Buddhist Traditions of Meditation

John Snelling


What is meditation? Remember Dr. Johnson's pithy dictum: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." The truth is, we live our lives in a kind of waking dream. We are only hazily aware of what is really going on both outside and, even more so, inside ourselves. Every chance stimulus-—every random meeting or event, every vagrant emotion, mood, impulse, and so on—just sparks off a more or less automatic reaction. It needs a vital shock, like a stark confrontation with death, to jerk us awake. Then for a moment the scales of semi-sleep, subjectivity, projection and fantasy fall from our eyes and we see the world as it really is.

Meditation is about developing that kind of acute awareness all the time. And it means doing so without becoming attached to the objects of observation out of desire, or rejecting them from aversion. It means becoming the dispassionate watcher, the one who knows: becoming Buddha, in fact. . . .


The basic form of meditation that the early texts describe the Buddha as teaching is not sitting meditation, as one might have expected from modern formal practice, but something to be done by a monk as he "fares along," going about his normal business. It consists of the specific applications of Mindfulness, described by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta. . . .

Shamatha and Vipashyana

Later systematizers and the compilers of Buddhist meditation manuals subdivided meditation practice into two parts: Shamatha (Calm Abiding) and Vipashyana (Insight or Higher Vision). In the Pali language they are known as Samatha and Vipassana.

Shamatha is concerned with developing concentrationration—that is, the ability to maintain the focus of attention one-
pointedly but without undue exertion on a chosen object—and with calming and stabilizing the mind so that it is no
longer disturbed by deluding excitations. . . .

In Vipashyana or, Insight Meditation, the calmness and concentrative ability forged in Shamatha are used to inquire
penetratively into the true nature of things. Intense observation and analysis of phenomena encountered will, according to the classic texts, reveal that all are subject to duhkha (suffering), anitya (impermanence) and anatman (nonself); are inherently painful or unsatisfactory, impermanent and devoid of atman or self or put simply: "everything that arises passes away and is not self." This is not mere head knowledge but a deep existential understanding that is at once purifying and liberating. More positively, it is said to also give access to the Hnconditioned: to Nirvana . . . .

Mahayana Buddhist Meditation

Mahayana Buddhism. . . has rather different objectives from those of the early schools. The devotees of the Mahayana aspire to a similarly profound penetration of the truth of Shunyata, Emptiness, and make this a primary object of meditation. They also seek to generate bodhisattvic [enlightened being] qualities so that they can work effectively in Samsara to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings. Yet for all that the meditation methods of most Mahayana schools rest firmly on a basis of Mindfulness and Shamatha- Vipashyana. . . .

Pure Land Meditation

On the face of it, the devotional Pure Land school might seem to have little to do with meditation. Its devotees take the view that, in the dark age in which we are living, we can hope to attain little by our own striving. All we can do is to throw ourselves on the mercy of the celestial buddha Amitabha. Where our "self power" (Japanese, jiriki) is impotent, his "other power" (Japanese, tariki) can save us by ensuring our rebirth in the Pure Land of Sukhavafi.

Most of the Pure Land that has been transmitted to the West is of the Japanese variety, represented by the Jodo and the Jodo-shin schools, which place primary emphasis on the Nembutsu: the repetition of the name of Amitabha (Japanese, Amida). Such a practice must pacify thoughts and establish mental calmness, mindfulness and concentration.

Previously, in China, where Pure Land Buddhism ~ame fully into its own, some of the early masters used more sophisticated methods of meditation, such as visualizing Amitabha and his Pure Land and even formless kinds of meditation, which were thought to produce meditative states no less profound than those produced by the practices of other schools, such as the Zen school.

Zen Meditation

The Zen school, known in China as Ch'an, might be called the meditation school par excellence. Ostensibly disparaging scriptural learning (though in fact squarely rooted in Yogacara and Prajnaparamita philosophy) and other practices (like performing rituals, reciting the scriptures, and so on), it emphasizes direct seeing into one's own nature. The early Chinese Zen masters do not especially recommend sitting meditation; direct seeing can be accomplished—and sustained-in everyday life. However, later Chinese and Japanese Zen stressed the importance of zazen or sitting meditation—and lots of it, both by day and at night. This, according to the Japanese master Dogen, is the "front gate of the Buddha-dharma [Buddha-law]" and "not just the practice of one or two buddhas; all buddhas and ancestors follow this way." Hakuin, another Japanese master, meanwhile says that all other practices come back to sitting meditation, and that "by the merits of a single sitting" the practitioner "destroys innumerable accumulated sins."

Legend has it that Zen originated in India, but really it came into its own in T'ang dynasty China. Of the so-called "Five Houses" that flourished then, only two have survived to the present, but these have been successfully transmitted to the West via Japan. These are the Lin-chi (Japanese, Rinzai) and the Ts'ao-tung (Japanese, Soto).

Soto Zen meditation (zazen) is usually practiced facing a blank wall. The internal method—sticklers would no doubt call it a non-method—is essentially formless. Dogen, who transmitted the teachings of the school from China to Japan, declares that zazen is not learning to do concentration. It is not introspection. It is not thinking of good or bad. It is not a conscious endeavor of any kind. There should not be expectations. One should not even desire to become a buddha. Just sit solidly in meditation and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen.

Meditation in the Rinzai tradition, on the other hand, is rather more militant. Practitioners sit in straight lines, facing each other. They begin perhaps with a Shamatha-type breath-watching or counting practice to bring about calmness and concentration. Then they traditionally apply themselves with concerted effort to koan practice.

Koan riddles (Chinese, kung-an) are generally based on the records of real life situations in which early masters enlightened their students. In Sung dynasty China, as Zen began to lose its original flair and vitality, these were collected in great anthologies like the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate. These formalized riddles, now having something of the significance of precedents in case law, are still handed out to Rinzai Zen practitioners today. Pondering them long and deeply, the student will attempt to give an "answer" to th eteacher, usually in Japan called a roshi or "old master," in the course of regular interviews (sanzen). The roshi will then judge its authenticity. Any answer that smacks however slightly of conceptualization or phony contrivance will be ruthlessly rejected. If, however, the devotee comes up with an acceptable answer, he or she may well be adjudged to have had a genuine breakthrough or satori. But that is just the beginning. More work must be done to deepen understanding. In other words, once a degree of calmness, clarity and concentration has been produced, the koan is an extremely active device for continually throwing the student against the ultimate question of his
own nature.

Tantric Meditation

Tibetan Buddhist Tantra aims at bringing about Enlightenment very speedily by special yogicmeans. It is not, however, according to its own teachings, suited to everyone. Only special candidates who have already practiced long and
successfully gained deep insight into Shunyata (Emptiness) as well as having developed a high degree of bodhicitta qualify to practice it. Then they must forge a connection with a learned guru, who will initiate them into the mandala [syrnbolic cosmologyJ or sacred precinct of their chosen deity (yidam). The rite of initiation (abhisheka) that the guru bestows allows the devotee to perform a range of specialized rituals and practices (sadhana), many of which involve working with dark aspects of the psyche. Herein lie special dangers, so both to protect the tmwary from burning themselves and. the teachings from being debased Tantra is hedged around with a veil of secrecy, grave vows and other protections.

Insofar as Tantra involves meditation it presupposes a solid basis in Mindfulness and Shamatha-Vipashyana (known in Tibetan as Shine-Lhatong). Given these, its own distinctive practices involve creative visualization, which is carried out to a virtuoso degree of proficiency. The devotee will learn, for instance, to-create the form of his chosen deity out of the bija or seed mantra that embodies the essence of the deity, the bija being firstly created out of the Emptiness of his own mind. The mental image of the deity must be built up in very precise detail and full color according to archetypal patterns.

From The Elements of Buddhism, by John Snelling (Elements Books - 1990)