In India, Buddha’s empirical explorations opened up a new vision of greater human possibility. A more expanded life could be nurtured and fueled in silence. But, Buddha stressed that each individual must find his or her own path. Individuals must recognize for themselves the truthfulness of the teachings.

Xuankong Monastery-5th Century China

In the centuries that followed, many others felt drawn to finding their fuller existence through practicing the way of silence. Some of the early explorers looked for, and found, points of access into Great Silence. These passageways could lead to the direct exploration of the mystery of silence.

Two cave dwelling monks, in particular, continued the explorations. They found uncharted passageways into Great Silence through their own silent investigating. They learned how to navigate these passageways. They brought the Buddhist experiment to the nature-oriented Chinese. It thrived and blossomed in the Chinese mind in ways never imagined. These monks discovered ways to describe the wordless territory they were investigating.

BODHIDHARMA: Planting in Chinese Soil

In 506 CE, a thirty-four year old monk climbed into a boat docked at a harbor in South India and began an extraordinary journey. This legendary monk, named Bodhidharma (472-527 CE) is credited with bringing the Great Silence to China. His story provides some intriguing glimpses into the search for Great Silence.

This longhaired Buddhist Indian monk-prince worked his way from port to port, for the next three years slowly skirting up the eastern coast of India, going around the Bay of Bengal by Burma, Siam, the Malay Peninsula and Cambodia, and finally to South China. The boats provided distractions that might have made his meditation practice difficult, but the vastness of the ocean horizon and the rocking of the waves nourished the rich mental cargo he brought.

Bodhidharma finally arrived in North China after two more challenging years of travel. He looked for a place to settle down. He found a cave beneath a western peak of Mount Sung, behind an abandoned monastery. The conditions were good. Mountains were reported to collect qi life force, to have their own soul, to embody stillness.

So, Bodhidharma created a workplace inside the mountain, inside the cave, and inside his mind. In intense concentration, free of outside distraction and his external senses, he conducted some of the most significant explorations in interior consciousness the world has known.

The Wall of Emptiness: Bodhidharma sat in the emptiness of his cave for the next nine years, according to legend. He made a breakthrough discovery: by facing a blank wall in his silent cave he could enter a whole new silent dimension. When he sat in front of his “wall of emptiness” he no longer experienced himself as separate from all other things. He was simply part of the interconnectiveness of all things.

After these years of directly observing his own experience in silence, he began teaching students in the nearby temple. He told them about the silent method of “wall-gazing” he had discovered. He used his own experience to help others navigate this new terrain.

He created a workshop inside the mountain, inside the cave, inside his mind. A “wall of emptiness” revealed a whole new dimension.

He quickly found the limits of words, however. It was almost impossible to describe to others what he was experiencing. Eventually, he experimented with using the language of poetry. He saw how “words helped to point the way, but he also saw that the path can only be followed in Silence”. He frequently used a flower in his teaching, just as the Buddha had done.

The work of Bodhidharma resonated with Chinese sentiments about nature and earth. Men and women were drawn away from their traditional lives in the community to live in Buddhist monasteries. Here they learned to focus their concentration and to live in the quiet. The journeys to the Silent Source continued in these monastic communities. The secrets were passed on to those whose meditation practice gave them the capacity to recognize the truth in these secrets.

HONGZHI: Silent Illumination

Six hundred years later, a second monk in his late thirties also conducted explorations using his mountain cave as a silent lab. His name was Hongzhi. He came to a monastery built on Mount Tiantong in Ming Province in modern Zhejiang named “Bright Virtue”.

Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157 CE) lived alone below Taipai Peak, the highest peak on the mountain. For another twenty-eight years Hongzhi continued to explore the practices that had originated in the ancient experiments of North India and brought to China by Bodhidharma. Hongzhi experimented with silent meditative techniques and paid close attention to shifts in consciousness. He refined and communicated the practices developed earlier by Bodhidharma.

Hongzhi walked the path down from his cave to teach the student monks. Hongzhi not only had great skill as an inner explorer, he also found ways to overcome the great difficulty of conveying his findings to others. Hongzhi’s investigations prepared the ancient inner trail that I would eventually experience.

