These instructions, which appear across traditions, sound so simple that we may imagine they’re self-explanatory. Lama Karma Yeshe Chödrön invites us to look deeper.
When I first arrived at Pullahari Monastery in the hills overlooking Boudhanath twenty years ago, I had completed a graduate degree in biology and left a law career in Silicon Valley, the tech bubble bursting flamboyantly behind me as I winged my way to Nepal. If there was one thing I knew how to do, it was study.
I wanted to know. Not ride the coattails of those who said they knew. Not assume that I knew. Not hope, think, or believe that I knew. To know the dharma with immediacy, deep within, in the very tissues of my body. Knowledge is power, they say. I sought empowerment.
Listening begins well before the ears start twitching, with an itch in the heart seeking truth, leading us to find a reliable teacher from whom we hear the words of dharma.
An intensive philosophy and meditation program conceived by His Eminence the Third Jamgon Rinpoche and birthed by Kyabje Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche after Rinpoche’s passing in 1992, Rigpe Dorje Institute for International Students was by then in the hands of a brilliant young scholar–lama, Drupon Khenpo Lodro Namgyal. Drupon Khenpo’s exquisite finesse in marrying theory and practice, and in encouraging principled, individual engagement with the dharma, changed my approach to Buddhist study and practice from one of objective fascination to personal exploration. This changed my life.
And it all began with three deceptively familiar words: Listen. Contemplate. Meditate.
Seasoned dharma students across Buddhist traditions are likely to have heard some version of this instruction. On one hand, there seems to be nothing much to it. And to an extent, that’s true. Who does not have some understanding of what each of these terms means? They are so simple—and we, so sure we understand—that it may never occur to us to question them.
So we listen to teachings, or we read them. Later, we think about them. Perhaps mention them to others over the next few days or weeks. Points that touch us deeply, we may treasure and share over months and even years, even if we no longer recall the full context. At some point or other, we meditate, using any of the many Buddhist techniques.
And there’s the rub.
This phrasing of three everyday terms is a shorthand. Its rhythm is anything but the staccato implied by the stark sequential strokes of “Listen. Contemplate. Meditate,” each term distinct from the others. Its telegraphic quality belies a profound, intertwined practice for integrating buddhadharma.
No surprise, then, that it took me some time to catch on to the point that listen meant more than listen. Ditto for contemplate and meditate. Still more for the combination of the three. The words seemed simplistic, well below my lofty aspiration to embody the dharma.
But thanks to Drupon Khenpo’s meticulous delineation of the workings of “the threefold practice of listening, contemplating, and meditating” (Tib. thos bsam sgom gsum), in time, I did catch on. This “integrative dharma practice,” as I have come to call it, brought me down to earth, grounding and rooting me in the words of the Buddha, becoming my beacon for engaging the dharma in depth, living it vibrantly, and taking it into the very marrow of my bones.
After decades of study, practice, text translation, oral interpreting, a three-year Vajrayana cloistered retreat, and dharma teaching, I prize this method above all for its universal accessibility and remarkable efficacy in meeting us where we are, bringing buddhadharma into our lives with authenticity and joy.
In my experience with my own practice as well as in guiding others, there is nothing remotely staid to this threefold practice. Rather, it is a dynamic process, transformative and deeply personal—even intimate.
The elliptical phrase listen, contemplate, meditate functions as a mnemonic, each term in the triad signaling an embedded context. Each is the tip of a dharma iceberg that rewards an expedition of discovery.
Metaphors abound to convey the physicality of taking in teachings, turning them about in the mind, and absorbing them into our heart: ingesting, digesting, and absorbing food. Dipping into, immersing oneself, and drinking the water of a pristine mountain lake. Cutting, rubbing, and burning ore, like a goldsmith assaying for gold.
Symbolizing the move from greeting to meeting to knowing the Buddha’s teachings, these evocative images denote a graduated process of cultivating familiarity, the core meaning of the Tibetan sgom (Skr. bhavana), usually translated as “meditation.” But with what, exactly, are we becoming familiar?
Listen, contemplate, meditate. This process familiarizes us with prajna, the precise knowing intrinsic to mind. By degrees, it invokes, instills, and incorporates prajna organically, yielding an independence in the dharma that nevertheless remains grounded in reliable approaches to embodying the Buddha’s teachings. A radical orthodoxy, if you will.
