There is a form of Zen or Chan meditation that is called silent illumination. It has been said that illumination simply means awareness and that this method is, therefore, that of sitting still in complete awareness, simply allowing life to pass by.

I have a different idea of silent illumination. Illumination means light. Silent illumination refers to what lights us up. It does so quietly and this is why it is called silent. As imagery, one might think of being lit by the light of the moon on a dark night. One stands in silent wonder and the silver radiance covers the world.

What really lights us up is something mysterious, something that in Buddhism is called other power. It is called other power because it has nothing to do with self.

The main thrust of Buddhist teaching is that it takes us away from self and into real life. In my last piece, The Hypnotic Self, I tried to explain what is meant by self by showing how it is that when thoughts about self-worth interpose themselves one loses contact with reality and so does not learn the lessons that reality has to teach us.

The idea that illumination means awareness has two problems. The first is that it begs the question, awareness of what? Buddha clearly taught that awareness of some things is wholesome and awareness of some other things is unwholesome. Meditation can be defined as holding the mind upon a wholesome object. Usually advocates of silent illumination advise that one let the mind be aware of whatever shows up, but not attach to any of it. This, however, does not seem to have been what Shakyamuni did nor taught. These are technical problems of Buddhist method.

The second, and much bigger problem, is that awareness is a characteristic of the meditator and can even be reduced to being a skill to be learnt. This is overly suggestive of self-power. Buddhism is not a matter of lighting ourselves up, but of being lit up by Dharma that is beyond self. It is our own little light that obscures the great light, and thinking that we ourselves can be such a great light is a kind of hubris that blinds us. A candle flame held close to the eye will prevent one seeing the sun or the moon, even though the latter are a thousand times greater.

One is silently illuminated when one takes life neat. This means letting the self become dark. Turn off your own light. Let in the bigger light.

This is like falling in love. When one falls in love, something - the beloved - something that is outside of oneself - impacts upon one forcefully. One is then lit up. One becomes kinder, more energetic, more understanding. One feels to be walking on air. It is a state of joy. One benificence overflows, but it is not a product of training oneself nor of artificially generating the goodwill - it is like flowers falling from heaven.

Of course, falling in love with a fallible mortal is bound to lead to some disappointment and disillusion after a while, but the experience illustrates a great principle. In falling in love one is taken out of oneself. It is this principle of being taken out of oneself that Buddhism extends to a universal and absolute path of salvation. It is salvation from ourselves. Then, all lit up, one becomes a shiny person, a myokonin.

I have said that the self becomes dark. I could just as well have said that it becomes silent. Self tends to manifest in a lot of internal chatter. This self-talk drowns out signals from the universe in rather the way that if you wear your walkman into the forest you will not hear much bird song. When self falls silent one will be illuminated.

This does not require a particular sitting posture. It is not a physical yoga. It is aided by modesty, practicality and a sense of humour, but ultimately it is a matter of what the Taoists call wei wu wie - doing what one does while not doing anything pretentious with it.

Self is conceit. It is pretentiousness and pretending leads us into delusion. However flattering our delusions may be, they are as nothing to the illumination that is always silently waiting for us to quieten down enough to receive it.

One of the simplest ways to approach this is to call the name of the Buddha. Names are powerful and naming the embodiment of other power is a fine way to cut through to real life.

Thus, we learn to say the name when anything happens. Spill the milk - call the Buddha! This learned reflex allows the situation to simply be what it is. No blame. No recrimination. Only great acceptance. Only silent illumination.

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Woods

I part the out thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.

 

Wendell Berry

from A Part, 1980

Thankyou Dharmavydia. Your recent trickle of posts (since Praying with Nembutsu) have been a help to me on a new level, with a stubborn old sense of - or habit of - difficulty falling away, for reasons I'm not wholly clear about but am grateful for.

Wishing you a Happy Solstice, wherever it finds you. Namo Amida Bu.

Thanks, Mat. I'm back home in France now.

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