Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Discussion of Samatha bhavana and Jhana bhavana.

Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby manjusri » Thu Jul 07, 2011 3:00 am

Hello to everyone,

I am new to this forum and my question to those here: is the actual attainment of shamatha being actively promoted in the Theravada tradition these days by any of it's teachers, either here or elsewhere? We hear a lot about the importance of vipassana, but very little, it seems, about the importance of shamatha. I'm very curious how shamatha is generally regarded, and whether or not those within the tradition believe it's attainment is essential for a successful vipassana practice?

Back in 1988, I and a small group of Westerners completed a one year shamatha retreat in Washington State under the aegis of a Tibetan teacher (Gen Lamrimpa) and a Westerner, B. Alan Wallace. Shamatha, in the Mahayana sutrayana tradition, is regarded as indispensable for a successful insight practice, and yet, aside from Alan Wallace, I know of no one else who is promoting it's actual attainment.

Any feedback would be very much appreciated.

Metta,
Manjusri
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Ben » Thu Jul 07, 2011 4:41 am

Greetings manjusri and welcome to Dhamma Wheel.
manjusri wrote:Hello to everyone,

I am new to this forum and my question to those here: is the actual attainment of shamatha being actively promoted in the Theravada tradition these days by any of it's teachers, either here or elsewhere? We hear a lot about the importance of vipassana, but very little, it seems, about the importance of shamatha. I'm very curious how shamatha is generally regarded, and whether or not those within the tradition believe it's attainment is essential for a successful vipassana practice?

Yes. Ajahn Brahm is a well known proponent of Jhana. There are others as well.
Samatha is seen as indepensible by many Theravadin teachers, including Vipassana teachers. However samatha is not an end in itself and that it conditions the mind for the development of panna via vipassana meditation.


manjusri wrote:Back in 1988, I and a small group of Westerners completed a one year shamatha retreat in Washington State under the aegis of a Tibetan teacher (Gen Lamrimpa) and a Westerner, B. Alan Wallace. Shamatha, in the Mahayana sutrayana tradition, is regarded as indispensable for a successful insight practice, and yet, aside from Alan Wallace, I know of no one else who is promoting it's actual attainment.

Any feedback would be very much appreciated.

Metta,
Manjusri


Alan B Wallace is known to a few of us here. As I mentioned above, there are teachers in the Theravadin tradition who teach samatha. Some do it in isolation from Vipassana but the majority incorporate samatha either as an indespensible precursor or along side Vipassana.

Some of my friends and colleagues here will, no doubt, be happy to provide references for you.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Moggalana » Thu Jul 07, 2011 8:28 am

Hi Manjusri,

Leigh Brasington has a good website about Jhanas and their various interpretations in the theravadin world. Look here: http://www.leighb.com/jhanas.htm

If you are interested in books, I would recommend Ajahn Brahm's Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond and Simply This Moment (pdf), Shaila Catherine's Focused and Fearless and Bhante Gunaratana's Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English.

There is also the Samatha Trust.

Ajahn Lee's Keeping the Breath in Mind is also quite popular here.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby manjusri » Thu Jul 07, 2011 3:40 pm

Thanks to Ben and Moggalana for posting (and Ben's warm welcome). I very much appreciate the links and suggestions.

In the Tibetan tradition, shamatha is considered a necessary attainment for engaging in a successful and effective vipassana or insight practice. Vipassana is understood, in my tradition, as an analytical meditation on the emptiness of both self and phenomena. Shamatha provides the necessary concentration as well as stability and clarity of mind needed to engage in a protracted meditation on emptiness. Shamatha falls just short of the first jhana as understood in the Tibetan tradition.

As far as I know, the full attainment of shamatha (all nine stages) is not something that many people are working towards. This is true, I believe, in both the Mahayana and Theravadin traditions. Is it understood, in your tradition, that one need not attain the full complement of shamatha to go on to have a non-conceptual realization of emptiness? How, if full shamatha is not required, does one do that? I can't imagine, personally, how one would be capable of advancing up through the nine stages of shamatha while, at the same time, engaging in insight practice? I would imagine that anything that takes your mind off your object (mine was the breath) would be considered a distraction?

And what place do the jhanas hold in your tradition? Are they necessary? Can you attain the first jhana, for example, without having attained shamatha first?

I realize these are a lot of questions! I am trying to understand how shamatha fits into your tradition vis a vis my tradition. Are we on the same page, or are there important differences?

