Virtual Sesshin Day 3 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 3  – May 14th, 2020

Moving through the world without obstruction

Everything that we are engaged in during this retreat is oriented around naturalness, around moving through the world without obstruction.  We are ‘just sitting’. We we are engaged in the outside practices we are ‘Just Walking’ and ‘Just Gazing’.  When we are doing samu, we are ‘Just Working’. Just doing whatever task we are engaged in.  When we chant we are ‘Just Chanting. All of these activities as well as all of the activities in our lives can be done directly  from our true nature. When we operate from the self, we are at least one step removed. This artificial construct of memories, feelings, conditioning takes in our surroundings and circumstances and processes it through this conditioning. The signals and hints that our true nature sends up to us — the feeling that we are in sync with circumstances — is treated as another input. An input that is so often overridden by our small concerns, our conditioned responses.  But when the self recedes and is revealed as inherently empty, when our identity is that of True Nature then are responding directly, naturally to circumstance and the environment. 

Wu Wei in Chuang Tzu. It is the title of Chapter 1, and section 11 of Chapter 6 includes this description of two sages: 

On loan from everything else, they’ll soon be entrusted back to the one body. Forgetting liver and gallbladder, abandoning ears and eyes, they’ll continue on again, tumbling and twirling through a blur of endings and beginnings. They roam at ease beyond the tawdry dust of this world, nothing’s own doing [wu-wei] wandering boundless and free through the selfless unfolding of things.

-David Hinton. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (p. 270).

The practice of Wu Wei, Non-Doing or Effortless effort, is the heart of this retreat.  All of these practices are are oriented around slipping past the self, to pure awareness. When we see the conditioned self as empty, we then operate from Empty Awareness and move through the world without obstruction. It’s not that there are not obstacles in our path, but that we flow around them like water flowing past a rock. We are not pushed around but the thoughts, feelings and emotions. They arise from circumstance but the Still Pool can absorb it all without a ripple. 

Wu Wei

Wu has a double meaning that creates a profound literary/philosophical resonance here in these names, and in the book’s celebrated first sangha-case. In addition to meaning “Absence,” that fundamental cosmological/ontological principle, wu is a simple grammatical function word meaning “not.” So on the surface, Wu-men means simply “no-gate,” investing the title with the enigmatic and, as will become clear, profound concept of a “no-gate gateway,” a kind of distilled sangha-case. But wu must also be read as that generative Absence, transforming “no-gate” into “Absence-gate.” This adds a whole new dimension to the title—Wu-men Kuan—for it now means “Absence-gate gateway,” or perhaps “Absence’s gateway.” And that Absence-gate also appears in the first couplet of the four-line gatha that ends the book’s Foreword, where Tao (Way) also appears, together with Presence, the other fundamental element of Taoist ontology/cosmology: The great Way is a single Absence-gate here on a thousand roads of Presence. Once through this gateway, you wander all heaven and earth in a single stride.

This double meaning of wu had long been exploited in the philosophical tradition, complicating terms such as wu-wei and wu-sheng. Wu-wei (無為) dates to the earliest levels of Taoist thought and means literally “not/Absence” (wu) + “acting” (wei). It was a spiritual practice among ancient artist-intellectuals, and it was further cultivated in Ch’an practice. Wu-wei means “not acting” in the sense of acting without the metaphysics of self, or of being absent when you act. This selfless action is the movement of tzu-jan (Tao unfurling as the ten thousand individuated things), so wu-wei means acting as an integral part of tzu-jan’s spontaneous process of Absence burgeoning forth into Presence, and Presence dying back into Absence. This opens to the deepest level of wu-wei’s philosophical complex, where the term’s alternate sense of “Absence” + “acting” means wu-wei action is action directly from, or indeed as, the ontological source. As Ch’an masters dramatized in their wild antics, behavior that likens them to Chuang Tzu’s zany Taoist sages, to practice wu-wei is to move with the wild energy of the Cosmos itself, energy ancient artist-intellectuals recognized most dramatically in rivers-and-mountains landscapes.

-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway (pp. xvi-xviii).

Acting from our True Nature

This naturalness, this Wu Wei is nothing less than our true nature acting through us.  When we move through the world from our true nature than there is nothing that can obstruct us. Barrier arise and are flowed around, circumstances do not overtake us.  When the small self is running the show, endlessly commenting on everything, we are removed, distanced from our surroundings. This adds a hesitancy, a self-conscious remove from responding to the moment. Those who hesitate are lost!

