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Buddhism Meditation
by
David L. McMahan

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

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.

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    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.

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  • Dharmaweb. “Buddhist Meditation.”

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    Online collection of articles and dharma talks on meditation by modern teachers, as well as translations of a few key meditation texts.

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  • Gómez, Luis O. “Meditation.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 520–530. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.

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    This article provides a good short overview of meditation in its various forms throughout the various Buddhist schools. A good starting place.

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  • McMahan, David L. “Buddhist Meditational Systems.” In The Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.

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    Series of fourteen articles covering all major aspects of Buddhist meditation in their historical, geographical, and institutional contexts.

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  • Sarbacker, Stuart Ray. Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

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    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.

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  • Sharf, Robert H. “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” Numen 42 (1995): 228–283.

    DOI: 10.1163/1568527952598549Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    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.

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  • Shaw, Sarah. Introduction to Buddhist Meditation. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    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.

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  • Swearer, Donald. Secrets of the Lotus. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

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    An introduction to Buddhist meditation through excerpts from Buddhist scriptures as well as dharma discourses from contemporary Theravada and Zen teachers.

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Primary Sources

The following is a selection of primary source texts on meditation from different Buddhist traditions. Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (Warren 1950) is an extensive, seminal work from the 5th century CE detailing a wide variety of meditation practices from the Theravada school. Tsong-kha-pa 1972 is a philosophical work that has also been translated into English.

Meditation in Pali Literature

A great deal has been written in English in the past few decades on meditation from the Theravada perspective, in part due to the number of prolific translators, scholar monks, and commentators. Quite a few of these include translations of primary sources from Pali. A number of scholarly secondary sources explicitly address meditation in Pali literature as well.

Primary Sources in Translation

A number of translations of Pali suttas include essential discourses specifically on meditation. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995 and Walshe 1987 are recent translations of large collections of Pali suttas, including some suttas on meditation. Buddhaghosa 2003 is the most comprehensive classical text on Buddhist meditation, and Ñāṇamoli provides a readable translation. A number of anthologies pull together meditation texts from a variety of Pali sources. Probably the best is Shaw 2006, which includes a comprehensive account of meditation drawn from Pali suttas and commentaries. Conze 1956 also draws mostly from Pali literature, and Nyanaponika Thera 1962 translates and comments on one important meditation text, Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. Access to Insight is probably the largest source for both translations of Pali texts and commentaries, as well as modern writings on meditation from the Theravada perspective.

  • Access to Insight.

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    An extensive and free online resource that includes translations of hundreds of Pali suttas and commentaries, as well as modern commentaries and discourses by contemporary monks and nuns in the Theravada tradition.

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    • Buddhaghosa. Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. Seattle, WA: Pariyatti, 2003.

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      A large compendium of Buddhist meditation practices culled from Pali suttas by 5th-century commentator Buddhaghosa. It is the definitive work on Indian Buddhist meditation practice.

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    • Conze, Edward. Buddhist Meditation. New York: Allen and Unwin, 1956.

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      Although Conze’s introduction is rather out of date, this small volume contains a useful collection of excerpts on meditation, mostly from canonical and postcanonical Pali literature, especially Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga.

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    • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi, eds. and trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

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      Large collection of Buddhist suttas, including classic meditation texts such as Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing (Ānāpānasati Sutta) and Discourse on Mindfulness of the Body (Kāyagatāsati Sutta).

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    • Nyanaponika Thera. Satipaṭṭhāna: The Heart of Buddhist Meditation; A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness with an Anthology of Relevant Texts Translated from the Pali and Sanskrit. London: Rider, 1962.

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      Translations and commentaries of key meditation texts, particularly Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta).

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    • Shaw, Sarah. Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

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      A thorough and accessible collection of readings from Pali suttas and commentaries on meditation.

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    • Walshe, Maurice. Thus Have I Heard: The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1987.

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      Translation from the Pali of the Dīgha-nikāya, which contains the classic sutta “The Greater Discourse of the Foundations of Mindfulness” (Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta), one of the foundational meditation texts of Buddhism.

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    Secondary Sources

    Scholars have discussed various conceptual and historical issues involving meditation in Pali literature, including the precise nature of certain prominent practices and terms (Cousins 1973), the relation of meditation to cosmology (Gethin 1997), different types of meditation (Griffiths 1981), and the origins of Buddhist meditation in its wider ancient Indian context (King 1980 and Wynne 2007).