BTW, is there a way to get an email notification when someone posts on this (or any other) thread? If someone could help me with that, I'd very much appreciate it. I couldn't find anything in the control panel that addresses this option.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby ancientbuddhism » Thu Jul 07, 2011 3:41 pm

A Honed and Heavy Axe By Ajahn CHandako

Ajahn Chandako gives a succinct presentation of how Samatha and Vipassanā are presented in the Nikāyas as a combined contemplative effort. And how this was presented by Ajahn Chah and the TFT.
Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you've found
You fool, it's only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another. – Townes Van Zandt ‘Lungs’

Secure your own mask before assisting others. – NORTHWEST AIRLINES (Pre-Flight Instruction)

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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby daverupa » Thu Jul 07, 2011 3:45 pm

Why do people generally still refer to vipassana as a practice? The jury is in: it's inaccurate. Even seeing samatha as a practice is inaccurate. They are two qualities of mind to be developed through Dhamma practice, not two types of Dhamma practice.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby ancientbuddhism » Thu Jul 07, 2011 3:51 pm

daverupa wrote:Why do people generally still refer to vipassana as a practice? The jury is in: it's inaccurate. Even seeing samatha as a practice is inaccurate. They are two qualities of mind to be developed through Dhamma practice, not two types of Dhamma practice.


Yes, In Tandem
Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you've found
You fool, it's only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another. – Townes Van Zandt ‘Lungs’

Secure your own mask before assisting others. – NORTHWEST AIRLINES (Pre-Flight Instruction)

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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Kenshou » Thu Jul 07, 2011 4:09 pm

Manjusri, there are in fact a wide range of views among Theravadin teachers and practitioners on these issues, so it is probably impossible to give you a categorical answer. There are differing views among Theravadin teachers and practitioners about how much samatha is necessary for the proper development of vipassana, what the nature of jhana is and whether or not vipassana can be developed alongside it or whether a lesser degree of tranquility is needed. (what is commonly called "access concentration", the area before the first jhana).

Vipassana is understood, in my tradition, as an analytical meditation on the emptiness of both self and phenomena.


I can't imagine, personally, how one would be capable of advancing up through the nine stages of shamatha while, at the same time, engaging in insight practice? I would imagine that anything that takes your mind off your object (mine was the breath) would be considered a distraction?


It may be worth pointing out that in Theravada as I understand it, the development of insight is not an analytical matter, at it's deepest. More analytical practices can certainly be helpful, but in the end the nature of phenomena must be known directly. This comprehension may occur alongside analytical thought, but that itself is not enough. Some hold that jhana is a more open samadhi which allows mindfulness of all the six-sense doors and therefore allows that. Some hold a more restrictive understanding which might match with what you have explained here. Either way, point is, there's little agreement.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Kenshou » Thu Jul 07, 2011 4:14 pm

daverupa wrote:Why do people generally still refer to vipassana as a practice? The jury is in: it's inaccurate. Even seeing samatha as a practice is inaccurate. They are two qualities of mind to be developed through Dhamma practice, not two types of Dhamma practice.

While I agree with your sentiment here, I think we can pretty easily say that those are simply practices aiming at developing those certain qualities. But it's probably good to be clear that vipassana as a quality and vipassana ala sayadaw ajahn whoever as some specific form of practice should not be confounded.
Last edited by Kenshou on Thu Jul 07, 2011 4:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 07, 2011 4:44 pm

daverupa wrote:Why do people generally still refer to vipassana as a practice? The jury is in: it's inaccurate.
That is just one of those things with which we are going to be stuck, like "taking refuge."
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Nyana » Thu Jul 07, 2011 5:15 pm

manjusri wrote:In the Tibetan tradition, shamatha is considered a necessary attainment for engaging in a successful and effective vipassana or insight practice.

This is primarily the Gelugpa interpretation of Indian treatises, and isn't entirely representative of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. See, for example, Dakpo Tashi Nyamgal's Moonlight for Indian sūtrayāna sources which specifically allow for vipaśyanā to either be developed prior to śamatha or in tandem with śamatha.

manjusri wrote:Vipassana is understood, in my tradition, as an analytical meditation on the emptiness of both self and phenomena.

Again, not entirely accurate. The Cig car 'jug pa rnam par mi rtog pa'i bsgom don, attributed to Vimalamitra, is a sudden entry sūtrayāna text which presents vipaśyanā as a quality of mind, not as an analytical meditation. This view has also been incorporated into Kagyu sūtra mahāmudrā.

manjusri wrote:As far as I know, the full attainment of shamatha (all nine stages) is not something that many people are working towards. This is true, I believe, in both the Mahayana and Theravadin traditions.

