Samatha Meditation and Insight Meditation: Complementary or Competing?



transcribed by Anthea Hogan and edited by Tod Olson
with contributions by Bernard Bolton, David Egan, Chris Morray-Jones, Charles Shaw, and Sarah Shaw
diagrams re-created by Tod Olson

What follows is an edited transcription of a talk given by Lance Cousins on Monday, June 25th, 2012, at Ida Noyes Hall, University of Chicago. The editors benefitted from many contributions and take responsibility for any errors.

LC:           So, I’m going to talk on samatha meditation and insight meditation. So, these are the words: samatha, vipassanā. People have complained that I kept one of them in Pāli and one of them in English. But samatha translates as calm meditation, but not many people have heard of that, whereas vipassanā translates as insight meditation, which is much better known, especially over here, one would think. In Sanskrit: śamatha and vipaśyanā. That’s the terminology we get from the Sanskrit and from the Tibetan tradition. But I am not talking about samatha and vipassanā in terms of Northern Buddhism, Tibetan tradition and so on (Vajrayāna traditions); nor in terms of Eastern Buddhism (Chinese and Chinese-derived traditions). Both of them have various forms of meditation which relate to samatha and vipassanā in various ways, but that would be much too large a subject. So what I am talking about is a limited field of the Theravāda School, that’s to say, the Buddhism traditionally established in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and certain areas adjacent to that. You can also call it Southern Buddhism.

So, you may read books, you may hear descriptions of meditation, may see books. I just bought a lot of them from a book shop here, most about insight meditation. I didn’t see any about samatha meditation – but we’ll have to write some. (Laughter.)

But we need to come down to fundamentals first of all. What is samatha and what is vipassanā? For the moment, I am not talking about samatha meditation, vipassanā meditation. I am talking about samatha-vipassanā, calm and insight. And these two things come together to wake up the mind. That is to say, they are two aspects of bodhi, of awakening. [See Figure 1(a).] But, that’s one way of looking at it. So in that way of looking at it, they come together. At the end, they have to be united. There is no success in insight meditation without coming to samatha; and there is no success in samatha meditation without coming to insight. But another way of looking at it is like that [see Figure 1(b)]:

Samatha and vipassanā: two perspectives

Figure 1. Samatha and vipassanā: two perspectives

Samatha, which comes first, makes a base, establishing some level of peace in the mind, and when you have that peace in the mind you can go on to develop insight or understanding. And from this point of view – we’ll call it vertical as opposed to horizontal – samatha comes first; vipas-sanā comes afterwards. That is so in every school of meditation practice. There is no form of Theravāda meditation practice – perhaps no form of Buddhist meditation practice – that doesn’t in fact begin with samatha. They may call it insight, but in fact it begins with samatha because if your mind is not sufficiently at peace you will get no insights of any use in that lineage.

So why do we have two kinds of meditation? There are many kinds, of course. I will talk about two. I just gave a series of eight lectures in New Mexico, the major theme of which is how many different kinds of samatha meditation there are in the Theravāda countries, and how many different kinds of insight meditation there are in the Buddhist countries. We don’t have time for all that, and it’s not the place really, but that’s so as to remind you. Here for example, almost only two schools of insight meditation are known. There may be certain Burmese monasteries, for example, or Thai monasteries, where each have the odd teacher of others. There are actually something like thirty different schools of insight meditation in Burma, that’s to say, major schools which have dozens of centers and many smaller locations scattered across the country. But only two of them have really successfully so far spread outside. Similarly, schools of samatha meditation that often don’t call themselves samatha meditation – but in terms of the way I am looking at it today we can call it samatha meditation – are particularly prevalent in Thailand, and there are many. This doesn’t mean there isn’t insight meditation taught in Thailand: there is; and it doesn’t mean there isn’t samatha meditation taught in Burma: there is; but still the general tendency differs between Burma, or Myanmar if you prefer, Thailand, and so on. So that’s your overall background, as it were, into which it all fits. 

So, we’re not talking about samatha and vipassanā, we’re talking about samatha meditation and vipassanā meditation. And this amounts to the difference between …, start here [see Figure 2 (bottom)]:

Samatha and vipassanā meditation, part 1

Figure 2.  Samatha and vipassanā meditation, part 1

Those who go by calm meditation, you can say, go this way [see Figure 2(a)] to develop concentration, and that’s samādhi

I have to warn you here, the English word ‘concentration’ is not a good translation.  Everyone uses it because no one has yet figured out a better term. If you talk about concentration in English, it is likely to give you the idea it is something you make an effort with, but samādhi is peacefulness. What is meant is the kind of concentration that got me in trouble with my grandma when I was a kid, when I was sitting there with my nose in a book and I didn’t hear a word that anybody said to me. That’s concentration, and there’s no effort in it, or very little effort. But learning to do it may require effort. That is what is meant by concentration, so you can see why calm and concentration are the same thing. If you understand that usage and meaning.

