A conversation with Guo Gu, Chan (Zen) scholar, leader of the Tallahassee Chan Center, and founder of the Dharma Relief Project.

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Hongzhi Zhenguje, a 12th century poet and meditation master, is one of the leading figures in the history of Chan (Zen), reviving the Caodong (Soto) school following its demise in Song China. Some Western scholars have linked him to a meditation technique know as “silent illumination,” a cool, if not cold, reductionist form of sitting: no thoughts, feelings, or sensations are permitted.

Master Guo Gu, who leads the Tallahassee Chan Center, is a teacher in both the Caodong and Linji (Rinzai) Zen schools. He believes Hongzhi has been deeply misunderstood by modern scholars. Silent illumination was not a method of meditation at all, Guo Gu argues in Silent Illumination: A Chan Buddhist Path to Natural Awakening (2020), but is Buddha-Nature itself.

“Hongzhi’s masterful command of the Chinese language, and his fondness for poetry in particular, is evident in the imagery he used to describe silent illumination, whose qualities are freedom, openness and clarity. In other words, for him silent illumination was awakening. He never presented it as a ‘method’ or ‘technique’ for meditation practice.”

Far from advocating a retreat from the world, Guo Gu believes Hongzhi’s rich prose, below, urges us to plunge deeper into life: 

Multitasking amid chaos, manifesting in places of encounter—none of these are realms outside yourself. Heaven and earth share the same root; the myriad forms are of a single body. Adapting to changes and transforming freely without being manipulated by those who curry favor–his is to actualize great freedom. Traveling like the wind; illuminating like the moon; encountering things without obstructions…entering the currents to be one with the dusty world, you transcend everything and shine in brilliance. 

Guo Gu, also known as Jimmy Yu, is one of the most fascinating Zen Buddhist teachers active today, having himself plunged deeply into two cultures: ancient Chan and contemporary America. At 14, Guo Gu began studying with his teacher, Shen Yen (1931~2009) in Taiwan, moved to the United States, and as a young man was a professional musician, playing in hard-core rock bands like Death Before Dishonor and Judge. Leaving that scene, he ordained as a monk, and for many years served as Shen Yen’s assistant, translator, and finally, successor. In addition to his Chan center, Guo Gu is an associate professor at Florida State University, and several years ago founded the Dharma Relief Project, which raised over $100,000 to buy surgical masks in the early days of the Covid pandemic.