Buddhism: Mahāyāna

Experiences and Emotion

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Virtuous Qualities

A major tenet in Buddhism is the cultivation of particular virtuous states and qualities. In particular, Buddhist traditions tend to reference four mental states or attitudes followers are taught to cultivate to all beings. These four virtues are:

  • Loving-kindness (mettā)
  • Compassion (karuṇā)
  • Sympathetic joy (muditā)
  • Equanimity (upekkhā)

The cultivation of these four mental states along with the development of insight (prajñā) through meditation practices and training are thought to be complementary practices that aid Buddhists in their spiritual goals. Although all four qualities are integral to Buddhist practice, Mahāyāna Buddhism places great emphasis on compassion (karuṇā) and wisdom (prajñā) as complementary practices.


The English word ‘meditation’ is a generic term used to describe various practices of mental concentration and contemplation. The term ‘meditation’ has different meanings and connotations depending on the school. Although meditation is a practice found throughout Buddhism, some schools emphasise meditation practice and training more than others. For example, some schools of Buddhism may have prescribed periods of intensive meditation practice held in monasteries or temples (such as Uposatha days). 

There are various kinds of meditation techniques and practices. Which kind an individual performs depends on whether one is a monastic or , as well as the school of Buddhism they follow. Types of meditation practices include mindfulness of the present moment, visualisation, concentration or recollection of a particular object (such as the Buddha or a bodhisattva), chanting mantras, observing or controlling the breath, and mindfully moving the body. Nearly all Buddhist schools consider meditation as facilitating deeper wisdom (prajñā). The traditional posture for meditation is seated with legs crossed, back straight and hands resting in the lap (the 'lotus posture'), though there are many different positions. Meditation may be practised alone or with others.

Meditation practices and training play a great role throughout Ch’an/Zen schools. One particularly common meditation practice is studying gong’an/koans; short stories or enigmatic phrases that seek to push the practitioner through the perceived limits of rationality. The student will receive a koan and in turn will try to formulate a response to their teacher. Sometimes students will find poems to help provide their answer.

Another practice often promoted in conjunction with studying koans to help clarify the mind is ‘silent illumination’, which involves sitting (usually in the ‘lotus position’) with no particular content. The aim is to realise that one’s buddha nature is already present, complete and perfect. One example in the Sōtō school of Japanese Zen is shikantaza (“just sitting”), which refers to the idea that the act of sitting itself is the manifestation of enlightenment.

Becoming Mahāyāna Buddhist

A Buddhist is typically understood as someone who takes ‘refuge’ in the Triple Gem. The Triple Gem refers to the three main components of Buddhism: the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teaching) and the Saṃgha (the Buddhist community). The notion of ‘taking refuge in’ implies that the individual turns to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṃgha as their source of spiritual support and guidance. 

It is common for many Buddhists to recite their vows whenever they visit a monastery, temple or the place where they receive teachings. The recitation of vows is usually in the form of a simple and sincere chant, such as “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Saṃgha”. In addition to taking refuge in the Triple Gem, it is generally expected that Buddhists commit to certain ethical precepts. Laypersons usually commit to five.

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