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An Introduction to Mahayana Meditation

By Devik Balami at
Mahanyana meditation

Mahayana Buddhism is one of the branches of Buddhism which also includes numerous schools of practice. These schools of Mahayana Buddhism have been established with the focus on various Buddhist sutras, philosophical treatises, and commentaries. Again these schools have its own meditation techniques for the purpose to attain enlightenment.

Types of Mahayana Meditation according to the branches of Mahayana Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure land Buddhism is one of the schools in Mahayana Buddhism. The meditation technique in this Buddhism can be categorized into three categories: Mindfulness method, Pure Land Rebirth Dharani, and visualization method.

Mindfulness method

One of the traditional forms of meditation in pure land Buddhism is repeatedly chanting of the name Amitabha. It is believed that by chanting the Amitabha Buddha's name, it enables the practitioner to bring all his or her attention to that Buddha (Samadhi). The changing can be done vocally or mentally, with or without the use of Buddhist prayer beads. Normally those who practice this meditation technique often set a fixed number of repetition.

Pure Land Rebirth Dharani

This is another meditation technique in Pure Land Buddhism. This method is similar to the mindfulness method as mentioned above, the only difference is the people recites Dharani instead of Amitabha Buddha. This meditational method is popular among traditional Chinese Buddhists.

Visualization methods

In this meditation, the people contemplate and visualize the Amitabha Buddha, his attendant bodhisattvas, and the Pure Land. The foundation of this method is stated in the Amitayurdhyana Sutra or Amitabha Meditation Sutra. In this sutra, it is mentioned that the Buddha describes the practices of thirteen progressive visualization methods, corresponding to the attainment of various levels of rebirth in the Pure Land to Queen Vaidehi. This type of Mahayana meditation is popular among esoteric Buddhist sects.

Chan/Zen School

Chan/Zen School is another school in Mahayana Buddhism apart from Pure Land Buddhism. The Meditational methods in this school can be categorized into two methods: Mind Dharma, and Gong'an.

Mind Dharma

In the earliest traditions of Zen, the teacher would use various didactic methods to pinpoint the true nature of the mind or Buddha Nature. This meditational method is shared in the story of Gautam Buddha holding up a flower silently and Mahakasyapa smiling as he understood.


In this meditation practice, the teacher uses particular words and phrases, shouts, roars of laughter, sighs, gestures with the objective to awaken the student to the essential truth of the mind. This method was later known as Gong'an. In Japan, it is best known as Koan. The didactic phrases used by the teachers are subjected to contemplate. The teachers suggest their students to be doubtful at all times while practicing the meditation.

Tiantai School

The meditation practiced by the Tiantai school is the most systematic and comprehensive meditation model. Along with the Buddhist scriptures, the school also emphasized the use of its own meditation texts. This meditation text values the principles of samatha and vipasyana. Samatha is the first step to untie all the bonds while Vipasyana is an essential meditational method to root out delusion. It can be said that Samatha provides nourishment for the preservation of the Knowing mind, and Vipasyana is the skillful art of promoting spiritual understanding.

Along with this Samatha-Vipasyana meditation, Tiantai school also places a great emphasis on anapanasmrti or mindfulness of breathing. Zhiyi, founder of Tiantai school of Buddhism classifies breathing into four main categories: Panting, unhurried breathing, deep and quiet breathing, and stillness or rest. Zhiyi suggests that the first three kinds of breathing are incorrect while the fourth one is correct.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism includes all of the traditional forms of Mahayana Meditation and several unique forms also. The central theme of Vajrayana meditation is Deity Yoga which includes recitation of mantras, prayers, and visualization of the deity along with the associated mandala of the deity's Pure Land.

Other Vajrayana meditation techniques are Dream yoga, Tummo, Bardo, sexual yoga, and Chod.