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.

The Significance of the Anattalakkhana-Sutta in Understanding the Essence of Early Buddhism

According to the Mahāvaggapāḷi after the Dhammacakkapavattasutta the Anattalakkhaṇasutta was the second sermon delivered by the Buddha to his first five disciples (pañcavaggiya) at Saranath. The sutta occurs both in the sutta-pițaka (SN, III, 66) as well as in the vinaya-pițaka (Vin, I, 13). Hence the sutta is authenticated as the second earliest discourse of the Buddha. J. K. P. Ariyaratne even calls it as ‘the Buddha’s foremost sūtra’.[1] However, in this short essay I shall try to present the importance of the sutta in understanding the essence of early Buddhism.

index_03This sutta is seemed to have been delivered by the Buddha in succession to his first sermon i.e. the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta. In the Anattalakkhanasutta the Buddha analyzed individual into five aggregates namely form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness. The Buddha begins the sutta by saying that none of the five aggregates are permanent as they are totally out of our control. Therefore they can not be regarded as self. In his own word:

“Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.”[2]

The same is repeated with reference to the other four aggregates too. He explains that these five aggregates are impermanent, they produce suffering and therefore they should not be regarded as “this is mine, this I am, and this is my self.”[3] Because if they were ‘self’; they would not change and suffering would not follow. To the question why something that is impermanent should produce suffering the answer is given in the earlier discourse. It says, “In short, the five aggregates of grasping are suffering”.[4] The Buddha did not say that the five aggregates themselves are suffering, but it is the grasping to them that results into suffering. In the next stage of his preaching he says that there is no self-entity either inside or out the five aggregates. The Text runs;

“Thus, monks, any form (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”

In this passage the Buddha plainly explains that the existence of ‘self’ in any form is not evident. This can be linked up with two extreme practices ‘self-indulgence’ and ‘self-mortification’ that were spoken of in the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta. Prof. Karunadasa opines that the two practices are based on two different psychological grasping of self, namely, metaphysical self and physical self and ‘the Buddhist doctrine of no-self is the result of a critical response to the mutual opposition between the two ...’[5]

The importance of the sutta lies in its concluding passage where it says that upon hearing the sutta all five monks attained complete release from the fermentations.[6] This, in fact, is the central focus of Buddhism. As the Buddha says, he is concerned with only two things, namely, suffering and the cessation of suffering.[7] In fact, we see when the Buddha preached Dhammacakkapavattanasutta, out of five monks, only Kondañña gained the dhamma-eye, but when the Anattalakkhanasutta was delivered all five monks became fully released. An interesting remark is made by J. P. K. Ariyaratne in this regard. He says, “the Buddha’s success rate in completely liberating the Five Ascetic from the cycle of samsāra was less than 5% in the exposition of the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta, whereas his success rate was 100% in the exposition of the Anattalakkhanasutta.”[8]

Thus from the above discussion we understand that ‘anatta’ is the unique and central teaching of the Buddha without a full knowledge of which one can never get out of this samsaric existence. N.K.G. Mendis regarding the teaching of anatta says; “It is only when insight is gained in this respect that progress can be made along the Path to full enlightenment”.[9] And that is what we have seen in the case of all five monks in the Anattalakkhanasutta. Therefore this sutta can be regarded as the essence of the entire Buddhist philosophy.







[1] Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies, Vol. V, 1996, p. 196

[2] Here I have adopted Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation.

[3]etaṃ mama, eso’hamasmi, eso me attā

[4]saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā

[5] The Buddhist Doctrine of Non-Self, and the Problem of the Over-Self, Y. Karunadasa, Middle Way (Volume 69:2) August 1994.

[6]āsavehi cittāni vimucciṃsūti

[7] M I, p. 139.

[8] J. P. K. Ariyaratne, p. 196.

[9]On the No-self Characteristic: The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, translated, with an introduction by N.K.G. Mendis. Access to Insight, September 25, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/mendis/wheel268.html.

