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date: 03 December 2022

Buddhist Meditation and Contemplation: An Introductionlocked

Buddhist Meditation and Contemplation: An Introductionlocked

  • Sarah ShawSarah ShawUniversity of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies


Perhaps the most significant contribution of Buddhism to the international stage in recent years has been the promotion and cultural acceptance of meditation. Historically central to many Buddhist traditions and once considered an activity for a dedicated few, meditation has become mainstream. Within Buddhism itself, it has now become more widely acknowledged as a lay as well as a monastic practice. Meditation has been reinstated in religious orthopraxy in many spiritual traditions, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, where its practice had previously fallen into abeyance. Meditation is now also normalized and often recommended in secular and clinical contexts: the modern mindfulness movements and various psychologically related disciplines, by adopting various forms of meditative practice as highly effective therapeutic techniques, have made meditations, often derived from Buddhist practice, internationally acceptable. It would be fair to say that the figure of the Buddha seated in deep calm has become an internationally recognized image for the tranquility and alertness thought possible for the human mind.

But what exactly is meditation? The term applies to a range of activities that go beyond, but include, the simple seated activity suggested by images of the Buddha. Walking, sitting, and eating may include exercises regarded as central elements in meditative practice. Buddhist traditions throughout all regions have often been richly varied in their attitude to the praxis and the theory of the eightfold path; all path factors are considered interrelated. The isolation of any one activity from others that may support and enhance it does not present an authentic, or what would be regarded as an effective, picture of what is known as bhāvanā, literally “making to become,” the cultivation of the eightfold path and, specifically, meditation itself. The term bhāvanā is certainly applied to seated meditation. But it also includes exercises in other postures, devotional practices, offerings, prostrations, listening to teaching, debate about the teaching, and chanting. Some of these, in some traditions, assume a central role whereby they become the core meditation practice.

Meditations and other activities are often considered interdependent: from early times, the absorption and investigation of theory, sitting meditation, walking practice, chanting, and rituals aimed at stilling and clearing the mind were designed to support and complement one another. Meditation and its associated exercises are often selected and taught with careful consideration of individual needs. Many require continued guidance by more experienced practitioners: mixes of practices are often suggested to individuals according to their temperament and stage of practice. Forms of Buddhism are quite distinct; but practices are usually seen as graduated, requiring patient training before the next stage of teaching is reached, and mutually supportive. Historically, Buddhism has also often tended to adapt in a creative and flexible manner according to local customs, variations, and belief systems. These features can be seen in the great diversity of Buddhist meditative practice.


  • Buddhism

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