The Western image of Buddhism is that of a meditating monk. There’s something wrong with that image, but there’s something right about it as well. While meditation didn’t play a major role in traditional Buddhism until fairly recently (more about that below), it also appears undeniable that meditation plays a central role in the (historical) Buddha’s teaching. There are, however, many misunderstandings about the nature(s), role(s), and purpose(s) of meditation(s) in the Buddhist tradition. Others have attempted to correct some of those misunderstandings before – the chapter “A Primer on Buddhist Meditation” in Donald Lopez’s The Scientific Buddha is, perhaps, the best example – but often such accounts focus more on pointing out what’s wrong in widespread beliefs about meditation than on what’s (probably, more or less) right.

I have another reason to write about this topic, however, and that is the role of mental imagery in meditation. In most (but not all) kinds of Buddhist meditation,1 mental imagery – roughly, seeing something in “the mind’s eye” – plays a key role. However, there are people – estimates are typically in the 3%~5% range – who do not, and cannot experience mental imagery. This is nowadays called “aphantasia”. The term was coined by Adam Zeman and colleagues in 2015,2 and since then much research has been done about the phenomenon. What’s important to note is that although visual mental imagery is the paradigmatic kind of imagery, there also is auditory imagery (imagining sound), motor imagery (imagining moving a body part), and so forth, and that not all aphantasics lack the exact same kinds of imagery.3

Two years ago, I published a paper about aphantasia, myself.4 What I didn’t mention in that paper – and what I actually haven’t told anyone, except my wife and one or two other people – is that I am aphantasic myself. One reason is that until fairly recently the typical response by philosophers to admitting that one doesn’t experience imagery was one of hostility. Bill Faw, an aphantasic himself, observed that “much of the current imaging literature either denies the existence of wakeful non-mental imagers, [or] views non-imagers motivationally as ‘repressors’ or ‘neurotic’”, for example.5 That I mention my aphantasia here is related to something else I have never publicly spoken or written about before: my experiences with meditation.

That I have tried meditation might not be a surprise to anyone who is familiar with my writings – Buddhist philosophy is one of the recurring themes therein. I have been interested in Buddhism – Buddhist philosophy, especially – since I was a teenager, so it seemed only natural (to me at least) to explore Buddhist meditation a bit as well. That I have never talked or written about this is partially because I consider it somewhat distasteful to do so, but also because I saw little value in doing so. Traditionally, it is more or less taboo to speak about one’s own meditation experience. Whatever the traditional reasons are for that taboo doesn’t need to concern us here, but it must be acknowledged that from an objective point of view, there may not be much value in disclosing what one experienced – or what one believes to have experienced – in meditation. An obvious reason for this is that there is no way to check whether the meditator is giving a truthful account of their experiences, but much more important than that is that it is highly doubtful that the meditator even really knows and understands those experiences themselves. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, we are very bad at observing and understanding what goes on in our own minds,6 and we fill in the gaps in our understanding by means of the explanatory and interpretative tools available to us – that is, by means of relevant ideas in our worldviews and whatever else we believe about meditation and (our own) minds. This makes personal, introspective accounts of meditation almost worthless, even if the meditator does their best to give a truthful account. “Almost”, because even if such an account is colored and distorted, it is still based on something the meditator really experienced.

Despite my hesitations, I will disclose aspects of my own experience with meditation in this article. My reason for that is that I have recently become interested in the role of imagery in meditation and how aphantasic meditators deal with this, which is a topic that, as far as I know, no one else has written about yet.7 I’m not aware of any other detailed description of meditative experiences by an aphantasic (accessible to me), and consequently, my own experiences are all I can go on.8 I am not an experienced meditator, however, so there’s not much I might learn about the effects of aphantasia on/in meditation from just reflecting on my own limited (and probably rather idiosyncratic) experiences. For that reason, I’d be interested in learning about the experiences of other (especially more experienced) aphantasic meditators.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, discussing how aphantasia affects meditation is not the only objective of this article – I also aim to give a very general and sketchy overview of Buddhist meditation and (thereby) remove some common misunderstandings. If you’re only interested in that topic, you can just skip the more personal sections. (I’m by no means an expert on the topic, however, so if you’re seriously interested in Buddhist meditation, I recommend you to read other sources about the topic as well.)

Comment (Feb. 28, 2022)

This may very well be the worst article on this blog (thus far), and partially for that reason I’m considering to delete it.

It is never a good idea to mix purposes and this article illustrates why that is the case. As explained above, I had two purposes for writing and publishing it: (1) to give a brief and general introduction into the topic of meditation in Buddhism, and (2) to contribute to our understanding of the “problem” (if it is one) of aphantasia in meditation. There are better introductions available, however, and moreover, the second purpose gets in the way. The sections in this article that focus exclusively on my own experience with meditation are useless distractions (at best) for anyone who is interested in the general topic, and because of that, the article utterly fails to accomplish its first purpose. In an attempt to improve that, I have put the “personal reflections” in spoilers today, so anyone who is just interested in the general topic can easily skip those. But still, as mentioned, there are better general introductions available. The Youtube channel Religion for Breakfast posted a good, short video on the topic recently, for example.

What’s worse is that the article doesn’t accomplish its second purpose either for a number of reasons. The second personal reflection (on saṃvega-related meditation) has nothing to do with aphantasia and, thus, is out of place here. And the first personal reflection (on dhyāna meditation) provides just a single point of flawed data that can be interpreted in many different ways, and that is, for that reason, unlikely to provide any useful insights. As mentioned above, there is good reason to doubt the reliability of introspection. People tend to believe that they have a pretty good understanding of themselves and what goes on in their minds, but research in psychology and related fields has shown that this is an illusion. Furthermore, we also know now that memory is very unreliable. Consequently, I cannot take my own experiences (and especially memories thereof) for granted and should treat them as critically as I would treat reports of the experiences of others (or probably more critically even). If I do that, I have to conclude that whatever I thought to have experienced in meditation could just as well be some kind of illusion – I just don’t have sufficient reason or “evidence” to discard that skeptical hypothesis. And if that is the case, neither I, nor anyone else can learn anything from my personal reflections.

