The Schools of Buddhist Meditation
Buddhist meditation is primarily comprised of two meditation techniques known as samatha and vipassana.* However, the two methods will produce different results. Nonetheless, they are both valuable tools that will help to purify the mind. As a result, it is prudent for practitioners of Buddhist meditation to be familiar with both methods. Additionally, they are mutually inclusive and can support each other by strengthening concentration.
Focus and Benefits of Samatha Meditation
Samatha meditation requires using a single point of concentration. Three common points of focus include: 1) respiration (anapanasati) 2) recollection of the Buddha’s attributes (buddhanussati bhavana) or 3) loving kindness meditation (metta bhavana). Samatha can best be described as calmness or tranquility meditation. This is because maintaining a deep state of concentration results in peace of mind. Therefore, successful samatha meditation requires the practitioner to block out all arising phenomenon other than their single focus point.
As a result, practitioners can achieve two levels of concentration:
Upacara Samadhi – it is a state of concentration that is near the level of absorption. Here the mind is completely focused and concentrated on the object. It is described as a “sleep like state”. However, single point concentration must be maintained or it is lost.
Appana Samadhi – the practitioner has now achieved absorption level concentration and is completely immersed in their solitary point of focus. It is described as a sensation that transcends deep sleep and the mind has entered a state of tranquility.
As long as the meditator maintains uninterrupted concentration on the single focus point they will remain in a state of mental tranquility.
Description and Benefits of Vipassana Meditation
In contrast with samatha, vipassana meditation takes on multiple points of concentration. As a result, it is only possible to achieve upacara concentration levels. Therefore, the mind does not become immersed in the temporary state of tranquility associated with appana samadhi. However, the benefits of vipassana are long lasting and potentially eternal. This is because vipassana meditation seeks to extinguish the mental defilements Buddhists believe lead to suffering (dukkha).
Vipassana refers to realization and achieving the right understanding of existence. This means that the meditator seeks to realize the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of all mental and physical phenomenon. As a result, phenomenon will be seen with right understanding and they will not arise to become a being or self. This leads to everlasting peace of mind and ultimately can result in enlightenment.
The practitioner takes a primary concentration point which is usually the rising and falling of the stomach during regular breathing. However, when mental or physical phenomenon arises such as a sound or a thought, the practitioner does not block it out. Instead, vipassana meditation practice requires that the practitioner observe all mental and physical phenomenon as they arise. The objective is to note the phenomenon immediately, then observe it until it fades away. By seeing the phenomenon in its true nature (impermanent, unsatisfactory, selfless) it conditions the practitioner to react in a wholesome manner when objects arise in real world situations. As a result, it is possible to permanently delete the defilements (kilesas) that plague human existence.
The Buddha Identified 10 defilements:
- Lobha – all forms of lust, greed, craving, desire, attachment or grasping
- Dosa – anger, hatred, ill-will and aversion
- Moha – ignorance or delusion
- Mana – conceit
- Ditthi – wrong view
- Vicikiccha – skeptical doubt about the triple gem (Buddha, Sangha, Dharma)
- Thina-middha – sloth and torpor or mental sluggishness
- Uddhacca-kukkucca – restlessness or distraction and remorse
- Ahirika – moral shamelessness
- Anottappa – moral fearlessness
Inclusive Nature of Buddhist Meditation
Indeed, sometimes Buddhist meditation teachers encourage including samatha techniques with vipassana practice. Especially at the outset of vipassana practice, samatha techniques such as buddhanussati will hone concentration. This is in addition to walking meditation prior to the start of sitting meditation. The objective is to prepare the meditator for complete immersion in vipassana meditation practice. The venerable meditation master Chanmyay Sayadaw compared beginning vipassana practice without preparation to starting a car with a weak battery. It is very difficult to get going when you start cold!
Additionally, as you are immersed in vipassana meditation it is quite possible to slip into the deep state of concentration known as appana samadhi.** This situation is possible when there is no arising phenomenon other than the primary focus point and the practitioner can become acutely focused on the abdomen. As a result, the practitioner will experience the impermanent sensation of appana samadhi. However, eventually new phenomenon will arise. The vipassana practitioner will then follow the new object and return to the primary focus point after it fades away.
*This post presumes that walking meditation is a variation of vipassana or samatha
**This is my own observation from novice meditation experience, therefore it should be taken with a grain of salt.
Talks On Meditation Given In The Blue Mountains By Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw