In this episode and the next, I’m going to riff off of 12th-century Chan master Hongzhi’s short text, “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” one of the most positive and encouraging Zen teachings a know. By “riff” I mean I’ll play off of, and spontaneously elaborate on, Hongzhi’s words, as opposed to explaining or analyzing them in an exhaustive or comprehensive way. I take this approach because it’s more fun, but also because “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” like most Chan and Zen writings, is essentially poetry.
Quicklinks to Content:
Poetry and Zen Teachings
Guidepost of Silent Illumination
Spiritually Solitary and Full of Wonder
Bright in the Dark, Manifest When Hidden
Wintery Mists, Autumn Waters, and Empty Kalpas
Alertly Seeing Through Confusion
Poetry and Zen Teachings
In this episode, I’m going to riff off of 12th-century Chan master Hongzhi’s text, “Guidepost of Silent Illumination.” By “riff” I mean I’ll play off of, and spontaneously elaborate on, Hongzhi’s words, as opposed to explaining or analyzing them in an exhaustive or comprehensive way. I take this approach because it’s more fun, but also because “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” like most Chan and Zen writings, is essentially poetry. Poetry is meant to evoke feelings and memories in us. Words are used creatively, often non-literally, in order to remind us of actual experiences we’ve had – or, at the very least, experiences we’ve briefly glimpsed or intuited, resonate with, or aspire to.
There’s a reason classic Chan and Zen teachings tend to be so poetic. When Buddhism arrived in China from India over two thousand years ago, it was strongly influenced by Chinese culture. One aspect of that culture was an appreciation for the limitations of language, and how, ultimately, words can only point toward our actual experiences, never fully convey or capture them.
Fortunately, as human beings, we have many shared experiences. Through language I can evocatively describe an experience I’ve had, and you may resonate with it and be able to say, “Hey, I’ve experienced that, too!” The more abstract, dry, or intellectual my description, the more likely we’ll continue talking about things in the abstract, shifting the focus away from the embodied experience we’ve both had, which is ultimately beyond words. For example, Dylan Thomas wrote the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I’ll read a couple verses of the poem in a moment, but imagine if, instead of writing the poem, Thomas had written something like this: “When my father was near death, I knew it was natural for people to die. Nevertheless, I experienced an incredibly strong desire for life to continue no matter what, even though I knew it was irrational. I wanted to see life fight against death.” Instead, Thomas wrote:
“And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”[i]
I can hardly read those words without tearing up, as they elicit in me thoughts and feelings no prose description is likely to touch. I’ve heard it said that good poetry doesn’t just describe an experience, it takes you through it.
I invite you listen to Hongzhi’s “Guidepost of Silent Illumination” as a poem, seeing if it evokes anything in you. One of the most inspiring things about poetic Chan and Zen teachings, I think, is the way we resonate with them even when we don’t “understand” them, and even when we don’t think we’ve had the kind of rarified spiritual experiences we figure they’re describing. You might say this is because of our Buddha nature. Awakening is simply about returning to ourselves, or finally seeing reality clearly. The truth is here all along, we just obscure it with our discriminating mind. As Dogen said in “Genjokoan,” “Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings.”[ii] I believe that when a teaching causes something to stir in us, at least part of us “knows” what it’s about.
Guidepost of Silent Illumination
I’ll be using Taigen Dan Leighton’s translation of “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” which can be found in his book Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi.[iii] I’ll read one or two stanzas at a time and then reflect on them. I’m not saying my reflections are poetry; they’re simply free reflections on what Hongzhi’s words bring up for me, and I’m not worrying about making an exhaustive exploration of everything he mentions. In order to set the tone, instead of saying “quote” and “unquote” all the time, I’ll ring a bell before and after Hongzhi’s words, and I’ll repeat each section twice.
“Silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before you.
When you reﬂect it you become vast, where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted.”
Silence and serenity are both our practice, and the result of our practice. When we sit, for the time being we let go of trying to change anything or figure anything out – in essence, shutting up internally. It’s not that we apply a special meditative process and then silence happens, it’s that we invite ourselves to let go of our constant effort to protect ourselves – an effort that results in constant internal commentary.