As mentioned above, I feel deeply comfortable about publicly discussing my personal experiences with meditation, and considerations like those in the previous paragraph only make me feel more uncomfortable. Actually, several months passed between I started writing this article and when I finally “published” it in October 2021, which is entirely due to that discomfort. The more I reflect on it, the more that discomfort grows. Since it doesn’t accomplish either of its two purposes, the article effectively has no purpose, moreover. So it is both useless and unpleasant. It is for that reason that I’m considering deleting it.

Update (March 2, 2022)

After several readers of this blog urged me not to delete this post, I have decided to leave it up. (At least, for now.)

Some brief historical remarks

We do not really know what the Buddha taught. We have the Pāli canon as a source, of course, but the Pāli canon was formed and redacted in a sectarian struggle that lasted centuries and wasn’t completely finalized until king Parakkamabāhu I of Sri Lanka intervened in favor of one sect and one version of the canon in the 12th century.9 Nevertheless, the content of the Pāli canon was pretty much finalized by the 5th century, and we do have some fragments of the lost canons of other sects and other earlier text fragments. These are by no means sufficient to sketch a reliable, detailed picture of the Buddha’s life and teachings, but they give us some clues.

First of all, there are good reasons to believe that the Buddha’s initial teaching was some kind of meditation,10 possibly something like the śamatha or tranquility meditation discussed below. However, there are also good reasons to believe that the idea of a liberating insight or liberating knowledge is of later date and was an invention of early Buddhists in response to a similar idea in then culturally dominant Brahmanism.11 For this reason, it is doubtful that certain kinds of meditation aimed at such liberating insight or knowledge were advocated by the historical Buddha. This doesn’t make them any less “Buddhist”, however, because it is a mistake to think that “Buddhism” is just the teachings of the historical Buddha. The Buddha founded the historical tradition, but the tradition is much more than the founder. Western science and philosophy isn’t identical with (or reducible to) the ideas of its founder, Thales, either.

Although it is almost certain (that is, as certain as we can be) that meditation played a central role in the (initial) teaching of the (historical) Buddha, it is not the case that meditation continued to play such a central role. Given historical evidence, it seems likely that this centrality was lost very early in favor of ritual (such as circumambulating stupas) and study,12 and around 35BCE a debate between those prioritizing meditation and those preferring doctrine was formally decided in favor of the latter.13 Since then, meditation never played a major role in Buddhism (as a whole, even though there were occasional flare-ups of meditative activity within particular sects),14 until the early 20th century.

In the late 19th century Buddhist reform movements sprang up in Ceylon/Sri Lanka and Japan, aiming to modernize Buddhism in response to colonialism and Western influence. One aspect of this “Buddhist modernism” is a secularization of Buddhism, that is, an attempt to present Buddhism as a modern, secular “philosophy”, rather than as an outdated, irrational “religion”. This modernization took different forms, but the one that eventually won the struggle between “modernized” Buddhisms was one that heavily emphasized meditative experience.15 It was this kind of Buddhism that became most influential in the West, and consequently, the Western image of Buddhism is heavily distorted by Western/modernized Zen Buddhism, the (originally Burmese) Vipassanā movement, and other modernist currents. The view on meditation of these movements are relatively new and don’t represent Buddhism as a whole (or even a majority view), however.

What is important to realize is that throughout history (with a possible exception for the lifetime of the historical Buddha) only a small minority of Buddhist monks meditated, and that laymen almost never meditated. Even right now, meditation is only important in some Buddhist sects. Most monks spend their time doing rituals and studying doctrine, and Buddhist laymen pray and make offerings. Consequenty, one doesn’t have to meditate to be a Buddhist.16 (But one probably has to meditate to be a Buddhist modernist.)

The main kinds of Buddhist meditation

There is no such thing as Buddhist meditation. Rather, there is a confusing jumble of rituals, techniques, and practices that fall under the various categories that have been translated as “meditation”. Donald Lopez writes in his aforementioned “primer” that:

Over the course of centuries, thousands of meditative practices have developed across the Buddhist cultures of Asia, and a great many of these deviate widely from the notion of a monk seated cross-legged absorbed in a state of silent insight into the ultimate truth.17

Indeed, one doesn’t even have to sit to meditate, as there are also forms of “walking meditation”, and advanced practitioners can supposedly enter into various meditative states regardless of their body posture.

Within this jumble of thousands of practices, traditionally two main categories are discerned, although the boundary between them is vague and there are kinds of meditation that seem to fall outside this classification. The two categories are śamatha (Sanskrit; Pāli: samatha; Chinese: 止) and vipaśyanā (vipassanā; 觀), respectively. The former is usually translated as “tranquility” or “serenity” meditation; the latter as “insight” meditation. The title of Zhiyi’s 智顗 influential 摩訶止觀 is often translated as “The Great Calming and Contemplation” and indeed, “calming” and “contemplation” also occur as descriptive translations of śamatha and vipaśyanā, respectively. I will use the terms “tranquility meditation” and “insight meditation” in the following, but occasionally refer to these other translations. A few other kinds of meditation will be introduced after discussion of these two “main” categories.

Tranquility meditation is not a single technique, but a collection of meditation practices aimed at achieving states of “concentration” called dhyānas (jhānas). These techniques differ by what they take to be the object of meditation (i.e. that what they meditate on) and by which stage or dhyāna in the series of eight (or nine) one aims to reach. I will give a more detailed explanation of these stages/dhyānas below. The goal of tranquility meditation is to develop a kind of “calming” of the mind. (Hence the Chinese term 止 shi, which is often translated as “calming”, but more literally means “stopping”.) This calming and its associated ability to concentrate is supposedly necessary to acquire insight in insight meditation, but not all sources agree about this. While tranquility or a certain stage/dhyāna thereof most often seems to be a prerequisite for gaining a certain kind of insight (in another practice), sometimes it is suggested that tranquility meditation can generate that insight itself. Additionally, “calming” is also supposed to destroy the kleśas, mental afflictions or negative emotions such as ignorance, attachment (or craving, desire, etc.), and aversion (or hatred).

