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Buddhist Meditation: A Survey


Buddhist Meditation

In this survey there are many basic Buddhist terms that could be unfamiliar. When coming across unfamiliar terms, you do well to look up somewhere what they mean, to ensure a continuing, good learning experience. I also suggest there are more comprehensive surveys around. Some may be complementary to this brief one, such as the article on TM and Buddhism: [More]


Meditation is part of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, where Right Mindfulness is a part. Buddhism has many meditation methods, and some are available to the public.

Breath meditation, being mindful of breathing, is a basic form of meditation taught by Buddha. Breath meditation helps developing vipashyana as well as shamatha.
    There are many forms and variants of breath meditation. Simply watching the breath is one method: "Four basic postures allow good deep breathing. Seated posture, cross-legged posture, kneeling posture and lying down posture. (1) Close eyes, relax your body and breathe normally. Go for breathing naturally, without trying to change the length or depth of the breath. Just observe passively the natural, involuntary breathing process. (2) Focus attention on breathing, and after each exhalation, before breathing in, count silently "one". Then inhale and exhale before you think "two", then breathe in and out again, count "three" mentally and so on, till you reach "ten". Then start over. (3) Feel the air going in and out as you breathe. You may soon notice how your mind strays from counting the breath. In such cases just bring it gently back each time you have been sidetracked. When you have finished come back from meditation slowly and open your eyes." Successful breath meditation can usher in the sublime fourth jhanic state of deep meditation.

A German professor, Eugen Herrigel, was taught a simple breathing exercise to improve his performance while being in Japan. The teacher, Awa Kenzo, showed him how to breathe out evenly and slowly, pause slightly, and then breathe in faster, breathe out slowly again, pause slightly, breathe in faster, and so on, finding a rhythm that gradually "formed itself". The master marksman said that breathing in helps integrations toward a flowing performance, breathing out can assist completions and overcome hindrances. Fit focusing helped relaxation. In training of motoric skills, relaxing deeply and focusing calmly during traing is fit. [Zwb 30-34]
    The well-known yoga method of deep breathing is close to Herrigel's breath exercise. Lie down on your back or sit comfortably. Breathe in, pause a little, breathe out, pause a little, and keep it going for a while, at least ten rounds. How much time should the segments take? Inbreath and outbreath should be deep, not heard, slow and gentle, 3-5 seconds each, and pauses about 1 second. In such elevating breathing you start filling the lower part of the lungs first, then you fill the middle and upper part. When exhaling you first empty the upper part of the lungs, then the middle, and last of all the lower part. Seek to weave the phases into a pleasant, well integrated, ongoing whole. Make as little of it as possible. Proceed slowly and in a most relaxed manner. No effort or strain should ever be exerted while breathing. To use force during inhalation is incompetent - just fill the lungs slowly and measuredly and empty them similarly. Do it with ease, without any tension or strain, and you are on the right track. To breathe through the nose is preferrable.

Take some mental scans (checks) of the body while you practice, to note if it is well relaxed too, as it should be.
    Be careful not to overdo the breathing, as this may lead to unpleasant results such as dizziness due to excessive intake of oxygen. So if you get dizzy, moderate the practice or take a break. Remember the practice is to be pleasant and easy.
    One of the reasons why such fuller breathing may help some, is that the lower part of our lungs seldom are well emptied, and tend to accumulate air saturated with waste products unless "aired" by some deep breaths. To keep up "slow, deep, measured, pleasant and easy" breathing within bounds should maim no one, and can be good for the health. There are further details to adhere to for those who take up this benficial practice. [DEEP BREATHING]
    Garma Chang explains how to integrate breath counting into a scheme where successive deeper forms of meditation gradually are to take over:
    "Counting the Breath," is to focus one's mind on the count of each inhalation or exhalation - never both at the same time. Count from one to ten very slowly and calmly. If the counting is interrupted by a single distracting thought, the yogi should go back and recommence his counting at "one." Through repeated practice he will gradually become well-versed in this counting exercise [Prz 205]
    When this goes well, the meditator may stop the counting exercise and proceeds to "Following the Breath." It suggests keeping one's awareness on the breathing, following it in and out with ease and in perfect continuity. [Prz 205-06] a good yogic method of breath awareness combined with a mantra, hong-saw, is described on another page: [THE HAMSA METHOD]
    When the mind gets calm, "Following the Breath" becomes a burden and needs to be succeeded by gentle focusing in a state called dhyana (Zen), that can be kept up for hours. Such meditation is known to purify the mind gently. There are many sides to it. [Prz 205-07]
    A little bit of observation training (called pranja) may then be suitable. [Prz 207-08]
    Take some (maybe seven) deep yoga breaths (above) before meditation.

Vipashyana (Pali: vipassana) meditation, or "mindfulness meditation", is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques. It calms the mind and helps focusing. You aim at observing calmly and relaxed yourself as an observer along with observing what is in front of you. It depends on direct observation - taking direct perception by insights that count - in order to get aware (mindful). In the Theravada tradition alone, there are over fifty methods for developing mindfulness. Mahamudra and Dzogchen use vipashyana extensively too.

