The Practice of “Silent Illumination” (mo-chao) by Master Sheng Yen

The Practice of “Silent Illumination” (mo-chao) by Master Sheng Yen


The Practice of “Silent Illumination” (mo-chao)

by Master Sheng Yen

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book entitled Hoofprint of the Ox, which is based on lectures by Master Sheng Yen translated, compiled, arranged, and edited by Professor Dan Stevenson.

The “gateless gate” of Ch’an underwent gradual codification as it developed institutionally during the late T’ang and early Sung dynasties in China. In an atmosphere charged with increasing emphasis on sectarianism and legitimacy, the different lines of Ch’an sought to formalize their unique patriarchal heritages and delineate the distinctive features of their particular brand of Ch’an practice and culture. Much as figures like Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) placed the use of kung-an and hua-t’ou securely at the heart of Lin-chi teaching, Sung period masters of the Ts’ao-tung line gradually distilled the method of mo-chao Ch’an or “silent illumination Ch’an” as the central axiom of Ts’ao-tung practice. This process reached its culmination with Hung-chih Cheng-chueh (1091-1157), who was himself a contemporary of Ta-hui. Approximately a century later, the famed Japanese pilgrim, Dogen Kigen (1200-1253), received the Ts’ao-tung Dharma from T’ien-t’ung Ju-ching (a master within the line of Hung-chih’s Dharma brother, Chen-hsieh Ch’ing-liao) and transmitted the Ts’ao-tung teaching to Japan, where it became known as the Soto Zen school. In this chapter I will discuss the practice of silent illumination, or mo-chao Ch’an, as espoused in the Ts’ao-tung school.

Ch’an practice that emphasizes kung-an and hua-t’ou tends to make use of forceful methods such as emotional pressure, shouting, beating, reviling to push the student into a situation where, “one reaches the end of the road but still must press forward,” or where, “there is absolutely nothing that can be said but one still must speak.” By concentrating all of one’s being on a kung-an or hua-t’ou, together with encouragement from the teacher, one is brought to the point of great doubt and, finally, an explosive experience of awakening. The method of practice is intense, and its effect is earth-shaking and easily identifiable. Having achieved a breakthrough of this sort, the student has a clear idea of just what having “no thought” or “no mind” entails.

The approach of silent illumination is different. It is more passive in character and focuses on the development of such qualities as total relaxation coupled with open awareness, stillness and luminosity, perfect silence, and clarity. In so doing, it seeks gently to settle and silence the churning mind of deluded thinking, bringing it to the point where the perfect quiescence and luminosity of the intrinsically enlightened mind naturally emerges, smooth and clear like a mirror, cool and bright like the radiant moon, deep and still like a pellucid mountain lake. This is not to say that Ts’ao-tung Ch’an dispensed with the use of kong-an and hua-t’ou. Quite the contrary. Modern scholarship has shown what most Chinese Buddhists have assumed all along–that kung-an have been a universal feature of Ch’an culture in China, although in certain Ts’ao-tung circles they may have functioned in a manner different from that developed by Ta-hui and the Lin-chi line. Nonetheless, the approach of silent illumination has come to be identified more readily as the heart of Ts’ao-tung Ch’an.

Just as with the kung-an and hua-t’ou technique, the practice of mo-chao, or “silent illumination,” did not burst on the scene overnight during the Sung period, but took shape slowly over time as a natural outgrowth of the effort to identify the essence of the Ts’ao-tung teaching. Indeed, antecedents to silent illumination can be found not only among the records of founding Ts’ao-tung masters, but in documents routinely attributed to the Ch’an patriarchs of the early T’ang period (618-907) as well. This, of course, would hardly be unusual, given the tendency of later Ch’an masters to seek historical sanction for their teachings in the putative example or works of earlier, often legendary, Ch’an figures. Bodhidharma himself is said to have taught, “If you wish to cast aside the false and return to true, concentrate and settle your mind in wall-gazing. Self and other, the unenlightened and the saintly are all as one. Abide securely in this and do not stray.” [1] The Hsin hsin ming (Inscription on Having Faith in the Mind) attributed to the third patriarch, Seng-ts’an (d. 606), states: “The two come when there is [a notion of] one[ness], so oneness also must not be adhered to. When a single thought does not arise, the myriad things are without defect.” And again, “All wise ones throughout the ten directions penetrate this essential truth; this essential [moment of] truth is neither pressingly short nor lengthy. An instant of thought is ten thousand years.” [2]

In the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, is quoted as saying, 

Men of the world, separate yourself from views; do not activate thoughts. If there were no thinking, then ‘no-thought’ would have no place to exist. “No” is the “no” of what? “Thought” means “thinking” of what? “No” is separation from the dualism that produces the passions. “Thought” means thinking of the original nature of True Reality. If you give rise to thoughts from your true self-nature, then, although you see, hear, perceive, and know, you are not stained by the manifold environments, and are always free. [3]

Yung-chia Cheng-chueh, a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch, says in his Chih-kuan sung (Song of Calming and Contemplation), “Having forgotten all involvements one is silent and still, yet numinous wisdom by nature is incisively penetrating. Dark and incognizant, it [still] shines and illumines. While conforming to primal and true emptiness, one [all the while perceives] with precise exactness.” [4]

All of these passages from the early Ch’an patriarchs are examples of teachings that could be seen as precursors to the practice of silent illumination. This tendency continued to evolve, in its unique way, in the early Ts’ao-tung line itself. Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-869), one of the two founding masters from whom the school takes its name, once remarked that one should not think about anything at all when practicing Ch’an: “One should not go east or go west; but go directly to that place where, for ten-thousand miles around, there is not one blade of grass. Then you will get it.” [5]

To have even the slightest thought or attachment in mind is equivalent to there being “a blade of grass.” Thus, having no grass means to have no discriminating thoughts, and “ten-thousand miles around” refers to vast expanse like empty space. When he heard these words of Tung-shan, the master Shih-shuang Ching-chu (807-885), a contemporary of Tung-shan, commented, “As soon as you go out the door, there is grass everywhere.” In other words, as soon as thoughts arise or “the mind steps out the door,” everywhere there is difference and discrimination. As soon as mind fixes on or reifies any feature to the exclusion of others, the dynamic and boundless state of no-mind or no-thought is lost.

Tung-shan also states in his Hsuan chung ming (“Inscription on the Mysterious Middle”), “Although active and functioning, there is no motion. Although quiescent, it is not fixated. The pure breeze blows over the grasses, but the grasses do not sway. The bright moon fills the sky, yet there is no shining.” [6] In a similar but more enigmatic statement, he once instructed, “If you wish to understand this matter, you must be like dead wood putting forth blossoms. Then you will be in conformity with it.” [7] The Ch’an master Hsiang-yen Chih-hsien (d. 898), a contemporary of Tung-shan, was once asked about the Way. He replied, “In the dry woods the dragon sings” and, “An eye glimmers in a [dead and dry] skull.”

Dead and dry wood has absolutely no activity, no life; but here it puts forth blossoms. The dragon is known for its great vitality as well as its connection with water. Thus, the images of a dragon singing in a dry wood and a living eye in a desiccated skull seem completely anomalous. Shih-shuang Ching-chu said of these two statements, “There is joy there” and “There is consciousness there.” Ts’ao-shan Pen-chi (840-901), the successor of Tung-shan, later remarked, “The skull has no awareness but wisdom’s eye begins to shine in it. If joy and conscious awareness should be extinguished, all communication and response would cease. Those who deny this do not understand that purity is in the impure.” [8] Both examples point to the cardinal importance of the Ts’ao-tung image of silence with illumination, illumination in silence.

In the teachings of Shih-shuang Ching-chu the concept of stillness and marvelous awareness begins to show evidence of developing into an identifiable technique of silent illumination practice. He is said to have urged his students to become like dead ashes or dry wood, incapable of putting forth flame or growth, or to make their minds like the single plume of a waterfall, with its waters pouring down steadily without interruption. Another favorite simile for meditation used by Shih-shuang Ching-chu was that of a cold incense burner in a silent and long-abandoned temple. Indeed, Shih-shuang is said to have encouraged his students to sit in meditation for long periods without moving or lying down, as if they were “dead branches” or “blocks of wood.” Consequently, in Ch’an circles his community was commonly called the “dry or dead wood group.” [9]

Whether Shih-shuang Ching-chu’s teaching was typical of the Ts’ao-tung line itself is hard to say. As with most Ch’an figures of the period, very little information is available about actual practice, and even that is problematic given the late date of many of the sources. As a discrete method of practice, mo-chao, or “silent illumination” proper, begins to be taught in the Ts’ao-tung line only after the line is rescued from the brink of extinction and revived by the eleventh-century master T’ou-tzu I-ch’ing (1032-1082). Records of Ts’ao-tung masters descended from T’ou-tzu I-ch’ing frequently employ the metaphor of silence and illumination, stillness and radiance, to convey the essence of Ts’ao-tung Ch’an. With the advent of the famous Sung-period master Hung-chih Cheng-chueh (1091-1157), silent illumination (mo-chao) is finally singled out as the distinctive technique of practice of the Ts’ao-tung line.

In addition to his well-known Lancet of Seated Meditation and Inscription on Silent Illumination, Hung-chih composed numerous verses on the practice of silent illumination. [10] In one celebrated passage, he states that “Your body should sit silently; your mind should be quiescent and unmoving; and your mouth, so still that moss grows around it and grasses sprout from your tongue. Do this without cease, cleansing the mind until it gains the clarity of an autumn pool and is as bright as the moon shining in the autumn sky.” [11]

Using imagery like this, Hung-chih instructs his students to let go and settle quietly into themselves, leaving behind all entangling conditions and supports, until they reach a point of perfect and unrestrained quiescence. At the same time, this does not imply that mind becomes dark or incognizant. Quite the contrary. It is the distortions of deluded and conditioned thinking that are silenced, not mental clarity or awareness itself. With this silence, the mind’s innate wisdom shines unobstructedly, perfectly clear and luminous, without a single speck of dust to impede it. “In this [state of] silent sitting,” Hung-chih says, “the mind clearly perceives the details of sensory objects; yet, as though transparent, no constructed image is produced.” [12]

Everything is right where it originally is, just as it is and in its own native place. As long as it does not become erroneously fixated on stillness, the more the mind settles down the more bright and expansive its intrinsic awareness of things will become. When mind is utterly quiescent, without any grasping or abiding whatsoever, its natural awareness or reflectivity is boundless in both scope and depth. Hung-chih likens this to the point of an arrow fitted perfectly into its protective sheath: This calm and bright awareness becomes so perfectly immediate to and pervasive with the environment that all distinction between subjective awareness and object itself dissolves. This luminous emptiness and quiescence is itself the intrinsically enlightened condition of all beings; and its actualization is great liberation. Thus, silent illumination is the fullest and most direct expression of the unmediated realization of Buddha-nature espoused in the Ch’an school. Here are two selections from Hung-chih’s writings that describe the practice of silent illumination:

