Buddhist Meditation | Mahāyāna

Mahāyāna Monk meditating
Mahāyāna Monk meditating

Buddhists pursue meditation as part of the Path toward Liberation from defilements (kleśas) and clinging and craving (upādāna), also called Awakening, which results in the attainment of Nirvāṇa.

This overview is about the meditation techniques, their significance and development in general in different Mahāyāna & Vajrayāna Buddhist schools.

For those interested in Theravāda Buddhism and Ancient Schools there is also an overview called Meditation | Theravāda.

In the Theravāda tradition, reflecting developments in early Buddhism, meditation techniques are classified as either Śamatha (calming the mind) or Vipassana (gaining insight).

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism preserved a wide range of meditation techniques, which go back to early Buddhism, most notably Sarvāstivāda.

In Tibetan Buddhism, deity yoga includes visualisations, which precede the realization of Śūnyatā (emptiness)

1. Sarvāstivāda

The now defunct Sarvāstivāda tradition and its related sub-schools like the Sautrāntika and the Vaibhāṣika were the most influential Buddhists in North India and Central Asia around the 1-4th centuries CE:

Their highly complex Abhidharma treatises, such as the Mahāvibhāṣa, the Śrāvaka-bhūmi and the Abhidharmakośa, contain new developments in meditative theory which had a major influence on meditation as practiced in East Asian Mahāyāna and Tibetan Buddhism.

Individuals known as Yogācāras (yoga practitioners) were influential in the development of Sarvāstivāda meditation praxis, and some modern scholars believe they were also influential in the development of Mahāyāna meditation.

The Dhyāna Sūtras or meditation summaries are a group of early Buddhist meditation texts which are mostly based on the Yogācāra meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE,

which focus on the concrete details of the meditative practice of the Yogācārins of northern Gandhāra and Kashmir.

Most of the texts only survive in Chinese and were key works in the development of the Buddhist meditation practices of Chinese Buddhism.

The Sarvāstivāda meditation practitioner begins with Śamatha meditations, divided into the 5-fold mental stilling, each being recommended as useful for particular personality types:

  1. contemplation on the impure (aśubha-bhāvanā), for the greedy type person.
  2. meditation on loving kindness (maitrī), for the hateful type
  3. contemplation on conditioned co-arising, for the deluded type
  4. contemplation on the division of the dhātus, for the conceited type
  5. mindfulness of breathing (Ānāpānasmṛti), for the distracted type.

Contemplation of the impure, and mindfulness of breathing, was particularly important in this system; they were known as the 'gateways to immortality' (Amṛta-dvāra).

The Sarvāstivāda system practiced breath meditation using the same 16 aspect model used in the Ānāpānasati Sutta, but also introduced a unique 6 aspect system which consists of:

  1. counting the breaths up to 10,
  2. following the breath as it enters through the nose throughout the body,
  3. fixing the mind on the breath,
  4. observing the breath at various locations,
  5. modifying is related to the practice of the 4 applications of mindfulness and
  6. purifying stage of the arising of insight.

This 6-fold breathing meditation method was influential in East Asia, and expanded upon by the Chinese Tiantai meditation master Zhiyi.

After the practitioner has achieved tranquillity, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma then recommends one proceeds to practice the 4 applications of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthāna) in 2 ways.

First they contemplate each specific characteristic of the 4 applications of mindfulness, and then they contemplate all 4 collectively.

In spite of this systematic division of Śamatha and Vipaśyanā, the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas held that the 2 practices are not mutually exclusive.

The Mahāvibhāṣa for example remarks that, regarding the 6 aspects of mindfulness of breathing, there is no fixed rule here — all may come under Śamatha or all may come under Vipaśyanā.

The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas also held that attaining the Dhyānas was necessary for the development of insight and wisdom.

2. Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism

Mahāyāna practice is centred on the path of the Bodhisattva, a being which is aiming for full Buddhahood.

Meditation (Dhyāna) is one of the transcendent virtues (Pāramitās) which a Bodhisattva must perfect in order to reach Buddhahood, and thus, it is central to Mahāyāna Buddhist praxis.

Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism was initially a network of loosely connected groups and associations, each drawing upon various Buddhist texts, doctrines and meditation methods.

