It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of meditation to the practice of Buddhism. It is the practice of Buddhism. In this presentation, the subject is only silent meditation. However, I think chanting can be considered a way of meditation, even though the Buddha did not encourage his followers in the practice of mantras, parittas (chanting verses and sutras for protection), or sutra recitation for devotion. It is meditation in the traditional sense that has always been the most common, and perhaps crucial, element in Buddha-dharma. Most of the definitions here are from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter Gregory.
Each school or tradition of Buddhism makes exclusive claims about their own philosophy or practice. These claims must be taken with a large grain of salt. For instance, you might hear someone say, “The Buddha taught Zen.” That’s true to the extent that zen means meditation. But if one is implying that the Buddha taught Zen philosophy or “Zen meditation,” that’s stretching it a bit too much. You might hear someone else claim that Buddha taught samatha-vipassana, or “insight meditation.” That’s not quite the case either.
Samatha-vipassana is meditation based on the jhanas (deep mental states or meditative absorptions). There are samatha jhanas and vipassana jhanas, with some difference in how each is approached. There are only occasional references to samatha and vipassana in the early sutras, and almost always they are mentioned together, indicating that these were not intended to be separate practices.
While there is some similarity between the four jhanas and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, jhanas are not mentioned in the oldest “scriptures” nor in the two most important meditation texts of early Buddhism, Anapanasati Sutta (“Discourse on the Mindfulness of Breath”) and Satipatthana Sutta (“The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness”). This has led some to believe they are later additions to Buddhist practice. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “from my own research, it seems the Four Jhanas . . . were not introduced into Buddhism until one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.” I suspect this is the case for samatha-vipassana, too.
Since the Buddhist sutras are not historical documents, it is impossible to prove anything about what the Buddha may have taught. Nonetheless, my feeling is that the practice taught in the earliest days of Buddhism was sati, or mindfulness, and certainly mindfulness is the starting point for most all of the various forms of Buddhist meditation that followed.
Sati (Sanskrit: smrti) originally meant “memory”, specifically memorizing Vedic scriptures. The Buddha used it in the context of “awareness.” Mindfulness meditation consists of watching the breath, cultivating mindfulness or attention to the present moment.
It seems that the Buddha never used any of the terms usually translated as “meditation.” In addition to sati, the other term used most frequently in the early sutras is bhavana, meaning, “to be, become; cultivate, develop, increase; to produce; to practice.” Bhavana is a broad term that according to Alan Sponberg, in TOCM, “can refer to any form of spiritual cultivation or practice.” However, as Walpola Rahula, in What the Buddha Taught, points out, “The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which . . . properly speaking, is mental culture in the full sense of the term.”
Here are several other terms frequently used in discussions on Buddhist meditation:
Samatha-vipassana – “concentration and insight”, these are actually two separate forms of meditation, which were rarely practiced in tandem until the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. The Theravada school largely contends that samatha is dispensable. Samatha means “calming” or “tranquility,” while vipassana is “insight” or “clear-seeing.” In Chinese, samatha-vipassana is rendered as chih-kuan, which T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i described as “stopping and seeing.” In Japanese, it is shikan.
Samadhi – a term commonly translated as “meditation.” Sponberg, says, “With the etymological sense of ‘bringing or putting together,’ this term most often refers to a state of mental concentration, usually the result of some particular technique or practice.”
Dhyana – a Sanskrit term that corresponds to the Pali jhana, “to think closely [upon an object].” Dhyana is also frequently used to mean “meditation,” and in Chinese it is translated as ch’an, and in Japanese, zen.
Basic Zen meditation (Jp. zazen) commonly begins with the practice mindfulness of breath (more about Zen in the next post). Modern vipassana or “insight meditation” is “based on the traditional practice of mindfulness (P. sati) as taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta” (Gregory). The Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta explain how to practice mindfulness using points other than the breath as objects of meditation (the body, sensations, the mind, etc.)
Of the original 13 schools of Buddhism, Theravada is the only one alive today. I could be wrong but I believe that the first non-sutra meditation instructions in this tradition were those produced in the 4th or 5th Century by Buddhaghosa, who wrote Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification” which is not only a comprehensive meditation manual but also an in-depth treatise on the whole of Theravada doctrine.
Over the centuries, meditation became a lost art in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia. As I recall the story told by Rick Fields in his book, How The Swans Came To The Lake, in the late 1800’s, the Sri Lankan born bhikkhu Anagarika Dharmapala (David Hewavitarne) traveled throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Burma and he could not find one Buddhist who could teach him how to practice meditation. Eventually, he had to rely on the Visuddhimagga and a 17th or 18th century meditation manual translated into English as Manual of a Mystic in 1906 by F.L. Woodward.
The revival of meditation in the Theravada tradition didn’t get started until the latter half of the last century, through the efforts of Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka in Burma, along with their Western followers, and this is more or less the Insight Meditation (Vipassana) movement of today.
The tradition of meditation has remained strong in the Mahayana countries of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan, and that will be the focus of the next post. I should probably remind readers that in the history of Buddhist meditation, until recent years, it was primarily the ordained members of the Sangha who practiced and not the lay members, due to social, economic, and educational reasons.
As the title states this is just a brief overview. I am more than willing to stand corrected on anything I’ve written, however I think what I’ve shared here is largely accurate. And I hope there are some people who will find it helpful.
I’m going to add a page with some simple instructions on Mindfulness meditation. So, those of you who would interested in that, please check back.
*Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. This painting was used as the frontispiece to ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1st edition, 1913