If you go the other way [see Figure 2(b)], you go by the methods that are common to at least the major schools of insight meditation. Maybe we can talk about bare attention. You emphasize mindfulness, being aware, mindful of everything you do. Maintaining mindfulness of the body. That’s the strong emphasis of one of the major schools that has come into the west, probably the most influential single school – the school of Mahāsi Sayādaw is the immediate originator – that’s an old and famous school. Or we may start with the breathing. In Burma there are schools that start with awareness of your feelings and schools which start with trying to be aware of consciousness itself. There are schools which start with theory and try to extend the theory, things like dependent origination and so on and, with that, try to extend that theory into direct experience. So there are many, many different kinds of insight meditation. But the kind that we know here, and that people are used to talking about – they have an approach to meditation that doesn’t much like control. They want a kind of experiencing that’s based on bare attention, on minimal observation, and they will tend to discourage efforts of control, and see control of any kind as getting in the way. Whereas for samatha meditation, the aim is some control over the mind. Technically speaking, we must balance mindfulness and concentration, whereas for insight meditation the main emphasis is on the mindfulness. But for samatha meditation, the aim is to go to a deeper state of some kind.

This [insight meditation] is not a new solution, in one sense, because in the manual of Buddhaghosa (from the fourth or fifth century), the option of proceeding by bare attention is already given. But it’s given as a secondary alternative and we don’t actually have any evidence that anybody used this method before the Nineteenth Century. That’s at least as best as I can discover.[1] You don’t usually see this mentioned. So it's a new approach, partly based upon a textual tradition. It may have been based on some traditions in Burma that we have no record of, and it may particularly have been a response to modern times. It’s often connected with modernizing tendencies in Buddhism.

The alternative practice is to develop concentration …,

One more thing: you have to overcome the hindrances. There’s a technical list of the hindrances: sense desire, aversion, sloth and torpor, excitement and depression, doubt. These are all very precise terms, and on the whole they’re very familiar to meditators. For example, when I was recently in New Mexico, the problem was sloth and torpor. I also remember a time in Cambridge in the late 1960s, trying to meditate out-side St. John’s College in the gardens and every time I tried …, off to sleep, every single time! So I would get up, I would walk around and I would feel totally lacking in sleepiness, I would sit down to meditate again …, off to sleep! And that same phenomenon reminds me of examinations (laughter) – some of you might have noticed. That is a hindrance. A hindrance is something that comes at any time. And there is a tendency for particular difficulties to arise at particular stages in meditation practice. I do not say they arise in the same order for everybody or in the same way for everyone, but they do arise, and you have to learn to overcome them. So you do that either by concentrating on an object – samatha meditation has traditionally forty objects of meditation, kammaṭṭhāna, or subjects we’re working on – or you do it by simple awareness, a kind of relaxed letting go. Up to a point, these two will meet up, because you have to come to a mental state where the hindrances don’t occur. And that takes some time. It’s a matter of training, to be able to remain for a while in a state where those hindrances do not occur. It doesn’t mean necessarily they don’t occur in your life, but it does mean when you sit and meditate you can let go of that, leave it aside and be free of it for a while. But then they diverge again. [See Figure 3.] In fact, you can cross over at that point. But your methods of samatha medit-ation are most suitable for this, that is to say the development of the meditative states known as the jhānas, or dhyāna.

It’s actually the same word, jhāna, that gives rise to the Sanskrit dhyāna, and also gives rise to Chinese ch’an, which gives rise to seon in Korea, and to zen in Japan. I do not say that what they do in Japan in the Zen school classifies precisely as samatha meditation, but that’s the origin of the name, which is the universal name for all meditation in China, long ago.

If you want to develop the jhānas, this [the samatha] route is better. But if you can’t follow this [the samatha] route and you can follow this [the insight] route, then this [the insight] route is better, quite obviously. [Laughter.] And sometimes this seems dependent on the individual match. And you may have a school of meditation that teaches this [vipassanā], but the particular meditator may get the results of this [samatha]. Or you may have a teaching that gives you this [samatha], and some meditator proceeds to develop along this [vipassanā] route. That is according to people’s nature; the skillful teacher works with it. That's to say, you don't try to divert people from what they can naturally do. But some people can be a bit dogmatic, and try to insist on having the same experiences that they had, and that can create problems.

