"On peut, sans imprudence, discerner dans les sources Bouddhiques deux théories opposées…la théorie qui fait du salut une oeuvre purement ou surtout intellectuelle; la théorie qui met le salut au bout des disciplines ascétiques et extatiques."
-Louis de La Vallée Poussin in "Musila et Narada: le chemin du Nirvana".
"Prepare to die!" said one martial monk to a Daoist shaman. The Daoist replied "while my body may perish, my heart/mind (xin) will return to haunt you." The antagonistic monk then rebutes: "You are about to painfully learn that mind and body are in fact one, and one is all; only the dharma (fa) can save you from all." While this scene from a seventies Chinese martial arts movie might at first glance seem trivial and misplaced in an academic paper, its underlying tension actually betrays a debate that has persisted for ages in circles concerned with Buddhist meditation. The Cartesian cleavage is cliché, nonetheless, it parallels a similar discord, some might say opposition, between the meditative disciplines of samatha ("calming", "quiescence" or "stilling") and vipassana ("discernment" or "insight").
The Buddhist path (maggo) is traditionally divided into three components, namely moral discipline (sila), meditative concentration (samadhi), and insight (panna). On the level of a binary division, the path consists of techniques that are geared towards stilling the mind (by means of controlling the body) and techniques that aim at providing an intellectually intuitive discernment of things as they truly are. The former refers to samatha, which regroups sila and samadhi, while the latter is labeled as vipassana under which falls panna. Samatha and vipassana are ingredient to all Buddhist meditation practices, however, divergences in opinions arise when one approach is given primacy over the other. Certain methods of meditation are based on the contention that samatha induces, and is a prerequisite to vipassana, while other methods are founded on the opposite claim. It is on the premise of these two discordant views that seemingly contradictory methods of meditation arise within Buddhism, and that the following question is raised: is liberation a matter of mediative knowledge or ascetical purgation?
1. Towards an Intuitive Liberation
Under the rubric of ascetical purgation, one might find it hard to avoid the topic of jhana meditation. The jhana("absorption") method of meditation disproportionately emphasises samatha and requires the practitioner to allot much time to its development in order to prepare one for vipassana. It is said that this is the method of meditation that Sakyamuni himself had followed leading up to his enlightenment. The Samannaphala Sutta provides a concise description of the Four jhanas as examples of advantages to be gained from living one's life as a samanna. The text also supplies a sequence of events that lead one to samatha:
That bikkhu who clearly sees that the five hindrances have been got rid of becomes gladdened. This gladness gives rise to piti (delightful satisfaction) and the delighted mind of the bikkhu generates calm. The bikkhu who enjoys calmness experiences sukha (bliss). Being blissful, his mind gains concentration [samatha] (from Samannaphala Sutta 107).
After having completed the Four jhanas and focused his mind, the practitioner then proceeds to develop "Insight-Knowledge" (vipassana nana):
When the concentrated mind has thus become purified, pellucid, unblemished, undefiled, malleable, pliable firm and impertutbable, that bikkhu directs and inclines his mind to Insight-Knowledge (vipassana nana).
Therefore, as the sutta relates, the development of jhana is a prerequisite to the practice of vipassana. In this sense, some might argue that samatha soteriologically supersedes vipassana for it consists of a more basic and foundational practice. Gethin relates of a method of meditation that requires samatha at the outset and then develops insight; eventually, the intellectual effort which insight meditation requires incurs an intuitive serenity that is akin to that of samatha, thus coming full circle back to quiescence (188).
According to Buddhaghosa, the samatha or "one pointedness of mind" achieved through jhana is designed to exclude unwanted stimuli from awareness to a degree in which all sensory input, perception and cognition are halted (Griffiths 607). This state is commonly called sanna-vedayita-nirotha, the "cessation of cognition and sensation" or nirodha-samapatti, "the attainment of cessation". Thus, the state in question and the meditative practice that leads one towards it acts primarily psycho-somatically rather than intellectually. Indeed, the hierarchical stages of consciousness that comprise this method are progressively devoid of intellectualism or cognition. Furthermore, jhana practice is said to induce a cataleptic trance or ecstatic state far from any intellectually interpretable experience.
In fact, attainment of sanna-vedayita-nirotha is explicitly denied to those (even arahants) who uniquely practice insight meditation (vapassana) and are consequently afflicted with a "sterile and dessicated intellectuality" (Griffiths 608). Nevertheless, the majority of documents on the matter testify that samatha is most prized for its complementary qualities rather than being the sole road to enlightenment. Almost apologetically, texts and commentaries attempt to place samatha on equal footing with insight, and some even struggle to supersede the former to the latter. Never is vipassana completely abandoned for the benefit of uniquely practicing quiescence.
2. Towards a Cognitive Liberation
In meditative practices, the sati (mindfulness) method counterbalances the jhana method by emphasising the import of insight meditation. This discipline intends to develop insight into the nature of the universe as it really is. In other words, insight meditation is designed to develop an extensive and precise discursive awareness about things as they allegedly really are. Griffiths further points out that this method of meditation is an intellectual fusion of reality and Buddhist concept by which doctrine tells the practitioner how to view the world until he or she is convinced that the world is thusly viewed; it is, in his words, "a continuous attempt to internalize the categories of Buddhist metaphysics and make those categories coextensive with the way one perceives the world"(613). Insight, or mindfulness remains essentially discursive, intellectual and verbalised. As Gimello notes, there is nothing ineffable about wisdom for a Theravadin practitioner (from Griffiths 614). Sensation, cognition and intellection are developed in order to understand the world through specific (Buddhist) discursive categories. Conversely, in jhana practice, the same faculties are gradually atrophied until the last stage, where they are completely done away with. Therein lies the fundamental contradiction between samatha and vapassana, and thus, the problematic at hand.
According to Cousins, the Niddesa implies that jhana practice is intended only as a means to prepare the mind for cognitive understanding (117: 1973). For Buddhists, it is not a goal in and of itself. The Mahasatipatthanasutta purports that enlightenment can be attained through mindfulness alone, without the antics involved in samatha (Griffiths 115). In this context, stillness or concentration meditations are performed as preliminary limbering-up exercises for the mind in the service of the wider goal of insight. It is possible to embark upon insight practice without ever entering dhyana. Furthermore "if dhyana practice is undertaken, it will be necessary to return therefrom in order to develop insight (Cousins 123: 1973). Many contemporary masters such as Walpola Rahula or Nyanaponika Thera (102), as well as Theravada orthodoxy in general, seem to agree that concentrative meditation is not necessary for spiritual attainment while insight is. Nyanaponika Thera argues that mindfulness meditation is, as expounded in the Mahasatipatthanasutta, "the Sole Way" (ekayano maggo) and constitutes the "heart of Buddhist meditation" (7).
3. Like two wings of a bird.
"There are no bonds for one detached from conceiving. There are no delusions for one freed by wisdom."
-from the Mahanirdesasutta
Although, the more vituperative supporters of one tradition or the other might be more extreme in their claims, it is generally agreed that Buddhism views both methods of meditation as necessary, or in the least valuable. The differences are in part attributable to matters of degree (or proportion) and in part to questions of the order of development (Cousins 116: 1973).
In canonical literature, it is said that those who practice concentrative meditation are "those who live having touched the deathless sphere with the body". Those who follow a more scholastic approach to enlightenment are "those who, penetrating by means of wisdom, see the profound goal" (from Griffiths 616). Both are valued in different ways because of their distinct soteriological ends and methodologies. In the Nikayas they are contrasted more elaborately; at A I 61 it is said that samatha leads to the development of citta, which leads to the abandoning of desire (tanha) by means of the heart. Vipassana on the other hand, entails the development of wisdom followed by the abandoning of ignorance (avija) through the liberation of understanding (from Cousins 59). At A II 157, Ananda speaks of ways by which arhantship is attainable. The first path brings into being insight preceded by quiescence (samatha); the second brings into being quiescence preceded by insight; and the third brings into being peace and insight "yoked as a pair" (from Cousins 60). Regardless which is preceded by which, all approaches are equally justifiable. Later canonical texts and commentaries such as the Patisambhidamagga, however stress the idea of both approaches being "yoked as a pair."
Works including the Petakopadesa and the Nettipakarana also heuristically connect samatha and vapassana with desire and ignorance respectively (Cousins 61). In these texts, a person's predisposition to practice one or the other type of meditation is explained on the basis of one's character-type or original nature. However, as it is reiterated once again in the Majjhima-nikaya, "both for one who brings into being insight preceded by peace and for one who brings into being peace preceded by insight, at the moment of transcendent path peace and insight are yoked as a pair" (from Cousins 63).
Hence, the binary opposition that underlies samatha and vipassana can be superimposed onto another radical tension in Buddhism, namely that between desire (tanha) and ignorance (avija). In the classic enumeration of the Four Truths, desire is identified as the root of all suffering. Much in the same way, ignorance is singled-out as the root cause of the chain of becoming in the standard formulation of the paticca-samuppada. Concentrative meditation is the ideal remedy to the suffering that desire occasions. Samatha rids the mind of all emotional and intellectual contents, eventually culminating in the "supreme desirelessness of the deathless realm, the nibbana-in-life which is the complete cessation of cognition and sensation" (Griffiths 619). Analogously, insight meditation is the perfect antidote to the chain of becoming, since vipassana results in clarity of knowledge about the universe and thus deposes ignorance.
The parallelism between samatha and tahna on one hand, and vipassana and avija on the other, is also echoed in canonical texts:
What is the result, O monks, of the development of tranquility [samatha]? The mind is developed. What is the result of a developed mind? Passion [tahna] is abandoned. What is the result, O monks, of the development of insight? Wisdom is developed. What is the result of the development of wisdom? Ignorance is abandoned (AN 1.61 from Griffiths 619).
Conclusion: Yoked as a pair
The cleavage that has grown between samatha and vipassana in Buddhist theory of soteriology and meditative practice is one that has stricken the very proponents of various meditation methods, (such as jhana or sati) with tribal zeal and factionalist impulse. While the tradition has in some instances relatively subordinated concentrative meditation to insight mediation, it has nevertheless maintained that both approaches to the path are congenital to liberation. In order to sabotage the inherent contradiction that arises as a result of the juxtaposition of samatha and vipassana, some texts and scholars alike have opted to superimpose the distinction and parallel it to that between desire and ignorance. Both desire and ignorance are root causes of what Buddhism strives to eliminate, in this case, suffering and the chain of being. When, conceptually connected to tahna and avija, it becomes clear that both samatha and vipassana are equally indispensable and work in complement to each other, albeit at different levels; the disposal of both ignorance and desire are paramount and one would be hard pressed to attribute priority to one over the other. Potentially, samatha and vipassana could be conceived of as identical practices applied to different categories. Hence any attempt to divide or contrast them is a liable to be construct of the overly analytical and obsessively divisive mind of the academic or theoretician. Some contemporary meditation masters might argue that categories and words are ultimately meaningless, or as the belligerent monk from the Chinese movie would caution "You are about to painfully learn that mind and body are in fact one, and one is all…"
Cousins, L.S. "Buddhist Jhana: Its Nature and Attainment According According to the Pali Sources," in Religion 3 (Autumn 1973): 115-131.
Cousins, L.S. "Samatha-Yana and Vipassana-Yana," in G. Dhammapala et al. eds. Buddhist Studies in Homour of Hamma Lava Sadhatissa,(Nugegoda 1984): 56-68.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Griffiths, Paul. "Concentration or Insight: The Problematic of Theravada Buddhist Meditation-Theory," in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion XLIX (1981): 605-624.
Nyanaponika (Thera). The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (Satipatthana): A Handbook of Mental Training based on the Buddha's Way of Mindfulness. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1996.
----. Samannapahala Sutta (Discourse on the Fruits of the Ascetic Life), in Digha Nikaya (The Collection of Longer Discourses). Bibliotheca Indo-Tibetica Series XII: 73-154.