What Is Buddhist Meditation?
Buddhist meditation is the practice of meditation in Buddhism. The closest words for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism are bhāvanā (“mental development”) and jhāna/dhyāna (mental training resulting in a calm and luminous mind).
Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the path toward liberation, awakening and Nirvana, and includes a variety of meditation techniques, most notably asubha bhavana (“reflections on repulsiveness”);reflection on pratityasamutpada (dependent origination); sati (mindfulness) and anussati (recollections), including anapanasati (breath meditation); dhyana (developing an alert and luminous mind); and the Brahma-viharas (loving-kindness and compassion). These techniques aim to develop equanimity and sati (mindfulness); samadhi (concentration) c.q. samatha (tranquility) and vipassanā (insight); and are also said to lead to abhijñā (supramundane powers). These meditation techniques are preceded by and combined with practices which aid this development, such as moral restraint and right effort to develop wholesome states of mind.
While these techniques are used across Buddhist schools, there is also significant diversity. In the Theravada tradition, reflecting developments in early Buddhism, meditation techniques are classified as either samatha (calming the mind) and vipassana (gaining insight). Chinese and Japanese Buddhism preserved a wide range of meditation techniques, which go back to early Buddhism, most notably Sarvastivada. In Tibetan Buddhism, deity yoga includes visualisations, which precede the realization of sunyata (“emptiness”).
The closest words for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism are bhāvanā (mental development) and jhāna/dhyāna.
Modern Buddhist studies has attempted to reconstruct the meditation practices of pre-sectarian Early Buddhism, mainly through philological and text critical methods using the early canonical texts.
According to Indologist Johannes Bronkhorst, “the teaching of the Buddha as presented in the early canon contains a number of contradictions,” presenting “a variety of methods that do not always agree with each other,” containing “views and practices that are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected.” These contradictions are due to the influence of non-Buddhist traditions on early Buddhism. One example of these non-Buddhist meditative methods found in the early sources is outlined by Bronkhorst:
The Vitakkasanthāna Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya and its parallels in Chinese translation recommend the practicing monk to ‘restrain his thought with his mind, to coerce and torment it’. Exactly the same words are used elsewhere in the Pāli canon (in the Mahāsaccaka Sutta, Bodhirājakumāra Sutta and Saṅgārava Sutta) in order to describe the futile attempts of the Buddha before his enlightenment to reach liberation after the manner of the Jainas.
According to Bronkhorst, such practices which are based on a “suppression of activity” are not authentically Buddhist, but were later adopted from the Jains by the Buddhist community.
The two major traditions of meditative practice in pre-Buddhist India were the Jain ascetic practices and the various Vedic Brahmanical practices. There is still much debate in Buddhist studies regarding how much influence these two traditions had on the development of early Buddhist meditation. The early Buddhist texts mention that Gautama trained under two teachers known as Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, both of them taught formless jhanas or mental absorptions, a key practice of proper Buddhist meditation. Alexander Wynne considers these figures historical persons associated with the doctrines of the early Upanishads. Other practices which the Buddha undertook have been associated with the Jain ascetic tradition by the Indologist Johannes Bronkhorst including extreme fasting and a forceful “meditation without breathing”. According to the early texts, the Buddha rejected the more extreme Jain ascetic practices in favor of the middle way.
Meditation and contemplation are preceded by preparatory practices. As described in the Noble Eightfold Path, right view leads to leaving the household life and becoming a wandering monk. Sila, morality, comprises the rules for right conduct. Sense restraint and right effort, c.q. the four right efforts, are important preparatory practices. Sense restraint means controlling the response to sensual perceptions, not giving in to lust and aversion but simply noticing the objects of perception as they appear. Right effort aims to prevent the arising of unwholesome states, and to generate wholesome states. By following these preparatory steps and practices, the mind becomes set, almost naturally, for the practice of dhyana.
Asubha bhavana (reflection on unattractiveness)
Asubha bhavana is reflection on “the foul”/unattractiveness (Pāli: asubha). It includes two practices, namely cemetery contemplations, and Paṭikkūlamanasikāra, “reflections on repulsiveness”. Patikulamanasikara is a Buddhist meditation whereby thirty-one parts of the body are contemplated in a variety of ways. In addition to developing sati (mindfulness) and samādhi (concentration, dhyana), this form of meditation is considered to be conducive to overcoming desire and lust.
Sati/smrti (mindfulness) and satipatthana (establishment of mindfulness)
An important quality to be cultivated by a Buddhist meditator is mindfulness (sati). Mindfulness is a polyvalent term which refers to remembering, recollecting and “bearing in mind”. It also relates to remembering the teachings of the Buddha and knowing how these teachings relate to one’s experiences. The Buddhist texts mention different kinds of mindfulness practice. According to Bronkhorst, there were originally two kinds of mindfulness, “observations of the positions of the body” and the four satipaṭṭhānas, the “establishment of mindfulness,” which constituted formal meditation. Bhikkhu Sujato and Bronkhorst both argue that the mindfulness of the positions of the body wasn’t originally part of the four satipatthana formula, but was later added to it in some texts.
In the Pali Satipatthana Sutta and its parallels as well as numerous other early Buddhist texts, the Buddha identifies four foundations for mindfulness (satipaṭṭhānas): the body (including the four elements, the parts of the body, and death); feelings (vedana); mind (citta); and phenomena or principles (dhammas), such as the five hindrances and the seven factors of enlightenment. Different early texts give different enumerations of these four mindfulness practices. Meditation on these subjects is said to develop insight.