There are many ways to develop śamatha. Vase breathing, sky-gazing, deity-yoga, and so on, are fairly common practices in TB which can induce deep śamatha if properly engaged.

manjusri wrote:Is it understood, in your tradition, that one need not attain the full complement of shamatha to go on to have a non-conceptual realization of emptiness?

Yes.

manjusri wrote:How, if full shamatha is not required, does one do that?

One can develop sufficient samatha to (temporarily) eliminate the hindrances through engaging in vipassanābhāvanā.

manjusri wrote:And what place do the jhanas hold in your tradition? Are they necessary?

As always, depends upon the context, as well as who you ask.

All the best,

Geoff
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby manjusri » Thu Jul 07, 2011 5:54 pm

daverupa wrote:Why do people generally still refer to vipassana as a practice? The jury is in: it's inaccurate. Even seeing samatha as a practice is inaccurate. They are two qualities of mind to be developed through Dhamma practice, not two types of Dhamma practice.


Yes, strictly speaking shamatha is a state of mind, but when one is engaged in a meditation to bring that state of mind to fruition, it seems to commonly be referred to (by many) as shamatha meditation or shamatha practice. How do you et al refer to a meditation that is designed to produce shamatha? In any event, though strictly inaccurate, does anyone misconstrue what shamatha "practice" is referring to?
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby nathan » Thu Jul 07, 2011 6:43 pm

If one cultivates only samatha one may overcome the hindrances and develop considerable calm or the jhanas. If one cultivates only vipassana one may overcome the hindrances and develop the three perceptions of annica, dukkha and anatta.

If one cultivates the two qualities together one may overcome the hindrances, develop the three perceptions of annica, dukkha and anatta and continue to maintain these three perceptions throughout the continued development of calm and the jhanas.

It has typically been my experience that in applying energy to the cultivation of samatha and vipassana at the same time and inclining more energetically towards the cultivation of samatha the five hindrances are more readily overcome than by cultivating only samatha or vipassana and that vipassana is cultivated simultaneously by means of attending to the three perceptions of annica, dukkha and anatta that arise in relation to the flux of attention, the diversity which is opposed to samatha, as attention ranges throughout the various perceptions of the compounded conditions.

Cultivating the two qualities together in this way, when samatha deepens into jhana one continues to perceive the annica, dukkha and anatta natures of the compounded conditions which together make up the jhanas and formless concentrations. This is how the two qualities support and nurture the development of each other and how vipassana can continue to support useful and beneficial discernments throughout and up to the formless concentration on no-thing-ness and immediately following the concentration of neither perception nor-non-perception and the cessation of feeling and perception.

In my experience the two qualities work together seamlessly with the two exceptions of the one case where there is only one mental quality remaining and the one case where there are no mental qualities remaining. Even in the case of these two exceptions, when vipassana has been cultivated together with samatha, discernment can resume again as soon as there are at least two or more mental qualities arising together again in a compounded manner.
Last edited by nathan on Thu Jul 07, 2011 7:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Freawaru » Thu Jul 07, 2011 6:57 pm

manjusri wrote: Is it understood, in your tradition, that one need not attain the full complement of shamatha to go on to have a non-conceptual realization of emptiness? How, if full shamatha is not required, does one do that? I can't imagine, personally, how one would be capable of advancing up through the nine stages of shamatha while, at the same time, engaging in insight practice? I would imagine that anything that takes your mind off your object (mine was the breath) would be considered a distraction?



Are these the nine stages of shamatha you refer to?

There are nine stages of settling the mind (sems-gnas dgu) into a state of shamatha:

