Letting go is the function of our true nature, our true self. We are letting go.
I don’t mean that we’re isolated, changeless individuals who can perform letting go as an action. I mean that we literally are the act of letting go. As is everything.
Stop and see. You’re only able to read each of these words by letting go of the ones that came before them. We’re only able to walk because we can let go of where we were standing a second ago. Night lets go and transforms into day. Winter lets go into spring. The trees let go of their leaves and then let go of their barrenness.
It’s like if you stood under a faucet with open hands; the water just runs right off.
It’s easy to get mixed up, because when we cup our hands, a little pool of water forms, so we think we can hold it. We think that it can be ours. Then we take a drink and think that it’s us.
But even as we held it it was evaporating. After we drank it, it let itself go and became energy for cells, then they let it go and it became body heat. Our eyes let it go, our sweat glands and salivary glands. Our bladders. The toilet lets it go.
Then the earth lets it go and it rises into the upper atmosphere. Then the vapor lets itself go and it transforms into clouds. The clouds let themselves go and turn to rain.
Everything is like this. Even the hands we cupped the water with.
In silent illumination practice we’re sitting and letting go. When we totally let go, we see that everything is letting go, and that it’s all letting go without ever having picked anything up. This is the end of fear, hatred, and greed because those all require an idea of holding on.
It’s an end to feeling lonely because there’s no separation in letting go. It’s an end to regret and worrying about the future. All of the teachings in Buddhism are there to give us reasons to let go. The methods either sharpen our focus so that we can see letting go directly, or they give us the courage to see.
I like calling silent illumination, “Stop and see,” practice. We stop judging, rationalizing, and wandering to the past and future, and we see Just This. It’s a way of relaxing into enlightenment. No seeking, no running, no circling. Just This.
Stopping and seeing isn’t for everyone, that’s why there’s also Buddha recitation and hua tou practice.
In hua tou practice, we’re dropping the stopping and using this habitual tendency to grasp at things as an entry to enlightenment. We’re looking into a question like, “What is this?” “Who am I?” “What is mu?” or, “What’s the Iron Ox?” not to find an answer, but to find its source.
Silent illumination practice is like letting water settle and clear. Once the water’s clear, we see a bright pearl and dive in after it. Hua tou practice is like seeing a bright pearl beneath a thick sheet of ice. So, we chop through the ice and then dive in after it.
Hua tou favors a louder, more aggressive mindset. If we put it in Harry Potter terms, silent illumination is Gryffindor, hua tou and gong-an are Slytherin.
I’m a Ravenclaw. All of my dives happen through gong-an-like dialogues, while chatting Dharma, or when reading a word that suddenly knocks me on my ass. But that’s only because sitting keeps my mind ripe. Don’t think that studying and gabbing alone will get you anywhere.
I switch between silent illumination, hua tou practice, and Buddha recitation depending on the situation. This is unorthodox and more than a few practitioners would say it’s unwise, but what can I say? I’m foolish. There’s no point in denying what is.
Buddha recitation is a Hufflepuff practice. “Namo amituofo!” Or, as I like to do it, “Namo Fotuo!” Amituofo means Amitabha Buddha. Fotuo just means Buddha. This practice can bring a lot of joy and ease to our lives. It’s designed to transform our minds into a Pure Land, and to see that we’re all Buddhas.
If silent illumination is like waiting for the water to clear and then diving in, and hua tou is like breaking ice and diving in, Buddha recitation is like focusing on the pearl itself until we suddenly see that it wasn’t at the bottom of the lake at all—it was our own reflection in the water.
This practice can be combined with hua tou (by silently asking, “Who’s chanting?”) and silent illumination practice. In fact, they can all be combined to some degree—there aren’t any firm lines here.
I recommend trying them all and seeing what feels the most natural to you.
All of these practices open us up to our awakened nature. This nature isn’t one-sided, it isn’t just letting go or breaking apart. Chan and Seon both incorporated an essence-function metaphor. Letting go is the function, but what’s the essence?
Because what is it that lets go? What is it that breaks through? We can’t talk about impermanence without talking about something that’s impermanent. Buddhism isn’t nihilism.
Letting go applies to appearances. Appearances are constantly disappearing, disappearing is constantly appearing. Ice, rivers, and clouds are appearances. What’s behind them? What don’t you see when you’re watching the clouds?
Yourself. You are the light that reveals all appearances.