Similar to the Theravadan approaches, Mahayana meditation includes contemplation on Buddhist teachings as well as experiential awareness. The latter is particularly prevalent in East Asian traditions such as Zen. But in addition and in particular the Mahayana practitioner contemplates the two truths doctrine: the nature of conventional truth and absolute truth. Through the cultivation of this awareness, one realizes that both self and external phenomena lack an inherent existence and have the nature of emptiness. This is determined by the inferential path of reasoning and direct observation through meditation. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Mahayana meditation also widely uses chants and emphasizes meditation upon visualizations, such as an image of Prajnaparamita, a female deity form, as a way to contemplate Buddhist teachings. Each component of the visualization evokes a particular teaching and the practitioner then contemplates using a visual symbolic representation. Ancient Indian Mahayana Buddhism, it appears, employed both deductive investigation (applying premises to experience) and inductive investigation (drawing conclusions from direct experience) in the practice of meditation. +

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Mahayana Buddhism developed a wide variety of instructional techniques intended to reach people at all walks of life. Indeed, with its many parables, symbols, diagrams, esoteric rites, meditation aids and so forth, Mahayana Buddhism may have been the most pedagogically sophisticated form of religion in the world. It was also highly flexible and adaptable and spread rapidly throughout Central and East Asia. The core doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is Skillful Means.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Professor Paul Halsall wrote: “Mahayana Buddhism developed in many ways. It comprised a series of extremely complex philosophical systems and a huge variety of emotionally compelling ritual activities, all manifest in a number of different sects and schools.One core teaching is that of "sunyata" or emptiness. This may not seem a very interesting or compelling idea to modern western observers, although there is in fact within Greek philosophy, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism a similar exhaltation of nothingness. The idea of sunyata was not merely philosophical, though. It has liturgical uses. One core teaching is that of "sunyata" or emptiness. This may not seem a very interesting or compelling idea to modern western observers, although there is in fact within Greek philosophy, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism a similar exhaltation of nothingness. The idea of sunyata was not merely philosophical, though. It has liturgical uses.”

Mahayana Buddhism Websites: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ;
; Zen Buddhism ; The Zen Site ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ; Seon Zen Buddhism ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis

Zen Meditation

zazen; Zen meditation

Zen stresses meditation and disciplined aesthetics expressed through traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, landscape gardening, archery, flower arranging or doing things like playing a shakuhachi flute with a basket over one's head. The calm orderly nature of these activities is supposed to free the mind and induce an inner sense of calm.

On his experience learning how to meditate at Eiheji Temple in Fukui Prefecture, Kenicho Okumura wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “I sat on a tatami straw mat with legs folded tightly beneath me. I was told to meditate for 20 to 30 minutes, and for all of that time I was supposed to clear my mind of all thoughts other than the fact I was sitting...This proved difficult. Many things popped into my head, from family members to the almost intolerable pain in my legs. An observing priest must have detected my lack of concentration as at one stage he delivered a sharp reprimand by whacking me on the right shoulder with a paddle."

The concept of clearing one's mind was articulated by Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) as shikantaza. Meditating monks are taught to cast their eyes downward, assume the lotus position, keep their backs straight, breath rhythmically, block sensation and attempt to clear their mind in such a way that enlightenment is allowed to grow out of the state of nothingness. If novice monks droop their head or fall asleep while mediating their instructor whacks them on the shoulder with a stick, telling them to "concentrate."

Zen Aesthetics, Everyday Life and Meditation

One of the goals Zen is to employ meditation concepts and methods to everyday life and art. Zen emphasizes intuitive insight and living for the "here and now." The idea of Zen is not to do something deliberately or with intent, but rather to remove yourself from what you are doing at let "higher forces" guide you. Zen looks down on the use of logic, intellect, idolatry and sacred texts and stresses self-reliance and meditation and emphasizes concrete thought over metaphysical speculation.

The aim of Zen Buddhism is to purify the soul and achieve salvation through inner enlightenment, something that happens for brief instant after 15 or 20 years of meditation. To reach the state of enlightenment, an individuals must unite his or her body and mind with the forces that drive nature. On the journey to enlightenment, Zen Buddhists believe, each level of achievement is just as important as the final state of divinity reached at the end. Zen emphasizes teachings transmitted from master to disciple rather than a dependance on texts or iconography.

Zen is often applies to the arts. The shakuhachi, a kind of flute that arrived in Japan via China about 1,400 years ago, has a long association Zen and is said to have a meditative quality because its sound is so closely linked with human breath. Patterson Clark, an American who studied the shakuchi in Japan, told the Washington Post, the shakuhachi is “notoriously difficult to play...It forces a face-to-face confrontation with expectation, self-criticism, disappointment, frustration, and impatience—all in a single breath. Exhaling through all these impediments and releasing one's attachments to them can dissolve the ego so that one experiences only the sound— and become the sound." Zen also teaches that every act in life, even mundane activities from of everyday life like eating and bathing and doing chores, are directly related to Zen practice and Are regulated by zen.

Kung Fu Meditation

In medieval China, Buddhist monks at places like Shaolin Temple, where Mahayana Buddhism was practiced, are said to have had used meditation to improve fighting techniques. Today, Shaolin attracts thousands of people who often study meditation as part of their martial arts instruction.

