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Is there any scientific studies that have observed through different bias the differences and similarities between those three type of meditation?

For exemple difference in EEG or brain plasticity in long term meditators, or various psychologic-cognitive tests that would give different results depending on the type of meditation.

  • In my understanding, these are not really parallel categories. Shamatha and vipassana are less types of meditation than aspects of all Buddhist meditational systems. Shikantaza, on the other hand, is a type of meditation, that is, a relatively complete system that can itself be analyzed in terms of how it develops and uses shamatha, vipassana and other factors. That said, there are relatively few studies comparing different types or aspects of meditation -- scientific research is (so far) typically focused on meditation vs something else. – David Lewis Oct 8 '14 at 1:14
  • For me the main differences from methodological point of view seems to be that samatha training the mind to focus on one thing, vipassana is to be aware of occuring and disapearing phenomena and shikantaza is simply sitting still and avoid to engage in any thoughts. Those different kind of techniques probably trigger different functions of the brain and I thought that would be interesting to have comparative studies. – BlackSwing Oct 8 '14 at 1:30
  • I don't think that definition of vipassana is the traditional Buddhist one, which is that it's the insight aspect of meditation, and requires the application of focused attention, that is, shamatha. See my answer below. As for shikantaza, I know very little about it except that the descriptions I have seen seem confusing and sometimes contradictory to me (with no actual Zen background). I am pretty sure, however, that it is not avoiding thoughts altogether, as that might be a goal of some kinds of meditation but hardly a conceivable meditation method -- you can't just stop having thoughts. – David Lewis Oct 8 '14 at 1:54
  • Whatever shikantaza is, however, I agree that it would be great to study and compare it from a phenomenological and neuroscience standpoint, or better yet, in the spirit of Francisco Varela, a combination. But that goes for the entire (rather large) panoply of Buddhist meditation systems. – David Lewis Oct 8 '14 at 1:56
  • @DavidLewis the traditional Theravada view (as espoused by the original commentaries) is that there are indeed two different types of meditation, and they are not just aspects of the same meditation. – yuttadhammo Oct 8 '14 at 14:36
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That (above comment) said, there are numerous studies of what is called Open Monitoring (OM) vs Focused Attention (FA) meditation within the "mindfulness" category, for example the paper Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation, which first defined OM and FA. FA is pretty clearly related to at least some aspects of shamatha, and OA has sometimes been equated to "mindfulness" or even "vipassana", though both characterizations are in serious dispute (see below). So in that (complicated and quite likely misleading) sense, there are studies of shamatha vs vipassana, which you can find by looking up citations to the above paper.

The only study I know of comparing (parts of) two full and contrasting systems of meditation is the recent Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of the Neurophysiological and Cognitive Correlates of Vajrayana and Theravada Meditative Practices. Interestingly, that paper discusses FA and OM (or as it is called there, distributed attention) and concludes that the distinction is neither coherent from a phenomenological meditation standpoint nor supported by neuroscientific studies.

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