Friday, 23 November 2012

Buddhist Meditation

Buddhist meditation is a form of mental concentration that leads ultimately to enlightenment and spiritual freedom. Meditation occupies a central place in all forms of Buddhism, but has developed characteristic variations in different Buddhist traditions.
There are two main types of Buddhist meditation: vipassana (insight) and samatha (tranquility). The two are often combined or used one after the other (usually vipissana follows samatha). In China and Japan, an entire school of Buddhism developed around the practice of sitting meditation: Ch’an or Zen Buddhism.
This article outlines the major types of Buddhist meditation and provides links to further information on Buddhist meditation.

Tranquility Meditation (Samatha)

The basic purpose of samatha or tranquility meditation is to still the mind and train it to concentrate. The object of concentration(kammatthana) is less important than the skill of concentration itself, and varies by individual and situation. One Pali texts lists 40kammatthanas, which include:
  • devices (like color or light)
  • repulsive things (like a corpse)
  • recollections (such as sayings of the Buddha)
  • virtues (like loving-kindness)
The goal of samatha meditation is to progress through four stages (dhyanas):
  1. Detachment from the external world and a consciousness of joy and tranquility;
  2. Concentration, with suppression of reasoning and investigation;
  3. The passing away of joy, but with the sense of tranquility remaining; and
  4. The passing away of tranquility also, bringing about a state of pure self-possession and equanimity.

Insight Meditation (Vipassana)

Many of the skills learned in tranquility meditation can be applied to insight meditation, but the end goal is different. As its name suggests, the purpose of insight meditation is the realization of important truths. Specifically, one who practices vipassana hopes to realize the truths of impermanence, suffering and "no-self."
Of course, these doctrines are already known to any Buddhist. After all, they are the central teachings of the Buddha. But in order to attain liberation, he or she must personally apprehend and truly understandthese important truths. Simple knowledge of the Buddhist doctrines is not sufficient.
Because vipassana meditation alone produces the understanding through which liberation takes place, it is considered superior to tranquility meditation. It is the primary form of meditation practiced in Theravada Buddhism.
The practice of insight meditation centers around the notion ofmindfulness. Mindfulness is related to, but different than,concentration. When one is concentrating, one’s entire focus is on the object of concentration in an almost trancelike manner - whether the object is a lotus, one’s own breathing, or a television program. But to be mindful of something is to think about it and observe it carefully. It is not only to focus on a television program, but to comprehend its content. It is not only to block out everything but breathing; it is to observe what the breathing is like and attempt to learn something about it.
Gaining the skill of mindfulness is the first step of insight meditation. The most common methods prescribed to develop mindfulness are: walking mindfulness, sitting mindfulness, and mindfulness of daily activities.
Walking mindfulness is regularly practiced in monasteries and retreats, especially in the Theravada tradition. But topractice walking mindfulness anywhere, one finds a quiet place to walk, takes a moment to relax, then attempts to focus on the myriad movements and sensations associated with walking. If the mind strays to other things, this is to be mindfully noted, then put aside to again focus on the walking. According to Buddhists who practice this technique, as one progresses in skill it becomes easy to "lose oneself" in the activity and walk for a long time without it feeling like more than a few minutes have passed. This can be very blissful in itself, but it also brings the practitioner closer to insight into the fundamental truths of "no-self" and impermanence.
Sitting meditation is very similar to walking meditation, except now the focus is on the breath instead of the walking. The sitting meditator attempts to focus entirely on his or her own breath as it moves in and out, and the abdomen as it moves up and down. As in walking meditation, as other thoughts distract, these are to be mindfully recognized, then put aside. With practice, the meditator is distracted less and notices more about the object of observation, the breath. This practice certainly brings about tranquility, but again, the ultimate goal is to begin to realize for oneself the Buddhist truths of no-self, suffering and impermanence.
Finally, the practice of mindfulness in everyday activities applies the skills learned in walking and sittingmeditation to everything one does: eating, washing dishes, washing, etc. As this skill is developed, one lives increasinly in the present moment and participates more fully in everything he or she does. One Buddhist master who was accomplished in the practice of mindfulness said simply, "When I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep."

Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta Bhavana)

Loving-kindness is a central virtue of Buddhism, and loving-kindness meditation (metta bhavana) is a way of developing this virtue. It is a practice that is seen as supplemental or complementary to other forms of meditation.
The purpose of loving-kindness meditation is to develop the mental habit of altruistic love for the self and others. It is said to "sweeten the mind." There are, of course, a variety of ways to practice metta bhavana, but it generally progresses through three stages:
  • Specific pervasion
  • Directional pervasion
  • Non-specific pervasion
In the first stage, the practitioner focuses on sending loving-kindness to specific people, in the following order:
  • Oneself
  • An admired, respected person (like a spiritual teacher)
  • A beloved person (like a close friend or family member)
  • A neutral person – someone familiar but who evokes no particular feelings (like a person who works in a local store)
  • A hostile person (like an enemy or someone who causes the practitioner difficulty)
Beginning with oneself, the meditator seeks to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for each person in the above list. Tools for accomplishing this include:
  • Visualization – imagine the person looking joyful and happy
  • Reflection – reflect on the person’s positive qualities and acts of kindness they have done
  • Mantra – repeat silently or out loud a simple mantra like "loving-kindness"
When this first stage has been accomplished even for hostile persons, one moves on the next stage, Directional Pervasion. In this stage, the practitioner systematically projects feelings of loving-kindness in all geographical directions: north, south, east and west. This can be done by bringing to mind friends and like-minded communities in various cities around the world.
The last stage of metta bhavana is "Non-Specific Pervasion," which simply means radiating feelings of universal, unconditional love in everyday life. This stage is often a natural outcome of accomplishment of the other stages.


  1. Buddhist meditationEncyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  2. Buddhist Meditation eBooks – Buddhanet's eBook Library
  3. Loving-Kindness Meditation – Ven Pannyavaro, Buddhanet Basic Buddhism Guide

External Links on Buddhist Meditation

Buddhist meditation, insight meditation, vipissanna, vipisanna meditation, types of meditation in Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first century CE as a more liberal, accessible interpretation of Buddhism. As the "Greater Vehicle" (literally, the "Greater Ox-Cart"), Mahayana is a path available to people from all walks of life - not just monks and ascetics.
Mahayana Buddhism is the primary form of Buddhism in North Asia and the Far East, including China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia, and is thus sometimes known as Northern Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists accept the Pali Canon as sacred scripture with the Theravadans, but also many other works, the Sutras, which were written later and in Sanskrit.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists differ in their perspective on the ultimate purpose of life and the way in which it can be attained. As discussed on the last page, Theravada Buddhists strive to become arhats, or perfected saints who have attained enlightenment and nirvana. This is considered to only be possible for monks and nuns, who devote their entire lives to the task. The best outcome the laity can hope for is to be reborn in the monastic life.
Mahayana Buddhists, on the other hand, hope to become not arhats but boddhisatvas, saints who have become enlightened but who unselfishly delay nirvana to help others attain it as well, as the Buddha did. Perhaps more significantly for one who would choose between the paths, Mahayana Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson. The various subdivisions within the Mahayana tradition, such as Zen, Nichiren, and Pure Land, promote different ways of attaining this goal, but all are agreed that it can be attained in a single lifetime by anyone who puts his or her mind (and sometimes body) to it.
The Mahayana form of Buddhism tends to be more religious in nature than its Theravadan counterpart. It often includes veneration of celestial beings, Buddhas and boddhisatvas, ceremonies, religious rituals, magical rites, and the use of icons, images, and other sacred objects. The role of such religious elements varies, however: it is central to Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism, but is highly discouraged by Zen practitioners, who have been known to burn statues of the Buddha to demonstrate their unimportance.
The next few articles outline some of the most significant sects and schools within the Mahayana tradition: Tendai,Nichiren and Zen.


1. "Mahayana." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).

Theravada and Mahayana

8 major schools: four practice-based (Zen, Pure Land, Vajrayana, Vinaya); four philosophy-based (Tendai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika)
LocationSouthern (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, parts of Southeast Asia)Northern (Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, parts of Southeast Asia )
Schools and SectsOne surviving school (as many as 18 existed at one time)
BuddhistScripturesPali Canon/Tripitaka onlyBooks of the Theravada Tripitaka plus many other sutras (e.g. Lotus Sutra)
BuddhasHistorical Buddha (Gautama) and past Buddhas onlyGautama Buddha plus Amitabha, Medicine Buddhas, and others
BodhisattvasMaitreya onlyMaitreya plus Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra
Goal of TrainingArhatBuddhahood via bodhisattva-path
3 Buddha Bodies (Trikaya)Very limited emphasis; mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kayaEmphasized, including the samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body
Original LanguagePaliSanskrit
Language of TransmissionTripitaka is only in Pali. Teaching in Pali supplemented by locallanguage.Scriptures translated into local language.
Buddha's DisciplesHistorical disciples described inScripturesMany bodhisattvas that are not historical figures
Mantras and MudrasSome equivalent in the use of ParittasEmphasized in Vajrayana; sometimes incorporated in other schools
Bardo (Limbo)RejectedTaught by all schools
Non-Buddhist InfluencesMainly pre-Buddhist Indian influences like concepts of karma, sangha, etc.Heavily influenced by local religious ideas as transmitted to new cultures (China, Japan, Tibet).
Buddha NatureNot taughtEmphasized, especially in practice-basedschools
RitualsVery few; not emphasizedMany, owing to local cultural influences

