The Role of Meditation in Buddha's Teaching

Meditation, a generic name used to denote a variety of practices from different spiritual or religious traditions, is extremely popular today in France and the West. Spontaneously associated with Buddhism in the Western imagination, it is the subject of many misconceptions, both about its purposes and its practical modalities. It would thus allow one to "remain" or "become zen"1, for some, it would be a way to escape from the material world, it would consist of sitting and "thinking about nothing", or "emptying one's mind", etc.  

Without claiming to address the subject exhaustively, we will try here to return to some fundamental texts of the Buddhist tradition and more particularly to the Satipatthana Sutta, the Sutra of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, to define the place of meditation in Buddhist doctrine and examine the meditation techniques described by Buddha Shakyamuni in the Satipatthana Sutta, to reach Nirvana, the liberation from a conditioned mode of existence.  

The Place of Meditation in Buddhist Doctrine 

In Pali language, meditation is designated by the term "bhavana", which comes from Sanskrit, and whose root bhav, derived from agricultural vocabulary initially means "to cultivate" or "take care of"2. By extension, bhav is more generally translated by the terms "state" or "become". Bhavana, in Buddhism, thus indicates the practice of a mental discipline, a mental cultivation, which aims to rid the mind of what troubles it and to cultivate a certain number of qualities, in order to lead to an understanding of reality as it is3

Holding a central place in the Western imagination when Buddhism is evoked, it would seem however that meditation has been somewhat neglected by some streams of Buddhism. Walpola Rahula, a Sri Lankan monk and prolific author, will thus say that meditation, from the 18th century, seems to have been "reduced to a technical ritual consisting of reciting formulas and burning candles"4

Yet, by immersing ourselves in the Buddhist canons, i.e., the discourses of the Buddha as they have been reported, in which he shares his experience and the path that he believes leads to the cessation of suffering, it is clear that meditation holds a major place in the practices to follow to achieve enlightenment, although it is not the only one. 

Indeed, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddhist Way shared by the Buddha to reach liberation, during his first sermon at Sarnath where he exposes the Four Noble Truths, indicates the eight aspects to follow simultaneously to cultivate the three essential elements of the Buddhist discipline which are: ethical conduct (Sila); mental discipline (Samadhi); wisdom (Panna).

These three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path are interdependent and cannot be practiced without each other. Indeed, ethics on the one hand allows to find the tranquility necessary for meditative practice and on the other hand protects from the temptation to appropriate the benefits or "powers" that result from the practice of meditation. Meditative practice seeks to develop a correct and direct understanding of phenomena.  

Mental discipline, the training of the mind, is thus one of the three pillars of the Buddhist Way, and itself breaks down into three factors: Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma), Right Mindfulness (sammā-sati) and Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi). 

How is mental discipline a path towards the cessation of suffering?

In Buddhism, two forms of meditation are distinguished. The first is called in Pali samatha, concentration, and it contributes to unifying the field of the mind and overcoming distraction. According to the Buddha, this meditation would not allow access to Truth, to Nirvana, but would be a means to promote concentration and is a prerequisite for vipassana meditation5.

The Buddha also warns against a misguided practice of concentration, which would lead to fleeing the complexities of existence and suffering, instead of facing them6.

The second is therefore the famous vipassana meditation, an analytical method based on attention and observation. This practice consists of looking deeply at the world in order to perceive the essence of things. It allows to develop a penetrating vision and thus to come out of ignorance, avidya, and to access the realization of Nirvana7

The sutra that deals in detail with the four forms of meditation or mental training is the Satipatthana Sutta, on which we propose to briefly focus. You can find it here (in french) if you wish to read it before continuing the article!

The Four Establishments of Attention 

In the Satipatthana Sutta, Buddha focuses on detailing the Vipassana meditation technique. This discourse is found in the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan canons, and it is one of the most commented and recited texts of the Buddhist tradition.  

The term Satipatthana is composed of the term sati, which means "attention", "consciousness", and the term upatthana, translated as "place of dwelling", "establishment" or "application". It is thus about establishing oneself in attention, in consciousness, in the four proposed methods of meditation. 

The sutra is divided into six sections. The first one indicates the circumstances in which the speech was given, faithful to Buddha's request to always contextualize his speeches, and indicates the importance of the teaching to follow, since Buddha states that it is the only path that allows "the purification of beings, the conquest of pains and sorrows, to the destruction of physical and moral sufferings, to the acquisition of the right conduct, to the realization of Nibbana".