According to Grzegorz Polak, the four upassanā have been misunderstood by the developing Buddhist tradition, including Theravada, to refer to four different foundations. According to Polak, the four upassanā do not refer to four different foundations of which one should be aware, but are an alternate description of the jhanas, describing how the samskharas are tranquilized:
- the six sense-bases which one needs to be aware of (kāyānupassanā);
- contemplation on vedanās, which arise with the contact between the senses and their objects (vedanānupassanā);
- the altered states of mind to which this practice leads (cittānupassanā);
- the development from the five hindrances to the seven factors of enlightenment (dhammānupassanā).
Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing)
Anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing, is a core meditation practice in Theravada, Tiantai and Chan traditions of Buddhism as well as a part of many mindfulness programs. In both ancient and modern times, anapanasati by itself is likely the most widely used Buddhist method for contemplating bodily phenomena.
The Ānāpānasati Sutta specifically concerns mindfulness of inhalation and exhalation, as a part of paying attention to one’s body in quietude, and recommends the practice of anapanasati meditation as a means of cultivating the Seven Factors of Enlightenment: sati (mindfulness), dhamma vicaya (analysis), viriya (persistence), which leads to pīti (rapture), then to passaddhi (serenity), which in turn leads to samadhi (concentration) and then to upekkhā (equanimity). Finally, the Buddha taught that, with these factors developed in this progression, the practice of anapanasati would lead to release (Pali: vimutti; Sanskrit mokṣa) from dukkha (suffering), in which one realizes nibbana.
Many scholars of early Buddhism, such as Vetter, Bronkhorst and Anālayo, see the practice of jhāna (Sanskrit: dhyāna) as central to the meditation of Early Buddhism. According to Bronkhorst, the oldest Buddhist meditation practice are the four dhyanas, which lead to the destruction of the asavas as well as the practice of mindfulness (sati). According to Vetter, the practice of dhyana may have constituted the core liberating practice of early Buddhism, since in this state all “pleasure and pain” had waned. According to Vetter,
[P]robably the word “immortality” (a-mata) was used by the Buddha for the first interpretation of this experience and not the term cessation of suffering that belongs to the four noble truths […] the Buddha did not achieve the experience of salvation by discerning the four noble truths and/or other data. But his experience must have been of such a nature that it could bear the interpretation “achieving immortality”.
Alexander Wynne agrees that the Buddha taught a kind of meditation exemplified by the four dhyanas, but argues that the Buddha adopted these from the Brahmin teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, though he did not interpret them in the same Vedic cosmological way and rejected their Vedic goal (union with Brahman). The Buddha, according to Wynne, radically transformed the practice of dhyana which he learned from these Brahmins which “consisted of the adaptation of the old yogic techniques to the practice of mindfulness and attainment of insight”. For Wynne, this idea that liberation required not just meditation but an act of insight, was radically different than the Brahminic meditation, “where it was thought that the yogin must be without any mental activity at all, ‘like a log of wood’.”
The Suttapitaka and the Agamas describe four rupa-jhanas. Rupa refers to the material realm, in a neutral stance, as different form the kama realm (lust, desire) and the arupa-realm (non-material realm). The qualities associated with the first four jhanas are as follows:
- First dhyana: the first dhyana can be entered when one is secluded from sensuality and unskillful qualities. There is pīti (“rapture”) and non-sensual sukha (“pleasure”) as the result of seclusion, while vitarka-vicara (“discursive thought”) continues;
- Second dhyana: there is pīti (“rapture”) and non-sensual sukha (“pleasure”) as the result of concentration (samadhi-ji, “born of samadhi”); ekaggata (unification of awareness) free from vitarka (“directed thought”) and vicara (“evaluation”); and inner tranquility;
- Third dhyana: Upekkha (equanimous), mindful, and alert; senses pleasure with the body;
- Fourth dhyana: upekkhāsatipārisuddhi (purity of equanimity and mindfulness); neither-pleasure-nor-pain.
According to Richard Gombrich, the sequence of the four rupa-jhanas describes two different cognitive states. Alexander Wynne further explains that the dhyana-scheme is poorly understood. According to Wynne, words expressing the inculcation of awareness, such as sati, sampajāno, and upekkhā, are mistranslated or understood as particular factors of meditative states, whereas they refer to a particular way of perceiving the sense objects. Polak notes that the qualities of the jhanas resemble the bojjhaṅgā, the seven factors of awakening]], arguing that both sets describe the same essential practice. Polak further notes, elaborating on Vetter, that the onset of the first dhyana is described as a quite natural process, due to the preceding efforts to restrain the senses and the nurturing of wholesome states.
Upekkhā, equanimity, which is perfected in the fourth dhyana, is one of the four Brahma-vihara. While the commentarial tradition downplayed the Brahma-viharas, Gombrich notes that the Buddhist usage of the brahma-vihāra, originally referred to an awakened state of mind, and a concrete attitude toward other beings which was equal to “living with Brahman” here and now. The later tradition took those descriptions too literally, linking them to cosmology and understanding them as “living with Brahman” by rebirth in the Brahma-world.According to Gombrich, “the Buddha taught that kindness – what Christians tend to call love – was a way to salvation.
In addition to the four rūpajhānas, there are also meditative attainments which were later called by the tradition the arūpajhānas, though the early texts do not use the term dhyana for them, calling them āyatana (dimension, sphere, base). They are:
- The Dimension of infinite space (Pali ākāsānañcāyatana, Skt. ākāśānantyāyatana),
- The Dimension of infinite consciousness (Pali viññāṇañcāyatana, Skt. vijñānānantyāyatana),
- The Dimension of infinite nothingness (Pali ākiñcaññāyatana, Skt. ākiṃcanyāyatana),
- The Dimension of neither perception nor non-perception (Pali nevasaññānāsaññāyatana, Skt. naivasaṃjñānāsaṃjñāyatana).