    • Cousins, Lance S. “Buddhist Jhāna: Its Nature and Attainment According to the Pali Sources.” Religion 3 (1973): 115–131.

      DOI: 10.1016/0048-721X(73)90003-1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      A discussion of the stages of meditative absorption (jhānas) in Pali Buddhist texts, drawn from both Pali suttas and commentaries. Cousins interprets jhāna as a temporary calming and purifying of normal consciousness rather than a catatonic trance. Reprinted in Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. 2, edited by Paul Williams (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 34–51.

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    • Gethin, Rupert. “Cosmology and Meditation: From the Aggañña-sutta to the Mahayana.” History of Religions 36.3 (1997): 183–217.

      DOI: 10.1086/463464Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Argues for the importance of cosmology to the goals of Buddhist meditation, in contrast to much modern scholarship that has “demythologized” meditation. Includes some material from Mahayana sources as well as Pali. Reprinted in Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. 2, edited by Paul Williams (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 102–135.

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    • Griffiths, Paul J. “Concentration or Insight: The Problematic of Theravāda Buddhist Meditation Theory.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 (1981): 605–624.

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      Argues that there are two distinct conceptions of Buddhist salvation corresponding to the two main forms of meditation, tranquility, and insight.

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    • King, Winston L. Theravāda Meditation: The Buddhist Transformation of Yoga. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

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      Study of Buddhaghosa and the connections between Buddhist meditation and non-Buddhist Indian techniques.

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    • Wynne, Alexander. The Origin of Buddhist Meditation. London: Routledge, 2007.

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      A convincing account of how Buddhist meditation arose out of the wider milieu of Indian ascetic practices using a broad array of early Buddhist and non-Buddhist texts.

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    Meditation in Mahayana Buddhism

    Much meditation in the Mahayana traditions is essentially the same as that in non-Mahayana. Like their Pali predecessors, Mahayana texts discuss tranquility and insight meditation but often interpret these practices in distinctly Mahayana doctrinal contexts. Commentators accommodated traditional techniques to the new Mahayana bodhisattva ideal—the notion that one practices not for personal escape from the round of rebirth (saṁsāra) but rather to become a buddha and remain in the world to help awaken all sentient beings. Mahayana texts, therefore, present the cultivation of tranquility and insight as a means for developing the aspiration for awakening (bodhicitta), not just for oneself but for the sake of others. Mahayana accounts of insight meditation also incorporate the emphasis on seeing all things as empty (śūnya), or lacking, any permanent, fixed, inherent existence (svabhāva). Insight into things as they are means seeing that they are not independent and permanent but are impermanent and empty of intrinsic nature, being constituted by causes, conditions, and concepts. In conjunction with the new forms of literature, doctrines, and devotional orientations in the Mahayana also came meditation practices unique to this movement, especially visualization practices that took visualizations, properly done, to invoke the real presence of a buddha. Sharma 1997 gives a translation of a meditation text by Kamalaśīla (740–795 CE), an important Mahayana thinker. Powers 1995 provides a translation of the Saṁdhinirmocana Sūtra, which became an important sūtra in the Yogācāra school. Payne 2003 discusses the importance of Yogācāra thought to the crystallization of Pure Land visualizations, and Kiyota 1978, McMahan 2002 and Schmithausen 1973 discuss various facets of meditation unique to the Mahayana tradition.

    • Harrison, Paul. “Commemoration and Identification in Buddhānusmṛti.” In In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Edited by Janet Gyatso, 215–238. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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      Overview of texts that teach “recollection of the Buddha” (buddhānusmṛti), through recitation, visualization, and/or contemplating the qualities of the Buddha.

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    • Kiyota, Minoru, ed., assisted by Elvin W. Jones. Mahāyāna Buddhist Meditation: Theory and Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1978.

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      An edited volume with essays on Mahayana meditation in India and China. Approaches meditation primarily from the perspective of textual hermeneutics and philosophical issues.

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    • McMahan, David L. Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhism. New York and London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

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      Examines the linkage of vision and awakening in early Buddhist philosophical vocabulary and its later transformations into multifaceted symbolism, visionary literature, and visualization practices in Mahayana and Tantric traditions. Chapter 5 specifically discusses the development of visualization practices.

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    • Payne, Richard. “Seeking Sukhāvati: Yogācāra and the Origins of Pure Land Visualization.” Pure Land 20 (2003): 265–283.

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      Links Yogācāra thought to the origins of Pure Land visualization practices.

