Shikantaza and Silent Illumination by Master Sheng Yen

Shikantaza and Silent Illumination
Lecture given by master Sheng-yen during the Dec. 1993 Ch’an retreat, edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller

The Japanese term “shikantaza” literally means “just sitting.” Its original Chinese name, mo-chao, means “silent illumination.” “Silent” refers to not using any specific method of meditation and having no thoughts in your mind. “Illumination” means clarity. You are very clear about the state of your body and mind.

When the method of silent illumination was taken to Japan it was changed somewhat. The name given to it, “just sitting”, means just paying attention to sitting or just keeping the physical posture of sitting, and this was the new emphasis. The word “silent” was removed from the name of the method and the understanding that the mind should be clear and have no thoughts was not emphasized. In silent illumination, “just sitting” is only the first step. While you maintain the sitting posture, you should also try to establish the “silent” state of the mind. Eventually you reach a point where the mind does not move and yet is very clear. That unmoving mind is “silent,” and that clarity of mind is “illumination.” This is the meaning of “silent illumination.”

Faith in Mind, a poem attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch’an, Seng-Ts’an (d. 606), begins with something like this: “The highest path is not difficult, so long as you are free of discriminations.” “Discriminations” can also be translated as “choices,” “selections” or “preferences.” The highest path is not difficult, if you are free from choosing, selecting or preferring. You must keep the mind free from discrimination and attachment. The method in which the mind is kept free from discrimination and attachment is what is called “silence” here. But “silent” does not mean the mind is blank and cannot function. The mind is free from attachment, clear, and yet it still functions.

We also read in Faith in Mind that, “This principle is neither hurried nor slow. One thought for ten thousand years.” “This principle” is the mind of wisdom, and from its perspective time does not pass quickly or slowly. When we meditate or work, we may fall into a worldly samadhi state and feel that time passes very quickly. In an ordinary state we may feel that time passes quickly or slowly. However, in the mind of wisdom there is no such thing as slow or hurried time. If we can say there is thought in the mind of wisdom, it is an endless thought which never changes. This unchanging thought is no longer thought as we usually understand it. It is the unmoving mind of wisdom.

In the Song of Samatha of Master Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (665 – 713, also the author of the Song of Enlightenment), two Chinese terms are used which can be translated as “quiescence” and “clarity.” Master Yung-chia uses them in two phrases, “quiescence and clarity,” and “clarity and quiescence.” They describe a person whose mind is both clear and unmoving. When an ordinary person’s mind is clear and alert, it is usually also active and full of scattered thoughts. Quiescence of mind is difficult to maintain. When the mind is quiet, it usually is not clear, even in a samadhi state. But Yung-chia describes these two states, quiescence and clarity as well as clarity and quiescence, as goals.

Master Hung-chi Chen-chueh (1091-1157), who invented the term “silent illumination” in his poem the Song of Silent Illumination, said this

In silence, words are forgotten.
In utter clarity, things appear.

“Words are forgotten” means you experience no words, no language, no ideas, and no thought. There is no discrimination. This in combination with the second phrase, “In utter clarity everything appears,” means that although words, language and discrimination do not function, everything is still seen, heard, tasted and so on.

Someone told me that when he uses the Silent Illumination method, he eventually gets to a point where there is nothing there and he rests. That is not true Silent Illumination. In Silent Illumination everything is there, but the mind is not moving. A person may think he has no thoughts because the coarser wandering thoughts are absent, but there will be fine, subtle wandering thoughts of which he is unaware. He may think there is nothing there and so stop practicing. In Chinese this is called “Being on the dark side of a mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts.” The mountain is dark, so there is nothing to see, and in the cave of ghosts, what can one accomplish?

Now I would like to explain how to use the method of shikantaza. First, your posture should be upright. Do not lean in any direction. Be clear about your posture, because if you practice shikantaza, just sitting, at the very least you should be conscientious about sitting. It is also important to remain relaxed.

Next, be aware of your body, but do not think of it as yourself. Regard your body as a car you drive. You have to handle the car well, but it is not you. If you think of your body as yourself, you will be bothered by pain, itchiness and other vexations. Just take care of the body and be aware of it. The Chinese name for this method can be translated as “just take care of sitting.” You have to be mindful of your body as the driver must be mindful of the car, but the car is not the driver.

After a period of time, the body will sit naturally and cause no problems. Now you can begin to pay attention to the mind. If you were eating, your mind should be the “mind of eating,” and you would pay attention to that mind. When you are sitting, your mind should be the “mind of sitting.” You watch this sitting mind. Two different thoughts alternate: the mind of sitting and the mind, or thought, that watches the mind of sitting. First you watch the body sitting with little attention to the mind. When the body drops away, watch the mind. What is the mind? It is the mind of sitting! When your attention dissipates, you will lose awareness of this sitting mind and the sensations of the body will return. Then you should again watch the body sitting. Another possibility is that while you watch the mind you fall into a dull state, like “Being on the dark side of the mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts.” When you become aware of this situation, your bodily sensations return, and you should go back to watching them. Thus these two objects of attention, the body and the mind, are also used alternately.

