Just sitting vs silent illumination

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  • robert
    Member
    • Aug 2008
    • 88

    Just sitting vs silent illumination

    Hi:

    I hear the terms shikantaza and "silent illumination" used by different sources and am not quite clear on the distinction. Shikantaza (????) literally means "just sitting" and my understanding is that it is done without any conscious striving towards a goal. But if we sit down to practice something called "silent illumination" (???), this seems to imply a purpose or desired result -- that is, the result of being illuminated.

    What is the relationship between the two? And how does either practice tie in with the calming/insight (samatha/vipassana) combo found in earlier Buddhism?

    Gassho,

    Rob
    Robert's website
  • disastermouse

    #2
    Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

    You know that these are all just 'tags' don't you? There may be subtle differences, but this is a subjective and intersubjective process. You can learn some things reading about 'silent illumination' - but ultimately, it's you and the cushion.

    Also, shikantaza isn't 'effortless' full-stop. It's effortless [I]effort[/].

    IMHO

    Chet

    Comment

    • Jundo
      Treeleaf Founder and Priest
      • Apr 2006
      • 39472

      #3
      Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

      Hi Robert,

      Time for a little history!

      Originally posted by robert
      Hi:

      I hear the terms shikantaza and "silent illumination" used by different sources and am not quite clear on the distinction. Shikantaza (????) literally means "just sitting" and my understanding is that it is done without any conscious striving towards a goal. But if we sit down to practice something called "silent illumination" (???), this seems to imply a purpose or desired result -- that is, the result of being illuminated.

      What is the relationship between the two?
      This has come up a couple of times in the Forum in the past ... In a nutshell, they are the same: goalless, silent and illuminating, spacious, dropping categories and judgments ... That which is tasted thus is that "Same" sweeping in "sameness" and "difference". Any true "difference", in my view, is primarily a matter of Chinese vs. Japanese vs. Modern language and poetic sensibilities, and that different teachers express the music in their own way of playing the same tune: Chinese teachers (like the great Master Hongzhi) sometimes described it in language with a very ancient, flowery Chinese feel, Dogen in a Dogenesque Jazzy/Samurai Medieval Japanese way (and modern teachers in a 21st century western way). Perhaps Dogen did flavor his Zazen with a bit more emphasis on the perfectly complete sacredness of the act of sitting itself ... but that is just like a chef who adds a bit more oregano to his version of a classic soup recipe.

      For an well written, clear, detailed answer by someone who has "written the book" on the subject, please read this short essay by Soto Priest and Historian Taigen Dan Leighton ... "Introduction: Hongzhi, Dogen and the background of Silent Illumination" (Pages 1 to 10 here) ... As Taigen mentions as well, "Silent Illumination" seems to have been the "main way of Zazen" in China from centuries before Hongzhi ...

      http://books.google.com/books?id=k6O9Sv ... &q&f=false

      His book on the subject of Hongzhi is this one:

      • Cultivating the Empty Field, The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi

      http://www.amazon.com/Cultivating-Empty ... 0865474745

      Master Sheng-yen is a wonderful teacher who left this visible world this year, and I do love his writings on "Silent Illumination" and especially "The Method of No Method". But he also had his own flavor and perspective, sometimes a little differently focused from the emphasis here (I find that his view of "Silent Illumination" can be very close to, but sometimes a bit different from "Just Sitting" Shikantaza, as Sheng-yen often emphasises ... in some of his writings on Silent Illumination anyway, although not so much in others ... attaining various states of deep concentration as the ultimate objective. He sometimes speaks of meditation as a means to the attaining of various highly concentrated states and world-removing attainments of Samadhi. I have in the past year re-read his "Hoofprint of the Ox" book, for example, and there he presents a quite instrumentalist, goal oriented view of what he calls "Silent Illumination" ... as a means to attain very deep states of "one pointed" mind.

      While that may be a wonderful path, it is not the exclusive way "Silent Illumination" has been described over the centuries and others (such as me) interpret "Silent Illumination" as more "open, spacious, unified, illuminated mind". It is not "one pointed", so much as unified and found "neither inside, nor outside, nor in between" wholly with one's environment and circumstances. What Sheng Yen presents is of a rather different flavor from that view of "Silent Illumination", and is also different, I believe, from the "Silent Illumination" of Hongzhi or "Just Sitting" in Dogen's meaning.


      Originally posted by robert
      And how does either practice tie in with the calming/insight (samatha/vipassana) combo found in earlier Buddhism?
      This has come up a couple of times in the past too (so I get to be lazy and 'cut and paste' what I usually say in response)

      Buddhist Practice is usually described as flying upon the twin wings of ?amatha (calming thoughts and emotions, illuminating and dropping body-mind) and awareness and understanding of vipa?yan? (insight and awareness primarily into the nature and workings of 'self' and mental functions). That is true in Zen practice no less than most other forms of Buddhist practice.

      In a nutshell, Vipa?yan? might be described as insights and awareness, based on Buddhist psychology, as to how the mind works and plays it games. It is an understanding of the Skandhas (form, sensation, perception, mental formation, consciousness ... those words always sung in the Heart Sutra), how our thoughts and emotional reactions arise, how we label and divide the world. We should also understand the Buddha's ideas about how suffering arises within us, which is intimately tied to all that.

      Unlike some schools of Buddhism, in Shikantaza we do not pursue any particular practices --during-- Zazen itself in order to cultivate such vipa?yan? insight ... and much insight naturally arises from Zazen as "Zazen does its thing". Perhaps we might say that, just in "just sitting" Shikantaza ... dropping thoughts of this and that, thus quieting the mind's "mind games" ... we develop a natural sensitivity and understanding of the mind's "mind games" (much like one first comes to really appreciate what "urban noise" is when one first drives out of the city to the middle of the desert or some other truly quiet place).

      Apart from "on the Zafu" sitting times, however, in the rest of our Buddhist studies and practice, it is good to contemplate and develop such insight, and come to identify the workings of the Skandhas and such within us day to day.

      For example, if you feel an angry or jealous thought arising within you during your day, it is very helpful to identify that as a "bit of temporary mind theatre" and "just the self judging and conflicting with another perceived self". That gives us some distance from the passing emotion, and we no longer see the emotion as quite as inevitable and "true" as we might have before.

      For example, in the case of anger ... We need to develop a sensitivity to how anger arises within us, the triggers which tend to set it off, the first feeling of it starting to arise and the cycle it follows until vanishing. We need to catch ourself more and develop the ability to say, "I am feeling the emotion of anger now, but it is only the mind created theater which is present in this moment ... it need not be so." We need to see it as a story the self writes for itself, "catch it" and thus not be "sucked in" and fooled as much. (Most people who feel anger do not realize it is just a mind created bit of theater which can be replaced by something else ... it is not the way things "have to be". E.g., most people think, when they become upset, that they have "reason to be upset, and it is true and justified", not an optional response to the circumstances). That realization and understanding of how our inner theater works is a step to developing the ability to "rewrite and change the story" at will.

      So, yes, "samatha/vipassana" are both important.

      Gassho, Jundo

      PS - Chet said

      You can learn some things reading about 'silent illumination' - but ultimately, it's you and the cushion.

      Also, shikantaza isn't 'effortless' full-stop. It's effortless [I]effort[/].
      Yep
      ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

      Comment

      • Sloppy_Zen
        Member
        • Dec 2009
        • 82

        #4
        Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

        This whole thing seems very confusing for those of us who struggle to understand. It seems to me that the entire point of sitting is a long-term "thing", that over time we begin to realize that there are really no distinctions between our "selves" and everything else. It seems as though (just my experience) we need to to see that "we" are simply a construction and that, in essence, we really don't have an actual beginning or an ending.
        This has become very comforting to me as I approach old(er) age (if there is such a thing!) I realize now that the "me" that I know isn't really as independent as I always imagined - in fact, "I" am simply another in a long line of "stuff" that makes "me" who "I" am.
        It seems to go round and around! We are not really who we think we we are! In fact, we are nobody! I know that this sounds like a pile of hooey, but in fact, it's what is happening.
        We have an imagination that is beyond what we can imagine! (How's that for for a mind picture!).
        So when we sit, the purpose is not to "get" to enlightenment (so to speak), the whole purpose (it seems to me), is simply to become who we already are! Wow! What a mind-fuck!
        I still don't understand it all and that's what keeps me challenged - will I ever understand?

        Good luck searching,
        -Jim
        Skype: jim.kearse
        ring me, I might be at home!

        Comment

        • Sloppy_Zen
          Member
          • Dec 2009
          • 82

          #5
          Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

          Hey - Disastermouse;

          Not really sure what you mean by "intersubjective". Maybe I'm just too old and feeble, but what do you mean by this term?

