Buddhist Meditation

In Buddhism, meditation is a form of mental concentration that leads ultimately to enlightenment and spiritual freedom. Meditation occupies a central place in all forms of Buddhism, but has developed characteristic variations in different Buddhist traditions.

There are two main types of Buddhist meditation: vipassana (insight) and samatha (tranquility). The two are often combined or used one after the other (usually vipissana follows samatha). In China and Japan, an entire school of Buddhism developed around the practice of sitting meditation: Ch’an or Zen Buddhism.

Tranquility Meditation (Samatha)

The basic purpose of samatha or tranquility meditation is to still the mind and train it to concentrate. The object of concentration (kammatthana) is less important than the skill of concentration itself, and varies by individual and situation. One Pali texts lists 40 kammatthanas, which include:

  • devices (like color or light)
  • repulsive things (like a corpse)
  • recollections (such as sayings of the Buddha)
  • virtues (like loving-kindness)

The goal of samatha meditation is to progress through four stages (dhyanas):

  • Detachment from the external world and a consciousness of joy and tranquility;
  • Concentration, with suppression of reasoning and investigation;
  • The passing away of joy, but with the sense of tranquility remaining; and
  • The passing away of tranquility also, bringing about a state of pure self-possession and equanimity.

Insight Meditation (Vipassana)

Many of the skills learned in tranquility meditation can be applied to insight meditation, but the end goal is different. As its name suggests, the purpose of insight meditation is the realization of important truths. Specifically, one who practices vipassana hopes to realize the truths of impermanence, suffering and "no-self."

Of course, these doctrines are already known to any Buddhist. After all, they are the central teachings of the Buddha. But in order to attain liberation, he or she must personally apprehend and truly understand these important truths. Simple knowledge of the Buddhist doctrines is not sufficient.

Because vipassana meditation alone produces the understanding through which liberation takes place, it is considered superior to tranquility meditation. It is the primary form of meditation practiced in Theravada Buddhism.

The practice of insight meditation centers around the notion of mindfulness. Mindfulness is related to, but different than, concentration. When one is concentrating, one’s entire focus is on the object of concentration in an almost trancelike manner - whether the object is a lotus, one’s own breathing, or a television program. But to be mindful of something is to think about it and observe it carefully. It is not only to focus on a television program, but to comprehend its content. It is not only to block out everything but breathing; it is to observe what the breathing is like and attempt to learn something about it.

Gaining the skill of mindfulness is the first step of insight meditation. The most common methods prescribed to develop mindfulness are: walking mindfulness, sitting mindfulness, and mindfulness of daily activities.

Walking mindfulness is regularly practiced in monasteries and retreats, especially in the Theravada tradition. But to practice walking mindfulness anywhere, one finds a quiet place to walk, takes a moment to relax, then attempts to focus on the myriad movements and sensations associated with walking. If the mind strays to other things, this is to be mindfully noted, then put aside to again focus on the walking. According to Buddhists who practice this technique, as one progresses in skill it becomes easy to "lose oneself" in the activity and walk for a long time without it feeling like more than a few minutes have passed. This can be very blissful in itself, but it also brings the practitioner closer to insight into the fundamental truths of "no-self" and impermanence.

Sitting meditation is very similar to walking meditation, except now the focus is on the breath instead of the walking. The sitting meditator attempts to focus entirely on his or her own breath as it moves in and out, and the abdomen as it moves up and down. As in walking meditation, as other thoughts distract, these are to be mindfully recognized, then put aside. With practice, the meditator is distracted less and notices more about the object of observation, the breath. This practice certainly brings about tranquility, but again, the ultimate goal is to begin to realize for oneself the Buddhist truths of no-self, suffering and impermanence.

Finally, the practice of mindfulness in everyday activities applies the skills learned in walking and sitting meditation to everything one does: eating, washing dishes, washing, etc. As this skill is developed, one lives increasinly in the present moment and participates more fully in everything he or she does. One Buddhist master who was accomplished in the practice of mindfulness said simply, "When I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep."

Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta Bhavana)

Loving-kindness is a central virtue of Buddhism, and loving-kindness meditation (metta bhavana) is a way of developing this virtue. It is a practice that is seen as supplemental or complementary to other forms of meditation.

The purpose of loving-kindness meditation is to develop the mental habit of altruistic love for the self and others. It is said to "sweeten the mind." There are, of course, a variety of ways to practice metta bhavana, but it generally progresses through three stages:

  • Specific pervasion
  • Directional pervasion
  • Non-specific pervasion

In the first stage, the practitioner focuses on sending loving-kindness to specific people, in the following order:

  • Oneself
  • An admired, respected person (like a spiritual teacher)
  • A beloved person (like a close friend or family member)
  • A neutral person – someone familiar but who evokes no particular feelings (like a person who works in a local store)
  • A hostile person (like an enemy or someone who causes the practitioner difficulty)

Beginning with oneself, the meditator seeks to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for each person in the above list. Tools for accomplishing this include:

  • Visualization – imagine the person looking joyful and happy
  • Reflection – reflect on the person’s positive qualities and acts of kindness they have done
  • Mantra – repeat silently or out loud a simple mantra like "loving-kindness"

When this first stage has been accomplished even for hostile persons, one moves on the next stage, Directional Pervasion. In this stage, the practitioner systematically projects feelings of loving-kindness in all geographical directions: north, south, east and west. This can be done by bringing to mind friends and like-minded communities in various cities around the world.

The last stage of metta bhavana is "Non-Specific Pervasion," which simply means radiating feelings of universal, unconditional love in everyday life. This stage is often a natural outcome of accomplishment of the other stages.


  • Buddhist meditation. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  • Buddhist Meditation eBooks – Buddhanet's eBook Library
  • Loving-Kindness Meditation – Ven Pannyavaro, Buddhanet Basic Buddhism Guide

External Links on Buddhist Meditation

  • Knowing and Seeing (PDF) – Buddhanet – on tranquility and insight meditation
  • Meditation Instruction Talks – Buddhanet Audio