Because of this, there is no single set of Indian Mahāyāna practices which can be said to apply to all Indian Mahāyānists, nor is there is a single set of texts which were used by all of them.

Textual evidence shows that many Mahāyāna Buddhists in northern India as well as in Central Asia practiced meditation in a similar way to that of the Sarvāstivāda school outlined above.

This can be seen in what is probably the most comprehensive and largest Indian Mahāyāna treatise on meditation practice, the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (compiled c. 4th century),

a compendium which explains in detail Yogācāra meditation theory, and outlines numerous meditation methods as well as related advice.

Among the topics discussed are the various early Buddhist meditation topics such as the 4 Dhyānas, the different kinds of samādhi,

the development of insight (vipaśyanā) and tranquillity (śamatha), the 4 foundations of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthāna), the 5 hindrances (nīvaraṇa),

and classic Buddhist meditations such as the contemplation of unattractiveness (aśubha-saṁjñā), impermanence (anitya), suffering (duḥkha), and contemplation death (maraṇa-saṁjñā).

Other works of the Yogācāra school, such as Asaṅga's Abhidharma -samuccaya, and Vasubandhu's Madhyānta Vibhāga-bhāṣya also discuss meditation topics such as mindfulness, smṛtyupasthāna, the 37 wings to awakening, and samādhi.

Some Mahāyāna sūtras also teach early Buddhist meditation practices:

For example, the Mahā-ratna-kūṭa Sūtra and the Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā Sūtra both teach the 4 foundations of mindfulness.

The Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are some of the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras:

Their teachings centre on the Bodhisattva Path (viz. the Pāramitās), the most important of which is the perfection of transcendent knowledge or prajñā-pāramitā.

This knowledge is associated with the early Buddhist practice of the 3 Samādhis (meditative concentrations):

  1. emptiness (śūnyatā),
  2. signlessness (animitta),
  3. wishlessness or desire-lessness (apraṇihita).

These 3 Samādhis are also mentioned in the Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā-upadeśa, chapter X.

In the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, prajñā-pāramitā is described as a kind of samādhi

which is also a deep understanding of reality arising from meditative insight that is totally non-conceptual and completely unattached to any person, thing or idea.

The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, possibly the earliest of these texts, also equates prajñā-pāramitā with what it terms the aniyatā (unrestricted) samādhi,

“the samādhi of not taking up (aparigṛhīta) any dharma”, and “the samādhi of not grasping at (anupādāna) any dharma” (as a self).

This meditative concentration entails not only not clinging to the 5 aggregates as representative of all phenomena,

but also not clinging to the very notion of the 5 aggregates, their existence or non-existence, their impermanence or eternality,

their being dissatisfactory or satisfactory, their emptiness or self-hood, their generation or cessation, and so forth with other antithetical pairs.

Other Indian Mahāyāna texts show new innovative methods which were unique to Mahāyāna Buddhism:

Texts such as the Pure Land sūtras, the Akṣobhya-vyūha Sūtra and the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra teach meditations on a particular Buddha (such as Amitābha or Akṣobhya).

Through the repetition of their name or some other phrase and certain visualization methods,

one is said to be able to meet a Buddha face to face or at least to be reborn in a Buddha field (also known as Pure land) like Abhirati and Sukhāvatī after death.

The Pratyutpanna sūtra for example, states that if one practices recollection of the Buddha (Buddhānusmṛti) by visualizing a Buddha in their Buddha field and developing this samādhi for some 7 days, one may be able to meet this Buddha in a vision or a dream so as to learn the Dharma from them.

Alternatively, being reborn in one of their Buddha fields allows one to meet a Buddha and study directly with them, allowing one to reach Buddhahood faster.

A set of Sūtras known as the Visualization Sūtras also depict similar innovative practices using mental imagery.

These practices have been seen by some scholars as a possible explanation for the source of certain Mahāyāna Sūtras which are seen traditionally as direct visionary revelations from the Buddhas in their Pure Lands.

Another popular practice was the memorization and recitation of various texts, such as Sūtras, mantras and Dhāraṇīs.

The practice of reciting Dhāraṇīs (chants or incantations) became very important in Indian Mahāyāna.