Sometimes we’re only able to be silent for a moment at a time. Sometimes a few still, quiet moments are strung together, and in that space, there are no words. We have no name. We are suspended between the narratives of past and future, and suddenly everything seems to come into focus. We notice where and when we are. The bright clarity we dreamt of is right there before us, free for the taking. Who knew it was so close, surrounding us all along?
If we can stay silent and serene for a few moments longer, refraining from grasping after any kind of experience or insight, the bright clarity isn’t separate from us. It’s not a thing we’re observing, or some kind of truth that exists outside of our skin bag. Where there is bright clarity, there are no boundaries, because boundaries are just things we dream up in our minds in order to navigate the world.
For a moment we are free from words, which means free from discriminative conceptualization and boundary-making. The boundless reality of things-as-it-is and our own self are not separate, therefore we ourselves are vast. Such vastness is healing and uplifting when, as Hongzhi says, we embody it. What does that mean? Isn’t our “body,” by its very nature, something bounded? Perhaps so, but boundlessness isn’t troubled by boundedness. The vastness includes our body, and the bright clarity that spiritually uplifts us includes our small and petty selves. This is why Dogen says, in “Genjokoan:”
“The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.”[iv]
Spiritually Solitary, Silent Illumination Restores Wonder
“Spiritually solitary and shining, inner illumination restores wonder,
Dew in the moonlight, a river of stars, snow-covered pines, clouds enveloping the peak.”
If we’re not separate from reality, if we’re so vast, what does it mean to be spiritually solitary and shining? Once again Hongzhi points to the astonishing experience of being an individual even though we are empty of any inherent, independent, enduring self-nature.
Ordinarily, we both crave being solitary – that is, separate, independent, special, unique, free – and we hate being solitary, in the sense that it means isolated, alone, unseen, or lonely. The spiritual solitariness Hongzhi is speaking of is not like ordinary solitariness, either in the positive or negative senses. In our true nature we are simultaneously a unique and precious reflection of reality, and exactly the same as all other beings. It’s like we are all dewdrops on blades of grass. Each dewdrop is separate, unique, beautiful, and complete, but the fullness of reality is witnessed when we see a vast field of dewdrops, each perched on the end of a single blade of grass, each reflecting the moon. At the same time, the incredible sight of a billion drops of dew shining in the moonlight is impossible without each individual drop manifesting as an individual drop.
Talk of dewdrops may make spiritual solitariness sound kind of airy-fairy, but it’s a common and very real human experience to want to be ourselves – or “solitary” – while also wanting to get free of ourselves. One of the most joyful realizations in practice is when we recognize that, just as we are, we are shining. We ourselves are part of the stunning, natural landscape including the stars, the snow-covered pines, the clouds, and the mountains. When we gaze at these natural phenomena it seems obvious that they are just as they should be, but it is much more difficult to see ourselves as being just as we should be.
When, for a moment, we are still and silent and bright clarity appears of itself, we experience “inner illumination,” and this “restores wonder.” Picture the wonder of a baby, encountering new tastes, touches, and sights every moment. The baby is rapt with curiosity and delight at the texture of water, or the sound of cat’s meow. We find these things unremarkable as we grow older, but why? Is the texture of water or the cat’s meow any less wondrous in reality, or have we just become cocooned within our self-centered narrative, and this has shut down our natural responses to the world? It appears an adult’s jaded experience is due to the latter, because if we can open up to inner illumination, wonder is restored! A dandelion peeks up between the cracks in the sidewalk, a cooked carrot clings to the inside of our oryoki bowl, the song sparrow sings to find a mate… all of it indescribably amazing.
Bright in the Dark, Manifest When Hidden
“In darkness it is most bright, while hidden all the more manifest.”
