From what I understand, different schools of Buddhism teach different subsets of meditation techniques, or different variations of the same techniques. However, many meditation resources don't specify which technique is meant to achieve what goal, nor the source of the particular technique. There seems to be overlap and combination of techniques, e.g. observing and counting the breath in Zazen, vs. simply observing in Anapana. Some insist that you must sit a certain way, others say to just "sit comfortably." Some you must practice for two hours, morning and evening, others say 20 minutes is sufficient. Furthermore, some sources say that their meditation techniques are not compatible with others, e.g. S.N. Goenka says if you practice Vipassana, you must not practice any other technique (but, even more confusingly, he also teaches Anapana and Metta)

Could you help me understand the difference between these various techniques (how it's performed, what its goal is, advantages/disadvantages), their relationship to each other, and their origins?

Are there any important ones I'm missing from this list?

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Zazen
  • Vipassana / insight meditation
  • Anapana
  • Metta / loving-kindness meditation
  • Tantric meditation
  • Walking meditation
  • Mind clearing (not sure the right name for this - instead of picking an object of meditation like the breath, the goal is to achieve a state of complete thoughtlessness)
  • Samatha
  • Transcendental meditation

(I think some of these might be special cases of others, but it's not clear to me)

  • 1
    In short you can think about the techniques as they accord to development of faculties. It will make it a lot less confusing.
    – user8527
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 17:36

5 Answers 5


It appears unclear to you because you have not comprehended the essence of the Buddha's teachings.

The Buddha did not teach any 'techniques'. The Buddha taught to abandon craving & other unwholesome mental states.

When the mind is as pure as it can relatively be, it will automatically 'meditate' upon subtle internal object, such as breathing & feelings.

'Techniques' have been developed by puthujjana who cannot comprehend the teachings.

When you comprehended the essence of the Buddha's teachings, you will be able to distinguish the nuances of the various puthujjana techniques.

For example, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa said:

Now we shall deal with the organized systems of insight training, which were not taught by the Buddha but were developed by later teachers. This kind of practice is suitable for people at a fairly undeveloped stage, who still cannot perceive the unsatisfactoriness of worldly existence with their own eyes, naturally.


The above said, to reply directly to the question:

  1. Western/American/Jewish 'mindfulness meditation' in the West is not something Buddhist because it has no moral foundation nor does it engage the entirety of Buddhist wisdom. It is merely an attempted suspension of 'judgment' or 'bare (zombie) awareness'. In real Buddhism, the word "mindfulness" means "to remember" to apply the Teachings, which include the moral teachings (refer to MN 117). In real Buddhism, 'mindfulness meditation' is called 'Satipatthana', which means 'establishing mindfulness'. There is no difference between Satipatthana & Anapanasati. The Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) says Anapanasati perfects Satipatthana.

  2. Zazen is an attempt to abandon the 'putthujjana yogic techniques' developed in later day 'Puthujjana Theravada', often called 'Mahavihara'. Zazen 'just sitting' is intended to be the abandoning of craving, as the Buddha taught. However, for those who cannot make their mind truly free from craving & thus SILENT & QUIET, Zazen will result in just sitting with wandering thoughts & amorality, as often done in USA Zen.

  3. Vipassana / insight meditation is a worldly Burmese attempt to separate vipassana (a fruit of the Path) from the totality of the Path. Vipassana appears to be Burmese students mostly brainwashing themselves with mantras such as 'rising, falling, rising, falling'. In the real Eightfold Path, both samatha (tranquillity) & vipassana (insight) are dual fruits of concentration (samadhi) developed in tandem (refer to MN 149). The Dhammapada says there is no wisdom without concentration & no concentration without wisdom therefore there is really no such thing as vipassana alone (despite one Pali Sutta from 8,000 illogically saying there is).

  4. Anapana is a non-sense taught by the Burmese/Indian Goenka school. In the Pali suttas, Anapanasati is a complete practice that fulfils the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (MN 118). The Buddha said Anapanasati was his own meditation dwelling (SN 54.11).

  5. Metta/loving-kindness meditation is both a preliminary practise used to end the hindrance of hatred (refer to MN 118) and also a practise of Enlightened People to interact with society. Metta in or by itself does not lead to Enlightenment. Metta is a supporting practise of the main Anapanasati/Satipatthana/Noble Path practise.

  6. Tantric meditation is a Hindu term brought in Mahayana Buddhism. Refer to Dalai Lama's/Jeffrey Hopkin's book called Tantra in Tibet. 'Tantra' was used in Mahayana Buddhism to create both practices and terminology to attract a wider audience.

