Book Bits, Book of the Month

Guo Gu’s Guide to Silent Illumination

The self is attachment. When there is attachment, there are obstructions. What is attachment? It is whatever we can’t let go of.”

– Guo Gu


The practice of meditation and the act of just sitting in a wholehearted and embodied way is seemingly such a simple activity that most of us nonetheless spend years and years trying to comprehend and perfect. Tallahassee-based Chan teacher Guo Gu’s new book Silent Illumination digs into the practicalities of Chinese Buddhist teachings, in line with what he himself learned from his teacher, the Taiwanese Master Sheng Yen. This section from his book talks about the core of Chan meditation being the concrete experience of being in the present moment, not holding on to any mental concept or idea about oneself or one’s activity. In order to better describe the process, Guo Gu likens experience and self-consciousness to looking out of a dirty window, then out of a clean one, then out of a space that contains no window at all. Click here to read The Dewdrop’s interview with Guo Gu.


Experiencing is itself fresh and open, relaxed and wakeful. In it, there is no division between body and mind. But to begin, you need an anchor. So feel the presence of the body grounded on the earth; that is, clearly feel the presence of the body sitting. When your body sits, your mind sits. Body is sitting, mind is sitting. There is no separation. But if you are self-conscious— if you are looking at your body from outside of yourself— you are not experiencing sitting. You are creating an experiencer and that which is experienced. Never visualize the body sitting or think about the body sitting. Simply be in the body, in its presence, and stay grounded there.

In just sitting, body and mind are just this act of sitting, this reality. Sit­ting is not a concept— there are no conceptual descriptions or labels that define it. It is completely embodied. Don’t get caught up with the partic­ulars of the body-mind experience, either. Just concretely experience being here, sitting.

If you don’t need an object or an anchor, then experience the experienc­ing itself. In the stream of being in the present, moment to moment, there’s simply being and experiencing. The present moment and experiencing are not two separate things. There are no objects of the mind, and there is no subject needed to meditate on this or that object. Self is not needed. The experiencing itself is the present moment. The present moment is already free.

A common problem with practitioners is mistaking self-consciousness with clarity or mindfulness. Self-consciousness belongs to the level of dis­cursive thinking. It is a little voice, a judgment about being aware of yourself, objectifying yourself as a thing: “Hey, I’m doing it! I’m doing silent illumi­nation!” or “Am I doing this right?” or “Should I practice like this?” All of these are just wandering thoughts. At the center of them, there’s a strong sense of me, I, and mine.

When your body sits, your mind sits. Body is sitting, mind is sitting. There is no separation. But if you are self-conscious— if you are looking at your body from outside of yourself— you are not experiencing sitting.

But being unified in body and mind, clear and wakeful, is not awakening either. This is not true silent illumination, but at least it is a natural state of being, aligned with our self-nature. Why? Because in this moment, there is still the subtle clear rising and ceasing of “me sitting.” Even though the self is not so prominent, even though we are simply being present with our experiencing, this clarity is the fundamental mind of birth and death. It is not awakening.

Master Yongjia Xuanjue articulated this state as, “If you are aware of this awareness of stillness, then this is not the unconditioned awareness.”  This “being aware of this awareness of stillness” is fundamental ignorance— the self. Even though the crude forms of craving, aversion, arrogance, and so on have subsided, subtle forms of self-attachment still exist.

An analogy for this state is a nicely cleaned window. Although the win­dow is clearly transparent, there’s still a window there after all. Practice is like cleaning the window. It is not like writing or scribbling on bits of paper, writing stories about what we are seeing, making up theories about what’s inside and outside. There’s an expression for this, isn’t there? “We are the authors of our own lives.” Practice is different. It’s more like noticing that the window is not very clean, that it might be obscuring what’s out there, so we start to clean it. The more we focus on the window, the more we realize that it really is quite dirty. All the conditioning, all the years of marking up the window with our notions, beliefs, habit tendencies— all these markings are stuck to the glass and make it hard to see. So we start to clean. We scrape and polish and clean until the window is quite clear. We recognize all our conditioning, and we let it drop away.

The difference between this clear window and no window at all is like night and day. The clarity of seeing through a clear window that is well pol­ished and free of marks or streaks is nice, but it is very different from having no window at all!

Then the window becomes very clear— so clear that it’s almost as if it’s not there. It’s so clean that a person might try to walk through it or a bird might fly into it, but there is still a window there. There is still a divide between us and what is on the other side. This clear window is a close approximation to experiencing without contrivance, to wakefulness without wandering thoughts. But it is not the true clarity of awakening. The window, however clear it may be, is still there. The self, however absent it may appear to be, is still present. And even though it might seem that there is no window, because it is so clear, we eventually realize that there is still a “window” there. How? We encounter some obstacle and the window becomes an obstruc­tion. For example, a bird bangs against the window. Or we lean forward and hit our forehead and experience pain. As long as the self is present, we will experience obstructions and suffering.

The self is attachment. When there is attachment, there are obstructions. What is attachment? It is whatever we can’t let go of. Some people think that a clear window is true clarity. They call it “naked awareness,” or “choiceless awareness,” or “selfless awareness” because it is so clear, seemingly without self. But that clarity becomes a source of attachment.

The difference between this clear window and no window at all is like night and day. The clarity of seeing through a clear window that is well pol­ished and free of marks or streaks is nice, but it is very different from having no window at all! When the self is absent, there is no window at all and no obstructions anywhere. Originally, there is no window.

This process has infinite possibilities because there are infinite obstruc­tions, infinite modes of conditioning. As we proceed, we may experience different altered states but they are still just marks on the window. In prac­tice, we keep on polishing until we have a clear window. And then we let go of the window. We realize there never was a need for a window in the first place. We don’t need self-reference in order to live, to love, and to be successful and productive. In fact, it is the self that limits our potential. Self-reference or self-attachment is a fabrication. We’ve mistaken our brain’s sense of subjectivity as the presence of a permanent self. It is true that we need this sense of self to navigate the world— when we see a red light we need to stop and when we feel pain we need to heal because, in a conven­tional sense, the world is there and we are in it. But there is absolutely no need to reify, solidify, and attach to something that is inherently chang­ing and non-abiding. There is no fixed self-image, self-concern, and self-reference. We are free!

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