Wu-wei:  Nothing’s own doing, etc.

Impossible to translate the same way in every instance, wu-wei means acting as a spontaneous part of tzu-jan (things occurring of themselves) rather than with the self-conscious intention that seems to separate us from tzu-jan’s selfless process. Different contexts emphasize different aspects of this rich philosophical concept as writers exploit the term’s grammatical ambiguity. Literally meaning “not/nothing (wu) doing (wei),” wu-wei’s most straightforward translation is simply “doing nothing” in the sense of not interfering with the flawless and self-sufficient unfolding of tzu-jan. But this must always be conceived together with its mirror translation: “nothing doing” or “nothing’s own doing,” in the sense of being no one separate from tzu-jan when acting. 

As wu-wei is the movement of tzu-jan, when we act according to wu-wei we act as the generative source. This opens to the deepest level of this philosophical complex, for wu-wei can also be read quite literally as “non-being (wu) doing.” Here, wu-wei action is action directly from, or indeed as the ontological source: nonbeing burgeoning forth into being. This in turn invests the more straightforward translation (“doing nothing”) with its fullest dimensions, for “doing nothing” always carries the sense of “enacting nothing/nonbeing.”

-David Hinton. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (p. 270)

Stages of ‘Just Sitting’ 

We turn to Ch’an Master Sheng Yen who has clearly demarcated the Stages of Silent Illumination. It is important to underscore what he says at the beginning: that these stages are of course a provisional teaching. Our experiences may be different, we may jump from stage to stage in a non-linear way and we can have insight at any point.

Although we talk about stages in Silent Illumination, please do not expect to experience distinct and separate stages. We use the term “stages” as points of reference for instructing you. Therefore, do not imagine having to work your way systematically up to the highest stage. You can realize Silent Illumination even with the foundation practice of sitting in awareness. Talking about stages also conveys the various depths of experience in the practice. By analogy, when we talk about five stages in the breath-counting method, all five variations constitute the whole of meditating on the breath. The difference lies in the depth of the experience. It is possible to enter the deep practice of Silent Illumination as soon as you sit down. There is no absolute need to go through stages to reach silence and illumination. With that in mind, let’s discuss the first two stages of Silent Illumination. 

The first stage of Silent Illumination is entered through just sitting. One simply maintains an awareness of the whole body sitting there. Eventually, body and mind become one—your awareness is of the total body rather than its separate parts. This is the first stage, the union of body and mind. The body is no longer a burden, and its sensation fades away, leaving a crisp, clear, and open mind. 

When you get deeper into the practice, the body, mind, and environment become one—internal and external are united. This is the second stage. The environment refers to your immediate surroundings, which you now perceive as your great body, which is also just sitting; it no longer disturbs you or stirs up wandering thoughts. There is only the presence of the whole environment as you are sitting there. In this second stage of Silent Illumination the mind is very clear and open. You can practice this in sitting meditation and in daily life. 

If you are still experiencing bodily sensations, you are not yet at the second stage. Continue to maintain your awareness of the whole-body sensation. Once the whole-body sensation recedes and your body is no longer any burden, you will experience lightness and openness, and clarity free from wandering thoughts and attachments. At this time, you perceive the environment as your great body sitting there. Treat it the same way as your ordinary body. You are aware of the totality of the environment—this retreat center, the birds, the wind, the airplane, the cars passing by, the great outdoors, other people. The particulars that you would normally sense now exist as the total environment: everything is you and you are everything. There are no longer any particulars; the whole environment is your body sitting there. 

At this second stage, the internal and external have become one. While experiencing the immediacy of the environment, you are not influenced by it—it is all there but absorbed in stillness. There are no inner thoughts, no conditioning by external things. You perceive everything in the immediacy of the present. This is the silent aspect. The illumination aspect is the clear awareness of things as they are. You are undisturbed, motionless, and very clear as to the multitude of things surrounding you. This is the third stage. This Silent Illumination is likened to a mirror that is utterly still while images and shadows appear freely before it. Your external environment is like these passing images and shadows; your mind is this mirror, as silent as it is motionless, revealing all forms before it. This is the illumination aspect.

