Theosophy World #43, January 1, 2000

A Comparison of the Gradual and Sudden Paths

by Grigor Vahan Ananikian

[based upon a November 10, 1999 posting to]

Consider a comparison of the gradual path and sudden path. It seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. I will first survey a few traditions in an effort to support the idea that the two paths are cross-cultural.

In the West (pagan Neo-Platonism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Christianity), the gradual path is characterized as three stages of purgation, illumination, and union. The two premier early Christian representatives of this gradual path are Dionysus the Areopagite and John the Silent. Later, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are representatives of the gradual path. The representatives of the sudden path, in the west, were some of the later religious Stoics (following Poseidonis), the Pythagorean forerunner of Neo-Platonism Numenius of Apamea, the Hermetic school of Alexandria, Evagrios, R. Bacon, and Eckhart. In the Buddhist East, the representatives of the gradual path are represented by Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga and the lam rim traditions of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. The Buddhist representatives of the sudden path are Dzog chen and some forms of Chinese Ch'an and Zen. In Sufi circles, the gradualist approach is widely represented in all Sufi lineages that speak of a inner way (tariqah) within the Law of Life (Shariat) that is comprised of progressive degrees of "states" (ahwal, typically a situation where the next higher level is realized but has not become a permanent state) and "stations" (maqamat, typically a state that has become a permanent state of being). Meanwhile, the sudden approach (where the Truth or al-haqq is immediately touched as a state and the work, which we shall see is typical of sudden path ways, is to convert that state into a station), with strong ties to Central Asia (as do the other sudden path traditions) is found in some Sufi lineages of the Naqshibandi and in the illuminationist (Israqi) school of Suhrawardi. As legend has it, of the Sufi and Buddhist forms of the sudden path, they both attribute the original knowledge of this way as coming from an ancient and off-planet source that had been preserved on this planet by a secret lineage of teachers within Zoroastrianism.

Contemporary movements seem to display both gradual and sudden path characteristics. Early Theosophy, in practice, appears to have been a gradual path. Without getting too far into the issues surrounding Krishnamurti, from a Dzog chen perspective, it appears to this author that he was being trained, following the early gradualist form of pratical theosophy, in the gradual path when suddenly a sudden path "process" (as Krishnamurti himself described it) took over. Both the descriptive phenomenology of his experience of the "process" and his later iconoclastic statements to the effect that there is "no path" (i.e. that truth is a trackless land) are indicative of sudden path realizations. The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff, as described by the current leader of the Gurdjieff Foundation of Paris, Michel de Salzmann, in a series of talks in 1975 at Far West and published as "Man's Ever New and Eternal Challenge" in On the Way to Self-Knowledge edited by Jacob Needleman and Dennis Lewis, appears to also be a "way" of the sudden path type.

Now it is time to examine what the contrast is between these two paths to the same goal.

As indicated, the gradual path has a general structure of purgation, illumination, and union. By contrast, the sudden path immediately realizes (as a temporary state) the unitive state of which illumination and purgation are automatic manifestations or effects of the unitive state. The task of the sudden path is to make these temporally realizations of the unitive state into a permanent state. It is now time to describe these paths in more detail.

For both paths, what is wrong with unenlightened persons is that they are enslaved and ruled by emotions that are distorted because the proper order of the soul has been destroyed because the higher ruling power (nous, intellectus, buddhi) has been darkened. Thus, they become the play- things of the world's drama because as primarily the emotional reactions to the outer world that they take as the "pseudo-I," they identify themselves as, and thus, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, through identification or attachment, they ARE mostly, in their very identities, the inner effects of an outer world pushing their buttons. The same inner helplessness not to be one's emotions that incapacitates unenlightened persons is the same samsaric process by which karmically a personality and the dispositions of future reactions (lives) is created by the outer forces that make the "pseudo-I" an almost a passive and accidental product of "forces that live the person" (who is lived by forces without because the inner power to authentically live from within is asleep). By contrast, the enlightened person is one in which the ruling power restores the proper order in the soul and which transfigures the emotions into higher powers of insight and effective response. It is time to examine the two paths while keeping this in mind.

The first phase of the process of transformation in the gradual path is purgation. Purgation has three components. Meanwhile, it is important to keep in mind that purgation, illumination, and union are three stages of the functional interrelations of these three components (1. intellectual or pure awareness part of mind, 2. rational or logical part of mind, and 3. emotions).

As Buddhism puts it very clearly, besides the Eightfold Path, there is the threefold training that trains each of these components: right samadhi for awareness/buddhi, right views/mindfulness for the rational thinking part/manas, and sila for emotions.

Purgation of the awareness (nous, the Greek for buddhi) is the practice of samadhi or as the Neo-platonists and Eastern Christians put it, enstasis. This process overcomes the clouded distractibility of the awareness as it becomes a stable, lucent, presence of sober wakefulness. This initial phase is the purgation/purification of awareness of disruptive and interfering thoughts and emotions by separating it from them. Many Americans and contemporary theosophists think this is the whole of what is called "meditation." This is a mistake. What they mistakenly believe to be "meditation" is just a preliminary phase of right concentration.

Purgation of the reasoning/conceptualizing part of mind (dianoia, Greek for manas) is the development of its powers of analysis and logical reasoning. The initial phase is purgative because it is a training of the reasoning/logical powers of mind to not be distracted, fuzzy-headed, or fallacious by separating it from other factors like emotion. A heightened training in analysis and logic was one of the ascetic (here meant merely as pertaining to training) goals of the medieval disputations found in western and eastern Christian monasteries, Sufi tekkias, and Buddhist monasteries. Astounding feats of quick mental logical evaluation, of opposition, inversion, and contra-position that transforms the categorical propositions of syllogistic logic (i.e. the operations of the "square of opposition" found in western logic textbooks) into each other's correlate, and identification of fallacies, as well as prodigious feats of mathematical calculation as displayed by followers of the Jadguru of the Advaita school, are displayed by advanced monks while western logicians need to get out a pencil and paper. With the growing concentrative ability that training of the awareness produces, well-trained logical and conceptual operations become illumined in a way that allows the effective pursuit of Socratic "elenchic dialectic" (the clarification of the nature of a phenomenon through a mutual cross-examination, the elenchic part, devoted to define it's essence), of Descartes' pursuit of rendering the cogito clear by seeking to make its cogitationes or ideas clear and distinct, or by rendering authentically possible Husserl's epoche as the founding act to clearly and distinctly gain phenomenological access to the essential nature of the "things themselves." As Suhrawardi teaches, illumination makes rational and conceptual philosophical thought truly possible in an effective and authentic form.

Purgation of emotions is developing them into well-crafted patterns of response and perceptive insight by purging them of patterns of resentment, hurt, and other crap of an emotional past haunting the mind as baggage, as bad habits, and as the emotional knot falsely taken to be "me."

Illumination has the same three corresponding aspects. Where the initial phase of purgation was to separate and normalize the three functions without mutual interference and disruption, the illuminative phase starts to bring them back together in mutually supporting and harmonious roles within.

Union is where these three spheres have to be fully fused with each other and with the higher guiding reality that controls/is how the universe flows (to put it as broadly as possible, whether Tathagatahood, Tao, Isvara, or "God"). Thus, contemplation (theoria) has three components in all these phases.

Theoria = enstasis/hesychia of the nous + diakrisis (discriminative powers of rational mind) of dianoia + praxis of the eso kardia and thymos. Once harmonized, theoria leads to episteme, gnosis, or sophia (depending on which tradition you refer to, I use the pagan and Christian Greek here).

The gradual path seeks to remove obstacles to clear/correct functioning in these three spheres first, and then, bring on the enlightened state of the harmonious co-functioning of these three spheres. By contrast, the sudden path says the enlightened state is automatically self-correcting.

The trick is to find it and learn how to stay in it in a variety of situations just as if one was learning how to stay on a surf board through all sorts of waves/conditions. Thus, for Evagrios, one found the unitive state which was automatically an illuminative and purgative state. This was also the view of Eckhart. It was also, I'd argue, what Krishnamurti discovered. In a theosophical context, I'd say Krishnamurti became a teacher of the sudden path while books such as Taimni's Self Culture are gradual path texts.

So, again, emotions are movers -- e-motors. They had been evolved to be rapid bodily responses to situations. Thus, they have a bodily aspect as moving or emoting. Muscles are prepped to be flexed for action or relaxed by biochemical, neural, and lymphatic signals sent to prompt for a line of action. And they have a psychological aspect where they are experienced as a strong imperative "do this." At least in effect.

As evolved patterns of almost automatic response, they are the legacy/replacement of behavioral instincts. They boot up body and urge the mind. But they stop. Then it is time for mind and/or training to take over. And further, as almost automatic patterns of rapid response, they have to have been correct enough of the time to allow the body to survive. So, most of the time (maybe with few defective bodies that can't harm overall viability of a species) they correctly respond appropriately to situations.

