Virtual Sesshin Day 2 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 2  – May 13th, 2020

Cultivating the Still Pool

We began yesterday with what I call ‘relaxing into awareness’. Relaxing into awareness can lead us right down into our true nature. You relax the body until you have no sense of it, you relax your placing of attention until there is only awareness, you relax your thinking until there is only silence. This is cultivating the still pool.

Becoming like a perfectly still pool, reflecting everything and nothing. This is the basis of all of our practices. There are several paths here, following the breath, relaxing into awareness and just sitting are the routes that we are going to take.  The Ch’an approach is one of naturalness, which is something we will constantly encounter and explore.  

The question of effort is a vital one.  Whenever there is effort, the self is involved.  But we can use effort to establish a practice, toward naturalness.  This is captured simply and directly in this mondo between Chou Chou (Joshu) and Nanyue (Nansen)

Ordinary Mind is the Way

Chou Chou (Visitation-Land) asked Nanyue (Wellspring-South Mountain):
“What is Way?”
“Ordinary mind is Way,” answered Master Nanyue.
“Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”
“To set out is to be distant from.”
“But if I don’t set out, how will I arrive at an understanding of Way?”
“Way isn’t something you can understand, and it isn’t something you can not understand. Understanding is delusion, and not understanding is pure forgetfulness.
“If you truly comprehend this Way that never sets out for somewhere else, if you enter into it absolutely, you realize it’s exactly like the vast expanses of this universe, all generative emptiness you can see through into boundless clarity
“Now, how can you force that into coherence with the logic of yes-this no-that?”
Hearing these words, Chaou chou was suddenly awakened.

-David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway  (p. 46).

We are going to move from relaxing into awareness into ‘Just Sitting’.  When we relax into awareness, especially if you can take that final step of relaxing your attention, you are almost there to Just Sitting.  In its purest form Just Siting, is simply sitting in empty awareness.  There is no concerns of the self, no agenda, no technique.  It is what Sheng Yen calls the ‘Method of No-Method.’  Just like with effort we can employ, very basic techniques such as the relaxing method, to reach a place where we let go of method. That place is the Still Pool. The Still Pool is bottomless, all the way down to the ground of being, fundamental reality.  We can sink down into the Still Pool until we are fully plunged into our true nature. We can drop questions in and see what emerges. And at times we can just dive right in and break through to our depths.

Ch’an Mediation

As noted yesterday, along with these direct practices to engage in, we are also examining their grounded in the classical Ch’an, which has quite a different orientation than Zen. Yesterday we considered the Taoist elements that form the heart of Ch’an practice, based in the fundamental concept of reality as a generative tissue from which the ten thousand things arise and fall back into. Ch’an meditation is a process for directly encountering this cosmological tissue, to dropping the illusory separateness that we have.

We will return to David Hinton’s discussion of this in his introduction to his translation of the Wu-men Kuan. In this excerpt he is describing cultivating the Still Pool toward Empty Awareness.

With experience, the movement of thought during meditation slows enough that we notice each thought emerging from a kind of emptiness, evolving through its transformations, and finally disappearing back into that emptiness. This leads to the realization that the cosmology of Absence and Presence defines consciousness too, thoughts being Presence emerging from and vanishing back into Absence. That is, consciousness is part of the same cosmological tissue as the empirical world, with thoughts emerging from a generative emptiness exactly as the ten thousand things do.

Eventually the stream of thought falls silent, and we inhabit empty consciousness, free of that center of identity. That is, we inhabit the most fundamental nature of consciousness, and that fundamental nature is nothing other than Absence. Here consciousness inhabits the primal Cosmos in the most complete and immediate way, dwelling as integral to the very source of the Cosmos’s generative unfolding, for this Absence is not simply the tranquil silence we encounter in meditation, but something much deeper: a dark vastness beyond word and thought, the tumultuous source of life and death.

