Types of Meditation and Buddhist Traditions

by Charles Day

An email from a meditator asked me to elaborate on what I mean when I say my primary orientation is Vipassana and Theravada Buddhism. Vipassana refers to the type of meditation I practice (insight vs tranquility meditation) and Theravada refers to the specific tradition within Buddhism that I favor (Theravada vs Mahayana traditions). Vipassana means insight and does not refer to a branch or tradition but rather to what is emphasized as the focus and purpose of meditation, i.e., insight into the nature of reality as unsatisfactory, impermanent, and selfless. Tranquility or samatha meditation emphasizes relaxation, concentration, and onepointedness. Both are practiced in all traditions, and the benefits of both can be attained using the same method. They are complementary, and typically insight follows tranquility, though most people meditate primarily for the relaxation benefits.

There are several ways of categorizing the various traditions within Buddhism. The earliest tradition, still predominate in Southeast Asia today, is the Theravada or, as it is also called, the Hinayana (lesser vehicle) Tradition. Calling it the “lesser vehicle” was a reference to its emphasis on attaining enlightenment by the individual through monastic practices, whereas the later Mahayana (greater vehicle) traditions emphasized the importance of enlightening all beings. The Theravada tradition also emphasizes Buddha's original teachings.

Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhism developed from its earlier beginnings into the Chan or Zen (as it is called in Japan) tradition when Bodhidharma went from India to China in the sixth century. And it later developed into the Vajrayana or Tibetan tradition when Padmasambhava took the teachings to Tibet in the eighth century. There are other Mahayana traditions, including the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, but Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are presently the ones Westerners are most familiar with. As indicated, Mahayana Buddhism is called the greater vehicle because it shifted the emphasis from enlightenment of the individual to the enlightenment of everyone, as reflected in its Bodhisattva Vow to save or enlighten all other beings before one attains one's own full enlightenment. The Tibetan, Zen, and other Mahayana traditions also respect the lineage and teachings of all of the recognized enlightened masters in their traditions who came after Buddha.

I've presented only one of several ways of categorizing different traditions within Buddhism. Having done retreats with teachers from various traditions, I've observed that many Western teachers, while identifying with a particular tradition, study other traditions and borrow from them in their teachings, though the language and concepts they use and the way ideas are framed reflect the emphases of their own specific tradition. Historically, the different traditions developed as a reflection of the Buddhist teachings and the culture in which they were introduced. It is only in the last few decades that all forms of Buddhism have spread to all parts of the world and are now readily available to everyone, allowing individuals to be eclectic, as I consider myself, or to choose to specialize exclusively in the specific tradition whose rites, rituals, and practices they resonate best with. It should be remembered, however, as is often pointed out by the mystics of all spiritual traditions, that all paths lead to the same goal, to the same mountaintop.