Silent Illumination: The Method of No-Method

The practice is to be fully here, with this body and mind, in this space. Rebecca Li on silent illumination.

Rebecca Li31 January 2024
Paintings on aluminum by Miya Ando “Unkai (Sea Of Clouds) Tokyo October 28 2020 5:14 AM.”

Silent illumination is one of the two main methods of practice in Chan Buddhism. It is a subtle practice in which stillness and insight are cultivated simultaneously, and curious inquiry allows us to reconnect with the natural state of being fully human. 

The practice was transmitted through the Caodong (Japanese: Soto) tradition of Chan in China and articulated in the writings of Master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157). In his poem “Silent Illumination,” he described the clarity and freedom of silent illumination, inviting and encouraging us to join him here. Silent illumination is only to be found here and now. 

Master Hongzhi’s poems were often used by my late teacher, Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009), to elucidate silent illumination. Master Sheng Yen often said the practice is letting go, referring to the fact that we are the one getting in the way of ourselves. Silent illumination is about releasing the pervasive and entrenched habits of self-centered attachment. We can drop these habits and, as my current teacher Simon Child says, slip into silent illumination right now—where everything is as it is, and there is no suffering. This is a different way of being from our usual habit of feeling that whatever is happening in the present is not how it’s supposed to be. 

In silent illumination we reconnect with the true nature of existence, clearly seeing the interconnectedness of all things in emptiness. All is thus, and there is no suffering. Our innate wisdom and natural capacity for compassion manifest as we remain fully present in each unfolding moment, skillfully responding to what is needed with clarity to benefit sentient beings. 

When we try to just sit and be fully present, we will likely find we’re either spacing out or sitting with a mind jumping all over the place while we attempt to make it “silent,” wondering if we’re doing it right. It is not uncommon to approach the practice with the idea of making the present moment different in order to get to “silent illumination.” This mentality is precisely what gets in the way of being with the present moment. The practice is to truly allow each unfolding moment to be fully experienced by learning to relax into each moment and to let go of attachment to the ideas we hold about the present. 

Relaxation is the basis of silent illumination. In preparing to practice silent illumination in sitting meditation, we start with relaxing the body. After finding a posture that’s stable and comfortable, we relax the whole body by starting from the top of the head, directly experiencing the relaxation of the scalp. Then we allow the relaxation to spread to the forehead, eyeballs, eye muscles, and facial muscles, and we continue to directly experience the subtle changing sensations as we allow the tension to melt away. Next, we allow the relaxation to spread to the neck, shoulder muscles, down the arms, to the chest and abdomen, the upper and lower back, and down the buttocks and legs. Finally, we feel the relaxation of the entire body sitting right here, right now, in this space, maintaining clear awareness moment after moment. 

“Unkai (Sea Of Clouds) May 22 2021 5:47 AM NYC.”

This is not a visualization exercise; we’re not creating a mental image of parts of the body. Rather, we are developing body awareness by directly experiencing the subtle changing sensations of muscles softening. When the body relaxes, the mind relaxes. 

A student on a retreat once told me that she was trying very hard to relax, but the harder she tried, the tenser she became. I told her, “No need to try. Just let the body relax.” She then tried not to try, but this generated even more tension and frustration. This “trying” is a good example of our entrenched habit of self-centered attachment; habitually, we insist on controlling the process of relaxation instead of trusting the body to relax. When the student finally stopped trying, she was amazed that the body and mind could relax without her directing it. She clearly saw how she generated suffering for herself, and her confidence in the dharma and her ability to practice strengthened as a result.

Silent illumination is often called the method of no-method. A practitioner whose mind is still scattered and agitated needs to start with a method to settle the mind. After relaxing the whole body and becoming fully embodied, we maintain moment-to-moment clear awareness of the body sitting and notice the subtle changing sensations of the body breathing. Resting our attention gently on the subtle changing sensations as the diaphragm contracts and expands, we allow the body to breathe on its own, anchoring the mind gently to each emerging present moment. There is no need to hold to the breathing tightly; that will tense the body and mind. It’s not a problem when the mind drifts off; use that as an opportunity to practice remembering to come back and reconnect with the direct experience of the body breathing. Practicing this way, the mind will naturally settle. 

When thoughts and feelings arise, there’s no need to chase them away or block them. John Crook, Master Sheng Yen’s first lay dharma heir, with whom I previously studied, articulated a helpful way to work with thoughts: let through, let be, let go. When thoughts show up, let them through. They are already part of the present. Blocking them will only tense and agitate the mind, perpetuating the habit of reacting to the present with aversion. Letting be is allowing the thoughts to be fully felt, seen, and heard as they unfold, moment after moment, without labeling, commenting, or trying to change them. Letting go is allowing the thoughts to leave on their own without being in a hurry to make them go away. In this way, there may be thoughts, but habitual reactivities to the thoughts are not activated, allowing the mind to relax and be still. This nonreactivity is silence.