These chants were believed to have the power to preserve good and prevent evil, as well as being useful to attain meditative concentration or samādhi.

Important Mahāyāna Sūtras such as the Lotus Sūtra, Heart Sūtra and others prominently include Dhāraṇīs.

Dhāraṇīs are also prominent in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras wherein the Buddha praises dhāraṇī incantation, along with the cultivation of samādhi, as virtuous activity of a Bodhisattva.

They are also listed in the Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā-upadeśa, chapter X, as an important quality of a Bodhisattva.

A later Mahāyāna work which discusses meditation practice is Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (8th century) which depicts how a Bodhisattva's meditation was understood in the later period of Indian Mahāyāna.

Śāntideva begins by stating that isolating the body and the mind from the world (i.e. from discursive thoughts) is necessary for the practice of meditation, which must begin with the practice of tranquillity (śamatha).

He promotes classic practices like meditating on corpses and living in forests,

but these are preliminary to the Mahāyāna practices which initially focus on generating Bodhicitta, a mind intent on awakening for the benefit of all beings.

An important of part of this practice is to cultivate and practice the understanding that oneself and other beings are actually the same, and thus all suffering must be removed, not just mine.

This meditation is termed by Śāntideva the exchange of self and other and it is seen by him as the apex of meditation, since it simultaneously provides a basis for ethical action and cultivates insight into the nature of reality, i.e. Emptiness.

Another late Indian Mahāyāna meditation text is Kamalaśīla's Bhāvanākrama (“stages of meditation, 9th century), which teaches insight (vipaśyanā) and tranquillity (śamatha) from a Yogācāra-Mādhyamika perspective.

3. East Asian Mahāyāna

The meditation forms practiced during the initial stages of Chinese Buddhism did not differ much from those of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, though they did contain developments that could have arisen in Central Asia.

The works of the Chinese translator An Shigao (147-168 CE) are some of the earliest meditation texts used by Chinese Buddhism and their focus is mindfulness of breathing (ānāpāna).

The Chinese translator and scholar Kumārajīva (344–413 CE) transmitted various meditation works,

including a meditation treatise titled The Sūtra Concerned with Samādhi in Sitting Meditation which teaches the Sarvāstivāda system of 5-fold mental stilling.

These texts are known as the Dhyāna Sūtras:

They reflect the meditation practices of Kashmiri Buddhists, influenced by Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika meditation teachings, but also by Mahāyāna Buddhism.

East Asian Yogācāra methods

The East Asian Yogācāra school or Consciousness only school, known in Japan as the Hossō school was a very influential tradition of Chinese Buddhism.

They practiced several forms of meditation:

They included a class of visualization exercises, one of which centred on constructing a mental image of the Bodhisattva (and presumed future Buddha) Maitreya in Tuṣita heaven.

A biography the Chinese Yogācāra master and translator Xuanzang depicts him practicing this kind of meditation. The goal of this practice seems to have been rebirth in Tuṣita heaven, so as to meet Maitreya and study Buddhism under him.

Another method of meditation practiced in Chinese Yogācāra is called the 5 level discernment of vijñapti-mātra (impressions only), introduced by Xuanzang's disciple, Kuījī (632–682), which became one of the most important East Asian Yogācāra teachings.

This kind of Vipaśyanā meditation was an attempt to penetrate the true nature of reality by understanding the 3 aspects of existence in 5 successive steps or stages.

These 5 progressive stages or ways of seeing (kuan) the world are:

  1. dismissing the false - preserving the real
  2. relinquishing the diffuse - retaining the pure
  3. gathering in the extensions - returning to the source
  4. suppressing the subordinate - manifesting the superior
  5. dismissing the phenomenal aspects - realizing the true nature

Tiantai śamatha-vipaśyanā

In China it has been traditionally held that the meditation methods used by the Tiantai school are the most systematic and comprehensive of all.

In addition to its doctrinal basis in Indian Buddhist texts, the Tiantai school also emphasizes use of its own meditation texts which emphasize the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā.

Of these texts, Zhiyi's Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā, Mohe Zhiguan (Sanskrit: Mahā-śamatha-vipaśyanā), and 6 Subtle Dharma Gates are the most widely read in China.