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    • Powers, John, trans. The Wisdom of Buddha: The Saṁdhinirmocana Sūtra. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1995.

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      A translation of a text that became important in the Yogācāra school of Mahayana Buddhism. Chapter 8 gives an account of meditation within the context of the philosophical positions of this school.

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    • Schmithausen, Lambert. “On the Problem of the Relation of Spiritual Practice to Philosophical Theory in Buddhism.” In German Scholars in India. New Delhi and Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba, 1973.

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      Explores the historical relation between meditative practice and philosophical theory in the Yogācāra school. Concludes that Yogācāra “idealism” is derived from the practice of visualized objects of meditation. Reprinted in Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. 2, edited by Paul Williams (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 242–254.

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    • Sharma, Parmananda, trans. The Bhāvanākrama of Kamalaśīla. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1997.

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      Text on stages of meditation by 8th-century author Kamalaśīla. Provides a distinctively Mahayana gloss on traditional Buddhist meditation practice.

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    Chan, Zen, Sǒn Meditation

    Within Mahayana Buddhism, the Chan/Zen school deserves special mention because it is the meditation school, its name being derived from the Sanskrit term meaning “meditation” or “concentration” (dhyāna; Pali: jhāna). An early influential work is The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Yampolsky 1967) by Huineng. Dōgen Zenji (b. 1200–d. 1253) was the most influential and complex Japanese Zen thinker and founder of the Sōtō school in Japan. Bielefeldt 1988 translates an important manual on meditation by Dōgen and provides a valuable introductory essay. Another example of an important work specifically on meditation by a premodern Chan/Zen master is that of Hongzhi (Leighton 2000). A unique feature of Chan/Zen meditation is the use of kōans (Chinese, gongan), anecdotes of encounters between masters and students that meditators contemplate while in seated meditation. Sekida 1977 and Hori 2003 provide translations of and commentary on important kōan literature, and Heine and Wright 2000 contains a good collection of essays on kōans in historical, institutional, and religious contexts. The latter two works arguably correct the view of Zen meditation and kōan practice advanced by Suzuki 1994 that zazen (seated meditation) leads to a universal mystical experience and that kōans are essentially noncognitive. Buswell 1993 provides a comprehensive account of monastic life in a Korean Zen (Sǒn) monastery.

    • Bielefeldt, Carl. Dōgen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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      Discussion and translation of important Zen manuals on meditation by 13th-century Zen master Dōgen, the most influential figure in Japanese Zen and founder of the Sōtō school in Japan.

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    • Buswell, Robert E., Jr. The Zen Monastic Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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      An excellent account of monastic life in a Korean monastery drawn from the author’s time as a monk. It places meditation in the broader context of everyday lived experience in the monastery and challenges some of the more decontextualized accounts of Zen meditation in the West.

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    • Heine, Steven, and Dale S. Wright. The Kōan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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      Essays exploring the symbolic meanings, literary features, and historical and institutional contexts of kōans and kōan practice. Provides a significant update to previous anticognitive bias in treatment of kōans.

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    • Hori, Victor. Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Zen Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

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      Significantly expands Western understanding of kōan practice in the Rinzai school by translating and discussing two collections of “capping phrases” (jakugo), classical verses expressing insights into kōans.

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    • Leighton, Taigen Dan. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2000.

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      Translation of a classic meditation text by 12th-century Chinese Chan master Hongzhi.

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    • Sekida, Katsuki, trans. Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku. New York: Weatherhill, 1977.

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      Two essential collections of kōans, “The Gateless Gate” and “The Blue Cliff Records.”

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    • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series). New York: Grove, 1994.

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      In this book, Suzuki lays out many of his positions on meditation, kōan practice, and other aspects of Zen. Influential to modern understandings of Zen, but critiqued by many scholars today (e.g., Faure 1993, cited under Zen Meditation in Modern Contexts, and Sharf 1995, cited under General Overviews). Originally published in 1961.

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    • Yampolsky, Philip B. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-huang Manuscript with Translation, Introduction, and Notes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

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      Translation and discussion of a key Chan/Zen text by Huineng, considered the sixth patriarch of Chan in China. Noteworthy for its independence from Indian Buddhism (its author, Huineng, is presented delivering a “sūtra,” a term previously reserved for a discourse of the Buddha) and its insistence on transcending mechanical “techniques” of meditation in favor of “direct mind” in the midst of all activities.