In the state where you watch the mind, are you aware of the external environment, sound for example? If you want to hear sound, you will, and if you do not want to hear sound, you won’t. At this point, you primarily pay attention to your own mind. Although you may hear sounds, they do not create discriminations.

There are three stages in this practice. You should start at the beginning and progress to deeper levels. First be mindful of your body. Then be mindful of your mind, and of the two thoughts alternating in it. The third stage is enlightenment. The mind is clear and, as the poem quoted said, “In silence, words are forgotten. In utter clarity, things appear.” When you first practice, you will probably be in the first or second level. If you use this method correctly you will not enter into samadhi.

This last point needs clarification. It depends on how we use the term “samadhi.” In Buddhadharma, samadhi has many meanings. For instance, Sakyamuni Buddha was always in samadhi. His mind was not moving, yet he still continued to function. This is wisdom. Sakyamuni Buddha’s samadhi is great samadhi and this is the same as wisdom. When I said that in the practice of Silent Illumination, you should not enter samadhi, I meant worldly samadhi where you forget about space and time and are oblivious to the environment. The deeper kind of samadhi, which is the same as wisdom, is in fact the goal of Silent Illumination.

What good is this explanation of Silent Illumination for people who are not using this method? If you are using another method of practice and you reach a point where it is impossible to continue, you can switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. For instance, if you use the method of reciting Buddha’s name with counting and you can no longer count, switch to Silent Illumination. If you use the hua-t’ou method, but find that rather than generating great doubt, you are simply repeating your hua-tou, you may reach a point where you can no longer recite it. You can then switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. Eventually, you will be able to use your own method again. Silent Illumination can provide a continuum for you in this in-between state so that you do not waste time.

I was just asked whether the enlightenment that comes from Silent Illumination is sudden or gradual. Enlightenment is always instantaneous. It is the practice that is gradual. As I mentioned earlier, the third level of Silent Illumination is enlightenment. But how does one get there? As you practice, your attachments, discriminations, and wandering thoughts gradually subside. Eventually, you simply have no discriminations, but this change is instantaneous. When the change happens, you are in the state Hung-chi Cheng-chueh described as, “In silence, words are forgotten. In utter clarity, everything appears.

After you have some experience practicing, the sentiments and vexations you ordinarily experience may not arise during practice. It does not mean that they are gone. It just means that when you practice they do not arise. When you use Silent Illumination, this may happen, especially at the second level, but that is not enlightenment. Practice is not like trying to clear thoughts from your mind and vexations from your life as if they were dust on a mirror. You cannot wipe the dust away and make yourself enlightened. It is not like that. Whether you use the methods of the Lin-chi or Tsao-tung sects within the Ch’an tradition, once enlightened, you realize that enlightenment has nothing to do with the practice that brought you there.

So why bother to practice? Practice is like a bridge that can lead to enlightenment, even though enlightenment has nothing to do with practice.

Silent Illumination Ch’an

The Silent Illumination style of Ch’an began with Hung-chih Cheng-chueh (1091-1157) of the Ts’ao-tung sect. He lived during the same period as, and was as capable a master as, Ta-hui Tsung-kao, the chief advocate of watching the “Hua-t’ou”. The method of Shikantaza which the Zen Master Dogen later brought to Japan was descended from the tradition of Silent Illumination Ch’an. The poem printed below appears in Chapter 8 of the Extensive Records of Ch’an Master Hung-chih Cheng-chueh.

On November 24, 1980, Shih-fu Sheng-yen was interviewed on WBAI radio by Lex Hixon, on his program “In the Spirit”. Following the poem we have printed excerpts from that interview, consisting of questions and answers about the practice of Silent Illumination.

(This poem was translated in part by C.C. Chang in The Practice of Zen. In our complete translation we have retained some of the wording that seemed appropriate from C.C. Chang’s translation.)

Silent Illumination

Silently and serenely one forgets all words.
Clearly and vividly it appears before one.
When one realizes it, time is limitless.
When one experiences it, one’s surroundings come to life.
Singularly illuminating is this bright awareness.
Full of wonder is this pure illumination.
The appearance of the moon, a river of stars,
Snow on pine trees, and clouds hovering on the mountain peaks.
In darkness they are glowing bright.
In obscurity they shine with resplendent light.
Like the feeling of a crane flying in empty space,
Like the still clear water of an autumn pool,
Limitless aeons dissolve into nothingness,
Undistinguishable from one another.
In this illumination all efforts are forgotten.
Where does this wonder exist?
A startled awakening shatters the dullness,
The path of silent illumination,
The origin of the infinitesimal.
To penetrate the infinitesimal,
A gold shuttle on a loom of jade.
Subject and object influence each other.
Light and darkness are mutually dependent.
There is no mind or world to rely on
Yet these two are mutually interacting.
Drink the medicine of correct views.
Beat the poison-smeared drum.
When these two are complementary
Killing and bringing to life are up to me.
One emerges from the door
The fruit has ripened on the branch.
Silence is the final teaching.
Illumination is the universal response.
The response is devoid of effort.
The teaching is not heard with the ears.
All manifestations throughout the universe
Emit light and speak the Dharma.
They testify to each other
And answer each other’s questions.
Mutually testifying and answering,
Responding in perfect harmony.
If there is illumination without serenity
Then distinctions will be seen.
Mutually testifying and answering,
Responding in perfect harmony.
If within serenity illumination is lost,
All will become wasteful and secondary.
When the principle of silent illumination is complete
The lotus blossoms and the dreamer awakens.
The hundred rivers flow to the ocean,
The thousand peaks face the loftiest mountain.
Like the goose who always chooses milk above water,
Like a bee gathering pollen from a flower,
When silent illumination reaches the ultimate
I carry on the tradition of my sect.
The tradition of my sect is silent illumination.
It penetrates from the highest to the deepest.