  7. Walking meditation is one of the 4 postures mentioned by the Buddha for meditation. There is no need to change the method of practise for walking meditation. The Burmese style of slowly 'lifting, touching, placing, etc' is just another puthujjana technique. Proper walking meditation is walking with a mind free from craving & clinging. An adept practitioner simply practises Anapanasati when walking.

  8. Mind clearing to achieve a state of complete thoughtlessness is close to the abandon of craving the Buddha taught but not completely. The Buddha's meditation, while basically thoughtless, also has mindfulness & ready wisdom governing it. The Buddha said (in AN 10.58) mindfulness governs all dhamma practices (satādhipateyyā sabbe dhammā). While a different question in itself, MN 43 is a sutta that distinguishes between meditation on: (i) nothingness; (ii) themelessness; and (iii) emptiness of self.

  9. Real samatha, together with vipassana, as already explained, is a fruit or result of concentration (samadhi). It is not a practise but a result of practise. However, puthujjana technique creators separate samatha from vipassana because most puthujjana practise "wrong" or "suppression concentration", which can bring a sleepy tranquil result, like being stoned on low grade marijuana. These stoned puthujjana call their suppression meditation 'samatha'.

  10. Transcendental meditation ('TM') is Hinduism. This said, in real Buddhism, the very important word translated as "transcendent" or "supramundane" is "lokuttara". The heart of Buddhist meditation is "non-attachment", which is the meaning of "lokuttara" ("beyond the world"). In the Anapanasati Sutta and also in SN 48.9 & 10, the Buddha said Right Concentration has the quality of "vossagga" or "non-attachment". This is transcendent meditation. However, this is not called: "Transcendental Meditation". It is "transcendent meditation", as written in the Satipatthana & Anapanasati Suttas and SN 20.7, as follows:

That is why on that occasion a bhikkhu abides... mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world. MN 10; MN 118

Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.' That's how you should train yourselves. SN 20.7

  • Thank you for the thorough detail, this is really the answer I was hoping for and I expect will be deeply valuable for future readers here. Could you clarify one bit: you say that anapana is nonsense and anapanasati is the complete practice. I had heard these two words before but assumed they meant the same thing - what differentiates them?
    – dkv
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 11:38
  • 1
    'Anapanasati' means the continuous 'establishing mindfulness'. 'Mindfulness' ('sati') means 'to remember to keep the mind' free from unwholesome states. When the mind remains empty of unwholesome states, due to the quiet of the mind, the mind will start to automatically connect with the breathing, which brings other results once the breathing refines greatly, such as rapture, happiness, a lucid mind and deep insight. In Anapanasati, the priority is sati (mindfulness); which means keeping the mind free from craving. In Goenka 'anapana', the priority is watching breathing. Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 11:41
  • @Dhammadhatu Thank you for a very interesting rundown of all the different flavors of meditation. I wanted to ask you about point 9, since my prior understanding is that samatha and vipassana precedes samadhi. If it's the other way around, then i wonder what precedes samadhi as a mean to attain the others? Grateful for your clarification!
    – user11699
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 6:56

I agree with Dhammadhatu in that the different meditations seem confusing when you don't know what it is all about.

When you know the underlying principle, you know how these different meditations actually approach same thing from slightly different angle, and you see how they try to explain something that is hard to explain in words, and emphasize what they think are the most important points of that.

And I'm telling you right here and now, what this principle is. It is about dukkha, origination of dukkha, cessation of dukkha, and path leading gradually to cessation of dukkha. I know this sounds so standard and abstract as to almost make no sense, but I swear this is what it is about.

In our life with our every choice and every action we either generate more dukkha (either right now, or increase its odd in our future) or we ... well ... we simply don't create it, or at least reduce the odds of it happening.

This is what all types of Buddhist meditation about, all of them, without exception. They all are various ways to just... Well... They are all exercises at not creating dukkha. Some are more direct and some roundabout. Some more straightforward and some more implicit. But they are all about same thing, essentially. Not creating dukkha.

And how is dukkha created? Whenever in your mind there's craving for things to be other than they are, or in other words there's conflict between "is" and "should", or in other words there's discord - then there is dukkha. And correspondingly when there is no craving, no conflict, no discord - there's no dukkha. And then there's coarse craving, coarse conflict, coarse discord, coarse dukkha -- and various degrees of more subtle craving, subtle conflict, subtle discord.

So meditation is about somehow solving this problem. Removing craving, conflict, discord. Naturally, there are different ways to approach this. Some do it gradually. Some try to do all at once. Some use more force, some are more gentle.

