Last month, we published the essay Starting Points by Tricycle‘s Features Editor Andrew Cooper, about approaching issues of race in our Buddhist communities. In light of the positive and productive dialogue that essay engendered, we’ve decided to publish another “oldie but goodie” by Cooper. This one, The Shape of the Question, was first published in Inquiring Mind, in an issue highlighting the teachings of Tibetan Dzogchen, Advaita master Hari Lal Poonja, and Toni Packer. In the article, Cooper explores non-dual dharma, crafting a historical perspective on the longstanding debate of sudden versus gradual enlightenment.


Anne Hornyack
“Flowers at Chicago Botanic Garden,” by Anne Hornyack.


In 13th century Japan, a young Buddhist monk of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei was provoked to a deep wondering: If, as the scriptures maintain, all beings are in their true natures enlightened, why do buddhas work so hard to attain enlightenment? Unable to find a satisfying resolution, the monk, Eihei Dogen, left Mt. Hiei to take up the study of Zen. His practice eventually led him to undertake the arduous journey to China, where, under the guidance of Master Rujing, he resolved his spiritual quest. Rujing transmitted his dharma lineage to Dogen, who soon after returned to Japan, where he established the Soto school of Zen.

Dogen was a writer of extraordinary depth and brilliance, and we know him today largely through the body of work he authored. The central theme running throughout his teaching is expressed by the phrase shusho itto, the oneness of practice and realization. Practice is based on intrinsic enlightenment; enlightenment is actualized through practice. The teaching reflects Dogen’s resolution of the question that prompted his journey from Mt. Hiei.

Many Buddhist practitioners who have not read Dogen’s own writings have encountered him through the works of his lineage descendants, Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind being for Westerners perhaps the most famous example. To many, Dogen’s question may sound a bit abstract, but it expresses an essential dilemma, one deeply structured within the configuration of enlightenment and delusion in nondualistic spirituality. The tension of this dilemma, its dialectic, is the source of great creativity. This was true for Dogen, but not only Dogen. The dialectic animates Buddhism’s history, shaping its teachings and forms of practice, the details of individual experience, and the formation of schools and traditions. It also shapes this issue of Inquiring Mind.

The theme of this issue is the dharma of nonduality, focusing on spiritual traditions, particularly Advaita Vedanta and Dzogchen, that emphasize the inherent nature of enlightenment. In recent years, many experienced vipassana meditators, including some teachers, have been drawn to explore these approaches. The two are, of course, themselves very different from each other. Advaita Vedanta is rooted within Hindu tradition, deriving largely from the Upanishads. Dzogchen is a body of meditative teachings belonging to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. Great though the differences may be, both traditions are characterized by their nondualistic approaches to liberation. And both have historical links to the emptiness teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, as does Toni Packer, another teacher presented in this issue, who departed from the Zen tradition in which she trained to pursue what she saw as a less dogmatic approach to nondual spirituality.

So what’s going on? What, if anything, do these traditions have to say to insight meditators? How do they fit together? Or do they fit together at all? These are questions worth asking, not because they will yield correct answers, but because of what may open up in the process of exploring them. Such questions arise from, and point back to, deeper, more compelling questions. Questions like Dogen’s. Questions one answers with the whole of one’s life.

The editors of Inquiring Mind invited me to write an introduction providing a historical context for the exploration of these issues. There is, it must be said, something ironic about setting these traditions within a historical framework, for historicism, a mode of understanding until recently peculiar to the West, is quite foreign to these traditions’ own self-understandings. The point in doing so is not to reduce the matter to the terms of historical analysis, but to enhance exploration of present experience by locating the roots of this experience within broader patterns. The ways our spiritual ancestors have grappled with and resolved their own questions define the field of possibilities from which our own concerns emerge. Our questions are not our own.

Dogen’s question arose from the contradiction of two perspectives: in Zen language, the intrinsic and the experiential. Intrinsically, all beings are buddhas; all things are perfect and complete as they are. Experientially, we suffer a lot. Zen teachings address the interplay of these two perspectives on the one reality, first from one angle, then from another.

The tension between these two perspectives is played out not only in the practice of individuals seeking an existential resolution, but also in the development of traditions through time. Looked at historically, the issue is broader than any single statement of it. Rather than a single contradiction, we find a pattern of polarity in which various characteristics tend to cluster together on one side or the other.

At one end of the polarity we find emphasized such notions as moral purification, gradual practice, discipline, effort, transcendent reality, the uprooting of emotional defilements, a categorical distinction between path and goal, and a technically precise style of expression. The other pole includes inherent perfection, sudden awakening, spontaneity, intuition, the immediacy of ultimate reality, the overturning of erroneous intellectual habits, the identity of path and goal (or no path, no goal), and poetically evocative language. Each cluster of associated notions is a perspective: not something we see, but that which we see through. Each casts the world in a certain way.

No spiritual tradition is a pure version of either pole. In actual manifestation, the elements blend together, one way here, one there. In Buddhism’s history, the dialectic has most famously taken the form of debate between sudden and gradual schools of thought, a debate that was pivotal in the development of both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.

At first glance, it seems rather ridiculous. Practice obviously includes both gradual maturation and sudden insight. Why, then, would highly esteemed dharma masters argue the point as vigorously as they did? Was it out of some kind of chauvinism? Or egotism? Was it competition for political power, prestige, or material resources? It was probably some of all these. There is no reason to assume that the transmission of the teachings, alone among all human endeavors, is immune to such concerns. But neither is it reducible to them. My guess is that debates among Buddhists have always been, to a large extent, fueled by the passionate commitment of those involved to that which spoke most tellingly to, and from, the depths of their beings. In short, they were probably a lot like Buddhists today.

It is interesting to note that those advocating the “sudden” approach in the Tibetan debate were from the Northern “gradual” school of Chinese Zen. This, I think, well illustrates the dynamic nature of the problem. One person’s gradual may be another’s sudden. But the tension, and the need to resolve it, remain.

The dilemma remains embedded in the language of realization. We can only speak meaningfully about nonduality because of the meanings contained by the notion of duality. The unconditioned signifies nothing without the conditioned. No-self needs a particular self, and nirvana needs samsara. In the language of semiotics, each side of a binary opposition is the possibility of the other. Yet the meanings themselves slip and slide and change. You can’t have enlightenment without delusion, but you can have plenty of versions of both.

We might consider the theme of this issue within this context. The vipassana tradition tends toward the gradual cluster. It is, as the title of one of its core texts says, a path of purification. Some meditators, it seems, find their practice enriched by suddenist perspectives. On the other hand, many people from more suddenist approaches have benefited from the clear and straightforward way in which insight meditation lays out the path. Is it as simple as that? No one can answer that question. How “no one” answers it is, I believe, the point.    

While I was putting together this article, I recalled a time one of my Zen teachers spoke of the three marks of all phenomena:  impermanence, no-self, and nirvana. Like Billie Holiday giving an unexpected phrasing to a familiar lyric, this was a kind of suddenist way of signifyin’ upon the more familiar “gradual” view that all things are marked by impermanence, no-self, and suffering. Suffering and nirvana—each one dependent upon the other; each one implying the other. Together they form Buddhism’s central question. As traditions that have long been separated by geography and sectarianism rub up against one another in the contemporary world, the age-old issues manifest in new ways. But the shape of the question remains compelling as always.

Can you feel the tension? What do you make of it?



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