In an article entitled “How to Begin Shaolin Meditation,” Ireland Wolfe wrote: “The philosophy of Shaolin is a combination of Taoism and Buddhism. Meditation is an essential part of the Shaolin martial art practice, allowing you to banish negative thoughts and gain strength from your mind. According to legend, an Indian priest named Bodhidharma introduced the Shaolin monks to meditation. In order to prevent the monks’ muscles from becoming atrophied, Bodhidharma instructed the monks to do a series of calisthenics that eventually developed into kung fu. [Source: Ireland Wolfe,, August 14, 2017 |~|]

meditation before practicing tang soo do

On how to practice Shaolin Meditation at homes, Wolfe writes: “Step 1) Prepare for Shaolin meditation. Find a quiet room in your house and turn off any distractions such as the phone or TV. Step 2) Sit on the floor in a crossed-leg or lotus position. Keep your back straight. You want to be comfortable while meditating so you might want to place a cushion under your buttocks. Close your eyes. Step 3)Begin the Shaolin meditation by focusing on your breath. Breathe deeply with your stomach for a few minutes while you attempt to clear your mind. Your stomach should expand when you are breathing in and contract while breathing out. |~|

“Step 4) Visualize negative energy being released as you breathe out. In Shaolin kung fu, you need to keep your emotions under control. Step 5) Refocus your mind by concentrating on your breathing when your thoughts wander. Count as you breathe in, and count as your breathe out. Continue to count your breaths until you reach 10. After you reach 10, count backward to one. If your thoughts stray, start the count again. Step 6) Practice your meditation for 30 minutes before and after you train for martial arts. Meditation helps to calm and focus the mind, necessary skills for martial arts.” |~|

Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Meditation

Theravada Buddhist meditation is mainly silent-mind, mindfulness meditation. There are two main types of Theravada meditation: 1) Samatha: Calming meditation; and 2) Vipassana: Insight meditation. Mahayana Buddhism places greater emphasis on mantras and chanting. This is especially true with in Tibetan Buddhism. Though Tibetan Buddhism is based on Mahayana, it often viewed as its own strand — Vajrayana — as it is based on Tantric disciplines, which play an important part in meditation and . [Source:]

In the Theravada context, insight meditation refers to insight into the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and the non-self. Mahayana contexts, it entails insight into what is variously described as sunyata (the inseparability of appearance) and dharmata (emptiness, clarity and emptiness, or bliss and emptiness). [Source: Wikipedia]

One person posted on “There are too many schools of meditation within Theravada and Mahayana with widely divergent practices...Painting with very broad strokes, Mahayana generally has greater emphasis on compassion and emptiness. Whereas Theravada tends to be more focused on ending personal suffering.” [Source:]

Another said: “There are many different views, traditions and techniques on meditation within both Theravada and Mahayana, that you can't even speak of 'Theravada meditation' or 'Mahayana meditation'. I also think there's a lot of overlap. Typically, I would say vipassana/insight techniques are part of the Theravada tradition, with masters like Mahasi Sayadaw and Ajahn Chah. The same goes for Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) and other practices that aim towards the Jhana states, with teachers like Pa Auk Sayadaw and Ajahn Brahm. I always assume mantra/yantra techniques are part of Mahayana, but I could be wrong. "Om mani padme hum" means something like "Praise to the jewel in the lotus", which I think is a reference to Buddha Nature, a Mahayana concept.”

Another said: “Tonglen is really big in Tibetan Buddhism which is Mahayana. Koan practice and choiceless awareness (which goes by a few names) are big in Zen which is Mahayana. The "direct path" of the satipatthana sutta and the "path of serenity" by using the breath, kasina, divine abidings, etc. to develop access concentration/jhana then practicing satipatthana are Theravadin approaches. One general trend you could say is Mahayana tends to emphasize metta/compassion meditation on equal footing with insight meditation due to the Bodhisattva ideal. In practice devotional meditations are more popular in Mahayana.”

Difference Between Zen and Tibetan Meditation

On the difference Between Zen and Tibetan meditation, the Tattooed Buddha wrote: “Zen really emerged as a distinct sect when Buddhism entered China and Buddhist ideas merged with some of the Taoist philosophy that was already there. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when Buddhism entered Tibet and Buddhist ideas merged with the religion that was already present—a shamanic religion called Bon—that included a lot of things like nature spirits and ancestor worship. [Source: =|=]

“Because that’s what Buddhism does. It mingles with whatever cultures are there already. Buddhism adapts to local conditions in a way that other religions don’t always. It’s a very versatile spiritual path. Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism both have several different lineages that emphasize different things, so I can only really write about this in broad strokes right now...The really short answer is this: Zen Buddhism is minimalist and Tibetan Buddhism is much more elaborate.=|=

practicing zazen at a Rinzai zen center

“Zen meditation is mainly about following the breath as well as emptying the mind. It also includes a few deeper things like meditative inquiry and riddles. Tibetan meditation often includes things like mantras and visualizations and concentrating on really complex thoughts. Tibetan Buddhism is more what we would think of as religious. There are a number of divine beings and Bodhisattvas that are talked about, visualized, and even prayed to. There are also very complex rituals and prayers. Zen Buddhism has rituals too. Practitioners are expected to bow a certain way and enter the temple a certain way, but things are just a less complicated. =|=

“And how are they similar? They both talk about lineage. Who your teacher was matters a great deal. They both emphasize Buddha nature—the teaching that we are Enlightened already—we just have to realize it. I don’t think one is better than the other. They are both authentic forms of Buddhism. If you like elaborate ritual, then Tibetan style is probably right for you. If you don’t, then Zen might be a better choice.” =|=

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, National Palace Museum, Taipei Library of Congress; New China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University; Asia Society Museum; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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