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    Meditation in Other East Asian Buddhist Schools

    Much scholarly treatment of Chinese and Japanese meditation focuses on Chan/Zen, but there are English-language books and articles on meditation in other East Asian Buddhist schools as well. Gregory 1986 includes essays on meditation in Faxiang (Yogācāra) and Tiantai schools, and Dharmamitra’s translation in Zhiyi 2009 presents a treatment of basic Buddhist meditation from the most important Tiantai thinker. Payne 1998 and Sharf 2001 discuss meditation and ritual in the Shingon, or Esoteric, school of Japanese Buddhism.

    • Gregory, Peter N., ed. Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

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      A collection of essays on Chinese Buddhist meditation traditions.

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    • Payne, Richard K. “Ajikan: Ritual and Meditation in the Shingon Tradition.” In Re-Visioning “Kamakura” Buddhism. Edited by Richard K. Payne, 24–42. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

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      Discussion of a particular Japanese Esoteric Buddhist ritual and meditation whose central visualization is on the letter “A.”

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    • Sharf, Robert. “Visualization and Maṇḍala in Shingon Buddhism.” In Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context. Edited by Robert Sharf and Elizabeth Sharf, 151–197. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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      Sharf offers a counterargument to much discussion of visualization practice, asserting that maṇḍalas in the Shingon tradition should not be understood as visualization aids but as living entities that ensure the efficacy of ritual.

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    • Stevenson, Daniel B. “Pure Land Buddhist Worship and Meditation in China.” In Buddhism in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 359–379. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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      Discussion and translation of Pure Land practices in China, in which devotional practices, chanting, and meditation are intertwined.

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    • Zhiyi, Śramaṇa. The Essentials of Buddhist Meditation. Translated by Bhikshu Dharmamitra. Seattle, WA: Kalavinka, 2009.

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      Translation by an American monk of the classic meditation treatise, Essentials for Practicing Calming-and-Insight and Dhyāna Meditation, by 6th-century Chinese monk Zhiyi (Chih-i), of the Tiantai school of Buddhism. Presents tranquility (śamatha) and insight (vipaśyanā) meditation from a Chinese perspective. Includes facing-page source text.

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    Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna Meditation and Sādhanas

    The Vajrayāna movement began in India and has flourished to the present in Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism. Unique features of Vajrayāna meditation include complex visualizations of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Vajrayāna scriptures, or tantras, give directions on visualizing, and in some cases identifying with, these deities. Early scholarship, like Tucci 2001, drew from analytic psychology in interpreting these figures as archetypal images, something still common in popular Western literature on tantra. Recent scholarship, more deeply rooted in primary texts and ethnography, treats such visualizations as invocations of deities that are believed to exist (in a relative sense), as well as symbolizations of aspects of the mind. Samuel 2008 offers contextual detail for a rich understanding of the historical development of these practices. Cozort 1986 offers a good overview of the meditation and ritual practices of a particular class of tantras called “Highest Yoga Tantra” (anuttara-yoga-tantra). Gómez 1995, Gyatso and Hopkins 1999, English 2002, and Lingpa, et al. 2007 offer translations and discussions of different Tantric meditations. The translation of the 14th- to 15th-century thinker Tsong-kha-pa’s Lam rim chen mo (Tsong-kha-pa 2001-2004) shows the wider scope of Tibetan meditation, which includes earlier tranquility and insight techniques as well as tantric sādhanas.

    • Cozort, Daniel. Highest Yoga Tantra. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1986.

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      A lucid introduction to Highest Yoga Tantra, detailing generation and completion stages of sādhanas.

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    • English, Elizabeth. Vajrayoginī: Her Visualizations, Rituals, and Forms. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2002.

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      Detailed investigation of a particular group of sādhanas of Vajrayogīnī in the Guhysamayasādhanamālā.

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    • Gómez, Luis O. “Two Tantric Meditations: Visualizing the Deity.” In Buddhism in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 318–327. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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      A translation of two examples of tantric sādhanas from the Sādhanamālā, a 12th-century Sanskrit compilation of sādhanas.

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    • Gyatso, Tenzin, and Jeffery Hopkins. Kalachakra Tantra: A Rite of Initiation. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1999.

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      The Fourteenth Dalai Lama details the generation stage in the Kālacakra Tantra in accessible language. Originally published in 1985.

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    • Lingpa, Jigme, Patrul Rinpoche, and Getse Mahāpaṇḍita. Deity, Mantra, and Wisdom: Development Stage Meditation in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra. Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007.

