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Buddhist meditation

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Buddhist meditation encompasses a variety of meditation techniques that develop mindfulness, concentration, tranquility and insight. Core meditation techniques are preserved in ancient Buddhist texts and have proliferated and diversified through the millennia of teacher-student transmissions.

Non-Buddhists use these techniques for the pursuit of physical and mental health as well as for non-Buddhist spiritual aims.[1] Buddhist meditation techniques are increasingly being employed by psychologists and psychiatrists to help alleviate a variety of health conditions such as anxiety and depression.[2] As such, mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation techniques are being advocated in the West by innovative psychologists and Buddhist meditation expert teachers such as 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 and healing.

Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the path toward Enlightenment and Nirvana.[3]

The closest words for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism are bhāvanā[4] and jhāna (Pāli; Skt.: dhyāna).[5]

The accounts of meditative states in the Buddhist texts are largely 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.[6]

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 instruction, it may be more appropriate to simply view the articles listed in the "See also" section below.

Types of Buddhist meditation

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. For example, in the Theravada tradition alone, there are over fifty methods for developing mindfulness and forty for developing concentration, while the Tibetan tradition has thousands of visualization meditations.[7]

Most classical and contemporary Buddhist meditation guides are school specific.[8] Only a few teachers attempt to synthesize, crystallize and categorize practices from multiple Buddhist traditions.

From the Pali Canon

Meditation on the
Buddhist Path

Most Buddhist traditions recognize that the path to Enlightenment entails three types of training: virtue (sīla); meditation (samadhi); and, wisdom (paññā).[9] Thus, meditative prowess alone is not sufficient; it is but one part of the path. In other words, in Buddhism, in tandem with mental cultivation, ethical development and wise understanding are also necessary for the attainment of the highest goal.[10]

In terms of the vast Pali canon, 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.[11]

And implicitly in regard to :

  • Right View (samma ditthi) – embodying wisdom traditionally attained through the meditative development of vipassana founded on samatha.[12]

Classic texts in the Pali literature enumerating meditative subjects include the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) and the Visuddhimagga's Part II, "Concentration" (Samadhi).

The Buddha's 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)
  1. Breathing (see Anapanasati Sutta)
  2. Postures
  3. Clear Comprehending
  4. Reflections on Repulsiveness of the Body
  5. Reflections on Material Elements
  6. Cemetery Contemplations
  • Feelings (vedanā)
  • Mind (cittā)
  • Mental Contents (dhammā)
  1. The Hindrances
  2. The Aggregates
  3. The Sense-Bases
  4. The Factors of Enlightenment
  5. The Four Noble Truths

Meditation on these subjects develops insight.[13]

Swift messengers of Nibbana: 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).[14]

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.[15] Moreover, the Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining Nibbana (Pali; Skt.: Nirvana), the unconditioned state. For example, in the "Kimsuka Tree Sutta" (SN 35.245), 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.[16]

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)[17]
  3. they develop serenity and insight in tandem (Pali: samatha-vipassanam yuganaddham), for instance, obtaining the first jhana and then seeing in the associated aggregates the three marks of existence, before proceeding to the second jhana.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

From the Pali Commentaries

Buddhaghosa's forty meditation subjects are described in the Visuddhimagga. Almost all of these are described in the early texts.[21]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).[22] Buddhaghosa subsequently elaborates on the forty meditation subjects as follows (Ch. III, §104; Chs. IV - XI):[23]

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 related to reflections of bodily repulsiveness), and contemplation of the four elements. Of these, according to Pali commentaries, only breath meditation can lead one to the equanimous fourth jhanic absorption. Foulness meditation can lead to the attainment of the first jhana, and contemplation of the four elements culminates in pre-jhana access concentration.[24]

Kuei-feng's "Five Types of Zen"

In the early ninth century, Kuei-feng (Chinese; also, Guifeng, Tsung-mi, Zongmi; Jap., Kei-ho) grouped Zen practices into five categories. While this typology is best known to Zen practitioners, it is applicable to all Buddhist meditation practices and is thus used here.[25] According to this typology, the outward appearance of all meditation practitioners is the same, but their substance and purpose differ.[26] Thus, for instance, most who practice mindfulness of breath would have a similar posture, meditative subject and level of concentration. But while some use the practice for mental quietude others use it to transcend all suffering. More specifically, Kuei-feng's five categories of meditative practices are:

  1. "Ordinary" (Chinese, bonpu; Jap., bonpu or bompu) – meditation pursued for mental and physical well-being without any spiritual goal.
  2. "Outside way" (gedō) – meditation pursued for non-Buddhist purposes, such as in tandem with Hindu yoga or Christian contemplation or for the pursuit of supernatural powers.
  3. "Small vehicle" (shōjō) – the pursuit of self-liberation, nirvana.
  4. "Great vehicle" (daijō) – the pursuit of self-realization to experience the unity of all things and working for the benefit for all beings (see kensho).
  5. "Supreme vehicle" (saijōjō) – the realization of buddha-nature as immanent in all beings (see shikantaza).