Regarding the functions of śamatha and vipaśyanā in meditation, Zhiyi writes in his work Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā:

The attainment of Nirvāṇa is realizable by many methods whose essentials do not go beyond the practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā.

Śamatha is the first step to untie all bonds and vipaśyanā is essential to root out delusion.

Śamatha provides nourishment for the preservation of the knowing mind, and vipaśyanā is the skilful art of promoting spiritual understanding.

Śamatha is the unsurpassed cause of samādhi, while vipaśyanā begets wisdom.

The Tiantai school also places a great emphasis on Ānāpānasmṛti, or mindfulness of breathing, in accordance with the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā.

Zhiyi classifies breathing into 4 main categories:

  1. panting,
  2. unhurried breathing,
  3. deep and quiet breathing,
  4. stillness or rest.

Zhiyi holds that the first 3 kinds of breathing are incorrect, while the 4th is correct, and that the breathing should reach stillness and rest.

Zhiyi also outlines 4 kinds of samādhi in his Mohe Zhiguan, and 10 modes of practicing vipaśyanā.

Esoteric practices in Japanese Tendai

One of the adaptations by the Japanese Tendai school was the introduction of Mikkyō (esoteric practices) into Tendai Buddhism, which was later named Taimitsu by Ennin.

Eventually, according to Tendai Taimitsu doctrine, the esoteric rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sūtra.

Therefore, by chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or performing certain meditations, one is able to see that the sense experiences are the teachings of Buddha,

have faith that one is inherently an Enlightened Being, and one can attain Enlightenment within this very body.

The origins of Taimitsu are found in China, similar to the lineage that Kūkai encountered in his visit to Tang China and Saichō's disciples were encouraged to study under Kūkai.

Huayan meditation theory

The Huayan school was a major school of Chinese Buddhism, which also strongly influenced Chan Buddhism. An important element of their meditation theory and practice is what was called the 4-fold Dharmadhātu.

Dharmadhātu is the goal of the Bodhisattva's practice, the ultimate nature of reality or deepest truth which must be known and realized through meditation.

The 4-fold Dharmadhātu is 4 cognitive approaches to the world, 4 ways of apprehending reality.

Huayan meditation is meant to progressively ascend through these 4 increasingly more holographic perspectives on a single phenomenological manifold.

These 4 ways of seeing or knowing reality are:

1) All dharmas are seen as particular separate events or phenomena. This is the mundane way of seeing.

2) All events are an expression of Li (the absolute, principle or Noumenon), which is associated with the concepts of Śūnyatā, “One Mind” and Buddha Nature.

This level of understanding or perspective on reality is associated with the meditation on true emptiness.

3) Shi and Li interpenetrate, this is illuminated by the meditation on the non-obstruction of principle and phenomena.

4) All events interpenetrate, all distinct phenomenal dharmas inter-fuse and penetrate in all ways (Zongmi). This is seen through the meditation on “universal pervasion and complete accommodation.”

The reading and recitation of the Avatamsaka Sūtra was also a central practice for the tradition, for monks and laity.

Pure land Buddhism

In Pure Land Buddhism, repeating the name of Amitābha is traditionally a form of mindfulness of the Buddha (Skt. Buddhānusmṛti).

This term was translated into Chinese as Nianfo, by which it is popularly known in English.

The practice is described as calling the Buddha to mind by repeating his name, to enable the practitioner to bring all his or her attention upon that Buddha (samādhi).

This may be done vocally or mentally, and with or without the use of Buddhist prayer beads. Those who practice this method often commit to a fixed set of repetitions per day, often from 50 000 to over 500 000.

Repeating the Pure Land Rebirth dhāraṇī is another method in Pure Land Buddhism:

Similar to the mindfulness practice of repeating the name of Amitābha Buddha, this dhāraṇī is another method of meditation and recitation in Pure Land Buddhism. The repetition of this dhāraṇī is said to be very popular among traditional Chinese Buddhists.

Another practice found in Pure Land Buddhism is meditative contemplation and visualization of Amitābha, his attendant Bodhisattvas, and the Pure Land. The basis of this is found in the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (Amitābha Meditation Sūtra).


