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.