- Nirodha-samāpatti, also called saññā-vedayita-nirodha, ‘extinction of feeling and perception’.
These formless jhanas may have been incorporated from non-Buddhist traditions.
Jhana and insight
Various early sources mention the attainment of insight after having achieved jhana. In the Mahasaccaka Sutta, dhyana is followed by insight into the four noble truths. The mention of the four noble truths as constituting “liberating insight” is probably a later addition. Discriminating insight into transiency as a separate path to liberation was a later development, under pressure of developments in Indian religious thinking, which saw “liberating insight” as essential to liberation. This may also have been due to an over-literal interpretation by later scholastics of the terminology used by the Buddha, and to the problems involved with the practice of dhyana, and the need to develop an easier method.
Another important meditation in the early sources are the four Brahmavihāra (divine abodes) which are said to lead to cetovimutti, a “liberation of the mind”. The four Brahmavihāra are:
- Loving-kindness (Pāli: mettā, Sanskrit: maitrī) is active good will towards all;
- Compassion (Pāli and Sanskrit: karuṇā) results from metta, it is identifying the suffering of others as one’s own;
- Empathetic joy (Pāli and Sanskrit: muditā): is the feeling of joy because others are happy, even if one did not contribute to it, it is a form of sympathetic joy;
- Equanimity (Pāli: upekkhā, Sanskrit: upekṣā): is even-mindedness and serenity, treating everyone impartially.
According to Anālayo:
The effect of cultivating the brahmavihāras as a liberation of the mind finds illustration in a simile which describes a conch blower who is able to make himself heard in all directions. This illustrates how the brahmavihāras are to be developed as a boundless radiation in all directions, as a result of which they cannot be overruled by other more limited karma.
The practice of the four divine abodes can be seen as a way to overcome ill-will and sensual desire and to train in the quality of deep concentration (samadhi).
Traditionally, Eighteen schools of Buddhism are said to have developed after the time of the Buddha. The Sarvastivada school was the most influential, but the Theravada is the only school that still exists.
Samatha (serenity) and vipassana (insight)
The Buddha is said to have identified two paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:
- “serenity” or “tranquillity” (Pali: samatha; Sanskrit: samadhi) which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;
- “insight” (Pali: vipassanā) which enables one to see, explore and discern “formations” (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).
In the Pali canon, the Buddha never mentions independent samatha and vipassana meditation practices; instead, samatha and vipassana are two qualities of mind, to be developed through meditation. Nonetheless, some meditation practices (such as contemplation of a kasina object) favor the development of samatha, others are conducive to the development of vipassana (such as contemplation of the aggregates), while others (such as mindfulness of breathing) are classically used for developing both mental qualities.
In the “Four Ways to Arahantship Sutta” (AN 4.170), Ven. Ananda reports that people attain arahantship using serenity and insight in one of three ways:
- they develop serenity and then insight (Pali: samatha-pubbangamam vipassanam)
- they develop insight and then serenity (Pali: vipassana-pubbangamam samatham)
- they develop serenity and insight in tandem (Pali: samatha-vipassanam yuganaddham) as in, for instance, obtaining the first jhana, and then seeing in the associated aggregates the three marks of existence, before proceeding to the second jhana.
While the Nikayas state that the pursuit of vipassana can precede the pursuit of samatha, according to the Burmese Vipassana movement vipassana be based upon the achievement of stabilizing “access concentration” (Pali: upacara samadhi).
Through the meditative development of serenity, one is able to suppress obscuring hindrances; and, with the suppression of the hindrances, it is through the meditative development of insight that one gains liberating wisdom. Moreover, the Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining Nibbana (Pali; Skt.: Nirvana), the unconditioned state as in the “Kimsuka Tree Sutta” (SN 35.245), where the Buddha provides an elaborate metaphor in which serenity and insight are “the swift pair of messengers” who deliver the message of Nibbana via the Noble Eightfold Path. In the Threefold training, samatha is part of samadhi, the eight limb of the threefold path, together withsati, mindfulness.
The now defunct Sarvāstivāda tradition, and its related sub-schools like the Sautrāntika and the Vaibhāṣika, were the most influential Buddhists in North India and Central Asia. Their highly complex Abhidharma treatises, such as the Mahavibhasa, the Sravakabhumi and the Abhidharmakosha, contain new developments in meditative theory which had a major influence on meditation as practiced in East Asian Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism. Individuals known as yogācāras (yoga practitioners) were influential in the development of Sarvāstivāda meditation praxis, and some modern scholars such as Yin Shun believe they were also influential in the development of Mahayana meditation. The Dhyāna sutras (Chinese: 禪経) or “meditation summaries” (Chinese: 禪要) are a group of early Buddhist meditation texts which are mostly based on the Yogacara meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE, which focus on the concrete details of the meditative practice of the Yogacarins of northern Gandhara and Kashmir.Most of the texts only survive in Chinese and were key works in the development of the Buddhist meditation practices of Chinese Buddhism.
According to K.L. Dhammajoti, the Sarvāstivāda meditation practitioner begins with samatha meditations, divided into the fivefold mental stillings, each being recommended as useful for particular personality types:
- contemplation on the impure (asubhabhavana), for the greedy type person.
- meditation on loving kindness (maitri), for the hateful type
- contemplation on conditioned co-arising, for the deluded type
- contemplation on the division of the dhatus, for the conceited type
- mindfulness of breathing (anapanasmrti), for the distracted type.
Contemplation of the impure, and mindfulness of breathing, was particularly important in this system; they were known as the ‘gateways to immortality’ (amrta-dvāra). The Sarvāstivāda system practiced breath meditation using the same sixteen aspect model used in the anapanasati sutta, but also introduced a unique six aspect system which consists of:
- counting the breaths up to ten,
- following the breath as it enters through the nose throughout the body,
- fixing the mind on the breath,
- observing the breath at various locations,
- modifying is related to the practice of the four applications of mindfulness and
- purifying stage of the arising of insight.
