Is there an obvious or well-understood difference between "contemplation" and "meditation"?

I'm reading a book -- modern, probably Tibetan-language originally, translated into English -- talking about the "lack of fixation" and "realization of the nature of the mind". It says that all the Buddhas have taught this and,

There are two ways we can come to know it: through study and inference or by knowing it directly. The way we need to know it is through direct yogic experience in meditation. We need to develop the discernment that knows this. This discernment is not the intelligence of either listening or contemplation; it is the intelligence of meditation.

I don't know how to distinguish "contemplation" from "meditation" -- or "direct yogic experience" as opposed to an[y] other mental experience or phenomenon.

  • In case it's relevant, it mentions "equipoise" nearby, and it's in a chapter describing the "resting meditation of a skilful person" ("skilful" meaning that they can just go ahead and start meditating easily), as opposed to the "analytic meditation of a scholar").
    – ChrisW
    Oct 23, 2018 at 17:24

3 Answers 3


One way I've seen this difference defined was in a text about Dzogchen "meditation of non-meditation". They said that traditional meditation involves conditioning or shaping the mind, while contemplation involves watching without trying to manipulate. Dzogchen non-meditation was characterized as a type of contemplation, rather than regular meditation. Incidentally, the Zen meditation I was taught (a Korean type of Shikantaza) had also emphasized this non-manipulative aspect.

I don't think this is what "contemplation" means in your text though. It seems like when they refer to "contemplation" they mean "mulling over" as opposed to "seeing" directly. So it seems your book is making the same point as my sources ("just watch what's here") while confusingly using the opposite words to convey it.

  • 1
    The "conditioning or shaping the mind" sounds like Bhavana (sometimes I wonder how that co-exists with "non-becoming", Bhava, being an ideal). But OK, anyway, I think you answered the literal question: i.e. even if "meditation" and "contemplation" did mean something different, they seem to be used inconsistently by different people (so these two words can't be assumed to have a universal/inherent meaning, they might only highlight a context-specific distinction that's explained within the adjacent text).
    – ChrisW
    Oct 25, 2018 at 11:01

Normally, meditation is a word used for ''meditating on an object, as in a topic'', so it means what the quoted puthujjana calls ''listening or contemplation''. That's the christian and scholars sense, before secular humanists switched the word contemplation and mediation around. Descartes is the most famous meditator with his book called ''meditation''. To meditate means to considerate an idea for a long time.

THe good use of mediation for a puthujjana who wants to stop dukkha is as usual yoniso manasikara, typically, during or after contemplating, which means after getting the citta into samadhi, like the jhanas or sati-sampajanna.

Normally, contemplating is less intellectual, less discursive than meditation and the object of the contemplation is admirable, it is what matters. Contemplation is typically being absorbed by the topic (if it is ''intellectual'' like in yoniso manasikara) or by the senses (the usual meaning of contemplation), it is what today puthujjanas call ''meditation'', and with the christian it is contemplating jesus and his perfect love, sometimes the christian talks like they were in first jhana, but of course, christians struggle a lot to reach jhana, because they fail to have a good user manual and because they pollute their discourse (or interpretation like philosophers say) with their god and their cravings for true love, unconditional love, compassion and son on.

A puthujjana who wants to stop dukkha contemplate the famous ten contemplations, contemplation of anicca is 'Aniccasaññā '' meaning sanna of anicca, fighting directly sakkaya ditthi and lusts, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.060.piya.html or the various perfections of the buddha.

Puthujjanas swaps the two words around and it is really minor point. Puthujjanas love to intellectualize anything they hear, touch and experience, so they are bound to contemplate ideas, meaning they are bound to confuse meditation with contemplation.

Also, puthujjanas love to claim that ''intellectual knowledge'' exists and that ''inferences'' are not mere fairy tales. Phutjjanas create a hierarchy of knowledge. Puthujjanas love to claim that there are

  • direct knowledge through the usual 5 senses

  • intelectual knowledge, knowledge by inference, created by intellectuals, philosophers, daydreamers, logicians, scholars, speculators, rationalists... THose puthujjanas claim that truth is attained by ''inferences'' which are speculations or speculative statements which are validated by ''some principle'' (or ''inference rules'') that those puthujjanas have themselves created. the most famous rule of inference is called the ''modus ponens''. Afterwards, they build the concept of ''accuracy of a thought'', which is the fantasy that what they experience is captured by one of their statement [=''defini-tion]. according to those rationalists, this ''accuracy of a thought'' is how to validate a statement by ''nature itself'', instead of validating a statement by a chain of statements outputted by inference rules. When they claim that one of their statement is the truth, they claim that this statement describe accurately ''reality'' and if the statement was uttered before the event happened, they claim that ''the chain of inferences'' that they imagined which leads to this ''accurate statement'' describe the hidden workings of the nature, reality, cosmos, universe (phutjjanas who are scholars love to claim that reality has a veiled ''workings'' and that the senses and perceptions cannot access the truth which is the ''hidden workings'')

  • the religious phutjjanas claim that the memory of the scriptures is also knowledge

The rationalist Puthujjanas love to turn their speculations into ''knowledge'' because speculating and fantasizing is what they are good at and they have nothing else in their life. Rationalists love to claim that the ''senses are corruptible'' and that perception cannot lead to truth. Those philosophers quickly create the idea of relativism, of solipsism of ''subjective reality'', subjective truths, create the moronic dichotomy of ''objective-subjective'', of dualities, of relative truth, conventional truth and so on.

