The State Of Silent Illumination

One Buddhist practice that has existed before the birth of Huineng (638–713) is a form of meditation called Silent illumination. Referred to as mozhao in the Chan tradition, silent illumination is symbolized by the Chinese characters mo meaning (silent) and zhao, meaning (illumination).

A synchronized practice of luminosity and quiescence or clarity and stillness, silent illumination is akin to the practice of vipashyana and shamatha, as long as we don’t consider them subsequent to each other, practicing shamatha first and then vipashyana. There is illumination in silence; clarity is always present in stillness.

We Are Already Enlightened

Usually, there are no stages or steps referred in the Chan tradition. Its core tenet is that, at heart, we are awake; our mind is originally without vexations, fixations, and abiding and essentially is without stages and divisions. This is the premise of the Chan perspective of sudden enlightenment. If the nature of our mind is not already free this would mean that only after we have practiced can we can become enlightened, which is not so. Since it’s conceivable to achieve enlightenment, we may be also at risk losing it as well.

We think about a room as spacious naturally but oftentimes, we arrange the furniture in the room that doesn’t impact its natural spaciousness. Though they may be temporary, we may build walls to segregate the room. And it won’t affect the room’s intrinsic spaciousness no matter if we leave it messy, cluttered or clean. Mind, by nature, is naturally spacious as well. While we may get caught up in our aversions and desires, we are naturally not affected by those vexations. We are inherently free.

Practice, therefore, is not about generating enlightenment in the tradition of Chan. One might pause to think, “What then am I doing practicing here?” The answer is that practice can indeed help tidy up the “furniture” in the “room.” You remove the furniture by, in a manner of speaking, not attaching to your thoughts. Rather than fixating on the tables, chairs, etc., once your mind is clean, you’ll be able to perceive its spaciousness. Only then can you rearrange the furniture in any way you want— for the benefit of others in the room and not merely for yourself.

Sitting without depending on your mind, body, tongue, nose, ears, or eyes is the ultimate way to pursue silent illumination. One sits without falling into a stupor, fabricating anything, or abiding anywhere. One neither enters into meditative intentness nor avail themselves of scattered thoughts. Mind simply is still and wakeful, without delusion and filled with clarity at this very moment. For a lot of practitioners, however, such a standard may be beyond reach.

Silent Illumination – The Three Steps

Master Sheng Yen’s style of silent illumination practice can be roughly divided into three stages: concentrated mentality, unified mentality, and no-mentality. There are infinite depths within each stage. The stages are not necessarily sequential nor does one need to go through all of them

Concentrated Mentality

Learning to sit in an uncontrived way without attempting to acquire things is the initial stage of practice. One simply sits with simplicity and clarity in the moment. This is known as zhiguan dazuo In Chinese, which translates to “just mind sitting yourself.”

To just sit is to realize you are sitting. Can you feel the presence of your whole body – its weight, posture, and other sensation when you’re sitting? At the very least, “just sitting” implies you clearly are aware that the complete body is there. It does not require minding any specific area of your body—just your posture, arms or legs — or experiencing every feeing of the body. The notion is to be conscious of the overall aggregate of your sitting experience. You know that your body is sitting which means your mind is sitting, as well. So, as you’re sitting, your mind and body are together. You’re not following the technique if you aren’t aware that you are sitting.

This technique is different from counting breaths from one to ten, which is very concrete – it is subtle. That may not mean there is nothing to do; definitely, there is something to do. Sit!

This technique does not entail scanning the body constantly, observing thoughts, or contemplating. It rather necessitates the process of sitting, staying moment to moment to moment with that reality. Your mind and body are together naturally when you mind your sitting. One doesn’t imagine the body or watch it, as if they’re looking in from the outside, which is some type of mental construct.

Your body might be drenched in sweat when you intensely and single-mindedly practice for half an hour, without gaps. But this tense, conventional mode of practicing the technique is not appropriate for a lot of today’s practitioners since most of them are already extremely stressed on a daily basis. (Another impediment of the tense way is that it isn’t sustainable after a prolonged amount of time, at most, thirty minutes to an hour.) Therefore, it is often recommended to apply the technique in a relaxed manner, whilst continuing to be fully consciousness that you’re sitting.

