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.
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