Traditionally, there’s a difference at this point. I should put it on the other side, insight [see Figure 3]:

Samatha and vipassanā meditation, part 2

Figure 3.  Samatha and vipassanā meditation, part 2 

If you come to this point then, and for a while, then you actually start to develop what is called lesser insight. You start to see something of the processes that govern mind and matter in terms of change, imperman-ence, suffering, no self, and that can go in various ways. It sounds …, especially if you’re a samatha meditator …, it sounds a bit miserable. But actually, it can also lead to very peaceful and joyful states. If you go by this route [samatha meditation], you want to develop the four jhānas, the four kinds of bare consciousness, the first four kinds. It is not easy to ..., it’s never easy to describe something to someone if they’ve not experienced it, but essentially what we’re dealing with here are states which begin as very peaceful, very joyful and very different to anything one has previously experienced. They are attractive, and some of the teachers of insight meditation would say too attractive: you get attached to them and they become an obstacle. But the teachers of samatha meditation, we say, “Yes, this is very good, we can enjoy some bliss and happiness – we don't object to that – but don't give up your journey, don't get caught.”

So there’s a slight difference. This is the ancient way, the one that is actually presented in full in the suttas. Ajahn Buddhadāsa in Thailand puts the difference between the two – it might be rather mischievously, describing the samatha approach with a smile, I think – he describes this as the full and complete method of the Buddha and says that he doesn’t think that the Buddha ever taught anything that was unnecessary, and so on. But he said that for lazy meditators who don’t want to do the work of the full path, we have a short-cut method (laughter), which is this one [insight meditation]. I’m not sure I quite go along with that, but he is making a point. One quite often sees emphasis on insight meditation as the direct goal, the direct path. It’s not as simple as that. And in fact, in the ancient texts they actually relate this to individual psychology, they distinguish between the craving type, taṇhācarita, and the views type, diṭṭhicarita.[1] Some person wants to experience, or is motivated to experience, subtle states of mind. That’s what they will seek, and they will be drawn to, or they will develop, the samatha path. Some person wants to understand how things work so they won’t be so interested in experiences. What they’re interested in is getting a more correct and subtle way of explaining things. So, from this point of view, samatha med-itation is for those who want to experience those kinds of subtle states. We can say that you use a more subtle pleasant state to free yourself from a more gross pleasant state, and you can continue that process to become subtler and subtler and subtler till you come to a state of mind which very naturally and easily turns to insight.

So if you follow the insight path you have to develop sixteen stages of insight. For example, there are various lists, all very detailed and precise, to gain new levels of understanding. You have to pass through a stage in which you have a kind of false enlightenment, according to the defilements of insight.[2] Something that’s similar to enlightenment arises but is not balanced. You have not to be caught by it. It’s a similar kind of problem on the insight side to the problem on the calm side. But if you complete that process you come to a point where the mind is very, very clear, very clear and very precise. What do you have to do at that point? The answer is: wait, and let the mind settle into stillness. And at that point calm and insight come into balance.

So if you do that on the insight path the calm comes very naturally, very simply. You don’t have to sit there making – now I’m going to say it! – some effort to still the mind and relax and experience different kinds of subtle object that will bring you to altered states of consciousness. You don’t have to do that – the calm will just come. But if you develop samatha meditation on the concentration side, if you develop the jhānas, you develop proficiency in them, and the further you come on that path, the more easily insight arises. The mind is actually … (pause) … There is no jhāna without wisdom, and there is no wisdom without jhānas. When there are jhānas, the mind just automatically understands things.

And this is what I mean when I say it’s two ways, one solution. If you do insight meditation, calm will come at the end, after some years of criticizing calmness; and if you do calm meditation, insight will come at the end, even after some years of thinking, “Oh this insight stuff has got a rather bad taste, it’s rather dry,” and so on. But at the last the two come together. It’s not yet the last really, we have more to come – but perhaps we’ll talk about that today.

Are there any questions at this point?

Q:             Are you saying it’s important to just follow one or the other, or is it also possible to do both? Alternatively, is that a valid thing to do, or …?

LC:           It depends a lot on the individual. What I usually say to people is in the very beginning you might try different methods of meditation teach-ing, but if you keep on doing that all that you’ll be doing is reinventing the wheel every time. You’ll just be doing the same basic beginning stuff – you will never be getting any further. This can actually be a subtle form of resistance. As soon as it’s actually starting to do something, you change to another one. So, if it is helpful, you try various ones. I’d like to quote Carlos Castaneda here – you see, I come from the sixties (laughter): he recommends a path with heart, and that’s what you really need in a meditation practice, something that has the right feeling for you, that you can actually sustain. Then, whether it is appropriate for you to do other things at certain times, will depend on the individual. If you have achieved success in one method of meditation then you may want to get some experience with another. This might not bring you nearer to enlightenment, but it might make you a better teacher, for example. You’ll find schools, teachers differ on this. Some teachers seem to like to keep people close to them and don’t want them to do anything else. And clearly for some individuals, this is a very good idea. Some people tend to chase after every new thing, and that actually would not be good. The tradition in Thailand for example, was that when monks had their basic training, then they would travel from teacher to teacher so they would get experience of different approaches as well. But that comes after a lot of full-time intensive practice. I simply found with meditators I’ve had, there are some I encouraged to go do other things and there are some to whom I said, “No I don’t think this is a good idea.” It’s always quite difficult to explain the rather complicated reasons why you would say that to one person and say something else to another person. In fact, people differ. Theravāda tradition, or the Buddhist tradition, says that the Buddha has 84,000 different teachings. Why does the Buddha have 84,000 different teachings? Because there are 84,000 different kinds of people who need them. (Laughter.) Well …, it makes a point, it makes a point. So, does that answer your question?

