Theravada meditation... what the heck is it? - Dhamma Wheel

Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Meditation, e.g. meditation postures, developing a regular sitting practice, skillfully relating to difficulties and hindrances, etc.
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Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby Kabouterke » Fri Jun 07, 2013 10:15 pm

Hey there.

In the past few weeks, I have been looking into Theravada in general, and Theravada meditation techniques in particular. I've taken a number of university classes on Buddhist culture and philosophy, so I am accutely aware of the differences between Theravada and the other branches of Buddhsim. However, I am so confused as to what Theravada meditation practices actually are. I have been doing Soto Zen shiktanaza meditation for a number of years, and can't figure out what the heck Theravada meditation is.

On other threads, I've noticed that many on this forum think that Zen shikantaza meditation is samatha practice due to lack of understanding of Zen practices and the etymology of the name "Zen." In shikantaza, you are firmly concentrated on the breath while remaining wide open open and alert to any thoughts, sense perceptions, feelings. You watch these phenomenon rise and pass while being firmly concentrated on the breath such as vipassana, but not exclusively on the breath as in Samatha. (This will inevitably cause someone to post that my description of shikantaza is not correct. Soto Zen is notorious for it's inability to accurately describe the process and its refusal to do so. However, I've tried to break it down so that other people can understand the differences). This is what I have been doing for years. So to then split this practice into two categories, and then to label/count/scan the body/whatever, it all leaves me confused as to what Theravada meditation actually is. And then you have some Theravada schools saying that there is no difference.

Could you help a currently Mahayana, possibly going-to-be Theravada brother out by answering the following questions:
1. What's the "labeling" practice that I keep seeing? Coming from shikantaza that emphasizes direct perception of dharmas without the mediation of language or conceptualization, this practice is really, really jarring for me. Is this something that is intially used as a "crutch" to get beginners started and later abandoned when their practice is strong enough, like counting the breath or is this the main practice? MUST it be used in the beginning?
2. Which method should I start with? I understand the differences between samatha and vipassana. I also understand that some Theravada schools say that they're inseparable... All of this contradictory advice is really confusing to somehow who isn't already acquainted with the practice(s). So, if someone wants to start Theravada meditation, what do you do? Is it common for beginners to just start with vipassana?
3. These directions by Bhikkhu Sona,, are they samatha, vipassana, or both?
4. The "in/out," "rising/falling," "body scanning," "labeling," "county the breath" practices... are the all interchangeable or are they separate practices? Are they the main practice or 'crutches' to get you started? Are these used with samatha or vipassana?



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Re: Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby reflection » Fri Jun 07, 2013 10:57 pm


It's tempting to try to jump in at the deep end, and to want to gather as much information you can to get it right at the first shot. But whatever answers you are going to get will mostly depend on people's personal experiences with - or personal convictions about certain teachings on meditation. You could try to find some advice that sounds most convincing to you, but honestly I think the best way is to see what works for you - be it a Mahayana or Theravada teachings. Whatever produces peaceful and wholesome states of mind, whatever reduces craving and aversion, that's what I consider good practice. Some practices may take you to a certain level, others may take you all the way, and some may take you nowhere. If you are clear and honest enough to recognize all of this, you can always determine which teachings are helpful for you and which ones are not. This will all be personal, at least till a certain point.

Keeping this in mind, I will however give you my views on your questions:
1) No it mustn't. Labeling is a technique prevalent in some schools (mainly Burmese), but it is not a mandatory thing that is present in every school. I rarely use it because I am convinced the answers we are looking for are to be found in a silent mind without thoughts. Labeling can be a tool to reach this silent state of mind, though.
2) I don't see vipassana and samatha as techniques but as results of practice. So from that point of view it's nonsensical to begin with either of them. I'd say begin with virtuous conduct by applying the precepts in your life as fully as possible. Then there are multiple practices you can do, but neither I would name 'vipassana' or 'samatha'. This naming of techniques into these two categories is a later invention that's not really useful to me.
3) Same here, I see vipassana and samatha as results of practice.
4) For me they are not interchangeable. A body scanning can be done silently, for example, meaning no thoughts. "In/out", "rising/falling" are more like mantras, other tools. And labeling and counting are more active tools.

With metta,

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Re: Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby cooran » Fri Jun 07, 2013 11:13 pm

Hello Kabouterke,

Many of us also came to Theravada via Mahayana/Vajrayana groups - and some still attend teachings/groups in both Traditions.

You may like to test and taste selections from Section 3 Meditation at the following link:

With metta
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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Re: Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby BlackBird » Sat Jun 08, 2013 1:00 am

Labelling or noting is just a tool for beginners to help bring their attention to what is actually happening. It's a tool to help generate mindfulness. Once you've got some experience you can just pay attention to the phenomena without labeling it.

In and out breathing, labeling, rise and fall, body scanning are all different practices.

Generally we seperate practices into two different realms - Those concerned with tranquility, and those concerned with insight. In and out breath - Anapanasati, is usually a tranquility (samatha) practice, but it can also be insight (vipassana). Noting/labeling is as discussed the beginning of an insight practice - vipassana, body scanning is another form of vipassana.

Bhikkhu Sona's instructions are Samatha.

I would recommend you start both a samatha practice, and a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness can also be done in every day life, it does not need to be restricted to the zafu (or whatever you sit on). Read a variety of instructions on meditation and pick one that feels right for you :)

Here's a list of resources that might help you in your quest: viewtopic.php?f=13&t=3012

with metta
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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Re: Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Jun 08, 2013 1:59 am

Hi Kabouterke,

Your questions span a large variety of approaches, and as reflection suggests, it's best to look deeply into an approach that works for you. There are a number of good resources here:
but in my opinion, good, live instruction trumps any of them, so I would encourage your quest to find a good monastery or group.


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Re: Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby Bakmoon » Sun Jun 09, 2013 6:40 am

The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what's skillful,
The cleansing of one's own mind:
This is the Buddhas' teaching.

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Re: Theravada meditation... what the heck is it?

Postby Kabouterke » Sun Jun 09, 2013 10:19 am

Thanks so much, everyone. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to help me put this all together! Really great answers. :tongue:

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