Sudden and Gradual Enlightenment in Zen

This is mostly the text of a talk I gave to the Open Mind Zen Meditation Center in Melbourne, Florida, via Zoom on July 12, 2020. I say mostly because I chickened out on pronouncing the Chinese name Hongren and instead used the Japanese name Konin for the Fifth Patriarch. But here I use Hongren.

I foolishly asked Al to suggest a topic for this talk, and he said, how about gradual and sudden enlightenment. Okay.  This is a tricky topic, mostly because there’s some disagreement about what these terms mean. But I’ll do my best. I warn you, though, that this won’t be a dharma talk as much as a wallow in historical nerdiness.

You may hear that Rinzai koan contemplation is a practice of sudden enlightenment, and that Soto shikantaza is a practice of gradual enlightenment. I would not categorize them that way, but many do. Where did this notion of sudden versus gradual come from? And is it even a thing? Let’s take a look.

In the Zen tradition, the controversy over sudden and gradual enlightenment first emerged in the 8th century, in the early Tang Dynasty, which was a time before Zen was even calling itself Zen, or Chan in Chinese.

But let’s start in an earlier time, with the traditional Zen story from the Platform Sutra, which I suspect you’ve all heard. In this story the Fifth Patriarch challenged his students to write a poem expressing their understanding. Whoever wrote the best poem would be his principle dharma heir and receive Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl.

Shenxiu, the highly esteemed senior disciple, wrote a poem that compared mind to a mirror that must be polished to clear away the dust. Junior monk Huineng, a nobody from south China, wrote another verse saying that mind is already pure, and there is no where for dust to collect. Because of this verse the Fifth Patriarch Hongren recognized Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch.

If you look up commentaries on the poems, you can find varying interpretations. The first verse could be interpreted to mean that realizing enlightenment requires a gradual process of purifying the mind, while the second might be saying that enlightenment is already completely present and just needs to be realized.  Since Hongren died in 674, we can assume this episode was supposed to have happened in the 7th century.

If you look more closely, it could be argued the two views expressed in the two verses are not necessarily opposed to each other. The prevailing view of the time ― and not just in Zen, but in Chinese Buddhism generally ― was that mind is one, but the one mind has two aspects. To grossly oversimplify, we can call these two aspects the mind of enlightenment and the mind of illusion, and the means to actualize the enlightenment aspect is to quiet the illusion aspect. Again, this is a gross oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it.

I’ve heard it said that while there is no need to polish the mirror, you do need to polish the mirror to fully realize why there is no need to polish the mirror. But as far as I can tell, whether this happens gradually or suddenly doesn’t seem to have been an issue in the 7th century.

If you’ve read my book The Circle of the Way, you’ll know this poetry contest probably didn’t happen in the 7th century or any other time. For one thing, the academic scholars say that Shenxiu and Huineng were not at the Fifth Patriarch’s temple at the same time. And there is good reason to think that the verse attributed to Shenxiu did not represent the understanding of the real Shenxiu. So I don’t think the verses are going to help us get to the bottom of the gradual versus sudden controversy.

After Hongren died in 674, Shenxiu was widely considered to be the most prominent of his students and his principal dharma heir. Shenxiu was a logical choice for the title of Sixth Patriarch. But beginning about the year 730 a dharma heir of Huineng’s named Shenhui went on a crusade to get Huineng recognized as the true Sixth Patriarch.

 By that time both Huineng and Shenxiu had been dead for a few years. What might be called the Zen establishment was centered in the imperial city of Luoyang, which was and is in north China, in modern-day Henan province.  In 730 this group was led by an heir of Shenxiu’s named Puji. 

In 732 Shenhui addressed a large assembly of Zen students and teachers near Luoyang and accused them all of straying from the true path of Zen.  And we read in many accounts of this event that one of Shenhui’s criticisms was that the establishment, which Shenhui called the “northern school,” was teaching a gradual approach to enlightenment. The true approach taught by Huineng’s “southern school,” Shenhui argued, was dunwu, or “sudden awakening.” Shenhui continued his criticisms for the next several years. At one point the emperor sent him into exile from Luoyang for causing too much acrimony.

