tates awak­en­ing. Tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing it is a fac­tor in the Path (mag­ga-samād­hi). This con­cen­tra­tion has a spe­cial name: ānan­tari­ka-samād­hi (also spelled anan­tari­ka, anan­tariya or ānan­tariya), trans­lat­ed as ‘fol­low­ing immediately’—it pro­duces imme­di­ate ariya-pha­la, with­out inter­fer­ence. The Bud­dha said this con­cen­tra­tion is peer­less (Kh. 4; Sn. 40). Even if this con­cen­tra­tion is of a low­er lev­el, it is still supe­ri­or to oth­er forms of fine-mate­r­i­al and imma­te­r­i­al jhā­nas. (KhA. 182; SnA. I. 277). Ānan­tari­ka-samād­hi is men­tioned in oth­er con­texts, both in the Canon and the com­men­taries; see: D. III. 273; A. II. 150; Ps1. 2, 94; DA. III. 1056; AA. III. 139; PsA. I. 37; Vis­mṬ.: Ñāṇadas­sanav­i­sud­dhi-nid­de­sa-vaṇṇanā, Sotā­pan­na­pug­gala-kathā-vaṇṇanā; Thī­gA. 99.

12 Non-return­ers have ‘com­plete’ samād­hi, e.g.: A. I. 232; A. IV. 380; cf. Vism. 704; Vis­mṬ.: Paññāb­hā­vanānisaṁsa-nid­de­sa-vaṇṇanā, Nirod­hasamā­pat­ti-kathā-vaṇṇanā. The Abhid­ham­ma states that after death non-return­ers reap­pear in the Pure Abodes (Sud­dhāvāsā) and clas­si­fies the Pure Abodes as a realm of the fourth jhā­na (Vbh. 425; Comp.: Vīthimut­ta­paricche­do, Kam­macatukkaṃ; Comp.: Vīthimut­ta-par­icche­do, Bhūmi­catukkaṃ). Com­pṬ.: Vīthimut­ta­paricche­da-vaṇṇanā, Kam­macatuk­ka-vaṇṇanā, how­ev­er, explains that non-return­ers will appear in a realm cor­re­spond­ing to their par­tic­u­lar lev­el of jhā­na; the only fixed rule is that the Pure Abodes are exclu­sive­ly for non-return­ers. This rais­es the doubt as to how the non-return­ers (e.g. those men­tioned at Vism. 702 and Vis­mṬ.: Paññāb­hā­vanānisaṁsa-nid­de­sa-vaṇṇanā, Nirod­hasamā­pat­ti-kathā-vaṇṇanā) who are pure insight prac­ti­tion­ers (sud­dha-vipas­sanā-yāni­ka or sukkha-vipas­sa­ka) and do not attain the fourth jhā­na can appear in the Pure Abodes. The Abhid­ham­matthasaṅ­ga­ha Ṭīkā responds to this doubt by say­ing: Although those non-return­ers are pure insight prac­ti­tion­ers, at the time of death they invari­ably gen­er­ate the attain­ments (samā­pat­ti) because they have devel­oped con­cen­tra­tion com­plete­ly (Com­pṬ.: Vīthimut­ta­paricche­da-vaṇṇanā, Kam­macatuk­ka-vaṇṇanā). In any case, sut­tas of the Pali Canon con­firm that non-return­ers who have reached any of the first four jhā­nas all reap­pear in the Pure Abodes (A. II. 128, 130). Here too the com­men­taries explain that these non-return­ers attain the fourth jhā­na before reap­pear­ing in the Pure Abodes (AA. III. 126).