Up at the Maenllwyd -
funny how the days roll by.
I don't seem to be doing anything,
cleaning and writing and cooking
and sitting and walking
sleeping and waking.
Where does it all go?
The time so clear
hours - hours
or merely minutes?
Today it is warm;
the wind changes,
clouds keep going -
in different directions.
Tonight a comet hangs over the yard
tail streaming in far off sunshine.
Down here, the moon throws dark shadows
and the windless sycamore stands against the stars.
An owl calls.
What was on its mind?
Out of the woodwork, curiously,
March 1997 Maenllwyd
When Master Sheng-yen visited Maenllwyd for the third time in 1995 he told us he would provide us with further instruction on Silent Illumination methods of the Ts'ao-tung school of Chinese Ch'an. He had already given us an introduction to this approach during his second visit, but on this occasion he intended to take us further.
We now have available the freshly edited text of his talks and can at once perceive how outstandingly Shi-fu fulfilled his intention. We have here not only a quite remarkable interpretation of the fundamental insights of the great twelfth century master Hung-chih Cheng-chueh but, in addition, a subtle treatment of the way in which relatively naive meditators, such as ourselves, can begin this practice with benefit. Shi-fu provides us with a graded series of stages, principles for use and, most important, an account of the attitudes needed if we are to proceed well along this path.
Silent Illumination is the prime method of the Ts'ao-tung school. Because of this some might wonder how it relates to the Lin-chi lineage which Shi-fu has passed to us. In Japan Shikantaza, the Japanese method which developed from Silent Illumination and resembles it very closely, is the sole Soto (Jap. for Ts'ao-tung) method whereas the Rinzai school (Jap. for Lin-chi) specialises in Koans. Chinese history has been different, encouraging an eclectic approach rather than one of separations and specialisation. In the last century, after a period of Buddhist decay and persecution, many surviving methods were brought together in the revival of Ch'an in china under the influence of Master Hsu-yun. Thus Silent Illumination, koans, Hua-tou and even a Ch'an version of Pure Land practice can all be used within the lineage transmitted through Hsu-yun's reconstruction of Chinese Buddhism.
The Lin-chi lineage is intact and cannot be disputed while, due to accidents of history, the line connecting Ts'ao-tung masters is less secure. Pedantic academics might therefore criticise a transmission bearing the Ts'ao-tung label but cannot do so when the Lin-chi transmission is under consideration. Since Shi-fu inherited both the Lin-chi and Ts'ao-tung transmissions from his teachers we can reasonably consider that both have also been transmitted by him to us.
During his first visit to Wales, Shi-fu remarked that he did not often teach Silent Illumination because it was easy to lose focus and become either too silent, lapsing into blankness or mere somnolence or, on the other hand, to mistake active intellection and an excited mind for illumination. In his offering us this method we may therefore feel Shi-fu's approval of our motivation in practice which, hopefully, allows us to achieve the balance required in this approach.
The text now offered has yet to be fully examined by Shi-fu so some alterations may follow before full publication. A new version of Catching a Feather on a Fan (now out of print) is proposed which will include this text and commentary. Element Press has again expressed an interest in this project but this has yet to be confirmed1. I felt however that the Fellows of our new institution should receive these teachings and am delighted that we can get them to you in the pages of our journal.
1 Subsequently published as: Master Sheng Yen, 2002, Illuminating Silence: The Practice of Chinese Zen. Watkins Publishing, London