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Early Buddhist Meditation

By Devik Balami at
Early Buddhist Meditation

Introduction to Buddhist meditation

Buddhist meditation refers to the meditative practices as according to the Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. As the teaching of Buddha was preserved in Pali Canon and other Buddhist canons, the core meditation techniques are also preserved in the ancient Buddhist canon. Due to increase in popularity, these techniques have been proliferated and diversified when it is transmitted from teacher to student. It is seen that even the non-Buddhists have been practicing these techniques for the variety of reasons. Generally to develop mindfulness, concentration, supramundane powers, tranquility, and insights.

Buddhist Meditation according to early traditions

The earliest tradition of Buddhist practice is still preserved in the collection of early Buddhist text called agamas which are followed by the people of Theravada lineage. Apart from Theravada school of Buddhism, the early tradition of Buddhist meditation was also followed by other early Buddhist schools which are now extinct. It has been found that the early Buddhist practice has been incorporated to greater and lesser degrees into the Tibetan Buddhism and the East Asian Mahayana Buddhism.

Types of meditation

As mentioned in the Pali Canon and the Agamas, early Buddhist meditation can be considered as a part of the Noble Eight Path and are categorized into three meditative practices:

Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati): this practice is exemplified by the Buddha's Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi): this practice is culminating in Jhanic absorptions through the meditative development of samatha.

Right View (Samma Ditthi): this practice embodies wisdom traditionally attained through the meditative development of vipassana founded on samatha.

Four foundations of mindfulness

As mentioned in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha identifies four foundations for mindfulness. These foundations are the body, the feelings, the mental states, and the mental objects. He further mentioned the basis of the foundation for the development of mindfulness.

The basis of the foundation, the body is Breathing, Postures, Clear Comprehending, Reflections on Repulsiveness of the Body, Reflections on material elements, and Cemetery Contemplations.

The basis of the foundation, feelings are whether the practitioner is feeling pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

The basis of the foundation, Mental Contents are hindrances, aggregates, sense-bases, factors of enlightenment, and the Four Noble Truths.

When the practitioner practices mindfulness on the basis of these foundations, the practitioner develops insight.

Serenity and insight

It is believed that the Buddha himself has identified two mental qualities which are developed from the continuous meditative practice. They are serenity and insight. Serenity or sometimes referred to as tranquility steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind while insight enables one to see, explore and discern "formations".

It is believed that through the meditative development of the serenity, the practitioner can able to suppress obscuring hindrances. Along with suppression of hindrances, the meditative development of insight helps to generate wisdom and finally leads to nirvana.

As mentioned in Arahantship Sutta, Ven. Ananda explains that people attain arahantship using serenity and insight in one of the following three ways:

  1. They develop serenity and then insight. In Pali, it is known as samatha-pubbangamam vipassana.

  2. They develop insight and then serenity. In Pali, it is known as vipassana-pubbangamam Samatha.

  3. They develop serenity and insight side by side. In Pali, it is known as samatha-vipassanam yuganaddham.

Even the Buddha never mention samatha and vipassana meditation practices as an independent. Instead, he explains in Pali canon that samatha and vipassana are two qualities of mind that are developed through practices. But there are some meditation practices that favor the development of samatha while others favor the development of vipassana. There are also meditation practices that favor both mental qualities.