Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Usually I try to assign some sort of working title to each of my talks if only to keep track of them. I thought of calling this talk “Quick and Dirty, Slow and Clean.” Instead I’m calling it “Sudden or Gradual,” which may give a clue as to what it’s about.

Dabblers in Zen fuss over the question of whether enlightenment is sudden or if it’s gradual. They worry which is better, which is authentic.

That sort of bickering leads to delusion because it sets one thing against another. It pits good against bad, right against wrong. It assigns value judgments.

That’s the gist of this talk, and it could end right here. But I’ll go on.

Zen shuns dualistic thinking. Zen avoids judgmental rationalization. Master Dogen says deluded people are attached to enlightenment as a goal. Non-deluded people don’t dwell on the hope, or even on the possibility, of enlightenment.

Enlightenment isn’t a bus that may or may not arrive on time.

     Enlightenment isn’t a bus. Whether enlightenment shows up or doesn’t show up is immaterial. And whether it appears unexpectedly like a flash of lightning or slides in slowly like a puff of summer breeze is unimportant.

     What is important is one’s practice. By practice I mean regular performance in meditation and in the cultivation of awareness. Within practice there is enlightenment, which is life. But, as with death, one shouldn’t be concerned about the how and the when of its appearance.

To use the word sudden or gradual assigns a sense of time. But enlightenment arises from no-mind, so enlightenment is no-time. Therefore, to speak of either sudden enlightenment or gradual enlightenment has no meaning.

To say another way, enlightenment, awakening, awareness—call it whatever you want—is timeless. There is no moving from one second or moment to the next second or moment.

Enlightenment is beyond measurement, and because of that some individuals say it’s sudden.

Time is involved in achieving a quiet mind. I’m talking about the time involved in meditating or in reading. That’s why some individuals say enlightenment is gradual.

But the wisdom that comes from reaching quiet mind has no time. Therefore it’s said to be sudden.

Discombobulating, isn’t it?

This matter of sudden versus gradual goes back a long way. It figures prominently in the history of Zen because it was instrumental in the creation of an unfortunate schism in what was once a unified system of thought.

Remember Bodhidharma? He was the Indian Buddhist who, some 1,000 years after the birth of Shakyamuni, presumably introduced Zen to China. With Bodhidharma was established the notion of direct transmission, that is, the person-to-person transference of the Buddha’s original teachings. Bodhidharma was followed by several Chinese masters, each of whom received authority directly from his predecessor.

In that unbroken line of Zen transmission was Hui-neng, who lived from 638 to 713. Hui-neng’s school was located in southern China, and another Zen school—led by a master named Shen-hsiu—was popular in the northern part of the country.

Aside from minor differences owing to the varied public support of the northern and southern schools, the northern school was more institutional, and the southern school was more hang-loose. That is, the northern school emphasized that enlightenment was gradual, requiring much time and much concentration. The southern school believed enlightenment had no stages of progress but was instantaneous.

     The northern school attracted individuals who were interested in the study of Zen. It emphasized process. The southern school’s principle of abruptness had to do with an individual instantaneously and intuitively seeing everything as part of an absolute unity.

     A mnemonic aid to remembering which was which is to think “southern sudden.” Both words start with the letter “s.” Now that you have that fixed in your mind, you can forget it.

This difference in outlook eventually led to a split in what once was a unified body of teaching and learning.

     But more was involved than mere difference of opinion. The great thing about history is that we can look back and see with great clarity who should have done what, whereas those who were involved at the time didn’t have this gift of hindsight.

Today we might think that if those masters and monks of the time were truly Zen, they would have recognized the split as unnecessary, uncalled for, and unjustified.

We can see that, but apparently they didn’t.

     That reminds me of the rock climber Warren Harding, one of the early pioneers to ascend Yosemite’s El Capitan. In 1970 Harding and his partner Dean Caldwell struggled on El Cap’s sheer face for twenty days when the Park Service decided the two needed rescuing. Other climbers were lowered on ropes, and a helicopter was sent out. Hanging on the wall, Harding shouted that a rescue was unwanted, unwarranted, and would not be accepted. He gave the rescuers the finger and proceeded to the top.

A Zen historical footnote. Around the time of the great split there was a third school of Zen in China. It was known as the Ox-head school, named after its location on Mount Ox-head. It considered its lineage not from Bodhidharma but from a Master Fa-jung. Ox-head managed to keep itself removed from the hostility between the northern and southern schools and made its own way, though it lasted only eight generations before dying out.

     Anyway, the master of the southern school, Shen-hui, called an ecumenical assembly at which both the northern and southern schools were represented by many masters and many monks. Shen-hui dropped a bomb by declaring the northerners had strayed from tradition. Furthermore, he declared the northerners were teaching falsely by promoting gradual enlightenment. He said that approach—of gathering external impressions and leading the mind inward—was foolish.

     True enlightenment, Shen-hui repeated over and over to the assembly, was a sudden breakthrough to no-mind. He asserted that the true masters were enlightened at a single stroke, with no talk of steps or progression.

     You can imagine what an uproar that caused with the audience. I’m sure the masters and monks didn’t settle quietly into zazen but probably bellowed un-Zenlike at one another and flayed away with master’s sticks and hossus.

     In the book A Western Approach to Zen, the author Christmas Humphreys states he fails to see any difference between sudden or gradual. Preparation is step-by-step, and “… each peep of the Absolute is sudden in that it happens in no-time.”

     Humphreys uses a wonderful analogy in walking down a beach into the ocean. First we’re in the water up to our ankles, then up to our waist, then up to our chest, and then we’re swimming and the sea contains us.

     Sudden or gradual?

Isn’t it both?

Debating sudden enlightenment or gradual enlightenment, or fretting about it, is a futile pastime. It’s similar to the ludicrous controversy that once preoccupied Christian theologians: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Who knows? Who cares? And what difference does it make?

Hui-neng’s Platform Sutra asks: “What is meant by ‘gradual’ and ‘sudden’? The Dharma itself is the same, but in seeing it there is a slow way and a fast way. … Some people are keen and others are dull; hence the names ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual.’”

In other words, human variances shape the different ways individuals approach enlightenment. There’s no good, better, or best way.

Do you have a choice whether to experience a sudden death or a gradual death? If you had a choice, which would you pick? Is one better than the other? What difference does it make?

We can’t opt for how or when we die unless we commit suicide. And that’s cheating.

Woody Allen said, “I don’t mind the thought of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

An afterthought. The established word “enlightenment” has such a ring of finality to it. Maybe instead of “enlightenment” we should use the word “enlightening.” Think about it.


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