Before we dive into how shamatha (calming the mind) and vipassana (inquiring into the true nature of phenomena) complement one another, I would like to begin with a short teaching by the Buddha from the Anguttara Nikaya:

Two things will lead you to supreme understanding. What are these two? Tranquility and insight. If you develop tranquility, what benefit can you expect? Your mind will develop. And the benefit of a developed mind is that you are no longer bound to your impulses. If you develop insight, what benefit will it bring? You will find wisdom. And the point of developing wisdom is that it brings you freedom from the blindness of ignorance. A mind held bound by unconsidered impulse and ignorance can never develop true understanding. But by way of tranquillity and insight, the mind will find liberation. 

This practice is so rich because there can sometimes be a hierarchy in the practice, in which we think certain practices are baby practices and others are more advanced. In reality, we just need different practices at different times in our lives depending on the conditions that arise. Calmness and tranquility are a springboard out of which it is easier for wisdom to naturally emerge. For beginners in the practice, it is beneficial to begin by calming the mind, by harmonizing and unifying the body and the mind. This grounding of oneself serves as a foundation out of which everything else can emerge and develop. Out of tranquility, wisdom develops, and out of wisdom, a transformative understanding that brings about inner freedom emerges too. 

For experienced and seasoned practitioners, it can be helpful to encourage a deeper kind of calm. If you are inclined towards more traditional wisdom practices, it can help tremendously to back up at times and refocus on bringing in deeper calm. One can move in leaps and bounds in wisdom if there is a greater capacity for calm. When facing difficulty or challenges in life, find refuge in the calm. It is essential to remember that it is there to be found.

It’s also important to realize when one is not taking refuge in calm, but one is trying to escape into calm because it feels good and because of the meditative pleasure that arises when the mind is calmer. This is critical to take note of because practice is not an escape. The only way we can “escape” is via real wisdom. The only way to uproot the torments of the heart—greed, hatred, and delusion—is by facing ourselves, facing conditions, and facing life as it is.

When we notice ourselves using practice as an escape, this is when we need to summon up a kind of courage and dare ourselves to move toward the arena of wisdom. The only way wisdom can arise is by being with what is from moment to moment, whatever it is, undaunted by dukkha. I know that’s a big thing to say—undaunted by dukkha, by the fragility, difficulties, and unsatisfactoryness of conditions. Luckily, we don’t have to do it all at once. Step-by-step, we walk this path, with what is available to us—with our allies of lovingkindness and compassion, with the strength that calm offers. With shamatha, with calm, our hearts are strengthened. And then with this strength of heart, we can more easily bear the difficult and see things as they are, which is vipassana. 

Shamatha is translated as calmness or tranquility. Vipassana means to see into conditions as they are, not as they appear to be, how we would prefer them to be, or as we want them to be. Seeing things as they are means to see into the instability, the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena. Seeing things as they are means to see into the non-solidity, the substanceless nature, the not-self nature, of all conditions.

Seeing things as they are means seeing into the reality that all conditions—no matter how seemingly terrific or wonderful, and many conditions are wonderful, which is to be seen as well—are limited. We see into conditions as a bridge into the unconditioned, the deathless, our own buddhanature, and the buddhanature of every being in this world, despite how things appear to be. This is vipassana. 

The direction of this noble path is from impulse to aliveness and spontaneity. It is from ignorance to wisdom. The direction of this path is out of confusion and into clear-seeing, out of agitation and into tranquility. From tranquility to wisdom, and from wisdom into liberation of heart, inner liberation. So, as the Buddha says, tranquility (shamatha) and insight (vipassana) lead to inner liberation. Other translations include calmness and wisdom, peacefulness and transformative understanding, silence and illumination. 

Now, with calmness as our foundation, as the mental chatter begins to calm itself and cease, wisdom has a greater chance of emerging, of thriving, of growing. But I do want to make the point that the opposite is true as well. It is important to be aware whether our minds tend towards curiosity and interest rather than towards calmness and tranquility. For some of us to move towards wisdom, we can see that wisdom brings tranquility. The two play back and forth, they work with one another, they’re interwoven. When we see something more clearly as it is, a greater tranquility comes in. Greater peacefulness is possible in our lives, but we will need both shamatha and vipassana to access it. 

We need enough peace to look into our agitation. We need to develop enough of a sense of inner happiness to be able to look into our unhappiness. We need enough steadiness to bear looking into the fragility of all conditioned phenomena. Because in being curious and openhearted, we do want to encounter the pleasant as well as the unpleasant, the difficult as well as the easy, the terrors as well as the enormous beauties possible in this life and this path that we are on. We want to open our hearts to it all. Slowly, slowly, step-by-step. 

Excerpted from Narayan Helen Liebenson’s Dharma Talk, “The Principles and Practices of Shamatha Vipassana.”

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