This sixfold breathing meditation method was influential in East Asia, and expanded upon by the Chinese Tiantai meditation master Zhiyi.
After the practitioner has achieved tranquility, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma then recommends one proceeds to practice the four applications of mindfulness (smrti-upasthāna) in two ways. First they contemplate each specific characteristic of the four applications of mindfulness, and then they contemplate all four collectively.
In spite of this systematic division of samatha and vipasyana, the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas held that the two practices are not mutually exclusive. The Mahavibhasa for example remarks that, regarding the six aspects of mindfulness of breathing, “there is no fixed rule here — all may come under samatha or all may come under vipasyana.” The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas also held that attaining the dhyānas was necessary for the development of insight and wisdom.
Sutta Pitaka and early commentaries
The oldest material of the Theravada tradition on meditation can be found in the Pali Nikayas, and in texts such as the Patisambhidamagga which provide commentary to meditation suttas like the Anapanasati sutta.
An early Theravada meditation manual is the Vimuttimagga (‘Path of Freedom’, 1st or 2nd century). The most influential presentation though, is that of the 5th Century Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purification’) of Buddhaghoṣa, which seems to have been influenced by the earlier Vimuttimagga in his presentation.
The Visuddhimagga’s doctrine reflects Theravada Abhidhamma scholasticism, which includes several innovations and interpretations not found in the earliest discourses (suttas) of the Buddha. Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimaggaincludes non-canonical instructions on Theravada meditation, such as “ways of guarding the mental image (nimitta),” which point to later developments in Theravada meditation.
The text is centered around kasina-meditation, a form of concentration-meditation in which the mind is focused on a (mental) object. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “[t]he text then tries to fit all other meditation methods into the mold of kasina practice, so that they too give rise to countersigns, but even by its own admission, breath meditation does not fit well into the mold.” In its emphasis on kasina-meditation, the Visuddhimagga departs from the Pali Canon, in which dhyana is the central meditative practice, indicating that what “jhana means in the commentaries is something quite different from what it means in the Canon.”
The Visuddhimagga describes forty meditation subjects, most of being being described in the early texts. Buddhaghoṣa advises that, for the purpose of developing concentration and consciousness, a person should “apprehend from among the forty meditation subjects one that suits his own temperament” with the advice of a “good friend” (kalyāṇa-mittatā) who is knowledgeable in the different meditation subjects (Ch. III, § 28). Buddhaghoṣa subsequently elaborates on the forty meditation subjects as follows (Ch. III, §104; Chs. IV–XI):
- ten kasinas: earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, light, and “limited-space”.
- ten kinds of foulness: “the bloated, the livid, the festering, the cut-up, the gnawed, the scattered, the hacked and scattered, the bleeding, the worm-infested, and a skeleton”.
- ten recollections: Buddhānussati, the Dhamma, the Sangha, virtue, generosity, the virtues of deities, death (see the Upajjhatthana Sutta), the body, the breath (see anapanasati), and peace (see Nibbana).
- four divine abodes: mettā, karuṇā, mudita, and upekkha.
- four immaterial states: boundless space, boundless perception, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception.
- one perception (of “repulsiveness in nutriment”)
- one “defining” (that is, the four elements)
When one overlays Buddhaghosa’s 40 meditative subjects for the development of concentration with the Buddha’s foundations of mindfulness, three practices are found to be in common: breath meditation, foulness meditation (which is similar to the Sattipatthana Sutta’s cemetery contemplations, and to contemplation of bodily repulsiveness), and contemplation of the four elements. According to Pali commentaries, breath meditation can lead one to the equanimous fourth jhanic absorption. Contemplation of foulness can lead to the attainment of the first jhana, and contemplation of the four elements culminates in pre-jhana access concentration.
Vipassana and/or samatta
The role of samatha in Buddhist practice, and the exact menaing of samatta, are points of contention and investigation in contemporary Theravada and western vipassanan. Burmese vipassana teachers have tended to disregard samatta as unnecessary, while Thai teachers see samatha and vipassana as intertwined.
The exact menaing of samatta is also not clear, and westerners have started to question the receive wisdom on this. While samatha is usually equated with the jhanas in the commentarial tradition, scholars and practitioners have pointed out that jhana is more than a narrowing of the focus of the mind. While the second jhana may be characterized by samadhi-ji, “born of concentration,” the first jhana sets in quite naturally as a result of sense-restraint,while the third and fourth jhana are characterized by mindfulness and equanimity. Sati, sense-restraint and mindfulness are necessary preceding practices, while insight may mark the point where one enters the “stream” of development which results in vimukti, release.
According to Anālayo, the jhanas are crucial meditative states which lead to the abandonment of hindrances such as lust and aversion; however, they are not sufficient for the attainment of liberating insight. Some early texts also warn meditators against becoming attached to them, and therefore forgetting the need for the further practice of insight. According to Anālayo, “either one undertakes such insight contemplation while still being in the attainment, or else one does so retrospectively, after having emerged from the absorption itself but while still being in a mental condition close to it in concentrative depth.”
The position that insight can be practiced from within jhana, according to the early texts, is endorsed by Gunaratna, Crangle and Shankaman. Anālayo meanwhile argues, that the evidence from the early texts suggest that “contemplation of the impermanent nature of the mental constituents of an absorption takes place before or on emerging from the attainment”.
Arbel has argued that insight precedes the practice of jhana.