Ch’an calls this “empty-mind” (空心). 空 is essentially synonymous in the Ch’an literature with wu, and the double meaning of wu (“not/Absence”) is used to describe this empty-mind further as wu-hsin (無心): “no-mind,” meaning consciousness free of language and thought and memory, the mental apparatus of identity, or “Absence-mind,” consciousness in its original-nature as that generative cosmological tissue. But there’s more. Hsieh Ling-yün (385–433 C.E.), the great rivers-and-mountains poet, in the earliest surviving Ch’an text, calls this empty-mind “the tranquil mirror, all mystery and shadow,” and then continues: “one must become Absence and mirror the whole.” “Tranquil,” “mirror,” “mystery and shadow,” “Absence”—this description distills the conceptual world of the Tao Te Ching, and it shares Lao Tzu’s intent: to transform immediate experience so that we dwell as integral to landscape and Cosmos. Here, the act of perception becomes a spiritual act: empty-mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things free of all thought and explanation—utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. This is a perennial theme in No-Gate Gateway, and it is the heart of Ch’an as a landscape practice. In such mirror-deep perception, earth’s vast rivers-and-mountains landscapes replace thought and even identity itself, revealing the unity of consciousness and landscape/Cosmos that is the heart of sage-dwelling in ancient China.

-David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxi)

Hinton here gets at how the Outdoor practices that we are engaging in function.  It is this notion of the “act of perception as a spiritual act” or as I’d put it as a practice.  It is letting this sensory data come in, without the endless commentary, of moving through the world in empty awareness. That we are practicing.  The Still Pool can be that place from which we always operate. 

Silent Illumination

As I noted the practice of Just Sitting is the relaxation techniques we went over yesterday, continued to the point where we no longer are applying effort.  In this selection from Sheng Yen’s text on Silent Illumination, The Method of No-Method, he will begin with that process. So even if you missed yesterday’s talk you will be able to tackle this practice. All of us should begin each period of zazen with the relaxation technique and move into Just Sitting as we find ourselves opening up to awareness. Giving ourselves time to work with these practices is essential. Time and devoting ourselves to them.

SILENT ILLUMINATION is another name for shamata-vipashyana, the meditative practice of stilling the mind and developing insight into its true nature.


To enter the practice you need to do just two things: relax your body and relax your mind. First, make sure that all parts of your body are completely relaxed and at ease. Next, relax your attitude and your mood; make sure that your mental attitude, the tone of your approach, and your mood are also at ease. This relaxation is the foundation for success in practicing Silent Illumination. Now I would like all of you to try to relax your body and mind. I will guide you as we relax parts of our body together.

Begin with a comfortable sitting posture. Let’s start with your head. Please make sure that each part of this region is relaxed. Relax your face; now relax your eyes. Are they relaxed? Proceed downward to relax your cheeks, down to your neck and your shoulders. Are they relaxed? Continue down your arms and then the hands. Make sure that they are relaxed. Follow with the chest, and now the back, which should be upright yet relaxed. Please make sure that the muscles of your abdomen are relaxed; this is very important.

Once these exercises are completed, there should be three points making contact with your cushion and mat—your buttocks and your two knees. Only these three points should feel your weight and ground you to the floor as your whole body relaxes from head to toe. The rest of your body should also be completely relaxed. After doing these exercises, if you still feel that you are not sufficiently relaxed, please do it again by yourself. From the top, relax part by part, all the way down to your feet. Mentally sweep down your body, part by part, and relax each region; do this as often as you need in order to feel relaxed.

This is the essential technique of Relaxing into Awareness. When you are genuinely relaxed, your attention can relax and you are able to slip into pure awareness. I find that for the first body scan it is vital to place one’s attention on the various body parts and exhale. This process then ties into the breath which slows down and naturally extends. By the end of a full body scan you are relaxed and breathing deeply and effortlessly.


Once you have relaxed your body, notice that your bodily weight has settled downward. Proceed to simply being aware of yourself sitting there and put your total awareness on your body sitting there. If you are relaxed and you have focused your awareness on yourself just sitting there, you have already entered the practice of Silent Illumination! However, this is just the beginning. If you cannot relax your eyes by maintaining them slightly open, you may close them. If you keep your eyes open, do not look at anything; just keep them slightly open, gazing down at about a 45-degree angle. If your eyes are tense, your head region will become tense; if your eyes are relaxed, you will find that your head region is also relaxed. If you have wandering or discursive thoughts, you may open your eyes slightly. If you find yourself becoming drowsy, it is a sign that you are not relaxed. If you are completely relaxed and are aware of your body just sitting there, then you won’t be drowsy. Drowsiness results when you are not using your method properly, either not being relaxed or not putting your mind on just sitting. It may be you have already given up on your method. Or you may be sitting but not practicing, just resting. This form of resting while sitting may lead to laziness and idleness.

Once one’s attention itself has begun to relax you can simply allow it to relax completely and then you move into a deeper sense of awareness. Or, as Sheng Yen advocates, you can open yourself up to awareness of your whole body. This is not placing your attention anywhere, but is instead and openness that is resting in awareness.

