Zen Meditation: A Quick Outline of Silent Illumination

Zen Meditation: A Quick Outline of Silent Illumination May 6, 2019



Zen Meditation: A Quick Outline of Silent Illumination

by Barry Farrin
Forest Way Zen

(Barry Ferrin is a Zen teacher in the Diamond Sangha tradition, a dharma successor to my dharma sibling Subhana Barzaghi. He leads the Forest Way Zen community in Doonan, Queensland, in Australia. Printed with permission of the author…)

I am posting this brief paper so you can all have an alternative way of seeing and modelling your practice of Zazen. I found that Shikantaza did not completely explain what my practice had become over the years. I am suggesting that Silent Illumination is not only a technique but it could also be a process of meditation that allows and helps you determine what is happening when you meditate and allows you to have an overview of your practice.

I have drawn on the works of Sheng-yen, Guo Gu, Hung-chi Chen-chueh, and Chi Chern and my reflections on my own practice to define Silent Illumination. Most of the work in this paper is not mine as I have taken it from many sources. I have tried to bring together experts who have written extensively about silent Illumination. I put together this summary back in September 2017. I hope it is a help to people wanting to learn Silent illumination.

Silent Illumination has been associated with the Soto/ Caodong schools. The Master who was well known for this work was Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157). He wrote about Silent Illumination, and during his time he found Silent Illumination was misunderstood and unfairly criticized.

Sheng-yen, (1993), defines Silent illumination as mo-chao, the Chinese name. Sheng-yen was a Chinese Chan master from Taiwan who died in 2009. He worked closely with his student Guo Gu to revitalize this practice. Sheng-yen suggests that in Japan the process has been practiced for years under the name of Shikantaza which means Just Sitting: “… paying attention to sitting or just keeping the physical posture of sitting….” The word silent was removed from it. Just sitting is only the first step in Silent Illumination. Eventually you reach a point where the mind does not move and yet it is very clear. Sheng-yen feels that the mind is silent and that the mind is illumination and hence this is Silent Illumination.

Sheng-yen quotes the “Verses on the Faith Mind” by third “Chan Patriarch Seng-Ts’an (D.605).” ‘The Great Way is not difficult/for those who have no preferences.’

He suggests that as the verse says, discriminations can be seen as selecting or preferring. So you must keep your mind free of attachments and discriminations and this method is called silence. This does not mean blank, but means just free from attachments: clear and yet the mind still functions.

Sheng-yen quotes Hung-chi Chen-chueh (1091-1157) in his poem of Silent Illumination,
‘In silence, words are forgotten./In utter clarity, things appear.’

This means that when words are forgotten you experience no words, no language, and no thought. There is no discrimination and that even though there is no function, everything is still heard and seen and so on. Eventually we get to a place where there is everything but the mind is not moving. There will be subtle thoughts which people may be unaware of at the time.

Guo Gu (2014), a student of Sheng-yen asks what is this silence? He then describes and details the process in an Insight Journal article in 2014. He describes silence as the “fact” that we are originally free from narratives and constructs of self. So as we use Silent Illumination we do start to see how the mind precedes everything and is the precursor of experience. We see all things as impermanent and are intimately connected and we begin to understand no-self. This is the true nature of mind. This nature has always been free and empty of disturbance. This is called silence.

Guo Gu defines Silent Illumination as the natural functioning of the mind and its openness. This openness allows the natural function of the mind and this natural function of wisdom is free and leaves no trace. So the working of the mind is selfless wisdom that contrasts with the deluded mind which causes self-referential vexations.
Guo Gu suggests that Silent Illumination is really not a method of meditation. He feels this is a state of awakening; a natural state which is true for everyone. This freedom is ours. It is only due to our fixation and habitual attachments that we block our own awakening. We need to recognise that we are intrinsically and already enlightened: we lack nothing and we are originally free.

Guo Gu then reflects on how Buddhist meditation is predicated on the combining of Samantha and Vipassana. This use of Samantha as a calming device and Vipassana as an insight device are necessary for you to learn from your meditation. You need to have calming to still the mind and then you gain insight into the nature of reality. So Silent Illumination is both calming and allows insight. Guo Gu suggests that Chan and Zen teachers should advocate the simultaneous practice of the two. Guo Gu says, “..that the true nature of samadhi or calm is really the nature of emptiness.” “Calming is the essence of wisdom which is the natural function of calming.”

How is Silent Illumination Done?

You should not try to get rid of anything or gain anything. Just be aware of the naturalness of each wakeful moment. Yet you may think you need to hold onto some things because of your conditioning. So just be in the stream in this act of sitting. Don’t make an abstract idea of this sitting. Just be with the concrete experience of sitting. Don’t contemplate the breath or meditate on something. Sheng-yen (2008) does suggest that one method of calming the mind is to contemplate the random thoughts we have. He says when we see the random nature of our thoughts and how they arise and vanish we will not be ruled by them. He suggests your mind will settle.

Chi Chern (2013) another Chan teacher writes that this method of Silent illumination could begin with observing the breath. He contends that this trains the mind to concentrate and facilitates mind and body integration and unification. You are then very aware of a calm mind and one’s awareness becomes sharp. After this calm and sharpness, one becomes clear and aware of the subtle sensations in the body. So one is deeply quiet. As the awareness becomes sharper, one begins to know what is taking place in the surroundings and notices whether sensations are course or subtle.
Guo Gu suggests that you could define three stages of Silent Illumination but he also ponders that there really are no stages in Silent Illumination. The use of defining the stages is really to help you as meditators see what could possibly be happening as we meditate.

