It’s been a rough year for me, for a lot of reasons.
My dad almost died of a heart attack. My job sucks, and I’ve been unable to save enough money to afford a studio apartment. Debt, a confusing/non-existent love-life… the list goes on.
Despite these years of practice, it was almost impossible to see through all the madness to the tranquil blue above it. Feeling defeated, I sat on the front steps in the brisk night air, letting myself think.
Mood or state of mind is an important part of Buddhism. It’s called citta. “Attaining a purified citta corresponds to the attaining of liberated insight” (Wikipedia, n.d.). Bodhicitta is the selfless aspiration to Wake Up and serve all sentient beings, and many say that it is actually identical to Awakening. Bodhicitta is an Awakened mood, a #woke (haha) state of mind.
Moods influence our thoughts. They’re like exhibits at a zoo. If the pen is tiny and dilapidated, the tigers in are gonna get anxious, depressed, violent, or even psychotic. If it’s a vast pen, indistinguishable from the tigers’ natural habitat, they’re going to be more docile and at ease.
If the seas are turbulent, we’re gonna be more likely to get blown off course. We might even capsize and drown. But with calm seas, we can easily navigate the waters and reach the Other Shore.
But mood doesn’t just influence thought, thought influences mood. We’ve all had the experience of being in a great mood, thinking positive thoughts, until a negative thought seems to come out of nowhere. The mood darkens, and more negative thoughts proliferate—it’s an avalanche.
The Sutras and classical texts are full of beautiful, tranquil, shining thoughts stemming from Awakened minds. Sitting there, I wondered, “Since thoughts influence mood, is it possible to think about the teachings and follow them back to the mindset that crafted them?” This went against all the orthodox Zen training I’d received. In Zen, the focus is on cutting off, ignoring, observing or seeing the true nature of thought—not getting wrapped up in them.
But the Surangama said that thought or thinking is a viable mediation object.
So I assumed the position, and thought about the Dharma. Thought after thought. Sometimes I’d recall a teaching verbatim, sometimes I’d put it in other terms. I concentrated on thinking, the same way we’re taught to concentrate on the breath. Thoughts flowed, subjects changed, moving along via a stream of associations. Sometimes it resembled free verse poetry. There were moments of silence.
“All beings are of the same nature. Empty, free, Awake. Shining tranquility pervading the ten directions, identical in all, a common ground that neither comes nor goes, beyond being and non-being. It is not this mind, but this mind is not separate from it. They are neither the same nor different. Beyond beyond, the still light of Bodhi shines…”
Like that. One by one, the other senses seemed to disappear. The whirring farm equipment in the nearby field, the cool stone step beneath me, the darkness behind my eyelids. Like how when you’re reading a book you start to tune out voices and traffic sounds. You forget where you were or where you’re going and just read.
Joy. Unexpected. A bright glow. Pleasant warmth enveloping a body that no longer seemed to be present or absent. Thought after thought, the Dharma Tranquility.
Then, to my surprise, a hint of luminous silence—mozhao. Thought dropped away, and the mind seemed to no boundary. No inside or outside. Forever unmoving, spacious, and bright.
Roaring through crisp infinity—the timer bell. I bowed and looked at the clock: a 25 minute sit.
I was mind-blown because I didn’t think it was possible to use thinking to uncover Silent Illumination. It seemed heterodox, counter-intuitive, and maybe even a little blasphemous (in a good way).
I hopped on the net to see what the hell just happened. Surprisingly, Chinese Catholics (I never even knew they existed) have a similar practice called moxiang: silent contemplation.
In their method, you sit and think about a passage from the gospel. You visualize it and ponder it in your own words. Then, a blissful feeling rises up and you take that feeling out into the world, letting it bring more kindness and patience into your actions. The three stages are called memory, contemplation, and spirit.
Silent Thought meditation follows the same pattern: mindful (memory) concentration on thoughts about the Dharma (contemplation) opening up a luminous, Bodhi state of mind (spirit). But in this method, we keep going even after that hint of Illumination appears.
Silent Thought isn’t like wandering thought. When the mind is wandering, it isn’t concentrated, and the thoughts have no direction. Silent Thought is concentrated, directed thought that keeps the same course, never going off into the weeds.
Just like that, all the clutter seemed to be gone, and my baggage seemed light. The effect seems cumulative. The more I practice the method, the longer this free and easy Bodhi mood seems to last. I can reach out and touch people without awkwardness now. It’s easier to love and set down harmful habits. Even work, that dismal pit, seems like a fun place to hangout at.
Everything that bothered me and held me back seems trivial now. I’ve been practicing Silent Thought for less than a week.