The ground [of the mind] is empty and vast. From the very beginning it has been this way. Purify and cleanse it right here and now, ridding it of all deluded entanglements and illusory influences, and you will arrive effortlessly at a place that is clean and bright. Totally empty, it is devoid of image; abstruse and profound, it depends on nothing. Utterly empty and alone, one illumines innate reality and lets go of external phenomena. Thus it is said, “Clearly one perceives that not a single thing exists.” This ground [of the mind] lies beyond the reach of birth and death. Yet, like the pellucid and lustrous depths of a deep spring, it is able to put forth radiance and manifest responsive functioning. Permeating through each and every mote of dust, as though transparent, it forms no semblances. This wondrous activity of seeing and hearing leaps far beyond [everyday] sounds and forms. Extending everywhere, its functioning leaves no trace; its mirroring is without obstruction. Spontaneously, thought after thought and object after object issue forth in perfect mutual unison. A person of old has said, “By having no mind one attains immediately the Tao of no-mind, whence ‘attaining the Tao of no-mind’ is also put to rest.” The mind is clear and one sits in perfect silence. Disporting in the marvelousness of the all-encompassing middle way, where is there need to investigate anything? [13]

And again:

The true approach to practice is simply to sit in stillness and silently investigate. Deep down a point is reached where one is no longer swirled about by external causes and conditions. When the mind is empty, it becomes open [and all-embracing]. When its luminosity is truly wondrous, it becomes even and impartial. Internally there is no thought of grasping after things. Utterly detached, [the mind] rests alone within itself, free of darkness and obscuration. Numinally potent, it severs all dependence, becoming utterly self-possessed. Its attainment does not come through ordinary feelings: You must let go completely and depend on nothing whatsoever. Exceedingly deep and intrinsically numinous, from the moment that you first realize [this mind] you will never again hanker after the features of defilement but be serenely self-possessed rest wherever you find yourself. Perfectly pure, it is brightly luminous. Brightly luminous, it penetrates through [all things]. Thus it is able to respond harmoniously, [continually] engaging phenomenal events, so that phenomenal event and phenomenal event are utterly without impediment. Floating effortlessly, clouds come off the mountain peaks. Shining boldly, the moon [appears in the] mountain stream. Reaching everywhere, its radiance and powers of spiritual transformation perceive penetratingly without obstructing features, responding with perfect precision, [as snugly] as a sheath fits the tip of its arrow. With further training and nourishment it ripens, and its substance becomes firm and penetrates everywhere freely. [14]

The Practice of “Silent Illumination” (mo-chao)

by Master Sheng Yen

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book entitled Hoofprint of the Ox, which is based on lectures by Master Sheng Yen translated, compiled, arranged, and edited by Professor Dan Stevenson.

The first half of this chapter, which describes the history and nature of silent illumination, was printed in the Spring ’99 Chan Magazine. This is how it described silent illumination: “… Hung-chih instructs his students to let go and settle quietly into themselves, leaving behind all entangling conditions and supports, until they reach a point of perfect and unrestrained quiescence. At the same time, this does not imply that mind becomes dark or incognizant. Quite the contrary. It is the distortions of deluded and conditioned thinking that are silenced, not mental clarity or awareness itself. With this silence, the mind’s innate wisdom shines unobstructedly, perfectly clear and luminous, without a single speck of dust to impede it. “In this [state of] silent sitting,” Hung-chili says, “the mind clearly perceives the details of sensory objects; yet, as though transparent, no constructed image is produced.”[1]

The Concept of Silent Illumination as a Practice

Silent illumination is a simple method, so simple, in fact, that this simplicity becomes its difficulty. Ultimately, it is the method of no-method, in which the practitioner leaves behind all seeking, all attachment, all expectations, and just lives Chan directly. To practice silent illumination, just drop all busywork and discriminating thoughts and be serenely aware, accepting all things fully, just as they are. Do not hanker after anything or dwell on anything. Simply let your naturally aware mind take everything in, just as it is. This is the natural quiescence and luminosity of Chan. When there is discrimination and clinging, such marvelous quiescence and luminosity is impeded. Mind is naturally silent and still and, at the same time, fully aware. No effort is needed to polish it or make it shine for it to be this way. In principle, silent illumination is very simple. But, because we are so complicated, it becomes a difficult teaching to master. The greatest problems arise from doing too much. Because we all tend to do too much – even in meditation – we may require considerable preliminary training and unlearning before we are simple enough to use silent illumination effectively.

Hung-chih Cheng-chueh instructs that the body should sit silently and the mind should be totally open yet unmoving. Through this practice one cleanses the mind until it gains “the clarity of an autumn pool and is as bright as the moon shining in the autumn sky.” Further on he instructs, “In this silent sitting, whatever objects appear, the mind is very clear as to all the details, yet everything is where it originally is, in its own place. The mind stays on one thought for ten thousand years, yet does not dwell on any form, inside or outside.”[2]

In the practice of silent illumination, we say that you should not use your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. If you find your thoughts dwelling intently on objects of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling anything, you should let go. But even this is not enough. You should not use your discursive mind at all. You should let go of all discriminations, all expectations and regrets, likes and dislikes, desires and goals. You should even let go of the thought of “letting go.” Do not think of yourself as an ordinary unenlightened being, nor think that you must rid yourself of vexations and strive for Buddhahood. There should be no thought of enlightenment, no thought of Chan, no thought of gain whatsoever. There should not even be any thought of trying to practice “not-thinking.” The “silence” in silent illumination is not one of active silencing or suppressing, but simply letting go and allowing things to take their rest, to be as they are. We simply lay down our mental worries and involvements and remain at peace, free of thoughts, with nothing to do. At first this will be difficult. But as one enters the practice more deeply, this stillness becomes a profound stillness, in which all discrimination ceases and there is no distinction between stillness and marvelous activity. One who experiences profound stillness feels as though wild grass has sprouted from one’s eyes, as though boulders have blocked one’s ears, as though moss has grown on one’s tongue – all complicated human busywork having long since disappeared, wild nature has taken over.

