What is Buddhist Meditation?

It seems like everyone is talking about meditation these days. Scientists are studying it. Celebrities are trying it. Even the U.S. military is experimenting with it.

But what is meditation? More specifically, what is Buddhist meditation? This short post should help clear things up.

Meditation in the Kadampa Buddhist Tradition

There are many different schools of Buddhism. There are the two big schools — Mahayana Buddhism and Theravadin Buddhism — and then there are many other schools within these two. For the most part, these different schools of Buddhism coexist in harmony and peace, respecting each others’ various practices and traditions. Understanding this, when we talk about “Buddhist meditation,” the first thing that you should know is that there’s not just one type of Buddhist meditation but many.

For this post, we’re going to focus on what meditation is from the point of view of Kadampa Buddhism, which is one of the many beautiful lineages of the Mahayana.

Let’s start with the definition of meditation, taken from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books:

Meditation is a mind that focuses on a virtuous object, and a mental action that is the main cause of mental peace.

What is a Virtuous Object?learning how to meditate

Here, “object” means what the mind is focused upon. When we meditate, we try to focus or concentrate on something virtuous, positive, peaceful, or meaningful. Examples of virtuous objects include love, compassion, wisdom, a determination to abandon negative actions, an intention to cherish and respect others, etc.

In Kadampa Buddhism, we use special ways of thinking to generate the object in our mind, then we hold our mind to a thought, feeling, or determination with single-pointed concentration. For example, if we are going to meditate on compassion, we would begin by generating a feeling of love for others, then contemplate their suffering. When a special feeling of compassion — the wish to help others relieve their suffering — arises in our hearts, we stop thinking and immerse our mind in that experience of compassion for as long as we can.

Why Does Meditation Cause Mental Peace?

Peaceful states of mind depend upon peaceful, positive thoughts. Because meditation focuses our mind upon a virtuous, peaceful object, meditation helps us to develop and maintain mental peace.

What About Meditation on the Breath?

You might be thinking, “But the breath isn’t a ‘virtuous object’ per se; does that mean meditation on the breath isn’t ‘real’ meditation?”

Meditation on the breath is definitely an important meditation technique, and it is one that has been taught for generations in many different traditions of meditation, including within Kadampa Buddhism. However, the breath itself is not a virtuous object but a neutral one. In Kadampa Buddhism, we use meditation on the breath to temporarily pacify distractions and abandon inappropriate attention on negative thoughts and feelings.

Many Kadampa Buddhist meditators use meditation on the breath as a preliminary practice. Using the example of meditating on compassion mentioned above, a Kadampa practitioner might meditate on the breath for five or ten minutes to pacify and relax the mind, and then proceed to meditation on compassion.

How to Understand the MindWhat is Lamrim Meditation?

The bedrock of the Kadampa Buddhist meditation tradition is the sequence of meditations known as Lamrim in Tibetan, or “stages of the path to enlightenment” in English. This cycle of meditations is like a “Cliff Notes” for all of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings, and was created by the great Indian Buddhist master, Atisha, in the 9th century AD.

Modern presentations of the Lamrim sequence of meditations are given by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Modern BuddhismHow to Understand the Mind, the New Meditation Handbook, and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

“Formal” Versus “Informal” Meditation

When Lamrim meditators finish their “formal” meditation — that is, the traditional quiet time of sitting and meditating — they immediately begin their “informal” meditation. “Informal” meditation means putting the meditation into practice in daily life. For instance, if the practitioner meditated on compassion, he or she would try to continue to remember compassion all day long — at work, with the family, with friends, with strangers, etc. Because meditation is a mental action, not a physical action, we gradually realize we can be “meditating” all the time.

More Questions? Come to Class!

We’ve outlined the basic practices of Kadampa Buddhist meditation in the article above, but reading about meditation isn’t nearly as fun as experiencing it. If you’re interested in learning more about formal meditation, informal meditation, and Lamrim, we suggest you check out SMC’s classes in New Bedford, Boston or Portland. Once you’re at the Center, you’ll meet experienced meditators who can answer all your questions about meditation in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

A Guided Meditation for Beginners


Meditation is a powerful way to reduce stress and increase our peace of mind. However, sometimes it is helpful to have an experienced teacher guide us in this process if we are new to meditating. So sit back and enjoy this guided meditation by American Buddhist monk and US National Spiritual Director of the New Kadampa Tradition, Gen Kelsang Jampa.