Q:             I was thinking the question whether there’s a name for this point where the paths come back together, and the concepts that came into my mind both came from samatha practice, but I was wondering if they would be useful to think about, and the two were equanimity and one-pointedness, and the one-pointedness seemed to be like it might be a way of describing that point as approached from the insight side, but I wanted to know if that’s the wrong way to think about it or maybe there’s a different way to describe what that point is?

LC:           What is translated as ‘equanimity' is a part of all skillful states in Abhi-dhamma. So you need to be able to go to a point where you are not pulled. That’s essentially what equanimity is. And you need that for all meditation. But the full development of equanimity actually comes either through the jhānas, where in the fourth jhāna [the literature] precisely emphasizes equanimity; or it comes through the development 

of insight, where almost the last point [in the commentaries] is saṅkhārā-upekkhā, “equanimity in regard to all constructed things”[1] – everything that we do. And we find a place where happily they meet.[2]

This is often misleading for people – it doesn’t mean that one should have only equanimity. As my teacher likes to put it, you know, if some-one is standing outside your door begging for food, this is not the time for you to say, “I’m practicing equanimity. Go away!” (Laughter.) That is perhaps the time for compassion. And in fact, when you have a state of equanimity the mind goes far more easily to compassion, far more easily to joy in the joys of others and those kinds of responses. So, equanimity is important, it’s important for you from an early stage, but if it really comes further along in terms of this [see Figure 3] – this point would be what they call access meditation in samatha – the hindrances are stilled. Some insight teachers would also call it access meditation even if you come through vipassanā. Others would say in vipassanā you reach a level of concentration equivalent to access meditation, which is a pretty technical difference as far as I’m concerned. So we can just say if you come roughly to here [see Figure 3], you’re going to make it.

All right.

Q:             Could you say something more about the hindrance of doubt?

LC:           Some people translate it incapacitating doubt. If you sit here in this room and you doubt whether this lecture is making any sense at all, that’s not the hindrance of doubt, that’s sensible investigation. But, if you have no doubts in your mind and you go to sit to meditate, and the moment you sit down to meditate you start thinking, “Is this meditation any use?” that is the hindrance of doubt. And the problem is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If when you’re supposed to be meditating you sit there thinking about whether the meditation is any use, you’ll never move, you just will not do it. That comes as a resistance. So the famous simile for it is the caravan leader. He’s taking a caravan (the old sense of a caravan) across the desert, and he gets half way across the desert and he starts thinking, “Well, maybe there’s no water at the next water hole, and there might be brigands behind those hills,” and he thinks like that and he turns around and goes back. And of course, the point is he’s halfway there! That’s the hindrance of doubt. But it’s nothing to do with when you want to think about what you like, whether this or that, or this idea etc. That kind of doubting is a kind of developing wisdom. It’s when you’re meditating that doubt is a hindrance. Or in some people’s lives. You know, some people have problems making decisions, when quite often it doesn’t really matter which decision you make as long as you make one. That’s incapacitating doubt. It is a habit of the mind.

Q:             Someone once explained the difference between samatha and vipas-sanā by saying that – and it sounds like a partisan explanation but I found it very helpful and I was wondering whether you would agree – that samatha has a certain sense of warmth to it and that vipassanā does not. Again, it really was not meant as a partisan explanation and I found it very useful – and I was wondering whether that kind of differentiation was useful and whether you could elaborate.

LC:           It’s quite common to use metaphors like “warmth” and so on, or “with more feeling,” for samatha, there’s no doubt that is so. If you hear samatha teachers it’s sometimes hard to remember what they said the next day, but it had a very good feeling at the time. (Laughter.) If you hear vipassanā teachers it’s often very precise and very sharp, but it’s a bit dry, and that – they’ll actually refer to it as the “dry way” in the texts. But that is in the beginning. If you come to these stages [see Figure 3], this does not necessarily apply, but it does apply at certain points because on the vipassanā path you have to let go of everything that you have; you have to develop nibbidā, disenchantment. In the samatha path you have to develop joy; with the insight path you will have to develop disenchantment. (Laughter.) But actually, joy is no use unless you can still it, but it’s quite fun (laughter) with lots of joy. But as far as going further on the path, it’s no use unless you can still it and allow it to come to a more peaceful, happy state, and that’s what brings you to the one-pointedness that enables you to enter the jhānas. With disenchantment ... pausing to think about death, that’s when you experience death. One can’t quite say this is pleasant. Not many people think about death. Maybe when you get to some age, hopefully when 

