The oldest material of the Theravada tradition on meditation can be found in the Pali Nikayas and in texts such as the Patisambhidamagga which provide commentary to meditation suttas like the Anapanasati sutta. An early Theravada meditation manual is the Vimuttimagga (‘Path of Freedom’, 1st or 2nd century). The most influential presentation though, is that of the 5th Century Visuddhimagga (‘Path of Purification’) of Buddhaghoṣa, which describes forty meditation subjects. Almost all of these are described in the early texts. Buddhaghoṣa also seems to have been influenced by the earlier Vimuttimagga in his presentation.
Buddhaghoṣa advises that, for the purpose of developing concentration and consciousness, a person should “apprehend from among the forty meditation subjects one that suits his own temperament” with the advice of a “good friend” (kalyāṇa-mittatā) who is knowledgeable in the different meditation subjects (Ch. III, § 28). Buddhaghoṣa subsequently elaborates on the forty meditation subjects as follows (Ch. III, §104; Chs. IV–XI):
- ten kasinas: earth, water, fire, air, blue, yellow, red, white, light, and “limited-space”.
- ten kinds of foulness: “the bloated, the livid, the festering, the cut-up, the gnawed, the scattered, the hacked and scattered, the bleeding, the worm-infested, and a skeleton”.
- ten recollections: Buddhānussati, the Dhamma, the Sangha, virtue, generosity, the virtues of deities, death (see the Upajjhatthana Sutta), the body, the breath (see anapanasati), and peace (see Nibbana).
- four divine abodes: mettā, karuṇā, mudita, and upekkha.
- four immaterial states: boundless space, boundless perception, nothingness, and neither perception nor non-perception.
- one perception (of “repulsiveness in nutriment”)
- one “defining” (that is, the four elements)
When one overlays Buddhaghosa’s 40 meditative subjects for the development of concentration with the Buddha’s foundations of mindfulness, three practices are found to be in common: breath meditation, foulness meditation (which is similar to the Sattipatthana Sutta’s cemetery contemplations, and to contemplation of bodily repulsiveness), and contemplation of the four elements. According to Pali commentaries, breath meditation can lead one to the equanimous fourth jhanic absorption. Contemplation of foulness can lead to the attainment of the first jhana, and contemplation of the four elements culminates in pre-jhana access concentration.