The marrow of Zen
Zen practice has the power to transform the way we experience our lives for the better. But how does it work? In this article we'll take a look at the meaning of 'insight' in the context of meditation practice, and how we might cultivate it for ourselves.
Meditative insight vs Buddhist philosophy, and why this article is a fool's errand
First, it's important to make a distinction between 'meditative insight' and 'Buddhist philosophy'.
Throughout the ages, both meditators and philosophers have explored the Big Questions. What is the meaning of life? How can we live well and be happy? Who are we, really? Where do we come from, and what happens when we die?
These kinds of questions can be approached in two ways, which correspond to two ways that we can 'know' something more generally. One approach is to use our intellect - to examine the question through logic, using evidence and careful reasoning to arrive at a conclusion, perhaps discussing it with others to take their perspectives on board. The other approach is to look at our direct experience - 'feeling' our way into the question as opposed to 'thinking' about it.
The world's great spiritual traditions have all amassed a great body of philosophy - carefully reasoned theories about the nature of the universe and what it means to be human. Buddhism is no exception - the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools of philosophy are particularly influential, but there are many more. Some people (myself included) find this type of philosophical exploration very interesting, and enjoy reading, thinking and arguing about it with like-minded people. If taken far enough, the study of philosophy can even change the way we see the world, by persuading us that our old ideas weren't quite right, and giving us a better way to relate to what's going on.
Insight-based paths such as Zen have a similar goal - changing the way we understand and relate to our experience - but approach it very differently. Rather than thinking about our experience, we explore our experience directly. When we pick up a cup of tea, we don't need to think about it using logic and careful reasoning to determine whether it's hot or cold - we simply know, immediately and directly. And if we'd never drunk a cup of tea before, no amount of intellectual analysis will really enable us to know what it tastes like - we can only do that by drinking the tea and experiencing it for ourselves.
Meditative insight thus seeks to change us through direct experience, rather than reasoning and persuasion. We examine our experience very closely, generally over and over again, until we at last come to see for ourselves what's actually going on, rather than having to rely on the argumentation of others.
Of course, the major drawback of this approach is that it's impossible for me as a teacher to give you the experience of insight. If we were doing philosophy, I could explain the theories and principles and we could debate them. But when it comes to insight, all I can do is point the way - you have to look for yourself.
Approaching insight practice
One approach to insight practice is simply to explore for yourself. If you hear a teacher say something (or read something in one of these articles) that sounds interesting, check it out for yourself! Maybe you start wondering where thoughts come from, or what exactly they are, or where they go when they vanish - well, take a look! Sit in meditation, take some time to settle your mind, and then look at your thoughts and see what's going on. Following your nose in this way can potentially be much more powerful than using someone else's technique just because they told you to - if you don't really care about the outcome of the practice, or you only have a vague, theoretical idea that it might be interesting, your practice is likely to be far less diligent than if you're exploring something that's of immediate personal interest. (Zen master Bankei likened using someone else's technique to a monk pretending to have lost their robe and searching for it. If you'd really lost your robe - by the way, you only get one, so you're naked until you find it again - you can bet that you'd keep hunting until it turns up. But if you're only pretending to have lost it, what happens when you start to get bored and hungry?)
That being said, over the millennia, various meditation techniques have developed which have proven to be effective at leading diligent practitioners to realise the key insights of the path. It's important to emphasise that the technique is simply a means to an end, rather than an end in itself - you might practise a particular meditation technique many times without learning anything of interest, and conversely insight might arise at any time, with or without a technique. But the techniques have been tried and tested throughout the centuries, and the ones that have survived the test of time are the ones that seem to work fairly well for a decent range of people. There's a popular saying in contemplative circles: 'Insight is an accident, but insight meditation makes you accident-prone.'
Where to look?
Different traditions have adopted different approaches for exploring phenomenal reality, and arguments have raged for millennia about whether the different approaches ultimately lead to the same insights or not. A fairly moderate interpretation, which I tend to favour, is that we're all climbing the same mountain, but different traditions have charted routes up different faces of the mountain, so the experience of climbing will be quite different for most - if not all - of the journey.