Particularly influential from the twentieth century onward has been the Burmese Vipassana movement, especially the “New Burmese Method” or “Vipassanā School” approach to samatha and vipassanā developed by Mingun Sayadaw and U Nārada and popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw. Here samatha is considered an optional but not necessary component of the practice—vipassanā is possible without it. Another Burmese method, derived from Ledi Sayadaw via Ba Khin and S. N. Goenka, takes a similar approach. Other Burmese traditions popularized in the west, notably that of Pa Auk Sayadaw, uphold the emphasis on samatha explicit in the commentarial tradition of the Visuddhimagga. These Burmese traditions have been influential on Western Theravada-oriented teachers, notably Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.
There are also other less well known Burmese meditation methods, such as the system developed by U Vimala, which focuses on knowledge of dependent origination and cittanupassana (mindfulness of the mind). Likewise, Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s method also focuses on mindfulness of the mind.
Thai Forest tradition
Also influential is the Thai Forest Tradition deriving from Mun Bhuridatta and popularized by Ajahn Chah, which, in contrast, stresses the inseparability of the two practices, and the essential necessity of both practices. Other noted practitioners in this tradition include Ajahn Thate and Ajahn Maha Bua, among others. There are other forms of Thai Buddhist meditation associated with particular teachers, including Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s presentation of anapanasati, Ajahn Lee’s breath meditation method (which influenced his American student Thanissaro) and the “dynamic meditation” of Luangpor Teean Cittasubho.
There are other less mainstream forms of Theravada meditation practiced in Thailand which include the vijja dhammakaya meditation developed by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro and the meditation of former supreme patriarch Suk Kai Thuean (1733–1822). Newell notes that these two forms of modern Thai meditation share certain features in common with tantric practices such as the use of visualizations and centrality of maps of the body.
A less common type of meditation is practiced in Cambodia and Laos by followers of Borān kammaṭṭhāna (‘ancient practices’) tradition. This form of meditation includes the use of mantras and visualizations.
Initially, Mahayana Buddhists in India and East Asia practiced meditation in a similar way to that of the Sarvāstivāda school outlined above. One of the major Indian Mahayana treatises on meditation practice is the Yogacara bhumi(compiled circa late 4th century), a compendium of texts which includes within it the Sarvāstivāda Sravakabhūmi (c. 2nd-3rd century) as well as the Mahayana Bodhisattvabhūmi (c. 3rd century).
The works of the Chinese translator An Shigao (安世高, 147-168 CE) are some of the earliest meditation texts used by Chinese Buddhism and their focus is mindfulness of breathing (annabanna 安那般那), these texts are known as the Dhyāna sutras. The Chinese translator and scholar Kumarajiva (344–413 CE) transmitted a meditation treatise titled The Sūtra Concerned with Samādhi in Sitting Meditation (坐禅三昧经, T.614, K.991) which teaches the Sarvāstivāda system of fivefold mental stillings.
Pure Land school
Mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha
In Pure Land Buddhism, repeating the name of Amitābha is traditionally a form of mindfulness of the Buddha (Skt. buddhānusmṛti). This term was translated into Chinese as nianfo (Chinese: 念佛), by which it is popularly known in English. The practice is described as calling the buddha to mind by repeating his name, to enable the practitioner to bring all his or her attention upon that buddha (samādhi). This may be done vocally or mentally, and with or without the use of Buddhist prayer beads. Those who practice this method often commit to a fixed set of repetitions per day, often from 50,000 to over 500,000. According to tradition, the second patriarch of the Pure Land school, Shandao, is said to have practiced this day and night without interruption, each time emitting light from his mouth. Therefore, he was bestowed with the title “Great Master of Light” (大師光明) by Emperor Gaozong of Tang (高宗).
In addition, in Chinese Buddhism there is a related practice called the “dual path of Chán and Pure Land cultivation”, which is also called the “dual path of emptiness and existence.” As taught by Venerable Nan Huaijin, the name of Amitābha Buddha is recited slowly, and the mind is emptied out after each repetition. When idle thoughts arise, the phrase is repeated again to clear them. With constant practice, the mind is able to remain peacefully in emptiness, culminating in the attainment of samādhi.
Pure Land Rebirth Dhāraṇī
Repeating the Pure Land Rebirth dhāraṇī is another method in Pure Land Buddhism. Similar to the mindfulness practice of repeating the name of Amitābha Buddha, this dhāraṇī is another method of meditation and recitation in Pure Land Buddhism. The repetition of this dhāraṇī is said to be very popular among traditional Chinese Buddhists. It is traditionally preserved in Sanskrit, and it is said that when a devotee succeeds in realizing singleness of mind by repeating a mantra, its true and profound meaning will be clearly revealed.
- namo amitābhāya tathāgatāya tadyathā
- amṛtabhave amṛtasaṃbhave
- amṛtavikrānte amṛtavikrāntagāmini
- gagana kīrtīchare svāhā
Another practice found in Pure Land Buddhism is meditative contemplation and visualization of Amitābha, his attendant bodhisattvas, and the Pure Land. The basis of this is found in the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (“Amitābha Meditation Sūtra”), in which the Buddha describes to Queen Vaidehi the practices of thirteen progressive visualization methods, corresponding to the attainment of various levels of rebirth in the Pure Land. Visualization practises for Amitābha are popular among esoteric Buddhist sects, such as Japanese Shingon Buddhism.
Chán is the Chinese rendering of dhyana, and started as a specialized branch of Buddhist teachings, the others being sutraa and vinaya. As Chán developed as an independent school, it developed its own narratives and theoretical understandings. In China, the word dhyāna was originally transliterated with Chinese: 禪那; pinyin: chánnà and shortened to just pinyin: chán in common usage. The word chán became the designation for Chan Buddhism (Korean Seon, Zen).