Shamatha (Pali: samatha) 'Calm Abiding', is a focusing, pacifying and calming meditation, common in yoga. Shamatha culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly for quarters and even hours on end. Samatha is of the concentration meditation practices. Within such as Tibetan Buddhism (Mahayana), shamatha practice, 'Calm Abiding', progresses along stages and leads to a deep, interior state called the first jhana (Sanskrit: dhyana) which is a state of tranquillity or bliss, described by Buddha.
    Meditation helps focusing one's attention (dharana), and developing mindfulness (sati). In the Pali canon, the Buddha does not divide shamatha and vipashyana meditation practices; instead, both shamatha and vipashyana are to be developed through meditation. Wholesome focusing facets of meditation steady, calm, compose, unify and concentrate the mind; and "insight facets" enable one to see, explore and discern "formations", alias phenomena. One eventually ends up practicing a unification of shamatha and vipashyana. Yet few teachers try to synthesize, crystallize and categorize practices from a lot of Buddhist traditions. Be that as it may, Theravada Buddhist meditation practices include vipashyana and shamatha.

Zazen: The aim of zazen ("Zen sitting") is just sitting, but in a regulated way. "Seated meditation" is a meditative discipline. The legs are folded in one of the standard sitting postures. The hands are folded over the belly. In many practices, one breathes "from the belly" and "is here now", as we may add.
    "Shikantaza" is Japanese for Zazen, and introduced by Dogen (1200-53) of the Soto Zen school. The term "shikantaza" literally means "nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za)." means by this, "doing only zazen whole-heartedly" or "single-minded sitting". Shikantaza is objectless meditation, where the practitioner does not use any specific object of meditation, but uses the power developed in concentration to remain as aware as possible of all phenomena that arise and pass in the present moment. "in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content". Such general awareness can be trained. [MORE]
    Also, simple and easy forms of meditation can be practiced while walking or doing easy, repetitive tasks.

Mantra yoga: Mantras are syllables or sets of syllables, and used as "tools of thought". They may be pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only during meditation. Silent repetition is said to work best, all in all. Mantras are particularly important to Pure Land and Nichiren practitioners. Mantrayana means "the mantra way". To benefit from mantras, we revolve them in our minds and thus think-repeat our mantra silently at regular periods. The value of the method traditionally depends on the skilled and merciful teacher.
    Some mantras call on gods or goddesses, both in Buddhism and Hinduism, with the aims of gaining protection (security), guarding one's spiritual life; and for becoming free (gain liberation), as the case may be. Additionally they are widely resorted to for having boons, such as learning, good fortune, education, creativity, and musical abilities. People use different mantras for different ends in different ways. Some are good and beneficial, if we trust research findings. I do mantra yapa (mantra meditation, TM) myself.

Tantra: Vajrayana Buddhism is often a synonym for mantrayana. Vajrayana meditation practices include Tantra. Tantra techniques in Vajrayana Buddhism are techniques used to attain Buddhahood. The most important side to the tantric path is to "use the result as the Path" and thereby attune oneself better to tall benefits. Some tantric practices include repetitions of mantras. Oral transmissions given by a tantric master are vital too. Tantra involves sex practices for some. Tantric sex is not needed to practise Vajrayana, though, and some do without it.

Three together: On the path toward Enlightenment, Buddhist traditions recognise these three: virtue (sila); meditation (citta); and, wisdom (panna). Meditative prowess, ethical development and wise understanding work together for development into arhatship. All three aspects can and should be developed. The right sort of training helps. An arhat (Sanskrit: arhant; Pali: arahant) is someone who has attained Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana), also termed Awakening. Mahayana affirms that the ultimate end of meditation is the realize of and become established in the essential Self.

Non-Buddhists use some of the Buddhist meditation techniques for the sake of better physical and mental health, and towards non-Buddhist aims. Such "ordinary meditation" (Chinese, bonpu; Jap., bonpu or bompu) is pursued for mental and physical well-being without any spiritual goal. And some use meditation for seeking to develop mindfulness into self-realization.

To avoid getting sidetracked, seek to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM), the best method publicly available according comparisons presented by Dr David Orme-Johnson. TM is also the most widely researched meditation method in our time. [◦Comparisons]

Buddhist meditation, END MATTER

Buddhist meditation, LITERATURE  

Prz: Chang, Garma C. The Practice of Zen. New York: Perennial/Harper, 1970.

Yy: Goleman, David. The Varieties of the Meditative Experience. London: Rider, 1975.

Zwm: Herrigel, Eugen. Zen i bueskytingens kunst. (Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens (1948) - Zen in the Art of Archery) Oslo: Hilt og Hansteen, 1995.


Buddhist meditation USER'S GUIDE to abbreviations, the site's bibliography, letter codes, dictionaries, site design and navigation, tips for searching the site and page referrals. [LINK]
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