          P.S. I'm always up for more "English" education!

          -Jim
          Skype: jim.kearse
          ring me, I might be at home!

          Comment

          • disastermouse

            #6
            Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

            By intersubjective, I mean 'relating to shared internal events that do not have simple location'.

            Literary interpretation is intersubjective. Culture is intersubjective (as opposed to sociology, which is 'objective'). Anything that relates to meanings of shared experience is intersubjective. Studies of the function of such events is objective.

            Does that clear it up?

            Chet

            Comment

            • Sloppy_Zen
              Member
              • Dec 2009
              • 82

              #7
              Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

              Disastermouse;

              I think I've got it - I think you're simply saying that it's open to interpretation? I feel like I'm really out of the loop on this one!

              Man, getting old can be shitty - or is it? I can pretend I don't understand or need help and I get the attention of many pretty girls - did I "think" that out loud? Oops!

              -Jim
              Skype: jim.kearse
              ring me, I might be at home!

              Comment

              • robert
                Member
                • Aug 2008
                • 88

                #8
                Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                Jundo,

                Interesting that you mentioned Sheng-Yen -- he was the source of my question, actually. I've been wanting to read his work and was all set to check out "Method of no Method" and perhaps also his book on the Heart Sutra. But then it occurred to me that his "silent illumination" might or might not be a different animal, as opposed to shikantaza, which got me to wondering what the relationship was exactly (since there are two distinct terms in Chinese). After all, when you sit down to jam with folks, you want to know what key you're in. Unless you're Ornette Coleman, maybe.

                So thanks for the history lesson -- appreciate your taking the time to lay it all out.

                Originally posted by disastermouse
                There may be subtle differences, but this is a subjective and intersubjective process. You can learn some things reading about 'silent illumination' - but ultimately, it's you and the cushion.
                That's a good point. Although "you and the cushion" still leaves room for discussion, no? Any number of things can take place on a zafu, from compiling grocery lists to advanced states of jhana to the "effortless effort" you mention. I'm still at yer basic breath meditation stage, so mostly I'm asking out of idle curiosity.

                Intersubjectively yours,

                Rob
                Robert's website

                Comment

                • disastermouse

                  #9
                  Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                  Originally posted by robert
                  Jundo,

                  Interesting that you mentioned Sheng-Yen -- he was the source of my question, actually. I've been wanting to read his work and was all set to check out "Method of no Method" and perhaps also his book on the Heart Sutra. But then it occurred to me that his "silent illumination" might or might not be a different animal, as opposed to shikantaza, which got me to wondering what the relationship was exactly (since there are two distinct terms in Chinese). After all, when you sit down to jam with folks, you want to know what key you're in. Unless you're Ornette Coleman, maybe.

                  So thanks for the history lesson -- appreciate your taking the time to lay it all out.

                  Originally posted by disastermouse
                  There may be subtle differences, but this is a subjective and intersubjective process. You can learn some things reading about 'silent illumination' - but ultimately, it's you and the cushion.
                  That's a good point. Although "you and the cushion" still leaves room for discussion, no? Any number of things can take place on a zafu, from compiling grocery lists to advanced states of jhana to the "effortless effort" you mention. I'm still at yer basic breath meditation stage, so mostly I'm asking out of idle curiosity.

                  Intersubjectively yours,

                  Rob
                  "If you go to war with your mind, you will be at war forever." - Adyashanti's quote of his Zen teacher. Yeah, I know Adyashanti has started his own little thing, but this is something his Zen teacher said to him when he was still practicing Zen - and I think it's important to realize.

                  Let your mind compile grocery lists - just unhook your identity from it - don't enter 'into' it. When you find your attention focused on your grocery list, 'unhook' it from the list and go back to an expansive, diffuse awareness. The list may or may not continue going on, but it will be one of many things floating around. There will also be the creaking of your house or the barking of a neighbor's dog. But where is this 'creaking'? Where is this 'barking'? The sense of 'location' of these sounds is a construction - the direct perception of these things is right 'here'. The sensation is rather immediate when location isn't constructed. The witness also disappears when location disappears.

