How to Attain Samādhi via “Vipassanā Pubbanga Samatha” Bhāvanā

Sammā Samādhi (state mind to permanently remove “san“) requires comprehending the Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. That is possible only with vipassanā or “insight meditation.” However, Samatha (calming the mind) plays a critical role too.

Revised June 23, 2023; January 10, 2024

Anariya Bhāvanā Is Only Samatha Bhāvanā

1. Anariya bhāvanā methods (which include breath or repeated recitation of a passage, such as “May all beings be happy and healthy”) can suppress “sensual thoughts” (based on “kāma rāga“) and lead to mundane samādhi.

  • But the effects are temporary, as anyone who participated in meditation retreats knows; it feels really good at the retreat, but after returning and getting into the hectic everyday life, that feeling of calmness fades away with time.
  • Why is that? The reason is that our minds have deeply embedded “hidden defilements.” The above methods help them keep suppressed, so it feels like one has gotten rid of them.
  • Consider a glass of muddy water. If we let it sit for a while without disturbing it, the mud will settle to the bottom of the glass, and the water on the top eventually becomes relatively clean. Yet, if stirred with a straw, the mud will come back up, and dirty water can be seen. 
  • The mud at the bottom of a glass of water can be compared to “hidden defilements” in our minds. If the mind is not exposed to “attractive sensory stimulants,” the “mud” will settle down, and the mind seems clear and peaceful.
“Previously Unheard Teachings” of a Buddha

2. At the time of the Buddha there were yogis who had pushed such anariya Samatha Bhāvanā techniques to advanced levels and attained anarya jhānās

  • But the Buddha realized that such jhānās don’t have the “staying power.” They can be “broken” when a yogi is exposed to “attractive sensory inputs.”  Such “tempting sensory stimulation” trigger “hidden defilements” in a mind, as explained above with the analogy of a glass of muddy water. 
  • The Buddha showed those “hidden defilements” can be described in many ways. We will mainly focus on seven types of anusaya and ten types of saṁyojana. See “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma.”
Two-Step Process – Jānato Passato

3. As explained in #5 of the above post, the removal of anusaya or saṁyojana (“mud in a glass of muddy water”) requires comprehending “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.

  • That comprehension happens in a two-step process, which the Buddha called “jānato passato“: (i) First, one must be exposed to the above concepts from a Noble Person (Ariya.) That is the “jānato” step. (ii) Second, one must engage in vipassanā or “insight meditation” to fully comprehend those concepts (passato.)
Samatha and Vipassanā Both Needed

4. A calm, non-agitated mind is needed in both those steps of jānato and passato. That is why Samatha also plays a significant role.

  • A calm mind is needed to get an idea of a concept being explained, i.e, in the jānato step.
  • For that idea to “sink in” to the mind one needs to repeatedly think about those concepts and to see whether they make sense; that is the “passato” step and obviously a calm mind is needed there too.

5. The “Yuganaddha Sutta (AN 4.170)” explains different ways of removing anusaya (saṁyojana) and reaching Nibbana (Arahanthood.)

  1. Samatha pubbaṅgama vipassanā (Samatha preceding vipassanā)
  2. Vipassanā pubbaṅgama samatha (vipassanā preceding Samatha)
  3. Samatha vipassanā yuganaddha (both together)
  4. Dhammuddhaccaviggahitaṁ mānasaṁ (this is a special case of someone getting stuck at a higher level, but will eventually overcome difficulties)
Samatha preceding vipassanā

6. This first category above is likely to play a significant role early in one’s practice. To calm the mind, one needs to keep the mind away from attractive sensory inputs. 

  • If the mind is constantly distracted by an attractive sensory input, it moves away from “samatha.” That attachment is taṇhā.
  • If a mind is vulnerable to kāma rāga (for those with strong kāma rāga anusaya or kāma upādāna), it could be hard to get to “samatha.
  • The popular method used by non-Buddhists for “sensory control” is “breath meditation.” If you keep the mind on the breath, it cannot be attached to any other sensory input. However, that will not help with vipassanā at all.

7. Therefore, one must use “sense control” (i.e., not indulge in sensory pleasures all the time) and willfully decrease it first. In other words, one can get to “samatha” by keeping the mind away from attractive sensory inputs.

  • That will help calm the mind and help cultivate paññā (insight/wisdom) to some extent. This is the “Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā” sequence: sīla (moral conduct), samādhi (Concentration), and paññā (wisdom.)
  • Once paññā is cultivated sufficiently the mind will automatically switch to “Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi” sequence. This is where one gets to AriyaSamma Samādhi. Here, the cultivated paññā (with the comprehension of “distorted saññā”) can make a big difference in cultivating Samatha; see #8 below. 
  • This is explained in “Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā to Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi.”
Removal of Hidden Defilements Requires Vipassanā Bhāvanā

8. The “Samatha Bhāvanā” in (ii) and (iii) of #5 above is not an anariya Samatha Bhāvanā like “breath meditation.” Of course, such an anariya version could be useful in the early stages, especially while on the mundane eightfold path (the “Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā” sequence in #7 above.)

  • In the latter stages, the best way to calm a mind is to understand the concept of “distorted saññā”; see “Sotapanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā).” Once one understood the this concept, one’s cravings will diminish and it will be easier to get to Samatha
  • Of course, that requires some insight too. Thus, especially for those on the Noble Path, (ii) and (iii) of #5 are likely to benefit most people.

9. Thus, vipassanā becomes increasingly more important as one makes progress (especially after comprehending the concept of “distorted saññā.”) It will not be necessary to a separate “samatha bhāvanā.” 

  • At that point, the best is to keep the mind focused on a Dhamma concept, i.e., vipassanā. That way also, the mind can not attach to other sensory inputs and you will get both done (samatha and vipassanā.) 
Progress Will Strengthen Motivation

10. As you progress, your mind will gain calmness, a permanent relief. It will gradually become easier to “get to samādhi.”

  • The Buddha compared the relief gained by this Bhāvanā as follows: paying off an enormous loan that had been a burden to the mind, being released from jail, recovering from a significant disease, gaining freedom from slavery, and reaching safety after crossing a dangerous desert. If someone has all those five experiences simultaneously, the Buddha said, that is the kind of relief one gets by removing the five hindrances.
  • This is the nirāmisa sukha gained when approaching Nibbāna; see the post, “How to Taste Nibbāna.” Nibbāna is “cooling down”; any sensory pleasure cannot match it and is permanent. One can experience it in varying degrees as one cultivates this Ariya meditation.
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