While the relative merits of the last three categories is open for discussion among various branches of Buddhism,[27] it is useful to see that the same Buddhist meditation practices have been used for many centuries by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, for different ends.

Contemporary Western examples of bonpu meditation include the psychotherapeutic use of Buddhist mindfulness techniques in Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)[28] and Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)[29] (see also Buddhism and psychology).

Western Buddhist Order's "Five Basic Methods"

Western Buddhist Order meditation teacher Kamalashila identifies "Five Basic Methods" as "a traditional set of meditations, each one an antidote to one of the five principal obstructions to Enlightenment."[30]

Kamalashila's Five Basic Methods are:[31]

(1) Mindfulness of Breathing[32]
(2) Metta Bhavana (including all four Brahma-viharas)
(3) Contemplation of Impermanence, including:
(4) Six Element Practice (earth, water, fire, air, space, "consciousness")
(5) Contemplation of Conditionality

In addition, he discusses three other meditations as "among the most important" not identified above:[33]

  • Visualization,[34] including:
  • Just Sitting (see Shikantaza)
  • Walking Meditation

An important (although not universally accepted) theme throughout Kamalashila's guide is that the various methods of meditation can be divided into samatha meditation (tranquillity meditation) and vipassana meditation (insight meditation).[35] In such a schema, Kamalashila identifies anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) and mettā bhāvanā (development of loving kindness) as samatha meditations. The vipassana meditations include contemplation on impermanence, the six element practice, and contemplation on conditionality. Some meditations (such as Tibetan visualizations) have elements of both samatha and vipassana. Samatha meditations usually precede and prepare for vipassana meditations.[36]

The following table summarizes Kamalashila's Five Basic Methods (with metta bhavana expanded to include all four brahma-viharas).[37]

Meditation type Method Counteracts Develops
(tranquility meditations)
ānāpanasati distraction concentration
mettā bhāvanā hatred [and sentimental attachment] loving-kindness
karuna bhāvanā cruelty, sentimental pity and horrified anxiety compassion
mudita bhāvanā resentment, envy and vicarious enjoyment sympathetic joy
upekkhā bhāvanā fixed indifference and apathetic neutrality equanimity
(insight meditations)
contemplation of impermanence craving inner peace, freedom
six element practice conceit clarity regarding nature of self
contemplation of conditionality ignorance wisdom, compassion

Limitations of Kamalashila's systemization of Buddhist meditation include:

  • Breath meditation is widely considered a method conducive to developing vipassana as well as samatha.[38]
  • Only passing references to auditory meditations, such as mantras which are particularly important to Pure Land and Nichiren practitioners (see also Buddhist chant).[39]
  • The omission of visualizations from the Five Basic Methods, given for instance the salience of kasina objects in the Pali literature and centrality of visualizations to Vajrayana traditions.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that Kamalashila's explicit aim is not to create an exhaustive systemization of pan-Buddhist meditation practices but to create a useful meditation guide.

See also

Theravada Buddhist meditation practices:

Zen Buddhist meditation practices:

Vajrayana Buddhist meditation practices:

Related Buddhist practices:

Proper floor-sitting postures & supports while meditating:

Traditional Buddhist texts on meditation:

Traditional preliminary practices to Buddhist meditation:


