What is Meditation?


What is meditation?

“Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’ which means ‘to make grow’ or ‘to develop’.”
~ Buddhanet.net

Well that was an easy and painless post… not quite. What really is it? How do you do it? What different types are there? I get so many questions about this subject when it comes up that I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. Let’s hope what follows will make it a little more clear as we briefly cover these questions while discussing five different types of meditation. I practice Zazen, so it is the one I know the most about but I have experimented with the other forms and am pretty familiar with all of them to a degree.

First, how do you meditate? All of them in general have the same basic form:
1. Sit comfortably in one of the following positions (The uppermost being the most ideal, but whatever is comfortable):
a. Full Lotus (legs crossed with each foot resting on the opposite thigh)
b. Half Lotus (legs crossed with one foot resting on the opposite thigh; the other foot on the floor)
c. Burmese (thighs spread so that the knees are resting on the floor and both feet are close to body)
d. Kneeling with a cushion or bench
e. Sitting in a chair (feet flat on floor and the back away from back of the chair)
2. Spine straight.
3. Head up.
4. Hands in proper mudra.
5. Eyes slightly open and unfocused.

This is the form of meditation I personally practice and is practiced by Zen Buddhists and means “just-sitting”. The goal is to free the mind of ANY kind of thinking. Beginners are often suggested to follow their breath or count their breaths. This helps in allowing you to clear the mind.

The Soto school of Zen practices what is known as shikantaza, which means “nothing but sitting.” While the Rinzai school practices Zazen and Koan study. “Koans are a paradoxical teaching question or story designed to confound linear, rational thought, and therefore to help condition the mind for enlightenment” (Essential Buddhism by Jack Maguire) The koans serve as a meditation catalyst and not purely the focus of the meditation.
For a more detailed explanation watch the following video by the late great John Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery describe Zazen:

I will briefly discuss the other forms of meditation:
Samatha Meditation
Translated as calm abiding meditation practiced by Theravada school. You focus the mind on something in particular: observe the breath at the tip of your nose, sound of the rain, sound of traffic, etc. Additionally some focus on a virtue such as compassion or loving-kindness.
Vipassana Meditation
This is what is known in this country as insight meditation and is practiced by the Theravada school. Your primary focus is on your own thoughts and feelings.
Mantra Meditation
Use of a power laden syllable or series of syllables, such as Om. You use a constant still repetition such as the more complex myoho-renge-kyo (glory to the lotus sutra).
Visualization Meditation
This form of meditation is practiced by the pure land school. You mentally envision an image, often a Buddha or a particular bodhisattva.

In an upcoming post I will cover ways to be mindful besides meditation in your everyday life and your spiritual practice.

One thought on “What is Meditation?

  1. Nice post, it is really good to point out proper posture in meditation. The body is a great tool for calming the mind.

    I would like to add that shamata and vispssana meditation are not exclusively practiced by only the Theravada school. I am quite sure they are practiced in Mahayana and definitely in Vajrayana meditations, the Tibetan words are Shiné ans laktong. I write about it here if you are interested: https://quantumawareness.net/what-are-shine-and-laktong/ mantra and visualizing are also used in almost every Tibetan meditation that I know of.

    I have always been curious about the zen ways of dealing with distractions, could you share them with me please?



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