Book Review

Illuminating Silence – the practice of Chinese Zen

Chan Master Sheng Yen

Edited by Dr.  John Crook

The first time I came across a detailed account of a student’s experience with Zen Masters in  retreats was when I picked up Roshi Philip Kapleau’s “Awakening to Zen” from the NUS Buddhist Society’s Library in early 2006. The book had my attention gripped firmly. By the time I had gobbled it down, I was (naively) swearing to myself that I had to join a Zen retreat in Japan at least once in this lifetime. If an ang moh who initially could not even sit cross-legged properly could eventually make it to be one of the more celebrated Western Zen Masters today, surely…

A couple of years later, I was not quite so simplistic in my thinking, but still I (in addition to continually harbour secret desires for satori) bore the fervent aspiration to go to Japan. At this time, I happened to pick up another book from the BS Library. It was on Chan Master Sheng Yen’s retreats as recorded by Dr. John Crook, entitled “Illuminating Silence: the practice of Chinese Zen”.[1]

The three main parts of the book were preceded by an autobiography of Master Sheng Yen. Although it was only a small part of the book (6 pages compared to a total of 186 pages from the following three parts), it is nevertheless not something that should be flipped over in our impatience to get to the main course. I must have read it at least four times. One of the most striking things in the biography was a simple paragraph that, at least to me, hinted at why repentance can play such an important role in practicing meditation.

“…None of us young monks had any idea of the nature of Chan training, and we received no adequate instruction. We simply followed the rigorous discipline of monks – washing clothes, working in the fields, and performing daily services. I had to memorise sutras and at this I proved singularly inept. My master told me that my karmic obstructions were very heavy and made me prostrate endlessly to Guanyin, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. I prostrated five hundred times every night, and again in the morning. After three months I felt a curiously refreshing experience. My mind became clear and I no longer found memorization a problem. Even today I believe Guanyin came to my aid, for I was really very dull of mind until that time.”

Many people have come across some sort of obstacles in the course of learning the Buddhadharma. For some people, it comes in the form of inertia to make the effort to attend Dharma talks. Although we may know perfectly well that it would benefit us to do so, we somehow always manage to find an excuse, some way or another, not to go. Sometimes it comes in the form of a string of dreadfully unfortunate events that hit us mind, body and soul. We lament the cruelty of the workings of Karma and fall into apathy towards the Triple Gems. Sometimes it comes in the form of uneasiness or pain when attempting a particular method of meditation. Being able to understand recurrent and strange difficulties that come in our way as “karmic obstacles” puts them in a different light: we don’t blame it on luck, or the lack of it. Instead of fuming at others or at ourselves, we engage in repentance practice. Prostration is a physically demanding procedure. Just as jogging regularly can prevent depression, practicing prostrations single-mindedly with a heart of repentance rebalances our energy to put us back into the position of equanimity to continue our practice. Outsiders, however, may wonder why is it that we have to be groveling on the ground before a supposed manifestation of compassion is willing to help us. At the end of the day, it is a question of helping ourselves. Being able to commit to an act of utter humility can only do our proud selves some good, and is a very important part of the solution whether or not Bodhisattvas do actually send some help.

The first part, titled “Catching a Feather on a Fan”, is an earnest transcript of Master Sheng Yen’s words said at the first Ch’an retreat he had conducted at a small Welsh farmhouse. In the mornings, shifu would set the theme of the day by offering a few key words or phrases, followed by an explanation of what he expected out of the practitioners for that day. Occasionally during breakfast or lunch, shifu would offer some of his insightful comments or reflections which are full of the flavor of Chinese Zen.

The evening talks were lectures based on an ancient poem called “Calming the Mind” (“息心铭”) by Venerable Wang Ming (释亡名) of the 6th Century CE. Stanza by stanza, shifu explains the poem masterfully to address the difficulties faced by a meditator during an extended retreat. The most memorable analogy that he used was, of course, the one that gave the section its title. Stilling the mind in meditation was like using an old-fashioned hand-held fan to catch a feather slowly sinking through the air. If we are distracted by any thoughts, the feather immediately gets blown away.  

“Keep the mind on the method, waiting for the feather to sink onto the fan.”

That was shifu’s solution. No worries, no wandering thoughts, just a gentle following of the method of meditation backed by nothing else but patience. How difficult this can be for the monkey-like mind!

