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An Introduction to Theravada Meditation

By Devik Balami at
Theravada meditation

Historical development of Theravada meditation

It has been recorded that the oldest material based on meditation according to the Theravada Buddhism is stated in the Pali Nikayas and the texts such as the Patisambhidamagga. These texts on meditation provide commentary to the meditation sutta like the Anapanasati Sutta. Likewise, there is an early Theravada meditation manual named Vimuttimagga as well which was published in a 1st or 2nd century. But the meditation manual, Visuddhimagga was written by Buddhaghosa is regarded as the most influential presentation. The Visuddhimagga is written is the 5th century and describes forty meditation subjects.

As Buddhaghosa suggests that a person should carry on the meditation subjects that suits his own temperament with the advice from others, who has knowledge in the different meditation subjects, for the purpose of developing concentration and consciousness.

People when follows Buddhaghosa's meditation technique, they observed that three practices were in common: breath meditation, foulness meditation, and contemplation of the four elements. It is believed that breath meditation leads to the Equanimeous fourth Jhanic absorption while foulness meditation leads to the attainment of the first jhana. Contemplation of the four elements culminates in pre-jhana access concentration. These statements are also stated in the Pali commentaries.

Buddhaghosa further elaborates the forty meditation subjects as follows:

  • Ten Kasinas which includes earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, light, and limited space.

  • Ten kinds of foulness which include the bloated, the livid, the festering, the cut-up, the gnawed, the scattered, the hacked and scattered, the bleeding, the worm-infested, and a skeleton.

  • Ten recollections which include Buddhanussati, the Dhamma, the Sangha, Virtue, generosity, the VIrtues of deities, death, the body, the breath, and peace.

  • Four divine abodes which include Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha.

  • Four immaterial states which include boundless space, boundless perception, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception.

  • One perception and one defining.

Contemporary Theravada Meditation

As Theravada Buddhism is followed by most of the South Asian countries, the Theravada meditation that they practices are also quite different from each country. The Theravada meditation can be categorized into following meditation method as according to the country of its development.

Burmese Theravada Meditation

In the present context in Burma, the New Burmese Method or Vipassana School approach to samatha which what developed in the 20th century was influential. This technique was developed by Mingun Sayadaw and U Narada. But the technique was popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw. In this meditational technique, samatha is considered as an optional which means the Vipassana meditation can be practiced without samatha.

Along with this Vipassana method, other meditation methods were also devised. One of them was derived from Ledi Sayadaw through Ba Khin and S.N. Goenka. The method that was developed by Pa Auk Sayadaw is more popular in the west which emphasis on the samatha explicit in the commentarial tradition of the Visuddhimagga.

There are also less known Theravada meditation methods and one of the examples of this one is the system developed by U Vimala. This meditation method focuses on knowledge of dependent origination and cittanupassana. Another one is the meditation method developed by Sayadaw U Tejaniya's method. This method also focuses on mindfulness of the mind.

Thai Theravada Meditation

In Thailand, Thai Forest Tradition is the most influential method which was developed by Mun Bhuridatta. This tradition was popularized by Ajahn Chah. The other forms of Thai Theravada Meditation include Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's presentation of anapanasati, Ajahn Lee's breath meditation, and Luangpor Teean Cittasubho's dynamic meditation. The Vijja dhammakaya meditation which was developed by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro is regarded as the less mainstream forms of Theravada Meditation.

Theravada Meditation in other countries

In countries like Cambodia and Laos, a less common type of meditation is practiced. This meditation is devised from Boran Kammatthana tradition which includes the use of mantras and visualizations.