So let's take a look now at two different routes up that mountain...
Examining the perceived
The Theravada tradition of Buddhism focuses primarily on deconstructing the 'events' of our phenomenal reality - the sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts that come and go from one moment to the next. (Some ways of doing this are described on my insight practice page.) Over time, we come to see that whatever is seen, heard, felt and cognised is impermanent (subject to coming and going), unreliable (not a source of lasting happiness) and made up of the coming-together of various causes and conditions, as opposed to existing in its own right. As such, nothing is ultimately worth clinging to, because sooner or later everything in our experience will change and vanish. Although this might sound rather drab and depressing, in the long run it's a deeply liberating insight, because it allows us to let go of our craving to have things the way we want them to be. We can simply let go into the flow of our lives, and see what happens next.
Examining the perceiver
Whereas the Theravada tradition focuses mainly on the 'events' of our experience, Zen prefers to 'turn the light around' and focus on who, or what, perceives those events. What actually is this awareness? Where is it? What is it made of? What is it that looks out through our eyes and listens with our ears? What is our true nature, exactly - not who we think we are, but where is the essential essence of 'me' in our direct experience?
One classic Zen approach to explore these questions is koan practice. Here, we use the question itself as the object of our meditation - settling the mind, then turning our full attention to a question such as 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' But rather than thinking discursively and analytically about it, as we might if we were taking the philosophical approach, we instead use the question as a way of going deeper into our direct experience. We bring the question to mind, focus intently on it, and then see what we notice as a result of holding this spirit of inquiry. At first, it's likely that we'll have all sorts of thoughts about the question, but in time these fall away, and the practice begins to go deeper, until finally insight dawns in a sudden 'breakthrough' moment.
The other practice most commonly associated with Zen is Silent Illumination/shikantaza/just sitting, which, in its usual form, is simply a matter of resting in a calm, alert manner, aware of whatever's coming up. The basic view here is that, rather than using a koan like a stick to poke at our experience and see what comes up, we instead come to rest and allow reality to reveal itself to us. In this way, we may naturally discover the truth of the strange concepts that we've heard about in Dharma talks or read about in books (or on this website). Some lineages of Zen are quite strict on this point, saying that one should never try to explore anything intentionally in shikantaza practice, but simply allow whatever arises to arise. Other teachers (such as Chan master Sheng-Yen, whose approach to teaching Silent Illumination has been highly influential on my own) allow for the possibility of incorporating insight practice explicitly into 'just sitting' - Sheng-Yen, for example, would sometimes advise his students to settle into the attitude of Silent Illumination and then actively contemplate emptiness or impermanence from that calm, alert place.
Establishing the conditions for insight to arise
One of the most interesting (and irritating) features of insight practice is that the reality we're investigating is literally all around us, right in front of our faces, and so we don't have to go anywhere special to find it - seeing anything clearly enough will do the job.
So how come we aren't all fully enlightened already?
Basically, because we aren't seeing it clearly enough. The role of meditation is to sharpen our metaphorical vision to the point that we can see what's going on as it really as, as opposed to how we think it is. Part of the role of meditation practice is thus to train our minds to focus and see more clearly, without the usual mental noise of habitual distraction and layers upon layers of interpretation.
In many traditions, meditation practices are split out into concentration/samadhi practices and insight practices. Samadhi practice is used to calm the mind down and enable us to see clearly, before we shift gears to insight practice and look closely at what's going on. A good approach is to use the first 50-75% of your practice time to settle the mind - e.g. with jhana practice, the Brahmaviharas, or the 'concentrated mind' step of Silent Illumination - and then the remaining time for insight work. Balancing insight practice with concentration is especially useful if you're taking an event-perspective, deconstructive approach to insight work, because deconstructing sensory experience tends to be agitating and unsettling, and you'll have a much better time of it if you have a calming, soothing practice alongside the deconstruction.
