Sunday, March 13, 2011

Whither Gradual or Sudden Enlightenment?

Referring to my blog on how Kamalashila won the debate over Ho Shan Mahayana, I would like to clarify that it is not Mahayana Buddhism lost. 'Ho Shan Mahayana' refers to the name of a monk that debated with Kamalashila. Some say that it is referring to a particular group of monks that practices some sort of Zen Buddhism. 

In the same blog, I also mentioned about sudden vs gradual enlightenment and the debate btwn Ven. Sheng Yen and HH the Dalai Lama. The thing is the concept of gradual enlightenment is not the creation of the Dalai Lama alone. This debate of sudden & gradual enlightenment is not confined to btwn proponents of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism alone, but also within the various traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. For example, there are masters in some lineages that believe those who practice certain tantric path will go direct to final enlightenment without having to go through all the grounds and paths. Others, however, believe that you go through each one (such as each of the ten bodhisattva bumis and the 5 Paths) step by step. 

In the founder of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, Lord Jigten Sumgon's Gong Chik vajra verse no. 13, he is of the opinion that all the paths and grounds need to be traversed by all who seek enlightenment. He was also of the opinion that even in cases of sudden enlightenment, that person must have been working on his mind (i.e. purification of defilements & accumulation of merits) for sometime. In other words, he must have the necessary pre-requisites for achieving enlightenment before he is able to break through even at the first level of enlightenment. 

I support that notion. Just as our defilements are not removed in a single day, in the same way enlightenment is not achieved in a short, sudden event. Enlightenment does not come falling down into our lap without causes and conditions. And even if it was a sudden break through the question is: at what stage of enlightenment have you achieved? If it is just the initial level, it means he still has a long way to go until he achieves final and complete Buddhahood. And if one have not work to achieve all the qualities of a Buddha, one will not become a Buddha. Just by meditation alone, no matter what meditation method is employed, one will not become a Buddha. For example, we need to 'work' with sentient beings to develop all the qualities necessary such as compassion, patience and the rest of the paramitas. Hence the path to enlightenment can never be so simple as an instant moment when we will suddenly be endowed with all the qualities of compassion and wisdom. It has to be a process. And the process can only result in enlightenment when our defilements are removed. 

How much enlightenment we achieve will depend on how much defilements are removed. If you remove more, then you will achieve a higher stage if enlightenment. Hence in that sense, I feel that he is actually saying it is not so much about getting suddenly or gradually enlightened but how much further you need to 'go' once you have achieved some levels of enlightenment. Therefore to seek for sudden enlightenment can border on being greedy. Rather we need to focus on working to purify our defilements, not focus on how quick to attain enlightenment. Focus on properly removing defilements in the shortest possible time without getting ourselves too hasty nor too slack. That's the Buddha's Middle Path.

Once defilements are purified, enlightenment will result, and how soon we achieve that, i.e. sudden or gradual depends on how much effort we put in to purifying our defilements. We do not suddenly get a PhD without having studied primary and secondary schools. The smarter kids will study faster and skip a few years but they still need to demonstrate they have the necessary knowledge and ability before the school will allow these genius kids to skip a few years. So the question of not having purified the defilements and gained the necessary merits before we could achieve sudden enlightenment does not arise. 

Regardless of our path of practice, every defilements still need to be purified and merits still need to be accumulated. It does not mean if we practice Zen or a particular tantric path to 'sudden' enlightenment, then there is no need to go through all those steps of purification and accumulation. We still need to go through the process. And a process involves time, hence gradual. If the process takes only a short time, some people call that 'sudden' but it really means the process happens faster, depending on the effort and capability of the person.

As to which path is better, Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, I believe the answer lies in each individual. Whichever path hastens the purification and accumulation process, that's the path best for you! And it is generally accepted by most Buddhists that whatever is best for one person need not be best for another. And vice-versa. That's why it is said that the Buddha taught many paths and dharma to suit many types of beings. 

So, to the question: whither gradual or sudden enlightenment? If you choose either one, you really deserve a knock on the head. Just focus on our practice and enlightenment will gradually come suddenly! Don't you think so?

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