Śamatha (Calm Abiding) | Mahāyāna


1. Śamatha

Śamatha (Pāḷi: Samatha; Tibetan: Śiné) is a Buddhist term that is often translated as the tranquillity of the Mind, or Mind-calmness.

The Pāḷi Canon describes it as 1 of two qualities of Mind which is developed (bhāvanā) in Buddhist meditation, the other being Vipassanā (insight).

Originally, Śamatha was developed by abiding in the Jhānas,

but the later Buddhist tradition also re-introduced single-pointed meditation, which includes a variety of Mind-calming techniques, as means to develop calm.

Śamatha is common to many Buddhist traditions.

2. Etymology

The semantic field of Tibetan śi and Sanskrit śama is pacification, the slowing or cooling down, rest.

The semantic field of Tibetan is to abide or remain and this is cognate or equivalent with the final syllable of the Sanskrit, thā.

The Tibetan term for Śamatha is Śiné (zhi-gnas). According to Jamgon Kongtrül, the terms refer to peace and pacification of the Mind and the thoughts.

3. Indo-Tibetan tradition

Tibetan writers usually define Śamatha practice as when one's Mind remains fixed on a single object without moving.

Dagpo Tashi Namgyal (1513–1587) for example, defines Śamatha as:

by fixing the Mind upon any object so as to maintain it without distraction …

by focusing the Mind on an object and maintaining it in that state until finally it is channelled into one stream of attention and evenness.

According to Geshe Lhündrub Sopa (1923-2014), Śamatha is:

just a one-pointedness of Mind on a meditative object. Whatever the object may be …

if the Mind can remain upon its object one-pointedly, spontaneously and without effort, and for as long a period of time as the meditator likes, it is approaching the attainment of meditative stabilization (Śamatha).

Mahāyāna sūtras

A number of Mahāyāna sūtras address Śamatha, usually in conjunction with Vipassanā.

One of the most prominent, the Cloud of Jewels Sūtra (Ārya Rātnamegha Sūtra) divides all forms of meditation into either Śamatha or Vipassanā, defining Śamatha as single-pointed consciousness and Vipassanā as seeing into the nature of things.

The Sūtra Unlocking the Mysteries (Saṁdhi nirmocana Sūtra), a Yogācāra sūtra, is also often used as a source for teachings on Śamatha.


Śamatha furthers the Right Concentration aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The successful result of Śamatha is also sometimes characterized as meditative absorption (samādhi) and meditative equipoise (samāhita), and freedom from the 5 obstructions (āvaraṇa).

It may also result in the siddhis of clairvoyance (abhijñā) and magical emanation (nirmāṇa).

Factors in Śamatha

Śamatha has 5 characteristics:

  1. effortlessly stable attention (samādhi),
  2. powerful Mindfulness (sati),
  3. joy (pīti),
  4. tranquillity (passaddhi),
  5. equanimity (upekkhā).

The complete state of Śamatha results from working with stable attention (samādhi) and Mindfulness (sati) until joy (pīti) emerges.

Joy then gradually matures into tranquillity, and equanimity arises out of that tranquillity.

A Mind in Śamatha is the ideal instrument for achieving Insight and Awakening. 

9 mental abidings

In a formulation originating in the Śrāvaka-bhūmi section of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra Śamatha practice is said to progress through 9 mental abidings or 9 stages of training the Mind,

leading to Śamatha proper, and from there to a state of meditative concentration called the 1st dhyāna (Pāli: jhāna) which is often said to be a state of tranquillity or bliss.

An equivalent succession of stages is described in the 10 Ox-Herding pictures of Zen.

The 9 Mental Abidings as described by Kamalaśīla are:

1) Placement of the Mind occurs when the practitioner is able to place their attention on the object of meditation, but is unable to maintain that attention for very long. Distractions, dullness of Mind and other hindrances are common.

2) Continuous placement occurs when the practitioner experiences moments of continuous attention on the object before becoming distracted. This is when you can maintain your attention on the meditation object for about a minute.

3) Repeated placement is when the practitioner's attention is fixed on the object for most of the practice session and is able to immediately realize when she or he has lost their mental hold on the object and is able to restore that attention quickly.

It is said that being able to maintain attention for 108 breaths is a good benchmark for when we have reached this stage.

4) Close placement occurs when the practitioner is able to maintain attention throughout the entire meditation session (an hour or more) without losing their mental hold on the meditation object at all.

In this stage the practitioner achieves the power of Mindfulness. Nevertheless, this stage still contains subtle forms of excitation and dullness or laxity.

