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A Swift Pair of Messengers

Bhikkhu Sujato

Chapter 2


‘Suppose, monk, a king had a border city with strong ramparts, walls, and arches, and six gates. The gatekeeper there would be clever, competent, and intelligent, and would keep strangers out but let acquaintances in. A swift pair of messengers coming from the eastern quarter would question that gatekeeper thus: “Where, friend, is the lord of the city?”

‘“There he is, sirs, he is sitting in the middle at the cross-roads.”

‘Then that swift pair of messengers would present a message in accordance with reality to the lord of the city and leave by the way they came. I have made up this simile to convey a meaning. And this is the meaning: “City” is a designation for this body made up of the four great elements, produced from mother and father, built up from rice and porridge, subject to impermanence, to rubbing, wearing, breaking up, and dispersal. “Six gates” is a designation for the six internal sense bases. “Gatekeeper” is a designation for mindfulness. “Swift pair of messengers” is a designation for samatha and vipassana. “Lord of the city” is a designation for consciousness. “In the middle at the crossroads” is a designation for the four great elements.... “Message in accordance with reality” is a designation for Nibbana. “The way they came” is a designation for the noble eightfold path.”[1]

In ordinary usage, ‘samatha’ means ‘calming, settling, pacifying’, for example, of disputes and litigations;[2] here the meaning approaches ‘cessation’. The means of settling disputes in the Sangha exemplify how samatha and vipassana work together. The disputants should come together in harmony; thoroughly examine the issues in accordance with Dhamma; and unanimously agree on a solution. We thus find ‘vipassana’ also used in a legalistic context.

‘And when Prince Vipassi was born, the divine eye manifested to him as a result of past action, by means of which he saw for a league all around both day and night. And when Prince Vipassi was born, he was unblinkingly watchful, like the deities of Tavatimsa. [People said:] ‘The Prince is unblinkingly watchful’, and so Prince Vipassi came to be called Vipassi. And then, when King Bandhuma was seated adjudicating a legal case, he sat Prince Vipassi on his lap and instructed him regarding the legal case. And Prince Vipassi, even while seated on his father’s lap, having thoroughly investigated, drew a conclusion regarding the legal case by a logical method... and so Prince Vipassi was all the more called ‘Vipassi’.[3]

Here, two aspects of vipassana are brought forth. Firstly, the penetrative, clear-eyed observation of what is occurring in the present moment. And secondly, the ability to infer a correct conclusion by closely examining the evidence before one's eyes, understanding it in line with valid general principles. These two aspects are mirrored in the context of dependent origination by ‘knowledge regarding Dhamma’ ‑ understanding each factor according to the four noble truths ‑ and ‘knowledge regarding entailment’ ‑ understanding that all those who see the Dhamma, past, present, and future, will see it the same way.[4] Another, similar, kind of knowledge is called the ‘knowledge of the regularity of natural principles’ ‑ understanding that the conditional relations between the factors always operate the same way.[5]

The precise denotation of the terms ‘samatha’ and ‘vipassana’ in the context of meditation can be derived from a passage quoted more fully below. Samatha is the steadying of the mind, its settling, unifying, and concentrating in samadhi. It is therefore similar in meaning to one-pointedness of mind, the most distinctive mental quality of jhana or samadhi.[6] Vipassana is the seeing and exploring of activities. It therefore refers to wisdom in its refined mode of investigation into the nature of reality as experience. These definitions express the quintessence of samatha and vipassana. However, samatha and vipassana also occur as a comprehensive summary of the meditative aspect of the path, and the next passage treats them as leading to the development of the mind and of wisdom respectively. This implies that they may also be taken in a more general sense as including those qualities of mind leading to peace and to wisdom. They almost always occur as a pair in the suttas, and are a pair of mental qualities to be developed by means of the eightfold path.

‘Monks, these two principles share in realization. What two? Samatha and vipassana.

‘When samatha is developed, what purpose is achieved? The mind is developed. When the mind is developed, what purpose is achieved? Lust is abandoned.

‘When vipassana is developed, what purpose is achieved? Understanding is developed. When understanding is developed, what purpose is achieved? Ignorance is abandoned.

‘Monks, the mind tainted by lust is not released; understanding tainted by ignorance is not developed. Thus the release of heart is due to the fading away of lust; the release by understanding is due to the fading away of ignorance.’[7]

Sometimes the phrases ‘release of heart’ and ‘release by understanding’ denote different kinds of arahants distinguished by their giving chief emphasis to either samadhi or wisdom. Normally however, as here, they point to two complementary aspects of the release of all arahants. Thus samatha and vipassana function as a pair, not only in the preliminary training, but also right up to the ultimate liberation. This is why the Buddha called Nibbana the ‘samatha of all activities’, emphasizing that samatha points to the stilling, tranquillizing, and pacifying of suffering.

