Samatha In The Buddhist Tradition– Everything You Need To Know
Samatha meditation technique is one of the most important of all Buddhist practices.
I covered many Buddhist meditations and explained what they are used for in my guide to the 31 most important meditation techniques
Samatha is one of the most important meditations in Buddhism and is used to improve focus and concentration.
- Here’s a great tutorial on Buddhist meditations.
What Is Samatha meditation?
Samatha is one of the core disciplines of Buddhist meditation. The other is Vipassana technique [tutorial].
I’ve researched both these techniques in depth over the past decade, and have spoken with meditation teachers and authors to get to the bottom of what these techniques are all about.
Samatha is all about calmness. The word itself can be translated from Pali to mean “Peaceful Abiding”.w
Lion’s Roar says:
“Peacefully abiding describes the mind as it naturally is. [The mind is] by nature joyous, calm and very clear. In shamatha meditation…we’re letting our mind be as it is to begin with.” 
In other words, Samatha is about returning the mind to its natural, joyful state.
Samatha is also expressed through the Tibetan term “Shyine”, which mean “peace and purification”.
Samatha meditation is a way to calm the mind and produce inner peace.
Samatha Meditation Is Part Of A Process
Take a look at the dharma wheel below and you’ll see how Samatha meditation technique is part of a process.
This image shows the Dharma wheel and the Buddhist path to Nibbana, or Nivana
- In traditional Buddhism, Samatha meditation technique empowers the mind to concentrate (which in Pali is “Samadhi”).
- Samadhi (concentration) then leads the mind to being absorbed by the object of concentration in Dhyana (Read: Dhyana method instructions).
- This in turn leads to insight (“Vipassana”)
- And, finally, what Buddhists call “Liberating Wisdom” (Panna).
This is a very important process leading to enlightenment.
Simply put: it’s a process.
We cannot get to Dhyana, Vipassana, or Panna without Samatha.
We need to practice Samatha meditation technique in order to develop calmness, because calmness leads to focus, which leads to insight and wisdom.
Calmness is first, and calmness is Samatha.
Why Is Samatha (calmness) So Important?
Samatha meditation technique is essentially about boosting focus and concentration.
It achieves this by producing inner calm.
Every human being on Earth can immediately grasp the truth of what the Buddha taught.
Without calmness we are hugely ineffective.
But there’s a more important side to Samatha: clarity of perception.
The mind is unruly. We often act in thoughtless ways, or get caught up in emotions, or simply see things from the wrong point of view.
That’s a good one:
Seeing things from the wrong point of view.
We know what it is to see things from the wrong point of view, like when we get in an argument or we take offense to something, or we become irrationally emotional.
When we see things from the wrong point of view we’re really being led astray by the mind. The mind is kicking up thoughts, emotions and imaginings that we aren’t asking for and that are not helpful.
The unenlightened then act on those mental illusions.
When I went through depression many years ago I thought I was seriously ill even though I had nothing wrong with me. My mind was playing tricks on me. I kept seeing myself ill and thinking the worst.
I went through hell. And it was a hell entirely created by my own mind.
What did I learn?
I learned not to be a slave to my own thoughts. Or to my own mind.
Do not be a slave to your thoughts.
So how do you stop being a slave to your thoughts?
How do you take control of the mind?
Mental control is vital. And we all need to know how to control emotions.
When we find inner calm we stop the tide of emotions and we see more clearly.
Samatha does these things. But it also goes further.
For total mental control the trick is to:
- Silence your thoughts
- See reality clearly
- Stop mental phenomenon
- Understand those mental phenomenon so that when they do occur we have control over them.
Imagine how much easier life would be if we had a, b, and c.
How do you make it happen?
Well, you could read TheBestBrainPossible’s quiet to ending mental slavery. It’s full of great tips for beginners.
Want the Buddhist way? That’s what Samatha meditation technique is for.
Samatha meditation technique is about calming the mind so that we can see reality clearly.
Clarifying what “Samatha” really means
Samatha is a way of training the mind in order to both still the mind and to build concentration. (Incidentally, you can improve concentration with these meditations).
In Samatha meditation we focus on one object and meditate on it. This gradually builds our focus and stills the mind.
It’s hard in the beginning.
