- LAST REVIEWED: 20 July 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0104
- LAST REVIEWED: 20 July 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0104
Buddhist meditation is made up of a wide array of techniques designed to produce heightened states of awareness and concentration that lead to insight into the true nature of things and liberation from suffering. A number of terms tend to be translated as meditation—bhāvanā (cultivation), dhyāna (concentration), samādhi (meditative absorption)—and these terms have been understood differently in different Buddhist traditions. Virtually all meditative traditions of Buddhism, however, contain some version of tranquility meditation (śamatha) and insight meditation (vipaśyanā; Pali: vipassanā). Often the distinctions between meditation, worship, and ritual can be ambiguous, especially in Mahayana and Vajrayāna traditions, in which practitioners visualize and worship buddhas and bodhisattvas or chant the name of Buddha Amitābha repeatedly. The distinction between scholarly and popular is also sometimes blurry in works on Buddhist meditation, as is that between ancient and modern, since virtually every translation of ancient texts contains a modern introduction and interpretation. Meditation began to be a subject of explicit interest in the West in the mid-20th century, when scholars and Buddhists began writing books on the subject. During that time it was often believed to be a method of training the mind toward a mystical experience that was essentially the same in all times and places, among different religions. Later treatments take into account the differences in Buddhist traditions, address meditation in the context of particular schools and institutional settings, and tend to impose less of a metaphysic of sameness inherent in the comparative mysticism model.
Many books and articles on Buddhist meditation take the subject from a particular school or set of literature, but there are few treatments that cut across traditions and schools. Shaw 2008 is one of the few that covers the great variety of meditation across the major Buddhist traditions and throughout history. Swearer 1971 relies on Theravada and Zen in both classical and contemporary contexts, and Bucknell and Kang 1997 provides excerpts from both modern and primary source literature on meditation. Sharf 1995 gives an alternative perspective, criticizing the dominant “experiential” understanding of Buddhist meditation. Dharmaweb is one of a number of online sites with translations of classical meditation texts and modern dharma talks. McMahan 2007 gives an overview of Buddhist meditation in various historical and modern contexts. Gómez 2003 gives a more concise overview, and Sarbacker 2005 discusses meditation in India and Tibet.
Bucknell, Rod, and Chris Kang, eds. The Meditative Way: Readings in the Theory and Practice of Buddhist Meditation. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1997.
A collection of writings on Buddhist meditation including excerpts from Pali literature, classical commentaries from a variety of Buddhist traditions, modern commentaries, and accounts of meditation experiences by contemporary practitioners.
Dharmaweb. “Buddhist Meditation.”
Online collection of articles and dharma talks on meditation by modern teachers, as well as translations of a few key meditation texts.
Gómez, Luis O. “Meditation.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 520–530. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.
This article provides a good short overview of meditation in its various forms throughout the various Buddhist schools. A good starting place.
McMahan, David L. “Buddhist Meditational Systems.” In The Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.
Series of fourteen articles covering all major aspects of Buddhist meditation in their historical, geographical, and institutional contexts.
Sarbacker, Stuart Ray. Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
A study of meditation in Indian and Tibetan traditions, both Hindu and Buddhist. Attempts to steer between universalist accounts of meditative experience—that is, experience that is the same in all times and places—and accounts that see it as thoroughly determined by history and culture. Contains useful accounts of theoretical discussions of meditation in the last few decades. This book both critiques and addresses arguments made in Sharf 1995.
Sharf, Robert H. “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” Numen 42 (1995): 228–283.
An influential and controversial article that argues that the category of “experience” has been overused in modern accounts of Buddhist meditation. Sharf argues that rather than primarily designating internal experiences or states of consciousness, meditation language in Buddhist texts is often performative and employed to legitimate institutional and sectarian authority. Reprinted in Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. 2, edited by Paul Williams (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 255–299.
Shaw, Sarah. Introduction to Buddhist Meditation. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
A comprehensive survey of Buddhist meditation practices in their various geographical contexts, both ancient and modern. Discusses early Buddhist meditation as well as devotional practices and traditions unique to India, China, Tibet, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.
Swearer, Donald. Secrets of the Lotus. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
An introduction to Buddhist meditation through excerpts from Buddhist scriptures as well as dharma discourses from contemporary Theravada and Zen teachers.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- China, Pilgrimage in
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Dizang (Jizō, Ksitigarbha)
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Āgamas, Chinese
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Kyōgyōshinshō (Shinran)
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Mārga (Path)
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Sexuality and Buddhsim
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa)
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese