A short note on ‘Samatha’, ‘Vipassanā’ and ‘Satipaṭṭhāna’


In this short essay, I shall present my findings from the Sutta Piṭaka on the description of the following terms: ‘samatha’, ‘vipassanā’ and ‘satipaṭṭhāna’.

The term ‘samatha’ is derived from the root ‘śam’ meaning to calm or settle down. Thus ‘samatha’ means ‘tranquility’ or ‘stillness’ of mind. Majjhima Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā (vol. II, 401) defines it as one-pointedness of mind (samathoti ekaggatā). Vipassana, on the other hand, consists of two terms: prefix ‘vi’ meaning ‘opposite’, ‘reverse’ and ‘passati’ which is derived from the root ‘dis’ meaning ‘to see’. Thus vipassana means ‘looking reverse’ which means ‘looking inward’ or ‘insight’ as opposed to ‘looking outside’.


Samatha and vipassana are very often mentioned and discussed together in the Sutta Piṭaka. They are said to be two of the most important factors to be developed by a monk if he wishes anything at all that a monk should desire [MN I, 33]. They are described as two kinds of bhāvanā or mental cultivation [Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary, p. 36] that lead a practitioner to the attainment or realization of many elements (anekadhātupaivedhāya): of various supernormal powers and finally of arahantship [MN I, 494-97]. Therefore these, the Buddha said, are the two things that should be developed by the direct knowledge.[1] They are also mentioned to be very helpful for the attainment of the cessation of perception and feeling [SN IV, 295]. The Yuganaddhasutta of Aṅguttara Nikāya mentions that by developing vipassana preceded by samatha or samatha preceded by vipassana or both together one attains arahantship [AN II, 156].

Again the Aṅguttara Nikāya points out the practice of both the samatha and vipassana bring about two different types of freedom/liberation (vimutti): freedom of mind (cetovimutti) and freedom through wisdom (paññāvimutti) respectively. Cetovimutti is gained by removing rāga whereas paññāvimutti is gained by removing avijja.[2] The two practices for cultivating mind are stated as the path leading to the unconditioned[3] which is a situation/state free from lust, hatred, and delusion. However it is asserted that to attain cetovimutti, cetovimuttiphalānisa, paññāvimutti and paññāvimuttiphalānisa one’s practice of samatha and vipassana has to be accompanied by several other factors namely: right view assisted by virtue, learning, and discussion [MN I, 294]. Thus both samatha and vipassana are presented in the Sutta Piṭaka with equal emphasis.

Satipaṭṭhāna is consisted of two terms ‘sati’ meaning ‘mindfulness’ and ‘paṭṭhāna’ meaning ‘setting forth’ or ‘putting forward’. Thus satipaṭṭhāna means foundation of mindfulness. What exactly is this satipaṭṭhāna is wonderfully described in detail especially in two long discourses [DN II, 289 & MN I, 55] and several other short discourses in the Sutta Piṭaka. There is also a segment in the Saṁyutta Nikāya called satipaṭṭhāna sayutta entirely devoted to the discussion of satipaṭṭhāna [SN V, 138-191]. Basically, four satipaṭṭhāna-s are discussed everywhere, namely – 1) the kāyanupassanā, 2) the vedānupassanā, 3) the cittānupassanā and 4) the dhammānupassanā. Two important points should be mentioned regarding the satipaṭṭhāna: 1) it is described as the direct path (ekāyano maggo) that leads to the realization of nibbāna and 2) it is considered as a wholesome factor together with samatha and vipassana.[4] It is only in this last instance that I found the three terms together and nowhere else.


[1] SN V, 52: samatho ca vipassanā ca – ime, bhikkhave, dhammā abhiññā bhāvetabbā.

[2] AN I, 61: rāgavirāgā cetovimutti, avijjāvirāgā paññāvimuttī.

[3] SN VI, 359: samatho ca vipassanā ca. aya vuccati, bhikkhave, asakhatagāmimaggo.

[4] Peṭakopadesa, p. 4; Nettippakaraṇa, p. 2.

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