But Shenhui eventually gained the favor of the imperial court because of a war called the An Lushan rebellion, which lasted from 755 to 763. The Tang emperor had to spend a lot of money to pay for an army to defend his rule, and he decided to sell Buddhist ordination certificates to raise it. The heirs of Puji, who had died in 739, refused to sell Buddhist ordinations for money to people who weren’t willing to do the work. But Shenhui had no such scruples. He did such a bang-up job raising money for the emperor that he was given a plum job running the imperial chapel. By then Shenhui was quite elderly, and he enjoyed his position for only a short time before he died, probably in 758. But the imperial favor went a long way toward making Shenhui’s version of Zen history the one that prevailed.

The Platform Sutra, which presents itself as Huineng’s autobiography, is believed to have been written about the year 780. And it probably was written by a disciple of Shenhui who had never met Huineng, although we don’t know that for certain. Its account of the life of Huineng came to be adopted as shared history by the many monastics scattered around China who considered themselves to be descendants of Bodhidharma. The Platform is enormously important to Zen history, even if the story it tells isn’t historical. It helped hold the Zen tradition together through the upheavals of the late Tang Dynasty and after, which some other Chinese Buddhist schools did not survive. The Platform’s teachings, whoever composed them, were embraced. The literary figure of Huineng, which may or may not bear much resemblance to the real Huineng, became the ideal prototype of a Zen teacher. And, of course, all Zen teachers today trace their lineage back to Huineng. The Platform elevated the Diamond Sutra, and the prajnaparamita sutras generally, as the scriptures most central to Zen, which they are to this day. So it was and is a very important text, even if it isn’t historically accurate.

But let’s go back now and look more closely at what Shenhui was complaining about. And here I am at a bit of a loss, because as a non-academic I have access to only bits of the record of Shenhui’s accusations as interpreted by the academic historians, who often have no clue what they’re talking about.  

First, let’s look at whether Shenxiu and his heirs had departed from the teachings of Hongren. There is a  text called Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind attributed to Hongren, and in this treatise we read, “The essence of cultivating the Way is to discern that one’s own body-mind awareness is inherently pure, not subject to birth or death, and without division. Perfect and complete in its self-nature, present awareness is the fundamental teacher. Focusing on it exclusively is superior to reflecting on the awakened ones of the ten directions.”

Then later in the same treatise, Hongren wrote, “All concepts, and all affairs of past, present, and future, should be seen as dust on a mirror – when the dust is gone, true nature naturally becomes clearly visible.” Hmm, that’s where the dust on the mirror came from.  

Hongren goes on, “That which is learned by the deluded mind is completely useless. True learning is what is learned by the unconditioned mind, which never ceases perfect awareness.” There’s your one mind with two aspects.

Most of all, Hongren taught, “maintaining awareness of mind is the fundamental basis of nirvana, the essential gateway for entering the path, the basic principle of all the scriptures, and the teacher of all the awakened ones of the past, present, and future.”

We have brief descriptions of a couple of Hongren’s meditation techniques. One sounds a lot like shikantaza to me ― quietly observing the fluctuations of one’s mind. Another technique, especially recommended for beginners, was to focus on the figure one. In Chinese, this would be a horizontal line. The point is that none of this sounds very gradual.

In early Buddhism, in the teachings of the historical Buddha, there are a lot of practices that might be described as gradual. The four foundations of mindfulness is one example. The four dhyanas, or stages of meditative absorption, describe a multi-stage process that takes one eventually to samadhi. But Hongren taught what appears to be one-step meditation techniques that focused on the enlightened mind that is already present.

To this day, most other schools of Buddhism, I believe all other schools, take a much more step by step approach. People start at the shallow end of the pool with water wings and practice all the strokes and kicks, and then move gradually toward the deep end. Zen tosses newbies into the deep end on day one, no floatation devices, sink or swim. And we see that in Hongren’s teaching.

Now, had Shenxiu and his heirs deviated from Hongren’s teachings? This is where having access to the complete record would help. We do get some hints from one scholar-historian, the late John McCrae, that Shenxiu was very much into a metaphorical reinterpretation of scripture, and this was his own thing and not Hongren’s. Other than that, the deeper one gets into what the historians have written about Shenxiu and Shenhui the harder it is to get a clear picture of what was supposed to be gradual or sudden. It’s not even clear if Shenhui taught zazen at all, which makes one wonder how this sudden enlightenment was supposed to happen.