Related Articles

Buddhist Schools of Thought

Here are many subdivisions within Buddhism, but most can be classified into three major branches: Theravada("Way of the Elders"), Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") and Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle").
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism went their separate ways in the first century AD. Mahayana then subdivided into several diverse schools, such as Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren, many of which flourish today in East Asia. The Vajrayana Buddhist tradition is an esoteric sect that is predominant in Tibet and Nepal.
Choose an article below to learn more.
Religion Facts Ref

Theravada Buddhism

The Theravada form of Buddhism is dominant in southern Asia, especially in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. For this reason it is sometimes known as "Southern Buddhism."
Theravada means "The Way of the Elders" in Pali, reflecting the Theravadins' belief that they most closely follow the original beliefs and practices of the Buddha and the early monastic Elders.
The authoritative text for Theravadas is the Pali Canon, an early Indian collection of the Buddha's teachings. The later Mahayana sutras are not recognized.
The purpose of life for Theravadins is to become an arhat, a perfected saint who has acheived nirvana and will not be reborn again. As a result, Southern Buddhism tends to be more monastic, strict and world-renouncing than its Northern counterpart, and its approach is more philosophical than religious.
There are four stages to becoming an arhat:
  1. Sotapanna ("stream-enterer") - a convert, attained by overcoming false beliefs
  2. Sakadagamin ("once-returner") - one who will only be reborn once more, attained by diminishing lust, hatred and illusion
  3. Anagamin ("never-returner") - one who will be reborn in heaven, where he or she will become an arahant
  4. Arhat ("worthy one") - one who has attained perfect enlightenment and will never be reborn
Because of this focus on personal attainment and its requirement that one must renounce the world to achieve salvation, Mahayana Buddhists refer to Theravada Buddhism as the "Lesser Vehicle" (Hinayana).
In Theravada, it is thought to be highly unlikely, even impossible, that a layperson can achieve liberation. Because Mahayana disagrees, it regards itself as providing a "Greater Vehicle" to liberation, in which more people can participate.

Religion Facts Ref.

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism at a glance

Statue of Buddha in meditationStanding Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand.

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. There are 376 million followers worldwide.
Buddhists seek to reach a state of nirvana, following the path of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who went on a quest for Enlightenment around the sixth century BC.
There is no belief in a personal god. Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent and that change is always possible. The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.
Buddhists believe that life is both endless and subject to impermanence, suffering and uncertainty. These states are called the tilakhana, or the three signs of existence. Existence is endless because individuals are reincarnated over and over again, experiencing suffering throughout many lives.
It is impermanent because no state, good or bad, lasts forever. Our mistaken belief that things can last is a chief cause of suffering.
The history of Buddhism is the story of one man's spiritual journey to enlightenment, and of the teachings and ways of living that developed from it.

The Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal over 2500 years ago. He lived a life of privilege and luxury until one day he left the royal enclosure and encountered for the first time, an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. Disturbed by this he became a monk before adopting the harsh poverty of Indian asceticism. Neither path satisfied him and he decided to pursue the ‘Middle Way’ - a life without luxury but also without poverty.
Buddhists believe that one day, seated beneath the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening), Siddhartha became deeply absorbed in meditation and reflected on his experience of life until he became enlightened.
By finding the path to enlightenment, Siddhartha was led from the pain of suffering and rebirth towards the path of enlightenment and became known as the Buddha or 'awakened one'.

Schools of Buddhism

There are numerous different schools or sects of Buddhism. The two largest are Theravada Buddhism, which is most popular in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar), and Mahayana Buddhism, which is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia.
The majority of Buddhist sects do not seek to proselytise (preach and convert), with the notable exception of Nichiren Buddhism.
All schools of Buddhism seek to aid followers on a path of enlightenment.

Key facts

  • Buddhism is 2,500 years old
  • There are currently 376 million followers worldwide
  • There are over 150,000 Buddhists in Britain
  • Buddhism arose as a result of Siddhartha Gautama's quest for Enlightenment in around the 6th Century BC
  • There is no belief in a personal God. It is not centred on the relationship between humanity and God
  • Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent - change is always possible
  • The two main Buddhist sects are Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, but there are many more
  • Buddhists can worship both at home or at a temple
  • The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.   (Ref Religions-Buddhism, BBC)