In Zen literature, darkness usually refers to the absolute aspect of reality – the sense in which we’re all part of one, seamless reality, vast and clear and without differentiation or comparison. In the dark you can’t distinguish one thing from another, so relative descriptions like beautiful and ugly, large and small, have no meaning. When we taste the absolute, or experience this healing and inclusive darkness, “It” feels most bright, or obvious, or clear. What is this “It?” We usually talk around It because It’s beyond words, as I discussed in my episode on “Inmo,” or “the Ineffable.” Although It evades a name, It is what we long for, what we practice for.
What does it mean for It to be hidden? Typically, in Zen literature we talk about the subtle truth being “hidden” in the light. This “subtle truth” is an unusual kind of truth, or experience, that’s more evident in darkness – in the serene space of silent illumination – than in the light, or our everyday lives of discrimination. Again, this can sound kind of philosophical, but it refers to an actual experience you’ve probably had, returning to the stressful or mundane details of your regular life after a taste of something transcendent or profound. For a moment, It was clear! Now it is hidden.
What does it mean, then, that the Ineffable is “all the more manifest” when it is hidden? And how strange to say all the more manifest, not just, “Don’t worry, It’s still there even though you can’t see it right now.” I don’t know what Hongzhi meant, but I see these words as pointing to the fact that we don’t lose our true nature just because we forget about it. Oblivious and lost in a dream, we don’t realize that almost everything we do arises from that spiritually solitary, shining being. To use an inelegant, modern analogy, it’s like we’re behind the wheel of a car and get completely distracted by texting, but fortunately we’re in a driverless car so we arrive at our destination safely. Of course, we don’t realize the car took over, and we congratulate ourselves on our good driving and our ability to multitask. The Ineffable may be hidden from us at any given moment, but it’s what keeps us breathing, preserving life, loving, learning, and wondering. It’s why we reach out for a pillow in the night, to support our head and allow us to rest.
Wintery Mists, Autumn Waters, and Empty Kalpas
“The crane dreams in the wintery mists. The autumn waters ﬂow far in the distance.
Endless kalpas are totally empty, all things completely the same.”
Here we have very poetic language, and different translations vary quite a bit without any of them being particularly obvious in their meaning.[v] Before imagining what Hongzhi meant, I experienced a moment of worry that the crane and the winter and the autumn waters are poetic code for specific things, and if I was an expert in ancient Chan poetry I would understand. There are quite a few such poetic codes, actually.
But, given the tools I have, I can only explore what these images suggest to me, and see if they resonate with anything in my own practice. Cranes are already rather mysterious and elusive creatures, even when they’re not “dreaming in the wintery mists.” For most of us, it’s an incredibly precious opportunity to spot one. Perhaps we actually doubt it when we have, given the mist… but we are told the crane is there. Why do I find it comforting that the crane dreams in the wintery mists? Why do I feel less alone because even the crane dreams? Maybe I am a crane dreaming in the mist, wondering about my existence in a mysterious world where boundaries keep appearing and disappearing. But instead of that thought being distressing, Hongzhi’s words suggest to me there is something natural and beautiful about the whole scenario.
The flowing autumn waters are also something we can count on to be there, although they are distant and not under our control. Autumn waters suggest calm, as opposed to the frozen waters of winter, the swiftly running waters of spring, or the summer waters teeming with life. Despite their placidity, the autumn waters flow inexorably. I imagine a wide, slow river, a shimmering band of light across the landscape as the sun sets.
Endless kalpas – incalculably long periods of time like eons – are totally empty. What does this mean? Emptiness in Buddhism is not nihilism, it is about reality being empty of particular things we expect to be there. A glass may be empty, although its very form suggests there might be liquid in it. Our being is empty of an inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature, although our form suggests such a thing might be contained within us. Time is empty of narrative, although its passage suggests the orderly unfolding of a story that sometimes contains triumph, sometimes tragedy.
The good thing about emptiness is that what’s left is wide-open potential, the freedom of space. All things, all beings, all phenomena, are just as they are. There is no need to constrain them with our stories about utility, agency, or causation. We use our stories to navigate the world, but ultimately, they’re just stories. If we cling to them, we’re absorbed with self-concern and fear. When we let go of our stories, all things are exactly the same in their emptiness. We’re all in it together: The cranes, the autumn waters, the snow-covered pines, the empty kalpas, and us.
