Mozhao Chan (Silent Illumination Chan)

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Used as a derogatory term by its critics, "silent illumination" Chan (Chinese, mozhao Chan; Japanese, mukoshō Zen) designates an approach to practice and enlightenment that strongly emphasizes the inherently enlightened buddha-nature (tathĀgatagarbha) in all sentient beings. Silent illumination Chan advocates an objectless, still meditation, in which all dualisms disappear and enlightenment naturally manifests itself.

The term silent illumination was first used in Chinese Chan (Korean, Sŏn; Japanese, Zen) circles in the first half of the twelfth century, probably introduced by the great Chan master of the Caodong tradition, Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157). However, the term was made infamous by Hongzhi's contemporary Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) of the Linji Chan tradition, who vehemently attacked what he called the "heretical silent illumination Chan" of his day as a quietistic form of meditation, lacking in wisdom and enlightenment. Dahui Zonggao countered with his own kanhua Chan meditation (literally "Chan of observing the key phrase" or "kŌan introspection Chan"), and he succeeded in imbuing the term silent illumination with strongly negative connotations that came to characterize it in all of East Asian Buddhism.

Hongzhi is the only Chan master on record who used silent illumination in a positive sense, although it is possible that the term was expunged from the records of other Caodong masters after Dahui's attacks. In his writings and recorded sayings, Hongzhi often lyrically extols the realm of enlightenment that manifests in quiet meditation, as in the opening lines of his famous poem "Mozhao Ming" ("Inscription on Silent Illumination"), where he writes: "In complete silence, words are forgotten; total clarity appears before you." However, in this poem and elsewhere, Hongzhi stresses that although there is no need to strive for an enlightenment experience, the meditator must not fall into a murky and unthinking state of mind; transcendent wisdom will naturally manifest itself only in an alert mind. To Hongzhi, silent illumination was by no means a passive or thought-suppressing exercise.

Other Caodong masters around the time of Hongzhi can be shown to have embraced similar teachings, beginning with the reviver of the Songdynasty (960–1279) Caodong tradition, Furong Daokai (1043–1118). There is, however, no evidence that a special silent illumination approach characterized the Caodong Chan tradition from the time of its reputed founder, Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), although this has often been assumed.

In the thirteenth century the Japanese monk DŌgen (1200–1253) received a transmission in the Chinese Caodong tradition and founded the Japanese Sōtō sect of Zen. Dōgen did not use the term silent illumination, but his shikantaza (just sitting) meditation practice can clearly be seen as influenced by the silent illumination of the twelfth-century Caodong tradition, although there is no agreement among scholars as to the extent of this influence. The Japanese Rinzai (Chinese, Linji) sect of Zen, which became heir to Dahui Zonggao's kanhua Chan, has occasionally accused the Sōtō sect of practicing silent illumination, but the Sōtō sect has never used the term for its own teachings. In Korean Sŏn, kanhua (Korean, kanwha) Chan dominated early on, and silent illumination Chan never had an impact. Although kanhua Chan became the standard for meditation in China shortly after Dahui Zonggao and was even adopted in the late Song Caodong tradition, silent illumination style meditation is still recognized as legitimate in Chinese Chan.

See also:Chan School


Leighton, Taigen Daniel, ed. and trans. (with Yi Wu). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1991.

Schlütter, Morten. "Silent Illumination, Kung-an Introspection, and the Competition for Lay Patronage in Sung-Dynasty Ch'an." In Buddhism in the Sung, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel Getz. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 1999.

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