An Overview of Buddhist Meditation
by Lynne Heckert

Articles:  About Meditation    Insight Meditation     Buddhist Tantra


Great religious traditions invariably begin with one person's  direct experience.  Buddha, who was born in about 560 BC, was a man who investigated his own mind and eventually attained spiritual awakening, or understanding of his own real nature.  Buddha is not considered a god to be worshipped.  Rather, he was a man who taught that the experiences and realizations that he found through meditation are available to everyone.

The main teaching of the Buddha is that human beings are unhappy because they do not understand their own real identity and potential. From birth, we are taught who we are, how to act and what to think.  We come to believe that we are this limited identity.  In meditation, our thoughts, which invariably center around this small sense of self are quieted.  We can discover that this sense of small self is a limiting concept.  This understanding brings great peace, lightness, joy and understanding.

  What is Meditation?

In general, meditation is a way to quiet the mind.  However, "meditation" is a very general term.  There are many practices which could be referred to as meditation and all the major religions include some meditative practices. "Buddhist meditation" is also a general term, as there are a multitude of meditation schools and techniques which come out of the various Buddhist traditions. Meditation can also be practiced without religious overtones (e.g., one can meditate with no religious beliefs in mind or one can be a practicing Christian or Jew and employ meditation techniques extracted from Buddhism).

Benefits of meditation include relaxation and stress control, control of blood pressure, pain management, facilitation of psychotherapy and enhanced immune function. These benefits come about chiefly through effects on the autonomic nervous system.  In a sentence, the "fight or flight" reaction of the sympathetic nervous system is controlled  by the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.  Meditation has also been used through the centuries as a path to self understanding and the most profound and direct spiritual experience.


Even though there are hundreds of types of meditation, if examined closely, all techniques fall into one of two categories:

1. Concentration, in which the mind focuses on a mental object (e.g., looking at a candle flame, counting or noticing one's breaths with eye's closed, reciting a chant or mantra with one's mind on the sound, or visualizing certain processes in the body, like the flow of energy).

2. Mindfulness, (sometimes referred to as awareness) in which the mind observes itself (e.g., sitting in meditation or doing a simple task while noticing when one hears a sound, feels a sensation or has a thought arise, without following the thought and becoming distracted).

A specific tradition may use just one of the techniques, or it may integrate the two techniques or use them at different times in a student's practice.


Of the many types of meditation derived from Buddhism, three are most widely used in the United States.  The following view of these schools (of necessity, in a short overview) contains many broad generalizations but should be useful:

          1. Insight Meditation: This style of meditation may also be referred to as Mindfulness or Vipassana.  It comes out of the Theravada Buddhist tradition of primarily Thailand and Burma.  In this method one watches her or his  bodily sensations and thoughts come and go.  When one's attention wanders, one returns to this watching.  This is a simple technique (but not that easy to do) which has far-reaching implications.  Watching oneself can lead to profound insights about one's real identity.  This type of meditation has been brought to the West with minimal cultural and religious trappings.

Well known centers include the Insight Meditation  Society in MA, Spirit Rock in CA, and the Bhavana Society in West Virginia. Typically, a student of this type of practice spends some time in silent retreat settings and sits in meditation for a short period each day.  The use of this type of meditation for pain management was pioneered by Jon   Kabot-Zinn at UMASS Medical Center.

2. Zen: This school comes from the Mahayana school of Buddhism in Japan and Korea. It was popularized in the United States in the 1950's and 60's by Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki and poets of the Beat Generation. Zen schools place great emphasis on direct, non-verbal, non-conceptual perception. In one type of Zen, the student just sits with thought suspended  ("sitting quietly doing nothing").  In another, the student just watches sensations and thoughts as they arise and disappear (this is akin to Mindfulness).  In a third type of Zen, the student's teacher gives him or her a koan or word puzzle to ponder.  There are many Zen Centers in the United States.  A Zen student typically attends intensive retreats from time to time at residential Zen centers and also meditates for a set period each day.

Tibetan: Tibetan Buddhism, also called Vajrayana, comes from Tibet.  It is a mixture of early Tibetan shamanistic tradition, Buddhism, and Tantric practice from India.  There are hundreds of Tibetan centers in the United States.  The choice of teacher is particularly important in Tibetan practice, since each teacher (or guru, or lama) has his or her particular slant on practice.  Of the three types of Buddhist practice mentioned here, Tibetan practice is the one most filled with cultural influences from its native area.  It is replete with a wide range of devotional, concentration and insight practices.  There are many colorful deities (not gods to be worshipped, but representatives of aspects of one's own mind).    Any and all techniques of meditation can be found in Tibetan practice and this can be confusing to the newcomer.

Buddhism in Tibet was heavily influenced by tantric traditions from sixth century India.  If one is to achieve a clear mind, it is vital to have a relaxed and integrated body. 
Tantra is a time-tested way to achieve the mind-body integration and calm that is so necessary for any type of meditation. Here, we are not speaking of the pseudo-tantra popularized and misrepresented in the West as New Age sex therapy.  Authentic tantra includes such things as visualization (of one's own bodily energies, of deities, of patterns such as the mandalas of Tibetan art), and mantra (repetition of sound). Tantra teaches techniques in which one uses one's energy to further spiritual awareness.  For instance, the energy of anger may be channeled so that it is spread over the entire body and a blissful state is created.  Then, with the body at ease, the mind is able to rest in awareness.

Dzogchen is another type of practice from Tibet which is growing in popularity.  Its emphasis is on the direct, non-conceptual perception of reality (in this way it is more akin to Zen or some approaches to Insight meditation).  However, Dzogchen (unlike Zen and mindfulness meditation) draws on the rich repository of Tibetan techniques like visualizations and tantra, to help the student achieve  this non-conceptual state of mind and then sustain it. Dzogchen teachings are considered the highest teachings in the Bon and Nyingma traditions. The Dzogchen traditions are rich with   skillful means which can help the practitioner to discover the "Nature of Mind."
Many mindfulness practitioners are also studying with Dzogchen teachers and lately we hear a lot about the practice of Dzogchen.  Well known Insight teachers are writing books about the similarities of the two approaches and the ONE TASTE of the Buddhadharma.   Actually, non-dual approaches to meditation are not new to Zen or the Insight tradition,  which have always had teachers who stressed  the view that eventually  one "forgets the meditator."  and rests in Choiceless Awareness.

Click Here for Introduction to Insight Meditation