Ethical Significance of Anatta

Anatta is one of the three characteristics of the phenomenal existence. It is the unique and central teaching of Buddhism. According to this doctrine there is no permanent or everlasting self either inside or outside the five aggregates which constitute a being. This doctrine is usually discussed as a philosophical problem leaving aside its ethical significance which is the subject matter of this short essay.

images (6)By ethics is generally meant good and evil or right and wrong behaviors of individuals. According to Buddhism individual’s behavior has a psychological basis. In other word, as Prof. Karunadasa says, Buddhist ethics is the ‘ethics of intension’. Because Buddhism uses two sets of psychological terms namely 1) kusala and 2) akusala to evaluate all moral actions. Actions influenced by the former are considered skillful and actions influenced by the latter are unskillful. Skillful actions result in happiness whereas the unskillful ones bring about harmful consequences to both oneself and others.[1] The rationale provided is that the skillful actions are based on the right view whereas the unskillful ones are rooted in the wrong view (micchādițțhi). The Buddha with reference to the two views says; “he sees no single factor so responsible for the suffering of living beings as wrong view, and no factor so potent in promoting the good of living beings as right view.”[2] The most detriment of all views is said to be the view of self (sakkāyadițțhi) removal of which is possible only by realizing the truth regarding anatta. Thus it is at this point the Buddhist doctrine of anatta becomes significant in the Buddhist ethics.

The main purpose of Buddhism as we all know is the ‘attainment of perfection’ by ending of all forms of suffering. Anatta in this respect plays a very important role. Prof. Wijesekera says, “The idea of Anatta or Selflessness, according to the Teachings, is the ultimate concept to be developed by the disciple intent on the highest spiritual perfection.”[3] The Buddha, in fact, is seen in many discourses to have presented the analysis of five aggregates to show the soullessness nature of them. In the Anattalakkhanasutta the Buddha says, the five aggregates are impermanent, they produce suffering therefore it is not advisable to regard them as “this is mine, this I am and this is my self”[4]. In Saṃyuttanikāya he says, “bhikkhus, the eye (ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, that is not my self’.”[5] Why they should not be regarded as self because the sense organs, sense objects and corresponding consciousness constantly arise and pass away.[6] If they were self it would not happen.

Contemplation on soullessness was encouraged by the Buddha because it enables individuals to be rid of the unwholesome mental qualities such as pride, craving, anger etc. and brings about peace in their mind. In the words the Buddha:

If a monk lives constantly with mind intent on the thought of selflessness with regard to what is unsatisfactory, his mind will become free from egoism or self-interestedness (ahaṅkāra), from the craving to possess and regard as ‘mine’ (mamaṅkāra), and from inclinations to pride (māna) with regard to this body with its consciousness as well as all other objects, he will get rid of arrogance and prejudice, attain Peace and be emancipated”.[7]

Thus when one is completely free from the ego-centric idea then there is no retributive kammic bondage for him. It should logically be understood as follows. When there is a self idea in me, whatever action is performed by me, I am their subject. Therefore any consequence that results from them will ultimately come to me. But if I do not uphold the idea of self, there is then only action but no actor/doer. Therefore there will also be only results without experiencer. This idea is clearly expressed by Venerable Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. He says: “Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there.”[8] Thus with the understanding of no-self one overcomes the kammic bondage. But he is not an amoral rather an ethically perfect person. Such a person indeed is considered to have attained the supreme bliss of nibbāna. He is thus regarded as sampanna-kusala and parama-kusala. For in him is then extinguished the three akusala-mèla: greed, hate, and delusion.”[9]

In conclusion it should be said that nibbāna is the highest moral perfection which should be attained with complete eradication of the false belief in the self-notion. Because it is the root of all evils. With the removal of self-notion all evils are removed. Thus the ethical significance of anatta should be understood.




1) Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy (Sri Lanka), 1985.