Lex : Is the Silent Illumination style the most direct of all meditative paths, and can you introduce us to it?

Shih-fu : This Silent Illumination method did not arise suddenly in the Ts’ao-tung sect. Rather it arose from the T’ien-t’ai sect, from the method of the double practice of samatha-vipasyana , calming or stopping and contemplation of insight. Samatha-vipasyana was also emphasized in the Hymn of Samatha of Grand Master Yung Chia. This double practice actually just means – even when you are not thinking of anything, your mind is absolutely clear about its mental state.

Until today very little of the records and writings of the Ts’ao-tung sect have been translated into English. One prime reason is that very often the writings refer to abstract concepts in the I Ching of ancient China. Very few people understand these things well enough to translate the writings into English. Comparatively speaking, many more writings of the Lin Chi, or Rinzai, sect have been translated.

Lex : This poem of Silent Illumination is written in a style which is very fresh and rich with imagery. It doesn’t sound like the Zen songs of enlightenment that many of us are used to. But to return to my central question, what is the special quality of this Silent Illumination method? How does it differ from holding various things in your mind, like counting your breath or asking the question “Where am I?”

Shih-fu : Silent Illumination is actually the most direct method, because Ch’an is not something that you can use your mind to think about. It’s not something that you can use any words or form of language to describe. The method is simply to do away with any method of practice. Use no method as the method itself. The method of counting breath is used when the mind is very scattered, in order to concentrate your mind. The method of kung-an (koan) is used when your mind is very calm, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any thoughts. You use the kung-an to pressure yourself, to force yourself to answer the question until you don’t have any thought left. The Silent Illumination method is when your mind simply doesn’t have any thoughts. At that moment you just put down everything, and that is the state of Ch’an itself. Silent doesn’t mean falling asleep. That’s why we have to follow the word “silent” with the word “illumination”, that is, your mind is very clear.

I use three phrases to describe the phenomenon of Silent Illumination. The first is bright and open, the second is no scattered thoughts, and the third is not even one thought.

Lex : Many people who are listening now must be exhilirated by this notion of using no particular practice as the practice. Everyone wants to dispense with all complications, rituals, and traditional images, and go right to the source. But it must be very difficult. Can a beginner practice this method, or does one have to work up to it slowly through the counting of the breath and the working on the koan?

Shih-fu : From the point of view of the Ts’ao-tung sect, every beginning practitioner should use this method. But I myself, being the descendent of two separate lineages, feel that it is better for some people to start with counting the breaths. Some people can start with Silent Illumination, and others, even after they have practiced the method of kung-an, can still benefit from using this method of Silent Illumination. So this method has its advantages as well as its defects.

Lex : Shih-fu, silence is the final teaching. Can you elucidate silence for us?

Shih-fu : Silence doesn’t mean not moving. It doesn’t mean that nothing is there. It doesn’t mean there is no sound. It just means no thought.

But in the beginning stage, people need to practice in a quiet and peaceful place. That’s why most of the practitioners of the Ts’ao-tung sect preferred to practice in the mountains, as far away from other people as possible. This has been the case in China as well as in Japan. For this reason this method of Silent Illumination may not be suitable for the majority of people, because in our modern society it would be quite difficult for every practitioner to go off into the mountains. So I personally don’t often use this method to teach others, at least in the beginning stage. I would only tell a few to use this method. There is another defect of this method. If the practitioner is not using it right, his mind may be in a state of blankness, and he assumes that this is what is meant by “silent”. If this is the case, he can never practice well.

Lex : That is really the key point about the practice. If the mind is not a blank, if it’s bright and open the way you described it earlier, does that mean there can be thoughts and perceptions in that bright openness, and yet they are not thoughts and perceptions?

Shih-fu : No, it’s not like that. In bright openness, the person is very aware and clear about his own mental state. But as far as the environment, space and time outside, it is not necessarily the case that he knows everything very clearly.

Lex : So is that clarity about one’s own mental state a thought or not?

Shih-fu : Just awareness itself, or consciousness, is not a thought. A thought is always something moving.

Lex : It’s a little bit like the image that Marina wrote about in her retreat report (ed note – see Ch’an Magazine Vol 2 No 2) about a flat stone skipping across a pond, in which sometimes it skips up and it’s in the air, bright and clear, and it doesn’t know anything about stone or air or water. Then it comes back down and hits the water again. Is there any way just to dispense with the water entirely and just become a flying stone?

Shih-fu : Yes, it is possible. But it takes deep practice.

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