  1. See, for instance, Kuei-feng's description of bonpu and gedō zen, described further below.
  2. Cornfield, J. (2003). Publisher's Weekly review of Radical acceptance: embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha [Editorial Review]. Retrieved April 17, 2009, from ref=dp_proddesc_1?ie=UTF8&n=283155
  3. For instance, Kamalashila (2003), p. 4, states that Buddhist meditation "includes any method of meditation that has Enlightenment as its ultimate aim." Likewise, Bodhi (1999) writes: "To arrive at the experiential realization of the truths it is necessary to take up the practice of meditation.... At the climax of such contemplation the mental eye ... shifts its focus to the unconditioned state, Nibbana...." A similar although in some ways slightly broader definition is provided by Fischer-Schreiber et al. (1991), p. 142: "Meditation – general term for a multitude of religious practices, often quite different in method, but all having the same goal: to bring the consciousness of the practitioner to a state in which he can come to an experience of 'awakening,' 'liberation,' 'enlightenment.'" Kamalashila (2003) further allows that some Buddhist meditations are "of a more preparatory nature" (p. 4).
  4. The Pāli and Sanskrit word bhāvanā literally means "development" as in "mental development." For the association of this term with "meditation," see Epstein (1995), p. 105; and, Fischer-Schreiber et al. (1991), p. 20. As an example from a well-known discourse of the Pali Canon, in the "The Greater Exhortation to Rahula" (Maha-Rahulovada Sutta, MN 62), Ven. Sariputta tells Ven. Rahula (in Pali, based on VRI, n.d.): ānāpānassatiṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. Thanissaro (2006) translates this as: "Rahula, develop the meditation [bhāvana] of mindfulness of in-&-out breathing." (Square-bracketed Pali word included based on Thanissaro, 2006, end note.)
  5. See, for example, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), entry for "jhāna1"; Thanissaro (1997); as well as, Kapleau (1989), p. 385, for the derivation of the word "zen" from Sanskrit "dhyāna." PTS Secretary Dr. Rupert Gethin, in describing the activities of wandering ascetics contemporaneous with the Buddha, wrote:
    "...[T]here is the cultivation of meditative and contemplative techniques aimed at producing what might, for the lack of a suitable technical term in English, be referred to as 'altered states of consciousness'. In the technical vocabulary of Indian religious texts such states come to be termed 'meditations' ([Skt.:] dhyāna / [Pali:] jhāna) or 'concentrations' (samādhi); the attainment of such states of consciousness was generally regarded as bringing the practitioner to some deeper knowledge and experience of the nature of the world." (Gethin, 1998, p. 10.)
  6. Michael Carrithers, The Buddha, 1983, pages 33-34. Found in Founders of Faith, Oxford University Press, 1986. In context, the author seems to be referring to Pali literature. See however B. Alan Wallace, The bridge of quiescence: experiencing Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Carus Publishing Company, 1998, where the author demonstrates similar approaches to analyzing meditation within the Indo-Tibetan and Theravada traditions.
  7. Goldstein (2003) writes that, in regard to the Satipatthana Sutta, "there are more than fifty different practices outlined in this Sutta. The meditations that derive from these foundations of mindfulness are called vipassana..., and in one form or another — and by whatever name — are found in all the major Buddhist traditions" (p. 92). The forty concentrative meditation subjects refer to Visuddhimagga's oft-referenced enumeration. Regarding Tibetan visualizations, Kamalashila (2003), writes: "The Tara meditation ... is one example out of thousands of subjects for visualization meditation, each one arising out of some meditator's visionary experience of enlightened qualities, seen in the form of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas" (p. 227).
  8. Examples of contemporary school-specific "classics" include, from the Theravada tradition, Nyanaponika (1996) and, from the Zen tradition, Kapleau (1989).
  9. For instance, from the Pali Canon, see MN 44 (Thanissaro, 1998a) and AN 3:88 (Thanissaro, 1998b). In Mahayana tradition, the Lotus Sutra lists the Six Perfections (paramita) which echoes the threefold training with the inclusion of virtue (śīla), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (prajñā).
  10. Dharmacarini Manishini, Western Buddhist Review. Accessed at
  11. See, for instance, Bodhi (1999).
  12. For example, Bodhi (1999), in discussing a latter stage of developing Right View (that of "penetrating" the Four Noble Truths), states:
    To arrive at the experiential realization of the truths it is necessary to take up the practice of meditation — first to strengthen the capacity for sustained concentration, then to develop insight.
  13. For instance, see Solé-Leris (1986), p. 75; and, Goldstein (2003), p. 92.
  14. These definitions of samatha and vipassana are based on the "Four Kinds of Persons Sutta" (AN 4.94). This article's text is primarily based on Bodhi (2005), pp. 269-70, 440 n. 13. See also Thanissaro (1998d).
  15. See, for instance, AN 2.30 in Bodhi (2005), pp. 267-68, and Thanissaro (1998e).
  16. Bodhi (2000), pp. 1251-53. See also Thanissaro (1998c) (where this sutta is identified as SN 35.204). See also, for instance, a discourse (Pali: sutta) entitled, "Serenity and Insight" (SN 43.2), where the Buddha states: "And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Serenity and insight...." (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1372-73).
