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Mental cultivation through Theravāda meditation techniques

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 7, March 2008. 

“Monks, the ending of the fermentations [
?savas] is for one who knows & sees, I tell you, not for one who does not know & does not see.[1]


Ending the ?savas, to attain enlightenment (Nibb?na) entails developing wholesome mental qualities which can produce a profound change in the person at the deepest mental levelThis means the eradication of all unwholesome qualities, including their roots. As such a process requires a great deal of skill, effort, and commitment, the Buddha often took the ‘step-by-step’ approach, starting with teachings on generosity, virtue, heaven, the drawbacks of sensuality, and then moving onto the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path[2] , when the minds of his audience are receptive to such teachings. The Noble Path is a complete mental training system designed to cultivate wholesome mental qualities culminating in Nibb?na. There are three aspects of the Noble Path:

·    S?la (virtue) entails keeping good moral conduct which provides agood foundation for sam?dhi (concentration) and paññ? (wisdom) by reducing gross unwholesome actions which would disturb the mind.

·    Sam?dhi (concentration) suspends the defilementsto reveal the clarity of the mind.

·    Paññ? (discernment or ‘wisdom’) is seeing things as they really are to dispel delusion which has been sustaining the roots of the defilements.


This essay will focus on the various meditation methods employed in Therav?da Buddhism to develop wholesome mental qualities that constitute these three pillars of the Noble Path, and how they interact to culminate in Nibb?na.

Methods of bh?van?

The word bh?van? in Pali has often been translated into English as ‘meditation’. It means ‘bringing into being’ and it refers to cultivating wholesome mental qualities that conduce to Nibb?na.[3] There are two different emphasis of bh?van?: it can be towards concentration (samatha) or insight (vipassan?), though neither is exclusive. That is to say, there must be a certain amount of discernment in samatha and certain amount of concentration in vipassan?, as it is said that ‘there is no meditative concentration for him who lacks insight and no insight for him who lacks meditative concentration’[4].

In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa listed forty techniques used to attain concentration and insight. They include ‘preliminary techniques’, such as keeping good company, reflection on the dangers of sensuality, devotion; recollections of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha; recollections on virtue, gods and Nibb?na contemplation on death, the 32 body parts, repulsiveness of food; meditation on loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity; meditation on the breath, sensation, the mind, and mental contents.

Personality types

The wide range of bh?van? techniques available to a meditator can be compared to a handyman’s range of tools, at certain times, some tools are more effective. Likewise, at certain times, some bh?vantechniques are more effective for directing the mind away from the hindrances. For example, thoughts of loving-kindness would be very effective to supplant those of anger and ill-will; and focusing on the breath is recommended to counter discursive thinking. This reflects the need for skill and awareness in mental cultivation, one need to be sensitive and aware of the changing conditions so as to adjust accordingly, to continually steer the mind in the right direction.

Buddhism also recognises that people have different inclinations; and some bh?van?techniques are better suited to deal with certain idiosyncratic tendencies.In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa also analysed other factors, such as environmental, food, etc., that are considered most conducive for different personality types[5] .

Mental qualities

Of course, exercising these bh?van? techniques involve wise attention (yoniso manasik?ra) which is appropriate direction of attention which prevent unskillful thoughts and increase skilful ones, as well as exercising mindfulness, effort, concentration, diligence, and clear knowing. Furthermore, these techniques cultivate the qualities of faith, joy, happiness, gladness, rapture, concentration, respect & deferential, rectitude of mind, generosity, peaceful faculties, good rebirth, diligence, effort, and disenchantment with becomings.[6] They engender positive emotions such as immense loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity through countering ill-will, resentment, and anger. They develop mindfulness, effort, diligence, joy, concentration, and the bodhi-pakkhiy? dhamm?s which ultimately lead to insight into anicca, dukkha, and anatt?.

Essentially, the bh?van? techniques aim to foster wholesome mental qualities, namely: conviction/faith (saddh?), wholesomedesire (chanda), virtue (s?la), mindfulness (sati), effort/energy (viriya), joy/zest (p?ti), equanimity (upekkh?), concentration (sam?dhi)and wisdom/discernment (paññ?). These are, in fact some of the majorbodhi-pakkhiy? dhamm?(factors ofdhammas conducive to Awakening). They appear in the seven sets of dhammas conducive to Awakening and they form 31 out of the total 37dhammas conducive to Awakening. Furthermore, Thanissaro Bhikkhu saw all 37 dhammas conducive to Awakening as belonging to five main mental qualities: conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration and discernment.[7] The role of each, including that of virtue, is as follows:


The Noble Path is seen as the teachings of all the Buddhas. Whoever in the past, present, or in the future, attains Nibb?na must do so through practicing the Noble Path.[8] In the Nagara Sutta, the Buddha likened his discovery of the Noble Path to discovering an ancient city lost in the wilderness.[9] Having (re-) discovered it, he revealed it. This clearly illustrates that one needs to have conviction (saddh?) to get on the Path.

“A Tath?gata appears in the world, worthy & rightly self-awakened. He teaches the Dhamma admirable in its beginning, admirable in its middle, admirable in its end. He proclaims the holy life both in its particulars & in its essence, entirely perfect, surpassingly pure. A householder or householder’s son, hearing the Dhamma, gains conviction in the Tath?gata.”[10]

This also points to the importance of associating with wise people, as through them one gains knowledge and conviction in the Dhamma (Buddhist teachings).[11] Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in Wings of Awakening, described three aspects of conviction: social, intellectual, and practical. The social aspect – through associating with people who have mastered the process, one can learn and emulate them. The intellectual aspect – associating with good people helps one attain Right View, one learns that good and bad actions have consequences and that one can benefit from developing skills, and thus takes responsibility for one’s actions. The practical aspect is that what one truly believes one would put into practice. This is what Gethin calls ‘affective’ faith (conviction) which refers to trustful confidence in the Buddha and his teachings so one can aspire to the same ideal, as opposed to ‘cognitive’ faith which might be intellectual acceptance in the form of a Buddhist creed (Gethin, 1998: 167).