A distillation of Buddha’s contemplative technology, beginning as early as our initial forays into Buddhist thought, listen, contemplate, meditate is a practice that accompanies us throughout the path, reaching its full bloom in realization, the transcendence of words and meaning in an unmediated experience of the reality to which prajna orients us.
How in the world does such a thing play out?
To “listen” means to take in the words of the teachings. Our attention is directed outwardly, greeting words as they flow to us—from a teacher in person, or a classical text, modern book, YouTube video, or what have you. This is the input stage, sometimes translated as hearing or studying.
Nowadays, this phase may or may not be actively aural in character. Nonetheless, I find value in retaining listening’s sense of physicality and resonance with the oral tradition in which Buddha’s teachings are rooted. Imagining myself amongst the sangha listening to the Buddha, arhats, and bodhisattvas presenting the teachings, I am inspired to be as receptive as they were, primed and ready to take the teachings into experience.
Enacting the listening element of integrative dharma practice boils down to precisely that: fostering receptivity. It begins well before the ears start twitching, with an itch in the heart seeking truth, leading us to find a reliable teacher, from whom we hear the words of dharma.
The heart’s urgency yields a natural inclination toward the teaching. Leaning in to give ear, we pay attention to it, our interest powerful enough to quell distraction before it gains noticeable strength. In this atmosphere, retention of the teachings follows, which may manifest as remembering the substance with clarity or even being moved to memorize all or part of it.
Thus, listening, in the context of listen, contemplate, meditate, is multidimensional in character; it is more than simply hearing. Direct engagement with the words is essential to laying a stable foundation for later stages.
The practice of listening includes clarifying terminology of the teachings, particularly when specialized dharma terminology is involved. This stage ensures that we dispel any misconceptions and develop a sound understanding of the meaning as intended in the given teaching.
This may include unearthing any personal connotations we have with words used in the teaching. When these are out of sync, we may incorporate additional words that also convey the meaning accurately and resonate more for us personally. The intent here is not to appropriate the linguistic heritage of dharma to match our views. Rather, the purpose is to penetrate the intended meaning with immediacy, quickening the heart.
In the process of listening, we turn outward, focused on a teacher or teaching, and in doing so, we arrive at semantic understanding: an accurate, basic comprehension of the terminology. This is the first degree of prajna, known as “the precise knowing arising from listening” (Tib. thos ‘byung gi shes rab; Skr. śrutamayi prajna).
This semantic prajna next becomes the object of contemplation. At the center of this threefold dynamic of integrative dharma practice, contemplating serves as the bridge between listening and meditating. In this stage, we examine the meaning of the words we heard and understood in the listening phase, refining our understanding for engagement in the meditation to come.
The physical process of eating offers a useful metaphor for understanding the process. When we ingest food, we begin to break it down in the mouth, as food mixes with enzymes in the saliva, before reaching the stomach. Similarly, the raw prajna developed during listening at first undergoes a coarse processing. Contemplation receives the semantic understanding that comes of that, refining it further still. Like the stomach digesting food softened in the mouth, contemplation is crucial to refining understanding so its nourishment is accessible and amenable to fine processing in meditation.
With contemplation, the goal is to accurately comprehend the teaching. This often involves asking questions, engaging in discussion, and challenging ourselves, especially when we think we’ve “got it.”
In contemplation, we apply our intellect to analyze the teachings using scripture and logical reasoning. We may use straight-up research and study of texts, zeroing in on any confusion, doubts, or hesitations. We may ask clarifying questions of teachers or engage in discussion with fellow students. Tibetan monastic college culture famously employs overtly physical debate to sharpen students’ understanding. Writing out the scriptures or teachings, as well as reading, translating, and memorizing them, are also common forms of contemplation. Contemporary students engaged in contemplation might employ notetaking, journaling, outlining, drawing, writing poetry, composing dharma songs, movement, and the like, activating our creativity to shape an accurate semantic understanding of the teachings in question and then break it down further, until we have a richer comprehension of the topic in question.
The Tibetan word bsam, or “contemplate,” means to think, imagine, reflect, consider. Contemplation is not just thinking willy-nilly; it is not free association, which readily spirals out of control. Rather, the contemplative stance is contained, occupying the full reach of its topic, seeking to understand it accurately, on its own terms. Within that boundaried space, we roam freely, exploring the parameters of the teaching. The effect is akin to poetic meter, rhyme, and verse, whose very structure inspires freedom.
