The Buddhist system of meditation training is based on two pillars: serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassanā¸ literally: “clear seeing”). The basic premise is simple: it’s good to have the right equipment for each task. If you need to see your own face, it’s good to have a mirror. If you’re doing microbiology, it’s good to have a microscope. If you’re doing astronomy, it’s good to have a telescope. If you’d like to gain the wisdom necessary to liberate yourself from suffering, the rightly equipped mind wields serenity and insight.
The Buddha actually makes the importance of serenity and insight explicit. He says that if a monk wishes for enlightenment, he needs “to fulfill virtuous behavior, be devoted to internal serenity of mind, not neglect the jhānas (samadhi), be possessed of insight, and meditate diligently.” Serenity and insight are essential parts of the practice. In other separate discourses, the Buddha tells the monks that they should develop serenity and insight with the urgency of a man whose turban was on fire. He also says monks who have already developed both serenity and insight should use them to reach enlightenment.
As we stated earlier, this combination of serenity and insight was a key innovation of the Buddha. Before Siddhattha became the Buddha, meditations for cultivating serenity (samatha) and its close cousin samadhi were already widely known and taught, and we know that because Siddhattha himself learned those meditations from two famous teachers. A meditator begins with serenity to calm his mind, and when his mind becomes sufficiently calm, it becomes increasingly undistracted and blissful. Eventually, attention becomes so well collected the mind reaches samadhi. Siddhattha correctly realized that those blissful meditative states are conditioned, and therefore impermanent, and therefore cannot possibly be the ultimate solution to all suffering. However, he also correctly figured out that he could use that powerful state of mind to look deep into the nature of suffering, thereby gaining final freedom from all suffering. This was a genius move. Using that combination of serenity and insight, he gained full enlightenment and became the Buddha.
This standard method of serenity+insight is reflected in the last two components of the Noble Eightfold Path: right mindfulness and right samadhi. Right mindfulness includes practices that both calm the mind and develop insight. Right samadhi puts the mind into deep serenity and amps up its power to max-plus so it can be used with right mindfulness to develop profound insight.
The Buddha defines right mindfulness as the four establishments of mindfulness, which are mindfulness of the body, sensation, mind, and dharmas.
Right samadhi is defined as the four meditative states known as the jhānas. In the first jhāna, you are secluded from sensual pleasure and unwholesome states, and you experience what the Buddha calls “rapture and happiness born of seclusion.” In the second jhāna, all thinking subsides, and because of that, the mind becomes placid and unified, and you experience what the Buddha calls “rapture and happiness born of samadhi.” In the third jhāna, the mind becomes much more tranquil than the second jhāna, and with that tranquility, the mind abandons rapture and is left with a gentle happiness. With that, the meditator dwells “equanimous, mindful and clearly comprehending.” In the fourth jhāna, the mind abandons even that gentle happiness and rises beyond pleasure and pain. It also rises beyond being joyful for things being the way we want, or being dejected for things not being the way we want. Equanimity is perfected. In that state, the mind possesses mindfulness purified by equanimity. The Buddha calls it the “pure bright mind”.
Right mindfulness and right samadhi are both major topics. We will discuss them in detail in the two subsequent topic blocks, and then talk about how they, along with the other six parts of the Noble Eightfold Path, arc directly to nirvana.
 Ākaṅkha Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.71).
 Samatha Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.54).
 Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.93.
 Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.8.
Artwork by Colin Goh.