10 Big Questions About Buddhism, Answered

Why Do Buddhists Meditate?
Buddhist followers meditate at Borobudur temple during Vesak Day, also known as Buddha's birthday, at the Borobudur Mahayana, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Many Buddhists, particularly in the West, take time every day to meditate. If the goal of Buddhism is to change our way of perceiving reality and rid ourselves of negative thoughts and desires, then the focus of Buddhist practice should be transforming the mind. Meditation, the Buddha taught, is one of the best tools for transforming the mind [source: The Buddhist Centre].

Meditation wasn't always central to Buddhist daily life. For millennia after the Buddha's death, meditation was considered an advanced practice exclusive to Buddhist monks. But starting in the 20th century, it was taught to laypeople as a means of cultivating mindfulness, clarity and compassion [source: Buswell and Lopez]. In much of Asia, meditation is still not widely practiced by Buddhists outside of monasteries.

Different schools of Buddhism take different approaches to meditation. In Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners try to re-create an image of the Buddha in their mind or silently repeat a mantra. In Theravada Buddhism, one common meditative practice (among many) is focusing on the breath and learning to observe passing thoughts and feelings with detachment [source: BBC].

While meditation is clearly beneficial for reducing stress and calming the body and mind, that's not the end goal for Buddhists. Achieving a calm mindfulness through meditation is just the first step. The real "work" of meditation is to then use that state of calm mindfulness to tackle the "hard questions" — why we cling to negative desires, why we believe in the permanence of reality, why we fight change, etc. [source: Gross].

Buddhists believe that the fruits of mindfulness meditation extend to the rest of daily life. The goal is to become more mindful of the body and mind throughout the school or work day, to be less rushed and more patient with yourself and others, to be more generous and to seek to do no harm. Buddhists may keep a small shrine in their home — perhaps a statue of the Buddha or a bodhisattva — as a reminder to think and live intentionally even while not meditating [source: Shasta Abbey].