Originally from Taiwan, Guo Gu first learned meditation as a child at the age of four. When he was 12 years old, he moved to the United States and began studying with Chan Master Sheng Yen. He was ordained as a monk at the age of 23 and became Sheng Yen’s personal assistant. After being recognized as both a teacher in Chan and Zen, Guo Gu gave up his monk’s robes. He has since completed a doctorate degree at Princeton and is currently an associate professor of Buddhist studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He is the author of several books on Chan including his latest work, Silent Illumination, A Chan Buddhist Path to Natural Awakening. Guo Gu, who now teaches Chan at centers in Tallahassee and London, got together with Vanessa Able via the magic of Zoom to talk about silent illumination, punk music and his teacher’s legacy.
VA: What is silent illumination and how have you been moved to write about it?
GG: Silent illumination was part of the repertoire of my teacher’s teaching almost since the very beginning when he came to the United States in 1975. But the way that he taught during that time was not so well received because he relied on the traditional way of teaching, so he took a hiatus and then by the early 1980s, he started to introduce it again. By that time, he had worked with Westerners for some years and developed a distinctive way to present Chan.
The way he taught was to begin with working with the breath. After some time, the person can veer into silent illumination or koan practice. Later on, Sheng Yen started to formulated silent illumination in a stratified, sequential approach, presenting a kind of ladder for people to climb up, out of expediency. But then, people started to become attached to stages of practice, and the medicine became poison. I wanted to redress this. When we present stages of practice, people start to ask, how do I get to the second stage? Then it just becomes complicated. So, I’m spearheading this way of presenting silent illumination away from that.
VA: What is your approach to silent illumination?
GG: Most people are in their headspace. And most people are disconnected from their bodies. They don’t know that. The sensations that impact this subtle undercurrent, the feeling tones that actually shape people’s interpretation of things, opinions, views, and so on. The way I teach it is to bring it back to the body first, to make people more aware, connected somatically and that will bring a level of stability and groundedness.
Words and language are so important to human beings. The way we receive the Dharma, like anything else, we hear it cerebrally. So it’s very natural to go to that with which we’re most familiar in order to process the Dharma, which is, we think through it.
That’s why I call it embodied experiencing, being in the body, experiencing Dharma through the body, being grounded. In order to do that, you have to first relax into it. We think too much – we get chronic headaches or migraines. The energy is just up here (points to head). We need to diffuse that around.
I was taught silent illumination in an East Asian context, but it needs to be adjusted in the West. In East Asia, family, community, connectedness, the sense of self are all formatted quite differently. In that context people are told to relax, for example, to the solar plexus, to keep the solar plexus grounded. It’s understood to be grounded to earth because we’re connected to everything in nature.
But in the West this method has unintended psychosomatic responses. Chan has no kind of fixed teachings; different teachers adapt into different circumstances. I’m just making some adjustments—if someone veers to the left, I bring them back to the center again.
I don’t use words like ‘clarity’ and ‘awareness’ because I’m trying to steer people away from that. Why? Because in this current context in America and the West in general, there’s so much talk of awareness and clarity and naked awareness and all this just becomes jargon. People confuse self-consciousness with mindfulness. Because when you say ‘aware’, you’re up in your head again. Instead, I talk about embodied experiencing because experiencing is the most immediate, raw way of how things are with us. The eyes see, the ears hear; what does the mind and body do? Experience. And it’s in the ING-form: experiencing, as opposed to stagnant awareness. The language means so much and it shapes our understanding and experience of the Buddha Dharma.
VA: You have had the unique experience of having been taught the Dharma in the context of one culture to now be teaching it in another. People have different relationships to their spiritual practice according to their cultural background. How do you see that difference and how do you bridge it, if at all, as a teacher?
GG: East Asia had a unique affinity with Mahayana Buddhism. Of course, this was not one, homogenous movement. There are many different scriptures and they arose from different regions of India. Chan drew inspiration from texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra. The central figure, Vimalakirti, was a lay person completely immersed in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. He was extremely wealthy and influential, had power and a high profile, and yet he was very down to earth and incorporated the Dharma teaching – he taught from that perspective in a system with clear boundaries in which he transcended the boundaries and promoted the distinctions. That is quite fundamentally Chan Zen.
In our time the challenge is not a teaching that is against power, wealth, fame and influence. It’s to encourage and support practitioners in pursuit of individualism and livelihood without abandoning them, whatever station of life they may be in. This is unique, it’s not promoting a ladder to success, it’s being in whatever station that we find ourselves in, and everyone is unique.
So, the problem is not words and language, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The problem is the way we reify them and solidify them as things that we have to go after. For example, Sakyamuni Buddha walked for 40 years after his awakening all over India, and he was very well connected to different clans and received a lot of patronage. Buddha’s teachings and Chan teachings are not against individualism or the pursuit of happiness. It’s just that one’s tendency to reify and certify things as being out there – that attachment must be questioned.
So, nothing is really wrong with that, just like in the story of Vimalakirti. Nothing was really wrong with his power and his influence and his wealth. He used that to benefit people. But if you use that for your self-referential gain, it becomes problematic. So whether it’s individualism, collectivism, whatever culture, whatever time, this is just things where they are. It’s the tendency to be tethered or bound to that that is the problem.