On the other hand, Zen tends to prefer to practise in a way that combines samadhi and insight. Silent Illumination is, by definition, the balance of stillness and clarity, calmness and clear seeing. And even though we tend to think of koan practice as a kind of insight work, it really involves a deep, single-pointed focus on the question at hand, as opposed to a discursive intellectual exploration of the topic or an active deconstruction of sensory phenomena - in a sense, you can look at koan practice as focusing your whole mind on the question mark. Some of the great Zen masters of history have described their experiences of 'breaking through' a koan, and it's clear to anyone with a samadhi practice that these masters were profoundly concentrated on their koan at the decisive moment.
However you prefer to practise, there's no getting away from it - insight practice is both easier and deeper with a calmer mind. Don't neglect samadhi!
The importance of going deep
Insight practice takes time, patience and repetition. Typically, you will need to examine your experience many, many times before insight arises, and you may need to experience the same insight directly quite a few times before it really sinks in.
There's a story about the first Zen teacher, Bodhidharma, which says that when he decided his time in China had come to an end, he called his four primary disciples together, and asked them to explain their understanding. To the first, he said 'you have attained my skin'; to the second, 'my flesh'; to the third, 'my bones'; to the fourth, 'my marrow'. Leaving aside how grisly this sounds, the implication is that all four had understood Bodhidharma's essential teachings, but to different levels of depth.
A shallow understanding can be interesting for a while, but rapidly fades and becomes just another weird thing that happened one day while meditating. A deep understanding can change our lives. So don't settle for skimming the surface - go as deep as you can, and when you think you've understood it all, keep going!
Change your body, change your mind, change your life
The subtitle of this article - change your body, change your mind, change your life - is the motto of my Zen sangha, Zenways. And while it's perhaps tempting to write this off as a tweetable marketing catch-phrase, there's a deep truth to it that I'd like to explore in this week's article. Zen practice really can touch every aspect of who we are and what we do - if we're willing to let it, and if we know how.
Levels of engagement, and Daizan's sports analogy
From time to time I teach mindfulness courses for beginners, and it's always interesting to see to what extent people are willing to engage with the material. I do my best to advertise up front the expectations of the course - a daily 30-minute meditation practice and various additional exercises - but often when people actually start the course, they find it's difficult to fit the practice into their day, or they simply aren't willing to give up their free time at all.
My teacher Daizan has a sporting analogy for one's level of engagement with meditation practice and the benefits that ensue. Some people use mindfulness as a kind of topical ointment when they're feeling stressed - do some practice when they're having trouble sleeping, perhaps, and then drop it again once they're back to normal. That's the equivalent of playing football every once in a while, when the mood takes you: it's enjoyable while you're doing it, but you don't really start to accrue any particular long-term fitness or skill from playing that way.
The next level up is the equivalent of playing regularly for an amateur team. Maybe you're in a local league, you attend training sessions, and you start to get quite a bit better at football. You're also developing a higher level of baseline fitness, which will have other benefits beyond simply playing the game. In a mindfulness context, at this point you've established a regular meditation practice which keeps going through good times and bad, and as a result you're starting to develop some side benefits, such as a generally higher level of focus in daily life, lower blood pressure, and greater resilience to stress rather than simply temporary relief from the symptoms of stress.
Then we have the professionals - people who have devoted a significant chunk of their lives. These are the salaried football players whose lives revolve around the game - training, fitness and performance have become part of who they are. In the meditation world, you're looking at people who may practice for several hours a day and attend multiple silent retreats throughout the year. For people at this level, the benefits go well beyond simple stress relief or even resilience - the deeper insights of the path will inevitably open up over time. From personal experience, I can say that there are quite a few people with this level of commitment out there, and it's always a pleasure and a privilege to meet someone with a deep practice like this.
