This paper argues that the multiple orientalist expressions that flowed from British pens in nineteenth century Sri Lanka are of use to the scholar of Buddhism, in that they can not only shed light on the growth of Buddhist modernism and the use of the term ‘meditation’ within it, but also on Sri Lankan Buddhist practice on the ground. It first surveys the preconceptions of the British about the concept of ‘meditation’. It then examines the writings of a representative selection of scholar civil servants and Christian missionaries who were resident in Sri Lanka within the century. This data reveal that a vibrant culture of Buddhist devotion and preaching existed throughout the century, together, among the laity, with the practice of ‘meditation’ on objects related to insight into reality. Additionally, it suggests that the jhānas, although hard for westerners to understand, were an important part of Buddhist self-understanding. The paper, therefore, argues that the priority given to vipassanā as the essence of meditation within Buddhist Modernism is a reduction of the diversity within traditional practice and a distortion of the traditionally recognised interrelationship between the jhānas and other forms of mental culture.