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      Translation of four Tibetan texts on visualization, mantra recitation, and meditative absorption that constitute the generation phase of sādhana.

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    • Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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      Places Vajrayāna practices in the context of shamanic practices of India and Tibet, offering much historical detail and analysis of sādhanas and their cultural, institutional, and religious contexts.

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    • Tsong-kha-pa. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. 3 vols. Translated by the Lamrim Translation Committee. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2001–2004.

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      A translation of the lengthy Lam rim chen mo, written by 14th-century master Tsongkhapa, of the Geluk-pa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Volume 3 addresses tranquility and insight meditation in the context of Mahayana/Vajrayāna philosophy in Tibet.

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    • Tucci, Giuseppe. Theory and Practice of the Mandala, with Special Reference to the Modern Psychology of the Subconscious. Translated by Alan Houghton Brodrick. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

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      An example of a psychoanalytic interpretation of maṇḍalas and tantric visualization, an interpretation largely dismissed by scholars today but still very popular outside of scholarly literature. Originally published in 1949 as Teoria e pratica del mandala, con particolare riguardo alla moderna psicologia del profondo (Rome: Astrolabio).

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    Modern Meditation Movements and Approaches

    Although traditionally it was primarily monastic specialists who practiced meditation, in the modern period lay meditation movements have emerged throughout the world. Revitalization movements throughout Asia and the West have placed a renewed emphasis on meditation. These movements, beginning in the late 19th century, stress the rationalistic elements of Buddhism and deemphasize ritual, devotional elements, and “folk” elements. They draw upon Western philosophy and psychology, which have been persistent influences on the development of Buddhist thought and practice for over a century. These influences have significantly shaped the perception and practice of meditation. Modern forms of Buddhism with meditation at their center have emerged within a number of schools, especially Zen and Theravada. These have ever-increasing numbers of adherents in the West—the vast majority of which are lay people—and there is a plethora of English-language books on Buddhist meditation from a number of different schools and authored by both Asian and Western Buddhists.

    Modern Theravada and Vipassanā Approaches to Meditation

    Adapting Theravada Buddhism to modern sensibilities, Mahāsi Sayādaw and other Theravada teachers from Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka created what would become known as the Vipassanā or Insight Meditation movement, which is now popular in parts of South and Southeast Asia, North America, and Western Europe. The movement takes the Sūtra on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) as its central text and deemphasizes ritual, liturgical, and merit-making elements common in Theravada Buddhism. Americans who studied with Burmese and other Southeast Asian teachers, especially Goldstein and Kornfield (see Goldstein and Kornfield 1987), have made the Vipassanā movement especially popular in North America. Goenka 2000 is by a popular Vipassanā teacher who likens meditation to a kind of science and insists that the Buddha did not found a “religion” but an experiential way to happiness open to all. Cha 2002 and Henepola Gunaratana 2002 give a Thai and Sri Lankan perspective, respectively, on insight meditation. Fronsdal 1998 provides a useful essay discussing the distinctiveness of the Vipassanā movement, especially in the United States. Largely independent of the traditional Theravada religious and authoritative context, it is, he argues, “inherently open, amorphous, and arbitrarily defined” (p. 165).

    Zen Meditation in Modern Contexts

    Like other forms of Buddhist meditation, Zen meditation has taken an unprecedented turn in the 20th century. Formerly the province mostly of cloistered monks in training, it is now not uncommon among middle-class lay people, both in Asia and the West. Modern movements within Zen in the 20th century attempted to harmonize Zen with Western philosophy and took zazen (seated meditation) out of its monastic context. Daisetz T. Suzuki was highly influential to the perception in the West of Zen as essentially a “pure experience” transcending rationality and institutions. Many mid-20th-century Western authors, popular and scholarly alike, followed Suzuki’s interpretation. Faure 1993 offers critiques of Suzuki’s understanding of Zen, showing it to be a distinctively modern reinterpretation not reflective of Zen as it has been practiced for centuries. Regardless of scholarly controversies, Zen as primarily a lay meditation movement has taken off globally, and there is an abundant popular literature on it, some thoughtful and some trivial. Suzuki 1985 and Kapleau 1967 are two of the most influential books on Zen published in the West. Sheng Yen was a Taiwanese Chan master who had a monastery in the United States, and Sheng Yen 2008 offers a combination of Chinese and Japanese approaches to Chan/Zen that shows more continuity with non-Zen Buddhist teachings. Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi established a thriving lineage in the United States that is now global in reach, and John Daido Loori, one of his most prominent disciples, has established a successful monastery that integrates Zen with modern American life. Maezumi 2002 is a volume of transcribed dharma talks to mostly American students, and Loori 2002 is a systematization of Loori’s unique blend of traditional Zen with adaptations for various kinds of practitioners in the West.