VA: What aspect of your teacher Sheng Yen has stayed with you most vividly?
GG: My direction and purpose (to put it in Buddhist jargon) is bodhicitta, Bodhi mind. That lived experience is a sense of direction. Without a sense of direction, a person is lost. We have such short time on Earth. We can do what needs to be done. And the more one practices the more one sees the connectedness of everyone.
He said to me once, use the body like a rag and the mind like a mirror. So, what I can do with this body? I do the best I can. My heart, my mind is the guide for following this direction. And this direction is to avail myself to as many people as possible and to offer Buddha Dharma. That’s primary. Everything else is secondary.
VA: Is it necessary to have a teacher?
Traditionally, Buddhism will probably say yes, but maybe not in the way we think. In traditional Buddhism there is not the one-to-one kind of teacher-student relationship. When we look at the early scriptures and at Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching, it’s not a pyramid model. The Sangha is not a pyramid model, it is actually flattened.
Teachers are important, but one has to be careful. If there is more than one teacher, there must be resonance and teaching affinity between the different teachers that one is studying with. Because in Dharma practice, we cannot piece together different fragmentary teachings to fit what we want to do – this will just perpetuate our self-referencing.
It’s like getting a boat. As long as you can see the shore, that’s fine. You know you can go back when you need to. Once you get into deep, deep waters, you don’t have any reference point, you definitely need a compass, otherwise, you will be lost. Or you just rely on luck. You steer your boat, maybe your reach the shore, maybe not.
This water I’m talking about is all the subtle ways our discriminatory minds and self-referential tendencies operate. If we rely on that to piece together a Dharma practice that’s fit for us, the self remains unchallenged, unexposed. That’s the role of the teacher and it does not need to be authoritarian.
The second aspect of a teacher is a friend. In China we have a saying: 70% friend, 30% teacher. It’s very organic because the indigenous Chinese religious landscape is not really hierarchical. When we practice together, we review our own shortcomings and everyone grows, everyone learns together. That’s a teacher. Someone with more years of practice and maybe some insights, but still a practitioner.
VA: A lot of the foundational teaching about silent illumination comes from the poetic writing of the 12th century Chinese master, Hongzhi Zhengjue. How do you see poetry as a teaching tool, or a companion in practice?
GG: Hongzhi Zhengjue was an atypical Chan master. He was a literary genius. His command of Chinese words, language and imagery was beyond many of his peers. Because of his unique experience, background and caliber, he was able to use poetic imagery to articulate realization and practice principles.
Poetry itself has the ability to transcend the bounds of intellectualization. There’s an embodied visual reality to poetic expressions that treatises and expository writing just can’t touch. It evokes lived experiences and different associations that we have. That is the uniqueness of Zhengjue’s expression. He didn’t really write poems, what he wrote was prose, but his command of language was amazing. And through that, practitioners are able to develop or access a new way of understanding practice.
Hongzhi Zhengjue uses allusions, stories and imagery to get to the feeling tone of awakening. So, it is necessary for me to tease out from the imagery the actual experiences, the nuances of those words. Once that is done, it can be an excellent tool for teaching and transmission.
VA: Was Hongzhi Zhengjue writing for a larger audience than just his students?
GG: He was definitely writing for a larger audience. He was a very high-profile, imperially-sponsored Chan master and his students were elite and very well educated, especially in the Confucian classics.
VA: I read that years ago you were a bass player in hardcore punk groups. Is there some overlap between punk and Buddhism?
GG: There are so many different genres in the punk scene. The emergence of punk had more to do with marginalization. It’s kind of like a reactionary movement. So, in that sense, we can broadly construe that connection with Buddhism or Chan. The emergence of Chan was a reactionary movement against Buddhist scholasticism: not depending on words or language, not tied with sutras, direct pointing, bringing Buddhism down from the clouds. The upper echelons of Chinese civilization were theorizing about Buddhism, while these grassroot movements, focusing on meditation and directly experiencing, were reacting against that.
There are music movements that dominate culture and espouse a particular view of the world, like rock ‘n’ roll, like Van Halen. My experience growing up was in a white suburban neighborhood that was quite racist. Many punks were bullied. Now it’s cool to shave your head, but back then people would stop the car if you were walking down the street and jump you. That was the lived experience. I had a connection with Buddhism from a young age, so I went through that phase while still being connected. There was an overlap, a community kind of transcendence. When you’re in the mosh pit, when you’re slam dancing, when you’re diving off stage—it was a world that these people created for themselves where they weren’t judged and where they were accepted. It’s a simple human need, to be heard and accepted.
VA: Punk music seems very angry to me. Is it?
GG: In our current climate of racial reckoning, people are standing up for themselves. So if you look at the lyrics of a band like Judge (the straightedge punk band Guo Gu was part of), for example, they were challenging the status quo and the oppression. And they were militant about it. So it’s natural. It’s natural and our voices weren’t heard. You can see that playing out in the way that I teach. I’m recognizing the somatic imprints, as opposed to what was up here (points to his head).