Zen: Gradual and Sudden Enlightenment?

There is within the Zen tradition this question about whether enlightenment (whatever that is!) happens all-at-once or is a more gradual process. Soto lineage teachings tend to emphasize “gradual enlightenment,” while the Rinzai lineage accepts the possibility of “sudden enlightenment.” And at least one modern teacher ~ Adyashanti ~ whose Zen training was/is complimented by the insights of Advaita Vedanta, claims that both are true, and necessary. So let’s explore âÂ?¦

As long as we’re still “caught” within samsaric modes of thinking & perceiving, it will be useful for us ~ as practitioners who’ve entered a path of Liberation ~ to make the distinction between an “historical” and an “ultimate” dimension: the “historical” dimension signifying our conventional experience of the phenomenal world; and the “ultimate” dimension signifying a transcendence into a more unified state.

Such a distinction depends, for one, upon conventional notions of “time” and “space” (e.g. Kant’s “categorical imperative”). The very idea of a “path” of Liberation, and hence a “gradual” movement from being “caught” in samsara to being “liberated” into Nirvana, depends upon such conventional notions of time & space âÂ?¦ a “productive” movement from past into future, and a “me” who is the “object” moving along this trajectory, yes?

And all this is well and good, and excellent support for replacing non-productive habits with productive ones, engaging in the “skillful means” offered to us by our chosen Path. For each of the various historical traditions can then offer it’s unique dharma: can provide a “map” for creating specific “alignments” (of thoughts, words & actions) which will allow us to become conscious, awake to ever-more-subtle aspects of our Being, higher & higher frequencies âÂ?¦

In addition, sitting in the Presence of a (human or non-human) Master of one of these traditions can ~ by a process of osmosis, shaktipat, or whatever ~ give us a glimpse, a sneak-preview, of this state-of-Being (what in Zen is, I believe, called “Satori”), even if we’re not yet able to stabilize our own consciousness at that vibratory level. So here, perhaps, is a case of a kind of “sudden” enlightenment which then (when we’re no longer in that Presence) reverts back to the “gradual” process of learning how to maintain that state-of-mind ourselves.

But such dharmas, to the extent that they do indeed exist within the “historical” dimension, within the realm of our conventional perception ~ are necessarily composed of representations, of words & concepts. And our final Liberation, Buddha-hood, places us (so the Masters tell us!) clearly into a non-conceptual field âÂ?¦ Which means that at the time of our Enlightenment, the path, the Dharma, that brought us there ~ along with the more rarefied concepts of time & space ~ by definition dissolve, at which point the “gradual” process in which we’ve been engaged becomes a time-less Eternal, a “sudden” Enlightenment: a waking-up into the Now, the Now, the Now âÂ?¦.

And it is at this point that all duality ~ including the duality between “historical” and “ultimate” dimensions, including the duality between “sudden” and “gradual” Enlightenment ~ dissolves into the blissful radiance of True Being.

Which is the reason that, of the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma & Sangha), only Buddha is the “ultimate refuge”! For Dharma, at the point of Enlightenment, must ~ for the reasons articulated above ~ be abandoned. And Sangha (as spiritual community) is by definition involved in striving for some “future” goal âÂ?¦ and hence is also defined by conventional time/space, and is motivated in part by fear (of not reaching that “goal”), an energy of constriction, of veiled consciousness, which has no place within Enlightened Mind.

At this point (of the dissolution of all pairs of opposites), we find ourselves (or so say the Masters!) living & expressing the kind of freedom which lies outside (and behind) all conceptualization:

True freedom comes when every speck of the known collapses into the unknown, not just for a moment but continually.

~ Adyashanti

And then, should we choose to “come down from that mountain,” to “come out of our cave,” we’re able to manifest as the Three Jewels, as a True Form (which knows itself as inherently form-less), for the benefit of all living beings:

Buddha is my Mindfulness, shining near and far. Dharma is my Conscious Breath, protecting body and mind. Sangha is my five skandhas, practicing in harmony.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

So now, once again, but in a wholly different way, we’re walking a “path” within time & space âÂ?¦ our breath is moving in & out âÂ?¦ our five skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations & consciousness) are engaged ~ in a balanced & beautiful way ~ in the “dance” of the phenomenal world, Wu Wei. Yet simultaneously we’re awake to what the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan has called “that which transpires behind that which appears.”

So � gradual or sudden? Or both?

I don’t know! ( âÂ?¦ and not even that.)

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