Buddhist Meditation | Theravāda

Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo, founder of the Thai Forest Tradition
Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo, founder of the Thai Forest Tradition

1. Buddhist meditation

Buddhist meditation is the practice of meditation in Buddhism.

The closest words for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism are:

  1. Bhāvanā (Mental Development)
  2. Jhāna/Dhyāna (mental training resulting in a calm and luminous mind).

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.

And this Path usually includes a variety of meditation techniques, most notably:

  1. aśubha bhāvanā (reflections on repulsiveness);
  2. reflection on pratītya-samutpāda (dependent origination);
  3. sati (mindfulness)
  4. Anussati (recollections),
  5. Ānāpānasati (breath meditation);
  6. Dhyāna (developing an alert and luminous mind);
  7. Brahma-vihāras (loving-kindness and compassion).

These techniques aim to develop Equanimity and Sati (mindfulness); Samādhi (concentration) Śamatha (tranquillity) and Vipassanā (insight);

- and are also said to lead to Abhijñā (supra-mundane powers).

These meditation techniques are preceded by and combined with practices which aid this development, such as moral restraint and right effort to develop wholesome states of mind.

While these techniques are used across Buddhist schools, there is also significant diversity.

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

2. Pre-sectarian Buddhism

The meditation-techniques of Early Buddhism are described in the Pāḷi Canon and the Chinese Āgamas.

Preparatory practices

Meditation and contemplation are preceded by preparatory practices.

As described in the Noble Eightfold Path:

Right View leads to leaving the household life and becoming a wandering monk.

Śīla, morality, comprises the rules for right conduct.

Right Effort, i.e. the 4 Right Efforts, are important preparatory practices.

Sense restraint means controlling the response to sensual perceptions, not giving in to lust and aversion but simply noticing the objects of perception as they appear.

Right effort aims to prevent the arising of unwholesome states, and to generate wholesome states.

By following these preparatory steps and practices, the Mind becomes set, almost naturally, for the practice of Dhyāna.

Aśubha bhāvanā (reflection on unattractiveness)

Aśubha bhāvanā is “reflection on unattractiveness” (Pāli: aśubha).

It includes 2 practices, namely:

  1. cemetery contemplations
  2. Paṭikkūla-manasikāra, reflections on repulsiveness.

Paṭikkūla-manasikāra is a Buddhist meditation whereby 32 parts of the body are contemplated in a variety of ways.

In addition to developing Sati (mindfulness) and Samādhi (concentration, Dhyāna), this form of meditation is considered to be conducive to overcoming desire and lust.

Anussati (recollections)

Anussati (Sanskrit: Anusmṛti) means recollection, contemplation, remembrance, meditation and mindfulness.

It refers to specific meditative or devotional practices, such as recollecting the sublime qualities of the Buddha or Ānāpānasati (mindfulness of breathing), which lead to mental tranquillity and abiding joy.

In various contexts, the Pāḷi literature and Sanskrit Mahāyāna Sūtras emphasize and identify different enumerations of recollections.

Mindfulness and Satipaṭṭhāna

An important quality to be cultivated by a Buddhist meditator is Mindfulness (sati).

Mindfulness is a polyvalent term which refers to remembering, recollecting and bearing in mind.

It also relates to remembering the teachings of the Buddha and knowing how these teachings relate to one's experiences.

The Buddhist texts mention different kinds of mindfulness practice.

According to some scholars, there were originally 2 kinds of mindfulness, observations of the positions of the body and the 4 Satipaṭṭhāna, the establishment of mindfulness, which constituted formal meditation.

It is believed that the mindfulness of the positions of the body wasn't originally part of the 4 Satipaṭṭhāna formula, but was later added to it in some texts.

In the Pāḷi Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and its parallels as well as numerous other early Buddhist texts, the Buddha identifies 4 foundations for mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna):

  1. the body (including the 4 elements, the parts of the body, and death);
  2. feelings (vedanā);
  3. mind (citta);
  4. phenomena or principles (dhammas), such as the 5 hindrances and the 7 factors of Enlightenment.

Different early texts give different enumerations of these 4 mindfulness practices. Meditation on these subjects is said to develop insight.

Ānāpānasati (mindfulness of breathing)

Ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing, is a core meditation practice in Theravāda, Tiantai and Chan traditions of Buddhism as well as a part of many mindfulness programs.

In both ancient and modern times, Ānāpānasati by itself is likely the most widely used Buddhist method for contemplating bodily phenomena.

The Ānāpānasati Sutta specifically concerns mindfulness of inhalation and exhalation, as a part of paying attention to one's body in quietude,

and recommends the practice of Ānāpānasati meditation as a means of cultivating the 7 Factors of Enlightenment:

  1. sati (mindfulness),
  2. dhamma vicaya (analysis),
  3. viriya (persistence),
  4. pīti (rapture),
  5. passaddhi (serenity),
  6. samādhi (concentration)
  7. upekkhā (equanimity).

Finally, the Buddha taught that, with these factors developed in this progression,

the practice of Ānāpānasati would lead to release (Pāḷi: vimutti; Sanskrit mokṣa) from dukkha (suffering), in which one realizes Nirvāṇa.


Many scholars of early Buddhism see the practice of Jhāna (Sanskrit: Dhyāna) as central to the meditation of Early Buddhism.

 Probably the oldest Buddhist meditation practices are the 4 Dhyānas, which lead to the destruction of the āsavas as well as the practice of mindfulness (sati).

4 rūpa-jhānas


The Sutta Piṭaka and the Āgamas describe 4 rūpa-jhānas:

Rūpa refers to the material realm, in a neutral stance, as different form the Kāma realm (lust, desire) and the Arūpa-realm (non-material realm).

The qualities associated with the first 4 jhānas are as follows:

1) 1st Dhyāna: the 1st Dhyāna can be entered when one is secluded from sensuality and unskilful qualities:

There is pīti (rapture) and non-sensual sukha (pleasure) as the result of seclusion, while vitarka-vicāra (discursive thought) continues;

2) 2nd Dhyāna: there is pīti (rapture) and non-sensual sukha (pleasure) as the result of concentration (samādhi-ji, born of samādhi);

ekaggata (unification of awareness) free from vitarka (directed thought) and vicāra (evaluation); and inner tranquillity;

3) 3rd Dhyāna: Upekkhā (equanimous), mindful, and alert; senses pleasure with the body;

4) 4th Dhyāna: upekkhā-sati-pāri-śuddhi (purity of equanimity and mindfulness); neither-pleasure-nor-pain.


In addition to the 4 rūpa-jhānas, there are also meditative attainments which were later called by the tradition the arūpa-jhānas, though the early texts do not use the term Dhyāna for them, calling them āyatana (dimension, sphere, base).

They are:

  1. Āyatana of infinite space,
  2. Āyatana of infinite consciousness,
  3. Āyatana of infinite nothingness,
  4. Āyatana of neither perception nor non-perception.
  5. Nirodha-samāpatti, also called saññā-vedayita-nirodha, 'extinction of feeling and perception'.


Another important meditation in the early sources are the 4 Brahmāvihāra (divine abodes) which are said to lead to ceto-vimutti, a “Liberation of the Mind”.

The 4 Brahmāvihāra are:

  1. Loving-kindness (Pāli: mettā, Sanskrit: maitrī) is active good will towards all;
  2. Compassion (Pāli and Sanskrit: karuṇā) results from Mettā, it is identifying the suffering of others as one's own;
  3. Empathetic joy (Pāli and Sanskrit: muditā): is the feeling of joy because others are happy, even if one did not contribute to it, it is a form of sympathetic joy;
  4. Equanimity (Pāli: upekkhā, Sanskrit: upekṣā): is even-mindedness and serenity, treating everyone impartially.

The effect of cultivating the Brahmāvihāras as Liberation of the Mind finds illustration in a simile which describes a conch blower who is able to make him heard in all directions.

This illustrates how the Brahmāvihāras are to be developed as a boundless radiation in all directions, as a result of which they cannot be overruled by other more limited karma.

The practice of the 4 divine abodes can be seen as a way to overcome ill-will and sensual desire and to train in the quality of deep concentration (samādhi).

3. Early Buddhism

Traditionally, 18 schools of Buddhism are said to have developed after the time of the Buddha:

The Sarvāstivāda school used to be the most influential, but the Theravāda is the only school that still exists.

Śamatha and Vipassana

The Buddha is said to have identified 2 paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:

  1. serenity or tranquillity (Pāḷi: Śamatha; Sanskrit: samādhi) which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;
  2. Insight (Pāḷi: vipassanā) which enables one to see, explore and discern formations (conditioned phenomena based on the 5 aggregates).

