By John Lee Pendall
The mind is like a pool; let the waves fade, and let everything heavy sink to the bottom. Also, there is no top or bottom. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
That’s basically the practice of silent illumination (mozhao). It’s a non-meditation meditation, a method of no-method as Sheng Yen put it. We’re not focusing on the breath, an image, mantra, intention or anything like that. We’re just sitting and letting the mind settle into its natural silence and brightness. The main realization of that is a visceral, “It’s always been like this.” We’re already under the Bodhi Tree, with the morning star shining straight through us.
It’s basically tranquil abiding (samatha) and insight (vipassana) combined. Just like how samatha and vipassana weren’t originally meditation methods but states of mind uncovered through those methods, silent illumination isn’t actually anything we practice—it’s what practice points to. The silence is non-attachment, and illumination is wisdom. Together, they’re our true nature or Buddha Mind, which is basically the mind beneath all the bullshit we’ve lumped onto it by being fooled by the senses and imagination.
This is an advanced form of meditation, so you might want to get your feet wet with following the breath, using a mantra or imagining a visual first.
After that, there are some cheat codes we can use along the way. One is to focus on the act of just sitting. We concentrate on our posture and let everything else go. Whenever the mind wanders, gently bring it back to just sitting and maintaining your posture. This technique is called shikantaza.
As the sit goes on, it might seem like your body is expanding until it includes everything around you. If that happens, then that’s your new “posture.” As you focus on that, your body might seem to expand even more until it includes all of space-time. Then, once we’ve reached the limits of experience, we go beyond them into Just This, which can never be adequately described.
Or we can try the Chan practice, “Glancing at mind.” With this one, without judgments or preferences, we sit and watch how everything comes and goes. All of the senses flow like a river. When we just sit with that flowing, the current gets slower and slower, and the ripples get smaller. Everything seems to merge into one taste, inside and outside aren’t separate. Beyond boundaries, beyond self and other, perfect emptiness shines.
The third technique is tough to do without getting a handle on the first two. With this one, we just sit with the intention to forget everything that’s empty and impermanent. We let go of our memories and expectations, we let go of our thoughts, feelings and even our surroundings. We let go of friends, family, the Buddha and all the sages and turn our focus on itself. This is like the sun setting over a valley. Gradually everything fades and merges into one, including the sun. What’s left? That awareness of tranquil silence. Then the alarm goes off, we get up and take the dog out for a good poop.
No matter how you do it, the main point is completion.
We can expose that by letting the mind blur into the senses, or the senses draw back up into the mind. In both cases, it’s just a skillful means aimed at getting us to where we already are.
Silent illumination without any method is—on the spot—having complete trust that there’s nothing lacking. That you don’t have to do anything to be true to the truth of things. But that’s quite a leap, which is why we have all these books and meditation/mindfulness methods. With actual silent illumination, there isn’t even a method of no-method, there’s just no method at all. No agenda.
We go to the cushion with nothing, and come back with just as much of it. It takes time to see that, so in the meantime, we go to the cushion with a fuck ton of shit and give it all to sit. Then we get up with nothing.
That’s quite a bargain.
Editor: Dana Gornall