Blue Sky, White Cloud

Silent illumination, or silently-illuming as I prefer, expresses both the fulfilment of training, which awakens us to our fundamental condition, and the training itself. A training that leads to spaciousness and stillness through learning to let go of habitual attachments, that reveals mental silence and the natural awakening of our innate wisdom and compassion. It becomes a discovery of our natural luminous condition before the world of ignorance and delusion is created. We begin to discover this when we learn to return and stay with our everyday experience of awareness, because our everyday familiar state of awareness is the direct and only gateway to our true nature. In many ways it is enough to be still for insight to arise from within, but there is also the danger that this peaceful state may encourage us to simply bask in its natural condition of peacefulness and mental and physical bliss; retreat into it as a sort of pleasurable comfort zone that inevitably leads to dulling the edge of potentially deeper awakening. Indeed, down the centuries, this form of training has been accused of doing precisely that, and only promoting dullness through a lack of stirring natural energy (virya) that would be generated through active insight contemplation . In China this trap is exposed with this traditional Chan warning: ‘The mountain is dark, so there is nothing to see; and in the cave of ghosts, what can one accomplish? ‘ So this potential danger is accepted to be a very real one.

Chan master Línjì Yìxuán (Japanese: Rinzai Gigen) acknowledged this danger. During early Chan he famously formulated a system of ponderable questions (koans) for the practitioner to work with, during meditation as well as in daily life. This process would not only have had the effect of stimulating insightful interest, but no doubt also kept the practitioner from falling asleep.

The metaphor of a blue sky is nothing new to Buddhism. It has been an image much used to reveal the vastness of our own natural clear luminous mind, in many traditions down the centuries. What I have done in the talks is to add a white cloud, symbolic of insightful investigation into the open expansiveness of the mind’s blue-sky-like nature. My intention is to create not only an inspirational and attractive image, but also to suggest that it is possible to engage with energetic insightful investigation into that part of our makeup that is dualistic and in constant turmoil, yet retain the openness of our natural stillness. This is a paradoxical situation that needs commitment and ongoing refinement to fulfil, but which I believe reveals the subtle nature and challenge of the immanent model of dharma training.

The metaphor of a blue sky is used to represent silent illumination because it has many of the characteristics and qualities of the blue sky that is above us all. On a cloudless day, the sky above is vast and without parameters; it is warm, ungraspable, timeless, with a brightness that brings light to banish darkness. Our own natural ‘sky’ is also warm, ungraspable, timeless and has a brightness that brings light to banish inner darkness. Without fear or favour and without picking and choosing, nothing remains in the dark when touched by either sky. The same as the sky above, our own luminous, sky-like nature is warm and gives life; indeed without this warmth there would be no life; without the sky above and the sky within there wouldn’t be life anywhere – an accurate and lovely metaphor to reflect upon and be inspired by. But even these inspiring analogies fall short when expressing the deeper nature of our own ‘sky’ through the prism of silent illumination.

This blue-sky image of our own nature contains many of the qualities of the sky that embraces and gives life to us all, but it also contains qualities that go beyond the obvious, that when free of dullness and awakened, will take you to the wonders and mysteries of life itself. Among the treasures of your blue sky to discover is the realisation that within its own nature abides the Knower that knows, often referred to as your inner teacher or guru. With its support and guiding wisdom and a growing awakening through humility and surrender, your inner nature will help carry you as a dharma farer on the arduous journey that you have now embarked on. It will inspire and support as you tear asunder the notion of self to reveal the truth of who you really are.

The mere presence of your natural illuminating condition, revealed through your growing ability to become silent stillness itself, not only opens the gate to your true reality, but also brings light to who you think you are, and what needs to be understood before your true liberated nature can shine through. The blue sky of clarity reveals the relationship you have with yourself and how you are bound by habits that reinforce the limitations of that relationship. It also reveals your relationship with others and the world you live in, and so because of your establishing stillness, you embark upon the journey of getting to know yourself. You discover how you are a collection of clinging habits and become aware of the commitment and discipline needed to begin the task of letting go of those grasping attachments. So launching yourself on the difficult, yet compelling, journey to liberation from unsatisfactoriness and the causes of unsatisfactoriness, you come to know that it all stems from a notion of having a self.

But simple observation and growing discipline to contain habitual conditioning, while essential, is not enough for this journey to truly bear fruit. From within this awakening brightness there needs to be commitment to active energetic insightful investigation as well, and this is when the white cloud makes its appearance floating in the vastness of the still blue sky.


Taken from ‘Blue Sky, White Cloud‘.