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I'm wondering whether when people refer to concentration meditation such as shamatha, they mean that there is still conceptual thought or its absence.

For example, I am capable of meditating upon an object, e.g. breath, and focus with an intensity that no thoughts or very few emerge. However, I am also capable of simply paying attention to the object while thoughts emerge, but I redirect attention to the object when thoughts have done so.

I am basically asking whether genuine concentration is more like the first or the second. What exactly is referred to by absence of thought, or the fact thought helps meditation until the jhanas. Do we mean gross thought, such as sentences and ideas, or do we mean the intelligence of awareness, discernment?

If possible, can anyone relate this with calm abiding and special insight, and what is meant by these terms?

Thank you

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The term 'shamatha' means 'tranquility' or 'calm abiding' rather 'concentration' ('collectedness'; non-distraction). 'Shamatha' is a fruit of concentration rather than concentration itself.

It does not matter if you are also capable of simply paying attention to the object while thoughts emerge & can redirect attention to the object when thoughts have done so. The very fact that thoughts are emerging is a loss of concentration, however momentary.

Generally, the kinds of thoughts that help meditation are wise thoughts used to counter unwise thoughts and the very subtle thought (intention) of giving up (letting go) or non-attachment.

Some subtle thoughts can serve as objects of insight (vipassana) into impermanence but there is generally no need to deliberately cultivate such thoughts.

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In reading the article The Riddle Tree you will see that:

there’s no one-size-fits-all, no one technique that’s going to work for everyone. But if you’re observant while you calm down the mind, you begin to see the way your mind works. That’s really what you want to know.

In quoting that article again:

The same principle applies not only to tranquility, but also to insight. There’s a sutta called The Riddle Tree in which a monk goes to different senior monks and asks them, “What topic do you contemplate in order to gain awakening?” One monk says, “the five aggregates,” another one says, “the six sense media,” another one says, “the six elements,” another one says “dependent co-arising.” The monk was not satisfied with all these different answers, because he couldn’t understand why their answers should be so different. So he went to see the Buddha. And the Buddha said that the different answers were like the Riddle tree. Apparently there’s a tree in India that’s kind of like the coral tree: During some seasons it has leaves, and at other seasons it has no leaves at all, and when it has no leaves it puts out red flowers. It’s called the Riddle tree because people would say, “What’s black like coal in the winter and red like meat in the spring?” That sort of thing. In other words, the appearance of the tree depends on which time of year you’re talking about. “In the same way,” the Buddha said, “those different monks answered in different ways because for each of them a different topic worked, so they talked in line with what had worked for them.”

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