Conviction instills confidence in one’s own ability, like having seen someone leaped across a swollen river.[12]It also has aprotective quality like a magical gem, which when thrown into muddied water can cause all the dirt to settle; conviction settles the mind and helps counter the hindrances.[13] It instills gladness, which then gives rise to joy, serenity, happiness, meditative concentration and insight. Insight in turn reinforces conviction by confirming it.

Virtue – good conduct

In the suttas, when someone has gained conviction in the Buddha and his teachings, typically after a discourse, he/she would take the ‘refuge’.[14] This is formal declaration that one aspires to the qualities of the Buddha,Dhamma, and Sa?gha. Taking the refuge is usually followed by taking the precepts as a lay person, or request to be ordained as monk/nun:

“A householder or householder’s son, hearing the Dhamma, gains conviction in the Tath?gata and reflects: ‘Household life is confining, a dusty path. The life gone forth is like the open air. It is not easy living at home to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, like a polished shell. What if I were to shave off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robes, and go forth from the household life into homelessness?[15]

A lay person takes on five precepts[16] whilst a monk or nun abides by the 200 plus training rules (p??imokkha), ‘seeing danger in the slightest fault’. These rules are designed to curb unwholesome action by following Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. At the same time, following the rules entails exercising mindfulness and clear awareness, thus strengthening them.

Good conduct has a protective quality in thatone is ‘protected’ from fear, remorse, anger and worries associated with bad conduct. It fosters peace of mind, giving rise to joy and tranquility, which is conducive to mindfulness, concentration, and discernment; all of which help strengthen virtue even further.


Mindfulness is the second most frequent to occur amongst the seven sets of Awakening factors. It is an important mental quality in that it is required in all wholesome states of mind. It is related to memory; it aids memory in that activities done with greater mindfulness can be recalled more easily.

Analayo (2003) wrote that mindfulness is also presence of mind, in the sense that one is wide awake to the present moment (p48). It is detached, unadulterated, unbiased observation that has been termed ‘choiceless awareness’ (p, 58). Its non-interfering quality is pertinent to the observation and understanding of inclinations and underlying motives. Habitual tendencies have to be seen before they can be altered; alert, equanimous observation plays a vital role in ‘de-automatization’ (p, 60).

The detached observation attribute of mindfulness has been likened to a gatekeeper, not only this reveals the monitoring quality of mindfulness but also its restraining quality.[17] Through monitoring, mindfulness ensures appropriate deployment of effort. Mindfulness knows how things stand in relation to each other. Thus, it is closely related to wise attention (yoniso manasik?ra). Often, merely being mindful of unwholesome activities is enough to dissolve them.

In meditation, mindfulness keeps to the theme of the meditation; it remembers where the mind should be focused. It is required for attaining, remaining in, and emerging from, jh?nas.[18] Mindfulness plays a role in balancing other mental factors such as the faculties and powers, as illustrated by the simile of carrying a bowl of oil on top of the head[19] . As a path factor, mindfulness supports Right Effort in sense-restraint and concentration. As an Awakening factor, mindfulness supports investigation of dhammas (dhamma-vicaya), arouse energy, leading to joy, tranquility, concentration and wisdom.


Effort is the most frequent occurring of all mental factors amongst the seven sets of dhammas conducive toAwakening. Without effort and diligence it is hard to achieve even mundane goals. Right effort according to the Buddhist practice is:

·    [Where one] generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

·    [& for]…abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen.

·    [& for]…arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.

·    [& for]…the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen.[20]

In cultivating mental qualities, one not only has to apply effort, but it has to be combined with skill and awareness, as one can make things worse if goes about it the wrong way.[21] Effort applied in the Buddhist practice has to combine with mindfulness and knowledge.

The Sabbasava Sutta[22] describes seven ways in which exertion can be used to abandon unskillful qualities: seeing, restraining, using, tolerating, avoiding, destroying, and developing. Clearly, choosing which of the way requires knowledge and awareness. In other words, effort has to be ‘right’ effort. For example, in practicing sense-restraint, one has to know what to direct attention to and what not to direct attention to, in order to avoid assailing the mind with sensual objects. One needs to assess why attention to certain themes increase or decrease wholesome or unwholesome thoughts. In meditation, one has to stick relentlessly with the theme of the meditation and return to it as soon as the mind wanders and to resist the temptation to get involved and be carried away by arising thoughts. This reveals the three aspects of effort: effort to observe, effort to understand, and effort to abandon.[23]

Right concentration and Jh?nas

Right concentration (samm?-sam?dhi) is an essential factor for the arising of insight and full Awakening.[24]The suttas make frequent mention of jh?nas, and in some cases they have been equated with Right Concentration.[25] However, there is controversy over what constitutes samm?-sam?dhi, and whether jh?na is necessary to attain Nibb?na. This issue has been taken up by a number of authors.[26]

According to An?layo, samm?-sam?dhi doesn’t just refer to the depth of concentration, but whether it is developed in conjunction with other path factors.[27] He asserts that the first experience of Nibb?na, at stream-entry, requires a state of mind that is free of the hindrances; however, this does not necessarily imply jh?na, as there are documented cases of people attaining stream-entry whilst listening to discourses; some seemingly knew little about meditation, let alone jh?nas. Though for full Awakening, absorpt

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