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Samatha vs Vipassanā

Samatha vs Vipassanā

Vipassanā means as much as ‘insight’ and is often translated as insight meditation. Sometimes this is seen as a separate form of Buddhist meditation.

Many people immediately want this insight in the assumption that this is what it is all about. They have heard that the direct practice of vipassanā without prior high concentration is the quickest way.

What perhaps not everyone realizes is that the form of vipassanā as practiced today is quite new.

It is almost always a derivative of the so-called “New Burmese Method” founded by Mahasi Sayadaw, a very prominent teacher of the 20th century.

Mahasi Sayadaw recognised the great importance of samatha meditation, it would be too frustrating for many people to follow the path of concentration from the onset.

Therefore, he taught vipassanā, so that those for whom meditation would otherwise be too frustrating could start, in order to be able to develop concentration later on. In this way he made meditation more accessible.

If you look at the texts of Ledi Sayadaw, another ancestor of contemporary vipassanā, they emphasize (for example in his work Bodhipakkhiya Dipani) time and again in a very confronting tone the importance of concentration combined with insight and the inability of many contemporary people to sufficiently concentrate their mind for the development of insight.

Why is Vipassanā better known than Samatha?

That the vipassanā meditation method has become so well known as a stand-alone system that it has become almost synonymous with Buddhist meditation in the West, is not because it is a better meditation system than samatha meditation, but because of social and political circumstances.

Mahasi Sayadaw had well known and wealthy Burmese disciples who promoted vipassanā by setting up meditation centers. These centers were later allowed to continue by the military junta and were not seen as a threat, while the junta was afraid of the samatha meditation teachers.

The mental power and the pure mind of samatha teachers were a threat because they generally did not follow the course the junta had taken. There was therefore a ban on teaching samatha meditation and teachers who became known for their concentration were persecuted.

This was also the case with Ahba who finally had to flee Myanmar after more and more high government officials came to him for advice and the junta felt increasingly threatend.

Because of this it was vipassanā with which the first western practitioners came into contact when they first arrived in Myanmar to learn meditation. They in turn took the system with them to Europe and America.

Over the years, the original thought of Mahasi Sayadaw seems to have been forgotten, especially with regard to the importance of concentration, and nowedays vipassanā teachers sometimes speak with disdain about concentration.

Isn’t Vipassanā the Highest and Samatha Dangerous?

Nowadays it is often said that vipassanā is the highest and best, and samatha is not important or even should be avoided.

Sometimes people even state that concentration is dangerous because the pleasure of high concentration would be so great that it would lead to new and strong desire.

Often, in this context, reference is also made to the jhānas, states of extremely deep concentration in which the mind is fully absorbed with the object on which it is directed.

As for this possible danger as a reason for not developing concentration, it is best to turn to the Buddha himself.

The Buddha very often speaks of jhāna when he speaks of meditation and repeatedly encourages the monks to pursue it as a prerequisite for wisdom.

Nowhere in the ancient scriptures does he indicate that you should not develop concentration because it would be dangerous.

But even Ledi Sayadaw, one of the previously mentioned ancestors of the modern vipassana movement, is very clear about this:

Only the sages with great achievement can become mast of the jhāna and use them as a basis for insight. Nevertheless, all forms of kusala (wholesome) – of which samatha (concentration) is one of the highest – should be developed, for all kusala support insight.

Appart from this achieving high concentration, let alone jhāna, is all too easily thought of in the West nowedays. As if you immediately run the risk of getting attached to jhāna as soon as you start samatha meditation.

Just to nuance this: Ahba has indicated that today there is hardly anyone who can achieve jhāna because of the immense mental purity it requires.

Samatha: Foundation for Insight

Like the Buddha, Ahba also teaches concentration as a prerequisite for insight.

To emphasize the importance of developing concentration before developing insight, Ahba gives the example of a body:

If you have a dirty body, full of scabs, pustules, blood and deformities, and you hang jewels around it, for example a necklace and earrings, is it suddenly a beautiful body? No! If you have a clean body, completely clean, no spots or deformations, soft and supple, but without jewels, is this then a beautiful body? Yes! Suppose you hang hewels around this beautiful body, does it then become even more beautiful? Yes! It’s the same with concentration and insight. Without concentration, the mind is like a dirty body on which you try to hang jewels with vipassanā. The clean, clear, pure and workable concentrated mind is like the clean body, for which the jewels of insight are truely fitting.

Ahba thus follows the gradual path of morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā), with other word the Noble Eightfold Path as it was also taught by the Buddha.

At the teacher’s instruction, if the concentration is good, vipassanā (insight) can be practiced without difficulty. Because then the foundation is very good, vipassanā is easy and the acquisition of wisdom happens on it’s own.

Without concentration, the practice of vipassanā is meaningless.

Concentration works directly against desire. If the mind is concentrated then there is no desire, and it is desire that stands at the source of all our suffering.

The idea that a road is the “quickest” fits modern man. The development of the mind through meditation, however, has no quickest way.

The Buddha taught the way of morality, concentration and wisdom, and it is not possible to just skip the part of concentration because we think we no longer need it.

The development of the mind requires patience, dedication and effort, but every step is one.

Whomever wonders if Ahba is the only one who speaks out against the development of insight without concentration could for example read the texts by great meditation masters and teachers like Ajahn MunAjahn SaoAjahn ThateAjahn ChahAjahn Sumedho or Pa-Auk Sayadaw.

Without morality no concentration, without concentration no wisdom, without wisdom no further development of morality and concentration.

There is no ‘quickest’ way.

This text was previously published in Samatha Meditation: Foundation for Insight.

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Buddha, Dhp 276