The question of sudden versus gradual enlightenment was a sustained concern in East Asian Buddhism. One of the more sustained elaborations of the problem was that of the Huayan and Chan master Zongmi (780-841), who explored the possible combinations of sudden and gradual. Gradual cultivation followed by sudden enlightenment was like gradually chopping down a tree until it suddenly falls; sudden cultivation followed by gradual enlightenment was like immediately discerning the target and then gradually learning how to hit it with an arrow; gradual cultivation and gradual enlightenment was like ascending a nine-storey tower, one’s vista expanding with each upward step; sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation was the most rare of cases, and depended on having practised gradual cultivation in a previous life; sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation was like the birth of an infant who has all its limbs but must slowly learn how to use them. This final model was preferred by Zongmi.
The sudden versus gradual problem was also taken up in Korea by perhaps the most important figure in the Chan tradition of Korea, the monk Chinul (1158-1210). Like Zhiyi (see Chapter 40) Chinul was renowned as both a scholar and a meditator, and he exhorted monks to devote themselves to both study and practice. He encouraged monks to leave the corruption of city monasteries and depart for mountains where they should direct their energies to the cultivation of concentration and wisdom. Chinul brought the insights of Huayan thought to Chan practice in Korea, making the Korean Son (the Korean pronunciation of Chan) distinct from its Chinese forebear.
On the question of sudden and gradual enlightenment, Chinul argued that sudden enlightenment followed by gradual awakening was not only the preferable model, but was indeed the path followed by all the buddhas of the past, present and future. He makes this case below in a passage from a work entitled Secrets on Cultivating the Mind (Susim kyol).
Now, there are many approaches to the path, but essentially they are included in the twofold approach of sudden awakening and gradual cultivation. Although sudden awakening/sudden cultivation has been advocated, this is the entrance for people of the highest faculties. If you were to probe their pasts, you would see that their cultivation has been based for many lives on the insights gained in a previous awakening. Now, in this life, after gradual permeation, these people hear the dharma and awaken: in one instant their practice is brought to a sudden conclusion. But if we try to explain this according to the facts, then sudden awakening/sudden cultivation is also the result of an initial awakening and its subsequent cultivation. Consequently, this twofold approach of sudden awakening and gradual cultivation is the track followed by thousands of saints. Hence, of all the saints of old, there were none who did not first have an awakening, subsequently cultivate it and finally, because of their cultivation, gain realization….
Question: You have said that this twofold approach of sudden awakening/gradual cultivation is the track followed by thousands of saints. But if awakening is really sudden awakening, what need is there for gradual cultivation? And if cultivation means gradual cultivation, how can you speak of sudden awakening? We hope that you will expound further on these two ideas of sudden and gradual and resolve our remaining doubts.
Chinul: First let us take sudden awakening. When the ordinary man is deluded, he assumes that the four great elements are his body and the false thoughts are his mind. He does not know that his own nature is the true dharma-body; he does not know that his own numinous awareness is the true buddha. He looks for the buddha outside his mind. While he is thus wandering aimlessly, the entrance to the road might by chance be pointed out by a wise adviser. If in one thought he then follows back the light [of his mind to its source] and sees his own original nature, he will discover that the ground of this nature is innately free of defilement, and that he himself is originally endowed with the nonoutflow wisdom-nature which is not a hair’s breadth different from that of all the buddhas. Hence it is called sudden awakening.
Next let us consider gradual cultivation. Although he has awakened to the fact that his original nature is no different from that of the buddhas, the beginningless habit-energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly and so he must continue to cultivate while relying on this awakening. Through this gradual permeation, his endeavours reach completion. He constantly nurtures the sacred embryo, and after a long time he becomes a saint. Hence it is called gradual cultivation.
This process can be compared to the maturation of a child. From the day of its birth, a baby is endowed with all the sense organs just like everyone else, but its strength is not yet fully developed. It is only after many months and years that it will finally become an adult.
Question: Through what expedients is it possible to trace the radiance of one’s sense-faculties in a single thought and awaken to the self-nature?
Chinul: The nature is just your own mind. What other expedients do you need? If you ask for expedients to seek understanding, you are like a person who, because he does not see his own eyes, assumes that he has no eyes and decides to find some way to see. But since he does have eyes, how else is he supposed to see? If he realizes that in fact he has never lost his eyes, this is the same as seeing his eyes, and no longer would he waste his time trying to find a way to see. How then could he have any thoughts that he could not see? Your own numinous awareness is exactly the same. Since this awareness is your own mind, how else are you going to understand? If you seek some other way to understand, you will never understand. Simply by knowing that there is no other way to understand, you are seeing the nature.
Question: When the superior man hears the dharma, he understands easily. Average and inferior men, however, are not without doubt and confusion. Could you describe some expedients so that the deluded too can enter into enlightenment?
Chinul: The path is not related to knowing or not knowing. You should get rid of the mind which clings to its delusion and looks forward to enlightenment, and listen to me.
Since all dharmas are like dreams or phantoms, deluded thoughts are originally calm and the sense-spheres are originally void. At the point where all dharmas are void, the numinous awareness is not obscured. That is to say, this mind of void and calm, numinous awareness is not obscured. It is also the dharma-seal transmitted without a break by all the buddhas of the three time periods, the successive generations of patriarchs, and the wise advisers of this world. If you awaken to this mind, then this is truly what is called not following the rungs of a ladder: you climb straight to the stage of buddhahood, and each step transcends the triple world. Returning home, your doubts will be instantly resolved and you will become the teacher of men and gods. Endowed with compassion and wisdom and complete in the twofold benefit, you will be worthy of receiving the offerings of men and gods. Day after day you can use ten thousand taels of gold without incurring debt. If you can do this, you will be a truly great man who has indeed finished the tasks of this life.
Translated by Robert Buswell from Susim kyOl. The translation appears in his The Korean Approach to Zen: The Collected Works of Chinul (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), pp. 143-5.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.