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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > The Relation between Shamatha, Vipashyana, and Discerning and Stabilizing Meditations

The Relation between Shamatha, Vipashyana, and Discerning and Stabilizing Meditations

Alexander Berzin,
May 2002, revised February 2004

[For background, see: Discerning and Stabilizing Meditation, General Presentation of Shamatha and Vipashyana, and The Five Pathway Minds (The Five Paths): Basic Presentation.]

Logical Pervasions

Shamatha (zhi-gnas, calm abiding), a stilled and settled state of mind, emphasizes stabilizing meditation (‘jog-sgom, formal meditation). Vipashyana (lhag-mthong, special insight), an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, emphasizes discerning meditation (dpyad-sgom, analytical meditation).

If it is a state of vipashyana, it is pervasive that it is a state of the joined pair: shamatha and vipashyana (zhi-lhag zung-‘brel). It is not pervasive, however, that it necessarily has both stabilizing and discerning meditations.

We attain the joined pair: shamatha and vipashyana with an applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam, path of preparation), the second of the five pathway minds (five paths). With this pathway mind, the joined pair has simultaneous stabilizing and discerning meditations during both the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) and subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, post-meditation) phases of a meditation session.

According to the Gelug-Prasangika explanation, with seeing (mthong-lam, path of seeing) and accustoming (sgom-lam, path of meditation) pathway minds, the joined pair: shamatha and vipashyana has this combination only during the subsequent attainment phase. During total absorption on these two paths, the joined pair has only stabilizing meditation.

How are we to understand this?

Inferential and Straightforward Cognition

According to the Gelug-Prasangika explanation:

  • Inferential cognition (rjes-dpag) of an object, for example voidness, arises by directly relying on a line of reasoning. Thus, it is always a conceptual cognition (rtog-pa) of its object.

  • Straightforward cognition (mngon-sum) of an object arises without relying directly on a line of reasoning, although it may follow an initial phase of inferential cognition of that object. Depending on whether or not it cognizes its object through a conceptual category (spyi, universal) of it, straightforward awareness may be either conceptual or nonconceptual.

The appearing objects (snang-yul) of conceptual cognitions are always appearances of true existence. According to Gelug-Prasangika, except in the case of nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness, the appearing objects of all other forms of nonconceptual straightforward cognition also are appearances of true existence.

Subtle Discernment

A characteristic feature of discerning meditation is subtle discernment (dpyod-pa, scrutinizing). Subtle discernment is the mental factor of actively discerning and understanding the fine details of the appearance of an object, having scrutinized the object thoroughly. The appearances it scrutinizes and discerns the details of are appearances of true existence (bden-snang).

The first phase of a discerning meditation may involve inferential cognition with verbal thinking (which is always conceptual). When Western translations use the term analytical meditation for "discerning meditation," it gives the impression that this first phase of the meditation, inferential cognition, is the only phase. A state of vipashyana, however, whether or not directly induced by an inferential process, is straightforward cognition of its object. As such, it may be either conceptual or nonconceptual cognition of that object, according to the Gelug-Prasangika presentation.

  • If the appearing object of the state of vipashyana is an appearance of true existence, the vipashyana is accompanied with a mental factor of subtle discernment and thus has discerning meditation.

  • If the state of vipashyana lacks an appearing object that appears to be truly existent, the vipashyana is not accompanied by subtle discernment and thus does not have discerning meditation. Nevertheless, it has full understanding and deep awareness (ye-shes) of its object.

The Applying, Seeing, and Accustoming Pathway Minds

According to the Gelug-Prasangika explanation, with an applying pathway mind, the states of vipashyana (meaning the joined pair: vipashyana and shamatha) during both total absorption cognition of voidness and subsequent attainment cognition of all appearances to be like an illusion are conceptual straightforward cognitions. Prior to achieving an applying pathway mind, any conceptual focus on voidness, even with shamatha, begins with an initial phase of inferential cognition, which directly relies on a line of reasoning. Here, conceptual vipashyana on voidness is simply a straightforward cognition, which does not need to rely directly on a line of reasoning. In other words, we do not need first to go through a line of reasoning in order to ascertain (gain certitude of understanding) voidness. Nevertheless, the appearing objects during both total absorption and subsequent attainment are appearances of true existence and, consequently, both cognitions have a combination of discerning and stabilizing meditation.

With seeing and accustoming pathway minds, the states of vipashyana during total absoption cognition of voidness are nonconceptual straightforward cognitions, the appearing objects of which, are not appearances of true existence. Thus, these joined pairs of shamatha and vipashyana have only stabilizing meditation and no discerning meditation, because if it is discerning meditation, its object must be an appearance of true existence.

During the subsequent attainment phases of the seeing and accustoming pathway minds, the states of vipashyana are nonconceptual straightforward cognitions, the appearing objects of which, are appearances of true existence. The joined pairs, here, of shamatha and vipashyana have both stabilizing and discerning meditations, with subtle discernment that the appearances of true existence are like an illusion.

Summary

According to the Gelug-Prasangika presentation:

  • Discerning (analytical) meditation may or may not entail conceptual verbal thinking.

  • The combined pair: shamatha and vipashyana, even when nonconceptual, may or may not entail nonconceptual discerning meditation.

Because of these points, the translation term discerning meditation may be less confusing than analytical meditation.