By The Most Ven Dr M Vajiragnana

Introduction | Meditation is Awareness | Techniques | Insight Meditation | Text Satipatthana Sutta


The word “meditation” means many different things to many different people. The fact that it is used in so many religious and philosophical traditions does not mean that it is always used in the same sense. Some people approach this subject with all sorts of preconceived ideas about what sort of experiences they should expect. We shall look at the meditations recommended and practised by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. These practices do not demand adherence to the Buddhist religion.

Practising meditation is not a ritual or a ceremony to be performed. It is in no sense a ‘mystical’ state. Meditation is a straightforward practice designed to cultivate awareness of the present moment.

The intrinsic value of meditation is that, by making us more aware of ourselves, it can lead us to an appreciation of our individual place in life. We are able to face the vicissitudes of life quietly, calmly and wisely. In Buddhism there is one word which describes this precisely, it is Wisdom (Panna). Panna is not the same thing as intelligence - it is not accumulated ability. Wisdom is pure understanding in the present, reality in the here and now. Wisdom sees the truth as the truth, and the false as the false. It is wisdom that enables us to love all beings and has the power to alleviate suffering.

Meditation also helps us live as neurosis-free beings, free from fear and worry. In the modern world, this alone is enough justification for the regular practice of meditation, but it also brings the further benefits of a greater understanding of life, leading to purity of action, speech and thought, and a deep serenity born of seeing the world as it really is, not as we wish it to be.


The Buddha said, “There are two kind of disease. What are those two? Physical disease and mental dis­ease. There are people who enjoy freedom from physical disease for a year or two… even for a hundred years or more. But rare in this world are those who enjoy freedom from mental disease even for one moment, except those who are free from mental defilements”.

He referred many times to the benefits and blessings of meditation, teaching its physical and mental benefits as well as its spiritual value. When the Buddha spoke on the subject, he used the word Bhavana. The word ‘meditation’ is in fact not a good translation of the Pali word Bhavana, which means ‘mental culture’ or ‘development’. This means culture in the fullest sense of the term. It aims at cleansing the mind of impurities and disturbances, such as lustful desires, hatred, anger, jealousy, pride, arrogance, ill-will, indolence, sceptical doubts, worries and restlessness, whilst cultivating such qualities as love, compassion, kindness, concentration, awareness, determination, energy, discernment, confidence, joy, and tranquillity. The more we can fill our minds with positive qualities, the less room there will be for negative feelings to manifest themselves.

Hence, one reason we practise meditation is to train the mind to develop its pleasant qualities and reduce its unpleasant states. There is, however, a more important, more fundamental aim. This is to reach the Truth - wisdom or penetrative knowledge - which Buddhists call Enlightenment. Ordinarily, our minds are clouded by defilements, so we are unable to see things in their proper nature; it is like looking through a veil or a piece of tinted glass. We do not see reality, but we see things as we would like them to be. For example, because we like to perceive our bodies as objects of beauty, we spend much time and effort to decorate them with fine clothes, cosmetics, and perfume. All of these embellishments prevent us from seeing the real nature of the body, which in its true state is not so attractive. Buddhist meditation enables us to see things as they really are, shorn of our preconceived ideas, our projections, our likes and dis­likes. It leads eventually to the attainment of the highest wisdom. This does not mean that we have to give up conventional activities - we still have to live in society and we can still carry out our customary actions, such as caring for our bodies, but we are no longer attached to them and we see them for what they are.

Some people think that meditation is only for those people who have problems which need to be sorted out. This is, however, a serious misconception as it ignores the very positive contribution which meditation can make to the way in which we live our lives. It is a way to bring about peaceful living with a mind that is relaxed and able to understand things that are happening both within us and outside us. The practice of meditation helps prevent us from becoming upset when difficulties arise, and it develops beneficial qualities such as courage, energy and vision.

One element of the Buddhist path is called right effort. It has four parts. First, we should strive to prevent the arising of unwholesome mental states which have not yet arisen. Secondly, we should strive to eliminate unwholesome mental states which have already arisen. Thirdly, we should strive to arouse wholesome mental states which have not yet arisen; and fourthly we should strive to develop those wholesome mental states which have already arisen. By practising right effort in order to purify our minds of negative mental states, we can cope with whatever situations we have to face, be worry-free, and enjoy life as it comes.

Happiness and unhappiness lie within our own minds. They are not dependent on our external circumstances, but on how we react to these circumstances. Two people may have the same experience, but one will react by feeling happy, and the other by feeling unhappy. Meditation helps us to cultivate the happy responses and reduce the unhappy ones. It gives us the courage to withstand life’s inevitable difficulties without disturbing our peace of mind.

In addition to its mental benefits, the practice of meditation also improves physical health by inducing relaxation and sound sleep. It can also help to alleviate other physical problems, such as heart disease, duodenal and gastric ulcers and many more conditions related to stress, which are increasing rapidly in the developed countries of the world.

At the Harvard Medical School Dr. Herbert Benson found that meditators develop what he calls the “relaxation response” to difficult or dangerous situations. This is a much healthier response than the very common “fight or flight” reaction. He also observed that during meditaton the heart rate decreases on average by three beats a minute, and that the rate of breathing also decreases. The blood pressure of those who have high blood pressure is reduced during meditation. Dr.Benson found that all the traditional methods of meditation evoke this response. He also found that four basic elements are needed. They are a quiet environment, an object for the attention to dwell on, a comfortable posture and, above all a non-discriminatory attitude towards meditation. This is exactly what the Buddha taught two thousand five hundred years ago.

The requirements for meditation are time, patience and confidence - the time to practise without interruption at a convenient and conducive time of day (more about this later), the patience to be aware that the results of meditation may not be experienced or even be noticed for some time, and confidence in its efficacy. What is not demanded is any strict religious observance, rites, or rituals. Nor is it demanded that a middle-aged person all but break his legs assuming a sitting position he may not have used before - all these things are foreign to the spirit of Buddhism.

You can read about meditation in many books and you can hear about it from well-respected teachers, but you will not know meditation until you try it first-hand. You cannot know the taste of a mango until you eat one yourself. Taste is a personal matter which cannot be fully described by one individual to another. There is no substitute for direct, personal experience. So it is with meditation. Meditation is something that must be experienced. No matter how many learned books you may read about the subject, it is practice which counts.

For Buddhists, meditation is a central part of their lives. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the most important of the Buddha’s discourses on the subject, meditation is said to be, “a direct way for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path and for the attainment of Nibbana.” (In Sanskrit the word used is Nirvana). Meditation, as it is expounded in the original Pali texts, is based primarily upon the experience of the Buddha himself and the method adopted by him in the attainment of enlightenment.