Here is a spiritual practice uncomplicated enough for anyone to learn, yet rich enough to be worked with for a lifetime. The traditional Chan (Chinese Zen) practice called Silent Illumination begins with nothing more than putting aside all thoughts except the awareness of oneself "just sitting." It’s so simple in execution that it has sometimes been called the "method of no-method"—yet simple as it is, the practice is subtle and profound, with the potential for ever subtler refinements as the practitioner moves toward mastery of it. When fully penetrated, this radical form of emptying one’s busy mind-stream leads to perception of the vast ocean of pure awareness.
Q: Within this clarity the mind is still. (c) A treatise on Silent Illuination practice. Explore the beauty of the mind in the vastness of the world. Q: The water is so clear, transparent to the bottom. Late, late, fishes have yet to appear. The sky is so vast, without boundaries, distant and out of sight. The birds have left no trace.
This is how it is in Silent Illumination: the mind is like water, so clear and transparent that fish have yet to appear. Similarly, the skylike mind is vast, without any boundaries—sheer openness. But this sky is not lifeless; birds fly in it without leaving traces. These images use motion to convey stillness and existence to convey emptiness. This emptiness is not dead but full of life. The fish and birds are not seen because they exist as potentiality. So within the clear transparent water and the vast open sky, there is motion: while the mind is silent, there is active illumination—luminous and spiritually potent. And that, finally, is the realization of the unity of Silent Illumination. (c) Q: When your experience of the world becomes more thorough, you will see and sense things with more precision, subtlety, and acuteness. Your mind will simply be able to see more acutely because your mind is not busy comparing, labeling, wanting things to be other than what they are. Free from all these extra colorings, the mind becomes very quiet and very clear, and you will see things more in their own light, just as they are. (c) Q: He formulated Silent Illumination into three stages: the first stage is the experience of oneness of body and mind engaging in sitting; the second stage is oneness of self and environment; the third stage is the experience of vast boundlessness, internally and externally unimpeded by any sense of obstructions, yet with the mind clear about the details of everything. There is also a preliminary stage where the practitioner simply tries to stay relaxed and calm at all times, focusing on the totality of the body sitting (c) Q: IMPERMANENCE IS A FUNDAMENTAL TEACHING in Buddhism that you can use to attune and refine your mind. There are three aspects to impermanence to understand: impermanence of the environment, impermanence of the body, and impermanence of the mind. Without considerable practice it is difficult to directly experience the transient, impermanent nature of your mind. It is much easier to begin by understanding impermanence in the environment. Through gradual steps, we can come to understand the impermanent nature of the environment, the body, and the mind. The environment is constantly changing, and your body changes with it. As the environment moves and changes, your body also moves and changes. Since there is no fixed, unchanging reality in the external environment, your body, which is part of the environment, is also not fixed or unchanging. As the body moves through the environment, it will cause your perception of the environment to change too. (c) Q: When you come across difficulties, do not quickly concede defeat. The key is to strike a balance between relaxation and single-minded perseverance. I have a saying, “Keep your body relaxed and your practice taut.” “Relaxed” means your body is at ease; “taut” means your mind is alert without being tense. Perseverance means continuous, single-minded application of the method. This way, practice becomes one unceasing flow. To strike a balance, if you begin with relaxation and just sitting, single-minded perseverance will fall naturally into place. Practice with a relaxed body and mind, and be very wakeful and single-minded while adhering to the method. If you can maintain this through pain and discomfort, then that is genuine practice. (c) Q: If you view discomfort and unease in the light of impermanence, you will become detached and not cling to them. Trying to avoid or escape pain is just attaching to it. (c) Q: We said before that there is conceptual emptiness and experiential emptiness. Conceptual emptiness is the recognition and understanding that all things are impermanent and lacking in substantial identity. “Emptiness” does not truly convey the meaning of the Sanskrit *shunyata, or the Chinese kong. People may be misled into thinking of it as a void. Emptiness can be understood as meaning “empty of” and “lacking.” Empty of what? Empty of permanent, fixed, and substantial reality. Lacking what? Lacking attachment. Hence, the Buddhist sense of emptiness is not mere void but the absence of a self-nature. (c) Q: There are different ways to practice contemplation of emptiness. A direct method is to let go of the past, not project into the future, not fixate in the “space” between past and future, but maintain clarity and nonattachment of the present moment, free of wandering thoughts. (c) Q: No-self, or selflessness, has three aspects: concept, practice, and fruition. To conceptually understand selflessness, one must first understand impermanence. Next, one must understand emptiness, and then one is in a position to understand selflessness. This is the natural sequence. When you look deeply into phenomena, you will see that everything is transient, ever-changing. This will lead to an understanding that all things are fundamentally without fixed identity. Having a foothold on this knowledge of impermanence, you can then understand emptiness as the true nature of things. If all things are constantly in flux, what can truly exist as a separate entity? Relating this to yourself, you can also understand that you are subject to the same conditions as all phenomena. What is this “I” that is experiencing all of this constant change? (c) Q: Buddhism understands the “I” or “self” to be a composite of five aggregates, or *skandhas, which are form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness. These five aggregates operate together in a person to create a sense of separate selfhood that is both physical and mental. Like all phenomena, these five aggregates are also constantly changing. Since the environment is made up of constantly changing causes and conditions, and they are perceived by this constantly changing “I,” both are in flux, changing every instant. Therefore, you can conclude that there is no inherent fixed nature to this“I,” thereby arriving at a conceptual understanding of no-self. (c) Q: In silence there is illumination; in illumination there is silence—the two cannot be separated.