There are many different kinds of meditation or prayer, Christian and non-Christian. However, I am confused regarding actual difference because these varieties, both Christian and non-Christian, seem largely to be arbitrarily constructed.

This question asks specifically about the rosary vs a mantra while I am interested in all methods generally. This one asks about sharing Bible references on the correct way to meditate but I think falls short as I do not believe the Bible is a meditation textbook. I also think none of the answers address my question as they seem to straw-man eastern meditation as harmful, demonic, or dulling.

That said, what do the Orthodox consider to be the characteristics that distinguish (for example) hesychasm from Patriarch zen? The practitioner of Patriarch zen assumes a still posture and remains attentive while removing all thoughts or images from her mind.

On the other hand, Wikipedia says (regarding hesychasm):

... that the primary task of the Hesychast is to engage in mental ascesis. This mental ascesis is the rejection of tempting thoughts (the "thieves") that come to the Hesychast as he watches in sober attention in his hermitage.

Sober, attentive watching. Is there a clear, defining line between meditations that are acceptable for Orthodox Christians and those that aren't? If so, what is it? If I don't yet have the opportunity to learn from a starets (please forgive me if that is the incorrect term), should I learn Patriarch zen from a righteous man who believes it will lead Christians toward God?

As far as I can tell, the answer is yes because it is the intention, correctness of practice, and unending goodness of our Lord that determines results. However, I would much rather admit my own fault than attempt to outsmart two-thousand years of great saints. Answers should reference official statements from authority figures in the Orthodox church. Thank you very much!

3 Answers 3


I'm a Catholic, so I guess you can take my words with a grain of salt, but I think the defining feature of Christian meditation is the focus on God through Grace.

From my point of view, the physical techniques that the, say, Buddhists use are not wrong per se, but rather are just things humans can do to help them contemplate something. Since Buddhists and Christians are both humans, to focus their minds, regardless on what each is focusing on, would reasonably involve similar techniques. It's not as if a Buddhist's body works differently than a Christian's!

What becomes important then is what that something we are contemplating is. We Christians contemplate God, and Buddhist contemplate "nothing"*. Ultimately, we can only contemplate God by Grace, so Buddhists might get something like a glimpse, but they can't truly experience the "uncreated Light."

Here's some of Dr. David Bentley Hart's (an Orthodox Christian: pray for him. He's have serious health problems right now) thoughts on Zen Buddhism:

Every contemplative tradition necessarily stresses the need to discipline desire, to control the powers of both body and mind, to cultivate dispossession of the self, to learn detachment from finite things, to sacrifice discrete concepts about the truth for the sake of an immediate experience of the truth, and so forth.

Of greater interest to the Western reader, I would claim, is the actual content of the experience toward which Dogen urges his readers. I think there is more than a verbal or affective similarity between some of Dogen’s formulations and, for instance, Traherne’s or Blake’s or Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of seeing eternity within time, or paradise within the world of suffering and death. It would be presumptuous and reckless simply to claim that, when Dogen speaks of seeing that luminous wisdom that precedes, fills, and transcends all existing things, he is speaking of, say, the eternal Logos of Christian belief. But I would certainly insist that he is bearing witness to a genuine glimpse of that reality, in a way both beautifully distinctive and eminently worthy of reverence.

Source: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/12/luminous-wisdom

Here's another article concerning Christian meditation vs Buddhism: http://www.antiochian.org/mindfulness-known-church-fathers

*It's not exactly "nothing" in the sense we Westerners use the word. Buddhists seem to contemplate in part how the reifications of our mind are not based in reality, and that reification is itself deceitful to our consciousness. No-reifications can also be called "nothing" or "no-thing" ("rei" is the Latin word that corresponds with the English word "thing"). By removing the reification fictions of our mind, Buddhists believe they can see reality as it really is. However, I'm willing to be corrected on this point by those with greater knowledge.

Christi pax.

  • 1
    Excellent answer! I'm a big fan of Dr. Hart by the way. I don't disagree with this in any way but will wait a few days to accept it in case anyone else would like to contribute. Also, your footnote regarding buddhism is insightful and correct according to my experience.
    – sirdank
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 13:00
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    I think one thing that might be added here is that in the Orthodox tradition there really is no form of meditation (that is encouraged at least) apart from prayer. Also, Orthodox are discouraged from seeking out pleasant feelings or "mystical experiences", as these can be delivered by demons without our recognizing it. Ignatius Brianchaninov (19th cent. Russian theologian and monk) highlights a number of cases of spiritual deception from earlier sources like the Patericon in his book, The Arena
    – user22553
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 14:48
  • Dialogist: What a blast from the past! I completely agree. Meditation can never be considered anything other than a form of prayer, and, although mystical experiences are good, they are not the essence nor purpose of prayer. So, to think that one isn't praying correctly if he doesn't receive visions, or thinks that the purpose of praying is to receive a vision, are both in error.
    – Lucretius
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 15:46

To those who read the scriptures, Blessed Virgin Mary was one of those who meditated. Luke 2:51 says ".... and his mother kept all these things in her heart." (RSV) . Some other editions indeed use the word "meditated on " in lieu of "kept in mind". How would Mary have meditated on the events involving Jesus ? By sitting still for long hours ? No, a humble homemaker would not have much time for that. She would have meditated while cooking food, while fetching water from the well, while sewing clothes, while mending the sandals of Jesus and while preparing home remedies for small illnesses.

