Samatha is a state of mind characterized by concentration, one-pointedness and undistractedness. It is a practice of mental concentration leading to tranquility through ridding of mental defilements (desire, ill-will, etc.). It is one of the two branches of mental development (bhavana) and it ultimately leads to mind absorptions (jhana).
Samatha meditation employs concentration on objects, ideas, images – things that are external to the body, and so is concerned with the universe outside, made for us through name-calling, designation, conceptualization (concepts, pannatta).
Vipassana, on the other hand, is the penetrative understanding by direct meditative experience of the three basic characteristics (ti-lakkhana) of all phenomena of existence (that is of all living beings) … namely,
unpleasantness (dukkha); and
Vipassana meditation uses the power of concentration (samadhi) on sensations within the body and so is concerned with the universe within as it is in their essentiality beyond the realm of concept. It purifies the mind to enable it to gain insight (panna) leading to knowledge of the way (magga). It is the main branch of mental development (bhavana) to attain Nibbana.
The first essential equipment of the yogi is a concentrated mind. For only a concentrated mind is a cleansed mind. And only the mind which is cleansed of the five elements (nivarana) of sensual lust, ill-will, torpor, agitation and doubt can function properly to realize vipassana insight.
For the initiation of the cleansing process, the normal everyday mind requires an object to grasp. These objects can be of two types: external to the body-mind system of the yogi (that is outside of the yogi’s body) or belonging to it. Those objects which are external to the yogi belong to the environment, the universe, such as kasina discs, corpses, or the food which he eats daily. Those objects which belong to the body-mind organization of the yogi are his body and his thoughts. Any of these can be taken as an object of meditation to establish concentration.
Kasina discs can be employed as objects of meditation. The yogi takes, let us say, a coloured disc or spot and places it at an appropriate distance, about the length of a plough-pole. He sits down with legs crossed under him, faces the disc and holding the body erect, he gazes on the disc with eyes opened neither too wide nor too narrow. He lets his mind dwell with earnestness on the disc in order to gain fixity of mind. He does this until at last, even with closed eyes he perceives a mental reflection of the disc. This is the acquired image, uggaha-nimitta. As he continues to direct attention to this image, there may arise the spotless counter-image, patibhaga-nimitta. This counter-image appears together with the mind. If he wills to see it far, he sees it far. If he wills to see it near, to the left, to the right, within, without, above and below, he sees it accordingly. After acquiring the counter-image, the yogi protects it with reverence through constant endeavour. Thereby he acquires facility in the practice, and after due practice he gains neighbourhood concentration, upacara samadhi. Fixed meditation, jhana, follows neighbourhood concentration. The kasina exercises produce the four stages of fixed meditation/absorption (jhana).
Likewise he can practise the earth kasina, the water kasina, the fire kasina and so on. One of the benefits acquired through the ardent practice of the earth kasina is that a man, acquiring supernormal power (abhinna), is able to walk on water just as on earth. If he gains supernormal power through the practice of the water kasina, he can bring down rain or cause water to gush from his body. If he gains supernormal power through the practice of the fire kasina, he is able to produce smoke and flame.
But somehow it is not easily possible to acquire these powers in our day. Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw once said that the times were no more opportune. One might be able to gain attainment concentration (appana-samadhi) through the practice of the kasina, but the supernormal benefits of the practice can hardly be acquired. Let us say that one practises the earth kasina exercise. He gains mastery of the signs, the nimitta. Let us say he goes to a pond and seating himself near it he arouses in himself the elements of the earth kasina. Then looking upon the water of the pond he endeavours to turn them into earth so that he may walk upon them. He will find at the most that the water thickens to a slushy earth which cannot uphold his feet when he attempts to walk upon it. Perhaps yogis in other countries have done better, but it may be taken as a general rule that the acquisition of the total benefits of the kasina exercise is difficult to achieve in our time.
Another set of objects of meditation can be the loathsome ones, the corpses, or death, marana-nussati. These exercises are not without their risk as may be recounted in an anecdote of the Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw and a monk. The monk was in the habit of crossing the creek which separated the monastery from the burial grounds to meditate on corpses. One morning, the Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw met him as he was setting out to meditate for the day. The Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw smiled at him and said: “The anapana breathing exercise is free of dangers.” The monk did not act on the suggestion but continued in the practice of gazing on corpses. One evening, he returned to his cell. As he opened the door and looked inside, he gave a yell of terror. He had seen a corpse lying on the threshold. Actually that corpse was only the acquired image of his object of meditation. When the Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw heard the story, he smiled and said: “Anapana is free of dangers.”
