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Buddhist meditation

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Buddhist meditation

Buddhist meditation refers to the meditative practices associated with the religion and philosophy of Buddhism.

Contents

Core meditation techniques have been preserved in ancient Buddhist texts and have proliferated and diversified through teacher-student transmissions. Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the path toward Enlightenment and Nirvana. The closest words for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism are bhāvanā and jhāna/dhyāna. Buddhist meditation techniques have become increasingly popular in the wider world, with many non-Buddhists taking them up for a variety of reasons.

Buddhist meditation encompasses a variety of meditation techniques that aim to develop mindfulness, concentration, supramundane powers, tranquility, and insight. Specific Buddhist meditation techniques have also been used to remove unwholesome qualities thought to be impediments to spiritual liberation, such loving kindness to remove ill-will, hate, and anger, equanimity to remove mental clinging, and reflection on 31-parts-of-the-body and corpses to remove sensual lust for the body and cultivate annica or impermanence. Given the large number and diversity of traditional Buddhist meditation practices, this article primarily identifies authoritative contextual frameworks — both contemporary and canonical — for the variety of practices. For those seeking school-specific meditation information, it may be more appropriate to simply view the articles listed in the "See also" section below.

Meditation in Buddhist traditions

While there are some similar meditative practices — such as breath meditation and various recollections (anussati) — that are used across Buddhist schools, there is also significant diversity. In the Theravāda tradition alone, there are over fifty methods for developing mindfulness and forty for developing concentration, while in the Tibetan tradition there are thousands of visualization meditations. Most classical and contemporary Buddhist meditation guides are school specific. Only a few teachers attempt to synthesize, crystallize and categorize practices from multiple Buddhist traditions.

In early tradition

The earliest tradition of Buddhist practice is preserved in the nikāya/āgamas, and is adhered to by the Theravāda lineage. It was also the focus of the other now-extinct early Buddhist schools, and has been incorporated to greater and lesser degrees into the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and many East Asian Mahāyāna traditions.

Types of meditation

In terms of early traditions as found in the vast Pali canon and the Āgamas, meditation can be contextualized as part of the Noble Eightfold Path, explicitly in regard to:

  • Right Mindfulness (samma sati) – exemplified by the Buddha's Four Foundations of Mindfulness (see Satipatthana Sutta).
  • Right Concentration (samma samadhi) – culminating in jhanic absorptions through the meditative development of samatha.
  • And implicitly in regard to :

  • Right View (samma ditthi) – embodying wisdom traditionally attained through the meditative development of vipassana founded on samatha.
  • Classic texts in the Pali literature enumerating meditative subjects include the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) and the Visuddhimagga's Part II, "Concentration" (Samadhi).

    Four foundations for mindfulness

    In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha identifies four foundations for mindfulness: the body, feelings, mind states and mental objects. He further enumerates the following objects as bases for the meditative development of mindfulness:

  • Body (kāyā): Breathing (see Anapanasati Sutta), Postures, Clear Comprehending, Reflections on Repulsiveness of the Body, Reflections on Material Elements, Cemetery Contemplations
  • Feelings (vedanā), whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
  • Mind (cittā)
  • Mental Contents (dhammā): Hindrances, Aggregates, Sense-Bases, Factors of Enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths.
  • Meditation on these subjects develops insight.

    Serenity and insight

    The Buddha is said to have identified two paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:

  • "serenity" or "tranquillity" (Pali: samatha) which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;
  • "insight" (Pali: vipassana) which enables one to see, explore and discern "formations" (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).
  • 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 "Four Ways to Arahantship Sutta" (AN 4.170), Ven. Ananda reports that people attain arahantship using serenity and insight in one of three ways:

    1. they develop serenity and then insight (Pali: samatha-pubbangamam vipassanam)
    2. they develop insight and then serenity (Pali: vipassana-pubbangamam samatham){{While the Nikayas identify that the pursuit of vipassana can precede the pursuit of samatha, a fruitful vipassana-oriented practice must still be based upon the achievement of stabilizing "access concentration" (Pali: upacara samadhi).}}
    3. 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.

    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.

    From the Pali Commentaries

    Buddhaghosa's forty meditation subjects are described in the Visuddhimagga. Almost all of these are described in the early texts. Buddhaghosa 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" (kalyana mitta) who is knowledgeable in the different meditation subjects (Ch. III, § 28). Buddhaghosa 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: Buddhānussaṭi, the Dhamma, the Sangha, virtue, generosity, the virtues of deities, death (see Upajjhatthana Sutta), the body, the breath (see anapanasati), and peace (see Nibbana).
  • four divine abodes: metta, 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.