    • Faure, Bernard. Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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      Critical study of Chan/Zen rhetoric, ritual, and practice. Faure is especially critical of Suzuki’s interpretation of Zen and is intent on distinguishing Buddhist modernism from forms more widely practiced in the history of Chan/Zen.

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    • Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment. Boston: Beacon, 1967.

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      Influential to the understanding of Zen in America. Contains talks by Japanese rōshi Yasutani Hakuun, as well as transcriptions of interviews between him and his disciples along with personal accounts of satori experiences.

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    • Loori, John Daido. The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training. Boston: Shambhala, 2002.

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      Reformulates Zen training for differing levels of commitment. Loori interweaves more “traditional” elements of Japanese Zen with aspects of life common to Americans.

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    • Maezumi, Hakuyu Taizan. On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, Mind. Ithaca, NY: Wisdom Publications, 2002.

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      Collection of talks on zazen by the influential founder of the White Plum Lineage. Maezumi founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles and has many dharma heirs in North America.

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    • Sheng Yen. The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

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      Transcription of three series of talks at retreats conducted by Chinese Chan master Sheng Yen. The first gives a basic introduction to Chan meditation, and the second two are commentaries on a text by 12th-century master Hongzhi.

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    • Suzuki, Deisetz Teitarō. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki. Edited by William Barrett. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

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      A manageable collection of Suzuki’s writings on Zen. Suzuki’s approach heavily influenced Western sympathizers such as Alan Watts, Robert Linssen, Christmas Humphries, and Hubert Benoit. Originally published in 1956 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday).

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    • Suzuki, Shunryū. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1985.

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      Collection of talks by the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and one of the most popular Japanese Zen teachers in the West.

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    Meditation and Scientific Research

    As Buddhist meditation has begun to take on a life outside the monastery, it has become a subject of scientific curiosity. Scientific analysis of meditation began in the mid-20th century when researchers taught people basic meditation techniques and then used electroencephalogram (EEG) and other measurements to ascertain neurophysiological changes. The past two decades have seen an explosion of meditation research, with researchers now experimenting on seasoned meditators and using the more sophisticated brain-imaging technology now available. More recent scientific studies have benefited from a more sophisticated understanding not only of the brain but also of Buddhism on the part of researchers, although some still rely on distinctively contemporary and somewhat historically and culturally naïve accounts. Lutz, et al. 2007 provides a good summary of recent research, while Lutz, et al. 2004 is an example of a scholarly article investigating neural phenomena associated with specific meditation practices. Austin 1999 and Austin 2006 exhaustively address Zen meditation from the perspective of a neurologist who is also a practitioner. Lopez 2008 looks critically at the history of the relationships between science and Buddhism.

    • Austin, James H. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

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      A discussion of the brain’s and body’s response to Zen meditation by a neurologist and Zen practitioner. Assumes a modern, Western view of Zen but provides extensive detail on meditation research.

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    • Austin, James H. Zen-Brain Reflections: Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness. Boston: MIT Press, 2006.

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      Sequel to Austin 1999 addresses various questions combining concerns of both neuroscientists and Zen practitioners.

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    • Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

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      Critical inquiry into the relationship between Buddhism and science since the 19th century.

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    • Lutz, Antoine, Lawrence L. Greischar, Nancy B. Rawlings, Matthieu Ricard, and Richard J. Davidson. “Long-Term Meditators Self-Induce High-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony during Mental Practice.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101.46 (16 November 2004): 16369–16373.

      DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0407401101Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      An example of a scholarly article investigating Tibetan meditation practice with electroencephalogram measurement. Concludes that sustained meditation practice may induce both long- and short-term neurological changes. Available online.

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    • Lutz, Antoine, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. “Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness: An Introduction.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness. Edited by Philip David Zelazo, Morris Moscovitch, and M. Evan Thompson, 499–554. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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      A good overview of recent scientific research on Buddhist meditation.

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    • Wallace, B. Alan. Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

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      Wallace argues for an integration of empirical science and contemplative methods and critiques what he sees as an assumption of materialism and a dismissal of the first-person perspective in the sciences.

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    LAST MODIFIED: 09/13/2010

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0104

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