Shamata & Vipashyana

Notes From: Rinpoche, K. T. (2018). The Practice of Tranquillity & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation [Kindle Android version].

While the subject of Vipashyana and Shamata meditation has been discussed on this site in other posts, this discussion will relate to another work by the same author (Thrungpa Rinpoche.)

The Goals of Meditation

It occurs to me that the goals of meditation have not yet been discussed.  I’m quite certain that everyone has some concept of what meditation is.  They might not have a fully flushed out view of it, perhaps they have toyed with some form of meditation.

Meditation is a practice found in every part of the world today.  In the West, forms of meditation are now used to help people achieve goals in business, sports or relationships.  Yet this was not the goal 3,000 years ago.

Historically meditation was a method for stabilizing the mind, in order to traverse spiritual states.  In some cultures these states were gateways into other realities (God realms, or death realms.)  Other cultures, used meditation to invoke altered states of consciousness in order to make contact with departed loved ones.

Many faiths have a strong focus on meditation (Sufism, Kabbalah, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.)  The goals of these religions was not in establishing communication with the dead, or gaining some success in this physical life.

While these religions differ in focus and attention to how the specifics of meditation are performed, the goals have some overlapping qualities:

  • Quiet the mind of surface thoughts
  • Overcoming ethical problems (hate, anger, lust, desire)
  • To move beyond an ego based identity
  • To experience true reality
  • Experience something vast (God or Directly experience emptiness)
  • Enlightenment (spiritual perfection)

Why Meditate?

If you are unsure why one needs to meditate, you are not yet ready to meditate.  If you are hungry for an antidote to your problems, or you want to find peace or bliss, or you desire to see things as they really are, then meditation is your driving focus.

As cultures began to mix across the world, the Western nations discovered Eastern meditation had qualities that enabled them to achieve mental clarity.  This wasn’t always a goal of spirituality.  Business owners found they could remain calm in the face of adversity, warriors found they could kill more effectively if their mind was calm and athletes discovered they had more success in winning if they contemplated the outcomes mentally.

It’s not my role here to say the above approaches are incorrect.  They may all have validity to one degree or another.  The point I’m making is that these physical based results are simply side-effects of the real medicine.  The West gets occupied with the side-effects far too often.  People don’t want to believe that “reality” isn’t real, or that death is constantly stalking them.  Instead they wrap their minds in tapestries of fantasy and escapism.  They seek after money, relationships and constant distractions.  These things are not necessarily bad, but they are sometimes over emphasized to the degree of strangling out spirituality.

We meditate, to find answers.  To find freedom.  We meditate to discover our true nature and our role in this form of existence.  You might gain some paranormal experience, but if the experience points only to your limited self identity, it isn’t the goal, but simply a side-effect of the work.

Limited Self

I won’t get too deep into this concept, as it’s discussed throughout this site.   Each of us carry with us a sense of “self.”  Eastern religions have a lot to say about this.  Hindu gurus (i.e. Yogananda), for example, says that the “ego” is the “self identified with the human body.”  Buddhism talks about the lack of “self” in any real form.

The error of identification with the human body, is that it makes us crave and repulse things.  We become centered around our specific body, and often become selfish and arrogant.  Anger, hate, racism, bigotry, lust, crime – all of these things relate to identification to this small sense of self.

At times our sense of self will expand and include our new car, our new house, a spouse, children or our parents.  Some may expand to include their race as their identity and others to their nation.  Few go beyond this degree of “self.”  These are all limitations that grossly affect their view of the world.

The real danger of a “limited self” (ego), is that when one attempts to qualify something greater (such as God), the attributes put upon God tend to reflect the nature of the zealot.  If the zealot is angry and hateful, then God too is angry and hateful.  This isn’t reality. This is simply someone thinking they found God, when in truth, they just picked a speck of God and mixed it with their own false identity.

Escaping this false sense of self is accomplished through meditation.  That’s why I’ve taken the time to reiterate the dangers of the ego and limited self identification.

Meditation Styles

There are many different ways to meditate.  Shamans around the world (from various cultures) tend to use visual based meditations.  These are rather like daydreams (or nightmares, depending on the goal.)

Sufi forms of meditation made use of physical movements to twirl and spin around and enter into an altered state of mind… to help get them “out of their selves.”

Other meditation styles focused on a lack of anything to attach to.  No visuals.  No images.  No sounds.  Simply, mindful of their breathing.

Shamata & Vipashyana

For this particular article, the focus will be on two forms of Buddhist meditation: Shamata (sometimes spelled differently, as Samata) and Vipashyana (also spelled Vipasyana.)

In the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu these two forms of meditation are quite important.  Modern Kagyu Buddhists (such as Thrangu Rinpoche) have written (or lectured) countlessly about these meditation practices.  These two meditations are a foundation starting point for further depth into the nature of mind, emptiness and enlightenment.

This post will not get into specifics of the meditation practices.  That will be covered in the next post.  For now, let’s discuss the differences of these meditations and what they hope to accomplish.

Thrangpu Rinpoche often breaks these two types of meditation into single words:

  • Shamata = Stabilizing Meditation
  • Vipashyana = Insight Meditation

The two meditations are actually used together in the Kagyu lineage practices.  Shamata calms the mind and prepares it for Vipashyana.

To simply attempt Vipashyana without Shamata, the mind would be chaotic and ego identification might influence one into odd states of mind.  To only do Shamata might keep a person calm and happy, but they wouldn’t have any insight into reality or their nature.    So both are used to cut through the chaos and find truth.

Lesser and Greater Views

In the Hinayana paths these meditations are practiced in order to find happiness, peace, ethical solutions (overcoming problems), and gain special qualities or states.

