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Having gained an accurate semantic understanding[1] of the Buddhist presentation of any particular topic (known as the prajna arising from listening), we have the fundament for engaging in the delicious, exhilarating practice of contemplation. This is where we bring our own views, ideas, and beliefs into an active dialogue with the Dharma.[2]

Of the three phases of integrative practice, contemplation is the most diverse in form. Contemplation can be a conversation with a friend, mulling over reasonings in our head, analyzing the teachings as we drive to work or take a shower, journaling through our questions, creating art or songs or poetry as we process the Dharma to which we listened in the context of our own life experiences and beliefs.

Contemplation involves excavating both what the Dharma says about reality as well as the beliefs we hold regarding it—and bringing the two face to face.

The Tibetan term and its English equivalents are helpful in understanding what is happening experientially. The Tibetan sam (Wyl. bsam) simply means to think, conceptualize, or reflect. Indeed, reflection and thinking are common renderings into English of the term. We prefer the English "contemplate" because its etymology points to a critical point of practice.

The English word CONTEMPLATE originates from the Latin contemplatus, from com- + -templari, -templare: "to look at fixedly, observe, notice, ponder." The root templum is based on the Indo-European verbal base tem- meaning "cut" and meant "space of sky or land delimited orally by an augur, piece of ground used for taking auspices, sacred precinct, building consecrated to a deity." An augur is a diviner, a soothsayer or prophet, not of the fortune-telling variety, but one who could read the signs impacting the likelihood of success of an undertaking. One in the know, as it were. The term is related to the English time (tempo) and temple (the edifice, as well as the points on the sides of the head.) [1]

From this brief journey into language (trust us, if you follow Yeshe's sojourns into language, you will be gone with her for days, if not weeks or months), we find that contemplate refers to a dimension of space and time that is cut away from the rest, set aside and bounded for spiritual purpose by one knowledgeable concerning its probable success.

This is precisely what is happening in the contemplation of integrative practice. We are not just thinking willy-nilly. We are remaining within the bounds of a teaching to which we have listened, perhaps memorized to some extent. Something we know, through the prajna arising from listening. Within that structured space, we are free to roam the parameters of the topic and engage it in this respect and that, turning the thing one way and another, until we have a conceptual understanding of it.

Contemplation thus understood occurs intellectually, and is outward turned, examining knowledge attained through listening, within the conceptual limits of the topic. This allows for meaningful, productive engagement with the topic, rather than a kind of associative thinking that spirals out of control due to lack of restraint.

Thsu, during contemplation, we mainly refine and clarify our understanding of life, the world, and it’s workings through the lens of Buddhadharma. Not understanding, confusion, or getting lost during this stage points to the need for further work. Perhaps we listen more, or discuss and debate with our Dharma friends, or ask questions of our teachers. This phase of contemplation includes whatever we need to reach some clarity of knowing for ourselves.

This knowing may be in line with the teachings or it may simply be the knowing that we are not clear on the topic. Even knowing that we don’t understand, when consciously recognized, is a form of clear knowing. We are certain about our experience. This is a valuable steppingstone in the practice, becoming more intimate with our experience. And it points us to what is the appropriate next step for us: perhaps we need more information (more listening), or just need to think it over some more (more contemplation), or we have arrived at a sense of knowing clearly for ourselves and are unsure of what to do next with this sense (meditate!). These three phases of integrative practice have a dynamic, interwoven flow.

In contemplation we take the particular topic or teaching we are working with and examine to see if it makes sense to us in our lives: Does it match our experience? Does it fit with the way the world seems to us to work? Does it make sense? If not, why not? Be precise. Be curious. Be insatiable in your need to penetrate thoroughly. After all, we are talking about a deeply personal understanding of the meanings of life and reality.

A word of caution: if something doesn’t make sense to us, rather than give in to our instinctive hubris of assuming that we are in the right, cultivate the habit of leaning into curiosity. Investigate. Play “what if?”. What if this teaching was correct? How would that change my life? Why do I believe what I do? Do I have clear, thought out arguments for my beliefs, or are they more like unexamined assumptions?

To clarify this process a bit more, let's continue with the example that we took up in the post on listening. In the process of developing a clearer understanding of the Buddhist teachings on mortality, we naturally will be consider whether we believe what the Buddha is teaching about death. Perhaps we feel that while death is certain, we can't go so far as to believe that there is something that comes after death. Death is the final end, period.

This presents an juncture in our practice. We can assume we are right and look no deeper, or we can engage in contemplation practice directly. Investigate: "why do I believe that death is the ultimate end? On what logic am I basing that belief? Why am I so convinced that it is that way? What if it is not how I believe it to be?"

Another choice is to allow our doubts to lead us back to deepening our practice of listening. We might investigate in more depth why it is that Buddhism holds that the continuum of consciousness continues after the moment of death. This in turn can open up a whole new understanding of not only foundational Buddhist tenets such as karma (volitional action), past and future lives, and samsara (cyclic existence), but also of our immediate experience of our very own consciousness moment-to-moment.

Whatever we choose, anything other than a knee-jerk unexamined assumption that we are right, provides us with avenues for going deeper into integrative practice. This in turn sets us up for generating the precise knowledge arising from contemplation—described as clear knowing or certainty that cuts through superimposition. That clear knowing is the raw material for the specific kind of meditation that is the next step of integrative practice.

To Illustrate what this clear knowing might look like, let's continue with our example. Assume that we do investigate our personal belief that death is the final end with nothing following it. Perhaps we see that we have assumed that simply due to the common view of our scientific materialism (believing only what can be validated by the senses). When we dig deeper, maybe we find that we do not have much in the way of logic to support our view.

Now we investigate, both our beliefs and Buddhist explanations, perhaps employing some of the experiential techniques of working with the subtleties of the arising and ceasing of our consciousness moment to moment. It may be that our view changes, to where it makes vivid sense that there is something that comes after death. We have a moment of epiphany, a eureka moment, that cuts through our previous unexamined assuption.

Now this seems “certain” to us, we experience this understanding as making the most sense. This may be a gut-level, visceral reaction—which can often happen when we work with the idea of death—or it may simply be a strong intellectual belief ‘Oh, that is the way it is.” Either way, it is an understanding that has a clear quality intellectually, one that we comprehend and wish to employ in shaping our lives.

We neither can force ourselves to believe this (or any other idea), nor do we need to do so. We can, however, reason with mind. When we get to the point of a clear knowing that cuts through previously held superimpositions (conceptual ideas about reality), that is the prajna arising from contemplation.

This is an important breakthrough. Nevertheless, it is still held at an intellectual level. We may believe this with great might cognitively, yet it does not have a durable impact on our behavior until we integrate it more deeply in meditation.

[1] For a brief discussion of what an “accurate understanding” entails please refer to the Prajna Rising article on listening. [2] I don’t mean to make this sound like a strictly linear, clearly progressive series of steps; in practical application, we, of course, frequently are engaged in contemplation while we listen or study. That is appropriate and helpful. However, there is a great deal to be gained by delineating the stages of listening and contemplating from each other so as to more clearly understand the role and goals of each. [1] See History and Etymology for Contemplate; Temple; Augur. © 2020 Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.


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