Usually, there is understanding that craving for things to be other than they are, conflict between "is" and "should", and discord - are implicit in our frame of reference, in our evaluation, in our perspective. So most meditations involve some sort of technique that conditions (or unconditions) one's perspective, in order to change the basis for evaluation. Other techniques try to remove all evaluation altogether. In any way, it's all about dukkha and cessation of dukkha.

If you think about it, not all methods are appropriate for all situations. If dukkha is generated by more coarse conflict, then cruder methods work better. If dukkha is generated by subtle inner discord, then very tricky techniques are required. Since most practitioners make progress starting from coarser and then to more subtle, it makes sense that different techniques are appropriate depending on where you are on your individual ladder.

However, many meditation methods are not aware of where they fall. They are often taught in isolation of the broader context, so people don't know what they are doing and why. This is a problem.

If you understand the big picture, you can just sit down and practice. You don't need lenghthy explanations. You don't need to study all these different methods. You can just sit and watch your mind, and try to figure out the problem of dukkha all by yourself. It actually works better that way.

Just sit down and watch: here is dukkha, this is how it feels, this is how it looks, this thing, this thought, this mindstate has an element of dukkha, and I can see it very clearly.

Then sit and try to see, this is how this dukkha originates, this is the craving for things to be different than they are that it comes from. This is the conflict between "is" and "should" that it comes from. This is discord that it comes from.

Then sit and try to do it. Here's when I let go of this craving for things to be different than they are, this dukkha no longer originates. Here's, when I reconcile the conflict between "is" and "should", here's when I remove inner discord, the dukkha ceases to arise.

Then this particular dukkha is gone, but something is still bothering us, and so we go on to the next iteration. This bothering is a piece of dukkha. I can see it very clearly.

And so on, all the way to Nirvana. It's kind of simple when you get what it is all about.

All meditations in your list, essentially do the same thing, except they don't explain it step by step like I did, instead they just say, "here is exactly how to stop dukkha: watch your breath, and if anything, including dukkha, comes up, come back to breath" (Anapana) or they would say "just label everything that comes up, without judging" (Vipassana) or they will say "just sit. there's no need to change anything, just sit" (Zazen), or they would say "sit and believe that you are a Buddhist deity, and learn to really feel it" (tantric), or they will say "sit and try to love everyone and everything (metta)", or they will say "sit and do nothing until you get lost in thought, then read mantra and come back to doing nothing" (transcendental), or they will say "walk and pay attention to every tiny detail of your walking muscles" and so on and so forth. But now you get it - all of these are just their tricks to stop making dukkha. When you know what it is about, you don't have to blindly follow any of that. You can sit down and practice your own real Buddhist meditation, in accordance with Noble Truths.

  • Great answer. Sometime one needs a hammer, sometimes a screwdriver.
    – user14119
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 11:25
  • 2
    I cannot express how huge a realization this answer was for me. I had been getting lost in all the descriptions of different practices, which I found difficult to apply myself because I could not understand their purpose. Whenever I follow something, I want to know what the goal is, because maybe I can find a way to that goal that works better for me, personally. This answer showed me that goal, which reconciles what I've heard about meditation practice with what I'm reading in the Pali Canon. Buddhism is starting to make a lot more sense.
    – eyeExWhy
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 4:46

OP: S.N. Goenka says if you practice Vipassana, you must not practice any other technique (but, even more confusingly, he also teaches Anapana and Metta)

What is said by Goenka is that you should choose one technique and stick to it. If you choose the technique he teachers you have to follow the instructions properly without adding or subtracting or mixing with other techniques even other techniques called Vipassana.

In Goenka's practice one of the main objective with noble silence, not using any verbalisation or visualisation you are trying to:

Even some other Vipassana techniques use verbalisation like:

  • seeing, seeing, hearing, hearing, etc.
  • rising, falling, rising, falling, etc.

Labelling is nama pannatti. Also see the following quote:

The abdomen rising and falling is pannyatti, seeing the abdomen is still pannyatti (name concept), only the movement is paramattha. [Knowing as the] abdomen or sitting, shapes, forms, are pannyatti. Only the pushing, movement, thrusting into motion is paramattha (absolute truth).

Know The Mind - Know Mano

If you mix this with the technique which one hand is trying to reduce pannatti with that you mixing in a technique which requires and relies on nama pannatti or labelling. Mixing the two is like trying to turn to the left with one hand and the right with the other at a T-junction. The outcome would be the car will not turn and an accident will ensure.

