Sudden or Gradual Enlightenment?

by Rev.Vajra Karuna

Today's talk is listed in the Monthly Guide as "Which is Better: Gradual or Sudden Enlightenment?" I want to start by saying that one is no better than the other. This is because the two are based on very different metaphysical views of the world and human nature. As such they can not be ranked as superior vs. inferior. I also need to make clear that although Sudden Enlightenment is associated with both the Soto (Ch. Tso-Tsung) and Rinzai (Ch. Lin-Chi) Zen (Ch. Ch'an) schools the following talk will focus only on the Rinzai attitude to Sudden Enlightenment, and what is said here does not necessarily apply to Soto.

Before comparing the Sudden and Gradual aspect of enlightenment I need to give you a definition of a minimal enlightenment experience (kensho or satori). This definition is not the only one possible and other definitions may challenge it, especially since it is very colored by the Rinzai tradition. The enlightenment experience is a singularly intense experience which tells one his or her place in the scheme of things. This is a more often than not a once and for all experience which will cause the experiencer never again to doubt his or her relationship with or to the self, others, the world, and whatever one may believe is beyond the world. This experience is enormously validating or empowering, and is unlike any other experience one can have. An important aspect of this experience is that it is non-sectarian. This is to say that the experience can be found in Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic and many other religious traditions. Each tradition may impose its own dogmatic interpretation on it, but the initial experience seems to be psychological cross-cultural. Moreover, this experience, while it can occur under many different circum-stances, most often happens in response to some severe intellectual, emotional or physical crises. When you read about these awakening experiences in the lives of the great and not so great spiritual seekers you will see that these crises may manifest as a deep questions about divine justice, as some life threatening illness, as a state of despair at the loss of a loved one, as a near death experience, or even as an attempted suicide. Note that the definition for kensho or satori does not say anything about the ability of the experiencer to teach others or in any way be of assistance to the spiritual needs of others. In this regard a clear distinction must be made between a person who has an enlightenment experience and an enlightened person. The latter category should be confined to those individuals who have the wisdom and moral character to rightfully influence others plus the charismatic abilities to do so in an entirely non-exploitive manner. This would define an enlightened sage or holy person. Such a person may have had a enlightenment experience, sudden or gradual, or may have a natural spiritual maturity which excludes the need for a satorical experience; although if we depend on historical records a natural sage is far rarer than one having the need for an enlightenment experience. For the remainder of this talk, however, I will be focusing only on the enlightenment experience itself without making any further distinctions between sages and non-sages. Having defined enlightenment for the purpose of this talk it is now time to explain Sudden and Gradual in the context of enlightenment.

In contrast to most other forms of Buddhism which are usually called Gradual Schools of Enlightenment, Zen (which from now on means Rinzai Zen), is called Sudden Enlightenment School. All Buddhist schools accept that the enlightenment experience at the very moment it occurs is a sudden event, but this is not the only meaning of Suddení in the Sudden Enlightenment School context.

Buddhism from its earliest period has had two different views effecting its understanding of the enlightenment process. In the first, the world is considered a place of frustrating imper-manence and dissatisfaction (dukkha), and human nature is the product of eons of karmic attachments to impure passions. In this view enlightenment means the conquest and extinction of such impurities and a subsequent escape from life, the world and dukkha. To achieve such release requires adopting a homeless life and an ascetic practice of dissolving human wants and needs so as to transcend all ordinary human feelings and passions, be they positive or negative. Love, as much as hate, keeps one attached to the world. Only the person who can become indifferent to both can qualify as being an enlightened or passion free being (Arahant or Buddha). The enlightenment process which goes along with this view requires a long and gradual process of ascetic discipline leading to gradated stages of enlightenment. Each higher stage is characterized as a state of lesser attachment to the self and the world than the previous one. For the most part, Enlightenment in this view is not something achievable by an ordinary layperson. This gradation concept is completely justified if one holds to a pluralist understanding of reality which early Buddhism does.

However, there is the second Buddhist view which says that our dukkha is due to the deluded belief in a separate and autonomous self. Enlightenment in this case means a letting go of this unrealistic self concept or "aggrandized I-ness" by awakening to the fact that it is a delusion. The problem with the Gradual Enlightenment approach as far as this false ego view is that in emphasizing "I am working for enlightenment." the sense of I-ness is actually being reinforced. Therefore, presumably the more one practices the deeper becomes one's delusion of a separate and autonomous self and the farther away from enlightenment one moves. Mahayana Buddhism arose out of this idea of there being no real independent self and extended this selfless concept to include all reality. This meant abandoning a pluralist understanding of reality for a non-dual one. This is to say that every part of reality is so fully integrated that it can not under any circumstances be divided, especially into separate selves. Since all dualities are delusionary, there can not even be a duality between Samsaric, unenlightened or impure mind and Nirvanic, enlightened or pure mind. Since non-dual reality can not be divided into incremental parts, it can not be grasped little by little as a Gradual Enlightenment approach implies. The non-dual must be realized all at once (Suddenly) as a whole or not at all. However, because early Mahayana continued to hold on to the general Indian view of the impurity of human passions it had to ignore the inconsistency a non-dual view and Gradual Enlightenment.

When Buddhism went to China this inconsistency became problematic. This was due to the very non-Indian way the Chinese perceived the world and human nature. Unlike Indian thinking, which gave priority to the divine or the trans-human element of reality, Chinese thought gave priority to the human world. The traditional Chinese view was that people are born with an innate sense of goodness, purity and truth, and that the normal human passions are a part of this goodness and an enlightened sage is someone who accepts this.

The earliest Buddhist view which saw Samsara as impure and Nirvana as pure could not be fully accepted by the Chinese without totally abandoning their own more optimistic Confucianist and Taoist traditions. However, the Mahayana teaching that Samsara and Nirvana were the same was easily integrated into the traditional Chinese view of life. If Samsaric passions were in Nirvana and vice versa then enlightenment requires no gradual dissolving away of ordinary human feelings, needs and wants. Enlightenment is merely becoming conscious that one is already in the unconditional state of Nirvana. Therefore, enlightenment, rather than being a replacing of human nature with a trans-human-like passion free nature, as in standard Indian Buddhism, is instead just an adding on to ordinary human nature the non-dual awareness of one's innate nirvanic purity.

The Chinese, in accepting the non-dual Mahayana view, became fully cognizant of the inconsistency between non-duality and Gradual Enlightenment. This cognition was further heightened by the fact that Taoism, which also held to a non-dual view of reality, was more sympathetic to a Sudden Enlightenment approach. Hence, Sudden Enlightenment came to dominate Chinese thought, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Because Sudden enlightenment does not require a gradual monastic purification it can happen at any time and in any place within a monastic life or normal home life. This had great appeal to the non-ascetically oriented Chinese.

Thus, anyone, even the most attached to the world, can experience the enlightened state. Of course, this possibility only make sense if enlightenment is not dependent upon any kind of ascetic practices, not even the limited common moral restraints of the average person. Such Sudden Enlightenment must ultimately be attained outside of, or undeserving of, any own (ascetic or even meditational) effort. In fact, this effort would be appropriate only to Gradual Enlightenment. Sudden Enlightenment, not being dependent on practice, therefore, must be more or less accidental. The difference between the Gradual and the Sudden view effects the way each tradition perceives not only enlightenment, but also the Buddha. Gradualism values enlightenment as something which makes us far better persons, and it regards the Buddha as superior to all other beings. In Suddenism, being enlightened does not make one superior or more valuable than the unenlightened. Since both have the same Buddha Nature or Nirvana within, they are both innately of equal worth or goodness. Not needing enlightenment to make us better means that the Buddha is simply the first among equals according to Suddenism.

In fact, this Sudden view of Buddhahood says that our dukkha, or fearful attachment to life and death, is because we doubt our present absolutely unconditioned worth (Buddha Nature). Enlightenment is a total letting go of this doubt to intuitively realize our equality with the Buddha. Being liberated from our dukkha, we become content with ourselves and others just as we are.

In Suddenism a simple intellectual realization of the above forces one to let go of pride in one's own effort to seize enlightenment. This lack of pride, or humility, in the face of the characteristic accidental nature of Sudden Enlightenment is a form of letting go of self as a source of dukkha and thus, actually a kind of pre-enlightenment enlightenment. Actually, just this alone is for some people sufficient enlightenment, while for others this preliminary kind of enlightenment means a greater chance for a breakthrough to something more. This is especially true with a preparatory practice in place. Preparatory practice must be clearly distinguished from the practice that involves Gradual Enlightenment. While no form of pre-enlight-enment practice is a requirement for Sudden Enlightenment, and can certainly not cause or ensure such enlightenment, it nonetheless has an important function. Sudden Enlightenment may come to one, but unless he or she is prepared to recognize it, and even more importantly to integrate it into his or her everyday psychological being, it will almost certainly come only to slip away.

