Iti pi so are the first syllables of the Buddhānussati, recollection of the qualities of the Buddha (Pāli text scrolling above). The translation is,

“Thus indeed is he, the Blessed One: the Holy One, fully enlightened,
endowed with clear vision and virtuous conduct, sublime, knower of worlds,
incomparable leader of men to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, enlightened and blessed”

The syllables IITIPISO are instantly familiar to Buddhists and evoke this recollection, even without needing to chant the whole. It is an example of how syllables come to represent sacred texts, and to embody the meaning and power of those texts, a tradition which will be discussed further on this site. The complete Buddhānussati is shown around the footprint below in Cambodian khom script, starting left inner clockwise I TI PI SO BHA GA VĀ A RA HAṂ, to left outer clockwise, ending right inner clockwise BU DDHO BHA GA VĀ TI.

Similarly, the core Buddhist meditation practices of Samatha and Vipassanā - tranquility and insight - are also recognisable across different traditions, whether Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Japanese or Chinese, etc., despite surface differences in ritual and preliminary techniques. Thus a Tibetan meditator adept in Shine/Shamatha, will have no difficulty in recognising a Southeast Asian samatha practitioner, or a Chinese Zen/Chan meditator, since the central experience of the absorptions or jhānas is the same (in fact Chan is the Chinese word for jhāna). This is more than a recognition of technique, or a cognitive intellectual recognition; what is recognised is embodied in the body of the meditator, and felt. The stillness of jhāna.


The teaching of Buddhist meditation in the West has developed strongly since the 1960s, such that there is now widespread familiarity with words such as “mindfulness" and “vipassanā". A very basic approach to mindfulness, for example, is used in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, (MBCT) introduced into the UK Health Service in 2010 as a treatment for recurrent depression. Vipassanā for a while became a catch-all term for Buddhist meditation, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, and it is only relatively recently that samatha meditation is becoming better understood in the West.

The development of meditation teachings in the West has also paralleled major upheavals in source countries such as Tibet, as well as reforms and upheavals in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Some of the “reforms”, as in early 19th century Thailand when a new ordination line, the Thammayutika Nikāya, was formed, continued into 1950s Thailand with the two sects the Thammayutika Nikāya and the Mahā Nikāya vying for influence, seeking to modernise and Westernise Buddhist practices. This was at the expense of centuries-old esoteric practices related to the samatha tradition, suppressed in favour of the “dry” Burmese vipassanā practice which was heavily promoted in the 1950s.

Research in Cambodia by L'École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), and in particular by the French ethnologist François Bizot since the 1970s, has recovered a number of old palm-leaf manuscripts related to the older practices, with similar texts also found in Thailand and Sri Lanka. This has opened up an interest in what has come to be known as Tantric Theravāda, or Boran Kammathāna (ancient practices), or the way of the Yogāvacara. Because of the cryptic nature of these texts, which reflect only fragments of what has always been an oral tradition, there is great scope for misinterpretations and misunderstandings if taken out of context from direct meditation experience.


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