Techniques like Transcendental Meditation uses mantra and Tantric Meditation uses visualisations. This interferes with the working of the technique taught by Goenka and generally the working of Vipassana as these techniques are also in the realm of Paññatti.

Zazen uses conceptualisation in kōan which again is Paññatti and conceptual proliferation, hence why in Goenka's courses it said not to mix any of these then practising the technique taught by Goenka.

All the techniques using Paññatti is tilted towards Samantha in varying degree. Use of Paññatti blocks wisdom (Paññā) in varying degrees. Some purely develop mastery over the mind (Samadhi) and no wisdom (Paññā) while others develop some level of wisdom (Paññā) in tandem. Techniques like Ānâpānasati (Ānâpāna,sati Sutta) Kayagatāsati (Kaya,gatā,sati) develops both mastery over the mind (Samadhi) and wisdom (Paññā). Here Samadhi is also developed but not at the expense of Paññā since there is no Paññatti involved.

Vipassana tries to develop insight into citta, cetasika, rupa and nibbāna which are paramattha dhammas which are in line with reality. Paññatti is conceptual or concepts which in most worldlings subjected to delusion. So in doing Vipassana one should try to distance oneself from using Paññatti as much as possible.

In Samatha meditation, one uses a conceptual object like a coloured disc in Kasina or a being or a group of beings in Metta, to develop concentration. In most of the Samatha meditation techniques Paññatti is used. But you can use Vipassana also to develop concentration without Paññatti.

Not all techniques work the same and the goal is also different.

OP: There seems to be overlap and combination of techniques, e.g. observing and counting the breath in Zazen, vs. simply observing in Anapana.

There are seeming similarities but the working of the techniques may differ. Even in Theravada commentaries, there is a counting technique for Anapanasati, but this is not pure Vipassana but more Samatha and you are dealing with Paññatti.

That is why in Goenka's courses it is said not to use counting. A beginner may find it easy to use counting but after a certain point, it blocks insights into paramattha dhammas, as counting is Paññatti. If you use counting or labelling one should drop this as soon as possible after you have established some level of concentration and mindfulness to the level you do not need it anymore. (E.g. If your legs are not in the best of health you might use crutches to walk but once they are healed you do not need crutches anymore.) But if you are looking to maximise benefit from the fixed time you have for meditation it is the best to dive into pure Vipassana (without Paññatti but balanced with Samadhi) practice which can give insights quickly.

OP: ... (but, even more confusingly, he also teaches Anapana and Metta) ...

In longer courses he does mention about the other techniques also through he does not teach them in detail. Goenka does not say not to use other techniques but says don't mix in other techniques, especially when you do not understand the techniques behind the techniques, as this will have unintended consequences.

In 10 day course what is taught is:

  • Anapana
  • Vipassana / insight meditation
  • Metta / loving-kindness meditation

Anapana is also a type of Vipassana, but the practice in 10-day courses are the 1st few steps in Anapana (there are 16 steps) which is more Samatha than Vipassana. In Sati’patthāna Sutta and Mahā Sati’patthāna Sutta only the 1st 4 steps in Anapana are covered. In Goenka's courses, one concentrate on the 1st few steps to develop Samadhi and then switch to Satipatthāna practice to develop Paññā, as found in Sati’patthāna Sutta and Mahā Sati’patthāna Sutta.

Metta is also a type of Samatha Meditation.

OP: many meditation resources don't specify which technique is meant to achieve what goal,

In the context of Buddhist meditation, there are 40 subjects of meditation (Kammaṭṭhāna). These are divided into

The goals of the different type of meditation are different.

In terms of the 3 fold training the 40 subjects of meditation (Kammaṭṭhāna) can be classified as:

Also, suitability differs from person to person:

The Pali commentaries further provide guidelines for suggesting meditation subjects based on one's general temperament:

  • Greedy: the ten foulness meditations; or, body contemplation.
  • Hating: the four brahma-viharas; or, the four color kasinas.
  • Deluded: mindfulness of breath.
  • Faithful: the first six recollections.
  • Intelligent: recollection of marana or Nibbana; the perception of disgust of food; or, the analysis of the four elements.
  • Speculative: mindfulness of breath.
  • The six non-color kasinas and the four formless states are suitable for all temperaments.

Source: Kammaṭṭhāna

OP: Some you must practice for two hours, morning and evening, others say 20 minutes is sufficient.

