19 July 2010

How we practice contemplation

It has come to my attention that some readers of this blog live nowhere near Washington, DC and may have very little experience with Tendai Buddhism, but still might like to try the contemplations I post here for the local sangha. I say: Yes, please join in, you're welcome here, I'm delighted and humbled to have you, there's coffee in the kitchen and a seat with your name on it in the main room.

Now what?

Please allow me to explain how we do contemplation practice in our school, so you can get some use out of these things. These are instructions that are tailored for individual practice but the principles are the same for group practice too.

First, you cultivate an attitude appropriate to practice: reviewing the bodhisattva vows is one useful approach. The idea is to do this with purpose and conviction, so put your work face on and get ready mentally. Be seated in meditative posture: not too loose, not too tight, find the sweet spot where your hips support your shoulders and your heart is lifted up a bit in a gesture of generosity. You'll be here for a while, so be steady.

At the start you are given a prompt. This may be just a few spoken words, or an image, or a slightly longer text in written form. There it is. What to do with it?

Drink it in like mountain spring water. Dissolve yourself into it. Let it shine through you like sunlight through a canopy of treetops, like sunlight through a clear windowpane, like a lightning flash through the blur of a rainstorm. That is all: do not accept or reject, do not make something out of it, do not make nothing out of it, just return to the words at regular intervals and let them wash over you. Refrain from believing or disbelieving in the object of contemplation. Does a tuning fork evaluate its own pitch when it is struck, or does it do the smart thing and just resonate? Does a thunderhead stop to check or critique or deconstruct or recontextualize or emote over worst of all make personal the gush of lightning that illuminates it and burns it up from the inside out? Just let 'er rip!

Contemplation may provoke emotional or mental or even physical responses. Faith, gratitude, confusion, boredom, aversion, arousal: it all comes up. You may laugh or weep or sleep. These come and go.

A practical point if you are contemplating on your own: budget at least thirty minutes of active practice time. Be sure to read the text out loud in a clear voice and at a slow, gentle pace. You might imagine you are reading to a sleepy child or trying to get through to someone on a bad telephone connection. Do it in your natural everyday voice, though. Don't be dramatic about it, don't try to sound profound or meaningful or important, just get the message through as you are (because you are profound and meaningful enough just as you are, as you were born). Keep going, come back to it when you lose the thread.

When you finish, dedicate your merit to the great work of enlightenment on behalf of all sentient beings without exception. Endeavor to carry this contemplation-mind throughout your daily activities and into your dreams too.


  1. Well done and very well put!


  2. Sorry, I'm new to it. Do you mean that the sentence should be recited as a mantra during the whole meditation period, or should it be read out loud just once? Thanks, Luca

  3. Hi Luca,

    Good to hear from you.

    I like to read these teachings out loud more than once, slowly, and several times silently.

    This is not mantra practice.

    Please feel free to ask any questions you may have.

    All the best,

  4. I have had this question before but never had the opportunity to ask. I am one of those folks for whom sitting in the "correct" position (I'll call it the lotus position), my legs go completely to sleep and are totally numb! Sitting on the floor is almost impossible! Can I get the same quality out of sitting comfortably in a chair? I would love to visit your sangha and will endeavor to do so. Thank you for this page!

  5. Hi Jon,

    I no longer sit for long periods on the floor due to injuries to my knees, or often. It's not an unusual situation.

    Many of our sangha members sit in chairs. The most important point is to keep your back straight and give yourself enough space so that you can breathe freely (that is, not sunk back into a chair or slouching). I like to use a stool so that I'm elevated but I'm still free to keep my body aligned the way it should be. Part of practice is finding what works for you, and then doing that.

    It's helpful to have a knowledgeable third party check your posture. Sometimes a small correction in alignment can go a long way toward preventing discomfort or even injury. And it also helps to stay flexible, especially in the hamstrings.

    I hope some of this is useful to you.

    All the best,