Sudden & Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, edited by Peter Gregory, 1987

Sudden & Gradual, Excerpts

These (jumbled) excerpts from the book Sudden & Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, are not meant to argue for or against any particular view, position, or conclusion, either practical or doctrinal.

Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433) in his Pien tsung lun (On Distinguishing the Goal), written in the early decades of the 5th century as a defense of Tao-sheng's (ca360-434) theory of sudden enlightenment, was rebutted by Hui-kuan's Chien-wu lun (On Gradual Enlightenment). As Tsung-mi points out, within Chinese Buddhist discourse the terms (sudden & gradual) are applied both to enlightenment and to the teachings, as well as to practice or cultivation. Their usage is (said to be) highly nuanced. Yet at least one author claims that the terms "sudden teaching", "sudden practice", and "sudden enlightenment" more often carried affective or rhetorical power as slogans rather than demarcating clearly articulated doctrinal positions.
The Avatamsaka was generally accepted as having been the first teaching preached by the Buddha immediately after his enlightenment. It was "sudden" because it directly revealed the content of the Buddha's enlightenment as he experienced it under the bodhi tree; in it the Buddha made no effort to accommodate its message to his audience's limited ability to understand. In this context, where the sudden teaching is contrasted with the expedient teachings, the word tun (tun-wu, intuitive understanding, direct and immediate comprehension of unity) connotes "immediate" in its literal sense of "being without an intermediary", (im-mediate, in one glance).
1. The nature of enlightenment: does it admit of degrees or is it indivisible? Can it be approached through a series of successive approximations or can it only be realized all at once in its entirety?

2. The nature of delusion: is it fundamentally an error in perception or is it woven throughout the whole fabric of the personality? Is enlightenment, therefore more like opening the eyes or overcoming a bad habit?

3. The nature of ethical and religious practice: is it something that must be consciously and conscientiously cultivated as a necessary precondition for enlightenment, or is it rather the spontaneous and natural outflowing of the very experience of enlightenment itself and hence something to which no special attention need be directed?

4. The nature of language: is enlightenment ineffable or can something meaningful in fact be said about it? If language can only function apophatically to say what enlightenment is not, how are students to be instructed on the path?

The mirror metaphor is well known in India, among the metaphors in the Upanishads. In the Svetasvetara-upanishad 2.14 we find:

Just as a dust-covered mirror

Glitters like fire when it is cleaned,

So does one who has recognized the atman's essence

Attain the goal, deliverance from anxiety.

The Taoist Chuang-tzu (around 300BC) resorted frequently to the mirror metaphor in order to illustrate dispassionateness, passivity, detachment & disinterestedness: the perfect man uses his mind like a mirror. He wrote:

When a mirror is clear,

it is because it has not the

least amount of dust on it.

If there is any dust,

the mirror is not clear.

An earlier literary image, the loss of a reflection due to the ruffling of still water by a slight breeze, would have an even more ancient history than the mirror metaphor. Hsun-tzu (300-230BC) in his Dispersed Clouds compared the human mind to water in a basin; undisturbed it gives a good reflection of the whole self.

In the Huai-nan-tzu, a collection of philosophical essays from around the middle of the 2nd-C BC, it is written:

A clear mirror cannot be soiled by dust.

Asanga (4th century) in his Madhyanta-Vibhaga 1.21-22 (The Discrimination between the Mean and the Extremes) wrote:

If there were no passions,

All men would be liberated.

If there were no purity

Their effort would be fruitless.

Emptiness neither has nor lacks the passions;

It is neither pure nor impure.

The mind is pure by nature,

But soiled by adventitious passions, guest dust.

Gregory of Nyssa (337-400) wrote:

The spirit is like a mirror, receiving a form from the object that appears in it. The nature, which is subordinate to the spirit, cleaves to it, and in turn receives its adornment. (But by reflecting matter, having turned its back on the all-good, it models in itself nothing but the deformity of matter; thus evil is born.)

Chih-i (538-597), writing in 594 in the Mo-ho chih-kuan, (The Great Calming & Contemplation) listed six stages of identity, or six identities, to elucidate the relationship between text and practice:

1. Identity in principle. This affirms inherent Buddhahood.

2. Verbal identity. Here intellectual understanding that we are Buddhas is gained.

3. Identity of practice. Here behavior and mental state are brought (through skillful means) into correspondence with the prior verbal formulations.

4. Identity of resemblance. One's thoughts and evaluations approach what has been expounded in the sutras of previous Buddhas.

5. Identity of partial truth. Ignorance weakens and wisdom becomes increasingly prominent.

6. Ultimate identity. Buddhahood, the final fruit.

Yet, at every stage along the path there is the temptation to claim final attainment, particularly when one's attainment is already (or seems) profound (following identity 2.)