It is said that tranquillity meditation can lead to the attainment of supernatural powers such as psychic powers and mind reading while insight meditation can lead to the realisation of Nirvāṇa.

In the Pāḷi Canon, the Buddha never mentions independent Śamatha and Vipassana meditation practices; instead, Śamatha and Vipassana are 2 qualities of mind, to be developed through meditation.

Nonetheless, some meditation practices (such as contemplation of a kasiṇa object) favour the development of Śamatha,

others are conducive to the development of Vipassana (such as contemplation of the aggregates),

while others (such as mindfulness of breathing) are classically used for developing both mental qualities.

In the 4 Ways to Arahantship Sutta (AN 4.170), Ven. Ānanda reports that people attain Arahantship using serenity and insight in one of 3 ways:

  1. they develop serenity and then insight (Pāḷi: Śamatha-pubbangamam Vipassana)
  2. they develop insight and then serenity (Pāḷi: Vipassana-pubbangamam Śamatha)
  3. they develop serenity and insight in tandem (Pāḷi: Śamatha-Vipassana yuganaddham) as in, for instance, obtaining the 1st jhāna, and then seeing in the associated aggregates the 3 marks of existence, before proceeding to the 2nd jhāna.

While the Nikāyas state that the pursuit of Vipassana can precede the pursuit of Śamatha,

according to the Burmese Vipassana movement Vipassana should be based upon the achievement of stabilizing access concentration (Pāḷi: upacara samādhi).

Through the meditative development of serenity, one is able to suppress obscuring hindrances; and, with the suppression of the hindrances, it is through the meditative development of insight that one gains liberating wisdom.

Moreover, the Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining Nirvāṇa, the unconditioned state

as in the Kiṁśuka Tree Sutta (SN 35.245), where the Buddha provides an elaborate metaphor in which serenity and insight are the swift pair of messengers who deliver the message of Nirvāṇa via the Noble Eightfold Path.

In the 3-fold training, Śamatha is part of Samādhi, the 8th limb of the 3-fold path, together with Sati, mindfulness.

4. Theravāda


The oldest material of the Theravāda tradition on meditation can be found in the Pāḷi Nikāyas, and in texts such as the Paṭisambhidā-magga which provide commentary to meditation Suttas like the Ānāpānasati Sutta.


An early Theravāda meditation manual is the Vimuttimagga ('Path of Freedom', 1-2nd century).

The most influential presentation though, is that of the 5th-century Visuddhimagga ('Path of Purification') of Buddhaghoṣa, which seems to have been influenced by the earlier Vimuttimagga in his presentation.

The Visuddhimagga's doctrine reflects Theravāda Abhidhamma scholasticism, which includes several innovations and interpretations not found in the earliest discourses (Suttas) of the Buddha.

Buddhaghoṣa’s Visuddhimagga includes non-canonical instructions on Theravāda meditation, such as ways of guarding the mental image (nimitta), which point to later developments in Theravāda meditation.

The text is centred around kasiṇa-meditation, a form of concentration-meditation in which the mind is focused on a (mental) object.

In its emphasis on kasiṇa-meditation, the Visuddhimagga departs from the Pāḷi Canon, in which Dhyāna is the central meditative practice, indicating that what jhāna means in the commentaries is something quite different from what it means in the Canon.

The Visuddhimagga describes 40 meditation subjects, most being described in the early texts.

Buddhaghoṣa advises that, for the purpose of developing concentration and consciousness, a person should apprehend from among the 40 meditation subjects one that suits his own temperament with the advice of a good friend (kalyāṇa-mittatā) who is knowledgeable in the different meditation subjects (Ch. III, § 28).