Like tranquility meditation, insight meditation is not a single technique either – if it is a technique at all.18 The main aim of insight meditation is to gain insight into three Buddhist doctrines about the nature of reality: impermanence, no-self (or non-self), and (the nature and causes of) suffering. Supposedly, this insight (ultimately!) leads to liberation from suffering (i.e. nirvāṇa/nibbāna), but also to destruction of the kleśas. It is worth noticing that the Chinese character for insight meditation, 觀 guan, is often translated as “contemplation” because what we commonly understand as contemplation – that is, thinking deeply about something – is indeed included in the category of insight meditation. However, in addition to such discursive/conceptual contemplation, the category also includes techniques that are aimed at seeing (another possible translation of 觀) ultimate reality or some aspect thereof directly. There are, however, considerable differences between schools and sects of Buddhism about what this means, about what would be seen, experienced, or realized in that state, and about how to do this.

Much, but not all, of this difference has to do with different metaphysical views. If insight meditation is also supposed to result in insight in the nature of ultimate reality, then different views about ultimate reality have different implications for the methods, results, and limits of insight meditation. Buddhist views on ultimate reality range from the radically apophatic as in Mādhyamaka to the moderately kataphatic as in, for example, Tiantai 天台 and some of its offshoots. If ultimate reality is completely beyond conceptual description (as in the apophatic view), then this has very different implications than if language can at least be partially right or point us in the right direction (as in a moderately kataphatic view). In the first case, contemplation in the common sense of that term can be of little use, but in the second case, it may be a very useful form of insight meditation. Even then, mere contemplation can never be sufficient because no amount of rational contemplation can produce real insight in no-self (if that is understood as a denial of personal essences, which is not the only possible interpretation). This is because in all of our experience, our apparent/phenomenal self is undeniably there at the center of our experience and it is thus very counter-intuitive to deny that there really is a self. Breaking through this intuitive and phenomenological barrier is not likely to be possible by rational contemplation alone.

An observant reader has probably noted that the standard classification is a bit of a mess. While the defining purpose of insight meditation is insight in the nature of reality, in some understandings tranquility meditation produces that same insight, which seems to erase the boundary between the two categories. Furthermore, both kinds of meditation are supposed to destroy the kleśas. Indeed, in the 20th century, this ambiguity only became worse. In modernist/Western Zen – which takes its name from the Chinese translation of dhyāna, 禪 Chan – it is typically assumed that tranquility meditation leads to insight into the nature of reality (and possibly even to something like liberation). And the Vipassanā movement interprets insight meditation as a kind of technique (or series of techniques) that looks more like tranquility meditation than like traditional practices aimed at gaining insight about impermanence, no-self, and suffering. Because of this, the traditional classification has become effectively meaningless in the context of modern(-ist) meditation practices.

Mindfulness (smṛti)

In the modern, Western understanding, Buddhist meditation is most often associated with mindfulness (smṛti/sati). Mindfulness is not itself a type of Buddhist meditation, however. Rather, it is an aspect of meditation, among others. Mindfulness is the ability to focus one’s undivided attention on something (and to preserve that focus for a substantial stretch of time). Furthermore, smṛti also means memory,19 and in the context of meditation, mindfulness is not necessarily (or even not typically) focused on something that is actually there, but instead on something that is merely imagined on the basis of one’s memory. Mindfulness, then, is typically the ability to focus one’s attention on mental imagery (which can be visual, or auditory, or in any other sense modality) and keep that focus. A “total aphantasic”, who doesn’t have mental imagery in any sense modality, would, thus, be incapable of this kind of mindfulness (but would still be able of mindfulness focused on mind-external, physical objects).

The concept of “mindfulness” has drifted away from its Buddhist (or even older) roots, however, and has become something like a goal in itself in certain therapeutic practices (or a means to achieve certain therapeutic ends). (Whether “mindfulness” really means the same thing in that context is debatable, by the way, but I’ll ignore that problem here.) Some people consider such practices a form of Buddhist meditation and see scientific research thereon as a kind of confirmation that Buddhist meditation “works” or is “true”. I’m a bit more skeptical about this for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think that in most research on meditation, the practices studied and their goals have fairly little to do with Buddhist meditation practices, even taking the immense variety thereof into account. There may be superficial similarities and genetic relations, but they are just not sufficient to translate scientific findings about the beneficial effects of modern “mindfulness” meditation to Buddhist tranquility meditation, for example. (Even if mindfulness in its original sense is an essential part of tranquility meditation.) To me, assuming an essential similarity between modern “mindfulness” meditation and Buddhist meditation practices is missing the point (or the many points) of Buddhist meditation.

Secondly, there are major methodological problems and hurdles in research on the supposed beneficial effects of meditation. One problem is that in most (perhaps, even all) studies that I have seen at least some of the researchers involved already believed in the beneficence of meditation prior to the research, resulting in a serious risk of confirmation bias. A meta-analysis is needed to test whether prior beliefs of the researchers significantly influence research results, but as far as I know, this has not been done yet.20 More important than this even, is that it is extremely difficult to distinguish real effects of meditation – if there are such effects – from placebo effects. It seems that the only way to do this would be to divide a group of research subjects in two; teach one group a certain meditation technique and the other some “fake” technique; then mix them back together and let researchers who don’t know whether what the subjects are doing is “real” or “fake” do the testing; and finally let other researchers who do know who did what do the final analysis. (This would be the most obvious way of doing the kind of double-blind research necessary to exclude placebo effects, but perhaps there are other options.) Doing something like this would be very difficult, and there might even be ethical objections. But as long as something like this isn’t done, we have no way of knowing whether supposed beneficial effects of meditation are real or mere placebo effects.

