Silent Illumination

September 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

To understand Dōgen’s silent illumination consider mind as mirror.  The reflections are thoughts and judgments that, if engaged, result in a thinker pondering thoughts and experiencing feelings.  This is normal everyday life where subject and objects are separate, existing in a state of dualism.  It is the individual standing in front of a mirror looking at what’s reflected.  If, however, in “just sitting” thought is let go and there is no interaction of the thinker with the thought, both dissolve into one and reality manifests itself.  This is a condition where the individual is not separated from the mirror but sees him or herself as part of the reflections in the mirror, arising with every other form therein.

In Dōgen’s teachings manifesting reality is not a condition void of forms.  It is one where forms, which include us, arise and fall together and, as such; Dōgen’s teachings affirm the basic Buddhist tenet of the impermanence and interdependence of all objects.

This is not the normal arising and falling experienced in duality but an arising of forms experiencing one another, a reality manifesting itself to itself that Dōgen calls the myriad forms illuminating themselves.  Illuminating in the sense of consciousness shining it’s light upon itself.

Although called silent illumination it is not silent in a passive sense but is, rather, a dynamic, creative interaction of forms arising and falling with each other.  And this arising includes delusion as well as enlightenment.  Delusion and enlightenment are interdependent and arise together as two aspects of a greater unity.

In Dōgen’s teaching it is not that one must remove delusion to obtain enlightenment.  (In fact that is quite impossible as the two arise together.)  Delusion, all our frailties and shortcomings, attachments and aversions, are not to be suppressed or denied but accepted into awareness and studied.  By study we awaken to our delusions and come to know how they interact within us and in the world.  Through study and silent illumination we become greatly enlightened about delusion and, as Dōgen said, to be greatly enlightened about delusion is to be a Buddha.

There are many appealing aspects to Dōgen’s teaching.  It presents enlightenment in part as a full awareness of the delusion that causes of our troubles, inner turmoil and delusion.  This frees us from the belief enlightenment is a condition that awaits us after some psychological process of cleansing our mind of attachments and aversions.  At the same time it shows the way out of mental turmoil by directing one to turn one’s full attention on these attachments and aversions.  To study and penetrate to their depth so we can fully participate in our lives and with each other being fully here and in the present moment.


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