Practice of Śamatha

Meditation | Tibetan MastersKhenpo Pema Vajra

English | བོད་ཡིག

A Clear and Concise Description of the Practice of Śamatha

by Khenpo Pema Vajra

Homage to the guru!

I prostrate to the buddhas and their bodhisattva heirs, who, like a sun of Dharma,
Dispel entirely the darkness of confusion among beings of the three realms,
With the brilliant rays that shine from the sun of their perfect wisdom,
Drawn by the chariot-like winds of their great compassionate love.

This is the lineage of the Lion of the Śākyas, the supreme sage,
The three scriptural collections, a perfect path of unerring teachings,
Brought together into an approach a single practitioner can follow
And put into practice, in the tradition of the wise and learned masters.

I will now in brief describe the way to take up this noble path,
Which takes as its foundation moral discipline that is perfectly pure,
So that on the basis of supremely peaceful, one-pointed concentration,
One may gain the supreme wisdom, entirely free from any flaw.

Any intelligent individual with a sincere wish to pursue liberation must take up the only genuine approach that can bring this about, the precious teaching of the buddhas. The way these teachings are taken up is as follows. First one must rely upon an exceptional and learned spiritual friend as a guide, and through studying his or her instructions, cut through any misconceptions about the three sections of the scriptures. Then one must apply the three trainings in higher realization to one’s own mind and put them into practice in the sequence described by the great master Vasubandhu:

Observing discipline, and having heard and contemplated the teachings,
One applies oneself intensively to meditation.[1]

As this says, at first one must practise ethical restraint through the pure moral discipline of renunciation, which is the foundation of all qualities, and then through study and reflection on the stages of the path to be practised, one thoroughly trains one’s mind and embarks upon the actual path of meditation itself. Regarding the main practice of the path, the glorious Nāgārjuna said:

Without meditative concentration, there can be no wisdom,
And without wisdom, there can be no meditative concentration,
So by taking up these two together, the great ocean of saṃsāra
Becomes inconsequential, like a drop of water in a hoof-print.

As this says, through the approach that unites meditation and wisdom, or śamatha and vipaśyanā, one is able to find liberation from the ocean of saṃsāric existence and progress along the path of peace. The logic behind this and the sequence in which they are to be practised is explained by Śāntideva:

Knowing that the mind’s afflictions are overcome
Through penetrating insight suffused with stable calm,
You should first seek the peace of calm abiding,
Which is found in joy and non-attachment for the world.[2]

As this says, unless one has the stability of the mind of calm abiding, one will never gain the wisdom of vipaśyanā, so in the beginning one must cultivate śamatha. When doing so, first one develops the ‘one-pointed mind of the desire realm’ in which the grosser level of thoughts and distractions related to the level of the desire realm are all pacified. Then one gradually accomplishes the four dhyāna meditations corresponding to the levels of the form realm and the four absorptions of the formless realm. These nine stages corresponding to the nine levels of the three realms are known as ‘worldly meditations’ or ‘childish concentrations,’ and they provide the foundation for the supermundane path. Then there is the absorption of cessation, which is attained only through the supermundane path, and is added to these eight form and formless absorptions, to make nine in all, known collectively as ‘the nine successive absorptions’, because they must be entered sequentially, one after another.

This is the actual main practice of meditative concentration or samādhi. In addition, there are also the common samādhis, such as the three liberations, ten totalities, eight spheres of dominant perception, five supercognitions and so on, which are developed with a mind of the form and formless stages through specific mental activity on the various levels. One should know that all the samādhis of the supermundane path in general and those of the noble bodhisattvas in particular—the illusion-like samādhi, warrior-faring samādhi, vajra-like samādhi and so on—as well as mnemonic retention, confidence and all the infinite gateways to liberation, are nothing other than variations of the samādhi in which śamatha and vipaśyanā are united.

