Silence is the normal context in which a contemplative practice takes place. Not the physical, but the mental state of quiet. There is the outer silence that can surround us at times. But it is the inner silence that is the challenge. The quieting of the busy-busy mind we work to achieve in mindful meditation or zazen. In zazen, we practice to not follow our thoughts. But the contemplative state moves beyond this. We sit to listen to the quiet. And that quiet is heavy by nature. We become quiet itself. It is at the intersection of mindful mediation and this inner quiet that a contemplative practice begins. Our meditation practice prepares us for our contemplative one. They are not the same. Zazen is study of the self in order to know the self. With that accomplishment we become ready to experience the Universe beyond just it’s material expression. Contemplative thought is a practice that brings about this third aspect of zazen, while mindful meditation works to achieve the first two. Insight beyond the spoken language is the mind state of the contemplative. We focus on a thought so we can manifest a contemplative-state of mind no longer requiring the thinking process to continue. We are propelled into inner quiet. It is an awareness of “something” beyond language to express, but our human capability to experience this wonder does not require a language to understand.
The intentional silence we invoke in our monastic insight-practice allows us to detach ourselves in order to listen for awakened moments. Yes, these moments can come to us in zazen too. But where zazen is not structured generally (zazen = just sitting), contemplative practice requires a structure that is mentally erected for the purpose of standing-on-silence. We learn to follow this silence with skill. What an untrained individual may think as sitting zazen is really a form of contemplation without much discipline. When an experienced individual brings a koan into their sitting practice, they have moved into the complex practice of “contemplative zazen” in the unconditioned mind state.
From a monastic perspective, regardless of it’s tradition, there is a common affirmation that adding a contemplative practice alongside zazen is essential for experiencing awareness of our interconnectiveness with all other Universal expressions. Zazen prepares our body-mind so we can move into insight-contemplation: don’t follow, follow. Penetrating this difference is the key for a successful contemplative life. We embrace the monastic life because it gives us a continuous opportunity for nourishing the state of mind necessary for awakening to the realities of the Universe. We can do it with zazen. We can do it with contemplative practice. But together, our monastic life expands into a different dimension.