Silent Illumination – The Method of No-Method

‘Silent illumination’ is a meditation practice from the Zen school of meditation.* The practice is described in ways that often sound impossible and contradictory to the Western ear: just sit, the method of no-method, and so on. So how does one attempt to do something that is ‘not doing’?

Lion’s Roar has published an eminently practical description of silent illumination from Master Sheng-yen [1930-2009], the founder of Dharma Drum Retreat Center (“There is No ‘I’ Who is Sitting,” 1 Sept. 2003). Some bits and pieces from his teaching:

When you first practice the Ch’an method of silent illumination, it is very simple. You just sit with the awareness that you are sitting. …

you still have wandering thoughts, but you are clearly aware of them. The way to deal with them is simply to keep your focus on your awareness that you are sitting. Just stay with that awareness that you are sitting. But isn’t this thought that you are sitting itself a wandering thought? Yes, it is. The difference is that this particular wandering thought, “I am sitting,” goes in one direction only, has continuity and is constant and consistent in nature. …

if you are constantly motivated to accumulate positive experiences, the opposite—negative experiences—is likely to happen. Under these conditions, one is likely to feel frustration. This leads to negative feelings and thoughts like, “This is not for me. I’m not the kind of person who can practice well.” …

We need to remind ourselves that the purpose of practice is gradually to leave behind self-clinging and to illuminate one’s mind. Its aim is to slow down and eventually end our struggles to satisfy our cravings and to find complete security. …

how do you measure progress in practice? You cannot quantify progress. It’s not like getting paid for work by the day, and every day you work, you put the money in the bank and watch your account go up and up. Progress cannot be accumulated and quantified like this. As you practice, concern about your progress is just another wandering thought, like any other wandering thought. As ever, when you become aware of wandering thoughts, just return your focus to the method and they will leave of their own accord. …

If there comes a moment when … you have left your method and are involved with wandering thoughts. Just go back to the method, being acutely aware of yourself sitting.

* Zen is a Japanese word. The same meditation school is found in many parts of Asia under different names: Ch’an in China, Seon in Korea, and Thiền in Vietnam. (The names all derive from the words used to describe ‘meditation’ in India: Dhyana (Sanskrit) or Jhana (Pali)).

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