Imagine a type of animal that had fear/flight in face of food and anger/aggression at a predator for which it was food. Soon the whole species would be dead. The human trick is to train and refine these patterns of emotional response from their endowed primitive forms into higher and more nuanced forms. Because emotions are movers, they can enhance or interfere or interrupt other mental processes in the mind due to the legacies of bad karma as chronic malfunctioning.

Besides being patterns of response, I said emotions are cognitive. They are forms of perception beyond the five senses. There has to be a correct recognition of a situation for the emotion to be a correct response. But what is more, without emotion, sometimes the situation is left unknown especially if it is an emotional or social situation.

Emotions can only cognitively mislead us only if we are rightly relying on them to see or get information. The eye can deceive as well as the ear for same reason. If we rely on them to perceive, they sometimes mislead. The same is true of emotions.

The problem with emotions as both mover and as perceiver in modern society is that they are not trained. The gradualist approach seeks to train each main power, buddhi-nous-intellectus, manas-dianoia-ratio, and the emotions first to work correctly alone (purgation), and then, in tandem (illumination -- in lam rim, "higher insight"), and finally, as one integrated power of being (union -- in lam rim, "perfect insight" or "enlightenment."). The sudden approach says that to find the unitive state is self-correcting (automatically illuminative and purgative), and the task, is learning to maintain it and practice it in a variety of situations.

Now consider virtue ethics. The standard conceptions of it are mostly gradualist in approach. A virtue is a well-crafted competence that has been cultivated into a high degree of excellence. The Greek arete (virtue) literally means excellence.

Virtue ethics was not about finding correct rules to manage a large social group (decide how to behave in one) but often said to be training persons to be of good character. The goal was to create not good rules but good people. In Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy, an important component of ethical training was training emotions (dispositions of heart, of thymos, etc.) into reliably and as excellent patterns of emotional insightful response as possible. There was the training of emotions.

This is part of any Buddhist meditation training as well as yogic training. On the gradualist path, the first step is the meditational separation of awareness from the inner useless and usually negative chatter of thought driven by emotional resentments and identifications until at least dhyana (pure awareness without thought or emotional interference or distraction) or samadhi is achieved.

As indicated, most westerners mistakenly think this is the whole of meditation. Through the practice of right concentration/awareness training, ability to be purely aware is achieved (right concentration). But this is a mere means to an end. Most western mediators get no further than this thinking this is meditation. Again, this is wrong.

On the gradualist path there is also a discipline of thought by its learning correct information correctly understood and logical training in non-formal mental reasoning into a very high state of logical expertise (right views or right discrimination/inferencing). This is why earlier-mentioned debates, mental math, and mental logic are part of the training of Buddhist monks, as it used to be for Christian monks, and still is for the illuminationist school of Suhrawardi. They perform, in their head in an instant, astounding feats of mental contraposition, conversion, and observation of the categorical propositions of a syllogistic argument that it takes western logicians a pencil and paper to work out. They do this in debates.

Third, the gradualist path has the crucial training in ethical practices which are include the training of emotions and the cleaning out of resentments and other emotional crap. The main characteristic, again, of the gradualist path, is the three phases of this development. Once these three absolutely necessary and separate lines (at the purgative stage) have reached a certain level of proficiency, they begin to enhance the other lines (at the illuminative stage). Thought, instead of distracting and clouding awareness, in its disciplined form sharpens it into sharp analytic, clear, and distinct awareness.

Clear pristine awareness that is a gathered and concentrated focus that cannot be distracted can give enhanced attention to the implications and ramifications of a line of logical inference. Purified emotions no longer disturb (in their moving aspect) reasoning processes or awareness processes and no longer (in their cognitive aspect) cause awareness to misperceive or reason to falsely or fallaciously mis-infer.

Positively, they become enhanced forms of insight integrating the five senses into a total empathetic response or taking in of a situation in an insightful fashion. Then, these three aspects of human development, beyond enhancing each other, begin to fuse and interpermeate each other (at the unitive stage). They become fused into one consciousness.

The sudden path says to find the unitive state first, and the illuminative and purgative processes happen automatically. Then, they are trained together, as a form of enlightened functioning, as we practice being enlightened in various situations that are like tests at the skill of being enlightened within them.

In both approaches, emotions have their role. Thus the ultimate objectivity is a Buddha's insightful compassion -- the SOLE emotion of a Buddha, and thus, the SINGLE-FOCUSED INSIGHT of a Buddha (the cognitive aspect) and SOLE MOTIVE of a Buddha (the moving aspect).