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Statue showing sitting and walking meditation

śamatha [alt. shamatha] (P. samatha; T. zhi gnas ཞི་གནས་; C. zhi 止) is translated as "calm," "calmness," "calm abiding," "tranquility", "serenity," etc.

The practice of calm (samatha) is one of two branches of meditative cultivation (bhāvanā) within Buddhism, the other being insight (vipassana).[1] Calm meditation cultivates concentration (samadhi) and stability within the mind. Insight meditation cultivates clarity and wisdom.

In the practice of calm (samatha), various types of meditation objects are used. Most simply, one focuses on the breath, paying attention as a breath goes in and as it goes out. Alternatively, one can visually focus on an image or statue of the Buddha, or other object. By developing the capacity to focus on a single object, the mind becomes more still and pliable.

Samatha and vipassana

Within Buddhism, the cultivation of calm (samatha) is pursued together with the cultivation of insight (vipassana). This two practices are both necessary in order to achieve the goal of the Buddhist path.

Rupert Gethin states:

The goal of Buddhist practice is to bring to an end the operation of these defilements (kleshas). The basic method is to restore to the mind something of its fundamental state of clarity and stillness. This clarity of mind provides the opportunity for seeing into the operation of the defilements and the mind’s true nature, for seeing things as they really are, for fully awakening. The way of returning the mind to its state of clarity is by the use of the techniques of calm meditation, which can temporarily suppress or block the immediate defilements that disturb the mind; the way of seeing clearly into the nature of the mind is by the methods of insight meditation, which, in association with calm, can finally eradicate those defilements.[2]

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

In Buddhism two approaches to meditative development are recognized, calm (samatha) and insight (vipassana). Of the two, the development of insight is the distinctively Buddhistic form of meditation. This system of meditation is unique to the Buddha’s Teaching and is intended to generate direct personal realization of the truths discovered and enunciated by the Buddha. The development of calm is also found in non-Buddhist schools of meditation. However, in the Buddha’s Teaching calming meditation is taught because the serenity and concentration which it engenders provide a firm foundation for the practice of insight meditation. Each of the two types of meditation has its own methodology and range of meditation subjects.[3]

Patrick A. Pranke states:

Buddhism classifies the cultivation of vipassanā as one of two modes of meditation (bhāvanā), the other being tranquility (śamatha; Pāli, samatha). Vipassana meditation entails perfecting the mental faculty of mindfulness (smṛti; P. sati) for the purpose of analyzing objects of meditation, such as mental states or the physical body, for manifestations of the three marks. When fully developed, vipassana leads to the attainment of liberating prajña (P. pañña; wisdom) and the ultimate goal of nirvana (P. nibbana) or the cessation of suffering and freedom from rebirth. Samatha meditation entails the cultivation of mental concentration (samadhi) for the purpose of strengthening and calming the mind. When fully developed it leads to the attainment of dhyana (P. jhana), meditative absorption or trance, and the generation of various abhijñā (P. abhiñña; higher knowledges).[4]

Ajahn Brahm states:

Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm."[5]

The practice of samatha


Rupert Gethin states:

The techniques of calm meditation involve counteracting the tendency of the mind to restlessly seek out new and different objects of the senses. This is accomplished by developing a basic capacity of the mind to rest undisturbed on an object of perception. This capacity, termed ‘concentration’ (samādhi), is in fact understood as a prerequisite of all thought, but in normal consciousness it functions only minimally. When this capacity is developed in meditation practice, however, it brings the mind to a condition of stillness in which it finds complete contentment with just one object of contemplation. In this condition the mind enters into quite different states of consciousness from its habitual, ordinary states. These states of consciousness may themselves be termed samādhi, or alternatively they are known as the dhyānas (Pali jhāna), a term which means something like ‘deep thought’ or ‘meditation’. In Buddhist technical terms, the mind has temporarily escaped from ‘the sphere of the senses’ (kāmāvacara)—its normal preoccupation with thoughts that are in some way bound up with the objects of the five senses—to the subtle ‘sphere of pure form’ (rūpāvacara)—a refined world of pure, abstract ‘forms’ (rūpa). The experience of this refined world of pure form comprises four increasingly subtle dhyānas corresponding to the sixteen Brahmā realms of the Buddhist cosmos.[2]

In order to develop calm and concentration, one focuses on an object of contemplation.

Meditative techniques

In the practice of samatha, various types of objects are used as the focus of one's attention. Most simply, one focuses on the breath, paying attention as a breath goes in and as it goes out. Alternatively, one can focus on any type of visual object, such as a flower, a vase, a statue of the Buddha, and so on. One can also focus on sounds, smells, tastes, etc.