(c) Q: When Guo Gu, our translator, was drinking water a while ago, if you were directly contemplating, you saw him lift the cup and drink from it. You witnessed his motions, but to you there was no motion. If this can be attained, when you see chaos and commotion around you, it is as if nothing is happening. This is because your mind is no longer being conditioned by these events; it is in stillness. Yet you are able to witness everything just as it is. This is what we call achieving “lightness and ease.” In the Tibetan tradition, they call it “mental pliancy.” (c) Q: The next few lines of Hongzhi’s poem are actually a quotation, but I haven’t looked up who uttered these words. Let’s see what it has to say: It is said: “The mind-ground contains every seed. The rain will universally cause them to sprout. When the meaning of the blossoming of the flower of enlightenment is understood, the fruit of bodhi will ripen of its own accord.” (c) Q: Like rain that causes seeds to sprout, when bodhi encounters sentient beings, merit and virtue spontaneously ripen, and accordingly, the enlightened person transfers this virtue and merit to all sentient beings. (c) Q: These qualities are inherent in our minds. They will naturally reveal themselves when we also become enlightened. (c) Q: In Taiwan there was a man at large who was a serial killer and a rapist. People heard me talk about viewing everyone as bodhisattvas, so I was interviewed by the media. They asked me on the spot whether I thought, since I promoted the idea, that this killer was a bodhisattva. When I said yes, the interviewer was dumbfounded: “If he’s a bodhisattva, then what the heck does a bodhisattva do?” [Laughter] I replied, “Yes, indeed, he is a bodhisattva. For example, to a person wearing black glasses, the world is seen as black. When a person has green lenses, the world is seen as green; and when a person wears clear lenses, the world is seen as it is. White is white, black is black, right is right, wrong is wrong. Things should be perceived as clearly as possible. As far as I’m concerned, that killer is a bodhisattva, but that is not to say we should allow him to continue harming others. He has harmed people and his actions should be restrained. We should respond to his case appropriately, but he has given us an opportunity to fulfill our task of helping other people. He should be caught and restrained, but once we catch him, we don’t need to see him as the demon Mara; we should see him as a person who needs our help. After putting him in jail, we can work with him and allow him to encounter things that perhaps he has not come across before, such as compassion. Perhaps that may change him. Even though he may receive a death sentence, if he hears the Dharma and is able to repent, his future will be brighter. If he does not act like a bodhisattva in this lifetime, in a future life he will.” From a temporal perspective, if this person is not a bodhisattva now, he has full potential to be one in the future. From another perspective, a person like this has given us a chance to help others, and he can be considered a cause of our purifying our minds. From still another perspective, as Buddhists we should respond appropriately to his situation. (c)
The intriguingly named The Method of No-Method presents the method of silent illumination, which it explains is a less used form of Zen meditation. Silent illumination, like the title of the book suggests, is a practice of just being. Of course, the idea that there is 'no method' does not mean that it is effortless, rather that it is about the willingness to "directly experience and accept whatever confronts you without conceptualizing, naming or judging" (48-9).
Sheng Yen actually provides a great deal of guidance and direction in how to get into the practice. He explains that there are three stages to silent meditation: 1 - just sitting until the body and mind become one, 2 - when the body, mind and environment become one ("everything is you and you are everything") and, 3 - you perceive things in the present as they are ("silent illumination is likened to a mirror while images and shadows appear freely before it"). [quotes pp 17-21]. I enjoyed this breakdown, and other advice on meditation throughout the book, because it really reminded me that meditation is work and requires discipline, and that it's worth engaging in because great things come when you make space for them.
There's also a lot of discussion about Buddhist philosophy, mostly presented as evidence in support of the practice of silent illumination rather than presented as a point of discussion in and of itself. This largely covers familiar territory, but like meditation itself, it's stuff that requires a good deal of repetition to grasp, and then grasp a bit more, and maybe eventually really get there. At one point, Sheng Yen provides a proverb of "if you find yourself on a pirate ship, it's best to become a pirate" (89) and then you can befriend the pirates and eventually help them become good people. I liked that, in part because it is entertaining and whimsical, but also because it reminded me why I engage in this discipline to do this work, and not just for myself but for this big crazy world we're all constantly participating in.
An excellent introduction to the practice and theory of Silent Illumination, from Chan Buddhism (Chinese), a practice alike Shikantaza, in Zen Buddhism (Japanese), and Contemplative Prayer, in Christianity, as well as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, in Tibetan Buddhism.
The strength of the book, consisting of oral teachings in two different retreats, is Master Sheng Yen gives a method to develop this methodless resting in awareness, or Emptiness. He understood many persons, if not most, need a way to ground themselves to move into pure awareness and later, potentially, to proceed directly into pure awareness without any method.
Even after many years of 'practicing' formless awareness, I found the guidance in this book helpful. The application of "silence" and "illumination," I saw as forced at times, when applying to Master Hongzhi's treatise on Emptiness. Master Hongzhi's text was inspirational and complemented the teachings of Master Sheng Yen.
While I was exploring the Himalayas, a Tibetan Buddhist monk personally suggested this book to me. And I have to say its been a wonderful read.
In this book, Sheng Yen eloquently explains the concept of "silent illumination," urging us to let go of striving and instead embrace a state of non-doing, allowing our minds to naturally settle and illuminate the present moment. This book also offers invaluable practical guidance, presenting a wealth of meditation techniques, including breath-counting, silent illumination, and huatou.
I've sometimes encountered books by Buddhist leaders--especially transcribed lectures--that strike me as word salad. While these are transcribed lectures (from several retreats), the book did not fall into that category for me. Alas, I do think I'm going to have to re-read it at some point...I'm nowhere near enlightenment, and the dharma is hard. :-)