As with listening, contemplation is outward-turned. After all, we are engaging others about the topic—discussing, debating, researching, and questioning. Crucially, we apply our critical thinking skills not only to the teaching at hand but also to our assumptions and biases. We do not necessarily subscribe to the subject matter. In sharpening the semantic understanding of the teaching we heard with receptivity, healthy doubt is essential.
Not questioning the teachings leaves us skimming the surface, not penetrating. Not tackling our opinions, personal history, and cultural narratives gives our own biases a free pass. The goal is to accurately comprehend the teaching. This often involves asking questions, engaging in discussion, and challenging ourselves, especially when we think we’ve “got it.”
The investigation, however, is not purely clinical. We are building a relationship of intimacy with the Buddha through his teachings. And just as in any meaningful relationship, we will change as we encounter surprises, resistance, fear, hesitation, and confusion, together with flashes of joy, clarity, and discovery. None of it is to be rejected. Finding gaps in our knowledge directs us back to listening; increasing clarity nudges us toward meditation.
All the while, the dharma is the still point at the center of our wonder, friction, and doubt. Around that gravitational center, space opens up, and within it, an inner pivot forms, one from which we can engage in dialogue between the teaching and our experience.
Contemplating the topic in this way culminates in clear knowing (Tib. nges she), defined as an unmistaken intellectual understanding of the general meaning of the topic. This intellectual understanding that cuts through superimposition is “the prajna arising from contemplating” (Tib. bsam ‘byung gi shes rab; Skr. cintamayi prajna), which we can then take into meditation.
Now things start to get personal. The electric quality of clear knowing fuels enthusiasm to refine our understanding further still; we are eager to engage the prajnas invoked and instilled in listening and contemplating more directly.
Meditation cultivates familiarity with the topic right within our own experience, processing it to a level of deep, visceral intimacy. This culminating phase of the process is the purpose of listening and contemplating. To get stuck, lost, or enamored of earlier stages and forgo the meditation for which they lay the groundwork cheats us of the vital, transformative heart of this practice.
Although the move from listening to contemplating to meditating sounds linear when explained, in practice, each phase arcs back and forth any number of times, responsive to our individual needs. The trajectory is more a spiral than a straight line. Moreover, this dynamic applies to each and every topic we listen to, contemplate, and meditate upon.
As far as I can tell, the particular meditation style of this integrative dharma practice is not often found outside Tibetan Buddhism
(I heartily welcome information to the contrary). I teach the practice as I learned it, from the perspective of the Mahamudra view in the Karma Kagyu lineage.
Combining two styles of mental cultivation, the meditation of listen, contemplate, meditate alternates dynamically between resting meditation (Tib. ‘jog sgom) and meditative inquiry (Tib. dpyad sgom), corresponding to shamatha and vipashyana, respectively. The key component is meditative inquiry, a departure from the iconic image of a meditator whose quiescent mind is absorbed in bliss, free of thoughts.
Meditative inquiry is introspective, and analytical in flavor. Nevertheless, the analysis is experiential in quality, distinct from the abstract discursive thinking that animates contemplation or everyday decision-making. Experiential analysis has a measure of physicality. I liken it to fumbling in the dark to find our glasses when the power goes out in an unfamiliar hotel room, as opposed to lying in bed tracing our steps, pondering where we might have left them.
Like the circulatory system transporting nutrients from digested food to the cells for use, meditative inquiry processes the semantic and intellectual prajnas finely, directing the resultant experiential understanding that results to resting meditation for absorption.
Meditation cultivates familiarity with the topic right within our own experience, processing it to a level of deep, visceral intimacy.
In formal practice, we begin by laying a foundation of shamatha, cultivating the tranquil ease born of balancing the lucidity and stillness inherent to mind to whatever extent we can. Right within that luminous tranquility—hands outstretched in a darkened room—we investigate and examine our topic with delicate precision.
Familiar with the topic and its bounds, we have experienced clear knowing during contemplation. Meditative inquiry turns inward to analyze this contemplative prajna against our own experience. This gentle experiential analysis proceeds along the lines of an inner exchange between our views, opinions, and experience on one hand, and on the other, the teachings of the Buddha and the masters represented by our principled cultivation of accurate semantic and intellectual understanding.
By turns, we take the Buddha’s stance to question our views, then our own perspective to examine the Buddha’s. This inner dialogue eventually yields a fresh experience of clear knowing—critically, not a recollection of the kind of knowing developed in contemplation. The latter is memory; the former is a present moment experience of cutting through superimposition to reveal the misapprehensions we have unknowingly held.
In meditative inquiry, this experiential understanding is often sensed viscerally. As the Buddha describes it, we realize the supreme truth with the body, penetrating it with wisdom (Canki Sutta, MN 95). How that manifests differs from person to person, and even topic to topic. It may feel like butterflies in the tummy, a leap of the heart, a gut punch, an overall lightness or localized tightness, a subtle energy shift or a jolt—or perhaps like not much at all.
In any case, there is a felt sense of epiphany, a revelation that is embodied as opposed to abstract. A eureka moment. This experiential understanding is the prajna arising from meditation (Tib. sgom ‘byung gi shes rab; Skr. bhavanamayi prajna).
Should an experiential understanding not occur, that is fine. The process moves organically, hewing to our own pace. We alternate between rest and meditative inquiry for the remainder of the session as feels appropriate.
When experiential understanding does arise, we release the meditative inquiry gently, and shift to resting meditation, centering that experiential understanding as its object. To mind, this is like marinating in experiential understanding, for as long as it remains vivid. When it fades, we return to experiential analysis. Thereafter, we alternate between rest and inquiry, in rhythm with the rise and fall of understanding.
Such moments of experiential understanding may be scarce at first, and fleeting. The more we cultivate insight in meditative inquiry and absorb it in resting meditation, however, the more readily they arise. We are cultivating familiarity, then intimacy, with the prajna arising from meditation. The balance in formal practice shifts from mostly meditative inquiry (to invoke clear knowing at the start), to mostly resting meditation (to instill it as we progress). In time, the shifts become more subtle, an oscillation that moves incrementally toward the innate unity of shamatha and vipashyana as we integrate meditative prajna.
“Repetition, development, and cultivation” (Canki Sutta, MN 95) of the process is pivotal, as it refines the experiential understanding, itself a fleeting meditative experience. Incorporating prajna progressively, like cells absorbing nutrients from blood, hones experiential understanding toward realization: the direct experience of the reality to which the teachings heard and contemplated point, beyond the ability of words or concepts to express it.
Ultimately, the highest expression of this threefold practice is the meditative prajna of shunyata, experiential understanding of the emptiness of self and phenomena. Nevertheless, even this subtle experiential understanding is dualistic in character, in contrast to
direct realization, the unmediated experience of emptiness.
How do we bridge the synapse between dualistic thought and direct experience?
Refining our experiential understanding of emptiness leads organically to the final showdown between prajna, the precise knowing realizing nonself, and its direct antithesis, avidya, the ignorance that does not realize nonself. They cannot coexist at full strength. One of them has to give.
Since time beyond time, ignorance has won the battle waged in our heart–mind, as its direct remedy, the prajna realizing nonself, lay obscured, overlooked. The practice of listen, contemplate, meditate invokes, instills, and incorporates this sole effective antagonist of ignorance. As this prajna, itself dualistic, burgeons in strength, ignorance weakens proportionately, like two arms of a scale.
Refining our experiential understanding of emptiness leads to the showdown between prajna and its antithesis, avidya, the ignorance that does not realize nonself. They cannot coexist at full strength. One of them has to give.
In meditative inquiry, prajna and avidya rub against one another, like two dry sticks, the friction generating heat, building in intensity, until both are ablaze, a prajna fire that disintegrates avidya and prajna alike, incinerating dualistic perception, leaving only what has always been present behind the veils of the misperception characterizing samsara—nondual wisdom, or gnosis (Tib. ye shes; Skr. jnana).
This is the path of seeing, the direct realization of the emptiness unmediated by sensory or inferential consciousness, the first level of bodhisattva training.
After twenty years of listening, contemplating, and meditating, I can attest to my experience of it as one of engaging an ongoing, increasingly intimate relationship with the teachings of the Buddha and the masters of the many lineages flowing from him. It has taught me not to settle for anything less than experiencing the teachings directly, with increasing subtlety and immediacy.
Nonetheless, it is not always comfortable to stand ever at the ready to release our closely held views, concepts, and beliefs. A truly transformative practice requires a willingness to evolve, letting go of the opinions and beliefs without which we can hardly imagine who we are. It requires the courage to challenge our histories, cultural narratives, and preferences, so much at the core of our individual identities, at least as much as we question the words of the Buddha.
If we are up for the challenge, the wonders never cease. Emaho!