Chih-i, while uncompromising in his nondual assertion of the identity of good and evil, is equally uncompromising in upholding the necessity of moral restraints. Chih-i felt that a perfect teaching that is completely unadulterated with the provisional, or mediate, cannot even be spoken. In the last analysis it can have no features at all. It is the expedient (means) consisting of directly contemplating the emptiness of all dharmas. The "featureless repentance" implies this same perfect teaching wherein every category of analysis and every assumed dualism is finally shown to be "empty". The perfect or featureless repentance is one that recognizes that since one's own mind is void of itself, there is no subject in whom sin or merit could inhere.

Yet the fact that the practitioner is identical with Buddha at every stage of the path does not mitigate the fact that there are stages ... and the strenuous effort necessary for deepening one's insight never contradicts inherent Buddhahood.

T'an-lun (?-~627) is quoted in this verse:

Having peeled away one layer after another,

what do you find? Purity.

[to this T'an-lun replied]

If there were an onion it would be possible to peel it; but since there is fundamentally no onion whatsoever, what is there to peel?

The verse of Shen-hsiu (606?-706) said:

The body is the tree of awakening (enlightenment);

The mind is like a clear mirror.

Be unceasingly diligent in wiping and polishing it

So that it will be without dust.

Hui-neng (638-713) in the Platform Sutra answered with this verse:

Awakening entails no tree at all,

Nor does the clear mirror entail any material frame.

The Buddha-nature is eternally pure;

Where could it be stained by dust?

For Shen-hui (684-758) suddenness is a corollary to the identity of enlightenment and delusion. ... one cannot imitate the apprehension of truth, nor can one assay or predict the course of realization, much less bring it about by attempting to reproduce in action its theoretical description. Sudden, or direct, enlightenment is only possible through enlightenment itself. Direct, complete awareness is non-mediate awareness.

Tsung-mi (780-841) enumerated five different ways in which the terms sudden & gradual are used:

1. Gradual cultivation followed by sudden enlightenment; like chopping a tree down: gradual chopping, sudden fall

2. Sudden cultivation followed by gradual enlightenment; sudden resolve, gradual achievement through practice, as one's skill increases

3. Gradual cultivation and gradual enlightenment; like climbing a nine-story tower: a gradually increasing elevation enables a gradually widening view

4. Sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation; sudden (initial) insight, gradual extension

5. Sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation; solely due to preparation undertaken in previous lives: there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Tsung-mi distinguishes the enlightenment of complete realization (cases 1, 2, 3); and the enlightenment of initial insight (cases 4 & 5).


Tsung-mi's fullest description of sudden enlightenment occurs in the Ch'an Chart, where he says:

While awakening from delusion is sudden

the transformation of an unenlightened person

into an enlightened person is gradual.

For Tsung-mi, sudden enlightenment is the experience in which one sees that one's true nature is, and always has been, wholly identical with that of all Buddhas. The passage that Tsung-mi cites in both the Ch'an Preface and the Inquiry into the Origin of Man as canonical authority for his description of the highest teaching of the Buddha comes from the Avatamsaka:

There is not a single sentient being that is not fully endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata. It is only on account of their deluded thinking, erroneous views, and attachments that they do not succeed in realizing it. When they become free from deluded thinking, the all-comprehending wisdom, the spontaneous wisdom, and the unobstructed wisdom will then be manifest before them ... At that time the Tathagata with his unobstructed pure eye of wisdom universally beheld all sentient beings throughout the universe and said,
"How amazing! How amazing! How can it be that these sentient beings are fully endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata and yet, being ignorant and confused, do not know it, and can not see it? I must teach them the noble path, enabling them to be forever free from deluded thinking and to achieve for themselves the seeing of the broad and vast wisdom of the Tathagata within themselves, and so to be no different from the Buddhas."

For Tsung-mi the necessity of commencing a process of gradual cultivation following the initial experience of (sudden) enlightenment is based on the sheer tenacity of the karmic residue of past actions. As graphically illustrated in the diagram that occurs at the end of the Ch'an Preface, both the process of delusion and that of enlightenment are based on the dynamic ambivalence of the (....), which contains both an enlightened and an unenlightened aspect. The following ten stages of phenomenal evolution are enumerated by Tsung-mi:

1. sudden insight

2. resolution, vows

3. cultivation of the six perfections or practices

4. development of compassion and wisdom

5. realisation of emptiness of self, counteracting pride

6. realisation of the emptiness of things, counteracting possessiveness

7. mastery of form

8. mastery of mind

9. freedom from thought

10. attainment of Buddhahood; realising that, since the mind is of its very essence free from thoughts, there is ultimately no distinction between the various stages in the process of realization of enlightenment, all of which are identical with intrinsic enlightenment.

Ching-hsuan (943-1027) wrote:

One only streaks the mirror by polishing it;

Al-Ghazzali (1059-1111) wrote:

Imagine an oxidized [metal] mirror, with rust covering its surface, its clarity obscured, unable to register images. Whoever wishes to restore this mirror must carry out two tasks. He must first wipe and polish it, so as to remove the rust. Then he has to position the mirror in front of the object which he wants to be reflected. Thus the human soul has the capacity to become a mirror which can at any time be oriented to the true.