All four are present in every material object, though in varying degree of strength. If, for instance, the Earth element predominates, the material object is called ‘solid’, if Water element predominates, it is called ‘fluid’, etc.
The yogi grasps the elements briefly and in detail through consideration and reflection. But as will be noticed through a recounting of the essential natures of the four elements, they are difficult to distinguish within the body, they are hard to grasp directly; they have to be approached indirectly, through repetition by word of mouth of the essential characteristics and a forcing of understanding of their nature. This understanding normally takes place first in the realm of concepts. And a yogi who arrives at such an understanding is often led too much to believe for himself that this is the peak requirement of the practice. This is not true, of course. The understanding that is required is not of the elements as it is made and designated for us through naming them, but of the elements as they are in their essentiality, as they are in themselves. And this, their nature, is beyond the realm of concept and logical thought.
“O monks, just as a skilled butcher or butcher’s apprentice, after having slaughtered a cow and divided it into separate portions, should sit down at the junction of four highroads: just so does the disciple contemplate this body with regard to the elements.
“To the butcher, who rears the cow, brings it to the slaughter-house, ties it, puts it there, slaughters it, or looks at the slaughtered and dead cow, the idea ‘cow’ does not disappear as long as he has not yet cut the body open and taken it to pieces. As soon, however, as he sits down, after having cut it open and taken to pieces, the idea ‘cow’ disappears to him, and the idea ‘meat’ arises. And he does not think: “A cow do I sell” or “A cow do they buy”.
“Just so, when the monk formerly was still an ignorant layman, the ideas ‘living being’ or ‘man’ or ‘individual’ had not yet disappeared as long as he had not taken this body, whatever position or direction it had, to pieces and analyzed it piece by piece. As soon, however, as he analyzed this body into its elements, the idea ‘living being’ disappeared to him, and his mind became established in the contemplation of the elements.”
The postures of the body can be good subjects leading to the proper establishment of concentration. The yogi attempts to be mindful of walking, standing, sitting, lying, bending, stretching, eating, drinking, chewing, savouring, defecating and urinating. The postures are dynamic, the going-on of the process is unmistakable, and when the postures are really grasped for what they are, the mind can be considered to be pretty well cleansed. However, the yogi should consider whether the postures serve better as the primary object of meditation, or as a secondary one to be taken up in those moments of comparative relaxation when the primary object is being set aside for a while.
All of those mentioned are proper objects of meditation. They are all contained either in the list of forty subjects of kammathana or in the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, most of them in both. They all lead the yogi towards the establishment of concentration, some more, some less. The yogi may legitimately employ them to gain the concentration he needs. But perhaps it would be a wise approach for the yogi to seek to employ and practise that exercise which will lead him all the way to the final goal he seeks. That goal is liberating vipassana insight knowledge.
Now, there are two forms of the practice of mental culture, bhavana; samatha leads to calm and tranquility and vipassana leads to intuitive knowledge of the true nature of phenomena and consequent liberation. Samatha is concerned with the universe, the outside world, as it is there for us; vipassana is concerned with the universe within as it is in its true self.
Since the realm of samatha is the universe outside as it is for us by way of naming them, by means of conceptualization, the objects of meditation which lead to samatha are accordingly those objects which we have made and conceptualize for ourselves. The kasina disc is something we have made for ourselves. The thought of the loathsomeness is something we have brought up in ourselves. The stability of earth, the cohesion of water, the hotness of fire and the easy movement of air are qualities of the four elements of nature which have been conceptualized by us to help us in comprehending and understanding them. Even the thought of walking in the fact of walking, the thought of bending in the fact of bending, the thought of touching in the fact of touching are ideas which we have created in our minds so that we can better get at the actualities, the postures as they are, we hope.
But whatever the universe outside makes for us leads to samatha; whatever artifact we construct, whatever idea, image, thought or concept we create leads to samatha. There is nothing wrong in samatha in itself. The practice of samatha is legitimate; there are many reasons why it should even be recommended. Only, samatha is not vipassana.