But then I found in Red Pine’s translation and commentary of the Platform Sutra that the Chinese words translated as sudden and gradual can also be interpreted as direct and indirect, and even straightforward and deceitful. In Zen, “direct” can refer to direct contemplation of mind, while “indirect” usually refers to practices such as sutra study or veneration of Buddha images. This makes me suspect that Shenhui’s real beef might have been that the establishment zennies were spending too much time in indirect practices such as metaphorical reinterpretation of scripture. However, it’s also possible that Shenhui was just a born troll who liked stirring up trouble. In any event, this is where we first hear about sudden and gradual enlightenment in Zen.

Not all Zen ancestors in China at the time were part of the northern or southern school controversy. Along with the Luoyang establishment, or “northern school” if you will, and Shenhui’s southern school, there was also the Oxhead school, which had been established in the 7th century and which was very influential in early Zen. The Oxhead teachers maintained neutrality in the northern – southern school controversy.

But the Oxhead school, the so-called “northern” school, and Shenhui’s “southern” school did not survive into the next millennium. The dharma ancestors of all Zen teachers and students today appeared to play no part in this controversy.

The great master Shítóu Xīqiān, the author of the Sandokai ― Identity of Relative and Absolute ― would have been about 30 years old when Shenhui began his crusade and may have begun teaching by then, in what is now Hunan province in south central China. You might remember the line from the Sandokai ― in the Way, there is no northern or southern patriarch. So that was Shitou’s opinion of the matter.

And in the year 730 the great master Mazu Daoyi, who gave us “ordinary mind is the way,” would have been about 20 years old and probably wasn’t teaching yet. Mazu and Shitou are not identified with either the northern or southern school, but they were the dharma ancestors of the two founders of Rinzai and Soto Zen, Master Linji and Master Dongshan, who lived in the 9th century.  In Chinese, the schools they founded are called Linji and Caodong. At this point the difference between these teachers and their heirs was mostly a matter of style rather than substance, and I haven’t found anyone carping about sudden and gradual in the 9th century.

So now we skip ahead to the 12th century and the Song Dynasty. By the Song Dynasty it was said that Zen had five houses, which were not really separate schools but more like familial groups of interrelated lineages. One of the five was Linji, and another was Caodong. The others would either fade away or merge with Linji in time.

Now we find masters Hongzhi Zhengjue of the Caodong house, and Dahui Zonggao of the Linji house. Dahui, of course, was the guy who invented huatou contemplation, the first form of koan contemplation, and he was bitingly critical of the meditation practice taught by Hongzhi. Dahui coined the term “silent illumination” for Hongzhi’s practice, which I guess was supposed to be an insult, but I don’t know why.

Somewhat ironically, Hongzhi and Dahui ended up becoming close friends. The rivalry, I suppose you could call it, between them is described by some of the academic historians as a flare-up of the old sudden and gradual controversy from the 8th century. But again, a closer look shows us something else.

Koans, or gongan in Chinese, were popular in the Song Dynasty. The classic collections ― the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity (or Equanimity), and the Gateless Barrier were compiled in the Song Dynasty. These little stories were collected and commented on by teachers of all the Zen houses, including Caodong teachers. They didn’t belong to the Linji tradition alone.

Dahui was, we believe, the first person to take the essential word or phrase of a koan and use it as a focus for zazen. He described sitting with Great Doubt, an all-consuming unease, until the doubt becomes a red-hot ball that cannot be swallowed or spit up. And then, when the mind has no where else to go, realization comes like awakening from a dream.

I occasionally run into a Rinzai student hotshot who thinks that Zen without koan contemplation isn’t “real” Zen. That certainly calls every teacher before the 12th century into question, including Linji himself, who wouldn’t have done koan contemplation because it hadn’t been invented yet. Keep in mind also that in China the student often just works with one huatou his entire life; the student doesn’t work through a curriculum of koans as in Japanese Rinzai. It’s not clear when the curriculum practice began, but it may not have been a standard practice before the Tokugawa shogunate, which began in the 17th century.

But back to Song Dynasty China. Dahui said of Hongzhi’s practice, “The very worst [of all heretical views] is that of silent illumination, with which people become entrenched in the ghostly cave, not uttering a word and being totally empty and still, seeking the ultimate peace and happiness.” In Zen, the “ghostly cave” refers to a kind of meditative cul-de-sac that is very relaxing and pleasant but does not lead to enlightenment. It’s meditation as escapism. For Dahui, Hongzhi’s practice was too passive and did not lead to kensho.

But passivity isn’t what Hongzhi taught. And we know this because he left us extensive writing about his practice of zazen.