Supposedly, the defenders of sudden enlightenment base their doctrines on the famous passage from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra where it is said that all sentient beings possess the nature of a Buddha. From this a fundamental principle of the doctrine of sudden enlightenment is established: "spiritual cultivation cannot be cultivated."

Afterword by Tu Wei-ming (p446-457, in Gregory 1987):

The process that leads to enlightenment is always gradual, whereas the experience itself, no matter how well one is prepared, is always sudden. We do not depart from where we are here and now in order to appropriate what we do not have. Rather, the way is near at hand and inseparable from the ordinary experience of our daily lives. Paradoxically, we must make the existential decision to find our way; otherwise, we will lose it to the extent that we become unaware that it is originally ours. Nevertheless, because it is originally ours, we can get it by simply exercising our will to do so. Willing is the necessary and sufficient condition for us to get it. The way is ours, sudden and simultaneously, when we will that this be done.

Commentary (Nov 16, 1994) by ....

It is possible to come considerably closer, even in a description, to the nature of the actual process. Thus Plotinus (205?-270 AD) (The Enneads, 1.6.9. Beauty);

"This is not a journey for the feet ... you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.


And this inner vision, what is its operation? Newly awakened it is all too feeble to bear the ultimate splendour. Therefore the Soul must be trained ... cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast ... when you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that can shatter that inner unity, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential nature ... when you perceive that you have grown to this, you have become very vision; now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step -- you need a guide no longer -- strain, and see."

Steady cultivation, steady purification, and steady growth, punctuated with sudden resolves and sudden moments of awareness; such one could call Punctuated Equilibrium.

The rose grew slowly; I am suddenly aware that it has blossomed. The temperature drops slowly; I am suddenly aware that I am cold. My blood sugar level drops slowly; I am suddenly aware of hunger. They have all gradually fallen asleep; I am suddenly aware that the house is quiet. I had listened to his boring conversation for an hour when I suddenly realised what he was trying to tell me. The noise in the (suspension, gearbox, engine) had risen slowly; I am suddenly aware that there is a major mechanical difficulty.

The air escapes from the tire slowly; I am suddenly aware that there is a problem with the steering; this difficulty gradually gets worse, until suddenly I lose control.

The pain increases steadily; I am suddenly aware that it is there. The pain decreased steadily; I am suddenly aware that it is gone. The difficulties in our marriage have grown steadily; I am suddenly aware that it is over; I gradually set about preparing to leave.

Suddenly I knew something was wrong; There was a growing awareness that I would have to act; Suddenly I knew what I had to do; Gradually I put my thoughts in order; Suddenly I was ready; Gradually I inched down the ladder; Gradually I lost my grip. Suddenly I was falling; Suddenly I was at the bottom; Gradually I walked across the lawn; Suddenly I came to the locked gate; As I gradually climbed over it I suddenly became aware that someone was following me; I suddenly decided to run and as I gradually accelerated I was suddenly aware that I was no longer afraid; Gradually I slowed down; Suddenly I became aware that I had gradually become quite wet; As I approached the electric fence I gradually became aware that I was about to receive a sudden shock; et cetera.

Wasn't it Aesop who said: What is suddenness for the goose is gradualness for the fox?

Wherever there is a sensory threshold there is suddenness. Wherever there is continuous change there is gradualness. If one attends to a process of continuous change, with a sensory apparatus (eyes, ears, nose, whatever) which has a threshold, then there is a sudden perception of a gradual process. Additionally, a consciousness turned away from a "sense" will not register changes which that "sense" is detecting.

It would seem, then, that the Universe may be undergoing or composed of processes in continual change, but that the sensory apparatus of man treats these as events with sudden beginnings (as the event rises above the sensory threshold), followed by gradual middles (as the changes take place within the range of the sensory apparatus) and concluding with sudden endings (as the rate of change drops again below the threshold of sensitivity.)

One can follow this line of thought a little further; if change is everywhere continuous, then even the definition of an "event" is sensory-threshold-dependant. To a Consciousness with no lower threshold, there may be no events at all, just continuous, rolling change.

This suggestive formulation would explain why some historians and journalists, anyone with a high sensory threshold (i.e. an inability to notice subtle changes) might complain that the world is filled to overflowing with events, to be noticed, followed, recorded, filed, worried about, etc., while a calmer, more sensitive, mystically inclined type might regard the whole panorama as only the divine rolling along on its way, barely worth dividing up into separate events.

Given such a picture one can better appreciate the attractiveness of formulating ones search for divinity as a search for the unchanging.

"If men really desired what they pretend to desire, we should have much more rapid changes around us than we now see. But they make believe, and make believe so effectually that they deceive themselves into the idea that they are in earnest, and they come back life after life to live in the same unprogressive manner for thousands of years; and then in some particular life they wonder why they do not advance, and why somebody else has made such rapid progress in this one life while they make none. The man/woman who is in earnest -- not spasmodically but with steady persistence -- can make what progress he/she chooses; while those who make believe will run round and round the millpath for many a life to come." (It is necessary to evolve the faculties to have access to the realms of the spirit.) (Annie Besant on "Sudden & Gradual")