This simile is not meant to suggest that the senses no longer function, that the eyes do not look, that the tongue is motionless, and that the ears shut out all sound. If this were the case, the silence in one’s practice of silent illumination would not be profound silence, for the mind would still be conjuring up an image of stillness and effortfully avoiding activity. This is not the complete physical and mental quiescence indicated by the simile. In profound silence and simplicity – with absolutely nothing to do – one is not incognizant, but keenly and totally present. Without a second thought, all things prevail in you and you in all things.

One may wonder how a meditator experiencing this profound stillness would be different from an inanimate object, such as a block of wood. It seems that there would be no conscious awareness or activity whatsoever. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the profound silence of silent illumination and the silence of incognizance; and it is to make this distinction that we place the word “illumination” (chao) after “silent” (mo). In truth, silence is inseparable from illumination, and illumination from silence. They are one and the same thing. Even before all thoughts and mental involvements are laid to rest, awareness is already extremely direct, keen, and penetrating. In other words, bright awareness occurs inseparably with profound stillness.

Why is this? When the mind is settled and still, discriminating thoughts disappear; as discriminating thoughts disappear, so do the experiential limitations of past, present, and future, inner and outer, this and that, self and other. With no index by which to mark its passing, time cannot exist. Similarly, with no discursive boundaries between self and other, this and that, there can be no limits or points of reference to define space; so spatial delimitation does not exist either. The bright awareness of silent illumination is not limited by anything at all, since there is no thought of self nor any clinging to features that would separate mind and the environment. One’s mind is like a boundless mirror that, though motionless itself, takes in everything, just as it is. No detail is excluded; nothing is impeded. The mirror and the world it reflects are so perfectly fused as to be inseparable.

Hung-chih Cheng-chueh likens this state to an autumn pond or autumn sky. With the cool and crisp air of autumn, the waters settle, becoming so still and clear that one can see the fish drifting lazily in their depths; the sky so high and clear that one can see the birds gliding gently high up in the blue. He also compares it to the autumn moon, which shines so clear and high that everything in the land is illumined by its cool and gentle light.

In certain respects, silent illumination, with its distinction between silence and illumining, stillness and observation, is reminiscent of the classical Buddhist practice of “calming” (Sanskrit, samatha; Chinese, chih) and “contemplation” (Sanskrit, vipasyana; Chinese, kuan), especially as formulated in the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. The T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i (538-597) says in his Great Calming and Contemplation (Mo-ho chih-kuan),

One should place one’s faith solely in the conviction that this very mind is itself the Dharma-nature. When arising [of thoughts] takes place, it is just the Dharma-nature arising. When perishing [of thoughts occurs], it is just the Dharma-essence perishing…. Returning to the source, reverting to the root, Dharma-nature itself is wholly quiescent. This is known as “calming.” When one practices calming in this manner, all prior mentation comes to a halt. In the practice of “contemplation,” one contemplates that, originally, the mind of ignorance is identical with the Dharma-nature. As such, at its base it is fundamentally empty. The entire range of good and evil [deeds] that proceed from deluded thinking is like empty space. These two practices are utterly non-dual. They are not distinct from one another. [3]

In classical Indian Buddhist systems, samatha and vipasyana are often treated and developed separately. For example, techniques such as the five methods for stilling the mind or visualization of colored disks known as kasinas may be used intitially to develop the deep calm and absorption of dhyana. Once meditative concentration is established, methods of vipasyana or contemplation might be applied, such as the four stations of mindfulness. Through the latter, wisdom or liberative insight (prajna) is developed. Gradually, after the powers of dhyana and samadhi deepen and wisdom becomes penetrating, their functions fuse and deep enlightenment occurs. In the Mahayana this is called the “true samadhi devoid of defiling outflows” or the “most supreme of supra-mundane samadhis.” Such an accomplishment comes only from a very profound, complete enlightenment, quite unlike short-lived enlightenment experiences of limited impact. Although the path to this samadhi is long and slow, once attained, it never subsides. Samadhi functions constantly within the person, and through the powers of wisdom and skill born of this samadhi the individual is able to function as a bodhisattva intent upon delivering other beings.

Although we have been distinguishing the two aspects of silent illumination in order to clarify its practice, it is in fact inaccurate to treat silence and illumination as two separate things. For to do so misrepresents the true practice of silent illumination as well as the sudden path of Ch’an. To begin with, silence and illumination are inseparable and must be present simultaneously: In the very act of illumining one relinquishes grasping after thoughts and sensations and directly takes things in, thereby simultaneously bringing the mind to perfect silence. Then again, in the very act of silencing and pacifying thoughts, attachment to specific features and objects is relinquished and awareness comes to illumine all thing universally without impediment. Thus one is always illumining and silencing simultaneously, in one and the same moment of awareness.