Once these general points have been understood, we come to the actual instruction on how to meditate. Leaving busyness and ordinary interaction behind, in a solitary environment, begin by generating a mind of renunciation and bodhicitta. Then visualize in the sky before you all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, and once you have performed the seven branches as a means of purification and gathering the accumulations, pray one-pointedly that you may develop pure samādhi. Then adopt the correct posture, sitting up straight on your seat, in the full or half vajra posture, or however is most comfortable, with your hands resting in the posture of equanimity, with a gentle and evenly balanced gaze, and so on. Then examine your mindstream very carefully: if you notice any strong thoughts or emotions that prevent your mind from resting in stillness—feelings such as desire, anger, malice, pride or confusion—then apply the appropriate antidote, such as meditating on unattractiveness, love, compassion, analyzing the psycho-physical elements (dhātu), interdependent origination, the inhalation and exhalation of breath and so on, in order to make your mind more workable. Then, when the mind is ready to focus on its particular object, you can begin the actual practice of śamatha meditation.

The traditions based on scriptural sources and the pith instructions mention countless methods of meditation, but here let us follow the classical sources and mention first of all the nine ways of resting the mind in order to accomplish the one-pointed mind of the desire realm.

The Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras says:

Placing the attention on an object of focus,
Remain with that and do not be distracted.
Quickly recognizing distraction whenever it occurs,
Settle the mind on its object once again.

Increasingly, those with intelligent minds,
Should gather and focus their attention.
Then, in order to experience real qualities,
Mind must be controlled in samādhi.

Seeing the disadvantages of distraction,
Dislike for meditation is pacified.
Covetousness, mental discomfort and so on
Are pacified in the same way.

The diligent practitioner settles the mind
With some application of effort.
Finally it happens naturally and spontaneously,
Through familiarity, without applying effort.

As this says, you place your attention one-pointedly on a given object of focus, and remain with single-pointed attention focused on the clear image that arises in the mind. Then you sustain this image continually, without becoming distracted by anything else. Whenever any distraction does occur, however gross or subtle, you should recognize it immediately with watchful awareness, and settle the attention once again on the object of focus. Not being satisfied with some slight stillness of mind, you have to eradicate even the most subtle tendency towards distraction, and rest in one-pointed concentration. If you experience fatigue and lack of enthusiasm for samādhi, then reflect on the qualities of the buddhas and bodhisattvas in general, and in particular the qualities such as the supercognitions and miraculous abilities which arise through the power of samādhi, and generate enthusiasm for the practice. Should you begin to take pleasure in busyness or anything that is not conducive to stillness of mind, reflect on the faults of samsara in general and especially the faults of losing your way and remaining in your ordinary state. Recognizing the faults of distraction and busyness, pacify the mind’s excitement. Whenever any states of mind which prevent samādhi, such as covetousness, mental discomfort, excitement, regret, sleepiness or lethargy, malice, longing for objects of desire, hesitation and so on arise, pacify them by applying an appropriate antidote. You will extend the period of stillness in this way, yet as long as there is still some concern about dullness or agitation arising in the mind, and the need to deliberately apply an antidote, that is still the eighth stage of resting the mind. When there is no longer any need to apply an antidote out of expectation or concern regarding something to be abandoned or its remedy, and you can remain spontaneously in a state of stillness for as long as you wish, that is the ninth stage of resting the mind, the one-pointed mind of the desire realm. This is genuine śamatha, but if you still do not have the bliss of physical and mental pliancy, you have not yet reached the actual preparatory stage for the dhyāna meditations.

Once pliancy is attained, there is a foundation for developing the wisdom of vipaśyanā. This is the preparatory stage which is known as ‘the capable stage.’ At this point, there are seven mental processes through which the main part of dhyāna meditation is accomplished.

Firstly, there is the mental process of precisely discerning characteristics, in which one understands the positive and negative qualities of the three realms and their respective causes, the mental afflictions of the different levels of existence as well as the special qualities of dhyāna meditation.

Secondly, there is the mental process of conviction, which is the confident belief arising out of this meditation that the flaws of the lower levels should be discarded, while the qualities of the higher levels should be attained.

