One-day Silent Illumination Retreat with Gilbert Gutierrez

One-day Silent Illumination Retreat with Gilbert Gutierrez                                                        

        by Jeff Travis  

Foregoing the comfort of sleeping in on a Saturday morning, a group of like-minded people came together at Dharma Drum Mountain for a one-day retreat, led by one of Venerable Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma Heirs, Gilbert Gutierrez, on the Chan practice of 'the method of no method' - Silent Illumination.  

Gilbert kindly gave some preliminary instructions and went on to speak about what Silent Illumination is... and is not.  Simply observing our own awareness in a non-attached way, free from clinging or aversion, turned out to be more difficult than one would expect - thus the method - being aware, clear, present with 360-degree awareness. 

Especially helpful was the discussion about the right view regarding Mind and how this is critical to making progress in our practice.  Chan is supposed to be directly pointing to Mind, so Gilbert's message was clear: don't confuse consciousness with Mind.  Chan is often paradoxical and counterintuitive only because we are using our discriminating minds to try and understand Mind.  How are we supposed to do that?  No thought.  Critical to the day was hearing about the misunderstanding that 'no thought' somehow means thoughts will no longer arise but that isn't the case.  Gilbert made it clear to us that it is the proliferation of ideation and discrimination which follows the arising of a thought -- is what we are trying to eradicate. 

So what is Mind?  Can we even say it exists or doesn't exist?  These are all mysteries but the practice of Silent Illumination shows the way to the intrinsic knowing which each and every one of us has but has lost touch with.  What is it which knows?  Mind.  Still confused?  Most of us seemed to be as well but Gilbert patiently took questions from us and encouraged us with stories about his time with Venerable Sheng Yen.  

The clarification I received about the goal of this practice not being about the bliss of meditative states was especially helpful when every part of my body was racked with pain after hours of sitting.  Finally understanding that Chan was not about disappearing in the void of samadhi or the joy of jhana kept me going despite not feeling like I had attained anything.  My own commentary to a fellow practitioner later that evening read:

                 That was a good reminder: meditation isn't all about purple lights
                 and trippy good feelings. So making it through the day must have
                 been worth something. Neither you nor I quit and went home and
                 we easily could have; no one was guarding the door. We increased
                 affinities with a practice, a teacher, and other students and despite
                 no immediate, tangible outcome or 'getting something' we made it
                 through the day. Perhaps we nudged our habits and tendencies just
                 a wee bit in the right direction. If so, that's enough. 

Gilbert reminded us that although there really is nothing to attain, we still need to cultivate our practice in order to keep the vows we made in the past but have forgotten and fulfill the ones we are making now for the sake of all beings in the future.