Therefore, he who would gather the fruits of samatha may practise samatha, but he who wishes to gather the fruits of vipassana will have to practise vipassana. This he will have to do sooner or later, either after the practice of samatha or directly by selecting an exercise which sets him up at once on the high road to vipassana. Whether he wishes to practise samatha now, or to switch to vipassana later, or alternatively to take up the practice of vipassana immediately is a matter of personal choice. And I as a practician of vipassana would not be too eager to prompt him on that choice. Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw once said: “Man does what he likes to do, and the doing of what he likes does not bother him.
Questions arise: if we normally conceptualize the four elements of nature to grasp them, to understand them, if we commonly make thoughts about walking, bending and touching to help us get at them better, if our minds are ever so prone to create images and ideas, can we possibly attempt to get at processes as they are in themselves? Is it not necessary that we handle the processes with the gloves of concepts and ideas? This is the answer: if it were true that it is necessary to handle the processes with the gloves of concepts and thoughts, and that processes can never be got at directly, then there can be no path to freedom and no liberating knowledge. But because it is possible to get at processes directly as they are in themselves, there is vipassana and the winning of intuitive liberating knowledge.
Let us take an exercise, in-breathing and out-breathing, (anapana). It is said to be a suitable exercise for all types of personalities. If a man practises mindfulness of respiration he attains to a peaceful life. He causes evil and demeritorious states to be overcome. His body and mind do not tremble. He fulfils the four foundations of mindfulness (satipatthana), the seven enlightenment factors (bojjhanga) and realizes wisdom (magga) and freedom (vimokkha). Anapana had been practised and highly recommended by the Blessed One, Lord Buddha. Furthermore, anapana is said to be unadulterated, not requiring addition to make it complete. This exercise may be practised in the samatha way or performed so as to realize vipassana straight away.
Breathe in and out. As the breath goes in and out, it will touch the nostril tip or upper lip or some other place within that region. Fix the mind on that point of touch; count the in-going and out-going breaths. This is one method.
Noting the breath (as either short or long)
Following the breath (as either in or out)
Breathe in and out again. Fixing the mind on the point of touch of breath, follow the breath in and out. In doing this, the breath should not be followed into the pit of the stomach or out into the beyond. The breath body should be experienced as either going in or out. This is the third method.
The vipassana way
Breathe in and out. Fix the mind on the point of touch of breath. Be aware of the touch. Do not count, do not know the degree of length, and do not follow the breath in and out. Just be mindful of the touch sensation without forming any thoughts whatsoever.
In the first method, there is counting. Numbers are concepts.
In the third method, the going in and out of the breath is noted. This is achieved through the creation of an idea. Concepts, images and ideas are things that we have created for us and therefore are concerned with samatha.
Only the fourth method where the touch-sensation alone is taken in its bareness performs the vipassana practice as this is non-conceptual. Yet even this practice can be adulterated with samatha. If instead of being aware of the touch in its bare actuality, if instead of guarding this awareness with mindfulness, the yogi makes a mental note of it; then for that moment he has slipped into the old habit of forming a concept or an idea and therefore he practises samatha instead of the intended vipassana.
Mental noting tends to take place at a much slower pace than the actual processes of phenomena. Thus, instead of being able to take these processes as they are, it tends to keep slipping into a past where the processes are reconstructed by an intervening reasoning mind. To be able to keep up with the natural processes, the yogi needs only be mindful. This is not difficult to perform. The initial requirement is awareness. Be aware of the touch of sensation or mental phenomenon. Then ward and watch this awareness with mindfulness. When the awareness is guarded with mindfulness, thoughts are locked out; they cannot intrude. No opportunity is offered for the formation of concepts, images or ideas. Thereby the processes are got at directly in the very moment of occurrence, as they are in themselves without the distortion of thought. This is true practice.
Thoughts always tend to intrude. Ideas and images stand just beyond the threshold, ready to enter at the least weakening of mindfulness. The only way to keep up with the processes, to be mindful of them, is to exercise vigilance through a rigour of effort.
That is why the motto of Sunlun Gu-Kyaung Sayadaw had always been: