Even if you know nothing else about Buddhism you probably associate Buddhism with meditation. Dhyana Paramita, the sixth of the Mahayana Six Perfections, is the perfection of meditation.
The Sanskrit word dhyana, or jhana in Pali, means "concentration" and is nearly synonymous with samadhi. Another Sanskrit word for "meditation," bhavana, is more literally translated "mental culture." This underscores the understanding of meditation as a means of training the mind to realize enlightenment. Dhyana also is associated with the Right Concentration aspect of the Eightfold Path.
The Role of Meditation in Buddhism
In the West, Buddhist meditation is more popular than Buddhism itself. It has been adopted as a means to relieve stress and treat behavioral disorders. Scientific study of the effects of Buddhism on the brain are underway, and this may lead to other therapeutic uses of meditation in the future.
In the Six Paramitas, dhyana paramita comes before prajna paramita -- the perfection of wisdom. And wisdom, the late Robert Aitken Roshi wrote, is "the raison d'être of the Buddha way." The order of the paramitas is not random; in many schools of Buddhism, wisdom is thought to emerge from meditation.
Through dhyana, the practitioner quiets and clears the mind to enable the realization of enlightenment. For many this is a gradual process. Although one may experience bliss, one may experience many other things as well -- frustration, sleepiness, boredom, pain, contentment. That doesn't mean you are doing it wrong; that's just the way it is.
With all the focus on meditation one sees in the West, however, it might surprise you to learn that lay Buddhist practice in many parts of Asia is mostly about keeping the Precepts and supporting the monastic sangha, but not meditation. And in some schools of Buddhism, notably Pure Land and Nichiren, silent meditation has largely been replaced by a focused chanting practice.
Forms of Meditation in Buddhism
The schools of Buddhism that teach meditation do not all teach it in precisely the same way. But broadly speaking, Buddhist meditation takes two forms -- samatha and vipassana.
Samatha means "peaceful abiding" or "tranquility." Samatha practices develop concentration to the point of samadhi -- single pointedness of mind. In many schools of Buddhism, wisdom is said to be grounded in samadhi.
Samatha practice usually begins with a focus on the breath called anapana-smrti or anapanasati. As thoughts arise, they are observed and released. In time, the mind becomes quieter, no longer yanked around by desires and passions. (See also "Buddhism and Equanimity.")
Vipassana means "insight." There is more than one approach to insight meditation, but very generally the practitioner is directed to contemplate a particular teaching, thought or perspective to alter his basic mental orientation.
For example,the meditator might be directed to contemplate a saying such as "All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself." In time, thinking of the welfare of others becomes second nature.
You can find many books, web sites, and videos that teach some kind of basic samatha meditation. But for advanced meditation it is best to work with a teacher who will direct your practice to best suit your particular spiritual barriers.
Meditation and Mindfulness
"Mindfulness mediation" is in vogue at the moment, so let's look for a minute at the difference between mindfulness and dhyana. Mindfulness in Sanskrit is smrti (in Pali, sati), which can also mean "retention," "recollection," or "alertness." Mindfulness is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment.
Dhyana, like samadhi, is more about concentration on one thing -- a teaching, an image, a koan, breath. Beginner samatha meditation is mindfulness of the breath, but as samadhi develops the practitioner is able to enter a state of deep absorption in which awareness of self disappears.
Read more: "Right Mindfulness: A Foundation of Buddhist Practice."
Meditation and Life
A daily meditation practice can impact your life in countless ways. The experienced meditator responds more skillfully to life's difficulties as well as its joys. It helps us break free of destructive habits and overcome obstacles. In time, many of our fears and confusion fall away.
Zen teachers sometimes say that meditation is a way to find our long-lost home. "It doesn't take much time to find that home," Robert Aitken Roshi wrote in The Practice of Perfection. "In fact, if you lower your eyes and breath quietly in and out, your distractions disappear and your long-lost home is right here."