We can use the analogy of rain here. Rain, like Sudden Enlightenment, cannot be forced into coming; it arrives on its own. Moreover, when it falls, it does so equally on fertile and infertile ground. If it falls on the former, there is luxurious growth; if on the latter, there is nothing but wet soil. To develop a pre-enlightenment practice is to ensure fertile soil when the rain of Sudden Enlightenment falls. To have no practice is to almost surely end up losing what one hoped to gain. This preparatory practice is not to be viewed as any kind of gradual coming closer and closer to the enlightenment experience because there are no stages to it.

In other words, unlike a Gradual Enlightenment oriented practice, in which you can usually see progress occurring, such as a greater and greater sense of detachment from the world; no such progress is evidenced in a sudden practice. Moreover, whereas in a gradual oriented practice it is usually assumed that the practice will involve a considerable span of time, a few too many years before clear results occur; this is not assumed in a non-gradual practice. Since Sudden Enlightenment does not depend on practice of any kind, and can come with or without it, enlightenment may break through after a single day, or on the other hand, not for many years. For this reason, a non-gradual oriented practice may be far more frustrating than a practice which demonstrates clear progress towards the goal.

The advantage however, to a non-gradual practice, and in fact one of the reasons for its development, is that it is as practicable outside of a monastic environment as it is in such an setting. This is especially true of such a specific non-gradual practice technique as the classical Chinese Kung-an (but not necessarily the Japanese koan).

Of course, the paradox of any pre-enlightenment practice for Sudden Enlightenment is that, for those who pursue it, this means nothing short of going through the frustrating experience of seeking for what one already has, namely unconditional Buddha worthiness. This means that one is constantly asking one's self why am I doing this? Why can't my mind just let me experience my true nature? Maybe this whole thing is a lie. Maybe I'm just wasting time and energy, further deceiving myself. This doubt is a natural part of preparation for Sudden Enlightenment and it requires a faith equal to the doubt to keep the practice going. This is where a teacher and a spiritual community come in, for the teacher who has gone through the struggle can give hope and the community of like-seekers can function in a supportive capacity.

Neither the Gradualist nor the Suddenist approach can guarantee enlightenment, but each in their own way can give one a chance at gaining it. For the person who can commit him or herself to a fully monastic life the Gradual way may offer more hope than the Sudden way. For those who can not make such a dramatic commitment it may be the Sudden way that offers the hope. Like all religious and philosophical views various rational arguments can be made to support either a Gradualist or Suddenist approach, but the bottom line is that neither can be logically proven nor disproven. Both, in the final analysis, depend largely upon faith. Indeed, all schools of Buddhism, if not all religious traditions, require a strong faith component before any real spiritual awakening can occur.



In medieval China and Japan there developed a form of Buddhist school called Pure-Land (Ch. Ching-t'u; J. Jodo). This school taught that due to the corruption of the world and mankind's overwhelming amount of bad karma, no degree of human effort would be great enough to allow an individual to liberate him or herself. However, because of a vow to save all beings made millenniums ago by the celestial Buddha Amitabha (Ch. O-mi-to; J. Amida) any and all persons, be they good or evil, who in sincere faith called upon this Buddha for liberation would receive it. In traditional Pure-Land beliefs this liberation takes the form of the consciousness upon death being reborn into the heavenly paradise of Amitabha. This absolute dependency on the divine power of another to gain liberation was called the "other power (J. tariki) path". Because Zen and a few other schools taught no such faith in the grace of an external other power to liberate oneself, these were called "own power (J. Jiriki) path", schools by the Pure-Land school. This designation was repeated so often through the centuries that it finally stuck, so that today even the Zen school often uses it when differentiating itself from the Pure-Land school. However, this is very misleading. Own powerí implies that the individual is in full control of the liberation process. This is more true of the non-Zen Gradual Enlightenment schools. In those schools the individual, solely through his or her own effort, purifies the self and works towards the goal. But to the degree that Zen Sudden Enlightenment is accidental, there should not be talk of own effort or own power. Rather, the accidental aspect of Sudden Enlightenment should be called an other then own power influence. Calling Zen an own powerí school hides the accidental aspect of its Sudden Enlightenment. Another way of saying this is to give a second definition of Sudden Enlightenment. It is the interruption of the other into the ordinary. It is the radical discontinuity in the flow of everyday life. It is a positive catastrophe.