5) Taming, by this stage the practitioner achieves deep tranquillity of Mind, but must be watchful for subtle forms of laxity or dullness, peaceful states of Mind which can be confused for calm abiding.

By focusing on the future benefits of gaining Śamatha, the practitioner can uplift their Mind and become more focused and clear.

6) Pacifying is the stage during which subtle mental dullness or laxity is no longer a great difficulty, but now the practitioner is prone to subtle excitements which arise at the periphery of meditative attention.

This stage is usually achieved only after thousands of hours of rigorous training.

7) Fully pacifying, although the practitioner may still experience subtle excitement or dullness, they are rare and the practitioner can easily recognize and pacify them.

8) Single-pointing in this stage the practitioner can reach high levels of concentration with only a slight effort and without being interrupted even by subtle laxity or excitement during the entire meditation session.

9) Balanced placement the meditator now effortlessly reaches absorbed concentration (S. Samādhi.) and can maintain it for about 4 hours without any single interruption.

10) Śamatha, Tib. Śiné - the culmination, is sometimes listed as a 10th stage.

5 faults and 8 antidotes

The textual tradition of Tibetan Buddhism identifies 5 faults and 8 antidotes within the practice of Śamatha meditation.

The 5 faults identify obstacles to meditation practice, and the 8 antidotes are applied to overcome the 5 faults.

This formulation originates with Maitreyanātha’s Madhyānta-vibhāga and is elaborated upon in further texts, such as the Stages of Meditation (Bhāvanākrama) by Kamalaśīla.

5 faults

To practice Śamatha, one must select an object of observation (ālambana).

Then one must overcome the 5 faults:

  1. laziness
  2. forgetting the instruction
  3. laxity and excitement. Laxity may be coarse or subtle. Lethargy is often also present, but is said to be less common.
  4. non-application
  5. over application

8 antidotes

The following 8 antidotes (pratipakṣa) or applications (abhi-saṁskāra) can be applied to overcome the 5 faults:

for laziness:

1) faith
2) aspiration
3) exertion
4) pliancy

for forgetting the instruction:

5) Mindfulness

for laxity and excitement:

6) awareness

for non-application:

7) application

for over-application:

8) non-application

6 Powers

6 powers are also needed for Śamatha:

  1. hearing
  2. thinking
  3. Mindfulness
  4. awareness
  5. effort
  6. familiarity

4 modes of mental engagement

4 modes of mental engagement (manaskāra) are said to be possible:

  1. forcible engagement
  2. interrupted engagement
  3. uninterrupted engagement
  4. spontaneous engagement

Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen

Śamatha is approached somewhat differently in the Mahāmudrā tradition as practiced in the Kagyu lineage.

As Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (1955–2012) explained,

In the practice of Mahāmudrā tranquillity meditation ... we treat all thoughts as the same in order to gain sufficient distance and detachment from our current mental state, which will allow us to ease naturally into a state of tranquillity without effort or contrivance ...

In order for the Mind to settle, we need to suspend the value judgments that we impose on our mental activities ... it is essential that we not try to create a state of tranquillity but allow the Mind to enter into tranquillity naturally.

This is an important notion in the Mahāmudrā tradition, that of non-doing:

We do not do tranquillity meditation, we allow tranquillity to arise of its own accord, and it will do so only if we stop thinking of the meditative state as a thing that we need to do actively ...

In a manner of speaking, catching yourself in the act of distraction is the true test of tranquillity meditation, for what counts is not the ability to prevent thoughts or emotions from arising but the ability to catch ourselves in a particular mental or emotional state.

This is the very essence of tranquillity meditation in the context of Mahāmudrā ...

The Mahāmudrā style of meditation does not encourage us toward the different levels of meditative concentration traditionally described in the exoteric meditation manuals ...

From the Mahāmudrā point of view, we should not desire meditative equipoise nor have an aversion to discursive thoughts and conflicting emotions but view both of these states with equanimity.

Again, the significant point is not whether meditative equipoise is present but whether we are able to maintain awareness of our mental states.

If disturbing thoughts do arise, as they certainly will, we should simply recognize these thoughts and emotions as transient phenomena.

For the Kagyu, in the context of Mahāmudrā, Śamatha by means of Mindfulness of breathing is thought to be the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the Mind itself as the object of meditation and generating Vipassanā on that basis.

Quite similar is the approach to Śamatha found in Dzogchen Semde:

In the Semde system, Śamatha is the 1st of the 4 yogas (Tib. Naljor):

  1. Śamatha
  2. Vipassanā
  3. Non-duality
  4. Spontaneous Presence

These parallel the 4 yogas of Mahāmudrā.