Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 2

I had planned to make this just a two part series, but it’s gotten away from me a bit. Which is why I’ve changed the title to “Outlines of Buddhist Meditation.” Naturally, with a subject as vast as this, in the blog format the best I can do is present outlines, just tracing around the edges.

Again, my goal here is to explain some meditation practices and terms, so that when readers encounter them they will seem less confusing. Long-time practitioners probably know all this already, but I’m sure there are many others who do not.

Before moving into Mahayana meditation practices, I’d like to discuss Vipassana or “Insight” Meditation as it is practiced today. First,  a reminder about mindfulness, since the word will crop up frequently. Mindfulness (sati) meditation is sustained awareness of the breath, usually by counting in and out breaths. In mindfulness, practitioners lay down all thoughts, clear the mind, and rest in the present moment without reflections on the past or anticipations of the future, or judgments of any kind.

The difference between mindfulness and “insight meditation,” I feel, is that in mindfulness when thoughts or sensations occur, you do not pay attention to them, rather you “label” them and let them go. Vipassana, on the other hand, is all about paying attention to those things.

Now, since the mid-1970’s Insight Meditation has become a fast-growing “movement.” I’ve never been drawn to it, and one reason is that I find it confusing myself. There are several distinct groups in this movement. One of them is the Insight Meditation Society, a secular group founded by Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, followers of Mahasi Sayadaw, a late Burmese monk who was instrumental in reviving the meditation tradition within Theravada.

I’ve never been able to quite get a handle on what they mean by “Insight Meditation.” Insight obviously refers to vipassana, but here is a description of the practice from the New York Insight Meditation Center, which is affliated with IMS as the three founders sit on their Advisory Board for Teachers: “Insight meditation is a way to develop wisdom and compassion. The core of the practice is the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is like a mirror that reflects the mind and body from moment to moment, without judgments, projections or distortions.” Well, mindfulness (sati) is not exactly vipassana, unless they are using a different set of definitions, which doesn’t seem to be the case since they start with counting the breath.

Another IMS focus of practice is “loving-kindness” (metta) meditation, which is not vipassana either. And I often see “insight meditation” described as samatha-vipassana, as if it was a combined practice, yet often samatha is disregarded entirely, or used only as a preparatory practice. I don’t mean to disparage this approach. I just don’t get what it is.

Vipassana, as I understand it, involves using meditation on various subjects to realize a direct awareness of all phenomena, paying close attention to all sensory and mental processes. The goal is to move beyond mindfulness of the present moment and “see” the impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anatta) of things. I guess I have never been attracted enough to IMS style of meditation to discover if they actually ever get to that point.

Another major branch of the modern insight meditation movement is vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka, a Burmese lay-person whose teachings resonate a little better with me. This is also a secular tradition, and Goenka maintains that the Buddha did not intend to teach religion, which is correct. Goenka’s vipassana starts with mindfulness of breath and then graduates into what he calls “self-observation,” focusing on the mind-body connection, paying attention to physical sensations. This does seem closer to actual vipassana, but in my limited exposure to this practice, it has never gone beyond basic mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation. So there you are.

Another major player in the insight meditation movement was Ajahn Chah, who taught the Thai Forest Tradition. Shinzen Young is a popular teacher who says that vipassana is mindfulness because we are paying attention to “what’s happening.” I guess what he means by mindfulness and what I mean are two different things. Again, mindfulness, to me, is being mindful of the breath but sort of un-mindful of everything else. In any case, there are many other teachers around who also have their own takes and definitions for these terms.

Samatha or tranquility meditation involves calming the mind and then attempting to achieve a high degree of mental concentration. It begins with focusing on specific subjects and progressing through a series of mental states called jhanas or absorptions.

Samatha-vipassana was intended as a twin practice. It seems, though, this has rarely been the case. Chih-i, who in the 6th Century CE was the first to truly systematize a Chinese style of Buddhist meditation, maintained that samatha-vipassana “is like the two wheels of a cart and the two wings of a bird. Partial practice of them is wrong.”

I will pick up with Chih-i in the next post, where I will describe some of the core meditation practices of the Mahayana traditions in China and Japan, perhaps along with with those in Tibet and Korea.


6 Comments for “Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 2”



Having spent many years in both the mindfulness and Insight Meditation camps, let me try to bring some clarity to the admitted fuzziness. Mindfulness meditation (in the Jon Kabat-Zinn sense — and Jon derived his approach from his prior experience with both Zen and Insight Meditation) is not just focus on the breath and ignoring everything else. Training begins with focus on the breath, but then broadens out to the body, sense objects, mental objects, then Krishnamurti-type choiceless awareness. Insight Meditation teachers teach a panoply of meditation techniques including anapanasati (mindfulness of the breath), insight meditation (insight into impermanence, non-self, unsatisfactoriness), mental noting (the Mahasi method), metta, body sweeping (the U Ba Khin/Goenka method), and walking meditation. They use the samatha-vipassana approach of using anapanasati to gain focus, stability, and access concentration, and then opening the field of attention to gain insight into the arising and passing of all phenomena. I heard the metaphor of concentration and mindfulness as being two wings of a bird many times on Insight Meditation retreats. The distinction between “mindfulness” and “Insight Meditation” approaches is very fuzzy, but you can think of “mindfulness” as really a secularized version of Insight Meditation with a little Zen/Krishnamurti added into the blend. But Insight Meditation teachers like Larry Rosenberg (who is also a long time friend of Jon Kabat-Zinn) have also had prior Zen and Krishnamurti experience before coming to Insight Meditaiton. As I said, the boundaries are a bit fuzzy.



Hi Seth. I glad to see someone else besides me admit there is some fuzziness here. I suppose the problem is that everyone has their own take and definitions, and perhaps that’s as it should be, but it’s not helpful for folks trying to figure out what’s what and pick a meditation practice to try, etc. At least, it’s never been helpful to me.

In the 1990’s when I was getting back to meditation after years of having a chanting-only practice, I decided to start with the beginning, which was Theravada. One of the first teachers I ran across was Phra Ajahn Yantra Amaro, a Thai monk, and a very interesting guy. I had just started a meditation group and he came to my apartment one night to lead us in meditation and give a dharma talk. In his meditation instructions he said, “Mindfulness is letting go. That’s all. Just calm the mind and know the present moment. Anything else is not mindfulness, it is something else.” Now that didn’t exactly jive with what I had read in the Anapanasatti Sutta or in other things I was reading at the time that talked observing and investigating every dharma and so on. I asked Phra Yanta later to clarify his remark but didn’t receive a satisfactory answer. Around that time, I practiced meditation with a number of other Theravada monks and none of them ever taught mindfulness as anything more than counting the breath and being in the present moment. I asked a monk from Sri Lanka once about analyzing, investigating, and he said, “I don’t teach vipassana. I teach only mindfulness.”

So what I’m saying is that on the ground, in actual practice, within Buddhism, that seems to be what constitutes mindfulness, and as I said in the post, what mindfulness is to me. Even when Thich Nhat Hanh talks about mindfulness, he doesn’t say to investigate thoughts or feelings when they arise, but merely recognize them and go back to the breath. I’m not against samatha-vipassana at all, far from it. I do think that perhaps the parts of the Anapanasatti about the Four Factors of Awakening and Rapture and so on, may be later additions and that might be why some say that vipassana originates in that sutra.

I’m pretty narrow minded when it comes to Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and to some extent the Insight Meditation Society, may be noble and worthy endeavors but to my mind they are programs based on Buddhism, but not actually Buddhism. I’ve never been particularly interested. Besides, why would I want to pay MBSR’s or Spirit Rock’s extremely high fees, when I can go to a Buddhist temple and learn basically the same thing for free or by offering a reasonable donation?

So, that’s where I’m at. Thanks for your explanation of where some of these other folks are at.



Hey David,

Thanks for another installment – The more you investigate something, the more uncertain it is easy to become, especially when we are trying to discriminate with labels practices which are themselves interpreted variably by practitioners.

My limited understanding this far is that Samatha (stopping, ceasing) is to the Anapanasati what Vipassana (understanding, insight) is to the Satipatthana. i.e. Mindfulness as taught by THN is really samatha-vipassana – both the concentration upon the breath as a means to clear the mind, but also the non-judgmental auditing of feelings and other mental formations with neither clinging nor aversion, but simply accepting, embracing and transforming them through care and attention into beneficial “energies”.

Thich Nhat Hanh mentions Mahasi Saydaw’s method of being attentive to the abdominal rising and falling in order to realise concentration – and that Mahasi is careful not to describe this as awareness of breathing due to “traditional prejudices” that conscious breathing should not follow the breath into the body and down to the abdomen.



Steve, I guess it’s a case of what “is” is. The way I understand mindfulness comes from the way I was first taught it. You focus on your breath. If a physical sensation occurs you just let it go, or you “label” it, and the way I have always understood this labeling is that you simply say to yourself something like, “Oh, a sensation” and then go back to the breath. It’s non-judgmental awareness.

In vipassana, when a sensation occurs, you think “I am experiencing a painful or a pleasant or a neutral sensation.” To me, that is a qualification. You are judging the sensation, making a distinction. To make the distinction between painful, pleasant or neutral requires an extra thought. That’s fine if one is practicing vipassana where the point is to “examine with steady, careful attention and in the utmost possible detail precisely all those sensory and mental processes which are discarded in abstractive meditation,” (Amadeo Sole-Lewis, “Tranquility and Insight”). Abstractive meditation means samatha, but I think it could also refer to mindfulness, which I see as exactly the process of discarding sensory and mental processes, in other word the less thoughts the better. Anyway, when I hear the word “mindfulness” I do not think “samatha-vipassana.” From what I’ve read of Thich Nhat Hanh, I don’t think he does either. But I could be wrong.

In fact, as I see it there are several possibilities here: (a) I am totally confused, (b) I am totally right, (c) I am half-confused and half-right, or (d) and my favorite, I have been practicing my own unique style of mindfulness meditation all these years, which I should now share with world so that my non-self can bask in the acclaim and glory that the world will surely heap on me.

Leave a Reply

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