The second part is interested in the method of attention to the body and invites to realize its impermanence.

The third describes the method of attention to our sensations, and invites to notice the impermanent nature of sensations, and their conditioned nature by identifying their root.

The fourth describes the method of attention to our mind and it invites to realize the changing nature of the mind.

The fifth is interested in the method of attention to the objects of the mind, which are of five kinds but we will not detail them here, and invites the practitioner to examine the moral, philosophical, and intellectual subjects proper to Buddhist doctrine.

Finally, the last part indicates both the patience and determination necessary in practice and at the same time assures the monks of the results and effectiveness of the technique to achieve liberation in this very life. 

Bas relief au parc des Gazelles à Sarnath, là où le Bouddha a fait son premier sermon (c) Zineb Fahsi

This sutra thus shows that Vipassana meditation, in Buddhist thought, aims to cultivate the analytical observation of the body, sensations, the mind, and mind formations and to deconstruct them, in order to develop a right understanding of phenomena. 

The exercises proposed by Buddha propose to realize directly, through observation, the three fundamentals of existence according to Buddhism :

  • non-self (anatta), or interdependence : nothing exists independently, by itself. There is no independent "Self", the "Self" only exists in relation to. This is a fundamental difference with Hinduism, in which there is an eternal and immutable "Self" (Purusha or Atman)
  • impermanence (annica) : everything is by nature always changing, nothing is fixed.
  • suffering (dukkha) : : everything being impermanent, it is impossible to find ultimate and definitive satisfaction in this world: suffering is inherent, intrinsic to the human condition (#feelgood)

Through the practice of meditation, Buddha presents a path that invites to make the embodied and personal experience of Wisdom, beyond simple intellectual understanding, although this is also necessary.

It aims to free the practitioner from the illusion about the nature of things and phenomena and allows him to see reality as it is. As suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh, "this sutra also teaches us to resist all dogmatic attitudes"8, because through the practice of attention and observation, it invites to make the direct experience of Buddhist doctrine, rather than blindly accepting it. Here we find the primacy of experience and personal path that characterizes Buddhism. 

Meditation, towards a correct view of the nature of the world

The method of the four establishments of attention involves observing in depth, in the attitude of "not greedily desiring nor feeling aversion". Attention does not cling, does not repel, does not reprimand, does not suppress, so that the true nature of dharma can reveal itself in the light of attentive observation..

Thich Nhat Hahn

Thus, far from clichés that make meditation a practice detached from the world or the only practice of Buddhism, meditation is practiced in connection with the other two aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path, which are Ethics and Wisdom. Also, it does not consist of "emptying" one's head but rather of observing with acuity the nature of physical and mental phenomena in order to acquire a correct vision of them. It does not aim to develop inner calm, even if it allows it, but to access the liberation of a conditioned mode of existence. 

Finally, this sutra also emblematically reminds us of the nature of Buddha's teaching, which does not share a dogma or a revealed doctrine, but rather his own experience and the path that led him to the cessation of suffering. Thus, in conjunction with the study of Buddhist texts, which allow for the development of an intellectual understanding of things, it reminds us that it is essential, if one wishes to follow this path, to develop an embodied and personal discipline, both ethical and meditative. 


1Cornu, Philippe, Bouddhisme et pleine conscience, Les enjeux de la spiritualité de demain, S.E.R. | « Études » 2016/9, p.68 

2Cornu, Philippe, Bouddhisme et pleine conscience, Les enjeux de la spiritualité de demain, S.E.R. | « Études » 2016/9, p.72 

3Rahula, Walpola, L’Enseignement du Bouddha d’après les textes les plus anciens, Editions du Seuil, p.95

4Ibid, p.94 

5Cornu, Philippe, Bouddhisme et pleine conscience, Les enjeux de la spiritualité de demain, S.E.R. | « Études » 2016/9, p.72 

6Hanh, Thich Nhat. Transformation et guérison : Le Sutra des Quatre Établissements de l’attention (French  Edition), Albin Michel.

7Rahula, Walpola, L’Enseignement du Bouddha d’après les textes les plus anciens, Editions du Seuil, p.96

8Hanh, Thich Nhat, Transformation et guérison : Le Sutra des Quatre Établissements de l’attention (French  Edition) . Albin Michel

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