Meditation is a key factor in Chan / Zen and Buddhism in general -- and yet we have no monopoly on the concept of meditation as a spiritual pursuit. Every religion has a tradition approaching meditation although most in the Western World do not focus on that aspect as strongly as does Chan / Zen.
Within the Eastern traditions from which Buddhism arose, there are identifiable traditions of "contemplative" orders for whom insight was sought by deep thinking.
In the Judeo-Christian traditions, quiet contemplation of spiritual matters also holds a place -- up to and including the Vow of Silence taken by Catholic Trappist monks for whom speech interferes with one's ability to hear "the quiet voice" of God.
These contemplative traditions endure into modern times. To illustrate the point, all of the major western "recovery systems" propound a primary plank similar to the statement that: "We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."
And yet, these contemplative traditions miss the mark of meditation as do many practicing Zen / Chan Buddhists in the west.
As to the example of the "recovery systems", there is generally little discussion of the difference between prayer and meditation -- a distinction that also eludes many Western Buddhists. Meditation in the Chan / Zen tradition has little to do with either prayer or contemplation as an end in itself.
Hsu Yun teaches that meditation (translated to conscious thought as well) should bring us to "Hua Tou". Hua Tou (roughly translated) means "word head or sentence head". It is the state of mind before the mind is disturbed by thought. This concept is also described as "clear mind" by other Zen traditions, but all of the traditions clearly indicate what Hsu Yun refers to as "that moment that is neither disturbed nor dull. The moment before a thought arises is called the unborn. It is the unremitting turning of the light inwards on oneself, instant after instant and exclusive of all other things. ... It is the turning of the light inward on that which is not born and does not die."
In simpler terms, prayer has been described as "talking to God" while meditation is closer to listening.
Contemplation, on the other hand, requires "thinking about" a given issue - far from the idea of being "the moment before a thought arises." If I strictly "meditate upon" a given matter or issue, I am thinking -- not meditating.
If we must contemplate the nature of this meditational clearing of mind, Hsu Yun offers instruction. He has written "When one looks into the Hua Tou the most important thing is to give rise to doubt. ... Who is it that sits in meditation? Who is repeating the Buddha's name? Who is wearing this robe and eating this rice? When real doubt rises of itself, this can be called true training."
Quite simply, prayer and meditation require a self-centric origin in which "I" eat this rice or "I" wear this robe" or "I" talk to God or "I" consider issues and how they effect "me" and the samsaric world.
Far from clearing the mind these approaches require the clutter of "I" rather than approaching "that moment that is neither disturbed nor dull ... the moment before a thought arises."
Added to the mix is some confusion surrounding Right Concentration (samma samadhi), the eighth of the aspects outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path. How do we balance an "active" attitude of Right Concentration with a "passive" meditational clearing of the mind?
The website Access to Insight offers an excellent definition of Right Concentration:
"Concentration represents an intensification of a mental factor present in every state of consciousness. This factor, one-pointedness of mind (citt'ekaggata), has the function of unifying the other mental factors in the task of cognition. It is the factor responsible for the individuating aspect of consciousness, ensuring that every citta or act of mind remains centred on its object. At any given moment the mind must be cognizant of something -- a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch, or a mental object. The factor of one-pointedness unifies the mind and its other concomitants in the task of cognizing the object, while it simultaneously exercises the function of centring all the constituents of the cognitive act on the object. One-pointedness of mind explains the fact that in any act of consciousness there is a central point of focus, towards which the entire objective datum points from its outer peripheries to its inner nucleus.
"However, samadhi is only a particular kind of one-pointedness; it is not equivalent to one-pointedness in its entirety. A gourmet sitting down to a meal, an assassin about to slay his victim, a soldier on the battlefield -- these all act with a concentrated mind, but their concentration cannot be characterized as samadhi. Samadhi is exclusively wholesome one-pointedness, the concentration in a wholesome state of mind. Even then its range is still narrower: it does not signify every form of wholesome concentration, but only the intensified concentration that results from a deliberate attempt to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness." (http://www.vipassana.com/resources/8fp7.php)
As it applies to meditation, our Right Concentration is preparatory. Our" citta or act of mind remains centred" on what we are preparing to do.
We do not concentrate on our meditation process so much as we apply a "particular kind of one-pointedness". We are simply paying attention to what we are doing. We are meditating. We are not preparing a grocery list or ending world hunger today or analyzing our tendency to eat too much ice cream or arranging the family schedule to assure that Missy gets to Ballet and Junior gets to soccer.
As Access to Insight also points out: "Samadhi is exclusively wholesome one-pointedness, the concentration in a wholesome state of mind. Even then its range is still narrower: it does not signify every form of wholesome concentration, but only the intensified concentration that results from a deliberate attempt to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness."
When all is said and done, our formal meditation is training to develop Right Concentration in our day-to-day life.
Turning to Access to Insight yet again, "[Right] Concentration can be developed through either of two methods -- either as the goal of a system of practice directed expressly towards the attainment of deep concentration at the level of absorption or as the incidental accompaniment of the path intended to generate insight. The former method is called the development of serenity (samatha-bhavana), the second the development of insight (vipassana-bhavana)." Both of which are developed through our meditations.
Our daily "formal" meditation is training - intended to develop serenity, insight and Right Concentration.
All that said, how do we approach meditation at the moment of a day when we are going to do so?
Much has been written on this subject. There are tomes and volumes in Zen traditions that describe how to sit, when to sit, where to sit, how much incense to burn and how to make preparatory tea -- but where in those volumes are the foundational consideration of "that moment that is neither disturbed nor dull ... the moment before a thought arises"?
Full lotus? Half lotus? Cushion? Mat? Floor?
The stories of Gotama Buddha indicate that when he first sat beneath the Bodhi Tree, he was initially concerned with how to sit comfortably so that he was not beset by physical discomfort and distraction. He recalled a time when he was five years old - relaxing in the sun overcome with an intense feeling of comfort and ease. And that is how he sat.
So how shall we physically sit? Like a five year old boy some 2500 years ago - or in a manner that makes us comfortable and physically at ease?
For our mental comfort and ease, do we sit with incense? With candles? In the bedroom? In the garage? At the train station?
The point again is too seek calm and comfortable surroundings - and we don't all have a handy Bodhi tree in a quiet forest at ready access. Yes, it is possible to meditate in a busy train station - eventually. If concentrating on creating the set and setting interferes with the object of the exercise - what good is the set and setting?
The answer seems to be fairly "Zen simple" -- just sit down, shut up and listen.
As Hsu Yun speaks to Right Concentration and meditation, he notes that "in our meditation if we lose sight of the Hua Tou, while dwelling in stillness [serenity or samatha-bhavana], there results an indistinct voidness wherein there is nothing. Clinging to this state of stillness is a Chan illness which we should never contract while undergoing our training. This is the unrecordable dead emptiness."
Hsu Yun also says "Awareness [insight or vipassana-bhavana] without contemplation will lead to confusion and instability, and contemplation without awareness will result in immersion in stagnant water."
Ultimately, Hsu Yun teaches: "In the Chan training, one should be earnest in one's desire to leave the realm of Samsara and develop a long enduring mind. If the mind is not earnest it will be impossible to give rise to the doubt and the training will be ineffective. Lack of a long enduring mind will result in laziness and the training will not be continuous. Just develop a long enduring mind and the doubt will rise of itself. As the ripe moment comes is running water which forms a channel."
So we sit to meditate in an innocent and pure state (without preconceptions) and what shall be shall be. If we come to meditation, we come to meditation. If ("while dwelling in stillness") we come to contemplation, we come to contemplation. Meditation develops our serenity (samatha-bhavana). Contemplation develops our insight (vipassana-bhavana). Both of which develop our Right Concentration (samadhi).
Regarding the matter of prayer so particularly prevalent in the earlier spiritual development of many Western Buddhists; a Western student once noted in Discussion Hall several years ago: "I don't pray too much. I figure 'god' has probably heard everything I have to say." He left it at that.