Dhyāna is a central aspect of Buddhist practice in Chan, necessary for progress on the path and “true entry into the Dharma.” The word for, and the practice of dhyana entered into Chinese through the translations of An Shigao (fl. c. 148–180 CE), and Kumārajīva (334–413 CE), who translated the Dhyāna sutras, which were influential early meditation texts mostly based on Yogacara meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE.
While dhyana in a strict sense refers to the four dhyanas, in Chinese Buddhism dhyāna may refer to various kinds of meditation techniques and their preparatory practices, which are necessary to practice dhyana. The five main types of meditation in the Dyana sutras are anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing); paṭikūlamanasikāra meditation (contemplation of the impurities of the body); loving-kindness maitrī meditation; the contemplation on the twelve links of pratītyasamutpāda; and the contemplation on the Buddha’s thirty-two Characteristics.
Observing the breath
Observing the mind
In the Sōtō school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, as for example in the “Principles of Zazen”[web 2] and the “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”.[web 3] In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.
Pointing to the nature of the mind
According to Charles Luk, in the earliest traditions of Chán, there was no fixed method or formula for teaching meditation, and all instructions were simply heuristic methods, to point to the true nature of the mind, also known as Buddha-nature. According to Luk, this method is referred to as the “Mind Dharma”, and exemplified in the story of Śākyamuni Buddha holding up a flower silently, and Mahākāśyapa smiling as he understood. A traditional formula of this is, “Chán points directly to the human mind, to enable people to see their true nature and become buddhas.”
At the beginning of the Sòng dynasty, practice with the kōan method became popular, whereas others practiced “silent illumination.” This became the source of some differences in practice between the Línjì and Cáodòng schools.
A kōan, literally “public case”, is a story or dialogue, describing an interaction between a Zen master and a student. These anecdotes give a demonstration of the master’s insight. Koans emphasize the non-conceptional insight that the Buddhist teachings are pointing to. Koans can be used to provoke the “great doubt”, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.
Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life. Kōan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai school, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.
The Zen student’s mastery of a given kōan is presented to the teacher in a private interview (referred to in Japanese as dokusan (独参), daisan (代参), or sanzen (参禅)). While there is no unique answer to a kōan, practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the kōan and of Zen through their responses. The teacher may approve or disapprove of the answer and guide the student in the right direction. The interaction with a Zen teacher is central in Zen, but makes Zen practice also vulnerable to misunderstanding and exploitation.
Chinese Tiantai śamatha-vipaśyanā
In China it has been traditionally held that the meditation methods used by the Tiantai school are the most systematic and comprehensive of all. In addition to its doctrinal basis in Indian Buddhist texts, the Tiantai school also emphasizes use of its own meditation texts which emphasize the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā. Of these texts, Zhiyi’s Concise Śamathavipaśyanā (小止観), Mohe Zhiguan (摩訶止観, Sanskrit Mahāśamathavipaśyanā), and Six Subtle Dharma Gates (六妙法門) are the most widely read in China. Rujun Wu identifies the work Mahā-śamatha-vipaśyanā of Zhiyi as the seminal meditation text of the Tiantai school. Regarding the functions of śamatha and vipaśyanā in meditation, Zhiyi writes in his work Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā:
The attainment of Nirvāṇa is realizable by many methods whose essentials do not go beyond the practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā. Śamatha is the first step to untie all bonds and vipaśyanā is essential to root out delusion. Śamatha provides nourishment for the preservation of the knowing mind, and vipaśyanā is the skillful art of promoting spiritual understanding. Śamatha is the unsurpassed cause of samādhi, while vipaśyanā begets wisdom.
The Tiantai school also places a great emphasis on ānāpānasmṛti, or mindfulness of breathing, in accordance with the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā. Zhiyi classifies breathing into four main categories: panting (喘), unhurried breathing (風), deep and quiet breathing (氣), and stillness or rest (息). Zhiyi holds that the first three kinds of breathing are incorrect, while the fourth is correct, and that the breathing should reach stillness and rest. Zhiyi also outlines four kinds of samadhi in his Mohe Zhiguan, and ten modes of practicing vipaśyanā.
Esoteric practices in Japan
One of the adaptations by the Japanese Tendai school was the introduction of Mikkyō (esoteric practices) into Buddhism, which was later named Taimitsu by Ennin. Eventually, according to Tendai Taimitsu doctrine, the esoteric rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Therefore, by chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or performing certain meditations, one is able to see that the sense experiences are the teachings of Buddha, have faith that one is inherently an enlightened being, and one can attain enlightenment within this very body. The origins of Taimitsu are found in China, similar to the lineage that Kūkai encountered in his visit to Tang China and Saichō’s disciples were encouraged to study under Kūkai.
Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism
Vajrayana Buddhism includes all of the traditional forms of Mahayana meditation and also several unique forms. The central defining form of Vajrayana meditation is Deity Yoga (devatayoga). This involves the recitation of mantras, prayers and visualization of the yidam or deity along with the associated mandala of the deity’s Pure Land. Advanced Deity Yoga involves imagining yourself as the deity.
Other forms of meditation in Vajrayana include the Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings, each taught by the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism respectively. The goal of these is to familiarize oneself with the ultimate nature of mind which underlies all existence, the Dharmakāya. There are also other practices such as Dream Yoga, Tummo, the yoga of the intermediate state (at death) or Bardo, sexual yoga and Chöd.
The shared preliminary practices of Tibetan Buddhism are called ngöndro, which involves visualization, mantra recitation, and many prostrations.
Texts versus personal instruction
While early Buddhist meditation techniques have been reconstructed by Theravada monks and by scholars, based on the Pali Canon and the Visuddimagga, the development of meditation practice may essentially depend on personal instructions by a teacher.
