Contemplative vs. Meditative Life Practices


By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

The term meditation is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the perfected practice of contemplation.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic contemplative traditions either than a kind of common understanding that attempts to elevate such a practice above the ordinary Buddhist practitioner by initiating him into a realm of esoteric knowledge and  experience.  And tries to deliver him from the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevating him to the privileged state among the “spiritually pure,” as if he were almost an enlightened ox, untouched by matters and passion alien to the realities of the Four Noble Truths and no longer familiar with the controlled-conscious state of mind that drives everyday human activities.  

While it is often common to find meditation sessions within a Sangha or public space, especially among lay practitioners, the state of practice of a contemplative is more often accomplished in solitude during moments of self-searching where the uncontrolled-conscious state has found a place of refuge within a mind perfected during mindful meditation practices.  The way of genuine contemplation brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the contemplative moment for its own purpose.  This is why it is most important to prepare for our contemplative practice by way of mindful meditation in order to quite the ego-mind state so we can be free from the stresses of the false self.  This kind of false self is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in self imposed unsatisfactoriness. 

This is why a dedicated life of contemplation has generally been done in a monastic community. However, my root teacher often would say that our Buddhist practice, our meditative life in this modern era, is often done outside the walls of a monastery, thus the “world becomes our  monastery.”  This kind of worldly life in its own way promotes an illusory distance to ordinary distractions when our contemplative practice establishes some kind of barrier for us to utilize in our moments of solitude.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more bearable because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes, and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine self forgetfulness that can also promote spiritual energy that sustains a contemplative practiced life.  

Underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life.  This self questioning can never be without a certain existential dread, a sense of insecurity that if we are not careful can divide our spiritual being away from the reality that we are all struggling with how to be human at the same time.  In more advanced practices of meditation and contemplation we must become aware not to be distracted with thoughts that we are being untrue not so much to abstract moral or cultural norms but to one’s own inmost truths as everyday common experiences seep into our contemplating thoughts.  This can promote thinking that we are living a lie, that we are only pretending to live up to the ideals of what a contemplative life should be, not what we are doing is.  

True embrace of moments of silence is the answer to thoughts we are living a lie.  Within silence we will find the energy to move toward wisdom beyond wisdom.  As we move closer to this reality, we do so by being more empty of what we thought the world required of us.  This reinforces that Buddhism is a practice of subtraction not addition.  Therefore those of us that have adopted the contemplative practiced life enters into communion with this silence that moves through us into our world for the benefit of all beings.  


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2 responses to “Contemplative vs. Meditative Life Practices

  1. Garymlong

    Wonderful explanation of ” the moments of silence! “, forever grateful! 🙏

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