As is the case in most languages, the root term for the concept “to be” (bhū) in Sanskrit and Pali can cover a lot of territory. It underlies the word for the earth (bhūmi, “ground, soil”), can refer to the elements (bhūta, “that which has come to be”) or a ghost (bhūta, “one who has been”), and is used to designate the various cosmological spheres of existence (bhāva, “that which exists”).

Buddhist thought is based on process thinking, wherein all things are so thoroughly becoming something else that they never actually exist as anything in themselves. Thus, the simple verb “to be” more often carries a sense of movement or development than one of static existence (bhavati, “coming to be”).

There is also a so-called causative grammatical form in these languages (bhāveti, “causing to be”) from which the most common Pali word for “meditation” (bhāvanā, “causing to develop”) emerges. Meditation is thus regarded as a process of gradual cultivation, of slowly encouraging certain (healthy) mental and emotional states to arise and strengthen while allowing other (unhealthy) states to diminish and pass away.

The most familiar example of this usage is probably the cultivation of lovingkindness (Pali, mettā-bhāvanā). Here a person calls up the emotion of caring for oneself and others and systematically “causes it to develop” by steadily expanding and reinforcing the presence of lovingkindness in the heart. This is done by visualizing an ever-widening sphere of inclusion, from oneself to others and eventually to all beings, a practice that is supported by reciting such phrases as “May I/you/they be safe, well, and happy.”

Notice that the method of cultivating this healthy mind state, of causing it to develop, is to repeat it often, and the word for this (bahulī-kata, “practiced frequently”) is commonly found paired with bhāvanā. For example, developing and often practicing (bhāvanā bahulīkata) the factors of awakening, such as mindfulness, inclines a person toward greater wisdom and eventual liberation.

We also find the word applied to the cultivation of insight (vipassanābhāvanā). This is the meditation practice that steadily observes what is arising and passing away moment by moment in the stream of experience, with an attitude of equanimity. When practiced often, insight into the constant change, the inherent instability, and the impersonal nature of all phenomena gradually develops and matures into wisdom that is able to see clearly the way things actually are.