The Need for Samatha

They say that nothing moves without intention. Before we begin a project, or a way of life, or meditation, we need to know its benefits. This comes first. Once we’re convinced of these, everything else follows naturally. It may take time, and effort, but when this much is clear, there’s an ease to it as well. To that end, I’d like to say something about the need for a certain kind of meditation, that is essential if we wish to receive the fruits of Buddhist practice…


The traditions of samatha or calm abiding meditation, and that of the jhanas are two sets of teachings that have come down to us, and that when practiced lead to our being able to have deeper, transformative experiences.

Geshe Gyalten Kunga defines it this way:

Calm abiding is the capacity of the mind to remain fully focused on the chosen object of meditation with clarity and stability, for as long as we wish, while experiencing the bliss of physical and mental pliancy. Once calm abiding is established, it is then utilized to achieve new levels of realization, in conjunction with other practices.

Both the Tibetan and Theravada lineages tell us that calm abiding meditation is common to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions, and that Buddhism uses this kind of mind to look deeply, to cultivate discernment, and to accomplish liberation from suffering and its causes. This is the aim of all Buddhist practice, although it’s not emphasized in modern day teachings.

The union of samatha and vipaśyana is the true antidote to all your suffering and problems.

– Geshe Sopa

It’s true that we can gain some relief from suffering, confusion, and despair through practicing ethics, metta loving kindness, and quiet sitting meditation, but the liberation the Buddha taught, that doesn’t regress, comes from deep and sustained meditation on the truth.

Scholars have the acquired intellectual knowledge of the means of liberation, and may even add to this body of knowledge, but the accomplishment of the teachings comes from their enthusiastic practice, and this means exactly this – with zeal, cultivating the qualities of calm abiding or jhana meditation, joined with insight.

What works for me is to think of these qualities, and to try to first identify and then to aim to develop them in my own experience. Rather than being distracted by trying to attain one or more of the different levels that are described in these methods, I find this to be more useful.

Some traditions present the teachings intellectually, which people first study then go and practice. Others say our meditation should come first, and only gradually should the ideas of past accomplished masters be introduced. Everyone is different, but the aim is the same for all of us: that of liberation from suffering.

If we have the intention to benefit ourselves and others, then shi-nay, or calm abiding is essential to accomplish all of our aims. Without it, we continue to manifest suffering, or else we still carry the latent tendencies in our mindstream for confusion and the afflictive emotions, of pride, jealousy, anger, craving, and despair.

Only shinay and lak-tong, the unified path of calm and insight remedy these on the deepest level.

Geshe Sopa said:

Only when samatha is firm and you cultivate vipasyana do you begin to remove the bondage of dysfunctional tendencies from the root.

And in his Lines of Experience, Lama Je Tsong Khapa wrote:

In a state of merely single-pointed meditative concentration,
you do not have the insight
that gives you the ability to cut the root of cyclic existence.

Moreover, without the factor of calm abiding,
wisdom by itself cannot turn back the delusions,
no matter how much you analyze them…

(therefore) the zealous have marveled
at the attainment of the union of calm abiding and penetrative insight.
Is there need to mention that you should pray to attain this as well?

Thinking over the benefits of calm abiding, again and again, is sure to produce the strong aspiration to practice these teachings, and its here that we see how every part of ourselves is involved in the great work of our own inner transformation, and our service to all our loved ones, and all beings.

Aspiring bodhicitta is the aim to realize the path so we can help others also to freedom, well being and joy. This naturally becomes Engaging bodhicitta, which is the actual practice of the Path – the Six Paramitas, of Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Effort, Meditation and Wisdom. This is where we find the seamless integration of hearing, understanding, and then gradually practicing the teachings on calm abiding, or the jhanas.

On relative levels, concentration empowers all virtuous activities. We can easily see how this works. When our mind focussed and clear, all that we would do in terms of spiritual practice is improved – all of our study, mantra recitation, and prayer, and all the ways we engage and benefit others is enhanced.

Samatha, it should then be known, is essential to accomplishing the great purpose, of our own liberation, and the realization that enables us to truly, and substantially help others.

It’s truly unfortunate that few people these days who encounter Buddhism will hear about samatha, or calm abiding meditation, and of those who do learn something about it, only a small number will take up its practice energetically, and gain the result. For some reasons, it’s not being emphasized, even when it is occasionally taught.

All the great benefits we can gain through Buddhist practice depend on deep and clear meditation, done patiently and diligently over time.

Without a great depth of realization, as it turns out, problems are endless, but the Buddha’s profound teaching – that he presented as The Third Noble Truth, that suffering can be brought to an end can be verified by each one of us. The path he outlined and that has been followed by two and a half millennia of realized men and women was that of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

How fortunate we are today, to have received these teachings, and to have the examples of our Noble, accomplished teachers! Without them, these teachings would be hard, or even impossible to understand. Their skill and compassion, and their dedication to realizing the teachings and guiding their students is truly moving.

May we all achieve the full result of Buddhist practice,
just as Shakyamuni and all of our Noble teachers have intended
May we all actualize the complete Path,
and may all beings benefit