At the top end are the world champions - those with unusual talent or skill. In the football world these are the celebrated players whose every movement is scrutinised by the sporting press. (I'm not going to expose my woeful sports knowledge by attempting to name some of them.) Thankfully the meditation world doesn't get that kind of attention, but nevertheless the most extraordinary practitioners develop a certain kind of renown. Some practitioners seem to reach a point where they can continue to sit in meditation without eating, drinking, sleeping or indeed moving at all for days or even weeks, for example. Whether these kinds of skills are really useful for someone with a family and a day job is really beside the point - the point is simply that there are incredible depths to this seemingly simple practice, and most of us are merely scratching the surface.
So let's take another look at that Zenways motto: change your body, change your mind, change your life. How can we do that?
Changing your body
When you see a phrase like 'change your body' in a spiritual context, you might immediately think of something like Yoga or Tai Chi. These are great practices in their own right, but they can also become powerful vehicles for Zen practice if we approach them in the right way.
At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of presence. In any moment of our lives, we can be fully present, entirely distracted, or somewhere in between, split between the present-moment situation and some other activity of our minds. Zen training is about becoming more and more present in an ever-wider range of situations, arguing that time spent distracted is time wasted, and that our lives are lived most fully when we show up for each and every moment of them. (If that sounds like hyperbole, check it out for yourself! Get your meditation practice good enough that you can see where your mind is going and what happens in your experience when you're focused versus when you're distracted, and then track it across many different situations.)
So a physical activity such as Yoga or Tai Chi not only has health benefits in terms of strengthening our bodies and making them more fluid and flexible, but we can also use the practice to train this quality of presence. As we go through a sequence of asanas or a form, are we present, or are we simply going through the motions? Are we focused on the physical sensations of the body and the subtle intentions of the mind, or are we thinking about something else whilst absent-mindedly copying the shapes the people around us are making with their bodies? And, actually, we quickly find that our physical practice goes better when our mind is on what we're doing, so both our Zen practice and our physical practice can benefit each other.
But Zen also has its own physical cultivation practices. Japanese culture places great emphasis on the development of the hara - essentially, the guts. I've previously written about Zen master Hakuin's energy practices, which are one way to train the hara (particularly the ah-un breathing, which is briefly mentioned in the article; there's also a guided audio version of the practice on my Audio page).
If you keep up a practice like ah-un breathing over a period of several weeks, you'll start to get a concrete physical feeling associated with the hara - as if your upper body is relaxing and your centre of mass has moved down into the abdomen. In the martial arts world, the hara is sometimes described as the 'stone ball', because when it's well developed it really can feel like your hara becomes a heavy ball.
Interestingly, in order to maintain a sense of connection with this 'stone ball' sensation, it's necessary for the upper body to stay relatively relaxed. This has a corresponding effect on the nervous system - physical tension is associated with the sympathetic ('fight or flight') branch while relaxation is associated with the parasympathetic ('rest and digest'). So by training the hara and maintaining an awareness of it in our daily activities, we actually train our bodies to be more physically soft and relaxed throughout the day, meaning that we don't get so stressed and have an easier time dealing with whatever comes up.
Changing your mind
The second part of the motto is the more obvious part - meditation involves doing something with your mind, so of course you're changing your mind. Simple, right?
Even here there are some subtleties, though. Psychologists like to talk about 'states' and 'traits': a state is a temporary experience, such as the condition of feeling briefly happy when you receive some good news, whereas a trait is a characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving that tends to remain pretty stable across time, such as being generally optimistic about the future.
Meditation can produce changes in both states and traits. Of the two, the state changes are usually easier to observe and show up more rapidly - for example, you might find that after just two or three meditation sessions you start to notice that you tend to feel a bit calmer afterwards, i.e. the meditation practice is changing your state toward one which is less agitated. But all states are temporary, and so if you get nice and peaceful in your meditation practice and then go straight back into a stressful environment, the calm state will probably wear off pretty quickly.