2) Wijesekera, O. H. De A. (1977): Buddhist Essays, Sri lanka: Buddha Sasana Ministry.

3) _________________ (1960): The Three Signata: anicca, dukkha, anatta, Kandy: BPS.

3) Karunadaasa, Y. (2001): The Early Buddhist Teaching on the Practice of the Moral Life, Calgary, Alberta.

4) _____________ (1994): The Moral Life: Both as a Means and an End, Middle Way (Volume 69:1 p. 17).

[1] See: Kālāmāsutta in AN I, p. 188.

[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy (Sri Lanka), 1985, p. 23.

[3] Wijesekera, p. 141

[4] SN III, p. 66.

[5] SN IV, p. 01. Translation is by Bhikkhu Bodhi in His Translations of the Samyutta Nikāya, Vol II, p. 1133.

[6] MN III, p. 282.

[7] Quoted by Prof. Wijesekera in his book ‘Buddhist Essays’, p. 120.

[8] Quoted by Dr. W. Rahula in his book ‘What the Buddha Taught’. p. 26.

[9] AN V, p. 9.

Anatta and Nibbaana

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is nibbŒna which is characterized by the highest happiness (parama sukha) as opposed to suffering. It is also defined as the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha) as with the attainment of this goal all suffering cease. However, it should well be understood in its proper context, that is, in the context of the four noble truths. According to the four noble truths the worldly existence is suffering which of course is not without cause, but it has its cessation when its cause is removed by following the noble eight-fold path.

3540339082_logoAll suffering is said to be due to the affirmation of self-idea which manifests in following three ways: ‘this is mine’, ‘this I am’ and ‘this is my self’ – representing craving, conceit, and view respectively.[1] In many discourses the Buddha explains that there can not be found any ‘self’ either inside or outside the five aggregates which constitute a being. Believing in the existence of self is a grave misconception on the part of worldlings (puthujjana). The very fact that they are subject to change, produce suffering and not under our control suggest that they are non-self. Thus the Buddha establishes the fact that there is no self but the self concept in beings.

Since the false believe in the existence of self is responsible for arising of all suffering, the Buddha advices us to be rid of the self-idea. Because he says with the removal of self-idea there is peace and emancipation. In his own words:

“If  a monk lives constantly with a mind intent on the thought of Selflessness with regard to what is unsatisfactory, his mind will become free from egoism or self-interestedness (ahaºkŒra), from the craving to possess and regard as ‘mine’ (mamaºkŒra), and from inclinations to pride (mŒna) with regard to this body with its consciousness as well as all other objects, he will get rid of arrogance and prejudice, attain peace and be emancipated”.[2]

Here it means the emancipation from suffering arising due to self-centered desires. In the very first sermon (i.e. the dhammacakkappavattasutta) the Buddha declares craving to be the cause of suffering.[3] There he mentions of three kinds of craving, namely, craving (1) for sensual desire, (2) for becoming, and (3) for non-becoming. The Dhammapada also says “all sorrow and fear arise from self-centered desires, when one is free from it there is then no sorrow and fear for him.”[4]

The self idea, the Buddha says, is a fool’s thought (bālassa saṃkappo) whereby ambition and pride increase.[5]  All other negative mental qualities exist together with the self-concept. Therefore the Buddha says: “Abandon the idea of Self, and Self itself and pride and other vices will be naturally, destroyed, and thereby mental peace will be attained”.[6]

download (2)Now we understand that the erroneous belief in the existence of self is the cause of all our suffering in life. And once it is removed there is then peace and emancipation. However, someone may ask if there is no self (atta) who attains nibbŒna and experiences happiness? This question, in fact, was raised by someone by the name UdŒyi to venerable SŒriputta. The venerable SŒriputta when asked this question said: “that there is no sensation itself is happiness”.[7]

In fact the Buddha says that all dhammas are non-self (sabbe dhammŒ anatta). It includes both conditioned and unconditioned things in its scope. The Dhamapada says ‘when one understands this with wisdom he turns away from suffering’.[8] The exposition of anatta in different discourses of the Buddha amount to say that there is no self in anywhere. Believing in the existence of self is misconception which produces suffering. NibbŒna is just the realization or insight into the reality that there is no self but supreme peace and happiness. Because in other words it is free from three fires: greed, hate and delusion which causes all the problems in life.[9] And they can exist only in relation to the self-notion. With the removal of self-notion they can not exist therefore there is peace and happiness.