                  Zazen is just the process of constant unhooking, then back to diffuse awareness in which everything happens. The diffuse awareness of shikantaza is the 'natural state' - but it seems unnatural in light of so much conditioning and the confusion of conception with perception. That is to say, you may think the 'neighbor's dog barking over there' is something you perceive, but the idea of 'neighbor's dog' is thought and the sense of 'over there' is a conceptual construction. Without investment in these thoughts and constructs (they may still happen, but one is not invested in them), all things are driven first into 'one' and then into 'none'. Driven is the wrong word, it's simply that diffuse awareness is maintained and no conceptual constructions arise. Neither the idea nor the conceptual, spacial construction is directly immediate. You can't just fight these constructions, you simply let them go again and again. Drop, drop, drop, drop. Back to immediacy in which nothing is left out. First all 'things' are driven into 'one' (witness stage), and then even the witness construction is dropped...the moment 'moments' itself.

                  Having arrived at the state of 'nothing' (it's actually more like 'having not left the state of 'nothing'), all constructions become the expression of that 'nothing' - instead of the solid, imprisoning things they had seemed, an eternally arising and decaying panoply of dissatisfaction, they radiate the beauty and energy of immediate experience. Knowing that this is a dream of sorts, you can enter the dream fully without fear! There can even be 'fear without fear'. Seeing all perspectives as provisional, you take them only provisionally. In this way, all conditioned arisings become an ally! Because no conditioned arising need be maintained, you can work with whatever arises. You can say 'yes' to whatever arises, even when saying 'no'. You can even say 'yes' to 'no'. Don't get locked into any view, even the view of 'yes' to all things. There is no need to be locked in, and so you can say 'yes' to 'no' - that is, let 'no' happen.

                  Of course, don't think for a moment that I'm talking about some perpetually maintained state. This is not a maintained state - it actually requires no energy to 'maintain' this state, it simply requires not expending energy to create an identification state. So there is often a lot of fluctuation between forgetfulness and awakened-ness...but you can't pit stupidity against wisdom and try to just pick wisdom. That's just more stupidity.

                  I'm explaining this terribly poorly, I'm afraid. Suffice to say, if wisdom is not to bias any perspective, then that means not even biasing wisdom and pitting it against stupidity. And yet, this is not permission to continue stupidity in a self-justifying way.

                  This is ridiculously difficult to talk about accurately. But if you sit and unhook again and again, if you maybe even look forward to being caught so you can unhook....at some point the subtlety of what I'm describing may begin to make sense.

                  If you don't get it yet, don't worry! Sit shikantaza, unhook, unhook, unhook...and cherish that you're caught because it will teach you to unhook. Enlightenment is your birthright, ever-present.

                  As the Buddha said, 'Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth."

                  Be sincere, be honest enough to admit what you don't know. Unhook. Not much more is needed.

                  IMHO.

                  Chet

                  Comment

                  • Jundo
                    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                    • Apr 2006
                    • 39472

                    #10
                    Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                    Originally posted by Sloppy_Zen
                    This whole thing seems very confusing for those of us who struggle to understand. It seems to me that the entire point of sitting is a long-term "thing", that over time we begin to realize that there are really no distinctions between our "selves" and everything else. It seems as though (just my experience) we need to to see that "we" are simply a construction and that, in essence, we really don't have an actual beginning or an ending.
                    ...
                    It seems to go round and around! We are not really who we think we we are! In fact, we are nobody! I know that this sounds like a pile of hooey, but in fact, it's what is happening.
                    We have an imagination that is beyond what we can imagine! (How's that for for a mind picture!).
                    So when we sit, the purpose is not to "get" to enlightenment (so to speak), the whole purpose (it seems to me), is simply to become who we already are!
                    And to make things even more confusing ... 8)

                    "You" are simulaneously also completely, precisely and perfectly "you" ... the "dewdrop" which holds the moon (in Taigu's today's talk) ... a shining jewel in Indra's net ...

                    http://www.shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=16627

                    ... whole and straight and flawless, despite being a "limited, deluded, twisted self" ... with not one thing to change about you, not one thing to add nor one thing to take away (even as, hand in hand, you may have many things about you in need of change ... also another perspective, true at once :shock: Nothing to "fix" about you, even as there are so many things you probably had better fix. ).

                    There is no "you", never was from the start ... and to boot, "you" are absolutely "you", as "you" as you could possibly be.

                    You are, in fact, the center and whole of all the universe, all reality (but, before it goes to your head ... so's everyone and everything else)!

                    All these perspective are "true at once" ... all our ways in which we should come to experience our self-life-world through this practice ... all are realized and made real in a moment of Zazen.

                    You cannot "become" who you really are ... for you are already all of that.

                    Originally posted by disastermouse
                    Zazen is just the process of constant unhooking
                    ... and rehooking ... and no hooking ... that which was never unhooked.