As for Jesus, how did he spend forty days in the desert ? His meditation would have been of a different type, fasting and sitting still in absolute communion with the Father.

Meditation, to me, is a simple method of communication and communion with God. If different cultures have complicated the process to the extend of copyrighting some of the techniques, it is their fault.


I have continued to research this question and here is the answer to the question that was so urgent to me several months ago: Orthodox prayer is indeed very different and in important ways from various forms of meditation, mantra, or even prayer in other non-Orthodox Christian sects. I this is one of the best explanations I've found and it's from Orthodox Christians:

Hierom. Adrian: One more question. Why do some people connect the Jesus Prayer to some other practices, for example, to the Hindu and Buddhist mantras and meditation? Many people do not understand the difference between those ascetic practices and the noetic Jesus Prayer, the Christian prayer.

A. I. Osipov: If we turn our attention to the essential, then the types of meditation you are talking about are reflections, internal discussions. They do not carry with them the main condition for prayer – repentance. Repentance is supplication. Supplication for what? For our sinfulness, our inadequacy, our inability to live as the Gospel commands. Prayer, as Bishop Ignatius writes, should be said with attention, awe and heartfelt contrition. These things are not required by meditation. Meditation, I repeat, is a concentrated reflection on a great variety of subjects: theological, everyday, spiritual and moral, all sorts.

There exists a very important and vital act in Christian practice – the contemplation of God. However, this also differs from the above-mentioned types of meditation. This contemplation of matters of Christian faith and life goes hand in hand with humility, correct prayer and reverent inward submission of our possible understanding of any matter to God’s will.

This is the main thing that distinguishes prayer and contemplation of God from meditation.

Now for the second thing. Turning to mantras, we enter the sphere of a teaching that is decidedly, we could say, different from the Christian or, more exactly, Orthodox teaching. Mantras, in some ways outwardly resembling prayers or rather incantational prayers, are of a completely different nature. They inherently imply belief in the effectiveness of the very words pronounced, often regardless of the understanding of their meaning. We see it in Hindu practice, for example, in Japa mantra, which calls on people to repeat a god’s name as much, as often and as quickly as possible, for the name itself purifies man and brings him to the state of Samadhi. Mantras, if you wish, are one of the elements of magic and are used in the rites of pagan mystery religions.

A similar idea was promoted by the Russian name-worshipers. However, it is not God’s Name in itself that sanctifies. The Name of God is similar to an icon: it is a link to turn our prayers to the Archetype. And human purification is accomplished not through the Name itself, but through correct prayer with God’s name uttered in it, as the Holy Fathers taught. When prayer is repeated mechanically, as many times and as quickly as possible, then it “is not prayer at all. It is dead! It is useless, harmful to the soul and insulting to God,” – as Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov) wrote.

Currently too, we can see this tendency to understand prayer as a mantra. Books are published which recommend saying the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” – a huge number of times (14,400 prayers at one go!) from the very beginning. They recommend saying it very, very quickly: 3,600 prayers per hour, that is, one prayer per second (“his tongue, like a little engine, was repeating the short Jesus Prayer non-stop”). This practice runs absolutely counter to the Holy Fathers’ experience, which says that we are to say any prayer, including the Jesus Prayer, without haste, paying attention to the words of the prayer, with awe and a feeling of repentance.

From oprelesti.ru

Once you've spent a few months finding out where to look :) there are actually a large number of resources on this topic. I would highly recommend clicking through some of the other pages on oprelesti.ru as well as the writings of Sts. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and Theophan the Recluse. St. Paisios the Athonite also has plenty to say on the subject. This article by Archimandrite Sophrony is good as well.

Finally, for anyone more interested in the topic, I can highly recommend the book The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios. It is an excellent source of information learned the 'hard way' through geniune, spiritual experience. God bless you all!

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    The Jesus Prayer is an essential element in Orthodox meditation. This is the only answer that states that, but since it is entirely a quote it won't attract many upvotes. But I agree that the Jesus Prayer is central to Orthodox meditation.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 14:13

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