It is a mistake to think that one must first develop inner calm and, only then, apply open awareness. As the mind becomes clearer it becomes more empty and calm, and as it becomes more empty and calm it grows clearer. The more one is able to forget artificial efforts to cultivate stillness and illumination, the more silent and illumining the mind becomes. But an equally essential point to remember about silent illumination is that, according to Ch’an, the mind by nature is intrinsically still, void, and luminous. It need not be cultivated at all! To put too much effort into trying to stop thoughts or to brighten the mind is to compound delusion upon delusion. If there is any notion of practicing a “technique” of silent illumination, it is not silent illumination at all, but clinging and forceful discrimination. This is the real message of the Ch’an teaching of silent illumination: It is a method that is no-method. Silent illumination as the causal practice and silent illumination as the fruit of enlightenment are ultimately indistinguishable.

The concept and practice of silent illumination is expressed quite well by two lines from the Diamond Sutra:

Without dwelling in anything whatsoever, allow this mind to arise.

In practicing silent illumination, one refrains from grasping or dwelling on any particular aspect of the body, mind, or environment. Thus, as the sutra says, one is, “without dwelling in anything whatsoever.” If one were to emphasize this aspect of the practice alone, one could calm the mind and enter the states of unified mind of the various levels of dhyana espoused in the Hinayana tradition. In these states there is deep silence but little or no illumination, for the mind is still tied to a particular feature – namely, stillness and formlessness. Its ability to illumine universally or be aware of all things is impeded by attachment to the thought of emptiness. In true silent illumination there is illumination in addition to stillness, precisely because mind does not abide in any thought of stillness or emptiness. The meditator must let go of all notion of seizing and not seizing, letting go and not letting go: this is true “non-dwelling.” Non-dwelling does not entail turning away from or shutting out the environment. It means to let go of biased attachment and to freely see right through things and take in the whole, so that one is aware of everything, inside and out, just as it is. For this reason the sutra says, “One should allow the mind to arise and be active.”

Hui-neng offers an explanation of this practice and its relation to Ch’an in the Platform Sutra:

The deluded man clings to the characteristics of things, adheres to [the thought of] the samadhi of Oneness, thinks that straightforward mind is sitting without moving and casting aside delusions without letting things arise in the mind. This he considers to be the Samadhi of Oneness. This kind of practice is the same as insentiency and the cause of an obstruction to the Tao. The Tao must be something that circulates freely; why should he impede it? If the mind does not abide in things the Tao circulates freely; if the mind abides in things, it becomes entangled.[4]

At the beginning stages in the practice of silent illumination this letting go and illumining is a thought, a conscious and effortful practice that is born from the mind’s discriminative faculty. As such, the meditator clings to it and invests it with expectations, just like any deluded thought. But as the practice itself matures, this thought of practice disappears. When we truly become ourselves and the method of no-method really becomes no method, there is true silence and illumination. The mind no longer fluctuates or discriminates, and silent illumination simply becomes silence and illumination. This is Ch’an.

Prerequisites and Caveats for Practice of Silent Illumination

To practice silent illumination effectively, several important preconditions must be fulfilled. First, one must have a competent master. Otherwise, it is easy to be waylaid by various obstacles. Being such an effortless and formless approach, it is easy for individuals simply to indulge their bad habits, thinking all the while that they are practicing correctly. Actually, to forego deliberate effort and practice the method of no-method is by no means equivalent to just giving in to our usual ways. The true practitioner of silent illumination knows very clearly that he or she is practicing no-method and knows precisely what this “no-method” involves. Without a teacher, ordinary persons are likely to misinterpret this as a license to do what they have always done, simply affirming it as Ch’an. Few will have a clue as to what silent illumination means as a living human experience. For this reason, someone who takes up silent illumination must have either prior experience with Ch’an or an accomplished teacher who can constantly check and clarify points in the person’s practice.

Secondly, practitioners of silent illumination should spend an extended period of time in intensive practice, preferably in an isolated or carefully controlled environment. Actually this is as true for the practice of silent illumination as it is for that of gongan and huatou. The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. When Chinese practitioners used silent illumination or gongan and huatou in the past, they did not work as we do. Normally they arranged their affairs so that they could attend to their practice all day long, with minimal occasion for distraction. Moreover, life itself was not as complex and fast-paced as it is in today’s world. Despite its alleged conveniences, life in modern society is immensely distracting and stressful. If we content ourselves with meditating for an hour or two a day and then spend the rest of our time chasing frantically after this or that, we will never be able to muster sufficient strength to make progress in the practice of Ch’an. Our efforts at calm and clarity will be too meager to transform the dissipation brought on by the rest of the day’s activities. Thus, a complete reorientation of priorities and circumstances, preferably in the form of a period of retreat, is necessary to develop initial power in the practice. This period of isolation need not occur in a lonely place miles from civilization. It may just as well be undertaken in the most densely populated area, so long as the immediate setting is free of disturbance and conducive to a regular routine of meditation.

In theory, persons at any level of training may use the method of silent illumination. Indeed, from the traditional perspective of the Ts’ao-tung school, everyone, including beginners, should just practice silent illumination. There is simply nothing else to be done. But, since silent illumination is so subtle and elusive, persons whose minds are disturbed and whose powers of concentration are poor have difficulty making much progress with it. If someone comes to me having practiced Ch’an before, I will still not teach this method if the person’s mind is not sufficiently stable and open, regardless of how long he or she may have practiced. On the other hand, if a rote beginner comes along whose mind is by nature calm and stable, I may instruct the person in silent illumination practice right from the start. The deciding factor has nothing to do with one’s professed seniority as a Ch’an or Buddhist practitioner, but one’s power of concentration, simplicity of mind, and clear understanding of just what the practice entails. Before one can take up the practice of silent illumination, one must have a solid intuitive or experiential sense of what it means to let go of thoughts and be aware of what is at hand.

