Buddhism Vision and Visualization
David L. McMahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0175


Visual metaphors, visionary literature, and visualization practices are pervasive in Buddhist traditions. Vision and seeing are dominant metaphors for knowledge, awakening, and insight: the Buddha has various supernormal “eyes” with which he can see, for example, the past and future; upon attaining awakening, the Buddha “saw” the entire process of the dependent arising of all conditions in the world; meditation allows one to “see” things as they are. Seeing in this sense often suggests incisive knowledge that penetrates delusions and conceptual fabrications apprehending the truth as it is. In Mahayana and tantric traditions, these pervasive visual metaphors contribute to the emergence of visionary literature and meditative/devotional practices that use the visual imagination. These include practices in which the practitioner envisions a buddha or bodhisattva as a kind of visualized icon to worship or receive teachings. Visualizations in the Pure Land schools are performed in order to gain rebirth in a buddha’s purified realm. Tantric Buddhism contains often elaborate visualizations of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and frequently practitioners are instructed to visualize themselves as these deities. Tantric practices also include visualizations of the interior of the body in order to manipulate the energies of the body and mind.

In Pali Buddhist Literature

Buddhism as represented in the Pali literature lacks the often elaborate visionary imagery and visualization practices that developed in Mahayana and tantric traditions. Nevertheless, the ground for these is prepared by early meditation practices, as described in Shaw 2006, some of which contain visualizations, such as the visualization of various “supports” (kasina) like clay disks and other objects to train the attention and develop mental agility. Other vision-oriented practices include visualizing the interior of the body to stave off corporeal attachment; envisioning corpses, to emphasize the impermanence of the body; and visualizing people toward whom one has positive, negative, or neutral feelings in order to generate kindness (metta) toward all. Buddhaghosa 2003 discusses each of these.

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

    A large compendium of Buddhist meditation practices culled from Pali suttas, c. 5th century CE. Includes various non-Mahayana visualization practices that laid the foundation for more elaborate ones in the Mahayana and tantric traditions.

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

    A collection of Pali texts on meditation, some of which contain visualization practices.

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