The Lost Art of Contemplation

by | Meditation

This article was originally published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (February 1, 2021).

The Importance of Contemplation

In today’s fast-paced world, it can be challenging to slow down and contemplate. However, learning the art of contemplation can transform you from within and fully incorporate the dharma into your life.

The Three Prajnas

The three prajnas, or “wisdom tools,” of hearing, contemplating, and meditating are designed to facilitate the embodiment of the dharma. Hearing is the first step, but it is still conceptual. Contemplation is crucial, as it breaks down the teachings into truth and works it into an embodied understanding. Then, through meditation, all the excess concepts are filtered out, and the teachings are fully assimilated, giving us pure wisdom to power our spiritual activities.

The Pitfalls of Skipping Contemplation

Eager practitioners often race from a dharma talk to the meditation cushion to begin the “real” spiritual practice and end up skipping or rushing through the crucial intermediate step of contemplating. This is akin to a runner gobbling down a big meal moments before a race. Without proper digestion, the food would make them sick. Similarly, without giving ourselves time to contemplate and digest the teachings, we won’t fully absorb their wisdom and may end up intellectually bloated.

Transforming Your Perception of the World

Contemplation has the power to alter the way we perceive things and talk us into a different reality. As Padmasambhava said, “Changes in one’s train of thoughts produce corresponding changes in one’s conception of the external world. As a thing is viewed, so it appears.” By breaking down the intellectual presentation of the dharma until it becomes a part of who we are, we can experience a profound shift in our thinking.

As the 3rd-century Chinese scholar Xunzi (Hsün-tzu) wrote:

The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth, the words have affected only the four inches between ear and mouth. Instead, the aim for a wise man should be that learning enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions.

That’s not to say that we should ignore the concepts. The master Buddhist logician Dharmakirti (6th or 7th century CE) discussed a process he called “the refinement of concepts.” Sanskrit scholar Ben Williams explains that for Dharmakirti the “non-conceptual apprehension of reality” is cultivated by working with concepts, like the four noble truths, until the teaching and our perception of the world “sheds its conceptual character in an utterly pristine and vivid apprehension of reality.” When used this way, “doing philosophy, particularly dialectically, is a profound tool of contemplation,” Professor Williams writes.


Contemplation is a practice, and as with any other practice (mindful eating, for instance), you may need a bit of time to get used to it. The following tips will help you get the dharma into your system, where it will begin to transform you from within. Take them to heart.

  1. When contemplating a teaching or story, make sure it resonates with you. If it doesn’t, massage the traditional wording until it does. Without changing the meaning, replace imagery like elephants or chariots with modern equivalents (cars or an iPad). Make the story your own. But keep in mind that the near enemies of adaptation are appropriation and diversion.
  2. Look up the definitions and etymologies of any words you don’t know, especially if you plan on changing them. The goal is to become familiar with the literal or provisional meaning of the terms, which in Sanskrit is called neyartha. (Traditionally, one would memorize the contemplation text at this stage.)
  3. After learning the neyartha, transition to nitartha, the true or definitive meaning. This is accomplished by pondering the meaning more deeply and allowing your mind to roam through associated ideas. Ask yourself, “How would I experience life if I felt the truth of this statement fully?” Imagine how you might move through the world differently if you were carrying this truth with you.
  4. When you start to get bored with the contemplation and think you understand it thoroughly, sit with it and meditate. Getting it into your system requires repetition of the words, like the practice of a mantra. Seek a deeper understanding than you can get through the intellect. (Many contemplatives will try to get beyond their own powers by asking for help from a deity like Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.) Then allow whatever arises to arise. If the meditation becomes stagnant, ask a question like “Is there anything more?” Sit and wait quietly. There often comes a moment of openness right after asking. In that gap lies the wordless answer. Keep revisiting that moment by re-asking the question. Questions are more important than answers.
  5. Sleep on it. For a few days or weeks, go to sleep with the passage you’re contemplating, wake up with it, and revisit it throughout the day. Let your body and unconscious mind work underground to process, digest, and metabolize the teaching. Sleeping builds connections between distantly related bits of information that are not obvious during the day. Deeper aspects of your being are at work while you sleep and dream, as the teachings germinate below the radar of your conscious mind. You may even dream about the teaching. Bottom line: if you don’t snooze, you lose. Contemplation matures into silent meditation. You’ve metabolized the teaching, and it leaves you speechless.
  6. If you work on the contemplation, it will start to work on you. This is the crux of the Tibetan practice of engaging lojong (“mind training”) slogans, brief contemplations that are designed to chime into your mind, often when you need them the most. With contemplation practice, similarly, you’re installing a host of “pop-ups” deep into your body-mind that will start to ping in your awareness at random times. You may be in a difficult situation when suddenly, magically, a teaching pops up in the nick of time. This is a gift from the guru—the ultimate teacher within. According to Tibetan Buddhist bardo teachings about the transition from this life to the next, the wisdom attained through your contemplations and meditations will follow and guide you after death. The inner guru will greet you and take good care of you.
  7. Inquire into any resistance you may have to receiving the wisdom of the material being contemplated. Is the contemplation irritating you? Some people get “notion sickness” with material that is hard to digest, and even “throw up.” Contemplation is a mental yoga, and that resistance you’re feeling is like a stretch. Keep working with the contemplation, easing more deeply into it. As with any other stretch, you won’t get better results by going too fast.  Resistance and fear can be signs. You’re getting closer to the truth (of egolessness and emptiness), and ego’s hidden defenses spring into action. Fear is an expression of ignorance (we’re afraid of what we don’t know), which is precisely what the contemplation is beginning to penetrate. Follow that fear, and it will lead you to the truth. As you investigate any resistance, you may discover a conflict of interest. Part of you longs to hear the truth, but another part of you doesn’t want anything to do with it. Be kind to yourself, stay the course, and be patient.
  8. Let the teachings defeat you. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it, “Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings” (Trans. Robert Bly). That doesn’t mean you should give up without trying. Keep going until the contemplation checkmates the conceptual mind—stuns it into silence. Notice that the more advanced a teaching gets the less there is to say. At the highest levels, nothing can be said; the 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This is where the contemplation is brought to fruition and matures into silent meditation. You’ve finally metabolized the teaching, and it leaves you speechless.
  9. Drop it. Let the contemplation go. But observe how the wisdom, once you have fully internalized it, begins to perfume your life. An incorporated contemplation is a living reality that transforms into a pulsating power within you. Perhaps you have encountered a person who has so metabolized the teachings that their mere presence can inform and transform others, without their needing to say a word, because the word has become flesh. That’s what happens when you do the work. The teaching becomes you.

This article was originally published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (February 1, 2021).

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