In some forms of samadhi, even though the mind is in utter stillness, it is oblivious to the environment—it is a stagnant stillness, not bright and open. By contrast, in the third stage of Silent Illumination the mind is still yet open, clearly reflecting multitudes of forms. Within this clarity the mind is still.

-Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 17-19).

Empty Gazing as Wu Wei Practice

The Outside practice that we are engaged in, is a fundamental a natural practice oriented toward Empty Awareness. While we walk, we try to walk from bodies, in awareness.  Over time we find we don’t need to think about where we are going or what we are doing. The constant narration falls silent and we are just a presence moving within our surroundings which are simply a collection of presence, a singular expression of absence.

When we stop and let things go then open up our senses, seeing and hearing and feeling, we are practicing maintaining that functioning without the filtering of our conditioned responses. We are training ourselves to remain in awareness.  The actual Empty Gazing practices are practicing seeing the world as it truly is, being fully open to reality and in this our true identity.

EYE/SIGHT 目, 眼, 見, , etc. Once mind is emptied of all content (through meditation and sangha-case practice), 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 the heart of Ch’an as a landscape practice. In such mirror-deep perception, earth’s vast rivers-and-mountains landscape replaces thought and even identity itself, revealing the unity of consciousness and landscape/Cosmos that is the heart of sage-dwelling not only for Ch’an practitioners, but for all artist-intellectuals in ancient China. But it is especially important for Ch’an. In fact, Chapter 6 says the essence of Ch’an is the “perfect dharma of the eye’s treasure-house.” And so, to emphasize the sense of a mirror-deep eye gazing out with the clarity of an empty awakened mind, Buddha-eye is sometimes used here in the translation of these terms. This perceptual clarity is itself nirvana or awakening, and it is always available in everyday experience. It is another way of meeting Buddha and all the patriarchs directly, but also of being indistinguishable from them, of being Buddha oneself.

-David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. 133-134). Shambhala.

Seated Practice

Remember and review the stages of ‘Just Sitting’ that Ch’an Master Sheng Yen described in the Method of No-Method (p, 17-18).

We began as always by taking our seat and then relaxing into the body.  Place your attention on your breath for a few breaths. Sense your body, its contact with your seat, the feel of your abdomen rising and falling, the breath flowing in and out. Bring body and mind into alignment.

Relax the whole body beginning with the head. Place your attention over multiple points of the body, holding it there for a breath. Do this until your whole body is relax.

Begin to relax your attention from any specific object. Become aware of your whole body. If you fall into discursive thought return to relaxing the body.

When you feel the whole sense of your body, such that bodily sensations are no longer individually recognizable, expand that sense of awareness to include your immediate surroundings.  Sounds come in and that sense feeling of space but without placing attention on them. They are undifferentiated sensation. Expand yourself outward and the sense of self will become less distinct, more permeable. As all external stimuli merges into a sort of featureless wash that great silence will grow. Simply be open to it.

This is the deep Still Pool. Reflecting all, unperturbed by all. Silent Illumination.

Outdoor Practice

Gazing into the Distance: Mountain Ranges, Distant Treelines, Horizons, Across bodies of water, into the sky (sky/cloud gazing). Not focusing on a single object but the totality of your field of vision. Perhaps scanning across it, perhaps just wide eyed gazing.  All of these techniques are simple to related, but it doesn’t quite get at it.  You need to feel your way into this.  The key aspect is that you aren’t resting your eye anywhere. You are taking in the multitude, almost unfocused.

Invert, so that your perspective is of the distance gazing into you. Perception is identity and thus there is no distinction between gazing outward and the outward gazing inward.

As we add the various Empty Gazing practices that can be done as a whole. While out on an Empty Walk, we stop, breathe, and looking up into the branches of a tree. When we feel that openness we moving on, walking from that openness.  We come to the edge of a pond, or a bluff, or an open park or meadow and we stop and gaze across it. Again we move on, walking from our body, naturally, not thinking just our true nature expressing itself.


  1. No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
    Translated by David Hinton
    Shambhala, 2018
    ISBN-10: 161180437X
  2. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
    Translated by David Hinton
    New Directions, 2005
    ASIN: B00O2R6G64
  3. The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
    Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
    Shambhala, 2008
    ASIN: B00C5KK72E