  17. 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).
  18. Bodhi (2005), pp. 268, 439 nn. 7, 9, 10. See also Thanissaro (1998f).
  19. See Thanissaro (1997) where for instance he underlines:
    When [the Pali discourses] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word vipassana with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.
    Similarly, referencing MN 151, vv. 13-19, and AN IV, 125-27, Ajahn Brahm (who, like Bhikkhu Thanissaro, is of the Thai Forest Tradition) writes:
    Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact, the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm. (Brahm, 2006, p. 25.)
  20. See, for instance, Bodhi (1999) and Nyanaponika (1996), p. 108.
  21. 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. [1].
  22. Buddhaghosa & Nanamoli (1999), pp. 85, 90.
  23. Buddhaghosa & Nanamoli (1999), p. 110.
  24. Regarding the jhanic attainments that are possible with different meditation techniques, see Gunaratana (1988).
  25. For the general applicability of Kuei-feng's typology, see Fischer-Schreiber et al. (1991), p. 70, in the entry "Five types of Zen," as well as Kapleau (1989)'s broad definition of "Zen" on p. 385. Discussion of this typology can be found in Fischer-Schreiber et al. (1991), p. 70. and Kapleau (1989), pp. 44-49.
  26. Kapleau (1989), p. 45.
  27. For instance, some say that Rinzai practitioners pursue daijō zen and Soto practitioners pursue saijōjō zen, while others state that both pursuits are essential to both schools (Fischer-Schreiber et al., 1991, p. 70). Similarly, various Theravada discourses, such as "The Bamboo Acrobat" (SN 47.19; Olendzki, 2005), maintain that so-called shōjō practices are in fact beneficial for others as well as for the contemplative.
  28. Kabat-Zinn (2001)
  29. Linehan (1993).
  30. Kamalashila (2003), p. 191. Expanding on what he means by "five principal obstructions," Kamalashila (2003), p. 191, identifies the "five poisons" of the Tibetan tradition: distraction, hatred, craving, conceit, and ignorance. This is similar to but different from the Theravada tradition's "five poisons" (where "poison" is sometimes used as a translation for the Pali word kilesa) defined as lust, hatred, ignorance, pride and envy.
  31. Kamalashila (2003), pp. 191 ff.
  32. Mindfulness of breathing is common to most, if not all, types of Buddhism. For instance, according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha used mindfulness of breathing for the attainment of enlightenment (Bodhi, 2005, p. 264, who cites SN 54.11). Additionally, mindfulness of breathing is a core practice of Zen practitioners (see for example Kapleau, 1989) and is used as an introductory practice for many Tibetan Buddhists (see for example Mipham, 2003).
  33. Kamalashila (2003), pp. 224 ff.
  34. Kamalashila (2003), p. 227, notes that visualization meditations are not explicitly referenced in the Pali canon. Kamalashila goes on to point out that many of the Visuddhimagga's forty meditation subjects (see below), including kasina objects and Recollection of the Buddha, have strong visual components; thus, perhaps, paving the way for more complex visualizations related to bodhisattvas and others.
  35. As is noted in another end note further below, some vehemently oppose dividing meditations into samatha and vipassana types pointing out that such a division is not articulated by the Buddha himself or consistent with actual experience. See, for instance, Brahm (2006) and Thanissaro (1997).
  36. Kamalashila (2003), pp. 88-89, 191-92, 225-26. Kamalashila suggests, as an example, that one start a meditation session by meditating on metta for forty minutes — to develop attainment of the first jhana state — and then meditating on impermanence. See also Bodhi (2005), p. 258, where he writes: "... the Nikayas usually treat the development of serenity as the precursor to the development of insight. However, because the aptitudes of meditators differ, several suttas allow for alternative approaches to this sequence."
  37. The table in this article is an expansion of the table on Kamalashila (2003), p. 192.
  38. See, for example, Nyanaponika (1996), pp. 111 ff., or the many vipassana techniques taught by S.N.Goenka or Zen's use of breath meditation.
  39. Kamalashila (2003) mentions mantras twice: he briefly discusses the mantra of Avalokitesvara (om mani padme hum) as an example of a non-conceptual "Dharma seed" (p. 186); and, in the context of providing a visualization meditation, he effectively incorporates the Tara mantra (om tare tuttare ture svaha) (p. 225).


  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2005). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.
  • Brahm, Ajahn (2006). Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator's Handbook. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-275-7.
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
  • Linehan, Marsha (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. NY: Guilford Press. ISBN 0-89862-183-6.
  • Mipham, Sakyong (2003). Turning the Mind into an Ally. NY: Riverhead Books. ISBN 1-57322-206-2.
  • Solé-Leris, Amadeo (1986). Tranquillity & Insight: An Introduction to the Oldest Form of Buddhist Meditation. Boston: Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-385-6.

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