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.

Real Anger Management

Anger Destroys Our Peace

Anger is by nature a painful state of mind. Whenever we are angry, our peace of mind immediately disappears and even our body becomes tense and uncomfortable. We are so restless that we find it nearly impossible to sleep, and whenever we are able to sleep it is fitful and unrefreshing. It is impossible to enjoy ourself when we are angry, and even the food we normally find delicious seems unappetizing. Anger transforms even a normally good-looking person into an ugly red-faced monster. We grow more and more unhappy, and, no matter how hard we try, we cannot control our emotions.

Patient Acceptance

Since it is impossible to satisfy all our desires or to prevent undesirable situations from arising, we need to find another way of relating to frustrated desires and unwanted occurrences. We need to become familiar with patient acceptance.

Patience is a mind that is able to accept, fully and happily, whatever occurs. It is much more than just gritting our teeth and hanging in there. Being patient means to welcome wholeheartedly whatever arises, having given up the idea that things should be other than what they are. It is always possible to be patient; there are no circumstances so difficult that they cannot be accepted patiently, with an open, accommodating, and peaceful heart.

When patience is present in our mind it is impossible for disturbing thoughts to gather strength. There are many examples of people who have managed to practice patient acceptance even in the most difficult situations, such as under torture or in the final ravages of cancer. Although their body was damaged beyond repair, deep down their mind remained calm. By learning to accept the small difficulties and hardships that arise every day in the course of our lives, gradually our capacity for patience will grow and we shall come to know for ourself the deep happiness and freedom that true patience brings.

Anger Management

If there is a way to improve an unpleasant, difficult situation, what point is there in being unhappy? On the other hand, if it is completely impossible to improve the situation or to fulfill our wishes, there is also no reason to get upset, for how will our becoming unhappy help? This line of reasoning is very useful, for we can apply it to any situation.

Patient acceptance does not necessarily mean that we do not take practical steps to improve our situation. If it is possible to improve the situation, then of course we should; but to do this we do not need to become unhappy and impatient. For example, when we have a headache there is no contradiction between practicing patience and taking a pain killer, but until the pain killer takes effect we need to accept whatever pain we feel with a peaceful and relaxed mind. If instead of accepting our present discomfort we become unhappy and fight against it, we shall just become tense, and as a result it will take longer to get rid of our headache. Until we achieve permanent inner peace, or nirvana, we cannot avoid unpleasant, frustrating situations and a certain amount of physical pain, but by training our mind to look at difficult situations in a more realistic manner, we can free ourself from a lot of unnecessary mental pain.

Instead of reacting blindly under the control of ingrained habit, we should examine whether it is helpful or realistic to become unhappy at such times. We do not need to become unhappy just because things do not go our way. Although until now this has been our normal reaction to difficulties, once we acknowledge that it does not work we are free to respond in a more positive and realistic manner.

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