The master quells his ideas. He ends their drifting. Seated in the cave of the heart, He finds freedom – Buddha in the Dhammapada.
Meditation as Buddhist Practice
Meditation is a key element of Buddhist practice, tied to the Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration Elements of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Meditation is also vital for developing Right Understanding – a guide, instead of purely intellectual, comprehension of the Four Noble Truths.
There are hundreds of different Buddhist meditation methods, the majority of which are unique to a specific branch of Buddhism, or even a particular teacher. However, most of these techniques fall into one of three classes:
Tranquility or Concentration Meditation – Samatha Bhavana
In this kind of meditation, you start by concentrating on a single object of focus, trying to slow, and finally quiet, your own mind. The most common type of the meditation is focusing on your breath – the senses related to your breath moving in and out of your body. Many Buddhist schools use some form of breath meditation as starting meditation practice, before teaching different forms. In certain schools, breath meditation is the only kind of meditation taught, and various levels of practice, or dhyanas, are clarified, progressing from the beginning phases of forced concentration up to a state of pure immersion in equanimity, since the brain stills and relaxes into pure awareness or being. Breath meditation is also frequently taught for stress control functions, outside of a Buddhist context.
There are dozens (if not hundreds) of different types of concentration meditation taught in various Buddhist schools. In the fifth-century Theravadin text that the Visuddhimagga, over 40 distinct objects of attention are described, and the text indicates which types are best for each individual based on certain personality traits. Tibetan Buddhist schools incorporate outside objects of attention such as mandalas and mantras.
Insight Meditation – Vipassana Bhavana
Sometimes referred to as mindfulness meditation, these kinds of meditation aren’t simply about stilling the mind, but about observing it. Although instructions differ by college, the overall idea is to notice sensations, emotions and ideas as they arise, but to let them pass through your head without attaching to them. The objective is to experience direct understanding of impermanence (anicca). Both sitting and moving forms of Insight meditation are taught.
Loving Kindness Meditation – Metta Bhavana
Also sometimes referred to as compassion meditation, these kinds of meditation are sometimes categorized as Concentration forms, since they originally involve focusing on sending feelings of empathy or love towards other people and beings. This is normally achieved in a progressive fashion, beginning with directing these ideas on your own, then towards family and friends, and finally to all beings. This kind of meditation is widespread in Mahayana Buddhist traditions as part of Boddhisattva practice.
Although most meditation forms could be categorized as one of these three, some techniques crossover, and many Buddhist schools teach more than one, or combine them. Some colleges require that novices perform preliminary practices, and develop knowledge of basic Buddhist principles, before learning to meditate, but some don’t. Buddhism is usually taught in a teacher-student connection, so most Buddhist teaching centers have courses specifically on meditation. Although anyone can start working on their own, particularly with simple concentration forms like breath meditation, as a student progresses a teacher’s advice is often beneficial in helping them sort through the a variety of distraction that could arise.
Since Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are so popular in the West, here are some forms of meditation common to them:
This is the Zen term for meditation, and zazen is fundamental to Zen practice, because Zen emphasizes direct realization or satori. There are variations on how zazen is educated, but the two chief kinds are koan meditation, associated with Rinzai Zen colleges, and ‘whole-hearted sitting’ or shikantaza, associated with Soto Zen schools. In koan meditation, a professional contemplates a seemingly non-sensical statement or narrative given to them by their instructor, so as to experience a degree of awareness beyond logical or linear understanding. Shikantaza practice is very similar to Insight meditation, using a professional trying to observe and settle into a degree of awareness unaffected by surface action and categorizations. One unique mark of zazen in certain schools of both branches of Zen is that the eyes are kept open during training.
Mantras are sacred sounds and words repeated in a chant-like fashion. This kind of meditation is common in Tibetan Buddhist schools, but other schools also incorporate it. A common Buddhist mantra is ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, which can’t be literally interpreted, but is related to the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig.
Mandala or Yantra Meditation
Mandalas and yantras are both forms of spiritual art that use sacred geometry to make representations of Buddhas and the conditions of consciousness that they’re associated with. By meditating on them through tender gazing, a professional can merge with this consciousness and directly experience these conditions him- or herself. Here’s an article on Buddhist mandalas.
While chakra meditation is much more commonly associated with Hindu-based kundalini yoga, some Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist schools do have their own associated chakra system, and use chakra meditation. The objective is to experience and unite with universal energies accessible through these chakras, changing mind, body and soul into a vessel of pure enlightenment.
Guru or Deity Meditation
Also most often found in Vajrayana Buddhist schools, ace or deity meditation entails originally visualizing a Buddha or instructor external to oneself, then imagining oneself as that Buddha or instructor. Like mandala meditation, the aim of this is to experience the educated mind of the instructor or being straight on your own, through the maximum state of meditative dyhana.