As I mentioned above in the section on 'professional meditators', our practice can take us beyond state changes. A dedicated practice over a period of years can retrain the mind's default states, shifting our traits - for example, a long-term jhana practice will lead to the practitioner experiencing more positive states naturally, irrespective of circumstances, while a committed practice of the Brahmaviharas tends to lead to practitioners becoming kinder and more compassionate by default. Insight practice can also lead to shifts in the way we see the world, fundamentally changing our relationship with our experience, and at the deepest levels even cutting the roots of suffering itself. These types of insights are most likely to open up in retreat conditions for people with a deep, committed practice, but can come up for anyone at any moment - there's a saying in meditation circles that insight is always an accident, but through deepening your practice you can make yourself accident-prone.
Changing your life
I once asked Stephen Batchelor how I could better integrate my Zen practice into my life, and he said that the question was already a mistake. It was better, he said, to ask how I could come to see my life as my practice. I've been chewing on that one ever since.
It seems to me that Stephen's essential point is that to distinguish between 'practice' and 'life' sets up a split between some period of time in our day when we 'do Zen', and the rest of the time, when we don't. Zen becomes a 'technique' or a 'training', like doing sit-ups in the morning, which confers certain benefits in the background but is largely forgotten outside formal practice times.
But if we come back for a moment to the basic principle of presence that I introduced above when talking about doing physical practices such as Yoga or Tai Chi, there's really no reason why the attitude of becoming ever-more present to whatever we're doing should be limited to physical exercise or meditation. Actually, is there any part of our lives that wouldn't go better if we paid more attention to it? Scientific research says no - people report higher levels of well-being when they're more focused on whatever they're doing, even when it's an unpleasant activity.
We can see this attitude reflected in Zen teachers through the ages. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, constantly spoke of 'nari kiru' - becoming completely one with whatever activity one was engaged in, all day, every day. He said that this was the true and only way to live the Zen life. We also have the following classic Zen story, taken from a collection compiled in the 19th century:
Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: 'I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.'
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in's pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
But maybe this all sounds like a lot of work - far too much for modern-day people, with all our responsibilities and things to do. Well, it turns out that people have been too busy for a long time! Back in the 12th century, a Chinese teacher named Dahui Zonggao worked with senior Chinese officials of the Song dynasty at a time when northern China had been invaded by the Jurchen people. Chaos, destruction and continual fear of imminent death were the order of the day. Zen has always thrived in times of hardship, as people turn to the practice to help them navigate the difficult conditions of their lives, and so Dahui found himself working with many highly committed students who nevertheless had their hands very full indeed.
His basic approach was to give them a simple core practice (in Dahui's case, he recommended koan study, but whatever practice you prefer will do fine), and the following instructions. When working, or engaged in any other kind of activity, you should be 100% focused on your work. Simply do what is in front of you as completely as you can, not splitting your attention in multiple directions. (Nari kiru.) Then, when you find yourself with a moment of respite - perhaps while waiting for a meeting to begin, or travelling from one place to another - bring up the practice and reconnect with it, grounding ourselves physically and mentally rather than simply allowing the mind to wander. In this way, Zen practice threads through your entire life - sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but never totally absent, never making that hard distinction between 'Zen' and 'life' that limits the potential of your practice.
Ultimately, Zen is a way of life. We do the practice not to achieve some kind of exalted state or spiritual trophy, but rather to live a Zen life - to be present, grounded, focused and engaged in each moment of our lives, no matter what our personal conditions might be.
May you discover your own Zen life.
A closer look at the path of Silent Illumination
I've written about the practice of Silent Illumination in several places already, but I've just spent a few days on retreat and feel the urge to take another crack at it, so here goes!
Awakening, non-duality and Buddha Nature
Zen practice points us toward awakening - a radical transformation in the way that we relate to our experience of the world. Awakening allows us to step out of the quagmire of stress, difficult emotions and conflict that characterises so much of our lives, unfolding a different perspective which is characterised not by the usual dualistic categories into which we normally divide our experience - self and other, good and bad, right and wrong - but instead by the seemingly paradoxical, intellectually slippery experience of non-duality.
