Silent illumination (mozhao) is “awakening”; this teaching holds that although our true Buddha-nature has been obscured we can rediscover it through proper cultivation and effort. In any given moment, we might be naturally awake, feeling one with the flow of life. It is another thing entirely to achieve wisdom and liberation from self-grasping and the self-referential mind. In Silent Illumination: A Chan Buddhist Path to Natural Awakening—a subtle, nuanced, informed, and invaluable book—author Guo Gu expounds on the path to spiritual liberation, which involves both effort and no-effort. The Chan Buddhist teacher makes use of the distinctive combination of sources that shape his pedagogical approach: a childhood meditation practice guided by a Taiwanese teacher; nine years as a monk and apprentice to Sheng Yen in the United States; a cultural and linguistic background in Chinese and advanced scholarly training in Buddhist studies at Princeton University; and his experience bringing Chan Buddhism to westerners via the Tallahassee Chan Center in Florida he founded as the base from which he now teaches.
According to Guo Gu, Chan Buddhism offers silent illumination as “both a metaphor for this awakened nature and the principle behind meditation practice” (vii). The book is organized into three sections that provide a fascinating, user-oriented mix of instructions, rationales, friendly admonitions, caveats, commentary, and source materials translated directly from original texts attributed to Chan master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157). Throughout the book, Guo Gu uses simple, straightforward, Chan-based language to reveal a practical, earthy, and embodied path to spiritual liberation. Part 1 consists of seven chapters that, taken as a whole, are substantial and well worth the price of the entire book. In them, Guo Gu not only anticipates the many attitudes, thoughts, and feelings that might distract a student or pull them in a wrong direction; he tells the student what they can do differently.
The book offers concrete advice to carry the student through what could become a difficult or confusing life-long journey. In a gentle, grandmotherly voice, he shows how to “expose, embrace, and transform the emotional afflictions and negative habitual patterns—the root of which is self-grasping” (14). We “start from where we are” (13), he advises, and then we recognize and work with the “underlying feeling tones” (19) to “cultivate supporting attitudes” (31) that will allow a “relaxed method of practice” (40). It’s not exactly a step-by-step manual, but Guo Gu does cover a lot of mental, emotional, and psychological territory. By the time he gets to the chapter on meditation, he needs only seven pages to convey the message: Relax the body and proceed with contentment, confidence, and determination (39-45).
Guo Gu's instructions bypass the mysticism and abstraction that characterizes much of American Zen by going back to the Daoist philosophical roots of Chan. Guo Gu makes only a few explicit gestures to Daoism or the dao (72), preferring instead to reference “Chinese philosophical traditions” that use “metaphors to express . . . interplays and harmonies between dualities” (7). But those familiar with Daoist philosophies or taijiquan (a related movement art) might recognize in the book a down-to-earth, practical approach to silent illumination that anchors in the body and relies on the intellect without over-intellectualizing.
Key to that earthiness is recognizing tension and a basic need for energy, in the form of qi (a vital life force whose flow is essential for good health), to flow freely through the body. Western neuroscience has found evidence of relaxation practices that engage the parasympathetic nervous system actually reversing the damage of chronic stress (43). To sit on a cushion comfortably for a lengthy period of time, the body has to let go, loosen, soften, and open. On his website, Guo Gu offers information on mindful self-massage and yoga stretches that help alleviate pain in the body and clear the mind (40).
The index lists seventeen different analogies Guo Gu deploys to help work with what goes on in the mind. He refers to signposts or stages of meditation as “scenery” and reminds us “not to grasp, just keep going” (44). He likens subtle forms of self-attachment to “cleaned windows” that are so clear a bird might fly into them. Despite being clean, the window—like the self—poses a barrier to true awareness (49-50). The idea of “hosts and guests” (101) distinguishes between our “intrinsic awakening” (the host) and “adventurous afflictions and habits” (the guest). Meditation allows us to expose those guests, to recognize why they arrived, perhaps as part of our defense mechanisms or survivor skills (21), and to let them go.
Silent illumination is like a room full of furniture: “The spaciousness or emptiness of the room is the ‘silence’ . . . The ability of the room to accommodate all sorts of furniture is the ‘illumination’. . . by working with the furniture . . . it’s more likely that we’ll recognize the spaciousness of the room” (5). The analogy gives permission to recognize and accept the annoying messiness of everyday experience as the precise vehicle through which wisdom might be reached, rather than a blockage to be circumvented. Guo Gu elaborates on the practical aspects of meditation, and thankfully he does not shy away from the social or political aspects.
Because so many other Buddhist teachers in the United States downplay racism, orientalism, and white supremacy, it was a relief to see Guo Gu address injustice and wrongdoing head on using the teaching of “no-form” (26-28). Instead of admonishing students to avoid real-world issues, he asserts: “We must engage with the world . . . [w]hen things need to change, we make the change” (26). Prompted by his students, he has led intensive Chan retreats for people of color only, explaining that “I try to…promote interracial interaction. This is part of recognizing causes and conditions…ultimately, the point is to bring people of all colors together, so no one is left out” (28).
Guo Gu expresses concern that Hongzhi’s teachings have been placed erroneously within the Japanese Sōtō Zen perspective of shikantaza or “just sitting” (121). As David Hinton writes in China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen (Shambhala, 2020): “[American Zen] involves a stunning project of cultural appropriation in which Ch’an is presented as if it were Japanese . . . that story isn’t wrong, but leaves out just about everything that matters to Ch’an” (5). Indeed, Chan Buddhism must be interpreted within its own cultural and historical context. Otherwise, using the wrong instruction manual as we sit on the cushion hoping for enlightenment, we miss out on the many wonderful details so carefully delineated here. For this reason, let us welcome Silent Illumination as a long-awaited and culturally enlightened course-correction for American Zen.
Karín Aguilar-San Juan is professor and chair of American Studies at Macalester College. She would like to acknowledge Jake Nagasawa for his guidance in preparing this review.
Karin Aguilar-San Juan
Date Of Review:
October 29, 2022
Guo Gu (Dr. Jimmy Yu) is the founder of the Tallahassee Chan Center and is also the guiding teacher for the Western Dharma Teachers Training course at the Chan Meditation Center in New York and the Dharma Drum Lineage. He is one of the late Master Sheng Yen’s (1930–2009) senior and closest disciples, and assisted him in leading intensive retreats throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Guo Gu has edited and translated a number of Master Sheng Yen’s books from Chinese to English. He is also a professor of Buddhism and East Asian religions at Florida State University, Tallahassee.
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