Thirdly, I don’t see much value in certain kinds of physiological/neurological research on “real” Buddhist meditation (rather than modern mindfulness and other offshoots). An fMRI scan may show that certain brain areas are more or less active in a meditator’s brain, which might be interesting from a cognitive science point of view and might tell us something about how the brain works. But I don’t see what we can learn about meditation itself from that. It’s the phenomenological qualities of the meditative experience that matter, and those you cannot see on an fMRI scan. Those can only be experienced in meditation itself.21

Tranquility meditation and the dhyānas

Let’s now turn our attention to tranquility meditation. As explained above, the goal of this kind of meditation is to progress through a number of stages called dhyānas (jhānas in Pāli). There is some variety in the interpretation of these stages (and there are variants of, and levels within the stages as well), but I will follow Roderick Bucknell’s account here, as that is based on both a thorough textual analysis of relevant sources and actual meditative experience by practitioners (and as it makes most sense to me, partially because it roughly matches some of my own experiences – see next section).22 (If you’re seriously interested in the topic, there are plenty of sources that give much more detailed accounts of these stages and the most common experiences associated with them, but note that some of those descriptions lean heavily on mental imagery.)

supplemental note (Oct. 26)

It was brought to my attention after publishing this that in some interpretations the meditation object can also be a visualization – that is a mental image. It’s not clear to me, however, why the first four dhyānas are considered “material” if this is right.

There are eight dhyānas in total (or four plus four “formless attainments” – there is some disagreement about whether the latter should be considered dhyānas or something else, but I’ll include them in the list of dhyānas here.23) The first four are usually called “material dhyānas” and the last four “immaterial dhyānas” (or “formless dhyānas”), because the first four involve a material or physical meditation object (while the latter four don’t). Traditionally that object was a clay disc, nowadays it is usually one’s breath, but it really can be anything. Thus far, I have suggested that the dhyānas are like stages, but they are probably better understood as the goals of subsequent stages of tranquility meditation, and in the following I will separate these stages and their goals.

In the first stage, the meditator focuses their attention on the meditation object, but fails to (completely) stop normal thought (vitarka-vicāra). Initially, the meditator gets distracted by their though processes soon and forcibly returns their attention to the meditation object every time, but with continuing practice, they can keep their attention on the object longer and longer. Typically, this practice results in a kind of pleasant sensation called prīti (pīti in Pāli). The first dhyāna is characterized by the presence of the “mental factors” mentioned, vitarka-vicāra and prīti, as well as a third, sukha, which refers (here) to a different kind of pleasure or happiness that is less sensual, less exciting, and less fleeting than prīti. The second to fourth dhyānas are defined by the cessation of these mental factors. Vitarka-vicāra ceases in the second; prīti in the third; and sukha in the fourth.

In the second stage, as already implied by the definition of the second dhyāna given above, conscious thought stops, and the meditator is completely focused on the meditation object, resulting in a pleasant kind of calmness. Many meditators experience bodily reactions, such as trembling or goose bumps that may distract them and break their concentration. With continuing practice, these side-effects disappear.

The main (i.e. most important) characteristic of the third stage is a further increase in the ability to focus one’s attention, but with increasingly less effort. Like the second stage, the third has various side-effects, such as a sensation of warmth or lightness, or even the illusion that one is floating. (These sensations are sometimes referred to as sukha felt by the body.)

In the fourth stage, these side-effects disappear, leaving nothing in the meditator’s consciousness except the meditation object. At this stage, it seems as if that meditation object is the only thing that exists.

After this, the material/physical meditation object as the focus of attention drops out of the picture. In the fifth stage, it is replaced by a mental image thereof, which can take varying forms. Typically, the mental image is not a mere mental representation of the original material/physical meditation object. Instead of “seeing” the original object in the mind’s eye, the meditator might, for example, see a patch of light with the same shape. In the sixth stage, this mental image becomes more abstract, but also more stable and vivid. Both the fifth and sixth stage also come with other sensations. In case of the fifth, that is a sensation of infinite space; in case of the sixth, it is a sensation of infinite consciousness. (But I must admit, that I don’t really understand what “infinite consciousness” means.) It is these sensations that define the fifth and sixth dhyānas, respectively

In the seventh stage, the abstract mental image disappears and there is nothing left in consciousness. This is sometimes described as a kind of black nothingness. It is important to realize that what the meditator experiences in this stage is nothingness (ākiṃcanyā/ ākiñcañña) and not emptiness (śūnyatā/suññatā), which is something else entirely. Nothingness is just the complete emptying of the conscious mind. Emptiness is the nature of ultimate reality. What exactly that means differs between sects and schools, but most often it refers to something like the idea that ultimate reality doesn’t (exactly) correspond to how we normally experience the world around us. Our conscious experience of reality is cut up into things and kinds based on our concepts and beliefs, for example, but ultimate reality isn’t like that. Again, there is significant variation with regards to such metaphysical ideas, and metaphysics isn’t the topic here, but it is important to realize that experiencing nothingness is not the same (or even related to) experiencing emptiness. These are – again – two very different things.

(I wonder, by the way, whether the idea that tranquility meditation can also produce insight into the nature of reality is based on a mistaken identification of nothingness with emptiness, but I haven’t really looked into this. Another possible mistake that could have lead to this idea is that because at this stage nothing exists in consciousness, nothing really exist in ultimate reality either. This conclusion, obviously, doesn’t follow. Neither does the non-experience of a self in this state teach anything about no-self/non-self. It is, perhaps, worth noting that in the Dhātuvibhanga Sutta (MN14), the Buddha says that the nothingness etcetera experienced in tranquility meditation is “conditioned”, meaning that it is not ultimately real and implying – in the context of the passage – that it is created by the mind. From this it also follows that tranquility meditation cannot give insight into (the nature of) reality.24)

Finally, in the eighth stage, consciousness disappears. This is obviously a state that the meditator cannot experience (because they are unconscious) and that can only be inferred afterwards due to some indication of the passage of time. I haven’t mentioned the seventh and eighth dhyānas yet, but those are defined by exactly these effects: the experience of nothingness in case of the seventh and unconsciousness in case of the eighth.