In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhagosa presents a list of forty objects of meditation (kammaṭṭhāna). In this group different objects are said to be suitable for different types of personalities, and some of the objects are considered to be suitable for more advanced practitioners and some for beginners.

Two common techniques for refining the practice of samatha are:

  • mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati) – begins with focusing on the breath, and then expands to focus on sensations of the body, mental activity, and other phenomena.
  • four establishments of mindfulness (satipatthana) - entails developing mindfulness of all aspects of experience through focusing on the four domains of the physical body, physical and mental sensations, mental events, and dhammas (additional frameworks for contemplation)


Five hindrances

A set of five hindrances is identified in both the Pali and Sanskrit traditions as obstacles to shamatha meditation. These are:

  1. Sensory desire (kāmacchanda): a type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching
  2. Ill-will (vyapada): all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject something, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness
  3. Sloth-torpor (thīna-middha): heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression
  4. Restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca): the inability to calm the mind
  5. Doubt (vicikicchā): lack of conviction or trust

Ajahn Brahmavamso states:

Any problem which arises in meditation will be one of these five hindrances, or a combination. So, if one experiences any difficulty, use the scheme of the five hindrances as a 'check list' to identify the main problem. Then you will know the appropriate remedy, apply it carefully, and go beyond the obstacle into deeper meditation. When the five hindrances are fully overcome, there is no barrier between the meditator and the bliss of jhana.[6]

Five faults and eight antidotes

In addition to the five hindrances, the Sanskrit tradition also identifies a set of five faults and eight antidotes associated with śamatha meditation. The five faults identify obstacles to meditation practice, and the eight antidotes are applied to overcome the five faults.


The initial stages of samatha lead to a mind that is more calm, stable and pliable. "When fully developed it leads to the attainment of dhyana (P. jhana), meditative absorption..., and the generation of various abhijñā (P. abhiñña; higher knowledges)."[7]


Three stages (Pali tradition)

Three stages

The Pali tradition identifies three stages in the development of samatha: preliminary development, access development, and absorption development.

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

Preliminary development occurs from the time one begins the practice of meditation up to the time the five hindrances are suppressed and the counterpart sign emerges. Access development occurs when the five hindrances become suppressed and the counterpart sign emerges. It endures from the moment the counterpart sign arises up to the change-of-lineage citta (gotrabhū) in the cognitive process culminating in jhāna. The citta that immediately follows change-of-lineage is called absorption. This marks the beginning of absorption development, which occurs at the level of the fine-material-sphere jhānas or the immaterial-sphere jhānas.[3]

Three signs

The three signs are: preliminary sign, learning sign, and counterpart sign.

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

The preliminary sign is the original object of concentration used during the preliminary stage of practice. The learning sign is a mental replica of the object perceived in the mind exactly as it appears to the physical eyes. The mentally visualized image freed of all defects is the counterpart sign. The counterpart sign, it is said, “appears as if breaking out from the learning sign, and a hundred times or a thousand times more purified, … like the moon’s disk coming out from behind a cloud” (Vism. IV, 31).[3]

Nine stages (Sanskrit tradition)

Nine stages of śamatha are identified in the Sanskrit tradition. This formulation originated in the Śrāvakabhūmi section of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra.[note 1]

In this system, śamatha practice is said to progress through nine "mental abidings" or "nine stages of training the mind" (Skt. navākārā cittasthiti, Tib. sems gnas dgu), leading to śamatha proper (the equivalent of "access concentration" in the Theravāda system), and from there to a state of meditative concentration called the first dhyāna, which is often said to be a state of tranquillity or bliss.[8][9]

Nine stages

The nine stages as described by Kamalaśīla are:[8][10]

  1. Placement of the mind (S. cittasthāpana, Tib. འཇོག་པ - sems ’jog-pa) 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 attention (S. samsthāpana, Tib. རྒྱུན་དུ་འཇོག་པ - rgyun-du ‘jog-pa) occurs when the practitioner experiences moments of continuous attention on the object before becoming distracted. According to B. Alan Wallace, this is when you can maintain your attention on the meditation object for about a minute.[11]
  3. Repeated attention (S. avasthāpana, Tib. བླན་ཏེ་འཇོག་པ - slan-te ’jog-pa) is when the practitioner's attention is fixed on the object for most of the practice session and she or he 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.
  4. Close attention (S. upasthāpana, Tib. ཉེ་བར་འཇོག་པ - nye-bar ’jog-pa) 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.[12]
  5. Tamed attention (S. damana, Tib. དུལ་བར་བྱེད་པ - dul-bar byed-pa), by this stage the practitioner achieves deep tranquility 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 Shamatha, the practitioner can uplift (gzengs-bstod) their mind and become more focused and clear.[13]
  6. Pacified attention (S. śamana,Tib. ཞི་བར་བྱེད་པ་ - zhi-bar byed-pa) 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. According to B. Alan Wallace this stage is achieved only after thousands of hours of rigorous training.[14]
  7. Fully pacified attention (S. vyupaśamana,Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཞི་བར་བྱེད་པ་ - nye-bar zhi-bar byed-pa), although the practitioner may still experience of subtle excitement or dullness, these experiences are rare and the practitioner can easily recognize and pacify them.
  8. Single-pointed attention (S. ekotīkarana,Tib. རྩེ་གཅིག་ཏུ་བྱེད་པ་ - rtse-gcig-tu byed-pa) 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. Attentional Balance (S. samādhāna,Tib. མཉམ་པར་འཇོག་པ་བྱེད་པ་ - mnyam-par ’jog-pa) the meditator now effortlessly reaches absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, S. samadhi.) and can maintain it for about four hours without any single interruption.[14]
  10. Śamatha - the culmination, is sometimes listed as a tenth stage.

