Mindfulness of Breathing as Applied to Advanced Chan Methods- Part III


Silent Illumination

Next, we will discuss the meditation steps of the silent illumination method. It emphasizes the practice of both calming and contemplating, simultaneously and at all steps. It starts from the fourth step directly, but then it goes back to the first, second, and third steps.

As it moves along from the beginning stage to the advanced stage, the level of contemplation deepens.
1. Begin with the relaxation of the whole body from step four.
2. Go back to steps one and two, because relaxation has equivalent calming effects of counting the breath and following the breath.
3. Expand the contemplation of: A. Totality of body and environment, so one can reach the initial state of unified mind. B. Totality of the internal and external, so one can reach the advanced state of unified mind. C. Totality of every thought, so one can reach the still nature of mind (Sanskrit dhyāna, Pali jhāna) . Silent Illumination goes through the progression of calming, but won’t stay at samadhi (a unified state of body and mind). One can use the same method through all the steps, there is no need to change the method at the fourth step. Silent illumination is to contemplate the entire body from the beginning, instead of a particular object (nimitta). Listed below are the continuing steps of silent illumination.

4. Contemplation is shifted from the body/mind phenomena to reaching Buddhist wisdom. Using silent illumination, one can reach samadhi. However, one does not go to deep samadhi because the element of contemplation is also functioning strongly. From the unified mind, one can reach enlightenment, but needs to deeply comprehend the three characteristic marks: impermanence, no-self, and emptiness. The key point of silent illumination is to let go of all phenomena, and do not give rise to one thought.
5. Enlightenment – steps one to three are techniques for us to polish the meditation methods and to cultivate samadhi. In order to progress to steps four, five and six, one needs right view and a deep understanding of emptiness. Let go of all hindrances, but also let go of all good experiences.
Practicing letting go of all phenomena, and eventually let go of the self. Only by doing this, can one have a chance of entering enlightenment. The first enlightenment is called the initial gate.
6. Advanced practice – after the initial enlightenment, there are many other gates such as shallow gate, deep gate, multiple gate, etc. The final gate is called the prison gate, which is to break through the prison of three realms. In Mahayana, the sixth step is called enlightenment of the first ground, which is analogous to stream entry (Sanskrit srotāpanna, Pali sotāpanna).


Now we will review the meditation steps of the huatou method in comparison to the six subtle gates. Huatou is the doubt sensation, questioning the great matter of life and death. Typical huatou questions are “Where do I come from originally?” “Where do I go when I die?” “What was my true nature before I was born?” “Who is chanting Buddha’s name?” “What is wu?” “Who’s dragging this corpse around?” Listed below are the steps of the huatou method. It begins by using the calming and contemplating elements at the same time from step four of the six subtle gates; contemplation is on wisdom, not on samadhi.
1. Repeating the question. This is the early stage of concentrated mind, equivalent to counting the breath. Most people can’t start from unified mind. So one needs to go back to the first, second, and third steps. One has to develop from concentrated mind to unified mind.
2. Asking the question to generate the doubt sensation. This is the advanced stage of concentrated mind, equivalent to following the breath.
3. Step three:
A. Contemplating the question until it turns into a doubt mass. This is the stage of unified mind, equivalent to the stabilization step of the six subtle gates. The elements of calming and contemplating are unified, and both body and mind are unified. The existence of body and mind are almost not felt. One just responds to the daily routines out of natural reflexes.
B. The doubt mass has accumulated to the maximum point, waiting for the right condition for breakthrough. It’s like a hen pecking a hole on the eggshell when the chick is ready to hatch. Or it’s like blowing up a balloon; when expanded to the limit, it can burst at any touch.
4. Shattering/initial enlightenment – as one continues to work on the doubt mass, it will burst suddenly. It is described as if the universe has shattered. What actually shatters is the sense of ego/self. The sense of ego/self is deeply rooted, it is the cause of suffering, and it is the hardest one to break through. Once the sense of self (Sanskrit ātman) is shattered, and one sees the true nature of emptiness (Sanskrit śūnyatā, Pali suññatā), the initial gate is reached.
5. Advanced practice with watching the huatou after the initial enlightenment. Just as discussed in the meditation steps for the silent illumination method.
6. After the initial enlightenment, there are multiple gates, and finally the break-through of the prison gate. In our daily life, we encounter life and death all the time. When we step on an ant, we may not feel the significance of it. During our normal life, we focus on career or family, and neglect the big question. However when something happens to our loved ones, we start to ask the question “Why me?” The doubt sensation arises. In our lives, we may have the doubt sensation only a couple of times. Actually, it is a very useful method for us to focus on. Silent illumination and huatou are advanced methods. Beginners can’t easily reach this level. It’s beneficial to use the mindfulness of breath method (steps one to three) to cultivate calming to the advanced level of concentrated mind. When we count the breath, we are aware that we have many wandering thoughts. By using the method of counting breath, we can effectively reduce the wandering thoughts and gradually calm the mind. It would be easier to pick up the methods of silent illumination and huatou at the step of unified mind. The method of chanting Buddha’s name can also be used in the same way, for beginners to reach concentrated mind. As an analogy: there is a lot of gravel mixed with grains of rice. One needs to pick out the gravel before cooking the rice. If one did not do that, the cooked rice still smells good, but it would be difficult to chew. We can apply the same analogy to the silent illumination and huatou methods.

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