Ordinarily, we see the world in terms of separate objects - me in here, everything else out there, clear boundaries between this and that. When we inhabit a world of solid objects, the relationship between those objects is primarily one of impact - we collide with the world, struggle against it, try to force it to move in the direction we want it to go. Through awakening, we can discover a much more fluid, flowing sense of reality, in which nothing is really solid or separate in quite the way that we had imagined. From this place of no separation, what we conventionally describe as 'problems' are seen as just another part of the unfolding experience, as opposed to a source of stress and conflict - it isn't that we lose touch with reality or become unable to function, but more that our resistance to the unfolding of the universe falls away. Over time we learn to trust and live from this place of non-separateness, and as we do so we find ourselves manifesting compassionate action in the world, living in accordance with our true nature, or Buddha Nature.
Traditionally speaking, the Zen path is usually described as involving an initial recognition of that Buddha Nature - a moment of waking up, called kensho (seeing true nature) - followed by a longer path of practice to ingrain this recognition of non-duality so deeply into our being that it becomes our habitual stance, and our Buddha Nature can manifest in the world for the benefit of all beings.
So how do we do it?
Silent Illumination as the embodied expression of awakening
Going back to the writings of Hongzhi, the 11th/12th century Chan (Chinese Zen) master who coined the term, Silent Illumination is actually a description of the awakened state - so 'practise Silent Illumination' is essentially an encouragement to rest in, and ultimately live from, our Buddha Nature. The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen felt the same way, referring to 'practice-enlightenment' as one indivisible unit. For Dogen, you didn't practise meditation in order to become enlightened; your practice was your way of embodying and enacting your enlightenment. (Sounds easy, right?)
We could describe the practice of Silent Illumination very simply thus:
Set up the body in a relaxed, alert, aligned posture, with the eyes open. Become aware of the totality of your experience, making no distinctions. Continue to rest in this way.
We start with the body - we want to be relaxed on one hand, but alert on the other. Aligning the body helps with both the relaxation (because we can release unnecessary muscular tension) and the alertness (because if the body is aligned rather than hunched or curled up, we're more likely to stay awake).
What we do with the body exactly mirrors what we want to do with the mind. Our mind should be relaxed, fully open, taking in the totality of our experience; but at the same time we should be alert, bright and clear, aware of what is coming and going rather than drifting off into dullness and lassitude. As we maintain this bright, open awareness of our whole experience, refraining from dividing our experience up conceptually, we experience reality as it is - not carved up into objects, but not one meaningless soup of nothingness either. It's an experience that's impossible to describe in words, so I won't make any further effort here - all you can do is find out for yourself how it is, through practice.
Of course, if you haven't experienced it yet, then this might all seem pretty weird and out-there. You might even wonder if there's any point to practising in this way if you have no idea what non-duality means.
But this is the genius of Silent Illumination. We start by placing the body and mind in a condition which approximates as closely as we can the place we'd like to get to, even if we don't know what the place is like. By doing so, we set up the ideal conditions to cross over into the true experience of Silent Illumination - so all we have to do is keep practising, and sooner or later we will find ourselves moving naturally into awakening, gently and smoothly.
The Method of No Method
This is all well and good, but many people - perhaps most - find that it's basically impossible to do this 'pure' kind of Silent Illumination practice. The mind is too unruly, it wanders this way and that, and formal meditation just feels like 20 minutes of 'formal mind-wandering'. This type of experience can be difficult, frustrating, even feeling like it's a total waste of time, despite the teacher's best encouragements to 'just keep going'.
Taking a step back from Silent Illumination for a moment, the world's great spiritual traditions have tended to take one of two approaches to this problem. Some traditions follow this 'just go straight there' approach - Dzogchen and Advaita Vedanta both place a heavy emphasis on 'pointing out' our true nature and leaving it up to the practitioner to find their own way there, seeing any other kind of practice as a side-track, introducing artificial (and inevitably dualistic) activity into the mind, which - they would argue - simply takes us further away from our natural state.