Six powers

The nine stages samatha are accomplished by means of the six powers (bala):[15]

1. hearing (śruta, thos-pa)
2. thinking (cintā, bsam-pa)
3. mindfulness (smṛti, dran-pa)
4. awareness (saṃprajanya, shes-bzhin)
5. effort (vīrya, brtson-’grus)
6. familiarity (paricaya, yong-su ’dris-pa)

Four modes of mental engagement

The nine stages can be condensed into four modes of mental engagement (manaskāra, yid-la byed-pa):[10]

1. forcible engagement (balavāhana, sgrim-ste ’jug-pa)
2. interrupted engagement (sacchidravāhana, chad-cing ’jug-pa)
3. uninterrupted engagement (niśchidravāhana, med-par ’jug-pa)
4. spontaneous engagement (anābhogavāhana, lhun-grub-tu ’jug-pa)

Some distinctions within traditions

Pali tradition

In the Pali canon, the Buddha never mentions independent samatha and vipassana meditation practices; instead, samatha and vipassana are two "qualities of mind" to be developed through meditation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes,

When [the Pāli suttas] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.[16]

Similarly, referencing MN 151, vv. 13-19, and AN IV, 125-27, Ajahn Brahm (who, like Bhikkhu Thanissaro, is of the Thai Forest Tradition) writes that

Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm."[5]

Sanskrit tradition

The Tibetan tradition includes the techniques of:[17]

  • shamatha with support - practicing shamatha using an object of concentration
  • shamatha without support - practicing shamatha without any particular object, resting undistractedly; this practice serves as a prelude for Mahamudra and Dzogchen

The Dzogchen tradition also includes the technique of using the "nature of mind" as the object of shamatha meditation


Search for videos:

Selected videos:

  • Dr Alan Wallace: What is Shamatha?
    Description: Buddhist teacher Dr Alan Wallace explains the purpose and benefits of shamatha, or "calm abiding."
  • Basic meditation techniques by the Dalai Lama
    Description: the Dalai Lama introduces a simple breathing exercise followed by basic Shamatha meditation instructions.
  • Let Go (Guided meditation by Ajahn Amaro)
    Description: Guided meditation based on Samatha, from the retreat given by Ajahn Amaro from 12-21 July 2013 at Amaravati Retreat Center, United Kingdom.
  • Alan Wallace Shamatha Live Interview
    Description: In this live Wisdom Event at the Harvard Divinity School, hosted by Wisdom Publications (wisdompubs.org), renowned teacher B. Alan Wallace is interviewed by Wisdom Publisher Daniel Aitken on the topic of shamatha, or "calm abiding" meditation. Alan then gives a 45-minute talk on the topic and takes questions from the audience.


  1. These nine stages are also presented in the Abhidharma-samuccaya and the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra.


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. śamatha.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gethin 1998, s.v. "The practice of calm meditation".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Chapter IX: Compendium of Meditation Subjects.
  4. Pranke 2004, pp. 899=890.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Brahm 2006, p. 25.
  6. Brahm 1999.
  7. Buswell 2004, sv. vipassana.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Wallace 2006, Introduction.
  9. Thrangu Rinpoche 1998, p. 19.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lati Rinpoche & Denma Locho Rinpoche 1996, pp. 53-85.
  11. Wallace 2006, p. 30.
  12. Wallace 2006, p. 62.
  13. Achieving Shamatha by Dr. Alexander Berzin on StudyBuddhism.com
  14. 14.0 14.1 Wallace 2006, p. 99.
  15. Lati Rinpoche & Denma Locho Rinpoche 1996, pp. 54-58.
  16. Thanissaro 1997
  17. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg Shamatha, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki


External links