Therapeutic uses of meditation
For a long time people have practiced meditation, based on Buddhist meditation principles, in order to effect mundane and worldly benefit. As such, mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation techniques are being advocated in the West by innovative psychologists and expert Buddhist meditation teachers such as Thích Nhất Hạnh, Pema Chödrön, Clive Sherlock, Mya Thwin, S. N. Goenka, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Alan Clements, and Sharon Salzberg, who have been widely attributed with playing a significant role in integrating the healing aspects of Buddhist meditation practices with the concept of psychological awareness, healing, and well-being. Although mindfulness meditation has received the most research attention, loving kindness (metta) and equanimity (upekkha) meditation are beginning to be used in a wide array of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience.
The accounts of meditative states in the Buddhist texts are in some regards free of dogma, so much so that the Buddhist scheme has been adopted by Western psychologists attempting to describe the phenomenon of meditation in general. However, it is exceedingly common to encounter the Buddha describing meditative states involving the attainment of such magical powers (Sanskrit ṛddhi, Pali iddhi) as the ability to multiply one’s body into many and into one again, appear and vanish at will, pass through solid objects as if space, rise and sink in the ground as if in water, walking on water as if land, fly through the skies, touching anything at any distance (even the moon or sun), and travel to other worlds (like the world of Brahma) with or without the body, among other things,and for this reason the whole of the Buddhist tradition may not be adaptable to a secular context, unless these magical powers are seen as metaphorical representations of powerful internal states that conceptual descriptions could not do justice to.
|mindfulness/awareness||sati||smṛti||念 (niàn)||trenpa (wylie: dran pa)|
|clear comprehension||sampajañña||samprajaña||正知力 (zhèng zhī lì)||shezhin (shes bzhin)|
|vigilance/heedfulness||appamada||apramāda||不放逸座 (bù fàng yì zuò)||bakyö (bag yod)|
|ardency||atappa||ātapaḥ||勇猛 (yǒng měng)||nyima (nyi ma)|
|attention/engagement||manasikara||manaskāraḥ||如理作意 (rú lǐ zuò yì)||yila jepa (yid la byed pa)|
|foundation of mindfulness||satipaṭṭhāna||smṛtyupasthāna||念住 (niànzhù)||trenpa neybar zhagpa (dran pa nye bar gzhag pa)|
|mindfulness of breathing||ānāpānasati||ānāpānasmṛti||安那般那 (ānnàbānnà)||wūk trenpa (dbugs dran pa)|
|calm abiding/cessation||samatha||śamatha||止 (zhǐ)||shiney (zhi gnas)|
|insight/contemplation||vipassanā||vipaśyanā||観 (guān)||lhagthong (lhag mthong)|
|meditative concentration||samādhi||samādhi||三昧 (sānmèi)||ting-nge-dzin (ting nge dzin)|
|meditative absorption||jhāna||dhyāna||禪 (chán)||samten (bsam gtan)|
|cultivation||bhāvanā||bhāvanā||修行 (xiūxíng)||gompa (sgom pa)|
|cultivation of analysis||Vitakka and Vicāra||*vicāra-bhāvanā||尋伺察 (xún sì chá)||chegom (dpyad sgom)|
|cultivation of settling||—||*sthāpya-bhāvanā||—||jokgom (‘jog sgom)|
- Deleanu, Florin (1992); Mindfulness of Breathing in the Dhyāna Sūtras. Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan (TICOJ) 37, 42-57.
- Vetter, Tilmann (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, BRILL
- Bronkhorst, Johannes (1993), The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
- Poloak (2017)
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 109
- Arbel 2017
- Bronkhorst, Johannes. Early Buddhist Meditation. (paper presented at the conference “Buddhist Meditation from Ancient India to Modern Asia”, Jogye Order International Conference Hall, Seoul, 29 November 2012.)
- Bronkhorst 2012, p. 2.
- Bronkhorst 2012, p. 4.
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, 2017, p. 165.
- Wynne, Alexander, The origin of Buddhist meditation, pp. 23, 37
- Bronkhorst, Johannes, The two traditions of meditation in Ancient India, Second edition: Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 1993. (Reprint: 2000), p. 10.
- Vetter 1988.
- Analayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, p.69-70, 80
- Vetter 1988, p. XXV.
- Polak 2011.
- Nanamoli (1998), p. 110, n. 16, which references the Anapanasati Sutta and the Visuddhimagga, Ch. VI, VIII.
- from Teaching Dhamma by pictures: Explanation of a Siamese Traditional Buddhist Manuscript
- Rhys Davids & stede.
- Bhikkhu Sujato, A History of Mindfulness How insight worsted tranquillity in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Santipada, p. 148.
- For instance, see Solé-Leris (1986), p. 75; and, Goldstein (2003), p. 92.
- Polak 2011, p. 153-156, 196-197.
- Anālayo 2003, p. 125.
- Bronkhorst 2012.
- vetter 1988, p. 5-6.
- Wynne, Alexander, The origin of Buddhist meditation, pp. 94-95
- Wynne, Alexander, The origin of Buddhist meditation, pp. 95
- Ruth Fuller-Sasaki, The Record of Lin-Ji
- “Ariyapariyesana Sutta, The Noble Search”.
- Bucknell 1993, p. 375-376.
- Fox 1989, p. 82.
- Vetter, 1988 & p. XXVI, note 9.
- Cite error: The named reference
Bucknell1993was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
- Wynne 2007, p. 140, note 58.
- Original publication: Gombrich, Richard (2007), Religious Experience in Early Buddhism, OCHS Library
- Wynne 2007, p. 106.
- Wynne 2007, p. 106-107.
- Gombrich 1997, p. 84-85.
- Gombrich 1997, p. 62.
- Bronkhorst 1993.
- Wynne 2007.
- Schmithausen 1981.