“Box and lid [join] and arrow points [meet], harmoniously hitting the mark,” Hongzhi wrote, paraphrasing the Sandokai. He continued, “Do not leave any traces and inside and outside will merge into one totality, as leisurely as the sky clearing of rainclouds, as deep as the water drenching the autumn.”

Hongzhi also wrote, “When the stains from old habits are exhausted, the original light appears, blazing through your skull, not admitting any other matters.” Which sounds like a kensho to me. It’s just a different way of approaching it.

There is an article about silent illumination in the June 2020 issue of Lion’s Roar by Master Guo Gu, a longtime student of the late Chinese Chan Master Sheng Yen. I’d like to read just a bit. He said,

“Silent illumination is the simultaneous practice of stillness and clarity, or quiescence and luminosity. … In silence there is illumination; in stillness, clarity is ever present.

“The Chan tradition does not usually refer to steps or stages. Its central teaching is that we are intrinsically awake; our mind is originally without abiding, fixations, and vexations, and its nature is without divisions and stages. This is the basis of the Chan view of sudden enlightenment. If our mind’s nature were not already free, that would imply we could become enlightened only after we practiced, which is not so. If it’s possible to gain enlightenment, then it’s possible to lose it as well.”

I think this is an enormously important point. In some schools of Buddhism, buddha nature is understood as a potentiality or a seed that must be cultivated. That cultivation is a gradual process. But that’s not true of Zen, and from what I can see it hasn’t been true of Zen since the beginning of Zen. Enlightenment is sudden because it’s already there. From this perspective, all Zen is sudden enlightenment Zen.

 Now we get to Dogen. After Dogen reached China in 1223 he eventually studied with Master Rujing in the same temple on Tiantong Mountain in which Hongzhi had taught for thirty years, until his death in 1157. This was not a Caodong temple but a public temple, which means that the abbot was appointed by the emperor, and the abbot could be of any school. And monastics of any school could practice there. It just happened that Rujing of the Caodong house was appointed abbot after Dogen arrived there.

We assume that before Dogen went to China he did koan contemplation under the direction of Myozen in Kyoto. From Rujing, Dogen would have learned silent illumination practice, and that would be the basis of the practice Dogen would call shikantaza.

I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of Dogen and his relationship to kensho, and to koans. Dogen brought a collection of koans back to Japan with him, and some insist this is proof that he really taught koan contemplation even though nothing in his enormous collection of writing so much as hints that he did. But we must remember that at this point in Zen history, the koan collections belonged to all houses of Zen, not just Linji. In fact, it was Hongzhi who compiled the koans of the Book of Serenity (or Equanimity). So I don’t think there’s anything you can read into Dogen’s collecting of koans other than that he appreciated them.

Sitting without goals seems to confuse some people. I have even seen the claim that Dogen didn’t believe in kensho or enlightenment. But that’s nonsense.

We have Dogen’s own account of the summer retreat of 1225 in Tiantong, when the monks of Tiantong were assembled in zazen, still and silent, in the predawn of the monastics’ hall. The monk seated next to Dogen was asleep. Rujing noticed this. “In zazen you must drop body and mind,” Rujing bellowed. “What’s the use of sleeping?” Dogen had a profound enlightenment experience that was a significant moment in his own dharma journey.

My reading of Dogen is that he didn’t advocate kensho because he didn’t like the word. The Japanese word kensho means “seeing one’s true nature.” But this sets up a dichotomy between the thing seen and the person doing the seeing.  To speak very crudely, in shikantaza, as soon as you see yourself as a distinct object seeking another distinct object, you’re doing it wrong. And, of course, enlightenment is already immediately present, whether you realize it or not.  So, to realize enlightenment you have to give up any notion of being a seeker who is seeking it.

In his lovely book Enlightenment Unfolds, Kazuaki Tanahashi wrote,

“The koan studies of the Linji-Rinzai line are an excellent method for working consciously toward breakthrough. By contrast, Dogen’s training method was to keep students from striving toward breakthrough. Although he fully understood the value of breakthroughs and used breakthrough stories of his ancestors for teaching, he himself emphasized “just sitting,” with complete non-attachment to the goal of attainment. But isn’t freedom from attachment an essential element for achieving breakthroughs?”

Of course, Dogen really was a seeker who deeply questioned what he’d been taught as a novice monk in the main Tendai temple of Enryaku-ji. It was because he was a seeker he found Myozen, who was the heir of Eisai, who had brought Linji transmission to Japan. It was because he was a seeker he went to China. And while in China, we read that he went to many temples and talked to many teachers; he didn’t just sit in the monastic’s hall at Tiantong.