Hongzhi talked about silence as a kind of light, an illumination. Silence is an empty fertile field, full of potential. Hongzhi’s work is titled “Cultivating the Empty Field” and this is the essence of his work. The Chinese were familiar with the growth cycle of an empty field. He understood the essential rhythms of growth and the cycle of planting and harvesting. (1)

From his cave experience Hongzhi discovered a passageway into Great Silence. Then he put together instructions on how to create the conditions in which silent illumination could be directly experienced.

Silence is an empty field, full of potential.

This method would become known as shikantaza, or “just sitting”. It was pioneered by Bodhidharma and articulated by Hongzhi, and later refined by Dogen, the Thirteenth Century Zen Master who brought Zen to Japan. Shikantaza would also be a further passageway for me.

Hongzhi probably did not know about another monk who lived nearby and whose work would reach me a thousand years later. Not so far from Hongzhi’s cave, Monk Kakuin was sketching out a series of drawings, about a boy and an ox. These were the Oxherding Pictures, that rich portrayal of human development, which I had first seen at the temple in Korea.

Bodhidharma and Hongzhi made groundbreaking discoveries that illuminated new paths ahead. These were gifts that could neither be given away nor received. Their truths could only be recognized by individuals when they were ready. Eventually, these non-gifts reached me in Korea where meditation practice in caves had long been well known through the older San-shin tradition. (2)

SHIKANTAZA: A Path to the Empty Field

Hongzhi‘s words and practices helped me begin to recognize faint parts of my own silent experience. I was at the edge of my own unexplored territory, and almost ready for a breakthrough.

Zazen is a skill – to be practiced rather than understood. As I continued to study Zen and practice zazen a door opened into a further passageway, a tunnel to the Silent Source.

A Passageway

I had occasionally read about a meditative method called shikantaza. I had, however, pretty much discounted this practice of “just sitting”. Frankly, I thought it was just for old monks who had lost their ability to maintain the concentration needed in doing zazen. But now, I was getting to be the same age as the “old monks”. When I read again about shikantaza, it sounded very familiar. I realized that it had become part of my life before I knew there was such a word for it. Dogen later said that starting the shikantaza practice was like shaking a tree when the fruit is ready to fall off. For me, shikantaza felt like a warm cloud of well-being. It is present in the moments after zazen practice, as well as other times when there for no reason at all. It is a complete sense that all is well, just as it is – Suchness. I could bring this ancient method into my present day life. I was on the path to the Empty Field.

For me, shikantaza is a passageway and access point into Great Silence. It becomes a further step for me in my quest to live more contemplatively in everyday life. It is like finding a trailhead into a vast mountain range – a doorway into Great Silence.

In my forty year quest to know and embody silence, I do all I can to learn from the experience of others and from my own experience. In addition to practicing zazen, I practice the journal writing methods I had learned in working with depth psychologist, Ira Progoff. (3) I developed the refreshing practice of writing daily “Weather Reports” directly describing my natural surroundings.

So, my pathway had led me from the experience of kensho to the long term practice of zazen, to learning about Buddha, Bodhidharma and Hongzhi, to the “just sitting – just being” of shikantaza. These ongoing practices provided me with a solid grounding like the massive boulder where my Korean temple was built. These were the particular spiritual pathways in my Buddhist tradition. They were ancient ways to Great Silence, developed and experimented with over centuries in the plains of northern India and in the monasteries of China. They helped me respond to my monastic impulse and the path I was on.

This long silent voyage had gradually but unmistakably transformed my life. But I had never anticipated that there would soon be a sudden life-changing confrontation. It happened on a busy street in Manhattan. Could inner silence disappear forever?

Shikantaza is a passage-way and access point into Great Silence.


● Find an image (from magazines, a Google image search, art work, etc.) which represents a place that you would like to be by yourself, on your own.

● Have you ever been deep inside a cave or cavern? Describe your experience.

(1)Leighton, Taigen (2000) Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi.
(3)Progoff, Ira (1992) At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke. Creative Ability

©Robert Charles Smith, PHD