The Mahayana paths treat these meditations as steps to enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings: That is to say, to become a Buddha, to free all beings of delusion.

Both views are right, they differ only in scope.

Shamata

The Shamata form of meditation is specific to one-pointed meditation.  The mind is focused upon an object.  At first distractions and thoughts will arise (“I’m hungry,” “do I need to wake my wife now?”, “when I get to work I must call the boss first…”)  These thoughts are endless.

However, as the mind is brought back to the object of meditation, the thoughts start to shut down.   Another way to work these thoughts, is to observe them.  To ponder, “where did this thought come from? where does it go?”  That too will cause the thoughts to vanish.

When distracting thoughts are gone, there’s a moment of “oneness,” where the meditator feels alive.  Not alive in body alone, but a spiritual aliveness.  Something deep and profound, and difficult to put into words.  Hence the need for direct experience.

Objects of Meditation

Thrangpu Rinpoche says that the first object one might attempt could be something you look at.  A rock perhaps.  Something simple, without complexity.

As one can hold the object without distraction, they can then attempt to hold the image of a deity or guru.  These are more complex and require more effort to keep thoughts at bay.

Other schools would employ the watching of breath.  This can be done by simply being aware of the in-breath, its conclusion, the out-breath and the repeating of the cycle.

Another breathing exercise, is called Vase Breathing.  In this practice, one is aware of their breath as they pull it in, filling a space under their navel.  They hold the breath there, and then gently release it, repeating the cycle.   Vase breathing is structured and controlled, whereas observing the breath is without control (just observing natural breathing.)

Visualized Objects

Unlike the observed objects, one can later attempt holding the image in their mind.  Thrangu Rinpoche explains that it isn’t necessary to hold the image in perfect clarity (like a photo), but to hold the mind still and stable:

So you shouldn’t have the expectation of visualizing the deity as clearly as if you were actually looking at a picture of the deity. You should not be concerned with the clearness of the image because the purpose of meditation is not to get a clear image, but to focus the mind on the image so the mind will become still and stable. – Thrangpu Rinpoche

In this stage of visualizing objects (instead of looking at an external one), the meditator may visualize the object above, infront or that they themselves are the object.

An example might be the image of the Buddha.  One could visualize the Buddha resting at the top of their head, in front of them, or that they themselves are the Buddha.

Nature of Things

Shamata meditation deals with external objects, then it works with visualized/internal objects and finally the 3rd stage of focus is the nature of things.

If you’re going to visualize yourself as the object, I recommend also attempting to feel what it’s like being the being.  “What does it feel like to be the Buddha?”  Embody that feeling. Rest in that feeling.  Be the Being.

This is where you rest in the essence of the object of meditation.

Stages of Shamata

I’m not certain that this type of dissection is of much use to meditators today.  However, the classic way to think about these meditations is in different stages.  Depending on the lineage, one may know of 4 or 9 stages of Shamata.

The four kinds of Shamata are:

  • Stable and Peaceful Shamata (Desire Realm Shamata)
  • Mental Stability & Bliss (Dhyana or Form Realm Shamata)
  • Everything Disappears (Formless Realm Shamata)
  • Mind Cessation (Cessation Shamata)

Thrangpu Rinpoche discusses 9 stages of Shamata that break down into these four categories above.  I’ll only mention the breakdown, if you want to delve deeper into these descriptions, I suggest you buy his book (linked at the top of this article):

  • One stage in the Desire Realm category
  • Four stages in the Form Realm category
  • Four stages in the Formless Realm category

For me, I find (at least for now) this method of dissecting and counting pieces of an experience to be very distracting.  But others might find it useful.

Vipashyana

Shamata holds the mind to a stable state.  In this state, one can contemplate clearly the nature of things.   All things are seen as distinct with great clarity.  This is insight into reality (or Vipashyana.)

Once stable in mind, the meditator can then pull themselves into a state of contemplation.  They might pull up a memory of a racist thing they once said, or the hate they had for someone else, or perhaps lust and addictions.

Such a practice is not to enthrall one into the same state again – it should not happen if the Shamata stabilization was good.   These old feelings or thoughts can be analyzed to the point of oblivion (literally.)

By asking questions of the thought or feeling, it will disperse and we should gain some insight into its nature:  “Where did this thought/feeling come from?”  “Where is it now?”  “where does it go?”  “Does it have a color, or taste or smell?”  “Does it feel?”  “What does it feel like to be it?”

Subtle Airs

Another concept that might be knew to Western meditators, is the Tibetan idea of subtle air.  Similar in concept to the air you breath (gross air), there is subtle air movements they believe to ride subtle channels in our body.

These subtle aspects correlate to the body and how it should be held.  In some cases the hands are placed in a specific mudra, the spine is straight so the central channel moves the subtle air without restriction, etc.

In short, this reiterates the need for good posture:

  • Either sit on a cushion in lotus/half-lotus posture OR sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Your spine should be straight, and if you’re using a chair you should keep your back away from touching the back of the chair (as it will distract.)
  • Hands can be folded in your lap, left hand holding/cupping the right hand (palms up), thumbs touching.
  • Your tongue should touch the roof of your mouth (this helps one not to accumulate too much saliva.)
  • Chin should be pointed slightly downward.
  • Eyes should be cast downward, focusing on a space four fingers (or so) from your nose – basically just focusing on the air beyond your nose.

The Basics

The above material covers the basics of what Shamata and Vipashyana is about.  Why one meditates and why one would attempt these specific forms of meditation.

Greater detail on how to do use these meditation styles will be covered in another post.