During sitting meditation (Jp. Zazen, Ko. jwaseon), practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or Seiza, often using the Dhyāna Mudra.

Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used.

Various techniques and meditation forms are used in the different Zen traditions. Mindfulness of breathing is a common practice, used to develop mental focus and concentration.

Another common form of sitting meditation is called Silent illumination (Jp. mokushō):

This practice was traditionally promoted by the Caodong school of Chinese Chan and is associated with Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091—1157).

In Hongzhi's practice of non-dual objectless meditation the mediator strives to be aware of the totality of phenomena instead of focusing on a single object, without any interference, conceptualizing, grasping, goal seeking, or subject-object duality.

This practice is also popular in the major schools of Japanese Zen, but especially Sōtō, where it is more widely known as Shikantaza (Just sitting).

During the Song dynasty, a new meditation method was popularized by figures such as Dahui, which was called kanhua chan (observing the phrase meditation)

which referred to contemplation on a single word or phrase (called the huatou, critical phrase) of a Gong’an (Koan).

In Chinese Chan and Korean Seon, this practice of observing the huatou (hwadu in Korean) is a widely practiced method.

In the Japanese Rinzai school, Koan introspection developed its own formalized style, with a standardized curriculum of Koans which must be studies and passed in sequence.

This process includes standardized questions and answers during a private interview with one's Zen teacher.

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during Zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life.

The goal of the practice is often termed Kensho (seeing one's true nature).

Kōan practice is particularly emphasized in Rinzai, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.

4. Tantric Buddhism

Tantric Buddhism (Esoteric Buddhism or Mantrayāna) refers to various traditions which developed in India from the 5th century onwards and then spread to the Himalayan regions and East Asia.

In the Tibetan tradition, it is also known as Vajrayāna,

while in China it is known as Zhenyan (true word, mantra), as well as Mijiao (Esoteric Teaching), Mizong (Esoteric Tradition) or Tangmi (Tang Esoteric).

Tantric Buddhism generally includes all of the traditional forms of Mahāyāna meditation, but its focus is on several unique and special forms of tantric or esoteric meditation practices, which are seen as faster and more efficacious.

These Tantric Buddhist forms are derived from texts called the Buddhist Tantras.

To practice these advanced techniques, one is generally required to be initiated into the practice by an esoteric master (Sanskrit: ācārya) or guru (Tib. lama) in a ritual consecration called abhiṣeka (Tib. Wang).

In Tibetan Buddhism, the central defining form of Vajrayāna meditation is Deity Yoga (Devatā-yoga):

This involves the recitation of mantras, prayers and visualization of the yidam or deity (usually the form of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva) along with the associated mandala of the deity's Pure Land.

Advanced Deity Yoga involves imagining yourself as the deity and developing divine unity, the understanding that oneself and the deity are not separate.

Other forms of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism include the Mahāmudra and Dzogchen teachings, each taught by the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism respectively.

The goal of these is to familiarize oneself with the ultimate nature of mind which underlies all existence, the Dharmakāya.

The popular forms of practice are so called Six Yogas of Nāropa:

  1. tummo – the yoga of Inner Heat (or mystic heat).
  2. ösel – the yoga of Clear Light, radiance or luminosity.
  3. milam – the yoga of the Dream State.
  4. gyulü – the yoga of the Illusory Body.
  5. bardo – the yoga of the Intermediate State.
  6. phowa – the yoga of the Transference of Consciousness to a pure Buddha-field.

The shared preliminary practices of Tibetan Buddhism are called Ngöndro, which involves visualization, mantra recitation, and many prostrations.

Chinese Esoteric Buddhism focused on a separate set of tantras than Tibetan Buddhism (such as the Mahāvairocana Tantra and Vajraśekhara Sūtra),

and thus their practices are drawn from these different sources, though they revolve around similar techniques such as visualization of mandalas, mantra recitation and use of mudras.

This also applies for the Japanese Shingon school and the Tendai school (which, though derived from the Tiantai school, also adopted esoteric practices).

In the East Asian tradition of esoteric praxis, the use of mudra, mantra and mandala are regarded as the 3 modes of action associated with the 3 Mysteries (sanmi) are seen as the hallmarks of esoteric Buddhism.