As a rule of thumb, concrete methods such as the five methods for stilling the mind are intended for less experienced persons. The keener the person’s abilities and practice, the more simple and straightforward the method will be. For persons whose minds are complicated and confused, the method of silent illumination will be too formless to be effective in the face of their overwhelming passions. Initially it is best for them to use the more deliberate methods of gradual samadhi practice, such as the five methods for stilling the mind, to provide an explicit basis for calming and concentrating the mind. For a more experienced meditator, however, this sort of routinized meditation might prove more distracting and burdensome than helpful to one’s practice. The important thing is that the practice match the individual’s disposition and ability. It has often been said that the expedientless and direct path of Ch’an is intended for persons with keen karmic roots. Inasmuch as the practice of gongan and silent illumination both require a highly concentrated and unified mind to be effective, the Ts’ao-tung and Lin-chi approaches are similar on this point.

The Practice of Silent Illumination (mo-chao)

by Master Sheng-yen

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book entitled Hoofprint of the Ox, which is based on lectures by master Sheng-yen translated, compiled, arranged, and edited by professor Dan Stevenson.

When people first begin to practice silent illumination they are likely to be confronted by a torrent of scattered thoughts. As soon as one becomes aware of these thoughts one should try to cease involvement with them. One should not allow oneself to become caught up in their train and carried away by them. One does this by simply noticing them and immediately letting them pass. One should be fully attentive to thoughts and sensory experiences from moment to moment. Do not try to avoid, banish, or suppress them. But give free reign to this awareness, allowing it to flow clearly and without interruption, like a stream that sticks to nothing and freely flows into, around, and through all things without impediment.

At the same time, be careful of the pitfall of overexertion in the effort to “illumine” things. To “illumine” (chao) does not really mean to “shine,” as the sun or moon might put out rays of light. It means to simply be aware. The mind is effortlessly luminous, so that whatever presents itself to our awareness is immediately visible to us. This immediate awareness is illumination: Just let go and look and let go and look and let go and look, penetrating directly, deeply, and unobstructedly right into events themselves.

In a sense one could say that letting go is the silent aspect of silent illumination, and the unobstructed play of awareness through all things is the aspect of illumination. But one must remember that they are a single and simultaneous process, not separate ones.

In the Japanese Soto Zen school of Dogen, this method of meditation is called shikantaza or, literally, “Just sit, nothing more.” In the practice of shikantaza one concerns oneself with sitting and sitting only. When a distracting thought arises, one says to oneself, “All I am doing is sitting; there is nothing else to do, nothing to accomplish. Just sit.” Since that is all the person does, he or she simply sits and lets everything else be, even wandering thoughts. Similarly, when involved in other activities–walking, standing, and so forth–the practitioner just tends completely to the action at hand, with no other thought in mind. Ultimately this very activity is enlightenment; practice itself is enlightenment. There is no other enlightenment to be sought elsewhere.

Although beginners are always confronted by wandering thoughts, it is very important that practice remain completely fluid and relaxed. One of the common mistakes that people make in practicing silent illumination is to exert too much effort to repress thoughts and clear the mind. In trying simultaneously to be aware and to let go of thoughts, the meditator may expend tremendous energy to prevent thoughts from arising. In so doing he or she will very likely cling to the idea of emptiness or thoughtlessness and enter a dead blankness or, at best, low-level dhyana.

But in silent illumination the meditator should be quite alert and responsive, gently yet keenly experiencing the play of the mind in thought after thought. One should never feel that one has to suppress thoughts or push them aside. When one is really tranquil and uninvolved, the arising and perishing of thoughts will automatically decrease and, at the same time, awareness will become quite clear. Indeed, thoughts themselves are really just ripples in the awareness of the mind– ripples that occur when the mind magnifies and clings to specific features. As one learns to relax and open up one’s field of awareness, eventually these ripples of thought will silently dissolve, and clear illumination will be quite uniform and sharp. To achieve this, when sitting, just sit without a second thought. When active, act with total body-mind awareness, completely engaging the event at hand. One’s attention should be neither too effortful nor too lax, but very calm, intimate, and precise, as though one’s mind were the waters of a cool pond, so still and clear that you can see everything on its bottom, and the surrounding trees are reflected perfectly on its mirror-like surface.

Another common mistake with silent illumination is to fall into a condition of blankness or stupor, where the mind does not reflect or register anything. This is a lazy and hazy state of blankness. It is a dull and dissipated state, yet it is different from outright drowsiness or sleep. It is like standing on the seashore on a gray, rainy day, not seeing anything anywhere. While immersed in this condition, people often believe that their minds are really motionless and that they are truly practicing silent illumination. But this is mistaken.

In certain respects, this error also comes from trying too hard to suppress thoughts and avoid distinctive sense perception. It represents an emphasis on silence, or the notion of silence, as something prior to or separate from illumination. But it errs not from too much exertion, but from interpreting silence and “letting-go” to be a lax and disinterested sort of thoughtlessness. Again, silence in the practice of silent illumination does not mean incognizance. Sensory awareness registers quite clearly and thoughts still flow, but in an unobstructed and subtle form. Rather than avoiding thoughts and the sensory environment, one’s awareness should penetrate right into the heart of phenomena. What decreases with stillness is not awareness of the world, but the tumult of clinging thoughts and passions that impede our awareness of it. Although the problem of blankness is not explicitly associated with drowsiness per se, it is easiest to slip into this condition while meditating if one is groggy. Otherwise, it will tend to arise in people whose stamina or concentration is weak. Should it go unchecked, this dull blankness can become a habitual condition of practice, and silent illumination will be nothing more than a lazy and disinterested stupor.