When thoughts arise you watch them and let them fall away without judgement. If you do pursue them and fail to notice it, I find that tenseness always creeps in somewhere. Once you catch yourself chasing thoughts you simply can scan for the tenseness and let that part of the body–often in the face–relax again for an exhale or two. Then return to that sense of the whole body. When you aren’t following thoughts, aren’t pursuing any sort of goal and are just sitting in open awareness, then you are Just Sitting.


If you are clear that you are relaxed or prompting yourself to relax, that itself is a method. This process will expand into becoming clear and aware that you are just sitting there. This is not merely checking the parts of your body; it is also awareness through sensing the presence of your body sitting there. This is the meaning of “just sitting.” In just sitting, you keep your awareness on the total sensation of your body sitting there. Stay with the totality of that awareness; do not become caught up in any particulars. Being aware of the particulars of the body is practicing mindfulness, but we are not practicing mindfulness; we are practicing Silent Illumination. Remember also that you are not practicing mindfulness of breath. Breath is certainly a sensation, but it is merely a part of your total body sensation. You are practicing being aware of the whole body just sitting there with all its different sensations as a totality. Do not become caught up in these various sensations. Just maintain the totality of the sensations of your body just sitting. It is impossible to be aware of every part of the body sitting there. Just be aware of those parts that impinge on your senses. You do not need to be aware of the parts of the body that you cannot sense, such as internal organs. Just take the parts of the body as a whole. The key is to constantly maintain this knowing and awareness of the totality of your body.

-Sheng Yen. The Method of No-Method (pp. 3-6)

Seated Practice

Just Sitting: Note that in Just Sitting, you can’t sit for your well being for your own awakening, or any other goal. How can you be “just sitting” if there is some purpose or direction?  Remember: “If you try to move toward it, you move away from it.”

Just sitting is a difficult practice because we are not able to block, or suppress or divert distracts with words like we can in breath counting, or inquiry.  This means that any words that are in our minds are a distraction, not practice. In a way this should make it easier to notice when we are distracted. So as always when thoughts arise, let them appear and then fade away.If we find we have pursued a thought, notice that and then return to the practice.  If we become distracted, return to the breath. Then return to the relaxation process. From there we then shift into open awareness. 

In todays practices we are working on just sitting, resting in awareness and opening our awareness up. Stillness is essential, if we are wiggling around or shifting position, or adjusting constantly we lose the flow.  Discomfort can simply be a tool to bring us into alignment with the body.  We we are still and we opening our awareness to the totality of experience, that is not placing attention anywhere specific we will have a sense of silence. This silence clearly has a bottomless depth.  Open yourself to this silence.

Outdoor Practice

Engaging Complexity

The direct contemplation practice that we began with yesterday is as I noted at the heart of what I collectively refer to as the Empty Gazing practices.  Let us review the essence of the practice

Walk along simply letting sights and sounds flow through us.  Do not label, comment upon, describe, narrate or critique what comes into your field of vision. If you find you are maintaining a narrative, put your attention on your abdomen and try to walk from there, not your head.  Periodically stop and let out a breath or two. Pause for a moment.  It is at this point that you can begin the process of Empty Gazing.

There are a number of Gazing techniques, yesterday I told my story of ‘Sky Gazing’ which I developed as a kid. This was simply looking into the sky for a long period of time.  The Empty Gazing techniques, rely more on a shorter engagement over the course of decent amount of time.  We are using complexity to subvert attention.   So we look for something that is to complex for our eye to rest upon. The most effective I’ve found is gazing out into the far distance at a treeline, a mountain range, the horizon, a large body of water and gazing into the branches of a tree.

Most of us, even those in the city will be able to encounter a tree. So we will work with that in today’s practice. So try to walk from your body being aware of your surroundings. When you come to a tree, stop, let out a breath or two, then gaze directly into the branches of the tree. Look at the tangled pattern of leaves, branches and the negative space. Perhaps try to hold the pattern of the negative space in your mind. Do this for as long as you can without the narrative restarting. At some point walk on, but maintain that openness of awareness. Open all your sense, you will find you move fluidly through the world without having to narrate your progress through it. Shift your attention to your abdomen as thoughts do begin to intrude, then stop at the next tree.

Do this for as long as you are able. I found it most effective over the course of 45 minutes to an hour. 


  1. No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
    Translated by David Hinton
    Shambhala, 2018
    ISBN-10: 161180437X
  2. The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
    Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
    Shambhala, 2008
    ASIN: B00C5KK72E