Bhavana – Samatha and Vipassana Meditation

The Buddha’s teaching, particularly his way of ‘meditation’, aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, tranquillity of mind and understanding of reality. Buddhism addresses two major types of meditation. They are different mental skills, modes of functioning or qualities of consciousness. In Pali, the original language of Theravada literature, they are called Vipassana and Samatha.

Vipassana can be translated as “Insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. Samatha can be translated as “concentration” or “tranquillity.” It is a state in which the mind is brought to rest, focused only on one item and not allowed to wander. Most systems of meditation emphasize the Samatha component.

In Samatha, the meditator focuses his mind upon some items, such as prayer, a certain type of box, a chant, a candle flame, a religious image or whatever, and excludes all other thoughts and perceptions from his consciousness. Usually there are forty (40) subjects of meditation in Samatha. The result of this is a state of rapture which lasts until the meditator ends the session of sitting. This form of meditation existed before the Buddha. Hence it is not purely Buddhist, but it is not excluded from the field of Buddhist meditation.

The Buddha himself, before his Enlightenment, studied these yogic practices under different teachers and attained to the highest mystic states; but he was not satisfied with them, because they did not give complete liberation, they did not give insight into the Ultimate Reality. The Buddha therefore discovered the other form of ‘meditation’ known as Vipassan? (Skt. vipa?yan? or vidar?an?), ‘Insight’ into the nature of things, leading to the complete liberation of mind, to the realization of the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana. This is essentially Buddhist ‘meditation’, Buddhist mental culture. It is an analytical method based on mindfulness, awareness, vigilance, observation. The most important discourse ever given by the Buddha on Vipassan? meditation is called the Satipa??h?na-sutta ‘The Setting-up of Mindfulness’ (No. 22 of the Digha-nik?ya, or No. 10 of the Majjhima-nik?ya). The discourse is divided into four main sections: the first section deals with our body (k?ya), the second with our feelings and sensations (vedan?), the third with the wind (citta), and the fourth with various moral and intellectual subjects (dhamma). One of the most well-known, popular and practical examples of ‘meditation’ connected with the body is called ‘The Mindfulness or Awareness of in-and-out breathing’ (?n?p?nasati). It is for this ‘meditation’ only that a particular and definite posture is prescribed in the text. For other forms of ‘meditation’ given in this sutta, you may sit, stand, walk, or lie down, as you like. But, for cultivating mindfulness of in-and-out breathing, one should sit, according to the text, ‘cross-legged, keeping the body erect and mindfulness inside’. It is very necessary that the mediator should sit erect, but not stiff; his hands placed comfortably on his lap. Thus seated, he closes his eyes gently. Then breathe in and out as usual, without any effort or strain be aware of the breath as it flows. Another very important, practical, and useful form of meditation is to be aware and mindful of whatever you do, physically or verbally, during the daily routine of work in your life, private, public or professional. Whether you walk, stand, sit, lie down, or sleep, whether you stretch or bend your limbs, whether you look around, whether you put on your clothes, whether you talk or keep silence, whether you eat or drink, even whether you answer the calls of nature – in these and other activities, you should be fully aware and mindful of the act you perform at the moment. That is to say, that you should live in the present moment, in the present action. This does not mean that you should not think of the past or the future at all. On the contrary, you think of them in relation to the present moment, the present action, when and where it is relevant. People do not generally live in their actions, in the present moment. They live in the past or in the future. Though they seem to be doing something now, here, they live somewhere else in their thoughts, in their imaginary problems and worries, usually in the memories of the past or in desires and speculations about the future. Therefore, they do not live in, nor do they enjoy, what they do at the moment. So they are unhappy and disconnected with the present moment, with the work at hand, and naturally they cannot give themselves fully to what they appear to be doing. Sometimes you see a man in a restaurant reading while eating – a very common sight. He gives you the impression of being a very busy man, with no time even for eating. You wonder whether he eats or reads. One may say that he does both. In fact, he does neither, he enjoys neither. Then there is a way of practicing meditation with regard to all our sensations or feelings, whether happy, unhappy or neutral. Let us take only one example. You experience an unhappy, sorrowful sensation. In this state your mind is cloudy, hazy, not clear, it is depressed. In some cases, you do not even see clearly why you have that unhappy feeling. First of all, you should learn not to be unhappy about your unhappy feeling, not to be worried about your worries. But try to see clearly why there is a sensation or a feeling of unhappiness, or worry, or sorrow. Try to examine how it arises, its cause, how it disappears, its cessation. Try to examine it as if you are observing it from outside, without any subjective reaction, as a scientist observes some object. Here, too, you should not look at it as ‘my feeling’ or ‘my sensation’ subjectively, but only look at it as ‘a feeling’ or ‘a sensation’ objectively. You should forget again the false idea of ‘I’. When you see its nature, how it arises and disappears, your mind grows dispassionate towards that sensation, and becomes detached and free. It is the same with regard to all sensations or feelings. Now let us discuss the form of meditation with regard to our minds. You should be fully aware of the fact whenever your mind is passionate or detached, whenever it is overpowered by hatred, ill-will, jealousy, or is full of love, compassion, whenever it is deluded or has a clear and right understanding, and so on and so forth. We must admit that very often we are afraid or ashamed to look at our own minds. So we prefer to avoid it. One should be bold and sincere and look at one’s own mind as one looks at one’s face in a mirror. Here is no attitude of criticizing or judging, or discriminating between right and wrong, or good and bad. It is simply observing, watching, examining. You are not a judge, but a scientist. When you observe your mind, and see its true nature clearly, you become dispassionate with regard to its emotions, sentiments and states. Thus, you become detached and free, so that you may see things as they are. Then there is a form of ‘meditation’ on ethical, spiritual and intellectual subjects. All our studies, reading discussions, conversation and deliberations on such subjects are included in this ‘meditation’. It is called meditation on Dhamma (Dhamm?nupassan?). According to Maha Satipath?na Sutta, there are six mind objects (Dhamm?nupassan?). They are, 1. Five hindrances, 2. Five aggregates,  3. Six sense bases,  4. Six sense objects, 5. Seven enlightenment factors 6. Four noble truths.  The key to success in meditation depends on three factors: 1. Atapi –Constant effort given to meditation 2. Satima – awareness of any of the four objects as they arise. 3. Sampajano – clear awareness of what is happening in the present. Apart from those we have discussed here, there are many other subjects of meditation, traditionally forty in number, among which mention should be made particularly of the four Sublime States: (Brahma-vih?ra): (1) extending unlimited, universal love and good-will (mett?) to all living beings without any kind of discrimination, ‘just as a mother loves her only child’; (2) compassion (karu??) for all living beings who are suffering, in trouble and affliction; (3) sympathetic joy (mudit?) in others’ success, welfare and happiness; and (4) equanimity (upekkh?) in all vicissitudes of life.