The opposite condition — a preoccupation with illumination at the expense of silence — is also a common problem. Generally this occurs because people believe that the correct way to practice is to let their ordinary minds scamper about and grasp objects in the environment as they wish. Such an attitude leads to nothing but a distracted and fragmented mind. Mindfulness loses both its cohesiveness and its immediacy. A verse by Niu-t’ou Fa-jung, a disciple of the Fourth Patriach, says that if a person attends to illumination without developing stillness, eventually he will fall prey to mere intellection. This state may be an advancement over the normal scattered mentality, but it is not Ch’an. The proper situation is for one’s mind to be very clear and bright, yet free of the sort of mental fluctuations that come with deluded clinging to objects. It should be a universal and even flow of awareness, not one driven by our usual passionate likes and dislikes.

Perhaps one of the most serious difficulties with practicing silent illumination is the question of assessing one’s progress. Precisely because it is so difficult to determine whether one’s mind is truly motionless and open, meditators will frequently overestimate their attainments. What is more, spiritual progress can develop so gradually that it is difficult to find a clear index for it. Thus, it is easy for a silent illumination practitioner to feel that thoughts have disappeared when really they have not, especially if he or she has never before experienced no-thought.

For example, suppose a meditator goes into isolation in order to make speedy progress, putting his or her total effort into silent illumination. As practice deepens, mental expansiveness, clarity, and brightness grow until, finally, there seems to be no environmental or bodily limitation whatsoever. The daily routine passes smoothly and without vexation. At this point he or she may be quite convinced that practice of silent illumination is quite deep. What is more, since this is all there is to it — silent illumination is both practice and fruit — he or she may dismiss any thought of further effort and progress is spurious. But, really, this experience may be no more than the expanded sense of self and condition of unified mind experienced in the the pre-dhyana states described in Hinayana texts. Indeed, there are many levels of samadhi in the Hinayana and heterodox traditions which are more profound than this.

Such a person must have a means to test himself, either through a truly experienced teacher or some other means. Should the former be unavailable, it may help to set aside one’s practice temporarily and return to the world to test whether one’s mind is really unmoving or not. In this way one can determine whether one’s response to the environment is a function of the deluded mind or of the wisdom free of outflows. If, in the ordinary world, one is unswayed by obstructions whenever difficult circumstances arise, then one has made some progress in Ch’an. A truly accomplished practitioner of silent illumination is like a cloud moving through up-thrusting peaks, completely unaffected by anything he or she encounters. For such a person there is no mind nor world to rely on, yet the two interact mutually and spontaneously. His or her powers of enlightenment will ultimately be identical to those achieved through practice of gongan or huatou.

Why might it be so necessary to completely set aside meditation practice in this way? If a relatively advanced practitioner meditates regularly for a few hours daily, he or she will naturally remain very calm and stable throughout the day. When such a person engages in secular activities and mixes with others, it is easy to maintain an open and serene mind. However, real accomplishment in Ch’an, real freedom from defilements, will maintain itself effortlessly throughout all circumstances. If one’s practice lacks this self-sustaining power when the regular environment, routines, and supports for Ch’an practice are suspended, then one’s goal has not been reached.

Miscellaneous Questions Concerning the Practice of Silent Illumination

Students inevitably have many questions about silent illumination, especially since it seems so different from gongan and huatou practice. For clarification, some of the common ones and my answers are included here:

Question: What is the difference between Mahayana and Hinayana samadhis, and how might this difference relate to silent illumination?

The principal difference between the two kinds of samadhi is that time, space, the external environment, and mental activities disappear in the deeper Hinayana samadhis, whereas in true Mahayana samadhi all of these, except defiled mental activities, remain. For example, a person experiencing deep Mahayana samadhi could converse or discourse very lucidly. Because the mind is eternally still, one would respond without any mentation at all. The Hinayana meditator, however, would experience mental activity and affliction whenever he or she departed from samadhi. These two types of responses–that with defiled mentation and affliction and that without–are known as “natural response” and “response characterized by mental discrimination or discursiveness. ” To distinguish between the two is very difficult.

Although the gradual samadhi methods common to the Hinayana and elementary Mahayana teachings (this may be said of the meditations of non-Buddhist teachings as well) cannot themselves provide access to Ch’an or genuine Mahayana samadhi, the accomplished meditator using silent illumination can indeed enter deep stages of Hinayana samadhi, such as the four formless samapatti of infinite consciousness, infinite space, and so forth. However, the novice or less advanced practitioner of silent illumination will likely not be able to enter the deepest stages of Hinayana and Mahayana samadhi. This is due to the aspect of illumination in Ch’an silent illumination practice. If silent illumination comprised only the aspect of silencing the mind, attainment of deep stages of Hinayana dhyana and samapatti would be more readily possible. But since the element of illumination detracts from deep meditative absorption, most practitioners of silent illumination cannot enter these states.

Question: What are the differences in the practice and relative efficacy of silent illumination and huatou Ch’an?