1.
Setting the mind (sems ‘jog-pa) on the object of focus. At this stage, we are merely able to set or place our attention on the object of focus, but are unable to maintain it.
2.
Setting with some continuity (rgyun-du ‘jog-pa). Here, we are able to maintain our mental hold on the object with some continuity, but only for a short time before losing it. It takes some time before we recognize that we have lost the object and before we can reestablish our focus.
3.
Resetting (glan-du ‘jog-pa). Here, we are able to recognize as soon as we have lost our mental hold on the object, and we are able to reset or restore our focus immediately.
4.
Closely setting (nye-bar ‘jog-pa). Here, we do not lose our mental hold on the object, but because the subtle mental flightiness of an undercurrent of thought and middling dullness are strong dangers and can still occur, we need to maintain their opponents very strongly.
5.
Taming (dul-bar byed-pa). Here, we no longer experience gross flightiness, the subtle flightiness of an undercurrent of thought, or gross or middling dullness. However, because we have overstrained to concentrate and have sunk too deeply inwards, we have relaxed the appearance-producing factor giving rise to the appearance of the object of focus. Consequently, we experience subtle dullness. We need to refresh and uplift (gzengs-bstod) the mental hold by remembering the benefits of gaining shamatha.
6.
Stilling (zhi-bar byed-pa). Here, although there is no longer great danger of subtle mental dullness, nevertheless in uplifting the mind, we became too excited and the mental hold became too tight. Consequently, we experience the subtle flightiness of itchiness to leave the object of focus. We need to use strong alertness to detect this and to relax our mental hold slightly.
7.
Complete stilling (rnam-pa zhi-bar byed-pa). Here, although the danger of subtle flightiness or dullness is minimal, we still need to exert effort to rid ourselves of them completely.
8.
Single-pointedness (rtse-cig-tu byed-pa). Here, by just relying on a slight effort to apply mental glue at the beginning of the session, we are able to sustain our concentration uninterruptedly throughout the session, without experiencing any level of flightiness or dullness.
9.
Absorbed setting (mnyam-par ‘jog-pa). Here, we are able effortlessly to maintain concentration, free of any interruptions, throughout the entire session. This is the attainment of absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi.)

http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/ar ... matha.html


If yes, I would say that one can practice mindfulness from stage 3 onwards as sati (mindfulness) is stable.

I am not sure but I think stage 4 might be identical to what is called access concentration in Theravada - this is the traditional state one starts with insight practice when one enters samatha first (different in pure insight practice).
Last edited by Freawaru on Thu Jul 07, 2011 7:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby daverupa » Thu Jul 07, 2011 6:58 pm

manjusri wrote:How do you et al refer to a meditation that is designed to produce shamatha?


Meditation designed to produce samatha is also designed to produce vipassana, or it's adhamma.

manjusri wrote:In any event, though strictly inaccurate, does anyone misconstrue what shamatha "practice" is referring to?


Who can say whether it is misunderstood by and large, but imprecise use of language makes such a misunderstanding much more probable than otherwise - reason enough to gently insist on bringing accurate renderings into common use. The OP is a case in point.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jul 07, 2011 7:01 pm

daverupa wrote:
manjusri wrote:How do you et al refer to a meditation that is designed to produce shamatha?


Meditation designed to produce samatha is also designed to produce vipassana, or it's adhamma.
Would you say that is so of kasina practice?
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby manjusri » Thu Jul 07, 2011 9:32 pm

Meditation designed to produce samatha is also designed to produce vipassana, or it's adhamma.


Please forgive me (and not to put too fine a point on this) but how exactly are you referring to a meditation designed to produce shamatha? At least in the Tibetan tradition I'm most familiar with, the meditation designed to produce shamatha, which is primarily a meditation designed to hold our minds on the object of meditation with clarity and stability for as long as we wish, conjoined with mental and physical pliancy, is not the same meditation designed to produce vipassana which aims to develop insight into the nature of phenomena through focused attention. Or am I missing something here?
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby manjusri » Thu Jul 07, 2011 9:59 pm

Are these the nine stages of shamatha you refer to?


There are nine stages of settling the mind (sems-gnas dgu) into a state of shamatha:

