Jung Myung Sa
Buddhist Temple

Overview of Buddhist Meditation

by Jan 31, 2019JMS Blog

In this post, we are going to look at the general outline of Buddhist practice. The outline will show the overarching structure, process, and principle of Buddhist meditation, by which one can not only better understand what Buddhism is about, but also understand the commonality that all different kinds of meditations methods and techniques share.

Psychotherapy and Buddhist Meditation

Apparently, science seems to become a new form of religion in modern times. People generally accept as true what science tells about the world. Psychology claims that it is a new form of science studying human behavior since it uses the methods and approaches that science employs.

Like in medical science, various mental issues and problems are systematically diagnosed in a field of psychology. There are different approaches to remedy different psychological issues, and it is no secret that some very effective approaches of psychology significantly benefited from Buddhist meditation such as dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. In general, these approaches utilize the meditation technique, namely, mindfulness that is a segment of the whole Buddhist meditation.

Psychology outsourcing from Buddhist practice is not much surprising in considering the common goal of Buddhism and psychology, namely, removing human suffering.

Yet, the scope of the goal of both Buddhism and psychotherapy is different. As a scientific discourse, psychotherapy’s aim is to help troubled people to cope with their mental issues, to properly function in society, or to achieve some level of happiness. These are based on providing an objective perspective toward oneself. On the other hand, as a religion, Buddhism is ultimately for the perfection of wisdom, namely enlightenment, through the virtue practice of ethical behavior, concentration practice of focused mind, and understanding practice of seeing as it is.

In some sense, the spectrum of Buddhist meditation seems wider than that of psychotherapy. It is because Buddhist practice not only can help one better cope with mental issues but also deal with diverse troubles through the growing wisdom of self-knowledge along the practice.   

Visuddhimagga for Buddhist Meditation

This guide book is mainly based upon Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification). The book was written by Buddhaghosa, who as a Theravada Buddhist monk is considered one of the greatest minds in Buddhist history. In the Buddhist world, especially in Theravada Buddhism, Visuddhimagga has been one of the most influential texts, and what it explains with regards to Buddhist doctrine and practice is viewed as a  standard and authority in addition to Buddhist scripture.

Extensively and systematically, Visuddhimagga explains literally everything about Buddhism. Although it provides priceless lessons about Buddhist practice and meditation, it is exceedingly daunting for many people to understand because it uses a lot of technical Buddhist terminologies that many people are not familiar with.

Thus, one of the purposes of this guide book is to present the concise extract of the Visuddhimagga within the scope of the Buddhist meditation theory and method. As standard guidance, Visuddhimagga presents the fundamental principle of meditation theory and method under the primary goal of Buddhist practice, namely, enlightenment.

As a religion, Buddhism is built upon the belief in enlightenment that all human beings can be perfect in terms of both knowledge and virtue. So, it is said that the Buddha was impeccably virtuous in his action, and his wisdom and knowledge are of omniscient, all-knowing, and all-seeing, which is possible through right path of Buddhist practice.

Principle, Theory and Method of Meditation

As the title itself, Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification), explains, enlightenment is not other than purification of mind through the path of Buddhist practice. Enlightened one’s mind is pure and untainted by mental defilements so she or he virtuously lives in accordance with the perfect knowledge that is obtained along the path. Visuddhimagga explains the path that has three major divisions: virtue (sīla), concentration (samādhi), and understanding (pañña). In general, Buddhist practice is all about these three divisions of virtue, and concentration, and understanding.

Among the three divisions, virtue as the first division is about ethical behavior that is mainly based on groups of moral law codes. Concentration as the second division is about a mind focused on one object that is normally called meditation subject. Through the practice of concentration, one’s mind becomes fixed on a meditation subject. And then precise and profound knowledge can occur through the practice of understanding since the focused mind enables one to see things as they are, which is the third division of understanding.

