The Nature and Purpose of Śamatha

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// by B. Alan Wallace

Buddhist inquiry into the natural world proceeds from a radically different point of departure than western science, and its methods differ correspondingly. Early pioneers of the scientific revolution, including Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, expressed an initial interest in the nature of physical objects most far removed from human subjectivity: such issues as the relative motions of the sun and earth, the surface of the moon, and the revolutions of the planets. And a central principle of scientific naturalism is the pure objectification of the natural world, free of any contamination of subjectivity. This principle of objectivism demands that science deals with empirical facts testable by empirical methods entailing testability by third-person means; and such facts must, therefore, be public rather than private, which is to say, they must be accessible to more than one observer.

Another aspect of this principle is that scientific knowledge — paradigmatically knowledge of astronomy and physics — must be epistemically objective, which is to say, observer-independent. A profound limitation of this ideal is that it cannot accommodate the study of subjective phenomena, which presumably accounts for the fact that the scientific study of the mind did not even begin until three hundred years after the launching of the scientific revolution. And it was roughly another hundred years before the nature of consciousness came to be accepted as a legitimate object of scientific inquiry. In short, the principle of objectivity excludes the subjective human mind and consciousness itself from the proper domain of natural science.

In stark contrast to this objective orientation of western science, Buddhism begins with the premise that the mind is the primary source of human joy and misery and is central to understanding the natural world as a whole. In a well-known discourse attributed to the Buddha he declares, ‘All phenomena are preceded by the mind. When the mind is comprehended, all phenomena are comprehended.’ The mind and consciousness itself are therefore the primary subjects of introspective investigation within the Buddhist tradition. Moreover, just as unaided human vision was found to be an inadequate instrument for examining the moon, planets and stars, Buddhists regard the undisciplined mind as an unreliable instrument for examining the nature of consciousness. Drawing from the experience of earlier Indian contemplatives, the Buddha refined techniques for stabilizing and refining the attention and used them in new ways, much as Galileo improved and utilized the telescope for observing the heavens. Over the next 2,500 years, Buddhist contemplatives have further developed and made use of those methods for training the mind, which they regard as the one instrument by which mental phenomena can be directly observed. As a result of their investigations, they have formulated elaborate, sophisticated theories of the origins and nature of consciousness and its active role in nature; but their inquiries never produced anything akin to an empirical study or theory of the brain.

They did, however, develop rigorous techniques for examining and probing the mind first-hand, and the initial problem in this endeavor was to train the attention so that it could be a more reliable, precise instrument of observation. With no such training, it is certainly possible to direct one’s awareness inwards, but the undisciplined mind was found to succumb very swiftly to attentional excitation, or scattering; and when the mind eventually calms down, it tends to drift into attentional laxity in which vividness is sacrificed. A mind that is alternately prone to excitation and laxity is a poor instrument for examining anything, and indeed the Buddhist tradition deems such a mind ‘dysfunctional’.

Thus, the first task in the Buddhist investigation of the mind is to so refine the attention and balance the nervous system that the mind is made properly functional, free of the detrimental influences of excitation and laxity. To do so, those two hindrances must be clearly identified in terms of one’s own experience. Excitation, the first obvious interference to observing the mind, is defined as an agitated, intentional mental process that follows after attractive objects, and it is a derivative of compulsive desire. Laxity, on the other hand, is an intentional mental process that occurs when the attention becomes slack and the meditative object is not apprehended with vividness and forcefulness. It is said to be a derivative of delusion.

The types of attentional training Buddhists have devised to counteract excitation and laxity are known as Śamatha (pronounced ‘shamata’), the literal meaning of which is quiescence. It is so called, for Śamatha is a serene attentional state in which the hindrances of excitation and laxity have been thoroughly calmed. The central goals of the cultivation of Śamatha are the development of attentional stability and vividness. 

Regardless of the kind of technique one follows in the pursuit of Samatha, two mental faculties are said to be indispensable for the cultivation of attentional stability and vividness, namely, mindfulness and introspection. The Sanskrit term translated here as mindfulness also has the connotation of recollection, and it is the faculty of sustaining the attention upon a familiar object without being distracted away from it. While it is the task of mindfulness to attend, without forgetfulness, to the meditative object, introspection has the function of monitoring the meditative process. Thus, introspection is a type of metacognition that operates as the ‘quality control’ in the development of Samatha, swiftly detecting the occurrence of either excitation or laxity. In the Buddhist tradition, introspection is defined as the repeated examination of the state of one’s body and mind (Śāntideva, 1997, V:108), and it is regarded as a derivative of intelligence.

To return to the analogy of the telescope, the development of attentional stability may be likened to mounting one’s telescope on a firm platform; while the development of attentional vividness is like highly polishing the lenses and bringing the telescope into clear focus. Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), an eminent Tibetan Buddhist contemplative and philosopher, cites a more traditional analogy to illustrate the importance of attentional stability and vividness for the cultivation of contemplative insight: in order to examine a hanging tapestry at night, if you light an oil-lamp that is both radiant and unflickering, you can vividly observe the depicted images. But if the lamp is either dim, or — even if it is bright — flickers due to wind, you would not clearly see those forms.

The ultimate aim of the practice of Śamatha is not simply to ascertain the primary characteristics of consciousness or to attain exceptional mental powers. Rather, it is to realize the ultimate nature of awareness, free of all conceptual mediation and structuring, transcending even the concepts of existence and non-existence. Such primordial awareness, known in this tradition as ‘the Buddha-nature’, is said to be our essential nature, and it is the fathomless well-spring of intuitive wisdom, compassion, and power.

This text is a heavily abridged version of the following article:

Wallace, B. A. (1999). The Buddhist tradition of Śamatha: Methods for refining and examining consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6(2–3), 175–187.

B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan Wallace is a prominent voice in the emerging discussion between contemporary Buddhist thinkers and scientists who question the materialist presumptions of their 20th-century paradigms. He left his college studies in 1971 and moved to Dharamsala, India to study Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, and language. He was ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama, and over fourteen years as a monk he studied with and translated for several of the generation’s greatest lamas. In 1984 he resumed his Western education at Amherst College where he studied physics and the philosophy of science. He then applied that background to his PhD research at Stanford on the interface between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy. Since 1987 he has been a frequent translator and contributor to meetings between the Dalai Lama and prominent scientists, and he has written and translated more than 40 books. Along with his scholarly work, Alan is regarded as one of the West’s preeminent meditation teachers and retreat guides. He is the founder and director of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and of the Center for Contemplative Research in Crestone, Colorado.


Dhammapada, The (1989), ed. Nikunja Vihari Banerjee (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers).

Guenther, Herbert V. & Kawamura, Leslie S. (1975), Mind in Buddhist Psychology (Emeryville: Dharma).

Rabten, Geshe (1979), The Mind and Its Functions, trans. Stephen Batchelor (Mt. Pèlerin: Tharpa Choeling).

Śāntideva (1961), Siksa-samuccaya, ed. P.D. Vaidya (Darbhanga: Mithila Institute).

Śāntideva (1971), Siksa-samuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine, trans. from the Sanskrit by Cecil Bendall and W.H.D. Rouse (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass).

Śāntideva (1997), A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, trans. Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace (Ithaca: Snow Lion).

Wallace, B. Alan (1998), The Bridge of Quiescence: Experiencing Tibetan Buddhist Meditation (Chicago, IL: Open Court).

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