Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 1

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.

The Victory of Buddha by Abanindranath Tagore*

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Since the Buddhist sutras are not historical documents, it is impossible to prove anything about what the Buddha may have taught.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.

Anagarika Dharmapala

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


17 thoughts on “Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 1

  1. Thanks David for undertaking this history course! I look forward to your next installment!

    I wonder, however, whether your assertion that the jhanas are scantily mentioned in the early suttas is actually true. My own memory is that mentions occur quite frequently in both the Long and Middle Length Discourses, and it has always surprised me how much they are underemphasized in contemporary Theravada practice (though not by everyone – Ayya Khema is a notable exception). You are right that the jhanas are not mentioned in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) but they are mentioned in the very similar Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DG 22). I don’t know anything about the history of these texts, don’t know which is these is the earlier version, or why one version includes the jhanas and the other does not. I do understand, however, that Ajahn Sujato has studied the various recensions of the various Satipatthana texts and rejected the conclusion that the jhanas were a late alien addition to Buddhism. I’m not enough of a scholar to evaluate his argument, but I’d like to inject a little bit of uncertainty here.

    1. Hi, Seth. Yes that was a screw up on my part, and I have a really good excuse! I got knocked off the Internet last night shortly before midnight, when I was revising the post to make it shorter. I couldn’t get back on until after 1am and by then I was tired and confused about where I left off. I thought WP had autosaved it in the right form, but apparently it didn’t and I missed it in my last review of the post.

      It should have read: “while there are references to jhanas in the early sutras, references to vipassana are scant . . .” Here I meant to paraphrase Thanissaro Bhikkhu in “One Tool Among Many”: “But if you look directly at the Pali discourses . . . Only rarely do they make use of the word vipassana — a sharp contrast to their frequent use of the word jhana.”


      I don’t know the background to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. I haven’t seen anything by Sujato about that particular text, although I did see something online that he thought it was forgery, but it turned out that he might be referring to the Satipatthana Sutta, it’s not clear.

      I had planned to include this from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Breathe! You Are Alive (his commentary on the Anapanasati Sutta): “However, from my own research, it seems the Four Jhanas . . . were not introduced into Buddhism until one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.” The Jhanas, and some other practices, are mentioned in quite a few suttas, they are not found in the oldest ones, so that is one basis for his contention. He has quite a section on this.

      I was going to have quite a section on this too, until I decided to make changes. G.C. Pande, in an essay found in “Buddhist Spirituality” (1994), as well as many others, have noted that the jhanas predate Buddhism and are not unique to it: “Jhana was used by different sects for a variety of purposes . . .”

      I have several other reasons why I don’t think the Buddha taught the jhanas, but, out of compassion, I will spare you of all that for the time being.

  2. Thanks David. I first read Thich’s tranlsation of Satipatthana Sutta last night in his “Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness” – he actually recommends also reading the Anapanasati Sutta as well, which makes sense. I’ll have to check the book again, because Thich asserted (I think) that Samatha-vipassana should not be confused with the jhanas, as they are a sort of bliss-out self indulgent dead end in terms of insight? I really wish I’d started all this 20 years ago!

    1. Hi Steve. I can’t imagine why TNH would say something like that. I’ve just revised this post to reflect the error about use of the word jhana in the sutras, and mention there are both samatha and vipassana jhanas. I think most vipassana practitioners have doubts about samatha and samatha-jhanas.

      1. It doesn’t say exactly what I remembered (I blame tiredness which I am mindful of 😉 The page from the book says:

        There are also states of concentration that encourage the
        practitioner to escape from the complexities of suffering and
        existence, rather than face them directly in order to transform
        them. These can be called “wrong concentration.” The Four
        Form Jhanas and the Four Formless Jhanas are states of meditational
        concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers
        such as Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, and he rejected
        them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states
        of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras
        around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahaparinirvana.
        The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from
        the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered
        Right Concentration. To dwell in these concentrations for a duration
        of time for the sake of healing may be one thing, but to escape
        in them for a long time isn’t what the Buddha recommended.

