Reviving the Chan Practice of Silent Illumination

IMG_0073It has been said that the Chan method of Silent Illumination (默照禪) was lost, whereas in Japan, what has been taught from generation to generation is only the method of Shikantaza (“just sitting”).  In restoring this ancient practice, contemporary Chan masters have brought forth new approaches and created techniques whereby the method of Silent Illumination can be practiced.  This practice has been taught in the West, and it has become quite popular.

Contemporary Chan master (Master Sheng Yen) studied ancient Buddhist manuscripts on Silent Illumination and tested the method in their own practice.  With their direct experience they realized the essence of mind and came to know first-hand how to achieve such realization.  Because they benefited from this practice, they began teaching this method.

This method of Chan practice begins with observing one’s breath.  This trains the mind to concentrate and facilitates a state whereby the mind and body are integrated or “unified”. When the mind is calm and collected, one’s awareness becomes sharp, and one can therefore be aware of the entire body and become one with it.  At this stage of “unified body and mind”, one is very aware, and any subtle sensation of the body is clearly detected.  It is the same with thoughts.  While being clearly aware of everything and every thought, one is deeply quiet and one’s mind remains unmoved.

As one continues with such stillness, the awareness becomes sharper, and one knows everything that is taking place in the surroundings.  With this awareness, the mind also becomes one with the environment.  In other words, the internal and the external are unified.  The external “world” can be big or small, depending on the depth of the practice. The deeper the state of this “unitary consciousness” is, the broader the span of the external.  Again, in such a unified state, the mind is aware of everything, from coarse to subtle, but the mind remains still.

The state of being still and the state of being aware (often referred to as “insight”) operate simultaneously and foster each other. The deeper the stillness is, the sharper the awareness is.  In such a process, the “doer” (one who is aware) and the “doing” (being aware or having insight) also gradually become unified, when mind and the environment are no longer separated.  As the practice continues, this also vanishes and there is only awareness.  Then, the wisdom of “no-self” reveals itself, and one realizes the true reality of Emptiness (without a self-existing essence).

In such experiences, body and mind go through a process in which attachment to the “self” is dropped.  As one returns to the “normal” state of body and mind in everyday life, one is able to live naturally in the world.  And with contentment, one dwells according to causes and conditions, moves about with causes and conditions, and helps sentient beings according to causes and conditions.  All is done with an ordinary mind as everything manifests itself in silence and stillness….

This method of Chan has some similarities with traditional practices of meditation, but it is deeper and broader in essence.  In particular, when applied in teaching, this method emphasizes relaxing the body and mind, which is a distinctive feature that has drawn practitioners to learn and practice it.

There are more and more practitioners who are benefiting from this method.  Some even experience the state of awakening or enlightenment.  As more and more people learn and practice it, Silent Illumination will spread widely and will be far-reaching.

(2006/12/26 Written at Ipoh, Malaysia.  Published in the book 《日日好日》”Every Day Is A Good Day” by Dharma Drum Publications)

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