The Four Pleasures of Nan Shenglu (detail)


What significance does meditation have in the everyday life of a Buddhist? And what does meditation actually mean?

The boundary between meditation and ritual is often difficult to draw. Meditative practices tend to vary greatly, depending on which school of Buddhism we are talking about.

Early Buddhist texts refer to meditation as a means of gaining control over the senses. Its aim is to prepare followers to recognize true reality, unclouded by false assumptions. 

For a long time, the exercises were performed only by monks and nuns.

Meditation did not become a common practice for laypeople until the 20th century. Today meditation is practised in order to change one’s approach to life, attain a better quality of life, or boost one’s sense of well-being. These are very recent goals and point to a new way of understanding this old religious practice. 

In this story you can explore what meditation means in the various Buddhist traditions.

Buddha Shakyamuni

What is Meditation?

In everyday terms, to meditate means to think deeply about something. In religious terms, meditation describes contemplative, at times even mystical immersion.

From the beginning, meditation in its different forms has been an important vehicle on the Buddhist path to acknowledging true reality – namely that life means suffering, that all things are transient, and that a permanent “I” or Self is an illusion. By accepting these truths, a believer achieves awakening.

Buddha Shakyamuni

For many years, Buddha Shakyamuni practised different meditative techniques under the guidance of two yogi instructors. It is said that meditation was the means by which he attained awakening and gained insight into true reality. He formulated this understanding as the Four Noble Truths.

The aim of meditation practice is to train and discipline the mind in order to attain clarity and awareness, in the hope of ultimately attaining supreme knowledge.

Buddha Shakyamuni

The practice of mindfulness, the recitation of sacred texts, and the visualization of specific buddhas and deities have always been key aspects of Buddhist meditation. 

Discover some characteristic forms of Buddhist meditation practice in the next slides.

Bell in the Myoshin-ji temple complex, Kyoto, Japan

Meditation in Zen Buddhism

Meditation is fundamental to the practice of Zen Buddhism. In fact, the word zen in Japanese means "meditation". In China, the tradition is called Chan Buddhism.

Sometimes practitioners sit for hours facing a wall. This form is called zazen – seated meditation.

Zen Buddhism practice other forms of meditation as well, such as reciting holy scriptures, walking meditation, and studying sacred texts.


In the Zen tradition, awakening can only be attained with the help of a teacher. When the teacher considers that the moment is right, he challenges the pupil’s mind, often by posing an unusual riddle.

These riddles, called "koan", pose an insoluble challenge to the intellect. They are meant to liberate the pupil from seeking insight through rational thought.

A typical koan goes as follows:

Someone asked: What is the ultimate teaching?

Yunman replied: No questions, no answers.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan

Zazen heute

In Europe, the United States, and Australia, meditation constitutes the core of Zen Buddhist practice.

However, in Zen temples in Japan, the focus is not exclusively on meditation. The performance of rituals is equally important. In addition, temples also serve as places where the community can come together.

Machig Labdrön

Meditation in Vajrayana Buddhism

In the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, many meditative practices centre on buddhas, bodhisattvas, and various deities. Practitioners are introduced to these by their personal teacher before they are able to meditate independently.

The recitation or chanting of mantras – sacred sounds – is a key element of Tibetan Buddhism. This, too, is considered a form of meditation.

Machig Labdrön

Most commonly, these practitioners perform a kind of ritualized meditation in which they spiritually invite a deity to reveal itself. This is done with the aid of visualization techniques and by mentally building up an image of the deity through deep concentration.

The aim is to become one with the deity, so to speak, until one recognizes the deity's nature and qualities in oneself.

To support their efforts, practitioners often chant mantras.

Buddha Shakyamuni Sheltered by the Serpent-King

The Practice of Mindfulness

In Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced, there were several reform movements from the 19th century onward that opened up the practice of meditation to all Buddhists, not just monks and nuns.

In particular, different forms of mindfulness meditation became popular.

What today is known across the globe as the practice of mindfulness – or Vipassana – traces back to these reform movements.

Global Vipassana Pagoda, Mumbai, India

The Practice of Mindfulness Today

In the practice of mindfulness, the focus is on being intensely aware of what one is sensing or feeling in the moment. It thus involves examining one's modes of thought and perception.

These days, Vipassana is practised not only by followers of Buddhism. The practice of awareness and concentration is embraced by people of all religious backgrounds – including atheists and agnostics.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–)

One of the leading global advocates of mindfulness practice is the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Nowadays, mindfulness practice is no longer automatically associated with the Buddhist teachings.

Mindfulness is also used therapeutically to reduce stress, for example in schools and businesses, even in prisons.

Basho said to his pupils: If you have a cane, I will give it to you. If you don’t have a cane, I’ll take it from you.