PZI Teacher Archives

Zen Luminaries: Silent Illumination with Chan Scholar GuoGu


Jon Joseph talks with scholar and Chan Teacher GuoGu about his book, Silent Illumination, on the literary genius of Zen master Hongzhi, whose teaching evolved during the height of 12th century Chan. GuoGu discusses the subtleties and great freedom inherent in Chan, from its flourishing in the Sung Dynasty to the current day.


Chan has a flexible openness to it, and whether from its encounter with Daoism or from earlier indigenous practices, it has no measuring stick for enlightenment. This openness is also present in Japanese Zen, and continues today as a practice of ruthless honesty with oneself.

Silent illumination in Chan

Mind yourself sitting, no breath, no nothing – is a literal description of basic Chan meditation.

Silent illumination is subtly different, and refers to an embodied non-abiding responsiveness in practice.

“Silent illumination” was not a practice for Zen master Hongzhi—it was (and is) instead a poetic metaphor for the essence and function of awakening as a response to life. There were no official methods of practice in early Chan. Specific practice methods were not linked to awakening. Methods and practices were manufactured later by different schools, to identify their way.

There was a shared body of Chan teaching that included a multitude of practices and methods. Dahui’s teacher was the single (unusual) master that consistently used the same practice to find the huatou (“head” of the koan). Huatou was adopted as an “official” practice much later, in Japan.

Pilgrimage was very much a part of the Chinese Chan tradition. Practitioners sought teachings from many temples because these temples were not tied to any one method, lineage, sect, or specific teacher.

Huatou practice and development

The Northern Sung dynasty was the pinnacle of the Chan literary tradition. Upon the fall of that flourishing dynasty, China went through a crisis on multiple levels, particularly for the educated elite. It generated a deep inward turning.

During this time, as a response, Dahui dismantled the whole Chan commentary tradition in favor of a condensed form more accessible to laypeople, through using the huatou. He reputedly burned the printing blocks for the remarkable, poetic Blue Cliff Record. This was a major disruption in the Record, which was reconfigured after Dahui passed away. Dahui’s actions represented an amazing departure, unheard of within Confucian filial piety—a break from the tradition. Chan, not being tied to any method, could absorb this intense break.

Pre-Hakuin Japanese Soto masters wrote commentaries on the Gateless Barrier, and in so doing were actually closer to the Chinese at the time of its koan tradition’s flourishing. They were impressed with esoteric, secret investigation.

Master Shuyen and huatou

GuoGu’s teacher, Master Shuyen, revived a solid practice of silent illumination, using only a few koans at first. He later shifted to Zhaozhou’s Dog—the completely unfathomable. As his primary koan, he now uses: Where do Buddhas come from? East Mountain walks on water.



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