My experience of Silent illumination Retreat in Russia

Exactly 15 years ago I met Master Sheng Yen, and started to practice the method of Silent illumination (Mozhao Chan-默照禪). For several reasons, Ven. Master Sheng Yen remained my favorite and closest teacher.

First, our approach to learning the Dharma was the same: practical, yet striving to understand its mechanisms and how it worked. Secondly, Master Sheng Yen taught the Dharma in clear and simple words, all the while getting right to the point. Thirdly, he enabled me to get rid of the delusions I had for nine years until I met him. Having read various books, I believed that the radical awakening I experienced in 1994 was the attainment of enlightenment. In fact, however, Master Sheng Yen explained that I had achieving a unified mind, and how it differed from enlightenment. This piece of knowledge is very rare and uncommon. For the majority of Zen teachers mistook “attaining a unified mind” for enlightenment. There were plenty of wrong descriptions in books, talks, articles, and, as a result, my practice was guided incorrectly for nine years. Nowadays, there are many practitioners who can't “grasp” the characteristics of enlightenment and attain it, because of misconceptions. Thanks to Master Sheng Yen, I got a clear idea of what is what, and now I can help practitioners with the same obstacles.

On the retreat with Venerable Guo Xing (果醒法師), 15 years after my encounter with Master Sheng Yen, I heard, “An enlightened person considers everything [around] to be Mind-Only”. I'm glad that, thanks to Master Sheng Yen, I can make a correction: “An enlightened person DOES NOT considers everything around to be Mind-Only”. That is, an enlightened person does not maintain that all phenomena can be reduced to a single unified “Mind”.

Indeed, an enlightened one does not consider it to be “this” or “that”. “Mind-Only” is just an abstract concept. “Enlightenment” is seeing such a concept becoming concrete. In other words, Mind-Only (or Buddha Nature) does not exist.

Master Sheng Yen said it's necessary to let go everything – self, mind, universe, all thoughts –only then can one separate reality from illusion.

If we ignore this, then there is a great risk that we can’t even attain a unified mind. As Master Sheng Yen said, without correct instruction, there is very little chance to attain real enlightenment.

On the other hand, the idea that all the endless variety of phenomena, you and I – are manifestations of Mind-Only, or Buddha Nature – is a useful idea for letting go of our habitual patterns of resistance. On this retreat, Venerable Guo Xing, once again, thoroughly explained that idea.

For some participants, the idea itself was not something new. However, we had the opportunity to meditate, to experience that idea directly. Earlier, I had quite a few of wandering thoughts disguised as something useful. For example, I could speculate about something in the future, while pretending to be sitting in meditation. Now, focusing on the illusions of self, I observed such thoughts and began sorting: “This thought shouldn’t be arising now”; …“and this one thought came from self-centeredness, and was of no use”, and so on. Some thoughts were like comments of broadcasters, irrelevant to me.

Thus, I discovered that almost all wandering thoughts are needless and untimely, so I started to let them go. Thanks to such mindfulness of thoughts, Venerable Guo Xing focused my attention, and the state of my mind improved as a result of withdrawing from much of the worldly attachments. I was unaware of that during the retreat, but afterwards, when I rode the subway home, I discovered that I looked at the world in a different way. I didn't keep my eyes looking downwards, shutting out the others; instead, I looked at everything around me naturally. At home, when I sat in front of my computer, I found the keyboard very unfamiliar, as if it was something from another world. Looking at the things I dealt with on the Internet before– forums, texts – I experienced the shallowness of them.

I realized that I want to develop this new, deep state of mind in my everyday life. I’ve practiced Mozhao Chan for fifteen years, but now I know it better.

Generally, it seems to me that the method of Mozhao Chan is beyond my grasp. If you try to hold onto something in your practice, then you would stumble on it, and fail the practice of Mozhao Chan. But if you don't hold onto something, then it's easy to fall back into old habits, and fail in the practice.

So I thought at times that the Mozhao method is so simple that I can’t grasp it.

On this retreat, we started with focusing on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, especially mindfulness of body and breathing in particular. In the past decade I didn't meditate much on the mindfulness of breathing; it seemed to be something simple and not very interesting. Yet, since it was the theme of the retreat, I tried to observe the breath during the three days, and I understood that it helps to change our habitual reactions. When I disagreed with something and got ready to argue, I experienced over-breathing; when I saw something beautiful, I held my breath and watched. Thus, I discovered that the “simplest” mindfulness of breathing revealed that I was used to either clinging to things or rejecting them.

Therefore the “practice for the beginners” helped me, after dozens of years studying Buddhism, to stride out confidently and to stop my self-centered thinking. Also, I understood that by practicing mindfulness of breathing, we could develop a greater capacity for subtle awareness, not only of our own state, but of others’ as well. And that, in turn, enables us to help others.

On the second half of the retreat, with the experience of continuous mindfulness of the body for the past consecutive days, I returned to Mozhao Chan. Venerable Guo Xing described one of the forms of Mozhao Chan that, after the attainment of unawareness of the body and of the environment, there are “direct contemplation” and “contemplation on emptiness” (contemplation without clinging to the self).

That led me to think about the attainment of unawareness of the body, and of the environment. Master Sheng Yen once said, “the practice of Mozhao Chan doesn't necessarily require Samadhi; rather, we keep being aware, and thus remain here-and-now, rather than enter samadhi.” The point is to let go of preconceptions and attachments.

And I thought, free from the illusory self, phenomena could still be perceived; yet a distinct sense of a separate “self” disappeared.

Likewise, phenomena of the body and of the environment may still be perceived, only without the habitual stereotyping of “the body” and “the environment”.

Thus, I tried to imagine that the body is a part of the environment. It appeared to be simple: the body as a part of the environment, making into a whole.

Then, I tried to perceive it as “the absence of The Environment” on this premise. It was feasible too. So, phenomena still existed, without the awareness of the body as the body and the environment as the environment. It was especially easy during the walking meditation: you walk, with awareness of phenomena, without any pauses.

Those states provided me with deep calmness, detaching me from habitual reactions.

Overall, it was a very rigorous and fruitful retreat experience. I thought the schedule was perfect. Thanks to the various activities of body exercise, massage, walking, work meditation, and break time as well, I didn’t accumulate fatigue, and I maintained a high level of awareness almost all the time. In the end, all of the practitioners, including me, could readily continue to practice like that.

Those days were wonderful, thanks to the best efforts of Dharma Teachers, Venerable Guo Xing, Yan Jian and Yan Guang, and the help from other Russian participants. In personal interviews, we also discussed how to better develop Chan in Russia. I hope that some good driving force would help not only the practice of the retreat participants, but also the spreading of the Dharma.

Written by Chang Zhao (常照)
Editing: DDM Editorial Team; Keith Brown

Extended Readings

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The first great encounter with Ch'an Buddhism

I realized that this form of retreat has been mastered for a long time by Guo Xing Fashi and his assistants. One could feel in his own experiences, in everything they did. I have an opinion that they have carried out such retreats many times before. I noticed that the organizers did a lot of work from "our" side. The location was chosen perfectly. All organizational issues, I think, were perfectly resolved!More...

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