But language tends to trip us up. Even Rujing’s “drop body and mind,” in English anyway, suggests that there is a dropper and things that are dropped. My teacher the late Jion Susan Postal, who was of the Shunryu Suzuki Soto lineage, taught that it is important to not assume personal pronouns in the phrase “drop body and mind.” It’s not something one can willfully do. Body and mind drop of themselves. Dogen said as much when he wrote in Fukanzazengi,

“You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest.”

The closer one looks at Dogen and his teachings, the less one sees of anything gradual. I say it’s a slander to speak of Dogen’s teaching as “gradual enlightenment,” as many do, because gradual versus sudden is a duality that has no basis in ultimate reality. And enlightenment is already present.

I will say, though, that shikantaza isn’t always taught properly. And sometimes the shikantaza practitioner really does stay stuck in a ghost cave that doesn’t lead anywhere. This does happen. But with proper teaching, it shouldn’t happen.

To go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this talk, is “gradual versus sudden” even a thing? I don’t believe it is. All forms of Zen are sudden enlightenment Zen.

At the same time, when you look at the relative side of Zen practice, you see a lot of things that might be mistaken for steps. The ten oxherding pictures come to mind. I understand that as you get to the end of the koan curriculum you encounter Tozan’s Five Ranks. Tozan is Dongshan in the book; he is credited as the founder of the Caodong school. We can tell from his writing that Dogen was influenced by the Five Ranks, but he was critical of teaching it, probably because it can be mistaken to be a step by step practice. It isn’t really, but to those viewing the world as a collection of distinct phenomena, it looks like one.  For that matter, Japanese Rinzai developed a koan curriculum to be worked through that might be mistaken for a gradual practice, although I’m not going to call it that.

So let’s put aside gradual versus sudden.

There’s another phrase that comes up in Zen history, which is “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.” In the book I attributed this phrase to the Korean master Pojo Jinul, who was born in the 12th century, but I have since learned that it was probably kicking around in Chinese Zen before that. Here I think we’re getting closer to the practicalities, so to speak, of how this realization thing manifests.

Certainly we come into practice with a brick wall of concepts, illusions, and assumptions that must be broken through in order to even begin to understand what’s going on with Zen. And this is necessary. But it’s important to understand that after such a breakthrough, practice continues. After kensho some confusion can remain, and long-standing mental habits may reassert themselves. What was realized can easily be corrupted by how we conceptualize it, or by the stories we tell ourselves about the experience. And this is why it’s so important to work with a teacher who can help you avoid falling into pits and who can give you a swift kick when you get stuck.

Hakuin said,

“Too often the disciple, considering that his attainment of this rank is the end of the Great Matter and his discernment of the Buddha-way complete, clings to it to the death and will not let go of it. Such as this is called “stagnant water” Zen; such a man is called “an evil spirit who keeps watch over the corpse in the coffin.” Even though he remains absorbed in this state for thirty or forty years, he will never get out of the cave of self-complacency and inferior fruits of pratyeka-buddhahood.”

A pratyeka Buddha is one who practices alone, only for himself.

We see in even the lives of the great teachers that they often had more than one breakthrough experience. And this doesn’t always happen on the meditation cushion. In his autobiography, Hakuin described a powerful enlightenment experience that occurred while he was reading the Lotus Sutra. This was after he had begun teaching.

And I would say from my own experience that clarity can come gradually. The breakthroughs are important, but as you continue practice the clouds continue to part, sometimes so slowly and subtly that you may not notice it happening right away.

So that’s my take on sudden versus gradual. I hope that some of you who can’t imagine Zen without koan contemplation have a broader view of the Zen tradition. I encourage practitioners of all Zen traditions to keep an open mind and be willing to learn from those other people, whoever they are.

And I wish all of you strong practice through these precarious times. Do stay safe and be well.

3 thoughts on “Sudden and Gradual Enlightenment in Zen

  1. Susan Crosswait

    Thank you? Who are you and what else have you written. I am five years into the study of Zen and sit via zoom with a group who studied with Joshu Roshi from the Mount Baldy Zen Center.

    You are very easy to understand and have helped me understand Sudden/Gradual Zen. I do keep an open mind and think Silence or enlightenment is always present, with nowhere to come or go.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *