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Vipassana and samatha

In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses vipassana and samatha.
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So it has become rather commonplace in discussions of Buddhist meditation today to draw a distinction between two basic kinds. The first is often describe as concentration or single-pointed, or sometimes calm-abiding meditation. This is what we usually mean when we use the Pali term samatha. The second is most often referred to as insight, or sometimes clear seeing meditation. And this corresponds more or less with the Pali term vipassana. For various reasons the practice and accomplishment of mindfulness today is usually associated with vipassana, and sometimes exclusively with vipassana. Is that the cultivation of Sati, which we considered in the last session, is entirely different from the development of single pointed concentration.
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Now while this division between concentration and insight is convenient and helps us to understand two different trajectories in the style, tone, and purpose of meditation, it’s not clear that samatha and vipassana are really so simply or crisply distinct. Once again, this is a distinction that we might see in terms of ideal types rather than actual practices. We imagine the possibility of pure samatha, pure vipassana practices precisely so that we have a clearer image of particular tendencies rather than because such purity is possible. Likewise, the assertion of a direct or exclusive association between Vipassana and the cultivation of Sati appears to be more problematic in practice than is often appreciated.
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One of the reasons for this is that the Satipatthana Sutta, which we considered in the last session, makes little attempt to draw a distinction between concentration and insight. The idea of two separate paths of meditation seems to arise in the commentaries and interpretations of the Sutta, rather than in the Sutta themselves. There appear to be at least two ways in which concentration and insight interact with and rely on each other in the cultivation of Sati in fact. The first is simply that our ability to hold an event or sensation in mind, seems to rely on our capacity for focus and concentration on that event or sensation.
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Perhaps you’ll remember from the last session that the Satipatthana Sutta called on us to be ardent and disciplined about keeping our attention properly located. Indeed, the way in which our insight into what arises in moments of mindful awareness seems to rest upon our capacity for concentration. This is one of the reasons why some commentators suggest that mindfulness is a form of wisdom or transformative knowledge, or paññā, that builds upon meditative concentration, or samadhi, as a more advanced stage of practice. Whatever the case, it does seem to be plausible that the cultivation of Samatha, or concentration, will enrich deepen our capacity for Sati, and our practice of vipassana as well.
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The second way in which these paths seem to interact places them on more equal footing, making them into two aspects of a common enterprise. For instance, it seems to be the case that the practice of the four foundations of Sati that we considered in the last session can themselves constitute a form of concentration meditation, leading to a state of calm abiding. That is, just as in the performance of Samatha meditation, the cultivation of mindfulness might be measured by a progressive accomplishment of the forward Dhyana, or stages of absorption, that lead eventually to a condition of perfect equanimity and awareness. But what does this mean?
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In more simple terms, it means that the cultivation of Sati enables the possibility that whatever we observe arising into our awareness in our bodies, in our emotions, our minds and so on. Whatever we observe arising, can itself become the focus of a single pointed calm abiding form of meditation within the context that the practice as a whole. For instance, you might perform a mindfulness of body exercise and notice the arising of the sensation of pain in our knee.
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Having noticed all the various ways in which this sensation ripples out into other thoughts and feelings, this very experience of pain might then occupy all of your attention in deeper and deeper ways until this quality of absorption acts transformatively to bring about a form of awakening. In some traditions, this idea that mindfulness of the body can contain within it a complete pathway to awakening is extended into the performance of practices like yoga or qigong. And is then even connected with the accomplishment of magical or yogic powers, such as levitating and flying, walking on water, and so on.
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In other words, in practice, it’s not clear that the cultivation of Sati relies exclusively on vipassana practice, nor that vipassana and Samatha can be differentiated In absolute terms and practice. Instead it might be helpful to recognize that these concepts emerged in a period of pre-sectarian Buddhism, before many of the commentaries and interpretations of different emergent schools and sects began the formal work of building distinct traditions that we can see today.