    In Contemporary Theravāda

    Particularly influential from the twentieth century onward has been the "New Burmese Method" or "Vipassana School" approach to samatha and vipassana developed by Mingun Jetavana Sayādaw and U Nārada and popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw. Here samatha is considered an optional but not necessary component of the practice—vipassana is possible without it. Another Burmese method, derived from Ledi Sayadaw via U 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.

    Also influential is the Thai Forest Tradition deriving from Ajahn Mun 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.

    Another less common type of meditation is practiced in Cambodia and Laos by followers of Tantric Theravada. This form of meditation includes the use of mantras and visualizations.

    In Mahāyāna Buddhism

    Mahāyāna Buddhism includes numerous schools of practice, which each draw upon various Buddhist sūtras, philosophical treatises, and commentaries. Accordingly, each school has its own meditation methods for the purpose of developing samādhi and prajñā, with the goal of ultimately attaining enlightenment. Nevertheless, each has its own emphasis, mode of expression, and philosophical outlook. In his classic book on meditation of the various Chinese Buddhist traditions, Charles Luk writes, "The Buddha Dharma is useless if it is not put into actual practice, because if we do not have personal experience of it, it will be alien to us and we will never awaken to it in spite of our book learning." Venerable Nan Huaijin echoes similar sentiments about the importance of meditation by remarking, "Intellectual reasoning is just another spinning of the sixth consciousness, whereas the practice of meditation is the true entry into the Dharma."

    Meditation in the Pure Land school

    Mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha

    In the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism, repeating the name of Amitābha Buddha is traditionally a form of Mindfulness of the Buddha (Skt. buddhānusmṛti). This term was translated into Chinese as nianfo (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 the Tang Dynasty emperor Gao Zong (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
    Visualization methods

    Another practice found in Pure Land Buddhism is meditative contemplation and visualization of Amitābha Buddha, 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.

    Meditation in the Chán/Zen school

    Pointing to the nature of the mind

    In the earliest traditions of Chán/Zen Buddhism, it is said that there was no formal method of meditation. Instead, the teacher would use various didactic methods to point to the true nature of the mind, also known as Buddha-nature. 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." In the early era of the Chán school, there was no fixed method or ple formula for teaching meditation, and all instructions were simply heuristic methods; therefore the Chán school was called the "Gateless Gate."

    Contemplating meditation cases

    It is said traditionally that when the minds of people in society became more complicated and when they could not make progress so easily, the masters of the Chán school were forced to change their methods. These involved particular words and phrases, shouts, roars of laughter, sighs, gestures, or blows from a staff. These were all meant to awaken the student to the essential truth of the mind, and were later called gōng'àn (公案), or kōan in Japanese. These didactic phrases and methods were to be contemplated, and example of such a device is a phrase that turns around the practice of mindfulness: "Who is being mindful of the Buddha?" The teachers all instructed their students to give rise to a gentle feeling of doubt at all times while practicing, so as to strip the mind of seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing, and ensure its constant rest and undisturbed condition. Charles Luk explains the essential function of contemplating such a meditation case with doubt:

    Since the student cannot stop all his thoughts at one stroke, he is taught to use this poison-against-poison device to realize singleness of thought, which is fundamentally wrong but will disappear when it falls into disuse, and gives way to singleness of mind, which is a precondition of the realization of the self-mind for the perception of self-nature and attainment of Bodhi.

    Meditation in the Tiantai school

    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.

    Meditation in Vajrayana Buddhism

    The aim of the teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, each taught by the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Indo-Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism, respectively, is to familiarize one with the ultimate nature of mind which underlies all existence, the Dharmakāya. Then, by meditating in union with the Dharmakāya, one gradually passes through each of the Ten Bhūmis until reaching liberation from saṃsāra and karma.

    The shared preliminary practices of both the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism are called ngöndro, which involves visualization, mantra recitation and sadhana practice, and many prostrations. Nyingma also focuses on three foundational practices in Tibetan Buddhism: Shamata (calm abiding), Tonglen (sending and receiving), and a "breath practice" called "Clearing the Stale Energies” that helps clear the mind in preparation for meditation.

    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. Buddhist meditation techniques are increasingly being employed by psychologists and psychiatrists to help alleviate a variety of health conditions such as anxiety and depression. 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, Mother Sayamagyi, 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 (P. 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.

    References

    Buddhist meditation Wikipedia


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