Other traditions - like early Buddhism and Mahamudra - tend to proceed in a stepwise fashion rather than jumping straight to the end point. Here, we see the path of awakening presented in a series of stages, with a sequence of different practices intended to train and prepare our minds to wake up before we take the final step. Often, there will be some kind of samadhi practice - a kind of 'mind training' where we practise focusing our attention on some particular object, gradually cultivating our concentration and mindfulness - and some kind of insight practice - a kind of 'investigation of reality' where we examine what arises in experience through a variety of lenses which ultimately undermine our conventional, dualistic perspective on the world. Along the way, there may also be heart-opening practices which aim to loosen up some of the deepest tensions within our being, allowing us to open both to our true nature and to the people around us more easily.
Recognising that a stepwise approach could be helpful in many circumstances, the 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen devised what he called 'the Method of No Method' as an approach to Silent Illumination - a series of stages of the practice itself, and a kind of 'map' of the different levels of experience which unfold as we proceed through the stages.
It's extremely important that we don't take this map too literally. You already possess the seed of Buddha Nature, and you don't need to pass through any stages or levels in order to realise it - you simply need to notice it and then learn to live from there. So if you ever find yourself in your practice thinking 'Oh, but I can't move on to that stage yet, I haven't had this experience', please drop that line of thinking at once - it simply doesn't work like that. Trust your direct experience and the spiritual intuition that will develop over time - if there's ever any conflict between the map and your intuition, follow the latter to see where it leads. The map is ultimately just another concept - but it can be a helpful one.
So let's now take a look at this map, and explore the stages of Silent Illumination.
1. Scattered Mind, and the first preliminary practice
The first stage is what Sheng-Yen calls 'Scattered Mind'. The good news is that you've already mastered it! This is the condition of most of us most of the time - distracted, half-doing one thing while half-thinking about something else, completely enmeshed in dualistic perception. This kind of experience is not something to be demonised - it's really just another thing that our minds can do, and ultimately we don't want to reject anything in our experience, because doing so is just setting up another duality between 'good experience' and 'bad experience'. Nevertheless, being scattered in this way is often a setup for having a really bad time, and the reason that these practice traditions exist at all is because this isn't the only way to be.
And so, we start to practise. We set up the body, upright, aligned and relaxed. Sheng-Yen then introduces his first preliminary practice: a progressive relaxation of the body. Typically we start at the head and work slowly down through the body, noticing any areas of tension, tightness or holding, and gently allowing these to relax and release, if that's available in the moment. Some patterns of tension are deeply held and will take time to work themselves out, and there's no need to rush or force this process. Nevertheless, the attitude here is one of moving toward relaxation. As the body relaxes, the mind will tend to settle too, and we'll tend to find that we become a little less scattered in the process.
2. Concentrated Mind, and the second preliminary practice
Even so, 'a little less scattered than usual' is still pretty scattered for most of us, so Sheng-Yen now introduces a second preliminary practice. Having done the progressive relaxation, we now bring a broad, gentle attention to the sensations of the body as a whole, and we rest here - perhaps for the rest of the session, perhaps just for a while.
This is a kind of samadhi training. We are training the mind to pay attention to something, notice when it's wandered and come back to the object of focus. As we continue to do this, over many sessions, our mind gradually becomes more responsive to our intention - as the early Buddhist texts describe it, 'malleable, wieldy and given to imperturbability'.
Some traditions like to use very small areas of focus (e.g. the breath sensations at the nostrils) and go deep into one-pointed stillness, allowing everything else to fall away. That kind of very deep, narrow samadhi isn't really where we're going with Silent Illumination. Rather, we want a broad, gentle resting of attention, which nevertheless is wide awake and aware of the changing sensations across the whole body. As we do this practice, we may notice thoughts, sights and sounds coming and going; we don't want to suppress or shut out those experiences, but we also don't want to take an interest in them. We simply let them come and go in the background as we stay focused on the body sensations.
