Book: The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
By Chan Master Sheng Yen
Reviewed by Brian Schell
Shambhala, 2008. 152 Pages, ISBN 978-1-59030-575-1
Buy from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1590305752/?tag=askdrarca-20
Someone a few weeks back lamented their inability to go on a retreat. This book is the perfect solution to that situation, as it’s essentially a retreat in book form. I introduced Master Sheng Yen a while back when I reviewed his book ‚ÄúFootprints in the Snow.‚Äù I was impressed with that biography, and wanted to learn more about his actual teachings, so when he released this latest book, I jumped on the opportunity to read it. This book is basically a cleaned-up transcript of one of the week-long retreats that he offers.
There are three main sections to the book, ‚ÄúThe Practice of Silent Illumination‚Äù, ‚ÄúMaster Hongzhi’s Discourse: First Commentary‚Äù, and ‚ÄúMaster Hongzhi’s Discourse: Second Commentary.‚Äù Master Hongzhi lived from 1091-1157 and was the first to write about the practice of Silent Illumination. Sheng Yen has deeply researched into this Master and teaches his ancient method today.
The first section of the book is broken up into seven days’ teachings on how to practice Silent Illumination. Silent Illumination, to put it simply (probably too simply), seems to be a combination of ‚ÄúEmpty Mind‚Äù meditation combined with the idea of being one with the environment. Sheng Yen gives several short talks each day, and each has a small section with that day’s teachings. If you wanted to know what goes on in a retreat, this book is a clear way to see without actually attending one.
The second and third sections are also broken up into seven days’ teachings, but are more theoretical, explaining the original writings of Hongzhi in a modern way.
Since this is basically a transcription of a real weeklong seminar, there is some repetition, as the teacher reiterates some of what has gone before, but it’s not overly repetitious. Actually, some of the expansions in the later days really clarify what silent Illumination is all about.
Although practice and success at Silent Illumination is not an easy thing, the book is not complicated at all. There is some Buddhist jargon in the book, but whenever a new term is introduced, the word is marked with an *asterisk to show that it is explained in the glossary. He explains the practice of meditation, and explains that there are stages in Silent Illumination, but that not all of them are necessary; you might choose to focus on one stage forever. The book is reasonably short, but it did take me a while to get through it, as there is a lot here to think about.
Bottom Line: If you want to learn how a real Master teaches real meditation and theory in a real retreat setting, this is it. The language is easy and conversational, the ideas are not complex (quite the opposite in fact), yet there is enough depth here that you could spend the rest of your life mastering it.