132 - Restoring Wonder: Hongzhi's Guidepost of Silent Illumination - Part 1
134 - Lotus Sutra 1: What Is Devotion, and How Does It Fulfill the Buddha Way?

I continue in a second episode with my reflections on Chan master Hongzhi’s “Guidepost of Silent Illumination. I discuss the interdependence of absolute and relative and why that matters in real life; how skillful bodhisattva action arises out of zazen; how silence is the supreme mode of communication, and how serenity and illumination – calm and insight – are both contained in zazen.



Quicklinks to Content:
Light and Dark Are Interdependent (and Why It Matters)
Medicine and Poison
Silence and Speaking
Silent Illumination Contains Both Calm and Insight
Singing the Praises of Silent Illumination


As before, I’m using a translation by Taigen Dan Leighton from the book Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi.[i] “Guidepost of Silent Illumination” is poetry, so it’s meant to be evocative rather than explanatory. I’ll read 2-4 lines of the text out loud at a time, ringing a bell before and after, and repeating the lines so you can really listen to them. Then I’ll offer a reflection on them – speaking freely about what the lines bring up for me, kind of like riffing off a melody in jazz. I don’t claim to be a scholar of Hongzhi or ancient Chinese Chan poetry, and I may not get around to addressing every image presented in the poem. I hope you enjoy anyway.

Light and Dark Are Interdependent (and Why It Matters)


Upright and inclined yield to each other; light and dark are interdependent.
Not depending on sense faculty and object, at the right time they interact.

There are many pairs of terms that point toward the fact that reality has two aspects, and the first of these lines contain two of them: Upright and inclined, light and dark. In the last episode, I talked about how dark signifies the absolute – the aspect of oneness and non-differentiation – and light signifies the relative aspect of reality, including discrimination and difference. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind the terms upright and inclined, but when I think of something being upright, I think of it being independent – not leaning on, or dependent on, anything in order to stay off the ground. Something that’s inclined is either leaning against something or embedded in something. So “upright” signifies the absolute, or essential, aspect of reality, and “inclined” signifies the relative, or contingent, aspect.

What does all of this absolute and relative talk mean to us in real life? Why does Zen talk so much about these aspects, and why does it emphasize they’re interdependent? These are important questions to be investigated by each one of us. We shouldn’t accept that this stuff is important just because Zen masters went on about it in their poetry.

Here’s what I think is a real-life example of the tension between absolute and relative. As our world struggles right now with the coronavirus, the relative aspect of our world is quite complicated and messy. Most people and governments are trying to do their best to slow the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming health care systems. We see incredible acts of generosity and service from health care workers, and we see other people acting out fear and self-preservation in hoarding, racism, and protests against social distancing. We have triumphed in many places by significantly slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but this has come a great economic cost that will be borne disproportionately by members of our society who were already vulnerable. Considered from the relative perspective, all that is good tends to be balanced out by bad. Actions carried out with the best of intentions lead to complicated and mixed results. There is no lasting happiness or peace of mind to be found if we contemplate only the relative aspect of reality.

At the same time, we’re aware of a truth in our lives that’s beautiful and redemptive no matter what’s going on. At least, we’re aware of this truth unless we’re depressed, which could be the very definition of depression, come to think of it. Unless we’re cut off from it by the fog of depression, there’s some sense in which our existence is unconditionally worth it. When considering this, we may think of moments of pure compassion, or the beauty of sunsets, or the sweetness of companionship, but the absolute aspect of our existence isn’t really about such experiences because they’re still conditional. Instead, our experience of the absolute aspect of reality is… well, as I discussed in the last episode, where I introduced Hongzhi’s text and talked about why so much of classic Chan literature takes the form of poetry, for some things, prose just doesn’t cut it. So, I’ll offer a few poetic lines of my own, which, though lame, still do a better job of conveying what I’m trying to say than prose:

All day, all week, scary pandemic headlines
Intermittent daydreams about unimaginable suffering
I try to confine the darkness in a box of opinions, but it keeps leaking out

Still, the fiddlehead of a bracken fern busts up through the soil
and speaks to me –
without words, of course, but I’ll do my best to translate for you:

“We’re in this together,” the fiddlehead says. “Don’t be afraid.
How else did you expect things would be?
It’s time to breathe and grow in this wondrous moment.”