1.
Setting the mind (sems ‘jog-pa) on the object of focus. At this stage, we are merely able to set or place our attention on the object of focus, but are unable to maintain it.
2.
Setting with some continuity (rgyun-du ‘jog-pa). Here, we are able to maintain our mental hold on the object with some continuity, but only for a short time before losing it. It takes some time before we recognize that we have lost the object and before we can reestablish our focus.
3.
Resetting (glan-du ‘jog-pa). Here, we are able to recognize as soon as we have lost our mental hold on the object, and we are able to reset or restore our focus immediately.
4.
Closely setting (nye-bar ‘jog-pa). Here, we do not lose our mental hold on the object, but because the subtle mental flightiness of an undercurrent of thought and middling dullness are strong dangers and can still occur, we need to maintain their opponents very strongly.
5.
Taming (dul-bar byed-pa). Here, we no longer experience gross flightiness, the subtle flightiness of an undercurrent of thought, or gross or middling dullness. However, because we have overstrained to concentrate and have sunk too deeply inwards, we have relaxed the appearance-producing factor giving rise to the appearance of the object of focus. Consequently, we experience subtle dullness. We need to refresh and uplift (gzengs-bstod) the mental hold by remembering the benefits of gaining shamatha.
6.
Stilling (zhi-bar byed-pa). Here, although there is no longer great danger of subtle mental dullness, nevertheless in uplifting the mind, we became too excited and the mental hold became too tight. Consequently, we experience the subtle flightiness of itchiness to leave the object of focus. We need to use strong alertness to detect this and to relax our mental hold slightly.
7.
Complete stilling (rnam-pa zhi-bar byed-pa). Here, although the danger of subtle flightiness or dullness is minimal, we still need to exert effort to rid ourselves of them completely.
8.
Single-pointedness (rtse-cig-tu byed-pa). Here, by just relying on a slight effort to apply mental glue at the beginning of the session, we are able to sustain our concentration uninterruptedly throughout the session, without experiencing any level of flightiness or dullness.
9.
Absorbed setting (mnyam-par ‘jog-pa). Here, we are able effortlessly to maintain concentration, free of any interruptions, throughout the entire session. This is the attainment of absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi.)

http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/ar ... matha.html


Yes, these are the nine stages I have referred to.

If yes, I would say that one can practice mindfulness from stage 3 onwards as sati (mindfulness) is stable.


The third stage is achieved only when the mind remains focused on the object most of the time in virtually all your sessions. Nevertheless, coarse excitation is still the primary problem, but you accomplish this third stage with the power of mindfulness.

I am not sure but I think stage 4 might be identical to what is called access concentration in Theravada - this is the traditional state one starts with insight practice when one enters samatha first (different in pure insight practice).


There is a difference here. Access concentration is equivalent to the attainment of shamatha. The attainment of shamatha gives you access to the form realm. The initial achievement of shamatha is described as preliminary or as access to the full realization of the first meditative stabilization (dhyana).

BTW, again, any way to get email notifications to this or any other thread?
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby daverupa » Thu Jul 07, 2011 10:18 pm

tiltbillings wrote:
daverupa wrote:Meditation designed to produce samatha is also designed to produce vipassana, or it's adhamma.
Would you say that is so of kasina practice?


Are you asking if I think kasina meditation develops both, or only one? Because I think kasina meditation is a brahmanical import such that a practitioner of it coming into the Sangha would have some samatha and would be advised to seek out someone with developed vipassana for further instruction.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Shamatha In The Theravada Tradition

Postby Nyana » Thu Jul 07, 2011 11:53 pm

manjusri wrote:At least in the Tibetan tradition I'm most familiar with, the meditation designed to produce shamatha, which is primarily a meditation designed to hold our minds on the object of meditation with clarity and stability for as long as we wish, conjoined with mental and physical pliancy, is not the same meditation designed to produce vipassana which aims to develop insight into the nature of phenomena through focused attention. Or am I missing something here?

Well, you're missing about 1800 years of Indian commentarial development.

Firstly, for Buddhaghosa and all subsequent Theravāda commentators who follow his system, one cannot engage in vipassanā while abiding in form sphere jhāna, because the object-basis of a form sphere jhāna is not a paramattha dhamma. Therefore, a yogi must emerge from form sphere jhāna, then engage in vipassanā prior to entering the first noble path of stream-entry. Thus, form sphere jhāna is an optional pathway, and not essential for the attainment of the path of seeing.

And a number of Sarvāstivāda, Sautrāntika, and Yogācāra treatises also maintain that a śrāvaka can attain the path of seeing via prepatory stage samādhi (anāgamya-samādhi, which is the equivalent of access samādhi), without first developing form dhyāna (although, contrary to Buddhaghosa, et al, they all maintain that vipaśyanā can be engaged while abiding in dhyāna, if one has developed śamatha to that level).

Secondly, contemporary Theravāda is primarily an ordination lineage these days, with a diversity of different practice traditions. Not everyone accepts Buddhaghosa or even the entirety of the Abhidhammapiṭaka as being authoritative. And teachers from different practice traditions don't always agree with each other. This is somewhat akin to Tibetan Buddhism, where there is the common Mūlasarvāstivāda ordination lineage, and a number of different commentarial and practice traditions (Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug, etc.) which don't always agree.

All the best,

Geoff
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