The claim of the buddha is precisely that sanna of admirable topics is what leads to nibanna or truth. Truth beyond an ''accurate statement'' is nibanna, truth beyond a statement is what gets you calm once and for all. Once you reach truth, you are not agitated and you no longer seek anything. Truth is what ends. ''Intellectual knowledge'' never ends.

  • When you wrote, "the various perfections of the buddha", I guess you're referring to Buddhānussati.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 25, 2018 at 11:51
  • Oddly, I would define these two words exactly the other way around. But then, I would not define mediation as 'meditation on an object' especially as I like objectless meditation. I feel Chris is correct to say that these words have no consistent meaning across different teaching systems. .
    – user14119
    Oct 25, 2018 at 11:56

Let me give you a concrete example...

Mumonkan - Case 6: The Buddha Holds Up a Flower

The Case:

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile. The Buddha said, "I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa."

Mumon's Comment:

Golden-faced Gautama really disregarded his listeners. He made the good look bad and sold dog's meat labeled as mutton. He himself thought it was wonderful. If, however, everyone in the audience had laughed, how could he have transmitted his True Eye? And again, if Mahakashyapa had not smiled, how could the Buddha have transmitted it? If you say the True Dharma Eye can be transmitted, then the golden-faced old man would be a city slicker who cheats the country bumpkin. If you say it cannot be transmitted, then why did the Buddha approve of Mahakashyapa?

Mumon's Verse:

Holding out a flower,
The Buddha betrayed his curly tail.
Heaven and earth were bewildered,
At Mahakashyapa's smile.

If you were given this koan in the Rinzai Zen tradition, your teacher would simply instruct you to say "flower" on your out breath leaving it up to you to determine why Mahakashyapa smiled. Now, there's a couple of different ways you can go about doing this. The way most people try initially is to sit down on the cushion and start mulling this over. "Flower", flower", they might think. "The Buddha raises a flower". "No doctrine". "Ah," they say to themselves with their own private smile, "this koan must be talking about the 'thusness' of the flower! Seeing that directly is to transmit the way without doctrine!"

And if you said that to your teacher, he'd laugh at you.

This is the method of inference or contemplation. And it's really no different than getting a Bible verse or a poem and trying to wrestle out its meaning. People do this all the time in Buddhism. With the Heart Sutra, for instance, they may try to tease out the importance of the relationship between form and emptiness. They might be able to talk for days about what form is and what emptiness is. In fact, there are entire books dedicated to this sort of thing. But none of that has anything to do with the Heart Sutra itself. You actually have to watch form and emptiness collapse into each other to know what it's really getting at.

So what's the alternative? In our example above, rather than mulling over the word "flower", you'd just focus on your breath and say "flower". That's it. Over and over again, on every exhalation, "flooooooooweeeeer, flooooooooweeeeer". You would have no thought of what "flower" might mean in the context of the koan. You wouldn't even be aware of the meaning of the word "flower" as you said it. Just "flower, flower".

As you did that, your concentration would deepen just as it would with any other form of anapanasati. You would just sit in samadhi - in emptiness - with a feeling of trust and openness. And then you'd turn your mind back to the world of form. If your concentration was deep enough and if your mind was properly prepared (and there is virtually no way of knowing when insight will strike), something somewhere in the world of form you might leap out at you. It might be a feeling, it might be a verbal insight, it might even be a compulsion to get on your hands and knees and start hopping around like a bunny rabbit! Something, somewhere becomes evident that is specifically related to the word you repeated on your out breath. In that instant, form and emptiness collapse in a way specific to the koan. You might use the exact same process with a sutta verse, or a vipassana subject, or any other vehicle of insight practice. What's important is that you use concentration practice as a catalyst for insight. We go down into the depths and return with pearls. That's the real intelligence of meditation.

  • I don't mean to be rude but I don't understand why deciding to hop like a bunny or anything like that might be compared to returning with a pearl -- it seems more like madness, does it not? Or like "the head of a dead cat", whatever that was supposed to mean. I suppose I'm missing something (i.e. uneducated) about the goal (if any) or method or theory of Rinzai.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 24, 2018 at 10:33
  • It's just content coming up from the unconscious. Sometimes that manifests clearly in a way that seems logical to our small minds. Other times, the content of our bigger mind, our Buddha nature, doesn't fit so neatly. When working with a koan, how we express the answer isn't always as important as the fact that we came back up with something. Sometimes what we find is "wrong" in the sense that it doesn't fit with in the bounds of what the koan is getting at. The "right" answer, however, usually falls within a certain range of expression. And sometimes that could be hopping like a bunny!
    – user14100
    Oct 24, 2018 at 12:47

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