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An important modern tradition that’s been extremely influential in the development and popularization of mindfulness around the world has been the so-called vipassana movement, or insight meditation movement, which originates in the work of two Burmese teachers in the mid 20th century and is now the basis of many teaching centers in the USA and elsewhere. Leading voices in the west would include Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg. And it is the language of this movement that has most powerfully sculpted the contemporary discourse about mindfulness. And its moved the idea of a vipasana practice closer to the model of an ideal type. In brief, this approach emphasizes the cultivation of a form of non-linguistic noting of mental events as they arise.
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Encouraging practitioners to experientally narrate each element of their experience as it happens. While the vipassana movement has not gone as far along the road to instrumentalization as what we have seen with construct mindfulness, it has moved in a non-sectarian direction, and is frequently associated with the provision of secular mindfulness training. The general populations who are seeking help to deal with various forms of dukkha or dis-ease. Indeed the vipassana movement allows for a difference between elementary mindfulness, which approximately corresponds with a cultivation of a secular skill or technology, and a more religiously motivated right mindfulness, which locates such cultivation in the context of the eight full path, as we saw in the last session.
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This potential distinction between elementary and right mindfulness really helps us to understand one of the ways in which construct mindfulness differs fundamentally from Buddhist Sati. While Buddhist Sati must be embedded with an overall practice that moves progressively through the cultivation of proper moral conduct, the cultivation of deep states of meditative absorption, and then the accomplishment of a wise understanding of the nature of reality. Indeed these are the three broad-brush stages of the Eight fold Path. Construct mindfulness posits that the practice of mindfulness can be extracted from this overall pathway and cultivated on its own with the number of measurable benefits.
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One of the other ways in which the contemporary scientific construct and mindfulness seeks to position itself and its complicated landscape is by emphasizing the possibility of making use of the ideal type distinctions between samatha and vipassana to indicate a certain tone of practice. That is MBSR and MBCT interventions, typically invite practitioners to adopt an open and permissive attitude to the arising of sensations and mental events. While there is a concerted effort when our attentions wanders to keep bringing it back to whatever it is we intended to observe, our body, sounds, thoughts or whatever, this effort is colored with the warmth of an invitation rather than a command.
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Hence construct mindfulness is often characterized in terms of opening to whatever is present and allowing whatever arises to arise. And it’s in this way that practitioners can be told that we’re not doing anything wrong and certainly not failing in the practice if our minds wander off, the practice resides in inviting the attention back once it’s gone. An MBSR and MBCT the importance of insuring the vulnerable populations are not exposed to a new set of reasons to feel like failures is itself one of the reasons for interpreting mindfulness in this way. In this particular context, the idea of samatha meditation is sometimes used as a foil to emphasize the appropriate attitude for construct mindfulness.
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Unlike mindfulness we say, which is characterized by an attitude of allowing an opening, concentration meditations are characterized by a feeling of narrowing and closing. Rather than being gently curious about whatever arises, and then compassionately attentive to this arising of myriad events, concentration meditations or so we’re told, are about commanding the attention, and excluding distractions. In a concentration practice, once your mind wanders, you failed, and you must start again. A very simple example that’s often used to make this point is breath counting, in which we focus our attention on our breath and count these breaths in cycles of nine.
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If and when our mind wanders from our breath, distracted by a sensation or a thought or a feeling that may arise, then we must start again at one. The idea is that we can measure our progress very directly, and quite literally, by seeing how many counts we can do before we fail. This means someone who gets to nine four times in a row, is better at the exercise than someone who struggles to get to the number two, even once. And as we’ve seen, this kind of attitude of competitive measurement and striving is exactly the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid in modern mindfulness interventions.
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However, we’ve also seen that these kinds of characterizations of samatha and vipassana are close to being caricatures developed for reasons of illustration.
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So now that we have a sense of the meaning of Sati, or Buddhist mindfulness and its relationship with two major approaches to meditation practice, vipassana and samatha, or insight and concentration, in our next session, we’re going to take a look at how different Buddhist traditions, for instance, Zen, might help to understand each of these a little more deeply.

In this video, I explore vipassana and samatha.

Does samatha or vipassana appeal to you? Perhaps you are more comfortable with one than the other? Perhaps you view them as inseparable in some instances? How might you relate these two concepts to your practice this week?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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