The first time I started doing Samatha meditation I could only focus for a couple of minutes. We have to build that mind muscle just like we build our other muscles at the gym.
As you practice you will go through the stages of focus, from fish to monkey mind to monk.
What stage of focus are you at? Fish? Monkey mind? Regular person? Monk?
Most people are not used to focusing completely on one thing. If you struggle to focus when you do Samatha, you should definitely read my guide to the basics of meditation. It’s full of useful tips that will improve your practice.
Through regular practice the mind grows stronger.
As the mind grows stronger, three things happen:
- You experience less mental phenomena
- You have greater concentration
- Your mind is more still and peaceful (remember our discussion about “Peaceful Abiding”? Your mind will be starting to peacefully abide.
Then the truly important thing:
Eventually, your focus becomes so strong than when you concentrate on an object you feel as though you are one with it; you are not aware of the difference between the meditation object and yourself because your mind is so keenly focused. This is what Buddhists call Jhana, “fixed mind”.
The Buddha taught that there are five stages of Jhana that the meditator progresses through. (You can read more about the stages of Jhana on Access to Insight).
This graphic shows the five Jhana and what they mean.
The Jhana are meditative states of stillness used in Buddhism. They are Vitakka, vicara, Piti, Sukha and Ekaggata.
At the highest state of Jhana, when the mind is completely fixed on external reality, we are freed from desire, lust, hatred and other mental impurities. The result is complete happiness and serenity. Enlightenment.
Gets deeper too:
In the ancient times there were some practitioners who used Samatha meditation techinque as a means to gain supernormal powers like clairaudience.
They believed that when the mind is so absolutely attuned to an object it is able to receive messages from that object. For instance, when focusing absolutely on another person the meditator would hear their thoughts.
At the highest level of Jhana the mediator is left two choices: use their power for their own good or for the good of others. Only by using their power for the good of others can the meditator truly defeat Dukkha, suffering, from their mind.
Ultimately, Samatha meditation is about removing Dukkha
One of the main 14 Buddhist wisdoms is that life always has suffering.
Suffering is called DUkkha.
Eliminating Dukkha is the ultimate aim of Samatha meditation technique.
Through continual Samatha practice we learn to accept and to perceive the reality of physical, mental and spiritual pain.
This sense of acceptance then allows us to overcome the pain.
“Dukkha” and “Suffering” are Buddhist vernacular. Today we are more likely to say that meditation allows us to overcome negative thinking, depression, anxiety, stress, and all other mental pain, as well as helping to alleviate the symptoms of wounds and illnesses.
Samatha is about eliminating Dukkha.
Dukkha is Buddhist suffering, pain and dissatisfaction.
Samatha should always be relaxed
The very word “Samatha” literally means “calm”.
So guess what.
Samatha should always be practiced in a calm way.
Most of us aren’t used to focusing our minds so absolutely on one thing.If you ask your mind for too much too soon you could cause harm.
Demanding yourself to focus on one object for an hour is like demanding your legs to run a marathon the first time you put your running shoes on. Injury will occur. That’s why it’s imperative to train your mind gradually.
I’ve personally made the mistake of trying to focus too hard too soon before and I know from first hand experience that you’re only setting yourself up for migraine. You should always bear in mind that there are some health risks of meditation.
To practice Samatha meditation, start slowly
Yeah, I know, it’s a lot more fun to dive in at the deep-end.
Smart strategy is this:
Try to focus on your object for around five minutes the first time. Then after a week you can try ten minutes and so on. But don’t start by demanding yourself to focus for such a long period of time that you strain your brain. Be wise. Your mind is your best friend and most important ally. Treat it as such.
How To Do Samatha Meditation Technique
We’re now ready to actually do Shamatha meditation technique.
Follow these 9-step instructions. And always remember to practice calmly.
- Choose a length of time to meditate for. 20 minutes is a good bet.
- Choose to sit somewhere peaceful and relaxing.
- Sit comfortably in a meditation chair. Make sure you have good posture. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Rest your hands on your thighs with your fingers reaching out to your knees. Keep your arms and shoulders relaxed.
- Take a few minutes to relax.
- You may keep your eyes open if you like. If so, rest our gaze in front of you.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Do not force your attention. Rather, rest in gently on the breath.