All the Zen talk about the interdependence of absolute and relative, upright and inclined, is just pointing us toward this crazy conundrum of human existence: How can life be so awful and so incredibly precious and beautiful at the same time? Our discriminating minds can’t handle this – we want to deny one side or the other, or create some kind of lame mental compromise in which evil and pain are mitigated by sunshine, or the preciousness of life comes with a lot of disclaimers. Zen invites us to cultivate a challenging but more mature attitude toward reality – one in which we not only accept both absolute and relative completely, but see they’re interdependent. The crane dreams in the wintery mists and the fiddlehead unfurls in the midst of a pandemic. There is only one reality with two aspects. When we see absolute and relative as separate, we create much misery for ourselves, longing for one or the other.

Medicine and Poison

Hongzhi continues:

Drink the medicine of good views. Beat the poisoned-smeared drum.
When they interact, killing and giving life are up to you.
Through the gate the self emerges and the branches bear fruit.

I’ve chanted this text for years with my Zen center, and whenever we got to this section on the poisoned-smeared drum I felt a moment of anxiety as I imagined someone asking me what that means. Fortunately, after having done research for this episode, I finally found an explanation about what the poisoned-smeared drum refers to. In his book Getting the Buddha Mind: On the Practice of Ch’an Retreat, Master Sheng-Yen explains:

“To drink the medicine of correct views is to infuse your being with the Dharma; to beat the poison smeared drum is to help sentient beings kill delusion and vexation. (In Indian mythology, a drum smeared with a certain poison can kill enemies who hear the drum, even from a great distance.)”[ii]

These lines from “Guidepost of Silent Illumination” enter new territory than that covered by the first part of the text. Previously, this teaching poem has been about the practice of silent illumination, the wonder that exists in serenity, and the interdependence of absolute and relative. Now Hongzhi gives us some direct commands, and the imagery he uses is very active and even violent.

Sheng-Yen explains that “killing and giving life” refer to a bodhisattva’s use of skillful means to help sentient beings. “Skillful means” entails creatively employing approaches that sometimes may appear unkind or untruthful, if it means a sentient being will wake up. It is rare for a Buddhist to view killing as justified, no matter the result, so in Hongzhi’s poetry, “killing” generally refers to any action we take that might lead to some conflict or hurt in the short term, but which will increase wisdom and decrease suffering in the longer term. In Sheng-Yen’s translation the line is, “When Silence and Illumination are complete, Killing and bringing to life are choices I make.” When we see clearly, we can take dramatic action on behalf of others without getting caught up in a self-centered agenda.

In terms of everyday practice, I think Hongzhi is telling us, “Practice as hard as you can and do your best, and treasure the path of practice because it heals ills like a medicine. Stand up and fight the forces of greed, hate, and delusion, both internal and external. Don’t be afraid take action if you believe it will be of benefit, even if you meet opposition. If you simultaneously work on your silent illumination, seeking to free yourself from delusion, nothing more can be asked of you. Through the process of practice itself, the self is transformed without following a willful plan, and you will bring benefits to self and other in a natural way, like fruit ripening on a branch.”

Silence and Speaking

Hongzhi continues:

Only silence is the supreme speech, only illumination the universal response.
Responding without falling into achievement, speaking without involving listeners,
The ten thousand forms majestically glisten and expound the Dharma.
All objects certify it, every one in dialogue.

In the last episode, I talked about how words are manifestations of our discriminating thoughts processes, and our attempts to create a mental map of reality so we can safely navigate it. Words and thoughts and plans are natural, but they are not reality itself. It is only in the midst of wordlessness – inward and outward silence – that, as Hongzhi says, “bright clarity appears before us.”

Now Hongzhi says silence is the “supreme speech.” Clearly, he’s not talking about words here. He’s talking about communication, which happens most intimately without words. It’s not just dew in the moonlight, cranes dreaming in the wintery mist, or the emerging fiddleheads of ferns that speak powerfully to us – when we share silence with each other, we also feel how something profound and essential is communicated, something strangely more true than all the stuff we were just blathering on about. Surprisingly, my Sangha has found this to be the case in our Zoom video meetings, when the discussion comes to a pause because there’s some extra inhibition to be overcome in speaking up in an online meeting. The silence could feel awkward, but I’m actually finding it sweet. In that moment of quiet, I become aware of all the people taking the time to share the virtual space together, of the care and compassion communicated in that act. Of the treasure of Sangha.

