There are many, many forms of meditation taught by the various schools of Buddhism that have developed in the 2500 years since the Buddha first taught. The main forms that are practised are described here.
Meaning “calm abiding”. Calming meditation, that allows the mind to settle and become clear. The effect is like muddy water left to settle, and the various ‘contaminants’ of the mind dwindle and disappear. This meditation is probably the most basic, and is usually the first taught. The beginner is trained to focus on an object, most often the breath, and simply pay attention to it. This involves counting the breath to begin with - from 1 to 10 and then starting again. The emotions calm down and ‘mental chatter’ gradually eases. Eventually thought dies off during deep stages of shamatha meditation, and the states known ad Dhyana (Sanskrit) or Jhanna (Pali) are experienced. Although this form is first taught with an object such as the breath as its focus, the aim is for the practitioner to be able to eventually be free off the need for an object and simply dwell in a calm and concentrated state.
Other forms of Shamatha may focus on developing loving kindness (metta) or compassion (karuna). These are very powerful indeed.
Vipashyana (Sanskrit) / Vipassana (Pali)
This term is means “insight” meditation, and is a form of meditation that aims to give the practitioner a direct insight into the nature of things, and so gradually dispel ignorance, which is seen as the cause of all suffering by Buddhist Dharma (teachings). By observing the true nature of the world, noting the fact that it phenomena are impermanent, dependent upon causes and conditions for their arising and that phenomena are capable of causing pain if grasped at with ignorance, the meditator can begin to realise - not just intellectually understand - what the Dharma is teaching. This form of meditation also is very successful when turned on the mind. By building an awareness of the arising and falling away of mental states, the practitioner can see how their psychological makeup behaves, and can begin to become a more integrated individual.
Mantra meditations are predominantly used by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, although Theravada Buddhism also uses meditation based upon key sounds, words or phrases. A mantra is repeated during this form of meditation, usually silently, and works by calming the mind as it becomes a focus for concentration. Mantras do not usually have an explicit meaning to them, but rather have a psychological effect when recited. A fixed number of recitations may be required by certain practices, often multiples or divisions of the number 108. A Mala is used to count them if required by the practice.
The repetitions of mantras have gained extra prominence on the Pure Land schools, the Jodo Shu and Jodo Shin Shu, where the practice of reciting the Buddha Amitabha’s name - a practice called the Nembutsu in Japanese - is the primary practice. By recitation of the mantra Namu Amida Butsu, the person reciting the mantra becomes reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha, seen as a paradise that is also a staging ground for full enlightenment.
Another Japanese school that uses a similar method is the Nichiren school, that repeats the phrase “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” - “Glory to the Lotus Sutra” - as a means to enlightenment. The repetition of the title of the Lotus Sutra (which is Saddharmapundarika Sutra in Sanskrit) is deemed to be enough to enable the practitioner to gain enlightenment, since the Sutra is seen as containing the ultimate truth of the Dharma. This school is one of the most evangelical, and has gained ground in the US where it has spread from ‘ethnic Buddhists’ (Japanese and Chinese immigrants who arrived, usually staying on the West coast, since the late 1800's), to Western converts.
These schools are very popular, and they at odds with the typical western view of Buddhism being nothing but a logical and rather dry philosophy.
Vajrayana uses mantras left, right and centre, and is sometimes called Mantrayana (spell vehicle) because of this. These are usually parts of devotional rituals to various deities, each of which have mantras associated with them.
Visualisations are used primarily in Vajrayana Buddhism. The object visualised are either refuge trees - a special arrangement of figures, like a family tree, consisting of spiritual teachers of a lineage, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other deities such as Daikinis and wrathful forms of Bodhisattvas etc.
