Sudden Enlightenment and Gradual Enlightenment


Sudden Enlightenment and Gradual Enlightenment

Chan Buddhism is a synthesis of the wisdom of Indian Buddhism and the cultivation of meditative concentration. In India, wisdom manifested through meditative concentration, but from the very beginning, the goal of Chan has been the direct cultivation of wisdom. If we can successfully generate wisdom, then it will be more than an intellectual understanding; it will also help us realize that emptiness is universal, and that is the function and vision of Chan. But Chan is also comprised of two paths- that of sudden enlightenment and that of gradual enlightenment, both leading to the same destination. While some people might suddenly experience enlightenment or discover wisdom, for the vast majority the cultivation process proceeds gradually.

Let me use an analogy: two people are climbing the same mountain, except that one climbs under foggy conditions, not realizing that he has already reached the summit until the mist suddenly disperses. The other person climbs in nice weather, but has already seen the summit before they start to climb. So as he climbs, he grumbles the whole way, wondering why he hasn’t arrived yet. Which one of the two represents sudden enlightenment? And which one represents gradual enlightenment? Was it worth it for the one who climbed in the fog? Was the one who already saw the summit before climbing the lucky one? When they come to practice Chan with me, quite a few people hope to attain sudden instead of gradual enlightenment. So I give them a guarantee, saying, “You will attain sudden enlightenment.” If they ask me, how, I: “Practice slowly. At the very end, you’ll become enlightened instantly. That’s sudden enlightenment!” Although you can drink instant coffee and eat fast food, when it comes to practice methods, you still have to invest the time and effort to reach the goal.

I was once asked, “How can I attain enlightenment?” I replied, “It depends on your spiritual capacity. Those with a higher capacity become enlightened faster. Those with a lower capacity take a bit longer.” I’ve also been asked, “How do I know whether my capacity is higher or lower?” I said, “It doesn’t matter whether it’s high or low, everyone should practice well.” Somebody also asked, “If you know your capacity is low, does that mean we might as well give up practicing?”

I said, “Because we’ve discovered that our spiritual capacity is low, our need to devote effort to practice is even greater!”

The World of Chan, Chan and the Arts, pp 148-149,
Master Sheng Yen’s Talks, given at Purdue University, Indiana, October 23, 1992

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