Different techniques may have different times to give results. In the context of Vipassana meditation, more particularly the technique taught by Goenka, you need to practice:

  • 5 minutes after waking up - helps to keeps you mindful until you may start your morning session
  • 1 hour in the morning - helps to remove defilements accumulated overnight
  • 1 hour in the evening - helps to remove defilements accumulated during the day
  • 5 minutes before sleeping - helps to remove defilements accumulated after the last session and maintain some mindfulness during the night until you fall asleep and / or when you wake up.
  • 1
    Thank you for directly addressing the confusions that I have - I now understand the motivation for much of what I learned at the Vipassana course by S.N. Goenka. I think I have one remaining confusion: if Pannatti is subject to delusion, what is the advantage of practices like counting? Is there ever an appropriate time to use them, e.g. if one is not practicing Vipassana?
    – dkv
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 11:47
  • 2
    For a novice, it might be helpful to have a little better concentration. But one should drop it as soon as one is established in mindfulness. In 10-day courses, it is adviced not to do any counting as this will impede the progress of Vipassana (Insight) a bit and you have to maximise benefits for the time in retreat. Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 12:44

There are really just two aspects of meditations in Buddhism, as seen in Kimsuka Sutta:

"Suppose, monk, that there were a royal frontier fortress with strong walls & ramparts and six gates. In it would be a wise, experienced, intelligent gatekeeper to keep out those he didn't know and to let in those he did. A swift pair of messengers, coming from the east, would say to the gatekeeper, 'Where, my good man, is the commander of this fortress?' He would say, 'There he is, sirs, sitting in the central square.' The swift pair of messengers, delivering their accurate report to the commander of the fortress, would then go back by the route by which they had come. Then a swift pair of messengers, coming from the west... the north... the south, would say to the gatekeeper, 'Where, my good man, is the commander of this fortress?' He would say, 'There he is, sirs, sitting in the central square.' The swift pair of messengers, delivering their accurate report to the commander of the fortress, would then go back by the route by which they had come.

"I have given you this simile, monk, to convey a message. The message is this: The fortress stands for this body — composed of four elements, born of mother & father, nourished with rice & barley gruel, subject to constant rubbing & abrasion, to breaking & falling apart. The six gates stand for the six internal sense media. The gatekeeper stands for mindfulness. The swift pair of messengers stands for tranquillity (samatha) and insight (vipassana). The commander of the fortress stands for consciousness. The central square stands for the four great elements: the earth-property, the liquid-property, the fire-property, & the wind-property. The accurate report stands for Unbinding (nibbana). The route by which they had come stands for the noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration."

The two are tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana). And these are not really two different types of meditations.

Suppose you have a camera which you take photos with.

If your focus, steadiness, aperture width, shutter speed and other parameters are not set correctly, then you can't take a good photo. That's what samatha is for.

Then you need to point your camera at the right subject to get the right photo that you desire. That's the aspect of insight (vipassana).

So, you need both these aspects. Point the camera at the right subject and tune the parameters, in order to get a good photo.

Also from Dhammapada 372:

There can be no concentration in one who lacks wisdom;
there can be no wisdom in one who lacks concentration.
He who has concentration as well as wisdom,
is indeed, close to Nibbana.

  • 1
    I like this parable, as it clarifies the purposes of samatha and vipassana in an easy way. Upvoted!
    – user11699
    Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 7:01

This is an interesting thread as it clearly shows the confusion and contradictions in modern Buddhism-By-Common-Agreement. Despite the claims of sincere but misled Buddhist practitioners, Siddartha Gotama, an awakened human being taught a single meditation method for a single purse - to increase Jhana - to increase concentration.

The Buddha taught meditation as one factor of an Eightfold Path. It is from a well-concentrated mind the wise disciple is able to develop the refined mindfulness necessary to hold in mind all eight factors of the Path. In this way once is able to develop profound understanding and truer vipassana - introspective insight - into impermanence, not-self, and dukkha and end ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

This alone establishes profound Right View and an unwavering calm and peaceful mind. The Buddha’s direct path is free of the magical and mystical speculative “dharmas” that only continue ignorance.

Here is an article that explains the problem of modern Buddhism-By-Common-Agreement: https://becoming-buddha.com/modern-buddhism-a-thicket-of-views/

Here are articles that explain Right Meditation - Jhana Meditation: https://becoming-buddha.com/right-meditation-samadhi-jhana/

Here is an article that explains Four Noble Truths: https://becoming-buddha.com/analysis-of-four-noble-truths-the-sacca-vibhanga-sutta/

Here is an article that explains the Eightfold Path: https://becoming-buddha.com/magga-vibhanga-sutta-analysis-of-the-path/

Peace. John Haspel

Becoming-Buddha.com  https://becoming-buddha.com/

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .