Ch'an Newsletter - No. 10 December 1980

Silent Illumination Ch'an

The Silent Illumination style of Ch'an began with Hung-chih Cheng-chueh (1091-1157) of the Ts'ao-tung sect. He lived during the same period as, and was as capable a master as, Ta-hui Tsung-kao, the chief advocate of watching the "Hua-t'ou". The method of Shikantaza which the Zen Master Dogen later brought to Japan was descended from the tradition of Silent Illumination Ch'an. The poem printed below appears in Chapter 8 of the Extensive Records of Ch'an Master Hung-chih Cheng-chueh.

On November 24, 1980, Shih-fu Sheng-yen was interviewed on WBAI radio by Lex Hixon, on his program "In the Spirit". Following the poem we have printed excerpts from that interview, consisting of questions and answers about the practice of Silent Illumination.

(This poem was translated in part by C.C. Chang in The Practice of Zen. In our complete translation we have retained some of the wording that seemed appropriate from C.C. Chang's translation.)

    Silent Illumination

    Silently and serenely one forgets all words.
    Clearly and vividly it appears before one.
    When one realizes it, time is limitless.
    When one experiences it, one's surroundings come to life.
    Singularly illuminating is this bright awareness.
    Full of wonder is this pure illumination.
    The appearance of the moon, a river of stars,
    Snow on pine trees, and clouds hovering on the mountain peaks.
    In darkness they are glowing bright.
    In obscurity they shine with resplendent light.
    Like the feeling of a crane flying in empty space,
    Like the still clear water of an autumn pool,
    Limitless aeons dissolve into nothingness,
    Undistinguishable from one another.
    In this illumination all efforts are forgotten.
    Where does this wonder exist?
    A startled awakening shatters the dullness,
    The path of silent illumination,
    The origin of the infinitesimal.
    To penetrate the infinitesimal,
    A gold shuttle on a loom of jade.
    Subject and object influence each other.
    Light and darkness are mutually dependent.
    There is no mind or world to rely on
    Yet these two are mutually interacting.
    Drink the medicine of correct views.
    Beat the poison-smeared drum.
    When these two are complementary
    Killing and bringing to life are up to me.
    One emerges from the door
    The fruit has ripened on the branch.
    Silence is the final teaching.
    Illumination is the universal response.
    The response is devoid of effort.
    The teaching is not heard with the ears.
    All manifestations throughout the universe
    Emit light and speak the Dharma.
    They testify to each other
    And answer each other's questions.
    Mutually testifying and answering,
    Responding in perfect harmony.
    If there is illumination without serenity
    Then distinctions will be seen.
    Mutually testifying and answering,
    Responding in perfect harmony.
    If within serenity illumination is lost,
    All will become wasteful and secondary.
    When the principle of silent illumination is complete
    The lotus blossoms and the dreamer awakens.
    The hundred rivers flow to the ocean,
    The thousand peaks face the loftiest mountain.
    Like the goose who always chooses milk above water,
    Like a bee gathering pollen from a flower,
    When silent illumination reaches the ultimate
    I carry on the tradition of my sect.
    The tradition of my sect is silent illumination.
    It penetrates from the highest to the deepest.

Lex : Is the Silent Illumination style the most direct of all meditative paths, and can you introduce us to it?

Shih-fu : This Silent Illumination method did not arise suddenly in the Ts'ao-tung sect. Rather it arose from the T'ien-t'ai sect, from the method of the double practice of samatha-vipasyana , calming or stopping and contemplation of insight. Samatha-vipasyana was also emphasized in the Hymn of Samatha of Grand Master Yung Chia. This double practice actually just means - even when you are not thinking of anything, your mind is absolutely clear about its mental state.

Until today very little of the records and writings of the Ts'ao-tung sect have been translated into English. One prime reason is that very often the writings refer to abstract concepts in the I Ching of ancient China. Very few people understand these things well enough to translate the writings into English. Comparatively speaking, many more writings of the Lin Chi, or Rinzai, sect have been translated.

Lex : This poem of Silent Illumination is written in a style which is very fresh and rich with imagery. It doesn't sound like the Zen songs of enlightenment that many of us are used to. But to return to my central question, what is the special quality of this Silent Illumination method? How does it differ from holding various things in your mind, like counting your breath or asking the question "Where am I?"

Shih-fu : Silent Illumination is actually the most direct method, because Ch'an is not something that you can use your mind to think about. It's not something that you can use any words or form of language to describe. The method is simply to do away with any method of practice. Use no method as the method itself. The method of counting breath is used when the mind is very scattered, in order to concentrate your mind. The method of kung-an (koan) is used when your mind is very calm, but that doesn't mean that you don't have any thoughts. You use the kung-an to pressure yourself, to force yourself to answer the question until you don't have any thought left. The Silent Illumination method is when your mind simply doesn't have any thoughts. At that moment you just put down everything, and that is the state of Ch'an itself. Silent doesn't mean falling asleep. That's why we have to follow the word "silent" with the word "illumination", that is, your mind is very clear.

I use three phrases to describe the phenomenon of Silent Illumination. The first is bright and open, the second is no scattered thoughts, and the third is not even one thought.

Lex : Many people who are listening now must be exhilirated by this notion of using no particular practice as the practice. Everyone wants to dispense with all complications, rituals, and traditional images, and go right to the source. But it must be very difficult. Can a beginner practice this method, or does one have to work up to it slowly through the counting of the breath and the working on the koan?

Shih-fu : From the point of view of the Ts'ao-tung sect, every beginning practitioner should use this method. But I myself, being the descendent of two separate lineages, feel that it is better for some people to start with counting the breaths. Some people can start with Silent Illumination, and others, even after they have practiced the method of kung-an, can still benefit from using this method of Silent Illumination. So this method has its advantages as well as its defects.

Lex : Shih-fu, silence is the final teaching. Can you elucidate silence for us?

Shih-fu : Silence doesn't mean not moving. It doesn't mean that nothing is there. It doesn't mean there is no sound. It just means no thought.

But in the beginning stage, people need to practice in a quiet and peaceful place. That's why most of the practitioners of the Ts'ao-tung sect preferred to practice in the mountains, as far away from other people as possible. This has been the case in China as well as in Japan. For this reason this method of Silent Illumination may not be suitable for the majority of people, because in our modern society it would be quite difficult for every practitioner to go off into the mountains. So I personally don't often use this method to teach others, at least in the beginning stage. I would only tell a few to use this method. There is another defect of this method. If the practitioner is not using it right, his mind may be in a state of blankness, and he assumes that this is what is meant by "silent". If this is the case, he can never practice well.

Lex : That is really the key point about the practice. If the mind is not a blank, if it's bright and open the way you described it earlier, does that mean there can be thoughts and perceptions in that bright openness, and yet they are not thoughts and perceptions?

Shih-fu : No, it's not like that. In bright openness, the person is very aware and clear about his own mental state. But as far as the environment, space and time outside, it is not necessarily the case that he knows everything very clearly.

Lex : So is that clarity about one's own mental state a thought or not?

Shih-fu : Just awareness itself, or consciousness, is not a thought. A thought is always something moving.

Lex : It's a little bit like the image that Marina wrote about in her retreat report (ed note - see Ch'an Magazine Vol 2 No 2) about a flat stone skipping across a pond, in which sometimes it skips up and it's in the air, bright and clear, and it doesn't know anything about stone or air or water. Then it comes back down and hits the water again. Is there any way just to dispense with the water entirely and just become a flying stone?

Shih-fu : Yes, it is possible. But it takes deep practice.

Chan Newsletter Table of Content

Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain