Virtual Sesshin Day 5 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 5  – May 16th, 2020

Beyond the Self

To bring it back to where we began, the orientation of this retreat was to engage with a body of practices for solitary practice. These practices, the practice of Silent Illumination and the Empty Awareness practices are practices that one can engage in fruitfully on ones own. In fact these are practices born of solitude, hermetic practices.  There is a straightforward path in these practices that build upon technique and experience. There are clear markers to bring oneself back to the path,  for self-assessment and most importantly there is no bounding to them. These are practices for a lifetime. 

Last February here at Tahoma I was in Dokusesshin, which is a solitary sesshin where you live in a primitive hermitage in the woods on the edge of the campus. You only engage with the teacher once per day, otherwise it is a self-structure and hermetic practice. During this time I every day engaged in the Empty Awareness practices, walking for an hour around the lake and through the woods.  I would walk, stop and absorb what was in front of me, until I was emptiness walking. Then I would sit on the deck of the hermitage for long stretches of zazen.  Sitting in Open Awareness, landscape samadhi throughout the day.

This time where we are in our domiciles, perhaps allowed to go out and walk, is an enforced hermitic situation for us all.  Taking full advantaged of what is an unfortunate circumstance we are able to engaged in the two activities of this practice: zazen and taking absence walks.  Most aren’t drawn toward the hermits life, but when circumstances put us there we can use it.

All of our practice deepens our ability to respond to the moment, to handle whatever life throws at us. In this time of increased suffering, these practices serve to root us in the essential, to be able to respond in the most appropriate way.  As an illustration of this I am going to read from this Poetic/Spiritual Biography of the great Chinese poet Tu Fu.  A Ch’an practitioner, whose poems are infused with Ch’an and Taoist elements, he lived the life of one who moves from their original nature. In The Awakened Cosmos,  David Hinton ties together all of the concepts we have gone through in the terms of a masterful Poet living from absence in times of great suffering. Both a continuation of the teachings of this week, this also is a pointer for living in these challenging times.

I read almost the entirety of Chapter 7 Emptiness Dragon from David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos (specifically p. 51-56).  As I note above this chapter really captures what we are trying to get at in this practice and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sheng Yen – Continuing practice outside of retreat.

BY NOW YOU ALL KNOW how to relax and practice just sitting. But do you know how to apply Silent Illumination to daily life? If you do not, perhaps the effectiveness of this method has not taken hold and coming to retreat has been of little use. So I want to talk about practice in daily life. It was common in ancient India for yogis to remove themselves from society to practice in solitude in the forests. There they would beg for alms and offerings from ordinary people who respected them. In China there was no such tradition. Someone who went around asking for alms was simply a beggar. Practitioners had to work to survive and sustain their practice. For this reason Chan has traditionally placed great emphasis on applying practice to daily work.

Sheng Yen goes on with a thumbnail sketch of the canonical (if somewhat a-historic) account of the development of Chan and its emphasis on work practice.  Ch’an Master Baizhang’s admonition, ‘a day without work is a day without eating’ sums this orientation up.  Sheng Yen’s point here is that the work that lay practitioners undertake can be view and utilized as samu, work practice. This is explicitly laid out as he continues with his discourse.

I have a disciple who was an accountant before she became a nun. When we made her the Center’s accountant, she complained: “Shifu [Teacher], I left home and became a nun to do serious practice. And here I am counting money again.” I told her, “This is very different. Before you did it for yourself and your family; now you are doing it for the sangha, the Buddhist community. And because there is no self-interest, no profit, no benefit, and no harm in your doing this job, that is genuine practice. Your mental attitude is also very different now. Before you came to the Dharma, your mind was chaotic, wandering here and there during work. Now you can attune and refine your own mind in the midst of business. You are offering your abilities to the sangha. If that is not practice, what do you call it?”

The same is true for all of you. Before you encountered the Dharma, you had no practice and your daily lives were filled with stirred-up emotions and wandering thoughts. After coming across the Dharma and learning Silent Illumination, you will be different when you go back. Work will become your practice no matter what task you are engaged in. Wherever you are, you will be able to regulate, attune, and refine your mind. On the one hand, you are practicing, and on the other, you are interacting with others while maintaining a stable mind. Wherever you are, that will become your practice.

– Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 42-44)

Our practice leads toward being able to operate in this world naturally, not pushed around by our thoughts, feelings and emotions.  The practice is a deliberate changing of our a brains a change that we can facilitate by practicing in every situation and practicing this naturalness. At work, in the home, out in the world practice flowing through the world, practice single-tasking, practice silent illumination.


When we eat we should just eat; when we sleep we should just sleep; when we sit we should just sit; and when we work we should just work. Saying this is one thing, doing it another. So I ask you, where is your mind when doing these things? Let’s consider how this applies to working. To practice Silent Illumination means putting body and mind to the task at hand. This also means applying the best method appropriate for the task. If you do it single-mindedly and with your best effort, you will complete the work with a very stable and relaxed mind. You should approach the task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future, but once you start the task, focus on the present. You should carry out the task with a very even and ordinary mind, without feelings of like or dislike, good or bad, or engaging in discursive thoughts. When you complete the task, reflect on whether changes are needed, whether the job was done well, and how you can do better in the future. This is how to practice Silent Illumination while working, but the principles are the same no matter what you are doing. Silence manifests when you do not generate vexations, attachments, and discriminations while carrying out the activity. Illumination manifests when you clearly understand the activity, focusing on carrying it to completion.

Sheng Yen clearly expresses this way of living in the world, of not being beholden to our small minds. As we practice this and as we engage in rigourous ch’an practice slowly this will become our way of life. At some point we can have that all-at-once insight into the reality of things and are able to then just continue with our practice in a natural and unaffected way.

As practitioners we should clearly understand our own abilities and limitations. We should understand our roles in society, what we are capable of, and what is beyond our ability to do. Since everyone is born with certain aptitudes and limitations, knowing our own boundaries is also practice. Some people may be very skillful with their hands while others are less dexterous; some people are good at very detailed work while others are more suited to manual labor. We should learn to be content with our own limitations while working to the best of our ability. This is recognizing clearly where you are and what role you should play. Not knowing this can create vexations for yourself and for others.

Knowing where you should put yourself is silence; very clearly knowing this while engaged in work is illumination. Consider the ox in the fields. Although powerful and dynamic, the ox does its job without trampling on the crops. It responds according to our circumstances. Being like this ox will bring you happiness and joy wherever you are, at work or with friends. If there is peace and harmony where you are, this is practicing Silent Illumination. So please be an ox in your lives.

Practice is not limited to sitting meditation. It should not happen that as soon as you get off the cushion, life becomes stressful. Be very clear about your body’s presence and its sensations. When meaningless sensations arise, do not respond to them. That is silence. Always maintain this clear awareness of the total bodymind. That is illumination. Be very clear about the environment, without being influenced by it. That is totality. The sum of all the above is Silent Illumination. Now please practice Silent Illumination wholeheartedly.

– Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 45-49).

This final section here from Sheng Yen is worth reading over and over again.  The absolute root of our practice is commitment; commitment to constantly return our attention to the practice; commitment to bringing our practice into the world; commitment to not increasing the suffering in the world; commitment to responding as the moment requires.  Engage in the practice in every activity, wherever your are, twenty-four hours a day. There are no ‘breaks’ from the practice, can you take a break from living your life?

Seated Practice

Sheng Yen Third Stage of Silent Illumination

Since it is more natural for most people to understand practice as occurring in stages, I have described Silent Illumination as occurring in stages. It is possible to contemplate emptiness and selflessness at any stage in Silent Illumination; it is also possible to experience enlightenment at any stage of this practice. It is not necessary to progress stage by stage. Stage one is just sitting and being aware of the total-body sensation. This stage is entered by completely relaxing the mind and body either through breath contemplation or directly beginning to sit with total body awareness. The second stage is experiencing the environment as one with oneself—you are the environment and the environment is you.

Most of us will spend our time working on genuinely relaxing on being fully in our bodies. As I stated above this requires commitment.  Sheng Yen sometimes suggest taking a vow when we sit down: “I vow to awaken this round of zazen.” This is a way of reaffirming this commitment, of putting yourself one hundred precent into the practice at this moment. We commitment to sitting still, to being in our body and relaxing, opening ourselves up completely. Then your awareness grows to your body, expands to your immediate environment and beyond.  This we can monitor and return to as we find ourselves slipping into thoughts.