Illumination is the revelation of things-as-it-is in the silence. Insight happens naturally. Responses are natural and instantaneous – or, even more intimately, responses can’t be separated from the communication or action that sparked them, because everything is part of one, seamless, luminous reality. A loved one dies; I weep with grief. My tears speak of love. All of it unfolds without any inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature running things. There’s no “Executive I” running the show, proving its worth by the brilliance of its responses, or impressing listeners with its wise and powerful speech.

Instead, who “majestically glistens and expounds the Dharma?” The ten thousand forms, which is shorthand for “all phenomena.” Basically, everything expounds, or expresses and explains, the truth. And it’s not just that everything is expressing the truth and making it perfectly clear, everything is majestic and glistening! This is beautiful, inexplicable, and true. And then, not only is everything expounding the Dharma, each individual thing – each object, each being – is in dialogue. Communication involves at least two parties, so if everything is expounding, we’re all expounding to one another. In doing so, what is it we “certify?” Certify means to indicate something is the real deal. “Yes, this is reality,” we communicate in silence. “Check it out!”

Silent Illumination Contains Both Calm and Insight

Hongzhi continues:

Dialoguing and certifying, they respond appropriately to each other;
But if illumination neglects serenity then aggressiveness appears.
Certifying and dialoguing, they respond to each other appropriately;
but if serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted Dharma.

Hongzhi is considered by many, myself included, to be the father of Soto Zen with his practice of “Silent Illumination.” He uses poetry to describe our zazen, this mysterious practice we do by sitting still and upright in what appears to be meditation. What is it we are doing, silent and serene, forgetting words? By its very nature, zazen is a completely subjective, personal experience. I don’t know what’s going on in your mind as you sit. I don’t know how to fully convey my own experience to you. And yet, despite the fact that we can’t know what’s going on in anyone else’s zazen, zazen has been our central practice for at least 900 years.

These four lines from Hongzhi’s Guidepost of Silent Illumination point to a crucial thing to realize about zazen: It includes two aspects, silence (or serenity) and illumination (or insight). In other forms of Buddhism these two aspects are cultivated in two different kinds of meditation. There’s samatha, or calm-abiding meditation, which involves using techniques to settle the mind, and then there’s vipassana, or insight meditation. In vipassana meditation, you consciously and deliberately employ certain techniques to investigate your experience, or some aspect of the Dharma, seeking liberative insight. It’s understood that if you don’t first cultivate at least some minimal level of samatha, or calm-abiding, before engaging in vipassana, your mind will be too agitated or undisciplined to effectively do vipassana meditation. You’ll get all caught up in self-centered agendas and fantasies instead of actually seeing clearly. On the other hand, if you just sit around doing samatha meditation and never gain any insight, you won’t make any progress on the Buddhist path.

Hongzhi’s verses acknowledge the importance of both serenity and illumination. However, he isn’t recommending two different forms of meditation, only zazen.

The fact that we only do zazen in Zen is a source of great confusion to people sometimes. Buddhism, including Zen, talks about the importance of insight and awakening. But our instructions for zazen often sound like instructions for samatha meditation and nothing more – as if our only practice and only goal is to calm the mind. But this is not the case. Silent illumination zazen contains both samatha and vipassana. How can this be? Are we sitting in zazen, sometimes practicing samatha and sometimes vipassana? How much time should we dedicate to each? Where are the instructions for vipassana-zazen? Do you start employing techniques of investigation in zazen, and if so, doesn’t it cease to be zazen?

Different Zen teachers are going to give you different answers to these questions. Here are mine, offered for you to check out for yourself: Zazen (as Dogen said) is not meditation practice. It is settling into being. When we are silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before us. Reality is revealed, and it includes everything. It includes our problems, and the limitations in our understanding. It includes our natural wonder and curiosity.

If we are truly still and open, sometimes something arises in our consciousness that bears investigation. If we grasp it, eager for insight, the opportunity will be lost. On the other hand, if we remain still and silent, that which we do not yet understand, or have not yet resolved, will come nearer, like a timid wild animal. We observe it, filled with curiosity. A thought arises in our mind, “I wonder if…” and we investigate – not in a forceful, willful way, but as part of a natural unfolding. To brush away this experience in the interest of a blank mind would be to engage only in one half of zazen with a small agenda.

