Samatha Meditation - lineage and origins

THE SAMATHA TRUST: BACKGROUND, TRADITION, WHAT WE OFFER

Beginnings

In 1964 a former Thai-Cambodian monk, Nai Boonman, settled in London and was invited to teach meditation by the English Saṅgha Trust at the then Hampstead Buddhist Vihāra. Soon after he was asked to start a meditation class in Cambridge by the University Buddhist Society, which 10 years later led to the formation of the Samatha Trust as a UK registered Charity with Nai Boonman and a group of his first students as founding trustees. Later in 1974 Nai Boonman returned to Thailand entrusting the development of the burgeoning new tradition to his students, only re-establishing an active involvement 22 years later in 1996 when the Trust’s Meditation Centre in Wales was formally inaugurated.

The immediate background to the formation of this first specifically samatha tradition in England was a wide-ranging and politically inspired suppression, or “reforms”, of centuries-old samatha practices, in particular jhāna meditation, across Thailand and Burma from the mid-1950s and its replacement with “new” Burmese vipassanā that claimed jhāna practices were not necessary to fulfil the Buddhist Path to realisation. Within a matter of a few years the mostly oral tradition of jhāna meditation all but disappeared.

Origins

The form of practice that has developed in, first, England and now internationally under the auspices of the Samatha Trust, is a specifically lay tradition that links directly to pre-reform practices widespread across Southeast Asia for many centuries, but with unique and fascinating adaptations to the new Western cultural context. The heart of this new tradition is the teaching and practice of the jhānas; both the rūpa (form) jhānas and the arūpa (formless) jhānas, but with several important supporting activities developed by the wide range of character types that have been key to developments over the last more than 55 years. A group of members, for example, developed special expertise in Pali chanting, taught initially by Cambodian and Thai teachers, and on several occasions have been invited to chant at important events in Thailand and Singapore. Others have been drawn to studying and in some cases translating Buddhist texts including those of the Abhidhamma, and have been recognised for their contributions to academic understanding. Yet others have become involved in “green” projects of land management and the creation of a variety of small animal habitats, including a wetland area and wonderful gardens at the national meditation centre in Wales. And more recently, with the cooperation of meditators happy to be the subjects of an EEG research study of brain activity during jhāna meditation, a major breakthrough paper was published in a leading neuroscience journal (EEG study) in June 2019. 

The understanding and practice of jhāna meditation is highly developed in this tradition, and available to those who wish to explore more deeply. Its form of expression is closely related to the pre-reform Yogāvacara that existed for centuries across Southeast Asia, There are occasionally opportunities for meditators from other jhāna traditions such as those of Pa-Auk and Ajahn Brahm to join periods of practice with our teachers.

What we offer

We offer weekly meditation classes in various locations across England, Ireland and Wales, as well as weekend and longer residential courses at the National Centre in Wales, and at Centres in Manchester and Milton Keynes. Teaching is given freely to anyone able and wishing to learn; teachers take no personal remuneration, and the operation and management of our Centres is funded entirely by donations (to find out how funding works click here). After some years under the guidance of a teacher, and after gaining sufficient experience, meditators are in turn invited to teach as one-step-ahead teachers. This is a “gradual” tradition, where meditators develop their practice at their own pace to build a solid foundation. Based on attention to the breath, it is particularly suitable for those looking to develop meditation practice and its benefits whilst continuing with the challenges of everyday life. Although a lay tradition, several members over the years have ordained temporarily as Buddhist monks to broaden their experience, and we have excellent and mutually respectful relations with monastic Saṅghas in the UK and Southeast Asia, as well as with some Tibetan meditation teachers.

Whilst Samatha meditation can benefit most temperaments, a weekend or week-long retreat may not be appropriate if you have mental health difficulties, particularly if you are new or relatively new to the practice. The intensive nature of these courses can bring unresolved thoughts and feelings to the fore and if strong these may be difficult for you to deal with on an intensive course. It may be better instead to develop meditation or mindfulness in a setting where there are more possibilities for active external engagement for the mind, and where there is easier access to one’s usual support. A number of mindfulness-based therapies, for example, are now more widely available. Meditation should not generally be seen as a substitute for psychiatric treatment and we recommend that those with psychiatric disorders should approach meditation practice cautiously and inform the teacher of their condition prior to starting practice.