Buddhaghoṣa subsequently elaborates on the 40 meditation subjects as follows (Ch. III, §104; Chs. IV–XI):

  1. 10 kasiṇas: earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, light, and limited-space.
  2. 10 kinds of foulness: the bloated, the livid, the festering, the cut-up, the gnawed, the scattered, the hacked and scattered, the bleeding, the worm-infested, and a skeleton.
  3. 10 recollections: Buddha-Anussati, the Dhamma, the Saṅgha, virtue, generosity, the virtues of deities, death (see the Upajjhatthana Sutta), the body, the breath (see Ānāpānasati), and peace (see Nirvāṇa).
  4. 4 divine abodes: mettā, karuṇā, muditā, and upekkhā.
  5. 4 immaterial states: boundless space, boundless perception, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception.
  6. 1 perception (of repulsiveness in nutriment)
  7. 1 defining (that is, the 4 elements)

When one overlays Buddhaghoṣa’s 40 meditative subjects for the development of concentration with the Buddha's foundations of mindfulness,

3 practices are found to be in common:

  1. breath meditation,
  2. foulness meditation (which is similar to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta's cemetery contemplations, and to contemplation of bodily repulsiveness),
  3. contemplation of the 4 elements.

According to Pāḷi commentaries, breath meditation can lead one to the equanimous 4th jhāna absorption.

Contemplation of foulness can lead to the attainment of the 1st jhāna, and contemplation of the 4 elements culminates in pre-jhāna access concentration.

Vipassana and Śamatha

The role of Śamatha in Buddhist practice, and the exact meaning of Śamatha, is a point of contention and investigation in contemporary Theravāda and western Vipassana.

Burmese Vipassana teachers have tended to disregard Śamatha as unnecessary, while Thai teachers see Śamatha and Vipassana as intertwined.

The exact meaning of Śamatha is also not clear, and westerners have started to question the received wisdom on this:

While Śamatha is usually equated with the jhānas in the commentarial tradition, scholars and practitioners have pointed out that jhāna is more than a narrowing of the focus of the mind.

While the 2nd jhāna may be characterized by samādhi-ji, born of concentration, the 1st jhāna sets in quite naturally as a result of sense-restraint, while the 3rd and 4th jhāna are characterized by mindfulness and equanimity.

Sati, sense-restraint and mindfulness are necessary preceding practices,

while insight may mark the point where one enters the stream of development which results in vimukti, Liberation.

The jhānas are crucial meditative states which lead to the abandonment of hindrances such as lust and aversion; however, they are not sufficient for the attainment of liberating insight.

Some early texts also warn meditators against becoming attached to them, and therefore forgetting the need for the further practice of insight.

Vipassana movement

Particularly influential from the 20th century onward has been the Burmese Vipassana movement,

especially the New Burmese Method or Vipassanā School approach to Śamatha and Vipassanā developed by Mingun Sayadaw (1911-1993) and U Nārada (1868–1955) and popularized by Mahāsī Sayadaw.

Here Śamatha is considered an optional but not necessary component of the practice—Vipassanā is possible without it.

Another Burmese method popularized in the west, notably that of Pa-Auk Sayadaw Bhaddanta Āciṇṇa (b. 1934), uphold the emphasis on Śamatha explicit in the commentarial tradition of the Visuddhimagga.

Other Burmese traditions, derived from Ledi Sayadaw via Sayagyi U Ba Khin and popularized in the west by Mother Sayamagyi and S. N. Goenka, takes a similar approach.

These Burmese traditions have been influential on Western Theravāda-oriented teachers, notably Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.

There are also other less well known Burmese meditation methods, such as the system developed by U Vimala, which focuses on knowledge of dependent origination and citta upassanā (mindfulness of the mind).

Likewise, Sayadaw U Tejaniya's method also focuses on mindfulness of the mind.

Thai Forest tradition

Also influential is the Thai Forest Tradition deriving from Ajahn Mun (1870–1949) and popularized by Ajahn Chah, which, in contrast, stresses the inseparability of the 2 practices, and the essential necessity of both practices.

Other noted practitioners in this tradition include Ajahn Thate and Ajahn Mahā Bua, among others.

There are other forms of Thai Buddhist meditation associated with particular teachers, including Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's presentation of Ānāpānasati,

Ajahn Lee's breath meditation method (which influenced his American student Ṭhānissaro) and the dynamic meditation (Mahāsati Meditation) of Luangpor Teean Cittasubho.

Other forms

There are other less mainstream forms of Theravāda meditation practiced in Thailand which include the Vijja Dhammakāya meditation developed by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro and the meditation of former supreme patriarch Suk Kai Thuean (1733–1822).

A less common type of meditation is practiced in Cambodia and Laos by followers of Borān kammaṭṭhāna ('ancient practices') tradition. This form of meditation includes the use of mantras and visualizations.