Then, the mental process of thorough separation involves discarding the coarser type of thoughts that should be abandoned by applying the antidote to the mental afflictions of a lower plane of existence.

When one is freed from these mental afflictions of a lower stage, one attains the joy and physical wellbeing of mental and physical pliancy, and this is known as the mental process of gaining joy.

The mental process of examination means that while the mind is abiding at a particular level, the mental afflictions of the level below should not arise, and so one deliberately focuses on a given object and carefully examines the mind, abandoning any afflictions that do develop.

The mental process of the culmination of engagement is the unimpeded path during which the antidote that overcomes the subtle mental afflictions of the lower level arises in the mind.

The mental process of the result of the culmination of engagement is the path of total release, at which point there is no longer any need to apply an antidote, the mental afflictions of the lower level having been totally eradicated.

This is how the mind of the main dhyāna practice is accomplished.

The first dhyāna level which is accomplished in this way has five features: conception, discernment, joy, physical wellbeing and samādhi.

The second dhyāna, which is even more peaceful, has four features: the perfect clarity in which conception and discernment have been relinquished, joy, physical wellbeing and samādhi.

The third dhyāna, which is more peaceful still, has five features: equanimity in which the concept of joy has been abandoned, mindfulness, watchful awareness, physical wellbeing and samādhi.

The fourth dhyāna, which is called the ultimate dhyāna because it is yet more peaceful, has four features: the neutral sensation in which the sensation of physical wellbeing has been abandoned, mindfulness, the mental formation of equanimity, and samādhi.

That is just a brief description of the four dhyānas. I have not mentioned here their particular characteristics in detail, nor have I gone into the ways of meditating on the formless absorptions, for fear that this would make the text excessively long, and also because there seems little need for it. Those who are interested can consult the texts of the abhidharma or the prajñāpāramitā.

Whichever type of samādhi one is cultivating, the following factors are important to bear in mind. There are five faults related to meditation: laziness, forgetting the object of focus, dullness and agitation, not applying the antidote due to being too relaxed, and applying the antidote again and again because one is too tightly focused and not content simply to rest. The antidotes to these are known as the eight applications. Confident trust in the qualities of samādhi, the aspiration to attain these qualities, the consistent and dedicated diligence that these two inspire, and the blissful pliancy that develops as a result are the four antidotes to laziness. Mindfulness is the antidote to forgetfulness. Watchful awareness is the antidote to dullness and agitation. The antidote to under-application is to apply the antidote, bringing to mind the reasons for practising śamatha and vipaśyanā, as a means to overcome dullness and agitation, and equanimity is the antidote to over-application. It is through these that the mind of meditation is attained.

Once the mind of meditative concentration has been accomplished in this way, if one analyzes ‘the four gateways to the vision of reality’—the aggregates, psycho-physical elements, sense sources and interdependent origination—using the valid logic of ultimate reasoning, such as the analysis of neither one nor many, and then remains one-pointedly in the ‘non-finding’ of anything at all, that becomes the unity of śamatha and vipaśyanā, which is the great approach leading to the path of the noble ones and the complete uprooting of saṃsāric existence. Besides this, the various methods for practising śamatha and vipaśyanā connected with the profound pith instructions, whether the gradual approach or the direct ‘bypassing’ approach, should be learned only from oral instructions.

The entrance to the path leading to the peace of liberation,
Is the samādhi in which śamatha and vipaśyanā are united.
This clear and brief instruction on how it is accomplished
Was written and offered from an isolated practice hermitage,

By the buddhist monk named Pema Vajra,
To fulfil the wishes of the diligent yogini Wangmo.
Through this merit, may the realization of the paths and levels increase, And our own and others’ welfare be accomplished spontaneously!

May it be virtuous!

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2005.


  1. Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of Abhidharma), VI, 5.  ↩

  2. Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (Engaging in the Conduct of a Bodhisattva), VIII, 4.  ↩

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