The term, samatha, (or shamatha) is often translated as ‘peaceful abiding’, or ‘tranquillity’, or sometimes as ‘concentration’. It is one of the two forms of mindful meditation practiced in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. The other is, vipassana, that is, ‘insight’, or clear awareness of what is happening moment-to-moment. The Buddha considered these two aspects or qualities of mind as being essential to a strong, effective and enduring practice. Samatha enables us to steady, unify and concentrate the mind, and vipassana enables us to contemplate clearly and objectively the fluid and interwoven structures of our experience.
In practice, samatha usually involves bringing the mind to rest on one phenomenon and not allowing it to wander. The breath is often used as the focus of attention, but the focus may be a repeated phrase or chant, or it may be an image, or even a candle flame. The key factor is that there is a clear focus of attention – everything else is considered as a distraction and when the mind wanders or loses concentration, the meditator comes back to this single focus. In this way concentration and mental discipline are developed. If practiced with patience and care, samatha meditation gives rise to a state of mental quietness, calmness and tranquillity.
In vipassana, the meditator uses the skill of concentration and single-mindedness to gain insight into all aspects of experience – opening awareness to the whole field of consciousness (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, etc). Vipassana involves ‘bare attention’ – that is a non-discriminating awareness of the whole field of experience without adding commentary or reactive responses to our perceptions, thought and feelings. We simply attend to them as they are – stripped of the usual habits of reaction, commentary and judgement that obscure, entangle and weigh them down. In this way we gain insight into who we are and how the world is – a coming to understanding that is liberating and vitalising.
It’s important to note that the Buddha doesn’t refer to samatha and vipassana as two independent forms of meditation, but rather as two qualities of mind to be developed through meditation.
In the various Zen/Chan traditions, while zazen may involve concentration on the breath, this is usually combined with the practice of open bare attention to all that arises: shikantaza or ‘just sitting’. Establishing and maintaining a correct posture could be considered as a form samatha – as it provides an important focus of attention and concentration; likewise with koans, which become a single point of attention for the zen practitioner. However, in most Zen schools and traditions, samatha and vipassana are considered as different aspects of one meditation practice.
Developing the skills of concentration, focus and single-mindedness, are vital elements of effective Buddhist practice – counter-balanced by the development of non-acquisitive attentiveness, letting-go and non-dwelling mind.