Notice that samatha brings about the fading of lust, vipassana the fading of ignorance. Lust is a term for the emotional aspect of the defilements; ignorance is a term for the intellectual aspect. At their most general, then, samatha may be regarded as pertaining to emotional development, vipassana as pertaining to intellectual development. The terms ‘emotional’ and ‘intellectual’ are meant here in their broadest possible connotation. They have been chosen because they offer an established usage, easily understood, which approximates to this context. No doubt we risk trivializing the concept of samatha and vipassana; but perhaps we may succeed instead in dignifying the contemporary impoverished understanding of the emotions and the intellect. By using the word ‘emotional’ we no more mean being moody and impulsive than by ‘intellectual’ we mean mere reasoning and rational thinking. Rather, we refer to that whole side of experience, half of our mind or world that deals with feelings and intuitions, the soft feminine side, and that, which deals with understanding and analysis, the penetrating masculine side. All of us contain both of these aspects within us. Each of these aspects contains some good and some bad and must be developed in a balanced way if we are to achieve liberation ‑ we cannot enlighten only half our mind.

Many similes can illustrate this mutual support. Vipassana only is like trying to cut down a tree with a razor blade; samatha only is like using a hammer. Both together is like using a sharp axe ‑ both penetrating and powerful. Or samatha is like the underside of a postage stamp ‑ it sticks ‑ while vipassana is like the top ‑ it informs. Or samatha is like the left foot, vipassana. like the right foot ‑ one can only move one foot forward by leaning on the other. Or samatha is like the cool breeze at the mountain top, and vipassana is like the view of the countryside. Or samatha is like the hand which clings to the next rung up the ladder, vipassana like the hand which lets go of the rung below. This simile contains a warning ‑ if one lets go of both ends before reaching the top, one is likely to end up as a crumpled heap at the foot of the ladder.

Venerable Ananda states that enlightenment must depend on some combination of samatha and vipassana.

‘Friends, any monk or nun who declares arahantship in my presence has arrived there by four paths or by one of them. What four? Here, friends, a monk develops samatha prior to vipassana. While he is developing samatha prior to vipassana the path is born in him. He cultivates, develops, and makes much of that path. As he does so his fetters are abandoned and his inherent compulsions are eradicated. Again, friends, a monk develops vipassana prior to samatha.... Again, friends, a monk develops samatha and vipassana yoked equally.... Again, friends, a monk's mind is seized by restlessness for the Dhamma. When the mind settles down within, becomes steady, unified, and concentrated in samadhi, then the path is born in him. He cultivates, develops, and makes much of that path. As he does so, his fetters are abandoned and his inherent compulsions are eradicated.’[8]

Venerable Ananda sets out a comprehensive fourfold classification of the sequence of practice. The basic sequence is common to all four modes. First samatha and vipassana are developed; then the path is born; then the path is developed further. The only variation is the manner of preliminary practice of samatha and vipassana. The ‘path’ here is obviously the noble eightfold path. At its inception this is the way to stream-entry.[9] This discourse indicates that all meditators who are to attain liberation will develop both samatha and vipassana before entering into the plane of the noble ones. There is no mode which develops vipassana first and then samatha (as transcendental jhana) simultaneous with the arising of the path. Nor is there a mode that develops vipassana until stream-entry and then samatha to support the higher stages.

Examples of the first mode appear frequently throughout this work. Vipassana prior to samatha is exemplified as follows. In this passage, ‘imperturbable’ refers to the first two formless attainments.

‘Again, monks, a noble disciple considers thus: “Sensual pleasures... sensual perceptions... physical forms... perceptions of physical forms both here & now and in lives to come are alike impermanent. What is impermanent is not worth relishing, not worth welcoming, not worth adhering to.” When he practices in this way and frequently abides thus, his mind becomes clear about this base. When there is full clarity he attains to the imperturbable now, or he decides upon understanding. With the breaking up of the body, after death, it is possible that his on-flowing consciousness will pass on to the imperturbable....

‘Again, monks, a noble disciple, gone to a forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, considers thus: “This is void of a self or of what belongs to a self.” When he practices in this way and frequently abides thus, his mind becomes clear about this base. When there is full clarity he attains to the base of nothingness now or he decides upon understanding. With the breaking up of the body, after death, it is possible that his on-flowing consciousness will pass on to the base of nothingness….’[10]

The path of samatha and vipassana yoked equally is explicitly described in only one place.