Both are capable of leading to complete enlightenment, and both are sudden methods insofar as neither deliberately sets up cultivation of samadhi as an expedient for reaching this goal. However, the two approaches are in one respect opposite in character. In hua-t’ou practice, as we know, the meditator must experience great doubt and the world-shattering explosion in order to reach Ch’an. This is known as the passage from great death to great birth. In silent illumination practice, however, emphasis is directed to what we call “hsiu-hsi” or “directly desisting and putting to rest.” Great death and great birth are only experienced when one cultivates the feeling of doubt to the point where it results in an all-consuming explosion. This is an energetic, forceful form of practice that draws together and exponentially feeds on all of our doubts and passions. But cultivation of silent illumination is opposite in character since it does not require doubt but, rather, profound tranquility, clarity, and immediate mindfulness. Herein lies the outstanding dissimilarity between the two methods. Indeed, since in silent illumination Ch’an there is no extraordinary experience to use as an index of progress, it is very difficult to judge its correctness and efficacy. This leaves the practitioner of silent illumination open to various points of error to which one involved in huatou practice may not be prone.

Question: The idea of silence seems to imply that mind is absorbed in one point or one thought, thereby ignoring or forgetting the surroundings. On the other hand, illumination sounds just the opposite — as though mind is allowed to diffuse actively through the external environment.

It is misleading to say that silence, in this instance, means that mind reduces itself to or settles fixedly on one point. Actually, it means that from moment to moment, nothing is retained in one’s mind. The mind does not seize on anything, nor does it discriminate or evolve thoughts about anything. In this respect it is utterly settled and silent. When speaking of illumination, it is alright to say that mind diffuses universally through the surrounding environment, but this does not mean that it is making distinctions or discursively reflecting on the environment. It diffuses fluidly, but it does not seize or dwell on any features.

Furthermore, we should make a distinction between silent illumination as a technique or model of practice to which one strives to conform and the actual experience of it as Ch’an When a person is practicing silent illumination, he or she is mentally very keen and clear but drops all discursive involvement with the surrounding environment. Yet, once the practice of silent illumination matures, it is quite possible to carry on all aspects of daily life and active involvement in the world without impeding this clarity and calm In fact, such a person still does not discriminate. Nonetheless, if you point at an object and ask what it is, he or she will freely tell you. This is because when one has perfected silent illumination, wisdom actively functions and responds without ever departing from the quiescence of samadhi. In technical Buddhist terminology, this kind of experience where samadhi and wisdom are perfectly simultaneous is the “supramundane samadhi of the Mahayana.” It is qualitatively quite different from the mundane samadhi of one-pointed absorption in a single thought or feature. Better yet, it is just Ch’an, for the Ch’an school does not make these sorts of distinctions.

Question: Is it better not to mix or switch back and forth between silent illumination and huatou practice?

Because they represent two different attitudes– one quite intense and active, the other more passive — usually these two methods are not intermingled.

Question: What about using them for long stretches of time, one method for a few years, then the other?

In the past there was no such example, but lately I have been thinking of trying this out.

Question: Why was this never done before, and why are you contemplating doing it now?

People of the past just stuck to one method. They did not want to run the risk of distracting themselves and their disciples or losing momentum in their practice by switching techniques prematurely. I am thinking of teaching both because people of the past who used one method tended arbitrarily to discredit the other, without having any firsthand experience of it. I tend to be more open minded about this and feel that both methods have their strong points. For example, one might begin with hua-t’ou and take up silent illumination later, after one has acquired a taste of Ch’an. Actually, during the T’ang dynasty — the formative period of Ch’an — these approaches may not have been so separate. It was only with the emergence of the specific houses of Ch’an during the Sung period that they became distinct traditions of practice.

Question: Are there any clear indicators that a disciple would do better with one method than the other?

Yes, there are. If a person can effectively calm the mind and let go of thoughts from the start, he may well begin with silent illumination. But if one’s mind does not possess this sort of inherent stability, it would be better to use a hua-t’ou. Then again, if a beginner takes up a hua-t’ou and is able to concentrate well, but over time is unable to build up great doubt and so runs out of steam, I may have him or her use silent illumination. Actually there are no rigid formulas. If there were, it would not be Ch’an.

Question: Can you tell us something about the use of silent illumination and hua-t’ou in everyday lay life, as opposed to being on a retreat or in a monastic lifestyle?

When people used silent illumination in the past, they normally tried to attend to their practice all day long. This was possible because life then was a lot simpler and slower-paced. If you have a fulltime job you can’t really use this method, because silent illumination requires one to minimize discursive thinking and simply observe. Thus, at best you can only do it in the morning and evening when you sit at home.

As for hua-t’ou, again you can’t really apply this method when you are on the job. You can still use it for morning and evening meditations, but you will never generate the intense energy that you would use on a retreat. This is an important difference, because with huatou it is very important to put all your energy into your practice. It is a very intense practice. Silent illumination is intense and demanding in a different way. In the practice of silent illumination you try to completely let go of yourself. It is basically a very “loose” method. Beginners might have to exert a lot of energy and use silent illumination in a “tight” way in order to settle their minds. But as they become adept at sitting it isn’t done intensely.

Question: Why do you so often have students use the methods of counting or following the breath as a prelude to using huatou and silent illumination?

Of the five methods for stilling or stopping the mind, in ancient times the two techniques of meditation on impurity and meditation on the breathing were used most often. During the day of Sakyamuni Buddha they were called amrta or “ambrosia” because they were so effective for concentrating the mind. Basically I teach counting the breath in order to help students calm the mind. If one’s mind is scattered– which is a common problem these days–this method will be very beneficial. After a student has made some progress, I might assign contemplation of loving-kindness and compassion or contemplation of impurity, if he or she is excessively plagued by anger or lust. Desires for sex, food, sleep, comfort, and so forth, are closely tied to the body. Thus, meditation on the impurity and repulsiveness of the body is an effective antidote. But for the most part, these will be exceptional cases. Actually, it is best to proceed directly on the path of Ch’an.

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