Meditation is the heart of the path, the discipline by which all of the intellectual understanding is absorbed into our blood and bones as it were. Meditation is presented under the division into two as Shamatha and Vipashyana. These two are considered to be the basis of and inclusive of all of the various types of meditation that are possible.
Meditations that are essentially mind or body training are considered Shamatha in that they are taming the mind and body and making them a powerful foundation for Vipashyana practice. So this includes mindfulness practices, concentration practices, mantra and visualization practices,
breathe retention and any practices that work with the emotions such as the brahmaviharas, tonglen, and lojong.
Here in the context of the Shedra curriculum the main focus is on Vipashyana meditation. We start with the most important Buddhist text on meditation common to all traditions of Buddhism: The Establishment of Mindfulness Sutra or Satipathanasutta. All subsequent Buddhist meditation practices are derived from this text.
The next key text is the Samdhinirmocana Mahayana Sutra where in the eighth chapter the Buddha presents an extensive discourse in the form of a dialogue with the bodhisattva Maitreya about Shamatha and Vipashyana from the Mahayana point of view. In this sutra, we find the seeds for all of the various qualities and characteristics of Shamatha and Vipashyana that we find in the various Mahayana traditions that come down to us today from Tibet and the Far East.
In particular, we trace the development and refinement of Vipashyana into two types--analytical and non-analytical--and the condensation of the latter into four stages in practice. These are presented indirectly in the two sources noted above but explicitly in various other sources ranging from very brief explications in the Lankavatara Sutra and Maitreya’s Ornament of Mahayana Sutras, and more extensively in texts by Nagarjuna, Atisha, and, in particular, Kamalashila in his three part Bhavanakrama or Stages of Meditation. Since this the most extensive and elaborate discussion of the Indian Mahayana system of Vipashyana, this text is the third key text of this segment. While Rathakarashanti has written extensively on this scheme, his text is unfortunately not yet available in English translation.
Lastly, we study two presentations from the Tibetan tradition. The first, a chapter from The Treasury of Knowledge by Jamgon Kongtrul, summarizes the essence, types, varieties and stages of Shamatha and Vipashyana. This text presents a wonderful summary of the Indian Mahayana tradition and also blends that with paradigms from the Indian Vajrayana Mahamudra tradition.
In the former, we see a dynamic development in the presentation of Shamatha as progressing through three stages, represented by progressively more subtle objects of the practice.
In the second presentation, we see the way that the Tibetan tradition has evolved into its present state where meditation upon the most subtle object of Shamatha is used as a bridge to access non-analytical Vipashyana directly in a way that shortens the normally much longer progression through extensive analytical Vipashyana as a preliminary stage.