- Vetter 1988, p. 5-6.
- Vetter 1988, p. xxxiv–xxxvii.
- Gombrich 1997, p. 131.
- Gombrich 1997, p. 96-134.
- Vetter 1988, p. xxxv.
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 185.
- Merv Fowler (1999). Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex Academic Press. pp. 60–62. ISBN978-1-898723-66-0.
- Peter Harvey (2012). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press. pp. 154, 326. ISBN978-1-139-85126-8.
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 186.
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 194.
- See, for instance, Bodhi (1999) and Nyanaponika (1996), p. 108.
- Bodhi (2005), pp. 268, 439 nn. 7, 9, 10. See also Thanissaro (1998f).
- See, for instance, AN 2.30 in Bodhi (2005), pp. 267-68, and Thanissaro (1998e).
- Suen, Stephen, Methods of spiritual praxis in the Sarvāstivāda: A Study Primarily Based on the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā, The University of Hong Kong 2009, p. 67.
- Bhikkhu KL Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda-Abhidharma, Centre of Buddhist Studies The University of Hong Kong 2007, p 575-576.
- Suen, Stephen, Methods of spiritual praxis in the Sarvāstivāda: A Study Primarily Based on the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā, The University of Hong Kong 2009, p. 177.
- Suen, Stephen, Methods of spiritual praxis in the Sarvāstivāda: A Study Primarily Based on the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā, The University of Hong Kong 2009, p. 191.
- Bhikkhu KL Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda-Abhidharma, Centre of Buddhist Studies The University of Hong Kong 2007, p 576
- Bhikkhu KL Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda-Abhidharma, Centre of Buddhist Studies The University of Hong Kong 2007, p 577.
- PV Bapat. Vimuttimagga & Visuddhimagga – A Comparative Study, lv
- PV Bapat. Vimuttimagga & Visuddhimagga – A Comparative Study, lvii
- Kalupahana, David J. (1994), A history of Buddhist philosophy, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited
- Sujato, A History of Mindfulness How insight worsted tranquillity in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Santipada, p. 329.
- Shaw 2006, p. 5.
- Bhikkhu Thanissaro, Concentration and Discernment
- Sarah Shaw, Buddhist meditation: an anthology of texts from the Pāli canon. Routledge, 2006, pages 6-8. A Jataka tale gives a list of 38 of them. .
- Buddhaghosa & Nanamoli (1999), pp. 85, 90.
- Buddhaghoṣa & Nanamoli (1999), p. 110.
- Regarding the jhanic attainments that are possible with different meditation techniques, see Gunaratana (1988).
- Shankman (2007); Polak (2011); Keren Arbel (2017)
- Vetter (1988) p.XXV; Polak 2011
- Bronkhorst (1993); Wynne (2007); Polak (2011)
- Gethin, Buddhist practice
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 112, 115
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 117
- Edward Fitzpatrick Crangle, The Origin and Development of Early Indian Contemplative Practices, 1994, p 238
- “Should We Come Out of jhāna to Practice vipassanā?”, in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Venerable Kirindigalle Dhammaratana, S. Ratnayaka (ed.), 41–74, Colombo: Felicitation Committee. 2007
- Shankman, Richard 2008: The Experience of samādhi, An Indepth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation, Boston: Shambala
- Anālayo, Early Buddhist Meditation Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies Barre, Massachusetts USA 2017, p 123
- Arbel (2017)
- Crosby, Kate (2013). Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, and Identity. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN9781118323298
- Tiyavanich K. Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand. University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
- Newell, Catherine. Two Meditation Traditions from Contemporary Thailand: A Summary Overview, Rian Thai : International Journal of Thai Studies Vol. 4/2011
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 11
- Nan, Huai-Chin. To Realize Enlightenment: Practice of the Cultivation Path. 1994. p. 1
- Delenau, Florin, Buddhist Meditation in the Bodhisattvabhumi, 2013
- Deleanu, Florin (1992); Mindfulness of Breathing in the Dhyāna Sūtras. Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan (TICOJ) 37, 42-57.
- Bhante Dhammadipa, KUMĀRAJĪVA’S MEDITATIVE LEGACY IN CHINA, 2015.
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 83
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 84
- Yuan, Margaret. Grass Mountain: A Seven Day Intensive in Ch’an Training with Master Nan Huai-Chin. 1986. p. 55
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 85
- Sheng Yen. Orthodox Chinese Buddhism. North Atlantic Books. 2007. p. 122
- Fischer-Schreiber 2008, p. 103.
- Ven. Dr. Yuanci, A Study of the Meditation Methods in the DESM and Other Early Chinese Texts, The Buddhist Academy of China.
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 44
- Nan, Huai-Chin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen.1997. p. 92
- Blyth 1966.
- Loori 2006.
- Lachs 2006.
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 110
- Wu, Rujun (1993). T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Mādhyamika. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN978-0-8248-1561-5.
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 111
- Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation. 1964. p. 125
- Abe, Ryūichi (2013). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. p. 45. ISBN978-0-231-52887-0.
- Power, John; Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, page 271
- Garson, Nathaniel DeWitt; Penetrating the Secret Essence Tantra: Context and Philosophy in the Mahayoga System of rNying-ma Tantra, 2004, p. 37
- See, for instance, Zongmi’s description of bonpu and gedō zen, described further below.
- MARC UCLA
- Hutcherson, Cendri (2008-05-19). “Loving-Kindness Meditation Increases Social Connectedness”(PDF). doi:10.1037/a0013237.
- Brahmana, Metteyya (2008-05-19). “New Equanimity Meditation and Tools from Psychology to Test Its Effectiveness”. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.3810.1365.
- Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta
- Samaññaphala Sutta
- Kevatta Sutta
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