The third stage of Silent Illumination is the experience of boundless spaciousness. We cannot experience the mind as infinite if it is swamped with discursive thoughts and delusions. We also cannot experience the environment as infinite if we constantly discriminate among sense objects, resulting in narrow points of view. But when our thoughts totally subside, we perceive the mind as infinitely vast, and when all our discriminations stop, we perceive the environment as infinitely vast.

If you can totally relax and maintain your awareness of just sitting, the body-sense will disappear. In this state the environment may also disappear. If this happens, you have entered a shallow samadhi state, but not that of Silent Illumination where you would be vividly aware of the environment. This can also happen at the stage where you feel at one with the environment. If the environment disappears, you are again entering a light samadhi state, not practicing Silent Illumination, in which case your mind would be clear, aware of everything, and utterly still. It is possible to enter this illumination stage from any of the earlier stages. As a result of your own practice, your mind becomes clear and bright and there is no clinging to either self or no-self. This is true Silent Illumination. I repeat and emphasize that you should not take these stages of Silent Illumination as a spiritual ladder to be ascended stage by stage. Each stage is complete and a possible entry point for genuine Silent Illumination. So please do not anticipate a presumably better stage than where you are now.

This spaciousness, this absolute openness comes as we practice. You can’t will it, or force it.  This always involves the self and the practice of silent illumination is one of letting the self ebb away. You are your body, you are your environment, you are fundamental reality: no separation.

I talk about the internal infinite and the external infinite because some of you may have experienced either or both. However, if we experience the internal infinite without the external infinite, that would be samadhi, not Silent Illumination. Therefore, you need to know the difference. In samadhi, although the internal can be vast, open, and clear, one is oblivious of the environment. One should also experience the environment as vast and open, leaving behind discrimination yet knowing the outside very clearly. In true Silent Illumination, the environment exists, but we are not influenced, defiled, or conditioned by it in any way whatsoever; we are no longer swayed by discriminating thoughts. Unless I emphasize this, people may experience infinite spaciousness in their sitting but on returning to their daily life become distracted by the external world. They may cultivate an escapist attitude of wanting to practice in that blissful samadhi and remove themselves from others. This is certainly not the Mahayana or Chan teaching. This third level is infinitely vast with regard to the internal mind as well as to the world. Having this correct view, one will engage the world without being vexed or obstructed.

-Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (p.)

Outdoor Practice

We walk out in the woods, across fields, in mountains, on the beach, in landscape.  As we walk our gaze takes in what comes. We walk in our bodies, from the abdomen, breathing naturally.  We pause and gaze out in the distance. If birds fly across our gaze we hold them in our minds. If the tops of the trees sway, they sway in our minds. Sunlight dances on water, dragonflies dart through our field of view. We let these all of these reflect in the deep still pool of our minds.

Stop, let out a breath and gaze at anything, any layered complexity, negative space, distant fractal landscape thoughts pouring away until there is only empty awareness. Return to walking, remaining in that modality. As attention rises, direct it to your abdomen, feel your breath, the diaphragm sinking low. Simply walk in emptiness.


I’ve organized this retreat around the practice as I am engaged in with it. As I said from the start, I am leading this retreat from the orientation of a person on the way who can share the path they are on.    The core practices that I engage in are:

The Still Pool: Sitting in Awareness and Silent Illumination

The Empty Awareness Practices in walking and beyond

The final piece being Inquiry.  If there was another two days of these retreat we would get into Inquiry.  

Other core aspects that support and sustain these practices are solitude, pilgrimage and contradiction. 

If the situation persists so that we are not able to engage in regular sesshin, and it seems likely until there is a vaccine, then we will offer another virtual retreat in September and Rohatsu in December. We will continue working with these practices and the others over the course of this time.   

Until then, I would encourage people to pick up a copy of Chan Master Sheng Yen’s Method of No-Method which will lead you deeper and sustain you in the practice of Just Sitting.  


  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
  4. Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
    David Hinton
    Shambhala, 2019
    ASIN: B07V8C265M