As the mind settles, we subtly shift from resting our attention on the changing sensations of the body breathing to open awareness of the body sitting in this space. When thoughts come through, let through, let be, let go. When we notice our awareness dulling, gently sharpen it to stay with the moment. Maintaining this moment-to-moment clear awareness, we experience ease as the body and mind unify. We would be mistaken to believe a special state has been achieved. The mind and body are naturally interconnected and unified. It is only our entrenched habit of believing the mind and body are separate, independent entities that blocks us from realizing this. As these thought habits are released, the body/mind is experienced as it is. We experience unification with the environment. The usual sense of body/mind being in opposition to the environment disappears, and we feel a deep sense of connection with everything. Often practitioners grasp onto this experience, thinking “this is it,” believing they have achieved a special state, and try to hold on to it. Instead of activating this habit of reifying the moment and grasping, we let go of the urge to follow these habitual reactivities. There is nothing to attain. In silence, the mind is still and all is revealed as it is—illumination.

The transition from settling the mind to the method of no-method can be tricky. It is quite subtle and easily misunderstood. Silent illumination is called the method of no-method because we’re not directing our attention to any particular object. The practice is to be fully here, with this body and mind in this space, with total clear awareness. There’s no need to direct our attention to different parts of the body. We only need to be clearly aware that we’re sitting with this body in this space, moment after moment. It’s important to remember that we’re cultivating total clear awareness of body, mind, and the environment. If we direct our attention to bodily sensations only, ignoring thoughts and what’s going on outside of us, that is not yet the practice of silent illumination. 

Similarly, practitioners may direct their attention solely to the mind, watching mental activities intensely, resulting in a kind of hypervigilance of thoughts and emotions. Meditating this way can generate tension and can even make us quite self-absorbed because we’re focusing inwardly on our own ideas and feelings rather than letting go of self-centered attachment. This is not silent illumination. The practice is to open our awareness to include body and mind and the environment simultaneously.

 “May 10 2021 Kumo (Cloud) Diptych”

Other practitioners may cultivate clear awareness of the body and mind but dull their awareness of the environment. Doing so strengthens the mentally constructed boundary that separates self from other and blocks us from realizing our interconnectedness. Still other practitioners might interpret the instruction to open their awareness to include the environment as an instruction to direct their attention outward. It’s not uncommon for retreat participants with this misinterpretation to spend days listening to bird songs while forgetting full awareness of body and mind. This is also not silent illumination. 

It isn’t necessary to busy ourselves with any directing. We can remain clearly aware, fully experiencing the body and mind sitting here in this space, moment after moment, without directing our attention in any specific way. Most of us are habituated to directing our attention to an object as a method to focus the mind. While that is a valid method when specifically intended, transitioning to the method of no-method involves recognizing this habit and releasing the urge to follow it. The practice of silent illumination is to allow each moment to be experienced as it is. As instructed by Master Hongzhi, “stay with that just as that, stay with this just as this.” 

Many practitioners assume, incorrectly, 

that the practice is about entering a trance where nothing is happening. They may achieve this trance state by creating a foggy mind that gives an illusion of peace, but there is no clarity of the habits of the mind. Habitual reactivities of craving and aversion are left to operate without awareness. This is not silent illumination, and practicing this way will not free us from suffering. 

For other practitioners, as the mind settles and becomes still, they mistake the state of stillness for silent illumination and try to dwell in this quiet state. To protect this sense of stillness they disengage from life situations for fear of being disturbed, often leaving loved ones feeling rejected or responsibilities unfulfilled. These are two of the common ways our habitual reactivities are revealed when practicing silent illumination. Recognizing them allows us to gain insight into our mind and realize the true nature of existence.

Years ago, when I attended a silent illumination retreat with Master Sheng Yen, I was quite new to the practice and was attracted to the beautiful imagery of liberation described in Master Hongzhi’s poem. I thought I understood what I was supposed to do after hearing the instructions to let go. My erroneous interpretation at that time was that I needed to make the body disappear since my job was to get rid of the self that’s attached to the body. So, I went about trying to do this in sitting meditation. At one point I believed most of my body had disappeared and only my hands were left. I tried to make my hands disappear, but to no avail. 

I share this story to illustrate how easy it is to project our erroneous views onto the instruction to simply be here. The myriad ways we get in the way of ourselves were on full display: all I need to do is to get rid of the self (as if the self exists independently) to get enlightened (as if enlightenment is somewhere other than the present), then I will be happy (as if enlightenment can be possessed for one’s eternal satisfaction). I was inadvertently perpetuating habitual tendencies that generate suffering while believing I was following Master Sheng Yen’s instruction to “let go.” 

Was it a waste of time? Not at all. The practice of silent illumination is the process of recognizing how our erroneous views and entrenched habitual reactivities show up and cause suffering. As we maintain clear awareness of these subtle habits and the urge to follow and perpetuate them is loosened and released, we are less likely to succumb to them. This is what Master Sheng Yen meant by “letting go.” We also see how these habits show up in daily life, causing suffering for ourselves and hurting others. As we release the compulsion to fall into these unhelpful habits, by working with ourselves gently and kindly, we can live more in accordance with wisdom and compassion.

This article is from the March 2024 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li, PhD. is a Dharma heir in the lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen and the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. She teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures, and leads retreats in North America and Europe. Her talks and writings can be found at www.rebeccali.org.  She is a sociology professor and lives with her husband in New Jersey. She is the author of Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times, and her new book is Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Shambhala Publications, October 2023).