Supplement (Feb. 28, 2022)

Doug Smith has recently posted a series of videos on his Youtube channel Doug’s Dharma about various aspects of dhyāna meditation. There is a series of videos on the first, second, third, and fourth, respectively; as well as videos on the formless attainments (i.e. dhyānas 5 to 8); on what may be the ninth; and on the question how many dhyānas there were in “early Buddhism”.

Other kinds of meditation: death and compassion

Not all kinds of meditation are easily classified in the tranquility/insight framework, and some don’t seem to fit altogether. The most prominent kind of meditation in the Tibetan tradition is a kind of ritualized imagination of Buddhas or Buddha lands, for example. In his Buddhism & Science, Donald Lopez spends ten pages giving a very detailed description of the mental visualizations involved in this kind of meditation.41 Robert Sharf is somewhat skeptical that monks engaged in this kind of ritual actually see all of these details in their minds,42 but we’ll leave that aside. Another good example are the brahmavihārās, a set of four kinds of meditation on lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. (The term brahmavihārā does not just refer to these meditations, but also – and actually more often – to the attitudes that are the intended result thereof.) Obviously, I cannot possibly discuss all kinds of Buddhist meditation here (as mentioned, there are thousands) so I’ll just focus on a few that I find interesting, and Tibetan visualization rituals are not among those.

Two of the most influential and important Buddhist texts dealing with meditation are Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (in the Theravāda tradition) and Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (in the Mahāyāna tradition). The latter is also one of my favorite books (even though I don’t agree with certain aspects of Śāntideva’s Mādhyamaka philosophy). In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa writes that there are two meditation subjects that “are needed generally and desirable owing to their great helpfulness” (III.59),43 and thus, that everyone should pursue. These two essential kinds of meditation are the meditations on death and on lovingkindness. (Confusingly, he discusses these in the part of the book on tranquility meditation, but I don’t think they should be classified as such as their goals have nothing to do with the dhyānas.)

Buddhaghosa’s meditation on death is not the well-known meditation on the grossness of the body and/or its decomposition after death. Rather, it is a meditation intended to bring about a full realization of one’s own inevitable death. It is successful only if it results in a state of shock called saṃvega (VIII.5-6 and III.58). What exactly saṃvega is, is nowhere defined clearly, but because I was interested in the topic (partially for personal reasons – see below), I decided to do some research into the nature and supposed effects of saṃvega resulting in a paper published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics in 2016.44 In that paper I compared saṃvega to descriptions of similar states of shock related to the realization of one’s own inevitable death in Western philosophical literature. The most compelling description I found was by James Baillie:

I entered into a state of mind unlike anything I had experienced before. I realized that I will die. It may be tomorrow, it may be in fifty years time, but one way or another it is inevitable and utterly non-negotiable. I no longer just knew this theoretically, but knew it in my bones. . . . It was as if the blinders had been removed, and I was the only person to have woken up from a collective dream to grasp the terror of the situation.45

The experience of this state of shock matters, according to Buddhaghosa, because it increases religious and moral motivation by decreasing attachments (III.8), and increasing lovingkindness (XIII.35) and vigor (XIV.137). (Arguably, it also gives insight into one’s own impermanence.) Somewhat similarly, Śāntideva writes that “the virtue of suffering has no rival, since, from the shock [saṃvega] it causes, intoxication falls away and there arises compassion for those in cyclic existence, fear of evil, and a longing for the Conqueror [i.e., the Buddha]”.46 How exactly it could have such effects doesn’t need to concern us here, but for a possible explanation see my paper on the topic.47

The goal of Buddhaghosa’s second essential meditation is a gradual extension of lovingkindness from (at first) those close to the meditator until it eventually covers all sentient beings. “Lovingkindness” is a translation of the Pāli word mettā (Sanskrit: maitrī). In older Vedic texts, the Sanskrit term is associated with love and sympathy, and it is also related to compassion. A more common translation of “compassion” is karuṇā, however, and mettā and karuṇā are indeed not synonymous. Buddhaghosa’s explanation of the difference in IX.108-9 is that karuṇā is concerned with alleviating the suffering of others, while mettā is concerned with their general well-being, which seems to imply that compassion is a special kind or aspect of lovingkindness, because concern for the well-being of those who suffer is concern with the alleviation of that suffering.48 On the same grounds, the positive counterpart of karuṇā, muditā, could also be considered a special kind or aspect of mettā. Muditā, sometimes translated as “sympathetic joy”, is sharing in others’ joy or fortune – it is genuine happiness due to the other’s happiness. Taking all of this into account, it makes most sense to me to think of mettā as a virtue related to compassion, and of karuṇā and muditā as emotional attitudes that motivate and support that virtue. This virtue of mettā (lovingkindness) is the genuine desire for the well-being of all sentient beings, for the alleviation of their suffering, and for the enhancement of their happiness and joy. Hence, mettā is a kind of target-less, impartial, and universal compassion.49 This, then, is what I take to be the aim of this “essential” meditation: to develop a sense of impartial compassion for all sentient beings.

A very similar goal can be found in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. In the last part of his chapter on the perfection of meditation, he introduces “the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other” (8:120):

If one does not let go of self one cannot let go of suffering, as one who does not let go of fire cannot let go of burning. | Therefore, in order to allay my own suffering and to allay the suffering of others, I devote myself to others and accept them as myself. | Hey Mind, make the resolve, “I am bound to others”! From now on you must have no other concern than the welfare of all beings.50

The placement near the end of the chapter (as well as the argument leading up to it) suggests that this is the aim of the perfection of meditation – it is, thus, the highest form of meditation, and it is aimed at developing the virtuous attitude of a Bodhisattva, who doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself to save others.

