On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

August 14, 2020

Silent Illumination Part 1

Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157)
Commentary by Sheng-yen (1930–2009)

The style of meditation called Silent Illumination i­s one of the greatest practices of the Chan (Zen) tradition. Originating around the eleventh century, its greatest advocate was Master Hongzhi Zhengjue of the Caodong sect. The Tibetan practice of mahamudra is very similar. Silent Illumination originated in India, where it was called samatha-vipasyana, or serenity-insight. The aim of this practice is to achieve a mind unburdened with thoughts. This leads the mind to profound awareness about its own state.

Silently and serenely one forgets all words,
Clearly and vividly it appears before you.

First there is silence, then comes illumination. Ordinary people express themselves through a never-ending succession of words and images. This is moving away from serenity.

On retreat we have the rule of no talking. Even so, is your mind ever without thoughts or words? In interviews, people tell me that their biggest problem is that they can’t stop thinking. Even when you’re sitting there, wordless and silent, you may be conversing with mental objects all the time.

After fast-walking meditation today, I asked you to relax and put down all thoughts. Had you been able to do this, you would have achieved a state of silence and serenity, and you would be practicing at an advanced level.

Silent illumination is a very peaceful style of meditation in which there is not one thought, yet your mind is extremely clear. I use three phrases to describe this state: first, “bright and open”; second, “no scattered thoughts”; and third, “not one thought.”

When the mind drops all use of words, it becomes bright and open. Next, when the mind is single-mindedly concentrated on the method, there will be no scattered thoughts. And when you finally forget the method itself, and not one thought remains, that is genuine serenity.

Ultimately, Silent Illumination is the method of no method. Counting and following the breath are methods of collecting the scattered mind, and gong’an (koan) is the method of applying great pressure to achieve a sudden breakthrough. Silent Illumination is just dropping all thoughts and words and going directly to the state of Chan.

To benefit from Silent Illumination your practice should already be firm and at a stage where there is no problem becoming settled. You should be able to sit with unbroken concentration with almost no outside thoughts.

One problem is that it is not always easy to recognize whether your mind is truly bright and open or just blank. You can just be idling, having very subtle thoughts, and believe you are practicing Silent Illumination. You can be silent without illuminating anything.

The key is in the line, “Clearly and vividly it appears before you.” What are you to be clear and vivid about? About everything in your mind, which, though motionless, reflects everything, like a mirror.

When one realizes it, time has no limits.
When experienced, your surroundings come to life.

When silence is achieved, time has no duration. It is only because thoughts come and go that we are aware of time. When there are no thoughts, there is also no time. Time is limitless, beyond measure.

One night, when Great Master Taixu was meditating, he heard the evening bells. Immediately afterwards, he heard the morning bells. Because he was in samadhi, a whole night had passed during which he had no sense of time.

The next line refers to space, a clear and vivid sense of the environment. When your mind is moving, your awareness is narrowly focused by your thoughts. If you could see and hear without using your mind, and be very attentive at the same time, you would sense limitless space. But this is not an especially high state. Higher yet is the state of not one thought. In this state distinctions of vast or small just don’t exist.

There is a saying that all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future are turning the Dharma Wheel on the point of a fine hair. When you can empty your mind of all thoughts, the mind becomes all-inclusive and sees no difference between the infinitely small and the infinitely large.

Singularly illuminating is the bright awareness
Full of wonder is the pure illumination.

The bright awareness that illuminates is that of a Buddha who sees sentient beings in their perfection, unlike ordinary awareness, which is confused and sees the world as dark. This brightness throws its light on all things, and they take on the aspect of wonder. This is like the songs of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, that reveal the harmony between all things great and small.

It is the wonder of the Avatamsaka Sutra, where everything is seen in such detail, from every point of view. A mind so illuminated could see the cosmos in a grain of sand. This is the realm perceived by wisdom arising from samadhi.

The moon’s appearance, a river of stars,
Snow-clad pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.

The state of Silent Illumination is like the moon not obscured by clouds-clear, soft, and cool. The moon, rather than the sun, symbolizes enlightenment, because the moon is cool and serene, while the sun is hot and active. “A river of stars” refers to the Milky Way where the dense stars form a river of light. “Snow-clad pines…” All these are images of brightness and openness.

Have you ever seen clouds move freely through up-thrusting mountain peaks? This symbolizes the liberated mind that, even when it encounters obstructions, is not bound by them.

In darkness, they glow with brightness.
In shadows, they shine with a splendid light.

These lines contrast the mind of wisdom, which shines even in the dark in the midst of vexation, and the mind of foolishness, which remains in the dark. Wise people, although perhaps appearing foolish, prefer obscurity. Yet they express their power in everything they do.

Like the dreaming of a crane flying in empty space,
Like the clear, still water of an autumn pool,
Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,
Each indistinguishable from the other.

The mind of Silent Illumination is broad, high, and deep. It is like the crane in flight, feeling the vastness of empty space, unaware of its own existence, silently floating in a timeless dream. The autumn pool, despite its great depth, is so still that the bottom is clearly seen. In autumn the pool is not thriving with life as it is in summer. The active elements have settled, and with settling, there comes a clarity, and the depths can finally be seen.

Into the sky of the crane’s dream and the depths of the autumn pool, eons of time dissolve into nothing. We term it “nothing” because our sense of time comes from the endless succession of thoughts and images passing through our minds. This flow of experience also gives rise to a sense of a separate self. If you could cease the march of thoughts through your mind, and fix on just one constant thought of Silent Illumination, time would freeze. If you could then forget even that thought, time would dissolve.

Can you fix your mind on one thought for even a minute? Is it dangerous to stop a plane in midair? Of course. But you must be determined to stop your thoughts, and not be afraid of dying. If you panic, you will be filled with thoughts. You must more than ever drop everything and concentrate on just the practice, abandoning all thoughts of life, body, fears, desires, everything but the method.

In this illumination all striving is forgotten.
Where does this wonder exist?

There are many wonders to discover in Silent Illumination. But the mind of practice cannot be the seeking mind, even if the goal is enlightenment. For while thoughts exist, they are obstacles. “All striving is forgotten” means that nothing exists except illumination itself; there is no thought of losing or gaining anything. The wonder is in abandoning confusion and with a clear, bright mind, just dedicating yourself to practice.

Sheng-yen (1930-2009)

Excerpted from Excerpted from Getting the Buddha Mind: On the Practice of Chan Retreat Paperback – 1982

This selection has two authors. Hongzhi is the author of the long poem Silent Illumination; Sheng-yen is commenting on this enlightenment poem. These are the two voices you hear above.

Hongzhi expresses his teaching with almost exclusive images from nature which make the readings pure poetry. Through his skillful weaving the natural world reveals the experience of awakening as a sense of inter-connectedness with all beings, sentient and non-sentient.

If one could enter the state of illumination from a teacher’s writings, these verses surely bring us very close.

Hongzhi called his method Silent Illumination and described it below:

“Your body sits silently; your mind, quiescent, unmoving. Your mouth is so still that moss grows around it. Grass sprouts from your tongue.

Do this without cease, cleansing the mind until it gains the clarity of an autumn pool, bright as the moon illuminating the evening sky.

“In this silent sitting, whatever realms may appear, the mind is very clear as to all the details, yet everything is where it originally is, in its own place. The mind stays on one thought for ten thousand years, yet does not dwell on any forms, inside or outside.”


“…the aim of Silent Illumination: a mind unburdened with thoughts, yet profoundly aware of its own state.”

from Sheng-yen’s commentary in The Poetry of Enlightenment

Anything more would be like putting a head on a head….

Nothing Extra,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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