you’re nearer the end! (Laughter.) But, there’s actually a way of thinking about death which doesn’t have the effect of making your mind go to feeling slightly miserable, but which lets go of the events of death in such a way that the mind is freed up; that’s the only way I can describe it, and when you have that kind of freedom, deeper wisdom comes. It critically depends upon that. So this particular point in vipassanā [access; see Figure 3] is rather uncomfortable, but very fruitful. But you’ve got to go on from it. If you simply come to that and then turn away, all you take away is a miserable feeling. And that is also true of death. You will see that people who are experienced – I don’t even want to say in meditation; you could say, spiritually – in the presence of death …, you can sometimes see people who are rather joyful. Some people are happy …, that particular response …, but it’s a marvel of controlling, of being able to go from disenchantment to a higher level. It is also possible to combine both methods, switching between what we call calm and insight, coupled together as a pair, but it would be slightly difficult to teach that – rather complicated, but it is what some people do …, but people do it.

Q:             The term Abhidhamma came up, would you choose to comment?

LC:           Ah, serves me right! (Laughter.) The Pāli Canon, Sanskrit canon too, has three sections: Vinaya, Sutta or Sutra, and Abhidhamma in Pāli, Abhidharma in Sanskrit. So that’s the division of the Buddhist Canon. Now, the first is dealing with the monastic rules, a kind of Buddhist monastic law. The second is your main discourses and teachings of the Buddha, and there are lots and lots of them. Your third is a much more technical literature which is highly revered in traditional Theravāda – you cannot understand the level to which it is revered in traditional Thera-vāda. But it has not appealed to Westerners much. Caroline Rhys Davids referred to it as a bag of dry bones! (Laughter.) And unfortunately, this has sort of spread, and they refer to it as scholasticism and similar things.

But actually it’s very interesting and very useful if you learn from the right person, so you can say it’s the deeper teachings of Theravāda. It’s particularly popular in Burma, where it’s extraordinarily popular. Normally you … there are very few, but some schools of insight meditat-ion in the Theravāda countries that will teach insight meditation without quite a lot of Abhidhamma, and some of them teach it with very large quantities of Abhidhamma, and they memorize these texts.

I remember listening to lectures by a Burmese monk in Manchester on the very text which, as I say, Rhys Davids referred to as a dry bag of bones, and he was talking about various aspects. It’s all about pairing; you pair this, you pair this, and you get that if you combine it … etc., etc. And I must say, if you just sit and read it, it looks like the most boring kind of mathematics, and of course, the scholars of texts are often refugees from mathematics. Quite often. But this monk was giving teachings from various sections, and we’d ask him questions and he would sort of sit there, and sometimes he would have the answer and sometimes he wouldn’t have the answer, so he would stop and he would chant in the most beautiful Pāli the relevant section of the text, from memory. He had the whole book – it’s in two volumes in the very abbreviated Pali Text Society edition, and three in most of the East Asian ones – and the whole lot was in his head! And when you saw someone doing this with it, you just got a very different image. So you have to see it as a living tradition to understand how the Abhidhamma works.[1]

Does that answer your question? Or I could go on about the Abhi-dhamma for weeks! And bore you all to tears probably.

                  Okay, any more questions?

Q:             So how important is it to have a teacher or to join with a community or …, I am tempted …?

LC:           I have met people who have made progress without a teacher. They do have a marked tendency to get into problems, which wouldn’t surpr-ise one. On the whole though, if they do get into any problems they go and look for a teacher (laughter), which is a natural enough response. Very few people learn very little from a teacher. The tradition says there are three kinds of person. There’s the person who just has to hear a little hint, and that’s it, and there’s the person who needs a lot of elaborate kind of instruction, and that would be enough. And there’s 

the person who must be guided, must be guided at every stage. I think I’m the last one. I’m quite convinced of this because if there’s a way of getting it wrong, I’m always wrong! (Laughter.) But you do learn a lot that way, and it’s very useful when you see other people getting it wrong – been there, done that! (Laughter.)

Does that answer your question – or you didn’t get enough?

Q:             Well…, maybe I should answer this question myself, but where or how do I go about finding a teacher?

LC:           Well, I’m invited by the samatha group, so I’ll have to recommend you to the samatha group! (Laughter.) Normally, one thing leads to another. If there are teachers … you know, there are actually various groups here in Chicago. I’m pretty sure there are some classes and so on going on around here, but I don’t know the details. And of course, there are many other Buddhist schools as well with various ways and approach-es of teaching. Go to a few of them and see what suits you. You know, you may find something – this feels right. There may not be a particular teacher initially, but you may find an approach. If you pursue that approach, eventually you will meet people experienced enough in that approach that you will want to take them as a teacher if that’s your inclination. Or you may not find it satisfactory, it doesn’t resonate for you, so after a while, try something else, and eventually you may find something. There was a tradition in China that every monk, before the age of thirty, should have shaken the dust off his feet in every province in China. (Laughter.)

Q:             You’ve mentioned a few times the ability of a teacher to spot when a student, or somebody who is being trained in this is getting it wrong, and I was wondering, how does one get a student to be articulate enough to the point of expressing what they’re doing accurately enough that one has a sense of what they are doing right or wrong, and what role does Buddhist Abhidhamma, or technical language of Buddhism, play at that level?

LC:           Well, it helps to give you a framework, it gives you some sense – let’s not say Abhidhamma is a technical language, no – it helps you to pick up that something is not a balanced state, and to have words to tell you what is missing, what needs to be known. But, I don’t actually think this is in the beginning very different to anything else. If you are teaching someone dancing, if you are teaching someone a martial art, you have experience in that and you see immediately if they aren’t standing in the right posture etc. It isn’t so much that you think that out as that it’s just automatic for you. And the same is true for meditation teaching. If you know where you should be, when you hear someone speaking, and sometimes just when you see them walking across the room, you know they’re not in the right place. And after some experience, you will get to know, that’s a rather dangerous place to be. That’s not common, but it does occur. Most often when people who come have already had some kind of mental problem, they’re very difficult to teach meditation to.

Any more questions?

Q: Did you say that when someone has had a mental problem it’s difficult for them to learn meditation? I just didn’t know if I heard you correctly.

LC:           It can be – it can be. It depends on the type of mental problem. On the other hand, sometimes mental problems are actually meditation states, and the last thing you should do is go anywhere near a doctor because they all tell you there’s something wrong with you! (Laughter.) Whereas if you mention that to a meditation teacher he will tell you there’s something right with you! (Laughter.) I had a long discussion with a friend of mine’s father who was a, there’s a technical word for it, not a psychologist, but dealing with people in mental hospitals with a range of mental problems. His view was if you see things, there’s something wrong with you. My understanding is if you see things, there’s something right with you. (Laughter.) Of course, these are simplifications.

But there’s a very simple point you can make here now: that we all see things, they’re called dreams. The ability to see things is simply part of the mind, but if it comes in ways you’re not used to this might alarm or frighten you, and that alarm or fear may then generate problems because what you actually need is someone who says this is fine, what you do with that is this, they go away and no more problem. So I’ve had people come you know, and sometimes they’ve got a history of getting various kinds of medical advice, and you simply talk to them for a while and the problem’s gone because the whole problem was they thought there was something wrong. Once they know there’s nothing wrong, 

there isn’t a problem. But there are other cases that you can do nothing with, so … weird things that you meet. You can usually do something in the moment. The problem is, if you’re experienced enough teaching meditation, you can almost always get someone in a balanced state for a little while. What you can’t do is keep them there, so it’s not a lot of use, but you can do it.

Q:             This might sound …, I’m not sure that a lot of people are going to make enough progress in meditation that insight and samatha come together, so – I don’t know how else to put it – for practical purposes, if I want to be a better person, does it really matter which path I choose?

LC:           Which feels better to you?

Q:             Well …, it’s kind of hard to tell as a beginner.

LC:           Which feels better to you? Have a think about it. Which feels better to you?

Q:             Ahh …, vipassanā … but …,

LC:           Do vipassanā. If you don’t find it satisfactory come back and do some samatha. (Laughter.) But if you have a very questioning mind, vipassanā may be very suitable for you. A certain kind of question suits a certain person. What is quite certain is if you don’t do it, you won’t be doing it, and I can only say that in my opinion most normal people will achieve this level [access; see Figure 3] if they practice meditation over a period of years. The problem is people give up, but those who do not give up will reach this level. That’s my experience. You meet in some circles many people who will say you can’t meditate today. Again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people say it, then nobody meditates, and nobody reaches that. But, actually, you can find sitters also in countries. If you go to Burma or Thailand they will tell you there are enlightened beings today, and they will even name a few that they believe are enlightened – quite common. I’m not saying they’re necessarily correct, but some major teachers in Burma and Thailand are commonly considered to be enlight-ened, what we call arahats.

Q:             Can you say that again? I didn’t hear.

LC:           What they call arahats. It’s an enlightened person. If you ask them in Sri Lanka the answer you usually get is, “Well …, I don’t know if there are any arahats here today … there may be some in Burma.” (Laughter.) Actually, I think they rather underestimate some of their own teachers. I say that because I have actually practiced in forest centers in Sri Lanka. There are meditation monks there who are perhaps more experienced than most of the Sinhalese realize. Maybe that’s something that happen-ed over a period of what is now many, many years, forty-some years, rather than from outsiders.

Any more questions?

Q:             Is bare attention another word for mindfulness or is it different?

LC:           I think it’s a different thing. It’s never been entirely clear to me what it is in Pāli that the English expression ‘bare attention’ is actually meant to correspond to. But the method they use is you try to note – it’s what Mahāsi Sayādaw meant, you try to notice – it is not meant that you note with a label – every single activity. Note looking, moving, and you may slow down. With systematic practice you could slow down. They do it very intensively in that school for up to twenty hours a day. Jolly difficult (laughter) – for some meditators, anyway. But you don’t put a lot of attention to it. If you kind of try and watch the movement of your hand so (demonstration), in such a focused way, they would say you are concentrating on it, which is not what they want you to do. They want you to just have the minimal awareness that nothing goes on in your body, feelings, mind, and mental states that you don’t note. That takes quite a lot of practice, but quite plainly, if you try to put a lot of attention to each thing that occurs, it’s impossible – so it needs this very minimal attention to work. But I do not know what this is meant to correspond to in Pāli – it’s a modern term in English. And I’m not quite convinced it comes from the tradition, but that’s something for further research.

Q:             Is the minimal degree why it’s different from mindfulness? It sounds a lot like mindfulness in some ways.

LC:           It’s clearly related to mindfulness, but it’s been described in terms of attention, and mindfulness is not about attention. To be mindful you don’t have to be slow. For example, in some schools of insight meditat-ion they would say slowing down mindfulness is only partly developed in ordinary states of mind and body, and they would be against the ideas of slowing down in body. But it is, as I said, very popular in most successful schools of insight meditation. 

So mindfulness is a certain kind of awakeness so that you do not get lost in whatever is going on. It’s actually very closely related to memory. I mean, quite ordinarily you do something and a second later you don’t remember what you were doing or why, and mindfulness is the quality that really its purpose is partly to counter that. It counters getting lost in what you’re observing. It’s not quite the same thing as bare attention, but they are closely related.

In terms of samatha meditation where you balance mindfulness and concentration, concentration takes you deep into the mind. Mindfulness anchors you to the outside world, and if you don’t have enough mindfulness, you go deep into the mind, you can experience states where nothing is happening, which are negative results (laughter), except that if you’re having a miserable life, then this can have a certain value at the time. But it’s a bit of a trap. So in mindfulness there is a balance going on. For samatha, you need to go deep into the mind, but you must not get lost, for those two qualities have to work together.

Q:             Is awareness a good synonym for mindfulness?

LC:           For mindfulness. It could be. We tend to use it for clear comprehen-sion, which goes with mindfulness, so I would tend to say mindfulness and awareness.

Some of you will have heard this, but I’ll tell it again. A certain friend of mine, who I will not name here, was on a meditation course with me in the late ’70s, and we hired a Scottish castle. The owner was in America, actually, for the summer and was letting out her castle. So this was quite an interesting place out in the wilds of northwest Scotland. We were meditating there for three weeks and we were doing very intensive practice; and we were actually combining some of the methods of insight meditation and of samatha meditation. In meditation, such things have gone on! (Laughter.) So everybody was doing this very careful, attentive slow walking between all the times they were sitting in meditation. And we were taking the Eight Precepts, which means you don’t eat after midday, but we had tea together. So teatime came and it was this partic-ular individual’s turn to make the tea with water in a very large metal kettle. She came in with this kettle of boiling water, and she came across moving like this (demonstration). Very carefully noting everything she was doing, she carefully put the kettle onto the glass top table – CRACK! That illustrates very clearly the difference between mindfulness without clear comprehension and mindfulness with clear comprehension. She was making a real effort at mindfulness, but she had somehow lost her sense of the context, which is rather important. So I would use awareness for that, but you could use awareness for mindfulness, though in fact it is useful to distinguish between them in this instance.

There are no exact translations, there’s probably no exact translat-ions between any two languages, but certainly no languages that are not closely related, or after a long history of separation, then you know, the English doesn’t exactly match. So that’s all. So you just have to try differ-ent ones to get a sense of the Pāli. Over time Buddhism in the West will develop its sense of the terms it prefers.

There are tendencies, particularly for the ones that catch on, for mainly reasons of historical accident. The one I usually complain about is ‘meditation.’ I usually argue that there is no such thing as ‘meditation.’ It’s a mystic term actually, which comes from the teachings of Richard of St. Victor who divided the stages into cogitation, meditation and contemplation in Latin, and that’s actually where the term ‘meditation’ came from.

So what is this thing we’re doing when we’re sitting in ‘meditation’? Well it’s a word, bhāvanā, causing to be, developing or practicing. It actually comes from the first sermon of the Buddha, at least in terms of tradition, where the Buddha declares what is the Truth of Suffering; that the Truth of Suffering must be thoroughly comprehended; that the Truth of Suffering has been thoroughly comprehended. Then there’s a similar sequence (these are the three turnings of the Wheel of the Law) and then the second Truth, Arising. There’s the Truth of Arising, that the Truth of Arising must be abandoned, that the Truth of Arising has been abandoned. Then for the third Truth, that is the Truth of Cessation, or Enlightenment, the Truth of Cessation must be directly experienced or witnessed; the Truth of Cessation has been directly experienced. And then the one that’s relevant here, that’s the Truth of the path leading to the Cessation of Suffering, which is the Eightfold Path. See them turning? The path leading to the Cessation of Suffering must be brought into being – that’s the verb for this, bhavitā, must be brought into being. Truth, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, has the 

meaning to be brought into being. And then this play between the noun bhāvanā and the verb that comes from it, it occurs in all formulations – I can’t say all formulat-ions – but in many different formulations of the Buddhist path … so the lists show many others, other than that in the Eightfold Path, many different ways of doing things, but we have some­thing … it’s not ‘meditation.’ Right View – that’s ‘meditation,’ I suppose; Right Thought or Right Intention – that could perhaps be ‘meditation’; Right Speech – is that what people think they’ve come to learn when they come to learn ‘meditation’? Might do them almost more good than anything else! Right Action, Right Livelihood … and the rest of it: Right Effort, Right Mindful-ness, Right Concentration. But the main thing is that what we are talking about in Buddhism is something very much wider than the rather simple understanding of ‘meditation’ as a kind of technique. Bhāvanā involves transforming the whole of your life, and you’ll be very much happier if you can.

So ‘meditation’ is too simple. That said, here I am giving a talk on ‘meditation’! (Laughter.) In practice it’s kind of acquired currency, so the important thing is to remember that it is inadequate. But what is meant is something much wider than that and more open.

I have gone on a while. Shall I stop there, or …? One more question.

Q:             Well, you mentioned dreams before, so I was wondering if you could relate meditation to dreams, or inner or outer experiences, or seeing things?

LC:           If you come to certain levels of concentration – I can really only explain this in terms of Abhidhamma which talks about what we call the bhavanga consciousness, what may be called the passive state of the mind, the state to which the mind returns between all activities. When you go to that state in meditation, when you know to go to that state in meditation, it’s not the aim of meditation, but if the mind becomes a little too concentrated, it goes in that direction, then dreamlike experiences, visionary experiences occur. That can happen. For some people this is very rare, for some people it goes on all the time. Some people like it, some people don’t like it. It is not the aim of meditation, but learning to recollect clearly those things when they occur is part of the path of medit-ation. It’s developing recollection, the memory which helps you in other states, and if things come up in dream form it’s as dream work, you know, if you try to remember dreams you understand things sometimes. Some-times it’s quite funny …, you know, you have a very strange dream and you realize it’s all been created by something you just glanced at several hours before you went to sleep, and you’ve somehow elaborated it into this complicated scenario which can be quite amusing. But sometimes you see that you had a whole series of these things and they’re actually making a point. And when you get something like that that’s making a point, I usually say to people: if your own unconscious mind is busy telling you that you ought to do something about it, then it would be quite wise to heed it. (Laughter.) The outside teachers may be right and they may be wrong, but if your own inner teacher says do something about it…, better do something about it. That’s an example.

Okay. And on that rather strange ending, I’ll finish my talk now.


[1] The editor is informed that this anecdote refers to Ven. U Nyanika, a Burmese monk who spent his last years in the UK and, “at Lance’s invitation, gave some memorable talks in Manchester on the Yamaka.”


[1] See, e.g., Vism. XX1 61-127. (Ed.)

[2] In a later version of this talk given on January 14th, 2014, in Berkeley, CA, Lance drew Figure 3 (see page 6 above) in such a way that the two arrows marked “jhānas” and “insight” curved back inwards to converge at a third and higher middle point, which he labeled “Bodhi.” Compare Figure 1(a) on page 2 above. (Ed.)


[1] See, e.g., Netti. 42f, 529, 644ff. Ñāṇamoli translates carita as “temperament”. (Ed.)

[2] Vipassanūpakkilsa. See Vism. XX 105-30, pp. 633-38 in the PTS ed. by C.A.F. Rhys Davids. Ñāṇamoli renders this as the “imperfections of insight.” (Ed.)


[1] See L.S. Cousins, 1996, “The Origins of Insight Meditation,” in The Buddhist Forum IV Seminar Papers 1994-1996 ed. T. Skorupski (London : School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1996), 35-59: origins_of_insight_meditation (accessed August 1, 2015). (Ed.)

Cultivation (bhāvanā)

Cultivation (bhāvanā)