(Sheng-Yen also has a whole other map describing the development of samadhi, which is worth checking out if you like this kind of thing.)
Although I've described this as a 'preliminary' practice, it can be a deep and powerful meditation in its own right. We shouldn't be tempted to rush past this stage to get to the good stuff - but, at the same time, if we try to stay here forever, we miss what comes next...
3. Unified Mind, and the limit of 'deliberate' meditation practice
At a certain point, we shift from focusing on the body sensations to a more inclusive awareness. We become aware of the totality of experience - sight, sound, body sensation, thought, emotion, the whole shebang. This becomes our new resting place. As before, the task is simply to remain aware, but now distractions take a slightly different form - we will find the mind 'grabbing on' to some aspect of awareness (a sound, a train of thought) and following it, at the expense of the rest of the experience. Whenever that happens, our task is simply to let go and open back up again, returning to the totality.
This shift of focus can happen in a few ways:
It's worth playing around with this. You might find that you have a preference, either to stay with the body sensations or to open up. Whatever your preference is, try the other approach from time to time. If you like to open up, try staying a bit longer in 'samadhi mode' sometimes before opening up, to see whether you find that you're a little less prone to distraction and can thus rest in the totality more easily. If you like to stay with the body sensations, open up from time to time, especially if you're waiting for the transition to happen naturally - it may be that you're holding the intention of samadhi a little too firmly, as a result of which you'll stay on the body sensations forever and the opening up will never happen by itself. It's especially important to make the move deliberately if you feel that your samadhi practice is rubbish and your mind is far too busy to move onto the next step yet - it's quite likely that the wandering thoughts in your mind are not the fatal obstacle you believe them to be, and you're simply setting the bar too high and being too hard on yourself. This is not a practice that requires perfection - and I say that as a long-time perfectionist myself.
One way or another, you end up with a practice where you are essentially 'holding the view of non-duality' - you've set the intention to remain aware of all phenomena equally, without discrimination. This is as close to awakening and 'true' Silent Illumination as you can take yourself. And it's a good place to be! Get used to hanging out here and you will eventually notice a subtle thread of contentment running through this experience. There are no problems to solve here, nothing to reject, nothing to change - your experience can be whatever it is and it's just fine. That contentment can deepen over time and become quite wonderful.
But we aren't quite there yet. We're still at the point where, on some subtle level, we're conceiving a 'me' who is 'doing something' in order to meditate - sitting in a certain way, doing a certain something with the mind, setting a subtle intention, etc. At some point, we must learn to let go even of that subtle somethingness.
4. No Mind
Chan master Guo Gu compares the stages of Unified Mind and No Mind by saying that Unified Mind is like looking through a perfectly clear window, whereas No Mind is like looking through no window at all. No Mind isn't something we can do deliberately, because the very act of conceiving a 'doer' who 'does' the practice contains the seed of duality deep within it, preventing No Mind from arising. But what we can learn to do, over time, is to develop a deep, stable Unified Mind and then let go of that last little piece of duality - and, rather than simply falling back into the mind-wandering of Scattered Mind, we instead cross over into No Mind.
In many respects, Unified Mind and No Mind are similar - both are characterised by non-duality, contentment and peace. But once you experience the shift from one to the other, the difference will be as clear as day.
Initially, we contact No Mind briefly - perhaps only for a moment - and it's a fragile, unstable experience. (At this point I'm supposed to do what all good Dharma teachers do and say 'Of course some people do become fully enlightened in one go, like the historical Buddha', but my experience so far is that it's a much more bitty process for 100% of everybody. Shrug.) But as we keep practising, we come back here again and again, and over time the experience deepens and becomes more robust. Ultimately, the aim is to learn to live from this place, in all circumstances and conditions. This seems to be a long road!
But, ultimately, that is the invitation of Silent Illumination - a life of practice-enlightenment, lived in accordance with our deepest nature, manifesting compassion and wisdom in the world for the benefit of all beings.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.