        Which mirrors what you have already quoted to a large extent. I think perhaps I could do with some clarification regarding what the Jhanas themselves are, as the simple explanations I have read haven’t really given me any insights to their nature or practice – or are they now generally accepted as non-beneficial except in exceptional circumstances?

        1. Steve, the point he makes about the Buddha’s teachers is one that I was going to include but cut out because it was just too long. Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta taught the jhanas. The Buddha rejected their teachings (although some might want to argue that he didn’t necessarily rejects the jhanas part, but I don’t buy that). So it makes no sense at all that he would then turn around and teach the very things he rejected.

          My theory is that the true history of these sort of thing is probably must much more mundane than we think they are. I think the Buddha’s innovation was keeping things simple. I’m also coming around to the point of view that it doesn’t make any sense either that he would reject metaphysical speculation on one hand and then go on and on about rebirth. I think the Buddha (assuming he was a historical person) taught only a fraction of what he is credited with teaching.

          I don’t have an answer to your question. How they are accepted I suppose depends on the teacher and the tradition.

          One of the traps I laid for myself with this approach was that by trying to cover so much I had to gloss over a lot of points. The jhanas are meditative states achieved by intense concentration where your mind becomes completely absorbed in the object you are using for meditation. So you would concentrate on one of these objects or subjects (there’s a list of about 30 or so) like you would focus on breath and as your concentration progress you enter into different states of absorption, which some people describe as ecstasy or altered states of consciousness, which may be why TNH says they ” hide reality from
          the practitioner.” I tend to agree.

  3. The Endless Further: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.

    Thich Nhat Hanh is likely mistaken here. There is fairly solid evidence that the Jhanas *precede* Buddhism, and were practiced by the Buddha before his awakening– and the tradition holds that they were necessary, but not sufficient, steps to awakening; furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence that the Vipassana sections of the Satipatthana Sutta are late additions.

    On the former point, Alexander Wynne’s The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (Routledge) is the best source; on the latter, Bhante Sujato’s A History of Mindfulness (available online here) tells the story in great detail.

    (I see now that someone else has already made this point, but I wanted to add some additional references.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael. No one is saying that the jhanas did not precede Buddhism, in fact the Buddha’s two teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta taught the four jhanas. But that doesn’t mean that the Buddha taught them, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t added to Buddhist teachings after the Buddha died. The truth is that we’ll likely never know. It’s all speculation.

      Bhante Sujato seems to miss Thich Nhat Hanh’s point, which is that the jhanas are not mentioned in the older texts – we do know the timeline for some of the Pali canon – and the fact that Sujato doesn’t get that is a bit weird since he and Thich Nhat Hanh are using basically the same approach to analyzing the historicity of these suttas.

      The title of Wynne’s book is rather misleading because he seems more concerned with establishing the historicity of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta than anything else. It just makes no sense at all that the Buddha would reject their teachings and then turn around, and not only use them himself but also teach them. Wynne fails to come up with a convincing argument in its favor of that notion, in my opinion.

      1. I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree with you on all points

        It makes no sense that later redactors would add in practices that would make the Buddha’s teachings less unique, nor would later redactors be likely to remember the details surrounding Ramaputta. That the Buddha found the jhanas a necessary basis for insight, but not sufficient to bring about awakening alone, is well attested in the literature.

        Furthermore, although we know, to some degree, the timeline for the Pali texts, we don’t know them with anything resembling the precision that Thich Nhat Hanh claims– to date a text as “post-Buddha, but within 100 years of his death” is a fantasy. Thich Nhat Hanh is an impressive dharma teacher, but he is not a scholar, and I fear he is basis his judgment on wishful thinking.

        Sujato is quite aware of the dating of the various texts, but disagrees with Thich Nhat Hanh’s claim that the jhanas do not appear in the earliest texts. Unlike Thich Nhat Hanh, Sujato is a textual scholar, and provides detailed examples for his historical criticism.

        I should point out that this is not my particular area of specialization– my Master’s thesis was on Early Indian Madhyamaka– but everything I’ve studied in this area backs up the thesis that the jhanas preceded the emphasis on vipassana. Of course, I’ll be happy to read any literature that demonstrates the contrary.

        1. It makes perfect sense that later followers would try to make the Buddha’s dharma less unique and more in line with the mainstream Indian spirituality at that time, indeed I’d say it’s a pretty much accepted fact, perhaps not specifically in this case but in some others.

          Sujato is not a scholar either, as far as I am aware. Thich Nhat Hanh is just saying that based on his research this is what he supposes. I don’t know that his research is any better than Sujato’s but he has many more years of experience.

          You say that Buddha found the jhanas a necessary basis for insight, but not sufficient to bring about awakening alone, and yet one of the accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment states that he experienced awakening through the jhanas.

          Again, no one is saying that the jhanas did not precede the emphasis on vipassana, only that perhaps the Buddha didn’t teach the jhanas, and perhaps he didn’t teach vipassana either. It’s just an opinion. No one on either side knows for sure.

  4. It’s certainly an accepted fact that the Buddha’s teachings were understood in the context of the religious options of their time– but I think Gombrich shows the way that the goal of the Buddha’s followers was to distinguish themselves from the other traditions, often in a parodic manner.

    Thich Nhat Hanh definitely has many, many more years of practice than Sujato– but Sujato’s publications have been academic in content, and not dharma teachings, and are based on historical-critical textual methodologies. I’d recommend you read his work, if you haven’t already; it draws on the excellent work done by Ven. Analayo.

    I agree that the texts say that the Buddha experienced awakening through the jhanas; my point was that whereas the jhanas were necessary to awakening, they were not sufficient— the Buddha builds upon the work of his predecessors, but significantly alters it. Whereas Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta taught the jhanas as ends-in-themselves, claiming that one’s realm of rebirth was driven by what realm one could access in meditation, the Buddha claimed that the concentration of the 4th jhana was a platform from which one could gain insight into dependent origination and the three dharma seals, and escape the cycle of rebirth through awakening.

    If you know of any good research that suggests that the Buddha did not teach the jhanas, I’d be interested in reading it.

    And, allow me to say (as I should have said earlier): I greatly enjoy reading your blog, and appreciate it immensely.

    1. Hey Michael, thanks a lot. Glad you enjoy the blog. Your site seems to have a lot of books, but since it’s a language that is foreign to me, about all I can say is that it looks good.

      Other than what has already been mentioned, I can’t think of anything specific about the Buddha and the jhanas. I know I have read that before, but can’t think of where off the top of my head. It doesn’t necessarily negate the value of the jhanas, although that kind of meditation is not my cup of tea. The Buddha didn’t teach the Heart Sutra either, but a lot of us still recite each day.

      1. My website is a Norwegian book store, so it is probably not of interest to most folks here, but thanks for the kind words.

        I’m not a jhana practitioner myself, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight– I had read and agreed with Thich Nhat Hanh’s thoughts on the matter until I began graduate school, where I was surprised to find he was out of step with the scholarly literature on this point. It’s a bit of a political football in the non-academic world; there are definitely some folks who are committed to vipassana at the expense of the jhanas, and who are trying to find support in the canon for their position, but I suppose that is only to be expected.

        Anyway: keep up the good work.

        1. Michael, thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate them very much, and I hope you will continue to keep in touch.

          I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this one. One reason why I am inclined to accept TNH’s word on this is because he practices meditation and many scholars do not. I think that makes a difference.

  5. When I took a buddhism course at Rutgers some years ago, the professor, who was late middle age at the time, told me after class, when I asked him how he became interested in the subject, that he first came to buddhism, long before he became a scholar, through meditation when he was thirty five and working as a banker because, “I didn’t want to be a angry anymore.” He also told me it took him five years of disciplined practice in meditation to untie all those angry knots. I don’t remember much about the class, but I remember that.

    Anyway, no mention of ar?pajh?na. I’m curious about peoples’ thoughts/experiences relative to these meditations. Anyone want to share anything they feel is worth sharing? I realize that’s kind of open-ended but I wouldn’t want to contaminate anyone’s thoughts.

    1. Don’t worry about contaminating anyone’s thoughts. This is a pretty old post, so I’m not sure if you’ll get much of a response, but I do appreciate you trying to initiate a discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.