3/28 Practice Circle: Silent Illumination and Sitting with a Question

One powerful way to access the wisdom of the whole bodymind is to sit until the mind becomes still, and then to drop a question into that stillness and pay attention to what arises. When Practice Circle gathers again this Sunday, March 28, at 6 pm Pacific, 8 Central, and 9 Eastern, we’ll pursue this together by combining two practices: Silent Illumination, and Sitting with a Question.

Silent illumination is a practice from the Caodong lineage of Chinese Chan Buddhism called mozhao.
If you’d like to work with Silent Illumination before Sunday night, you can read below an excerpt from Chan master Sheng Yen’s book, “The Method of No Method.” As you can see, it’s a very simple technique, but a powerful one to help us clear the mind and rest in open awareness.

Approach to Silent Illumination

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 . . . .

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 . . . .

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 the 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 . . . .

Eventually, body and mind become one–your awareness is of the total body rather than its separate parts. This is the first stage, the union of body and mind. The body is no longer a burden, and its sensation fades away, leaving a crisp, clear, and open mind.

When you get deeper into the practice, the body, mind and environment become one–internal and external are united. This is the second stage. The environment refers to your immediate surroundings, which you now perceive as your great body, which is also just sitting; it no longer disturbs you or stirs up wandering thoughts. There is only the presence of the whole environment as you are sitting there. In this second stage of Silent Illumination, the mind is very clear and open, You can practice this in sitting meditation and in daily life.

Sheng Yen (1930-2009)

After some practice of Silent Illumination, we’ll sit with a question. Sitting with a question is not like thinking it through or trying to figure it out. Instead we simple state the question, either to ourselves or to a partner, and then simply listen to what arises in the body, the mind, and the emotions. Notice any tendency of the mind to start rehearsing answers, and just let that mental activity go. If an answer does arise, note it, let it go, and then repeat the question. The practice is intended to help get around the mind’s habitual patterns of reactivity and connect with a deeper realm of our experience.

Since 2012, the SBA has offered Practice Circle, our online practice community. We meet on the second and fourth Sundays of every month at 8 p.m. Central.  It’s free, and everyone is welcome.  Just click on this link Sunday evening to attend.