Samatha vs Vipassana
Samatha meditation and Vipassana meditation are two mind cleansing methods that the Buddha taught. However, these two practices are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Samatha can be considered the first level of Vipassana meditation and also a good starting point for newcomers to Buddhism.
Generally speaking, Samatha focuses on a single concentration point while Vipassana has multiple focus points for concentration. Because strong concentration is a crucial element of meditative practice, logically it is best to begin with single point before advancing to multiple point concentration.
Additionally, Samatha is the Pali word for “tranquility meditation”. This is the mental state where pure calmness, serenity and tranquility are achieved. This is only possible with unhindered mental concentration which is the objective of practicing Samatha.
In contrast, Vipassana builds on the foundation of this concentration to reach insight knowledge. As a result, a successful Vipassana practitioner can achieve the understanding of the true laws of nature anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (non self). However, we must first master the art of concentration before realizing insight knowledge. Thus, Samatha meditation is the best starting point for Buddhist meditation practice.
How to Practice Samatha Meditation
The general characteristics of Samatha meditation are very similar to Vipassana. In fact, if you saw someone meditating it would be very difficult to tell which method they were using. The reason is that the difference is mostly mental and it exists inside the mind of the practitioner.
As previously mentioned Samatha uses a single point of concentration. This single focus point most commonly used is respiration (anapanasati). As a result, while meditating you will focus on the air as it passes in and out of your nostrils. This is very subtle and it is important to be very perceptive and notice the nuances of this air passage. For example, focus on the upper lip as the air passes over it or the inner edge of the nostrils.
While practicing Samatha meditation you remain focused on that single point for your entire session. If there is any disturbance such as thoughts, noise, smell or physical sensations then you must block it out and only concentrate on the single point of focus. This is the crucial difference of Samatha vs Vipassana because Vipassana will focus on on multiple points.
Additional Samatha Meditation Focus Points
Although using your respiration as a focus point for Samatha practice is the most common, it certainly is not the only method. In fact, Buddha taught that there are 40 points of concentration which can be used. They range from physical sensations (rupa) to mental images (nama). Alternatively, some meditation teachers may suggest the recollection of the Buddha’s attributes (buddhanussati bhavana) or loving kindness meditation (metta bhavana).
One interesting method that was taught by Sayadaw Pannananda was to draw a circle in the dirt (floor) about 1 foot in diameter. Additionally, around the edge of the circle use different colors that make the circle stand out from the surrounding area.
Sit in your meditation posture about 4 feet away from the circle. It is important to sit the appropriate distance away from the circle in order to form the appropriate mental image. At the beginning of your meditation session look at the image with open eyes. When you have a firm mental image of the circle then slowly close your eyes and use the image as your focus point for meditation. If the mental image begins to fade, then open your eyes and refresh the image in your mind. Repeat this process as necessary throughout your Samatha meditation session.
As a result, you will gain strength in your concentration and this will enable you to focus for longer without having to refresh the mental image. When you advance to Vipassana practice this will be a very useful tool! In fact, without a solid foundation of concentration skill it would be very difficult to achieve insight knowledge which is the objective of Vipassana meditation.
Benefits of Samatha Meditation
As your mind reaches a state of uninterrupted concentration you will experience a calming sensation. This is possible because you have blocked the defilements out of your mind for an extended period of time. Buddhists call this sensation jhana (absorption level). Mentally and psychologically, this is the equivalent of breathing pure oxygen. This will greatly enhance your mental health and could even evolve into supernatural powers.
However, in order to permanently extinguish the mental defilements one must advance to the practice of Vipassana meditation. Only through the realization of insight knowledge can one understand the true laws of nature and reach the ultimate goal of nibbana.
Talks on Meditation given in the Blue Mountains by Venerable Chanmayay Sayadaw
Meditation Course for Beginners by Sayadaw U Pannananda