Buddhist practice is completed by these three divisions in that virtue as a foundation is indispensable for concentration and understanding. When we refer to Buddhist meditation, the second, concentration, and the third, understanding, are meant for in general.

As a practitioner takes on these three divisions simultaneously or separately, the mental defilements would subside gradually. This brings about happiness of joyous feelings and an inner peace of tranquility, which eventually leads one to different levels of spiritual attainments and enlightenment. This is a brief outline of Buddhist practice and meditation in terms of its theory and methods that are presented in Visuddhimagga.

As a spiritual and religious practice, meditation was, and also is, not exclusively of Buddhist. More or less, many religious ideas emphasize meditative practice such as Sufism and Taoism. Before Buddhism, there was Yogic tradition in ancient India, which extensively emphasized the importance of meditative states. It is said that Buddhist practice emerged from the Indian yogic tradition at first and further developed later in accordance with its religious doctrine. Nowadays, there are overwhelmingly various kinds of meditation techniques developed both in religious and secular realms for the purpose of nourishing human mind for spirituality, relieving human suffering for psychological issues, or bringing about happiness for people. Even within the Buddhist world, different kinds of meditation methods and techniques have been developed in times and places.

As to various meditation methods, people often would feel confused with apparent differences among them. No matter how different they are, I think the fundamental principle of all meditations should be the same because the nature of mind must be the same and universal to all. Like that, the anonymity of the human body can be applied to all, how human mind works must be the same to all regardless of individuals’ differences.

Likewise, the core principle and process of Buddhist meditation, which is presented in Visuddhimagga, can be applied to all meditation methods since it extensively explains shared terrains of the human mind in terms of the Buddhist spiritual path to enlightenment. By learning what Visuddhimagga explains about Buddhist meditation, people can better understand the fundamental principle of meditation, whether from a  religious or secular point of view, by which they can take advantage of their practice in order to resolve various life issues or psychological problems causing suffering.

First Division of Virtue as Foundation

In the overarching picture of Buddhist practice, the first division of virtue is about ethical behavior that one rightly directs one’s conduct based upon moral precepts. In his lifetime, the Buddha prescribed various sets of moral codes for different groups of his disciples and followers. In general, there are five general law codes that everyone should observe regardless of being monastics or lay people.

These essential five law codes are not killing and harming, not stealing, no false speech, no sexual misconduct, and no drinking intoxicants. This last one includes various substances, drugs, or medications that intensifies ignorance through addiction. Except for not drinking alcohol, the rest of four moral codes seems universal in that in other religions and societies we often see similar moral law codes.

In the theory of Buddhist practice, living by moral precepts provides the groundwork for the subsequent progress and development of concentration and understanding practice. Virtue is somewhat indispensable for achieving enlightenment. According to the Visuddhimagga it is an inarguable premise that fulfilling virtue is indispensable in the path to achieving enlightenment. Otherwise, there is hardly progress, development, and success in one’s practice to obtain the final goal because unethical deeds constantly generate and solidify the defilements in one’s mind, thereby, there is no purification of mind.

The aspect of moral education seems to be one major difference between Buddhist meditation and other methods of secular meditation, especially mindfulness technique in psychotherapy. In considering the nature of scientific discourse in which ethics does not weigh much, it seems natural that the secular mindfulness therapy does not really put much emphasis on ethics. In an office of psychotherapist using mindfulness technique, patients are instructed to see their thoughts, emotions, or behaviors to identify, accept, and improve their issues subsequently.

Yet, moral education for virtuous living is a critical factor for gaining happiness, both for oneself and others together from the perspective of Buddhist practice. It is because the happiness and inner peace of tranquility that Buddhist practice and meditation can generate is without mental defilements such as lust and hatred. Yet, if unethical behavior increases and intensifies there is hardly a chance that the mind of moral wrongdoings can bring about favorable states.

The Second Division of Concentration for Focused Mind

Concentration is translated from the Pali word, samadhi, that is translated into the Chinese character 禪, which is pronounced as Zen in Japanese, Chan in Chinese, and Seon in Korean, as many people already know. The second division of concentration is the practice by which a mind becomes deeply focused on a subject without distraction so one can obtain different meditative states of absorption.

Choosing a Meditation Subject.

Thus, in order to achieve a focused mind, the practice of concentration starts with choosing a meditation subject. InVisuddhimagga there are a total forty of different meditation subjects explained, such as circle disks made of different materials or different colors, epithets of the Buddha, names of Buddhist deities, virtuous qualities of mind, various kinds of corpses, etc. Among these, the most well-known meditation subject seems to be one’s breathing.

Since the passing away of the Buddha, Buddhism spread to other places and cultures beyond India. As things change, methods of Buddhist meditation evolved and further developed in different places and times of the Buddhist world. Out of compassion, new methods and techniques have been devised in orderto help unburden human suffering. As a result, meditation subjects are now more than forty and they are further increasing.

For example, Koans are riddle-like questions that are innovatively created for meditation subjects in East Asian Buddhism. After choosing one of Koans, of which the number is said about twelve hundred, a practitioner is instructed to think about the question that a Koan generates so as to focus on its answer, which however is unthinkable and not answerable.

Also, visual images of Buddhist paintings, which are called Mandalas, are a kind of meditation subjects. In Tibetan Buddhism, a practitioner uses visualization technique that she or he brings to one’s mind the images of the paintings that depict different Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or other prominent Buddhist deities with the backdrop of Buddhist cosmology.

Concentration Through Mindfulness

After choosing a meditation subject that matches with one’s personality or needs, a practitioner constantly pays attention to it in sitting posture and in a secluded place. Constantly paying attention to, or continually being aware of, the meditation subject is called mindfulness (sait). As one of the important concepts in Buddhist practice, mindfulness is often regarded synonym of Buddhist meditation these days, but it is a description of mental exertion by which one cannot forget the meditation subject in one’s stream of consciousness. Simply stated, one can obtain deep meditative states of absorption through successive mindfulness of a meditation subject.

The Third Division of Understanding By Seeing As It is.

Based upon the practice of concentration, deep and precise knowledge can come about since the mind that is deeply focused can see things as they are. It is said that the perception in deep meditative states is different than one in an ordinary state since it can see what an ordinary consciousness cannot see. A concentrated mind can see, know, and understand things as they are. In other words, the third division of understanding practice is the process in which a focused mind precisely sees, analytically knows, and completely understands the nature of things. Finally, enlightenment comes about based on the practice of understanding.

The act of mind seeing, knowing, and understanding is called vipassanā, which is one of the important terminologies to understand Buddhist practice in addition to mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samadhi). The Pali word of vipassanā literally means insight, introspection or intuition that is the fundamental aspect of understanding of the second division.

Since enlightenment is completed in the third division of understanding, the knowledge of vipassanā seems to be the most important process in the path of Buddhist practice. In the process of understanding, there arises the knowledge of impermanence, no-self, and suffering that are called three characteristics. Finally, one can complete the perfection of knowledge that uproots all kinds of mental defilements to make the virtuous living impeccable as well.

In the modern Buddhist world, some monks or meditation teachers heavily emphasize the aspect of mindfulness (sati), some for the aspect of concentration (samadhi), or some for the aspect of understanding (vipassnā). The different emphasis on each aspect often unintended misunderstanding about Buddhist practice and meditation that each aspect is everything about Buddhist meditation.

However, enlightenment cannot come about if one of the three aspects is not present in a practitioner’s mind. Roughly stating, it is because sati of mindfulness proceeds to samadhi of concentration that leads to vipassanā of understanding in the process of Buddhist practice.  

This is a general overview of Buddhist practice and meditation. However, we haven’t looked at the most important element in Buddhist practice and Buddhism in general, namely “mind.” In order to better understand, one should know what is mind and how a mind works. In the next chapter, we are going to look at how Buddhism explains mind.


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