From the point of view of zazen, it is artificial to divide our experience into samatha and vipassana, although doing so may be a useful practice at other times. Silent illumination is neither sitting passively, nor pursuing insight. It’s being utterly, totally, ourselves. Utterly, totally, alive. If we’re fully engaged in silent illumination, our body buzzes with questions. Everything expounds the Dharma and calls to us to surrender more fully, that we may know true intimacy. This is serenity with illumination, two sides of the same coin.

When aggressiveness – striving and self-concern – appears in our zazen, we know we are neglecting serenity. We need to let go of words and willful effort, and remember how the bright clarity we seek is never separate from us. When murkiness happens – when we sit in passive dullness, just killing time – we know we are neglecting illumination. We need to remind ourselves that we are spiritually solitary and shining – that we are like a dewdrop on a blade of grass, reflecting the whole universe, and our life is short. If our zazen contains boredom instead of wonder, we still have not awakened to the truth of our life.

Singing the Praises of Silent Illumination

Hongzhi continues:

When silent illumination is fulfilled, the lotus blossoms, the dreamer awakens,
A hundred streams flow into the ocean, a thousand ranges face the highest peak.

I’ve gone on long enough, and the rest of Guidepost of Silent Illumination can be seen as more or less singing the praises of silent illumination. I’ll keep it relatively brief by simply restating Hongzhi’s verses in my own words:

When we fully surrender to the profound practice of zazen, things grow, develop, and come to fruition of themselves, like a flower blossoming. The small self isn’t involved in either effort, and, recognizing this, we awaken from our self-centered dream. We find ourselves in a universe with order, and from the absolute perspective everything is precious just as it is.

Hongzhi continues:

Like geese preferring milk, like bees gathering nectar,
When silent illumination reaches the ultimate, I offer my teaching.
The teaching of silent illumination penetrates from the highest down to the foundation.
The body being shunyata, the arms in mudra;
From beginning to end the changing appearances and ten thousand differences share one pattern.

Geese prefer nutritious milk to water, bees know to gather nectar, and I teach silent illumination because it is beneficial to human beings. This way of practice contains all that is most profound about spiritual teachings. Our body is empty of any inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature, and yet the most transcendent of spiritual experiences is not separate from it, therefore we place ourselves in a sacred physical position, or mudra, sitting upright and still. Throughout space and time, all the manifestations of liveliness in the universe, and other universes, have been and are empty, and therefore radiant with potential in their participation in things-as-it-is.

Finally, Hongzhi concludes:

Mr. Ho offered jade [to the Emperor; Minister] Xiangru pointed to its flaws.
Facing changes has its principles, the great function is without striving.
The ruler stays in the kingdom, the general goes beyond the frontiers.

Our school’s affair hits the mark straight and true.
Transmit to all directions without desiring to gain credit.

Before I get to my rewording, a little background: According to Taigen Dan Leighton, this part about jade has a basis in an ancient Chinese story.[iii] Mr. Ho offered a jade rock to a ruler who didn’t recognize its value and therefore had Ho’s foot cut off. Later, the same jade rock was sent from one ruler to another in exchange for some territory. Minister Xiangru transported the jade, but realized the second ruler wasn’t going to honor the agreement. Xiangru asked for the jade back in order to show the dishonest ruler how it contained flaws, but once in possession of it, he escaped back home.

Okay, so here’s a stab at what Hongzhi might be saying: Sometimes we fail to recognize the value of what we do not have, or have not yet experienced, and sometimes we fail to recognize the value of what we already have, or what we have already experienced. What is important is that we keep practicing, come what may. Although at a certain level our life can feel like a struggle, viewed from a broader perspective, it is just as it should be. Every part of you has a part to play. Do not doubt that silent illumination can be a complete gateway, even if, at first glance, may not seem like doing much. Selflessly share this practice with anyone who is interested, while recognizing you aren’t teaching people anything besides how to be themselves.



[i] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[ii] Sheng Yen. Getting the Buddha Mind: On the Practice of Chan Retreat. Dharma Drum Publications, 1982. Pg. 83.
[iii] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Notes, pg. 110.


132 - Restoring Wonder: Hongzhi's Guidepost of Silent Illumination - Part 1
134 - Lotus Sutra 1: What Is Devotion, and How Does It Fulfill the Buddha Way?