Śamatha (Calm Abiding) | Theravāda


1. Śamatha

Śamatha (Pāḷi: Samatha) 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.

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

The semantic field of Sanskrit, thā is to abide or remain.

2. Śamatha and Vipassanā

The Buddha is said to have identified 2 paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:

  1. Śamatha, calm abiding, which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the Mind;
  2. Vipassanā, insight, which enables one to see, explore and discern formations (conditioned phenomena based on the 5 aggregates).

The Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining the unconditioned state of Nirvāṇa.

For example, in the Kiṁśuka Tree Sūtra (SN 35.245), the Buddha provides an elaborate metaphor in which serenity and insight are the swift pair of messengers who deliver the message of Nirvāṇa via the Noble Eightfold Path.

In the 4 Ways to Arahantship Sūtra (AN 4.170), Ven. Ānanda reports that people attain Arahantship using calm abiding and insight in one of 3 ways:

  1. They develop calm Abiding and then Insight (Pāli: Samatha-pubbangamam Vipassanā)
  2. They develop Insight and then calm Abiding (Pāli: Vipassanā-pubbangamam Samatha)
  3. They develop calm Abiding and Insight in tandem (Pāli: Samatha-Vipassanā yuganaddham), for instance, obtaining the 1st jhāna and then seeing in the associated aggregates the 3 marks of existence before proceeding to the 2nd jhāna.

In the Pāli canon, the Buddha never mentions independent Śamatha and Vipassanā meditation practices; instead, Śamatha and Vipassanā are 2 qualities of Mind to be developed through meditation.

As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu writes,

When the Pāli Sūtras depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do Vipassanā,' but always 'go do Jhāna.'

And they never equate the word Vipassanā with any Mindfulness techniques.

In the few instances where they do mention Vipassanā, they almost always pair it with Śamatha — not as 2 alternative methods, but as 2 qualities of Mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.

Similarly Ajahn Brahm (who is of the Thai Forest Tradition) writes that:

Some traditions speak of 2 types of meditation:

  1. insight meditation (Vipassanā) and
  2. calm meditation (Śamatha).

In fact the 2 are indivisible facets of the same process:

  1. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation;
  2. Insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation.

- Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm.

The method most often described in the Pāli canon is one where Śamatha and Vipassanā are practiced together.

Jhāna is induced by Śamatha, and then Jhāna is reflected upon with Mindfulness, becoming the object of Vipassanā, realizing that Jhāna is marked by the 3 characteristics.

Buddhist texts describe that all Buddhas and their chief disciples used this method.

Texts also describe a method of bare insight, or dry insight where only Vipassanā is practiced, examining ordinary physical and mental phenomena to discern the 3 marks.

In the Nikāya-texts this method is less common, but has become the foundation of the Vipassanā Movement.

According to Thai meditation master Ajahn Lee (1907–1961),

the practice of both Śamatha and Vipassanā together allows one to achieve various mental powers and knowledges (Pāḷi: abhiññā), including the attainment of Nirvāṇa,

whereas the practice of Vipassanā alone allows for the achievement of Nirvāṇa, but no other mental powers or knowledges.

3. Theravāda & Vipassanā Movement


In modern Theravada, Liberation is thought to be attained by insight into the transitory nature of phenomena.

This is accomplished by establishing sati (Mindfulness) and Śamatha through the practice of Ānāpānasati (Mindfulness of breathing),

using Mindfulness for observing the impermanence in the bodily and mental changes, to gain insight (Vipassanā) into the true nature of phenomena.

According to the Theravada tradition, Śamatha refers to techniques that assist in calming the Mind.

Śamatha is thought to be developed by Samādhi (concentration), which is thought to be the ability to rest the attention on a single object of perception.

One of the principal techniques for this purpose is Mindfulness of breathing (Pāḷi: Ānāpānasati).

Śamatha is commonly practiced as a prelude to and in conjunction with wisdom practices.

According to modern Theravada, Mindfulness of breathing leads the practitioner into concentration (Dhyāna), the domain of experience wherein the senses are subdued

and the Mind abides in uninterrupted concentration upon the object (i.e., the breath), if not in meditative absorption (samādhi).

In Theravada, it is the condition for insight (Vipassanā) and subsequently the development of liberating wisdom (paññā).

In Theravada-Buddhism morality (śīla) is understood to be a stable foundation upon which to attain Śamatha.

In Theravada tradition, Śamatha and Vipassanā form an integral part of the Noble Eightfold Path as described by the Buddha in his core teaching, the 4 Noble Truths.

Śamatha meditation and Jhāna (dhyāna) are often considered synonymous by modern Theravada, but the 4 Jhānas involve a heightened awareness, instead of a narrowing of the Mind.

Samādhi may refer to the 4 stages of dhyāna meditation, but only the 1st stage refers to strong concentration, from which arise the other stages, which include Mindfulness.

Through the meditative development of calm abiding, one is able to suppress the obscuring 5 hindrances:

  1. sensual desire,
  2. ill-will,
  3. tiredness and sleepiness,
  4. excitement and depression,
  5. doubt.

With the suppression of these hindrances, the meditative development of insight yields Liberating Wisdom.

Objects of meditation

Some meditation practices such as contemplation of a kasiṇa object favour the development of Śamatha, others such as contemplation of the aggregates are conducive to the development of Vipassanā, while others such as Mindfulness of breathing are classically used for developing both mental qualities.

The Visuddhimagga (5th century CE) mentions 40 objects of meditation.

Mindfulness (sati) of breathing (ānāpāna: Ānāpānasati) is the most common Śamatha practice. Śamatha can include other samādhi practices as well.

Signs and stages of joy

Theravada Buddhism describes the development of Śamatha in terms of 3 successive mental images or 'signs' (nimitta) and 5 stages of joy (Pīti).

Pīti is a feeling of joy, gladness or rapture arising from the abandonment of the 5 hindrances in favour of concentration on a single object.

These stages are outlined by the Theravada exegete Buddhaghoṣa in his Visuddhimagga and the earlier Upatissa (author of the Vimuttimagga).

5 stages of joy:

  1. Slight joy - Raises the hairs of the body
  2. Momentary joy  - Arises momentarily like repeated flashes of lightning
  3. Showering joy - Washes over the body, like waves, again and again and then subsides
  4. Uplifting joy - Sensations of lifting of the body into the air
  5. Suffusing joy - Pervades the whole body touching every part - signals 'access concentration'.

The 3 Nimittas are:

  1. the preparatory sign,
  2. the acquired sign
  3. the counterpart sign.

- These are certain mental images, perceptions or sensations which indicate a further refinement of the state of meditative awareness.

Following the establishment of access concentration (upacara-samādhi), one can enter the 4 Jhānas, powerful states of joyful absorption in which the entire body is pervaded with Pīti.


In the Theravada-tradition various understandings of Śamatha exist.

In Śrī Lanka Śamatha includes all the meditations directed at static objects.

In Myanmar, Śamatha comprises all concentration practices, aimed at calming the Mind.

The Thai Forest tradition deriving from Ajahn Mun and popularized by Ajahn Chah stresses the inseparability of Śamatha and Vipassanā, and the essential necessity of both practices.