Those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way, to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down in the Avīci hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms.51

Concluding remarks

There’s one question that some readers may want to ask that is worth addressing here: Do I consider myself a Buddhist? I have no easy answer to that question, however. I don’t call myself a Buddhist because calling oneself thus creates images and expectations in the minds of others that don’t really correspond to reality. I don’t believe in karma, rebirth, or Pure Lands. I don’t sit cross-legged in tranquility meditation or one of its variants or offshoots. I don’t pray to Buddha statues. And so forth. I’m not even religious.

In Japanese and Chinese the equivalent of the English term “Buddhist” is 佛教徒, which literally translates as “student/disciple of (the) Buddhist teachings”.56 This could be a term I’m more comfortable with: I’m certainly a student of Buddhist teachings (but maybe not a “disciple” – I’m too much of an intellectual anarchist for that). However, these terms have the exact same problematic connotations (i.e. belief in rebirth in a Pure Land, etc.) in practice.

Furthermore, I don’t think it would be appropriate to call myself a “Buddhist” for another reason: even though my philosophical ideas are heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy, I do not unconditionally accept any doctrine or teaching, but only those that I believe to be sufficiently supported by evidence and/or argument. And even those, I only accept provisionally. I’m something like a Quinean naturalist or pragmatist first, and if I am a Buddhist at all, I’d only be a Buddhist second. (So maybe I’m a “Buddhist naturalist”? But I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that label either.)

Anyway, the question how I identify myself ideologically/philosophically isn’t really that interesting. What I find much more interesting is whether there are other aphantasics who have meditative experiences similar to mine, or very different ones. But also whether there are others (aphantasic or not) who developed their own idiosyncratic meditation practices to gain better insight in no-self and suffering and/or to strengthen lovingkindness and compassion (regardless of whether I actually succeeded in these goals), like I described in the previous section.

In addition to that, another goal I had in writing this article is to explain that Buddhist meditation is much broader and varied than often assumed. I have only scratched the surface here – Buddhaghosa alone describes or mentions tens or even hundreds of meditations (depending on how one counts). And lastly, I want to emphasize once more that one doesn’t even have to meditate to be a Buddhist. There are millions of Buddhists who never meditate, but who instead pray or make offerings or perform rituals or study. All of those people legitimately call themselves “Buddhists”. I’m not going to disagree with that designation – I have a hard enough time figuring out my own.



