From: Buddhadharma magazine, fall 2007 Page 15, entitled: “The Perfect Machete”.
“Finding the right balance between shamatha and vipassana practice is a lot like having the right tool to cut through the jungle” – Ajahn Chandako
When I was a young monk, a common meditation method used in Thailand was reciting the mantra; “buddho” in the mind. I tried that for awhile, but somehow it didn’t stick as easily as another word that I came up with, which was “peace”. So I just started using “peace” as a mantra. When I was sitting, I would say “Peace,” silently repeating it to myself, feeling it reverberate – “peace, peace, peace.” Whether I was working or on alms round, eating, or even in conversation, I found that every time I could bring my mind back to the center of “peace, peace,” then everything started to come back into balance, I realized it was a quality that I needed. So it was a reminder.
Before I went to Wat Pah Nanachat )a forest monastery in Thailand for English-speaking foreigners, established by Ajahn Chah) I was doing a long meditation retreat in Thailand, and it was more of the vipassana style. I was told “Well, you’re welcome to do samatha meditation of you want, but it’s basically a waste of time. It makes you a little peaceful, you get a little happiness, but you get attached to it and then you end up just as stupid as you ever were. But vipassana, that’s the essence of wisdom, that’s the thing that is going to liberate you.” So I said “Great!” and put all my energy into it. But by the time I got to Wat Pah Nanachat, I realized: “actually, what I need is some peace”. And Ajahn Chah didn’t make this big distinction between samatha and vipassana.
I think it was Ajahn Buddhadasa who first came up with the simile of samatha and vipassana as being very much like a knife. In this simile, the practitioner is someone who is carving a way through a dense jungle, a dense thicket. He doesn’t need to cut down the whole jungle, rather, he just needs to cut a path through the jungle to get to the other side. The tool to work with is the meditation, but in order for it to be an effective tool, it’s got to be both heavy and sharp. Trying to get through the jungle with just a razor blade clearly is not going to work. Neither is trying to get through the jungle with just a dull stick. But when you combine the sharpness and the heaviness then you get one of these Thai machetes, and with systematic effort and persistence, you can make your way through the jungle bit by bit, vine by vine, tree by tree. This was Ajahn Buddhadasa’s simile for samatha and vipassana. Vipassana was that sharpness, that clarity of mind, that investigative edge, whereas samatha was the weight behind it, the oomph, the power.
Actually – I’d adjust this example to say that Shamata is the like the handle and Vipashyana is the blade – without the handle, its hard to hold the blade without cutting yourself and its hard to get the blade to hit in the same spot each time – without the blade, you can’t cut through the forest to create a clear path.
I’m disappointed that some people have such a negative view of shamata – but I’m glad there are people counteracting these false views.
I’ve also thought of another aspect to this issue….
Its through Shamata meditation that we attain the states right up to the pure Form and Formless Heavens and its Vipashyana meditation that allows us to break through to a way of being that is beyond all realms of existence (by understanding the true nature of the self). We need to experience all realms of existence in our mastery of reality BEFORE we can go beyond them.
So to denigrate Shamata is really foolish – these people should be asked if they have experienced the Pure Form Realms (Limitless Investigation, Limitless Joy, Limitless Bliss, and Limitless Equanimity) or the Formless Realms (limitless space, limitless consciousness, Nothing-ness, and neither perception nor non-perception). Only after that do they have the right to demean Shamata and even then, once you get to these states, you usually appreciate the vehicle that got you there