In conclusion it should be said that one can attain nibbŒna in this very life itself. It is not some kind of state or plane of existence. It is just freedom from the ego-illusion and therefore emancipation from suffering. What happens to those who attain nibbŒna after their death? The question, the Buddha says, simply does not arise (na upeti). They just become extinguish just as the fire.


[1] MN 1.135; SN II. 94 etc.: etaµ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti.

[2] Wijesekera, O. H. De A, Buddhist Essays, Sri Lanka: The Buddha Sasana Ministry, 1977, p. 143.

[3] SN V, p. 421.

[4] Dhp: verse-216.

[5] Dhp: verse-74.

[6] Wijesekera, O. H. De A, Buddhist Essays, Sri Lanka: The Buddha Sasana Ministry, 1977, p. 144.

[7] Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught, p. 43.

[8] Dhp: verse-279.

[9] SN IV, p. 251.

Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā Doctrine as Seen the MMK

Nagarjuna-buddhist-philosopherIt is a general assumption of the most scholars that the Emptiness Theory of Nāgārjuna is a kind of revolution against the Ābhidharmikās who tried to explain the true teaching of the Buddha in terms of metaphysical existing entity called Svabhāva. The emptiness theory of Nāgārjuna is said to be based upon the Prajñāpāramita scripture. In the MMK [Mūlamadhyamakakārikā] – the significant work of Nāgārjuna – he, taking no particular position and basing on the theory of emptiness, refuted all his opponents and established the true doctrine of the Buddha.

In point of fact, the concept of Śūnyatā is not totally a new creation of Nāgārjuna, but it was employed by him to refute the opponent’s views and establish the Buddhadharma. There are discussions of emptiness even in early Buddhist teaching. The Cūlasuñña sutta of Saṃyutta Nikāya is one of examples of this category.

Although the English rendering of the term ‘’Sūnyatā’ – i.e. ‘Emptiness’ generally gives a negative impression but it does not mean utter negation. In verses eighteen and nineteen of the chapter twenty four, Nāgārjuna emphatically explains what Śūnyatā’ actually is. In these two verses he said that the dependent origination [pratītyasamūdpāda] is another name for Śūnyatāand this is based upon convention (Ya pratītyasamutpāda Śūnyatā ta pracakmahe). And there is nothing whatsoever that is not dependent and hence non empty. So, what Venerable Nāgārjuna is trying to tell us here is that – “in as much as beings dependently co-arise they are empty in their nature.” And this dependent co-arising he explains with the four pairs of eight negations in the dedicatory verse of the MMK. The four pairs of eight negations are: 1) non-ceasing [anirodha] and non-arising [anutpāda], 2) non-annihilation [anuccheda] and non-permanence [aśāśvata], 3) non-identity [anekārtha] and non-difference [anānārtha] and 4) non-appearance [anāgama] and non-disappearance [anirgama].

According to him, one is not evident without the other. They are dependently co-arisen. Hence, they are devoid of intrinsic natures. And something that is dependently co-arisen is constantly arising and passing away. So, they can not be called either existence or non-existence. And that is because ‘existence ’ is contrary to perishing just like ‘non-existence ’ is contrary to arising of things.