- Thoughts and ideas will stir in you mind. Peacefully observe them. Then rest your attention back on your breath.
- Always remember that the key is to calmly observe the meditation object. This is different to other meditations like Bhakt technique [tutorial].
Traditional Shamatha using meditation objects.
Traditionally, Buddhists would practice Shamatha with different meditation objects.
Many of these you will most definitely not want to actually meditate on (you’ll see what I mean!).
This list is simply for educational purposes to show how to do Samatha meditation technique as was originally taught all those years ago.
The kasina are physical objects that you can directly meditate on. These are:
Ten kinds of Foulness:
These are ten meditations that involve meditating on decomposing corpses.
In the time of the Buddha it was common for corpses to be disposed of in carnel-grounds, which meant it was relatively easy to find a corpse and meditate upon it. Today in Thailand teachers advocate meditating on visions of your own body in these various states, those this should only be attempted by advanced meditators as this can be quite disturbing.
Ten kinds of Recollection (Anussati):
Anussati means “recollection,” “contemplation,” “remembrance,” “meditation” and “mindfulness.” These meditations involve devotional practices, like recollecting the sublime qualities of the Buddha, and meditative attainment, such as the ability to recollect past lives.
Recollection of the Buddha ( the Enlightened One),
Recollection of the Dhamma (the Law),
Recollection of the Sangha (the Community),
Recollection of Virtue,
Recollection of Generosity,
Recollection of Deities,
Recollection of Death,
Mindfulness occupied with the body,
Mindfulness of Breathing,
Recollection of Peace.
Four Divine Abidings:
Four Immaterial States:
The base consisting of boundless space,
The base consisting of boundless consciousness,
The base consisting of nothingness
The base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception.
The One Perception : the Perception of Repulsiveness in Nutriment.
The One Defining : the defining of the Four Elements.
Read more about meditation objects on HinduWebsite.
Naturally, not all of the 40 objects of meditation are objects you would like to meditate on. Decomposing corpses? No thank you. Let’s contemporize and get real.
Modern Shamatha Meditation Technique
Essentially Samatha meditation technique involves focusing on a positive object that elicits a positive response.
If you want a very quick answer to how to do Samatha meditation technique, it’s this: focus on an object that creates positive mental states.
- The breath is calming and centring. This is why we can calm the mind by meditating on the breath.
- Running water is free and flowing. When you meditate on running water you free your mind and create flow.
- Blue skies signify liberation. When you meditate on a clear sky you liberate your mind.
Focus on an object with a clear positive trait and you will a) develop your concentration, and b) mentally absorb the positive quality of that object. That is the basis of Samatha meditation.
You can choose to focus on any positive object you like. Some of my personal favourite objects to meditate on are: stars, the sky, candles, water, my cats, my breath, my body, positive mental qualities (like love and kindness) and nature.
Feel free to choose your positive objects.
I highly recommend that among your meditations you include meditations on your body, your breath, physical movement, a calming sound, and positive mental images. The body and the breath are particularly important as they anchor your mind and enhance your mind body connection.
The Benefits Of Samatha Meditation
There is a reason why Buddhists consider this technique so important.
There are lots of benefits of Samatha meditation.
Like these benefits:
- It calms the mind
- Increases concentration
- Stops monkey mind
- Promote joy
- Increases inner peace
- Helps to balance emotions
- Makes you more productive
- Helps you to see reality outside of mental delusions
- Reduces prejudices
- Reduces stress
- Boosts immune system
- Promotes positive feelings
These are the most important health benefits of Samatha meditation as proven by science.
Samatha meditation is a vital meditation technique. And I don’t just mean for Buddhists. For everyone.
With a calm mind we can actually enjoy the moments of our lives.
Samatha also provides mental stillness. And with stillness we can focus, meaning will be more productive.
But the best thing is inner peace.
Samatha is a gentle way of restoring inner peace to the mind. That makes it a must-use technique not just for Buddhists, for everyone.
How did you get on with Samatha? I’d love to hear from you.
Leave a comment.
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Paul Martin Harrison
Paul Harrison is a meditation teacher, author and journalist based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential. Don’t miss Paul’s inspirational and enlightening book Journey To The Buddha Within You.