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Notes

  1. Or certain versions or stages thereof, at least.
  2. Adam Zeman, Michaela Dewar, & Sergio Della Sala (2015), “Lives without Imagery – Congenital Aphantasia”, Cortex 73: 378-380.
  3. There’s a recent Youtube video by Joe Scott explaining aphantasia, which is worth watching if you have never heard of the phenomenon before.
  4. Lajos Brons (2019), “Aphantasia, SDAM, and episodic memory”, Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 28: 9-32.
  5. Bill Faw (2009), “Conflicting Intuitions May be Based on Differing Abilities: Evidence from Mental Imaging Research”, Journal of Consciousness Studies 16.4: 45-68, p. 45. — Notice that Faw uses the term “non-imager”, because “aphantasic” had not been coined yet.
  6. Eric Schwitzgebel (2008), “The Unreliability of Naive Introspection”, Philosophical Review 117.2: 245-73. Peter Carruthers (2011), The Opacity of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Schwitzgebel (2012), “Introspection, What?”, in: D. Smithies & D. Stoljar (eds.), Introspection and Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 29-47.
  7. Or at least not from a more or less academic perspective. I have seen some forum posts etcetera about the topic, but those tended to be rather practice-oriented and didn’t answer any of my more theoretical questions.
  8. I asked around on the internet a bit, but that didn’t result in any new insights, unfortunately.
  9. Steven Collins (1990), “On the Very Idea of the Pāli Canon”, reprinted in: Paul Williams (ed.) (2005), Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Volume I: Buddhist Origins and the Early History of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia (London: Routledge): 72-95.
  10. Tilman Vetter (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism (Leiden: Brill).
  11. Johannes Bronkhorst (2009), Buddhist Teaching in India (Boston: Wisdom Publications).
  12. See especially: Lars Fogelin (2015), An Archaeological History of Indian Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  13. Donald Lopez jr. (2012), The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 82.
  14. Lopez, The Scientific Buddha. Robert Sharf (1995), “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience”, Numen 42: 228-83.
  15. For a detailed account, see: Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience”.
  16. Unless you’d define “Buddhist” in such a way that the vast majority of Buddhists alive today and throughout history suddenly aren’t Buddhist anymore, but that’s so obviously absurd that such Orientalist cultural appropriation doesn’t need to be taken seriously.
  17. Lopez, The Scientific Buddha, p. 83.
  18. Note that the topic here is the category of insight meditation in general, and not the specific interpretation of insight meditation popularized by the aforementioned Vipassanā movement. (See also below.)
  19. The term was also used to refer to a kind of single-minded attention that will ensure that one remembers what one is paying attention to/is mindful of. Hence, monks were instructed to mindfully listen to sermons, so they would remember them.
  20. See also the first addendum below.
  21. Nevertheless, what might be interesting is to investigate whether insight meditation about no-self and impermanence leads to substantially different ways of thinking reflected in differences in brain architecture. Such research would require a rather big sample size (i.e. a large number of test subjects), however, to discern statistically significant effects and exclude other explanations. fMRI scans of just a handful of experienced insight meditators are pretty much useless. Depending on the subtlety of the effects, we might need hundreds to prove that there is a significant effect indeed.
  22. Roderick Bucknell (1993), “Reinterpreting the Jhānas”, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 16.2: 375-409.
  23. To make things even more confusing, sometimes a ninth dhyāna is mentioned as well. This is a supposed stage that follows the eight dhyāna.
  24. See also: Walpola Rahula (1974), What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press), pp. 38-9 & 68.
  25. Palombo, Daniela J., Claude Alain, Hedvig Söderlund, Wayne Khuu, & Brian Levine (2015). “Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) in Healthy Adults: A New Mnemonic Syndrome”, Neuropsychologia 72: 105-118.
  26. What I mean here with “getting into the groove” is more like becoming the rhythm, than like focusing one’s attention on something outside one’s (sense of) self.
  27. Some descriptions of the third and fourth dhyānas also involve mental imagery. I’ve read somewhere that in the third dhyāna something is supposed to happen in the margins of one’s mental imagery, for example. As an aphantasic, I don’t know what to make of such imagery-heavy descriptions, which is one reason – for me, at least – to prefer Bucknell’s account mentioned above.
  28. In the late summer of 2013.
  29. I know that it lasted for about 15 minutes because my wife told me that approximately 20 minutes had passed, and I spent a few minutes in preparation.
  30. One rationalization of the sudden indifference after experiencing nothingness is the realization that that experience cannot result in insight in the nature of reality, no-self, and so forth, and I’m much more interested in that kind of insight than in “calming”. But that is a later rationalization, and is certainly not something that went through my mind at the time.
  31. But I feel no aversion either. As mentioned, I’m indifferent.
  32. In the first phase of a migraine, my field of vision gets covered with brightly colored geometrical patterns and blurry areas, which all continuously tremble or vibrate. If it’s particularly bad, I need to somehow distract myself from that, because otherwise I will start throwing up. (This initial phase of a migraine is far worse than the headache that follows it, by the way.) The easiest way to distract me from these symptoms is by forcefully focusing my attention on something else, like my breath or a body part. It doesn’t even matter much whether I can keep my attention focused, as long as I can refocus my attention every time my thoughts distract me. And actually, getting distracted by thoughts works just as well.
  33. Palombo, Daniela J., Claude Alain, Hedvig Söderlund, Wayne Khuu, & Brian Levine (2015). “Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM) in Healthy Adults: A New Mnemonic Syndrome”, Neuropsychologia 72: 105-118.
  34. What I mean here with “getting into the groove” is more like becoming the rhythm, than like focusing one’s attention on something outside one’s (sense of) self.
  35. Some descriptions of the third and fourth dhyānas also involve mental imagery. I’ve read somewhere that in the third dhyāna something is supposed to happen in the margins of one’s mental imagery, for example. As an aphantasic, I don’t know what to make of such imagery-heavy descriptions, which is one reason – for me, at least – to prefer Bucknell’s account mentioned above.
  36. In the late summer of 2013.
  37. I know that it lasted for about 15 minutes because my wife told me that approximately 20 minutes had passed, and I spent a few minutes in preparation.
  38. One rationalization of the sudden indifference after experiencing nothingness is the realization that that experience cannot result in insight in the nature of reality, no-self, and so forth, and I’m much more interested in that kind of insight than in “calming”. But that is a later rationalization, and is certainly not something that went through my mind at the time.
  39. But I feel no aversion either. As mentioned, I’m indifferent.
  40. In the first phase of a migraine, my field of vision gets covered with brightly colored geometrical patterns and blurry areas, which all continuously tremble or vibrate. If it’s particularly bad, I need to somehow distract myself from that, because otherwise I will start throwing up. (This initial phase of a migraine is far worse than the headache that follows it, by the way.) The easiest way to distract me from these symptoms is by forcefully focusing my attention on something else, like my breath or a body part. It doesn’t even matter much whether I can keep my attention focused, as long as I can refocus my attention every time my thoughts distract me. And actually, getting distracted by thoughts works just as well.
  41. Donald Lopez jr. (2008), Buddhism & Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 197-207.
  42. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience”.
  43. Translation: Bhikkhu Nyanamoli (Onalaska: BPS-Pariyatti, 1999).