‘Monks, when one knows and sees in accordance with reality the eye ... visible forms ... eye consciousness ... eye contact... feeling born of eye contact, then one is not inflamed by lust for these things. When one abides un-inflamed by lust, unattached, unconfused, contemplating danger, then the five aggregates associated with grasping are diminished for oneself in the future, and one’s craving which generates repeated existence, accompanied by relishing and lust, delighting here and there, is abandoned. One's bodily and mental troubles, torments, and fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental bliss.

‘Such a person's view is right view. Their intention is right intention, their effort is right effort, their mindfulness is right mindfulness, and their samadhi is right samadhi. But their bodily action, verbal action, and livelihood have been well purified earlier. Thus the noble eightfold path is fulfilled for them by development [and also the other wings to enlightenment]. These two qualities, samatha. and vipassana, are operating in them yoked evenly together.’ [And so on for the ear, etc.] [11]

In the final mode, the meditator seized by restlessness for Dhamma must turn to samatha for a cure.[12]

‘How does he steady his mind within himself, settle it, unify it, and concentrate it in samadhi? Here, Ananda, he enters and abides in the first jhana ... second jhana ... third jhana ... fourth jhana.’[13]

This restlessness for Dhamma is probably the subtle fetter of restlessness remaining to be cut by the non-returner. It seems that if this restlessness is too strong, the meditator will over-emphasize vipassana at the expense of samatha, whereas if the corresponding ‘lust for form [jhana realms]’ and ‘lust for formless [jhana realms]’ are too strong, they will over-emphasize samatha, at the expense of vipassana. These imbalances must be rectified if the path is to manifest. I take the phrase ‘pertaining to the higher understanding’ below to imply, not necessarily an advanced level of vipassana, but understanding of impermanence, etc., rather than ‘worldly’ understanding of action and rebirth, etc.

'A person who has samatha of the heart within himself but no vipassana into principles pertaining to higher understanding should approach one who has vipassana and inquire: “How should activities be seen? How should they be explored? How should they be discerned with vipassana?” And later he can gain vipassana.....

'A person who has vipassana into principles pertaining to higher understanding but no samatha of the heart within himself should approach one who has samatha and inquire: “How should the mind be steadied? How should it be settled? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated in samadhi?” And later he can gain samatha....

'One who has neither should inquire about both [and “should put forth extreme enthusiasm, effort, endeavor, exertion, unflagging mindfulness, and clear comprehension to acquire them, just as if one's turban or hair were ablaze, one would put forth extreme effort to quench the flames"…..[14]]

‘One who has both, established in these beneficial qualities should make further effort for the evaporation of the poisons[15].’

‘Just as if, Nandaka, there was a four-legged animal with one leg stunted and short, it would thus be unfulfilled in that factor; so too, a monk who is faithful and virtuous but does not gain samatha of the heart within himself is unfulfilled in that factor. That factor should be fulfilled by him.... A monk who has these three but no vipassana into principles pertaining to higher understanding is unfulfilled in that factor. That factor should be fulfilled by him.’[16]

So all meditators are encouraged to develop both samatha and vipassana, employing a variety of strategies to overcome the diversity of defilements.

‘By a monk established in these five principles [that is: good friendship, virtue of the code of conduct, conversation on Dhamma, energy, wisdom], four principles should be further developed: [meditation on] ugliness should be developed to abandon lust; loving-kindness should be developed to abandon anger; mindfulness of breathing should be developed to cut off thinking; the perception of impermanence should be developed to eradicate the conceit “I am”.’[17]

Bearing in mind this basic understanding of samatha and vipassana, we now go on to examine the three frameworks for practice referred to above. Each of these frameworks contains a balance and harmony between these emotional and intellectual qualities.

‘There is no jhana for one without understanding
No understanding for one without jhana
But for one with both jhana and understanding
Nibbana surely is near’

[1] S35.245

[2] M104.13

[3] D14.1.37 LDB is here,as all too often, thoroughly unreliable.

[4] S12.33 cp. D28.2

[5] S12.34

[6] Cp S46.51, where samatha equals ‘not-many-pointedness’ (avyagga, unscattered), an obvious synonym for one-pointedness.

[7] A2:3.10

[8] A4.170

[9] At A5.57 however, a parallel phrase occurs, including ‘the path is born’, refering to one who is already a noble disciple.

[10] M106.5, 7. Although Bhikkhu Bodhi says that fourth jhana can be included here as ‘imperturbable’, the reflection on the dangers of physical form makes this unlikely (see MLDB notes 1000, 1007).

[11] M149.9-10

[12] Vsm, however, identifies ‘restlessness for Dhamma’ with the ‘taints of vipassana’ and recommends more vipassana. See Vsm 20.106, 126ff

[13] M122.7 cp. M19.8-10, M20, M4.22, S40.1

[14] A10.54

[15] A4.94

[16] A9.4

[17] Ud.4.1

[18] Dhp 372


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last updated: 06-09-2004