A handful of fingers pointing at the moon
One of Zen's most iconic practices is known by a variety of names - just sitting, shikantaza, Silent Illumination. This week we're going to take a look at how one of the great Zen masters of history, the 12th century Chinese Chan teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue, described Silent Illumination, and how the practice has come down to us today through a variety of different routes, leading to a family of related-but-subtly-different approaches.
Hongzhi's Silent Illumination
Hongzhi lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, and was a contemporary of Dahui Zonggao, another very important Chinese Chan/Zen master who formulated the style of koan practice which is most commonly used in Rinzai Zen lineages these days. Hongzhi didn't invent Silent Illumination (there are arguments that it can be traced back to the historical Buddha), but his conception of the practice has been hugely influential on the schools that came since. (The founder of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen, refers to Hongzhi in his writings more than any other Zen master apart from Dogen's own teacher.)
Hongzhi describes Silent Illumination in this way (translations taken from Guo Gu's marvellous book Silent Illumination, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in this mode of practice):
Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? But what on earth is he talking about?
Returning to the source
The Silent Illumination that Hongzhi describes is known by many names in different traditions: Buddha Nature, the Ground of Being, primordial awareness (rigpa), mind-essence. If we're coming from a modern, scientific world view, we might instead talk about coming to understand the nature of our conscious experience, seeing how the brain weaves together perceptions of ourselves and the world from the data coming from our senses.
There's a deep paradox at the heart of this kind of teaching. On one hand, we're discovering the fundamental nature of our experience, our basic Buddha Nature. This is something we already have - it isn't something that anyone else can give us or take away from us. But then if we have it already, why isn't it obvious to us? Because the fact is that it isn't obvious to us without practice - if it were, we wouldn't need to practise! Typically speaking, instead of perceiving our Buddha Nature directly, we experience the world very differently, through many layers of identification, contraction and separation.
Before someone has done any practice, it's very common to be identified with our thoughts. We have so many thoughts, all the time, that it seems like we're always thinking - in fact, people often use the terms 'think about' and 'pay attention to' interchangeably, as if they're the same thing. So one of the first discoveries in a meditation practice is that they're not the same at all - we can pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath or the body without thinking about it at all. Thoughts are discrete mental events - mental images, mental talk or sounds, and depending on where you want to draw the line you might include emotions, intentions and so on as well. But all of these are simply events which come and go in our experience, just like the sights and sounds around us. We can pay attention to our experience even in the absence of thought.
The next layer down is the personality - our sense of who we are as people. This is formed at a very early age - notice how adults are always asking children 'What's your favourite food?' or 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', encouraging them to define themselves concretely so that the adult has a better sense of 'who the child is'. And, of course, there's a deep truth to this - we do have very deep, strong patterns in our thoughts, emotions and behaviour which can quite accurately be said to be an important part of who we are. But notice also that who we are changes significantly depending on the situation - who we are at work is not who we are at home, or when visiting our parents, or when hanging out with friends. As we move from situation to situation, we pick up and put down different roles - different aspects of our personality. So this, too, comes and goes - and, through practice, we can find a perspective in which those things are seen to be simply empty constructs of the mind, rather than 'really true' features of reality.
But this exploration can take us deeper still. Even basic features of our experience like time and space turn out to be empty constructs too - techniques that our minds develop to help organise our experience. (Again, you can see this in young children, who haven't yet developed a conventional sense of time or spatiality - they don't have an inner calendar that extends beyond 'now!' or a mental map of the world beyond their immediate surroundings.) And, at the deepest level, even the sense of duality - the clear, obvious difference between this and that, self and other - turns out to be just another mental construction. This is what Hongzhi means when he talks about 'relinquishing external objects'.
But hang on - who wants to go back to the mental state of a newborn infant? That sounds terrible!
Fear not. This practice does not require you to become dependent on a parent to keep you alive. You've already done the work of developing the mental models of time, space and duality; you've developed a sense of who you are as a person, and you've learnt to use your thoughts to solve problems. You aren't going to lose any of that.
What we are going to do, however, is break the stranglehold that these empty concepts have over us. We've seen the world through the lens of thought and conceptuality for so long that we tend to believe everything our thoughts tell us - and with that identification with thought comes a lot of suffering. Once we realise that we aren't our thoughts - they're simply mental events that come and go - negative thoughts lose their power over us, and we don't get so carried away by positive thoughts either. Similarly, as we see the emptiness of the personality, we can let go of our need to 'defend' our sense of who we are against threats and criticism. Ultimately, we can find the peace and beauty that Hongzhi describes.
OK, so how do we do it?
Here's the tricky part. Hongzhi wrote a lot about the experience of Silent Illumination, but he didn't leave much in the way of a method. In fact, at one point in his writings he even says that it can't be 'practised' because it's intrinsically complete. Again, this paradox comes up again and again in spiritual practice - in a sense, there's nothing to do, because you already have it. But - to borrow a phrase from the Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Lama Lena, it will not have been so until you notice it for yourself. So we still have to find a way to practise!
Different teachers have found different ways to point to the same destination. Here are three of my favourites, chosen in part because I like them and in part because of their diverse approaches.
