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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana

General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana

Alexander Berzin
May, 2001

Mental Stability in the Context of Bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is a principal awareness (gtso-sems) that is focused on our future enlightenment and is accompanied by two intentions (‘ dun-pa):

  1. to achieve that enlightenment,

  2. to benefit others as fully as possible by means of that attainment.

Bodhichitta has two phases, differentiated by the manner with which it pays attention (yid-la byed-pa) to its object, our future enlightenment:

  1. aspiring bodhichitta (smon-sems, wishing bodhichitta),

  2. engaged bodhichitta (‘ jug-sems, involved bodhichitta).

Aspiring bodhichitta pays attention to our future enlightenment as a goal that we wish or aspire to reach. Its two stages are:

  1. the merely aspiring state of aspiring bodhichitta (smon-sems smon-pa-tsam), which pays attention to our future enlightenment merely as the goal we wish to attain,

  2. the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta (smon-sems dam-bca’-can), which pays attention to our future enlightenment as a goal we pledge never to abandon until we reach it.

Engaged bodhichitta pays attention to our future enlightenment as a goal that, in order to attain, we fully engage ourselves in the practices that will bring us to it.

Developing engaged bodhichitta entails taking the bodhisattva vows and engaging in bodhisattva behavior (byang-chub-gyi spyod-pa, bodhisattva conduct).

Bodhisattva behavior entails acting at all times with the six far-reaching attitudes (phar-phyin, Skt. paramita, perfections). The fifth of them is mental stability (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana, Jap. zen, “concentration”).

Mental stability is both emotional and mental. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhicaryavatara), the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva emphasizes that with mental stability, the emotions remain stable, without going up and down. Consequently, the mind remains undistracted by thoughts, meaning thoughts brought on by disturbing emotions and attitudes.

There are several levels of stable mind (the various dhyanas), differentiated according to the presence or absence of the mental factors of gross detection (rtog-pa), subtle discernment (dpyod-pa), feelings of happiness (bde-ba), and feelings of equanimity (btang-snyoms).

The attainment of mental stability and the various levels of stable mind are not unique to Mahayana. The Hinayana paths have them as well. Moreover, the practices for attaining them are not uniquely Buddhist either. Non-Buddhist schools in India also teach methods for achieving the various dhyanas.

Therefore, for mental stability and the higher states of concentration, such as shamatha and vipashyana, to be Buddhist, we need to practice and apply them within the context of taking a safe direction in life (taking refuge). For them to be Mahayana, we need to practice and apply them within the context of bodhichitta.

Different States of Concentration

To gain mental stability, we need to improve concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi). The term may also be translated as “mental fixation” or “mentally fixating.” Concentration or mental fixation is the abiding of the attention either on a specific object or in a specific state of mind, such as love or anger.

According to the fourth- or fifth-century Indian master Vasubandhu’s Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharma-kosha), some level of mental fixation accompanies each moment of our experience. When perfected, attention stays focused on its object without moving and is completely clear and alert. In other words, it is totally free of flightiness of mind (rgod-pa) and mental dullness (bying-ba), and cannot be distracted by anything. This level of mental fixation is called absorbed concentration.

When absorbed concentration focuses on the four noble truths, or more specifically on a lack of an impossible “soul” (bdag-med, identitylessness, selflessness) of persons (gang-zag) or of phenomena (chos) – whether conceptually or nonconceptually – it is called total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise).

During a meditation session, immediately following a period of total absorption on the lack of an impossible “soul,”, when concentration focuses on persons or phenomena being like an illusion, it is called subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, subsequent realization, post-meditation). Subsequent attainment cognition may sometimes continue while meditating on other topics and even in between meditation sessions.

The Five Obstacles to Concentration

Improving our concentration requires working to eliminate the five obstacles to concentration:

  1. mental flightiness and regret (rgod-’gyod),

  2. ill-will (gnod-sems),

  3. foggy-mindedness and sleepiness (rmugs-gnyid),

  4. intentions to experience desirable objects (‘dod-la ‘dun-pa) (the mind goes in that general direction),

  5. indecisiveness (the-tshoms).

The five can be summarized by mental flightiness (rgod-pa) (a subdivision of distraction or mental wandering) and mental dullness (bying-ba).

Shamatha: A Stilled and Settled State of Mind

Shamatha (zhi-gnas, calm abiding), a stilled and settled state of mind, is more than just absorbed concentration. It is not merely a state of mind stilled of the obstacles to concentration and settled single-pointedly (rtse-gcig) on an object or in a particular state. In addition, it has a further mental factor (sems-byung) accompanying it: a sense of physical and mental fitness (shin-sbyangs, pliability, flexibility).

A sense of physical and mental fitness is the mental factor of feeling totally fit to do something – in this case, remain totally concentrated on anything. It is both exhilarating and blissful, but in a nondisturbing way.

Of the two main types of meditation, discerning (dpyad-sgom, analytical meditation) and stabilizing (‘ jog-sgom, fixing meditation), shamatha is an example of the latter.

[See: Discerning and Stabilizing Meditations (Analytical and Formal Meditations).]

As a side product, shamatha brings extrasensory awareness (mngon-shes, advanced awareness), such as the ability to see and hear things at a great distance and to be aware of other’s thoughts. In Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Lam-sgron, Skt. Bodhipathapradipa), the late tenth-century Indian master Atisha emphasizes the importance of gaining these abilities to be better able to help others.

Vipashyana: An Exceptionally Perceptive State of Mind

By itself, shamatha does not have the mental factor of subtle discernment (dpyod-pa, scrutiny, analysis). Subtle discernment is an active understanding of the fine details of the nature of something, having scrutinized them thoroughly. It does not imply verbal thinking, although it may be induced by verbally thinking. Thus, of the two main types of meditation, discerning and stabilizing, vipashyana emphasizes the former.

When, on top of shamatha, the mental factor of subtle discernment and a second sense of physical and mental fitness are present, the state of mind becomes vipashyana (lhag-mthong, Pali: vipassana, special insight), an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. The additional sense of fitness is the sense of feeling totally fit to discern and understand fully the subtle details of anything. Vipashyana is not necessarily focused on voidness or on the four noble truths, although most commonly in sutra it is.

If a state of mind is one of vipashyana, it is pervasive that it is a state of the joined pair: shamatha and vipashyana (zhi-lhag zung-‘brel). In a joined pair, one of the items – in this case, shamatha – is attained first, and then the second item – in this case, vipashyana – is joined to it. Therefore, although we may work on vipashyana before attaining shamatha, we cannot actually attain vipashyana without having first attained shamatha.

[See: The Relation between Shamatha, Vipashyana, and Stabilizing and Discerning Meditations.]