Learning to and getting to know your body can liberate you from negative emotions and familiar proclivities. One may observe that when wandering thoughts crop up, some areas of your body tighten up. This is also the case for deep-seated emotions, which are stuck in specific areas of the body. People often lead lives that that cause their mind and bodies to split; their bodies do one thing while their minds are elsewhere. When this initial stage is practiced, it can help unify the mind and body.

When a person is not caught up with wandering thoughts and is clear and wakeful in each moment, he lessens of his own free will. He lessens because he has a discriminating mind, which is attached to self-grasping. Your astute mind subsides because, as you are sitting, you’re conscious of the wholeness of the body. Without your thoughts wandering, you’re not grasping at things and are not repulsed or beguiled by certain sensations. In the first stage of silent illumination, the concentration developed isn’t a one dimensional mental focus but a clear, natural, and open presence. It is wisdom combined with concentration.

Unified Mind

Your straitjacketed sense of self also lessens whenever your astute mind wanes. Your sense of awareness—which is initially the completeness of the body—opens up naturally to include the outer environment. Outside and inside become one. You may still notice at the onset, that your mind follows various occurrences within the environment, such as someone moving or that a sound is coming from a certain direction. But these distinctions dissipate as you continue. You are conscious of situations around you, but they don’t leave traces. You are in the here and no longer sense that the environment is out there. The environment is just is and it does not appear to be a burden or a bother to you. The environment is you, sitting, if you’re sitting. If you have risen from your seat to walk, then the environment still is you, in all your actions. This second phase of silent illumination is an experience called the oneness of others and of self.

Can you urinate or get up to have a drink of water? Yes. Can you still hear sounds? Absolutely! Is there the process of thought? Definitely! Although thoughts are not self-referential, they arise whenever you need them to respond to the world. Compassion has no connection to emotions although compassion naturally arises whenever it is required. Around you, there’s a close intimacy with everything that is beyond descriptions and words. When you urinate, the urine, body, and toilet are not distinct.

You clearly see what needs to be done in this stage. Whenever you respond, you do so without any opposition or reference point. If you hear a bird, you are a bird. Whenever you interact with someone, your mind doesn’t stir. Things are a part of you, you are part of them, and you see them as one. It’s not that you believe, “I’m really big and they are part of me! The whole world is included!” Neither is it that you dissipate into the outer environment, not knowing anymore who you are. It is just that the feeling of self-reference is lessened and the onuses of typical vexations have disappeared albeit temporarily.

In this second stage, there are deeper, more progressive states. When you enter a state in which you are the environment, sitting, the environment may become infinite and boundless, ushering in a state of oneness with the universe. The whole world is your body sitting there. Space is infinite and time quickly passes by. You are not interested in the specifics of the environment. There is just a sense of the infinite and an openness of clarity and mind. While this is still not the awareness of no-self; it nevertheless, is the experience of great self.

Three more subtle experiences may arise at this point all associated with the experience of great self. Infinite light is the first. You are the light, and you experience a feeling of clarity, infinity, and oneness.

Infinite sound is the next experience. This does not refer to the sound of dogs, cars, or anything similar. Nor is it similar to music or any sound that you have ever heard. It is an elemental and primordial sound that is unified with the experience of vastness. In all places it is harmonious, without attribution or reference.

Voidness is the third and final experience although this not the experience of no-self that would make up enlightenment nor is it self-nature’s emptiness. This is a voidness that is spacious with nothing but the pure vastness of space. While you may not sense an experience of self, a subtle kind of object and self still exists.

These very deep states are progressively associated with the samadhi states. Whenever a person emerges from them, they must not try to think anymore about them because they can be extremely alluring. Say to yourself, “This state is not it; it’s just ordinary.” Or else, it can result to another kind of attachment.


For a few minutes or a several weeks, you still might be in the first phase of the second stage of silent illumination. Nothing hinders you during this time; you feel the environment is you and when you are sitting, the environment is sitting; you feel attached to the environment when you’re walking about. In the second stage’s later phase, you might even believe you are already enlightened because the more profound levels of oneness can be extremely deep. Sometimes, practitioners think they have all of a sudden understood all the scriptures or have become smarter.

All the wonderful states of clarity can give you a strong belief in the practicality of buddhadharma and the potential of being in a state of zero vexations. They still however, do not constitute the third stage’s clarity—the awareness of silent illumination. Become connected to any of these states and you’ll be further from them. You need to let all of them go.

Scott Paglia is a licensed and board certified acupuncturist in Bellingham, WA and provides master level pulse diagnosis, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture in Whatcom County, WA.