The First Stage. Concentrated Mind

The first stage is the practice of learning to sit with clarity and being simply in the moment. Guo Gu explains that in Chinese this is called “zhiguan dazuo” or “Just Mind Yourself Sitting” in English. To just sit: to feel the presence of your whole body –its posture, weight, and other sensations. The idea is to be aware of the general totality of your sitting experience. The body is sitting and you know this. Also your mind is still and the body and mind are naturally together as you are sitting. This is A SUBTLE METHOD as you just sit. Don’t observe thoughts or scan the body. You are not watching as if you are from the outside; which would become a mental construct.

This practice is not a tense process at all, so you can practice in a relaxed way. Guo Gu suggests that this practice will free you from habits of mind and negative emotions. When you practice in this way you get to know your body and the deep seated emotions and wandering thoughts. Practicing like this helps the body and mind become unified. You will not be caught up in wandering thoughts, discriminating mind and self-grasping, as they subside by themselves.

The Second Stage. Unified Mind.

As your discriminating mind diminishes your sense of self begins to diminish as well. When the body drops away, begin to watch the mind. “This is the mind of sitting”. During this watching “….you could fall into a dull state, like being in the dark side of the mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts” (Shikantaza and Silent Illumination 1995, Chan Newsletter No 106, 1995). Guo Gu also warns us not to stay in this cave of darkness. He thinks this is like, “Soaking a rock in cold water.” If you do this nothing will happen for one hundred years. Vexations and delusions remain and this is not awakening. Silent Illumination becomes a dead thing. However when we practice carefully we find the opposite effect. We develop a deep sense of Intimacy.

Your discriminating mind diminishes, and your narrow sense of self diminishes. You may still notice the sounds around you or people moving. You no longer feel the environment is out there and you are in here. There is a great deal of intimacy but it is hard to describe these with words. You can see clearly what you need to do. Compassion arises when it is needed but is a genuine compassion. The experience of this stage is called “…the oneness of self and others.” “At this stage of unified body and mind one becomes aware of sensations of the body, and thoughts” (1995), Chi Chern. One is deeply quiet and the mind remains unmoved.

In this stage if you hear a bird you become a bird. You start to, “…see things as they are part of you and you are part of them” (Guo Gu 1995). Normal vexations are gone. There are progressive states and when you enter a sense of the environment, it is you and you may feel that the environment has become infinite and boundless. You feel that you are sitting in the whole universe and you feel a state of oneness. Maybe you feel a sense of light and you experience a sense of oneness. The second experience is of infinite sound. The third experience is one of voidness but not the emptiness of self nature or of no self that would constitute enlightenment. You do not experience a sense of self but a subtle form of self and a sense of objects still exists.

There is now a progressive entering into deeper states which are all related to samadhi. Don’t try and think of these states after you emerge from meditation as these states are rather alluring. This is not it. Move on. You may feel enlightened in this state however you are still without the clarity of the third stage. If you become attached to these states you will be further away from them.

The Third Stage. No Self, No Mind.

This stage is enlightenment or realization. Which leads to deeper and deeper levels. You must practice and practice and as you do your attachments, discriminations and wandering thoughts gradually abate. Hung-chi Cheng–chueh describes this state as, “In silence, words are forgotten. In utter clarity, everything appears” (1995) Chan Newsletter. Over time with experience and practice the vexations will appear less often or not appear during meditation. This may happen at the second stage as well and Master Chi Chern suggests that some people may experience a state of awakening or enlightenment then.

The student begins to rest in moment to moment wakefulness. It is the reality of the “here”. It is our most normal state. Discriminations drop off and emotions drop off of their own accord. When we are truly free from grasping there are no wandering thoughts and habitual ways.

Guo Gu, suggests that you should remember that you are already enlightened. Can you imagine being in a room and looking out through a dirty window? Can you imagine how you might clean that window and you see more of the outside? Then you take down the side of room so you see more? And then can you imagine that there is no room and you are outside? And then can you imagine there is no you seeing and nothing to be seen? We do not gain anything from practice. Awakening is sudden.

The third stage has the realization of quiescence and wakefulness, stillness and awareness, samadhi and prajna. This is like dropping a thousand kilograms of self attachment, vexations and habitual tendencies. You will fully and clearly recognize them. But you must work hard to experience enlightenment again and again until you rest in the mind’s natural state. So over time you find that you become or rather your life becomes integrated with wisdom and compassion. Traces of enlightenment vanish. You can become awakened in a second and in that second you can be free from the construction that you think is you. Remember you are “Already Enlightened”.

This is the view of sudden enlightenment. You don’t gain enlightenment because if you did you could lose it as well. So don’t practice Silent illumination to gain anything, “just sit”. Sit without relying on eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. Don’t abide anywhere. Don’t enter into absorptions or falling into a stupor, nor give rise to scattered thoughts. Just be wakeful, still, clear and without delusion.


Chi Chern,(2013). Reviving the Chan Practice of Silent Illumination: masterchichern.org/2013/09/13
Guo Gu,(2014). The Powerful Chinese Meditation of Silent Illumination: www.thewayofmeditation.com.au/blog
Guo Gu,(January 15, 2014). Silent Illumination in Insight Journal: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
Guo Gu,( Winter 2012). You are Already Enlightened: www.thebuddhadharma.com/web-archive
Hui Hai,(2014 ). On Sudden Illumination: www.selfdiscoveryportal.com/cmHuiHai.htm
Sheng-yen, (1993). Shikantaza and Silent Illumination: chancenter.org/cmc/1995/02/01.

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