Buddhism, in general, talks about two truths namely: 1) conventional truth [savti satya] and 2) ultimate truth [paramārtha satya]. Nāgārjuna is of no difference. According to the early Buddhist teaching, names and forms are the conventional truth; in the Madhyamaka also, words and ideas are significantly negated as they are merely conventional truth. On the contrary, the ultimate truth is beyond thought and language. This is why the Buddha always remained in his noble silence when he was asked on the metaphysical matters. The ultimate Truth is ineffable – it is said by the Buddha that he had never preached a single word in his forty five years of preaching life. But the question remains as to why people like the Buddha and Nāgārjuna had used ordinary words and logics and developed a dialectical reasoning in their explanation of the dharma? The answer is to awake people to the truth of emptiness. Because without depending upon the conventional truth, the ultimate can not be expressed.

According to Madhyamaka, the immediate insight into emptiness which is Prajñāhelps sentient beings understand the real nature of things but for Sarvāstivādins, it is the investigation ofdharmas [dharmapravicaya]. Thus, the definition of Prajñā,which is wisdom in English, varied from school to school. Not only the definition of Prajñā that is varied from school to school but also the so called ultimate reality or true nature of phenomenal world. So, there can be seen different approaches of different schools to the explanation of what is meant by reality.

The most well known dialectical method used by Nāgārjuna in his MMK to explain the reality is the tetralemma [caţuskoţi]: being, non-being, both being and non-being and neither being and nor non-being. This is a formula which includes all possible cases in its scope. Basing on emptiness, he used these four-fold methodology to refute the opponents. Thus he says in verses eight and nine of the chapter four: if analysis or explanation is made based on emptiness, there would be no problem in reputing other’s views. So, here he uses Śūnyatā as a tool to refute other’s views.

According to Nāgārjuna, Śūnyatā is also a practice for removing views. Any view is substantial because it binds us in the Sasāra. So, where there is view, there is the need of Śūnyatā, but if there is no view then there is no need of Śūnyatā. According to Gadjin M Nagao; “Emptiness has no standpoint of its own, its standpoint is the standpoint of no standpoint, so to speak.” Moreover, it was asked by Ven. Nāgārjuna not to hold emptiness wrongly for the holder may be affected by it.

In the chapter thirteen, Nāgārjuna says emptiness is to be used when there is something non-empty, but if something is already empty, there is then no need of emptiness anymore. Emptiness is also not to be understood as permanent existence, because holding emptiness as a real entity is also a kind of view which was rejected by Nāgārjuna and hence we see the theory – “emptiness of emptiness.”

In chapter twenty four, it is said that by perceiving dependent co-arising i.e. emptiness – the four noble truths are also perceived. Therefore, it is said that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. And in chapter eighteen again, emptiness is explained as dharmatā because it is the nature of all things that they are dependently co-arisen and hence intrinsically calm.

Nāgārjuna’s Emptiness doctrine, as we have observed so far, is a doctrine that came down from the Buddha himself. It was used by Nāgārjuna as a tool to refute the opponents, to explain the true nature of phenomenal existence, as the middle way to reach the state of perfect peace. The emptiness idea of Nāgārjuna is actually another name for dependent origination which is equal to the Buddha himself. The statement given by the Buddha is – whosoever sees the dependent arising sees him. That is why we see Nāgārjuna explaining the emptiness as thetatthatādharmatā or suchness.


  1. Kalupahana, David J. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna [the philosophy of the middle way]. Delhi: Motilal Banrasidass Publishers Private Limited, 1991.
  2. Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy [Continuities and Discontinuity]. Delhi: Motilal Banrasidass Publishers Private Limited, 1994.
  3. Nagao, Gadjin M. Mādhyamika and Yogacara [a study of Mahayana philosophies]. Edited and Translated by Leslie S. Kawamura. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publication, 1992.
  4. Thomas, Edward J. The History of Buddhist Thought. Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1933.
  5. Inada, Kenneth. Nāgārjuna: a Translation of its Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with an Introductory Essay. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1993.

Published: in the 8th Issue (June, 2008) of Bodhi Journal

URL: http://www.buddhistdoor.com/journal/issue008-04features3.html