The second part carried the title of the book, “Illuminating Silence”. The Zen (or in Chinese, “Chan ”) lineage of Buddhism was traditionally said to be introduced by the Indian monk Bodhidharma to China during the 5th Century CE. The patriarchy of Chan was passed on in a single line of succession for five generations before it reached the prodigious Huineng (慧能), whose expedient teaching eventually flourished into five major schools. Two of these schools, Linji(臨濟)and Caodong(曹洞)made their way to Japan to be continued as Rinzai and Soto schools respectively.[2] Master Sheng Yen has Dharma transmission from both these schools. There are two main methods of practice that characterizes Zen Buddhist meditation: the famous use of mind-boggling koans or riddles more emphasized in the Rinzai school, and the lesser-known practice of shikantaza(只管打坐), or “just sitting”, in the Soto school. The original Chinese version of shikantaza, known as “Silent Illumination”(默照)differs somewhat from its Japanese counterpart.

The discourses in Part I laid a general foundation for calming the meditator’s mind. Later on, Master Sheng Yen conducted another two retreats at the Welsh farmhouse, but during these two times, at the behest of Dr. John Crook, he taught extensively on the Silent Illumination method. In line with his frequent use of classical Chan works in teaching, as well as his doctorate in Buddhist literature from a Japanese University, Part II records shifu teaching from the “Acupuncture Needle of Sitting Zen” 坐禅箴)as well as two other short poems on instructions for practising. These were the works of the great master of the Caodong school, Hongzhi Zhengjue (宏智正觉)of the 12th Century CE.

If reading Roshi Kapleau’s book had given me a “Dharmic adrenaline rush”, reading Master Sheng Yen’s exposition on Silent Illumination using Master Hongzhi’s poems gave me an almost opposite kind of invigoration. Although I am still not a fan of English-translated Chinese poems (I would very much have preferred that Dr. Crook had given the original Chinese text side-by-side for my own reference, but this is unrealistic given that the book could not possibly be pitching for a bilingual readership), I savoured Part II with a sense of wonderment at the lovely descriptions of how one can attain peace by not abiding on anything at all. Without describing Buddha-nature, the words were as though Buddha-nature was right in front of my eyes.

Part III of the book is special. It talks from Dr. Crook’s perspective as a meditator, participating in shifu’s retreats.

During my first meditation retreat experience this year (no, it was not in Japan), I was haunted by pain in my right buttocks. The pain emerged on the second day of the retreat. Initially I tried to meditate on the pain. After a short while and to my misplaced delight, it lessened. Temporarily. And  then it came back with an increased vengeance, on a smaller corolla. I tried repeatedly to bear with it. It began twenty minutes into sitting meditation, and by the time it thirty minutes was up, I was already tearing in the eyes, and doing all I could from groaning out loud. That half hour was the best I could manage. Upon releasing myself from my sitting position (and reminding myself never again to sneer at Caucasians who cannot manage half-lotus positions), my whole body and mind was reeling from the trauma of the pain. “Why?! How could this happen?”  I should have been used to sitting forty minutes a day!

At that point of time I hauntingly recalled what Dr. Cook had recounted in Part III,

“Yet my body was now troubling me sorely. Backache, due to a small knotted muscle close to the spine below the shoulders, was generating a widening area of pain… Sitting was soon so awful that I had to exercise sheer will to get through each half-hour, expecting it to end in an ignominious collapse. Periodic yoga exercises, rolling on my back in the breaks, back-walking from a fellow participant and applications of one-handed massage formed a desperate work programme to keep me going. The difficulty was not, however, overcome in this way.”

His story, unlike mine, had a happy ending. Read the book to find out!

Overall, the book suits both beginners as well as experienced meditators seeking to get a taste of classical Chinese Chan. While we might not be able to reap the benefits of Silent Illumination as yet due to its requirement for a solid foundation in settling the mind, the effortless words of Masters Wang Ming, Hongzhi and Sheng Yen give us that faith to strive even harder in our practice. Master Sheng Yen himself says that very few Chinese masters today are able to teach Silent Illumination with authority. Shifu himself is getting on in his yeas. With this sad fact in mind, I make another aspiration to treasure his teachings and build the path towards illuminating my life, silently.


[1] The book was a part of a gift of three books given to us on the Buddhist Society in 2007 from our kind brothers and sisters from Dharma Drum Singapore, the local branch of Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan.

[2] The first person that comes to mind when a third school, Weiyang(沩仰)is mentioned is the prominent Master Hsuan Hua(宣化)who went to the United States to spread the Dharma. He passed away in 1997 and is survived by his disciples. The other two schools, Yunmen and Fayen, were subsumed into other schools and disappeared early in history.

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