Alertly Seeing Through Confusion Is the Way of Silent Illumination
“When wonder exists in serenity, all achievement is forgotten in illumination.
What is this wonder? Alertly seeing through confusion
is the way of silent illumination and the origin of subtle radiance.
Vision penetrating into subtle radiance is weaving gold on a jade loom.”
When wonder exists in serenity, when we’ve set aside our commentary about the world and our effort to protect ourselves, what happens? Bright clarity, illumination, subtle radiance, wonder. Achievement is forgotten – both the need for it, and the possibility of it. We are the individual dewdrop reflecting the moon, and the autumn waters flow on. When we are internally and externally still and silent, everything is just-as-it-is, everything is included.
That’s all well and good, silent illumination sounds very pleasant, but doesn’t all of this recommend we withdraw from engagement with our lives, and with the world around us? Doesn’t silence mean giving up our ability to discriminate right from wrong, harmful from helpful? Doesn’t stillness mean passivity?
Don’t mistake instructions for zazen, seated Zen meditation, for instructions for the rest of your life. There are times to sit and let go, and then there are times to get up off the meditation cushion and act. The bodhisattva vow and the moral precepts are just as essential to our practice as zazen. People misunderstand Zen and Buddhism sometimes, thinking we find peace by cultivating indifference, and by giving up the struggle to make any positive changes in the world. That isn’t the case at all, or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Instead, zazen is essential to our spiritual well-being the way sleep is essential to our mental and physical well-being: Sleep is essential, but we don’t sleep all the time.
Before I close, I want to say something about “alertly seeing through confusion” and “vision penetrating into subtle radiance.” The remarkable thing about the practice of silent illumination is that it results in insight and clarity. We don’t sit down and willfully pursue insight and clarity, which is how most forms of insight meditation operate. I’ve had many people ask me about the Soto Zen form of zazen, shikantaza, or just sitting. They ask how insight is going to happen if you’re just sitting there.
Of course, insight isn’t likely to occur if we’re just sitting there like a sack of potatoes. However, if we let go of all willful activity, internal and external, we sit silent and serene, and, as Hongzhi said earlier in the poem, “bright clarity appears” before us. We perceive without our usual cloud of assumptions, and reality reveals itself. We see what’s true, both within ourselves and without.
A final note on “weaving gold on a jade loom.” Here’s an example where the imagery definitely has a history, but it’s not so easy to find out exactly what it means. Master Sheng-Yen, in his book Getting the Buddha Mind, says, “The gold shuttle and jade loom are used to weave the clothing of the devas, or heavenly beings, and symbolize the wisdom which harmonizes the realms of being.”[vi] Translator Taigen Leighton says the jade loom, for Hongzhi, symbolizes “complete integration of simultaneous realization of both universal and particular.” Instead of “universal and particular,” we might say “absolute and relative,” or “sameness and difference” – all pairs of terms pointing to the fact that reality has two aspects. In our experience, these aspects sometimes seem distant from one another, or even contradictory, but the deepest realization involves seeing they are completely interdependent. Leighton quotes from another place in Zen literature where Hongzhi refers to the jade loom, or “jade machine:”
In other words, absolute and relative, sameness and difference, the bright boundlessness of silent illumination and the grittiness of everyday life, are woven together like vertical and horizontal strands on a loom, making a single fabric. Hongzhi says, “Vision penetrating into subtle radiance is weaving gold on a jade loom.” Perhaps he’s talking about how, when we sit and let go completely, we see how best to take care of this life.
[ii] Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010. http://brightwayzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/For-BWZ-Chant-Book-Genjokoan.pdf
[iii] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[iv] Okumura, Shohaku. Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010.
[vi] Sheng Yen. Getting the Buddha Mind: On the Practice of Chan Retreat. Dharma Drum Publications, 1982.
[vii] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Notes.