                    The diffuse awareness of shikantaza is the 'natural state'
                    ... by which we also realize that there is no "unnatural state" and never can be ... even the ones we should best avoid for a balanced and as harmless-as-possible life.

                    Gassho, J
                    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                    Comment

                    • disastermouse

                      #11
                      Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                      Originally posted by Jundo

                      ... by which we also realize that there is no "unnatural state" and never can be ... even the ones we should best avoid for a balanced and as harmless-as-possible life.

                      Gassho, J
                      It's so hard to put it in a way that makes sense, but yeah. Like I said, say 'yes' to everything, even 'no' or even 'silence'. I'm not trying to pit natural vs. unnatural, or awakened vs. deluded...it's more like you can't really know the truth of either without knowing both.

                      I really don't mean to pit 'awakened', 'natural', or 'enlightened' against 'asleep', 'unnatural', or 'deluded'....it's just so hard to talk about this in any sort of way that makes sense.

                      Chet

                      Comment

                      • Jundo
                        Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                        • Apr 2006
                        • 39472

                        #12
                        Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                        Originally posted by disastermouse

                        I really don't mean to pit 'awakened', 'natural', or 'enlightened' against 'asleep', 'unnatural', or 'deluded'....it's just so hard to talk about this in any sort of way that makes sense.

                        Chet
                        A couple of thousand years' worth of Mahayana teachers and poets have faced the very same dilemma of expressing "enlightenment" in/as/through/transcending/washing away/fully manifesting by/etc. "delusion/samsara" ...

                        "Buddha" is a crack whore ... and the "Pure Land" is an oil spill covered beach.

                        We might even say that there was never "someone" to be addicted, no drugs to be addicted to, no oil and no beach ...

                        Now, that does not mean that we should just choose to live as crack addicts, or find no need to "save all the sentient beings" who happen to be crack whores. That does not mean that we should not seek as we can to clean up the oily sand.

                        The Lotus blooms in the mud ... and is just the mud ... yet is not ...
                        ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                        Comment

                        • CraigfromAz
                          Member
                          • May 2010
                          • 94

                          #13
                          Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                          Originally posted by disastermouse

                          Let your mind compile grocery lists - just unhook your identity from it - don't enter 'into' it. When you find your attention focused on your grocery list, 'unhook' it from the list and go back to an expansive, diffuse awareness. The list may or may not continue going on,
                          This is not my experience. Once I "unhook" from a train of thought, it is gone, by MY definition of being unhooked. If it reappears, I am "hooked" again, and have to unhook. This is similar (for me) to having a song running through your mind. Unless the song is GONE, it is still running through your head. Now maybe someone who understands minds/thoughts better than I do (apparently everybody else here ops: ) might be able to demonstrate the song is still running in my head, I'm just not focusing on it.

                          This is what makes shikantaza difficult. With other forms of meditation, I can "unhook" from some thoughts by focusing on something else (usually breathing). With shikantaza, I have nothing else to focus on - except everything else. Much more difficult (for me).

                          Good thing Jundo keeps assuring us "you can't do it wrong", or I would suspect I'm doing it wrong...

                          Craig

                          Comment

                          • Fuken
                            Member
                            • Sep 2006
                            • 435

                            #14
                            Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                            Good thing Jundo keeps assuring us "you can't do it wrong", or I would suspect I'm doing it wrong...

                            Craig
                            I would counter that you can't do it right either. I've gotten myself into all sorts of trouble thinking I'm doing something "Right."
                            I am grateful when those misconceptions are pointed out to me and I am able realize a little bit more of my own ignorance.

                            Yours in practice,
                            Jordan
                            Yours in practice,
                            Jordan ("Fu Ken" translates to "Wind Sword", Dharma name givin to me by Jundo, I am so glad he did not name me Wind bag.)

                            Comment

                            • Shohei
                              Member
                              • Oct 2007
                              • 2854

                              #15
                              Re: Just sitting vs silent illumination

                              Originally posted by Fuken
                              Good thing Jundo keeps assuring us "you can't do it wrong", or I would suspect I'm doing it wrong...

                              Craig
                              I would counter that you can't do it right either. I've gotten myself into all sorts of trouble thinking I'm doing something "Right."
                              I am grateful when those misconceptions are pointed out to me and I am able realize a little bit more of my own ignorance.

                              Yours in practice,
                              Jordan
                              Gassho!

                              Comment

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