Visualisations may also be based upon a Mandala, which is a pictorial representation of the cosmos, the most common being the Five Buddha mandala, which features the Buddhas Amoghasiddhi, Amitabha, Ratnasambhava and Akshobhya encircling the eternally enlightened Buddha, Vairochana, who represents the eternal nature of the Dharma. Each of these Buddhas has their own Pure Land, represents different virtues and has different Bodhisattvas representing them, among other aspects that are focussed on during the visualisation.
Zazen and Koans
This form of meditation is used by the Zen schools of China, Japan and Vietnam. The meditation is very basic, and when taught is similar to the Shamatha meditation techniques. It is even more simpler than Shamatha, however, and so is actually more complicated to get to grips with. The term Zen comes from the Chinese term Ch’an, which is derived from the Sanskrit term Dhyana. It consists of sitting in an upright position, ideally in the lotus position, and simply becoming absorbed in the act of sitting. The mind becomes empty, but no deliberate avoiding of thought is made. It is simply being still and aware. This method is usually taught after the practitioner has got to grips with Shamatha techniques. It is essentially Shamatha with no intention apart from the immediate. If thoughts arise, they are seen, but not held or repressed.
This form of meditation came to China with the famous monk Bodhidharma. The methods of Zen are famous for their unique idiosyncrasies, and it has often been thought by critics that they aren’t actually Buddhist. While they’ve borrowed at times from Taoist ideas, the notion that Zen isn’t Buddhism is nonsense. The aim of Zen is to unlock the innate Buddha nature that Mahayana philosophy says that all beings possess.
Soto Zen focusses almost exclusively on the practice of Zazen, which is seated meditation. When the meditating in this manner, Zen philosophy claims that the meditator is no different from a Buddha. The mind is during practise is identical to that of a Buddha, and so transcendental wisdom is manifest by practice. The connection between wisdom and meditation is strongly emphasised in Zen - Dhyana and Prajna are said to be simply different aspects of the same thing. Soto Buddhists meditate facing a wall, as Bodhidharma did for nine years.
The second most popular school of Zen in Japan is Rinzai. They too use Zazen, but compliment it with koans, which are seemingly nonsensical riddles. They’re nothing of the sort, however. They simply make no rational sense. However, concentrating on them allows the student to come to a mental breaking point where rational thought grinds to a halt, and the inner meaning of the koan becomes apparent as the non-rational, intuitive Buddha Nature manifests itself. The two most famous books of these koans are The Blue Cliff Records and The Gateless Gate.
Bows and Prostrations
Bows and prostrations make their way into all schools of Buddhism. Large numbers of prostrations, numbering at least 111,111, make up part of the preliminaries (called ngondro) of Vajrayana practices. These are done while visualising, and consist of touching the hands to the head, throat and heart, then dropping to the floor and then laying the entire body out flat. This is then reversed, and the practitioner gets to their feet. The process is hypnotically rhythmical, and is used in purification practices. A fixed number (about 3,000 in a retreat setting) are done per day until the specifically required total is reached. Once the ngondro is completed, more advanced practices, such as dzogchen and mahamudra can be learnt.
Often during pilgrimages to holy sites, the pilgrim will prostrate themselves the entire journey. Now that’s devotion.
Zen Buddhist bow frequently. This is done with the palms together at the sternum and the arms horizontal, and is called a gassho. This is in recognition of the Buddha nature of all things. < /p>
Walking meditation is just what is sounds like. Slowly walking, often circunambulating a Stupa clockwise, the meditator places the feet slowly on the floor. All the sensations of the feet touching he floor and the movements of the legs are used as a concentration object. This form of meditation is used in all the three divisions of Buddhism, and is mainly found in Theravada and Zen schools. It’s also a personal favourite of mine.
I seriously recommend that people learn to meditate. Although intrinsic to Buddhism, most forms can be, and are, practised in a secular setting. It has been proven, by both personal accounts and scientifically, that they cause major positive changes to the meditator over time, improving their mental and physical health, and altering the way the person thinks, producing a calmer and happier state. Meditation is taught in more and more places, and a quick search via Google will provide information about classes and courses in your area.