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Before the Retreat
Evening Talk: Approach to Silent Illumination
Silent Illumination is another name for shamata-vipashyana, the meditative practice of stilling the mind and developing insight into its true nature. This practice originated in Indian Buddhism as early as the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Traditionally, shamata-vipashyana was practiced sequentially. A practitioner progressed from shamata (stilling the mind) to vipashyana (insight, or illumination). The first stage was to practice shamata to achieve samadhi and then to practice vipashyana to achieve levels of insight. By contrast, in Chan Buddhism, which emphasizes the sudden approach to realization, shamata and vipashyana are practiced simultaneously.
Relaxing Body and Mind
To enter the practice you need to do just two things: relax your body and relax your mind. First, make sure that all parts of your body are completely relaxed and at ease. Next, relax your attitude and your mood; make sure that your mental attitude, the tone of your approach, and your mood are also at ease. This relaxation is the foundation for success in practicing Silent Illumination. Now I would like all of you to try to relax your body and mind. I will guide you as we relax parts of our body together.
Begin with a comfortable sitting posture. Let’s start with your head. Please make sure that each part of this region is relaxed. Relax your face; now relax your eyes. Are they relaxed? Proceed downward to relax your cheeks, down to your neck and your shoulders. Are they relaxed? Continue down your arms and then the hands. Make sure that they are relaxed. Follow with the chest, and now the back, which should be upright yet relaxed. Please make sure that the muscles of your abdomen are relaxed; this is very important.
Once these exercises are completed, there should be three points making contact with your cushion and mat—your buttocks and your two knees. Only these three points should feel your weight and ground you to the floor as your whole body relaxes from head to toe. The rest of your body should also be completely relaxed.
After doing these exercises, if you still feel that you are not sufficiently relaxed, please do it again by yourself. From the top, relax part by part, all the way down to your feet. Mentally sweep down your body, part by part, and relax each region; do this as often as you need in order to feel relaxed.
Entering the Space of Silent Illumination
Once you have relaxed your body, notice that your bodily weight has settled downward. Proceed to simply being aware of yourself sitting there and put your total awareness on your body sitting there. If you are relaxed and you have focused your awareness on yourself just sitting there, you have already entered the practice of Silent Illumination! However, this is just the beginning.
If you cannot relax your eyes by maintaining them slightly open, you may close them. If you keep your eyes open, do not look at anything; just keep them slightly open, gazing down at about a 45-degree angle. If your eyes are tense, your head region will become tense; if your eyes are relaxed, you will find that your head region is also relaxed.
If you have wandering or discursive thoughts, you may open your eyes slightly. If you find yourself becoming drowsy, it is a sign that you are not relaxed. If you are completely relaxed and are aware of your body just sitting there, then you won’t be drowsy. Drowsiness results when you are not using your method properly, either not being relaxed or not putting your mind on just sitting. It may be you have already given up on your method. Or you may be sitting but not practicing, just resting. This form of resting while sitting may lead to laziness and idleness.
If you are clear that you are relaxed or prompting yourself to relax, that itself is a method. This process will expand into becoming clear and aware that you are just sitting there. This is not merely checking the parts of your body; it is also awareness through sensing the presence of your body sitting there. This is the meaning of “just sitting.” In just sitting, you keep your awareness on the total sensation of your body sitting there. Stay with the totality of that awareness; do not become caught up in any particulars. Being aware of the particulars of the body is practicing mindfulness, but we are not practicing mindfulness; we are practicing Silent Illumination. Remember also that you are not practicing mindfulness of breath. Breath is certainly a sensation, but it is merely a part of your total body sensation. You are practicing being aware of the whole body just sitting there with all its different sensations as a totality. Do not become caught up in these various sensations. Just maintain the totality of the sensations of your body just sitting. It is impossible to be aware of every part of the body sitting there. Just be aware of those parts that impinge on your senses. You do not need to be aware of the parts of the body that you cannot sense, such as internal organs. Just take the parts of the body as a whole. The key is to constantly maintain this knowing and awareness of the totality of your body.
For the first two days of the retreat, it will be natural if most of your bodily awareness is discomfort, but do not add any thoughts, feelings, or attitudes on top of that. There may be particular parts of the body experiencing pain or even pleasure, but do not localize or focus on those parts. Keep them in the context of the whole body sitting there. Just acknowledge that there is pain or comfort at this moment, and maintain a simple knowing and recognition of that in your total-body sensation.
Tension in certain areas of the body can cause the whole body to become unsettled or agitated. If this happens, please return to the relaxation method. Just mentally sweep your body part by part until you are relaxed, at ease, and stable. When you have done this, just sit in awareness.
Extending Practice to Life Habits
You can also integrate these principles into all your activities. Just as when you sit in meditation you just sit, when you sleep, be aware of the totality of your whole being going to sleep. When walking, you just walk. When you eat, you are right there just eating. Plunge your whole life into what you are doing at that very moment and live that way. So we train ourselves to engage our whole being in what we are doing. Whether sitting or eating, you are not engaged in discursive, wandering, or deluded thoughts. All of you—environment, body, and mind—is right there. Whatever you do, whatever the task at hand, your whole life is there at that moment.
Some people may interpret plunging your whole being into the practice or into the task at hand as a very tense approach. This is incorrect. By putting your whole being into whatever you are doing, you are also being relieved from doing anything else at that moment. Therefore, when you are doing that one thing, that is all you have to care about, and you can do it in a very relaxed manner and attitude. In this light, you will better understand the meaning of engaging your whole being in the present task. This is the relaxed and reposed attitude to practice.