Bankei: pointing out instructions
The Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) favoured a 'pointing-out' approach, where the teacher attempts to guide the student into an experience of Silent Illumination (which Bankei called 'resting in the Unborn' - compare with Hongzhi's 'This field is where birth and death do not reach'). The primordial awareness that we're trying to experience is always here, it's just 'covered over' by our usual way of using the mind, and so pointing-out instructions invite us to direct our minds in a different way, in the hope that we will notice what was 'behind' our usual perceptions all along.
In particular, it's very helpful to shift the 'centre of gravity' of our experience away from our 'attentional focus' - the 'laser beam' that we use to focus our minds on a specific, dualistic piece of what's going on - and toward our 'panoramic awareness' - the expansive 'floodlight' which effortlessly tracks everything around us at all times, regardless of where we're 'focusing'.
Bankei liked to point to a noise in the environment, such as the caw of a crow - he would point out that, even as his students were listening to his instructions, their 'Unborn' minds effortlessly noticed and identified the crow, without their having to do anything at all. Another approach is to 'spread out the gaze' - to allow the eyes to take in the whole visual field all at once, rather than focusing on whatever object we happen to be looking at. You can also do a similar thing with sounds, by listening to the whole sonic landscape as if it's a symphony, rather than picking out individual sounds.
Once you've noticed what's being pointed to, the rest of the practice is simply learning to rest there - at all times, in all circumstances, in stillness and in activity. (Sounds easy, right?)
You can find more about the Zen take on pointing-out instructions described in Meido Moore's book Hidden Zen. If you don't mind crossing the streams a little bit, the aforementioned Lama Lena has a great Dzogchen video on YouTube which features pointing-out instructions in that tradition.
Dogen: just sitting, no attainment
One possible drawback with the pointing-out approach is that it reinforces the idea that there's 'something to get' that you don't already have. The idea that there's something outside my current experience reinforces the very dualistic mechanism that we're trying to uproot.
The Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) tended to emphasise a pure 'just sitting'/shikantaza practice - no thought, no analysis, no pointing-out instructions, no tricks or techniques to try to get anything special. Since the mind is already functioning at the base of our experience, there's absolutely nothing that we need to do to make it happen. In fact, anything we try to do just gets in the way.
So, rather than do something specific, we instead do nothing. We just sit - we don't think about anything (Dogen suggests that we 'think the thought of no-thought', which he adds is 'not like thinking' - let me know what you make of that!), we don't do anything, we don't try to make anything happen. Ultimately, the activity of the mind which obscures our view of the Buddha Nature settles down all by itself, and we see it clearly - but not as a result of our efforts.
Dogen even goes as far as to say that practice and enlightenment are the same thing - that there is no enlightenment apart from shikantaza. We just sit, doing nothing, letting our minds function naturally according to their intrinsic Buddha Nature - that's all.
Dogen's approach is exemplified by the Soto school - I'm a fan of teachers such as Brad Warner and Domyo Burk, and I hear good things about Steve Hagen too, but there are plenty of them out there.
Sheng-Yen: the method of no-method
People who are new to Zen practice - and, frankly, many people who've been doing Zen practice for decades - find this style of practice very difficult. It's ungraspable by its very nature. What are you supposed to do when you aren't supposed to do anything? What does it even mean to 'do nothing'? Is it OK to have thoughts - but then, aren't you thinking - isn't that doing something? But isn't stopping thinking doing something too? Aaargh!
The 20th century Chan master Sheng-Yen (1931-2009) was a big fan of this approach to practice, but after working with lay Westerners he realised that telling them to 'just sit' wasn't really working. So he developed a method - a way of approaching this methodless practice. I've written about Sheng-Yen's approach previously (and mentioned some other variations), but in a nutshell, he suggests starting with a firmly embodied approach, taking us out of our whirling minds and settling into our physicality.
We begin with relaxation, sensitising ourselves to our bodily experience and softening as much as we can. Then, we maintain awareness of the body as we continue to sit. This provides a gentle, broad focus for the attention in the early stages of practice. Yes, it's using the attention, and yes, it's a kind of doing, but it provides a vehicle for the mind to settle and become focused. In Sheng-Yen's language, we move from a scattered mind to a focused mind.
As the practice deepens and the mind settles further, we find that the panoramic awareness becomes more prominent in our experience. The practice shifts naturally from 'focusing on body sensations' to 'aware of body and environment together'. Sheng-Yen talks about this as moving from the focused mind to the unified mind. And, finally, as we approach true Silent Illumination, we shift to Sheng-Yen's final stage, 'no-mind' - as described by Hongzhi.
To learn more about Sheng-Yen's approach, his successor Guo Gu's wonderful book Silent Illumination is where I'd suggest you start.
Which approach is the right one?
Whatever works for you! All of the approaches are just means to an end - a handful of fingers pointing at the ungraspable moon of Silent Illumination. Every teacher you'll meet will have a slightly different emphasis, a slightly different sense of what's crucial to realising Silent Illumination, different language and terminology and so forth - but all these are just slightly different routes to the same destination. So don't worry about it too much. If you have a practice already, just keep going. If you don't, try out the practice styles above and see what you like!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.