  44. Lajos Brons (2016), “Facing Death from a Safe Distance: Saṃvega and Moral Psychology”, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 23: 83-128. — There’s an amusing parallel between this paper and my aforementioned paper on aphantasia, by the way. Other aphantasics emailed me about that paper and some of them wrote that I’m obviously not aphantasic myself because of how I described aphantasia. More recently someone read my saṃvega paper and replied that I have obviously never meditated myself because of how I described meditation.
  45. James Baillie (2013), “The Expectation of Nothingness”, Philosophical Studies 166.S: S185-S203, p. S189.
  46. Śāntideva (8th ct/1995), The Bodhicaryāvatāra, Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press), §6:21.
  47. Brons, “Facing Death from a Safe Distance”.
  48. And it makes no sense to say that mettā only applies to concern for the well-being of non-suffering beings.
  49. Which contrasts it with empathy. Empathy is always aimed at a specific other, while mettā is impartial compassion for everyone.
  50. Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, 8:135-7.
  51. 8:107.
  52. Thich Nhat Hanh (1987), Being Peace (Berkeley: Parallax).
  53. This practice doesn’t look much like stereotypical “meditation” either, by the way. It requires no particular posture or preparation, for example.
  54. Thich Nhat Hanh (1987), Being Peace (Berkeley: Parallax).
  55. This practice doesn’t look much like stereotypical “meditation” either, by the way. It requires no particular posture or preparation, for example.
  56. The first character 佛 means “Buddha”, but in a general sense. In compounds, it refers to either Buddhism or to awakening (bodhi), but (almost?) never to the historical Buddha.
  57. V. Goessl, J. Curtiss, & S. Hofmann (2017), “The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on stress and anxiety: A meta-analysis” Psychological Medicine 47.15: 2578-86.
  58. Alessandro Sparacio et al., “Stress regulation via self-administered mindfulness and biofeedback interventions in adults: A pre-registered meta-analysis”, https://psyarxiv.com/zpw28/
  59. Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias, and Inti Brazil (2018), “The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis” Nature Scientific Reports 8:2403,
  60. Simon Schindler & Stefan Pfattheicher (2021), “When it really counts: Investigating the relation between trait mindfulness and actual prosocial behavior”, Current Psychology.
  61. Michael Poulin, Lauren Ministero, Shira Gabriel, Carrie Morrison, (&) Esha Naidu, “Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals”, https://psyarxiv.com/xhyua — Emphasis added.
  62. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria). — I prefer to call this phenomenon “cultural psychopathy” rather than “narcissism”, by the way. See: Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
  63. Chögyam Trungpa (1973), Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambala, 2002), p. 3. — Vonk & Visser only quote the first sentence, but also adopt the term “spiritual materialism”.
  64. Ibidem, p. 7.
  65. Roos Vonk & Anouk Visser (2020), “An exploration of spiritual superiority: The paradox of self-enhancement”, European Journal of Social Psychology 51.1: 152-65.
  66. V. Goessl, J. Curtiss, & S. Hofmann (2017), “The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on stress and anxiety: A meta-analysis” Psychological Medicine 47.15: 2578-86.
  67. Alessandro Sparacio et al., “Stress regulation via self-administered mindfulness and biofeedback interventions in adults: A pre-registered meta-analysis”, https://psyarxiv.com/zpw28/
  68. Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias, and Inti Brazil (2018), “The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis” Nature Scientific Reports 8:2403,
  69. Simon Schindler & Stefan Pfattheicher (2021), “When it really counts: Investigating the relation between trait mindfulness and actual prosocial behavior”, Current Psychology.
  70. Michael Poulin, Lauren Ministero, Shira Gabriel, Carrie Morrison, (&) Esha Naidu, “Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals”, https://psyarxiv.com/xhyua — Emphasis added.
  71. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria). — I prefer to call this phenomenon “cultural psychopathy” rather than “narcissism”, by the way. See: Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
  72. Chögyam Trungpa (1973), Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambala, 2002), p. 3. — Vonk & Visser only quote the first sentence, but also adopt the term “spiritual materialism”.
  73. Ibidem, p. 7.
  74. Roos Vonk & Anouk Visser (2020), “An exploration of spiritual superiority: The paradox of self-enhancement”, European Journal of Social Psychology 51.1: 152-65.
  75. In fact, many other “details” appear to be considered inessential as well. A typical response I got was along the lines “if it works for you then it is right”.
  76. This doesn’t imply that many non-Western meditators do progress beyond that point. The latter didn’t come up in discussion and I didn’t research it either.
  77. This is also one of the main reasons why I really don’t like talking or writing about this topic (and why I haven’t done so until now). It can too easily sound like a very distasteful kind of boasting about one’s own “spiritual achievements” (even despite the fact that I’m not spiritual and don’t feel like I have “achieved” anything).
  78. Historically, it is also very peculiar for a monk to advise a layman to meditate, considering that even most monks don’t meditate. The focus on meditation in Buddhism is of 20th century origin (see above), and throughout history, Buddhist laymen almost never meditated.
  79. Note that this doesn’t explain my initial indifference after experiencing nothingness, as that predates my experience with saṃvega-based meditation.
  80. An interesting question is how much of this change is due to this “meditation” practice and how much is due to fatherhood, especially in a primary care-giver role, given that scientific research has shown that being a primary care-giver (or giving care in general) leads to changes in the brain that actually make one more caring.
  81. As long as that is an impartial care and isn’t directed at specific, selected, preferred others.
  82. My translation. 「現代は苦悩する。同胞は信愛を欲して闘争を余儀なくされ、大衆はパンを求めて弾圧を食べらわされる。逃避か闘争か、今や世はあげて混沌と窮迫とに彷徨する。 かかる現代、仏教徒は何を認識し、何を社会に寄与しつつあるか。安価な安心に陶酔しておる多数仏教徒は問題とすまい。」 新興仏教青年同盟 (New Buddhist Youth League) (1931), 『宣言』 (Proclamation), reprinted in: 稲垣真美 (1974), 『仏陀を背負いて街頭へ—妹尾義郎と新興仏教青年同盟』 (岩波新書): 3-6, p. 3.
  83. See the block quote above.
  84. Twenge & Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic. Brons, The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
  85. More fully quoted above.
  86. In fact, many other “details” appear to be considered inessential as well. A typical response I got was along the lines “if it works for you then it is right”.
  87. This doesn’t imply that many non-Western meditators do progress beyond that point. The latter didn’t come up in discussion and I didn’t research it either.
  88. This is also one of the main reasons why I really don’t like talking or writing about this topic (and why I haven’t done so until now). It can too easily sound like a very distasteful kind of boasting about one’s own “spiritual achievements” (even despite the fact that I’m not spiritual and don’t feel like I have “achieved” anything).
  89. Historically, it is also very peculiar for a monk to advise a layman to meditate, considering that even most monks don’t meditate. The focus on meditation in Buddhism is of 20th century origin (see above), and throughout history, Buddhist laymen almost never meditated.
  90. Note that this doesn’t explain my initial indifference after experiencing nothingness, as that predates my experience with saṃvega-based meditation.
  91. An interesting question is how much of this change is due to this “meditation” practice and how much is due to fatherhood, especially in a primary care-giver role, given that scientific research has shown that being a primary care-giver (or giving care in general) leads to changes in the brain that actually make one more caring.
  92. As long as that is an impartial care and isn’t directed at specific, selected, preferred others.
  93. My translation. 「現代は苦悩する。同胞は信愛を欲して闘争を余儀なくされ、大衆はパンを求めて弾圧を食べらわされる。逃避か闘争か、今や世はあげて混沌と窮迫とに彷徨する。 かかる現代、仏教徒は何を認識し、何を社会に寄与しつつあるか。安価な安心に陶酔しておる多数仏教徒は問題とすまい。」 新興仏教青年同盟 (New Buddhist Youth League) (1931), 『宣言』 (Proclamation), reprinted in: 稲垣真美 (1974), 『仏陀を背負いて街頭へ—妹尾義郎と新興仏教青年同盟』 (岩波新書): 3-6, p. 3.
  94. See the block quote above.
  95. Twenge & Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic. Brons, The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
  96. More fully quoted above.