This article is the ninth in the 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism series with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

The East Asian Zen tradition has long understood enlightenment to be a sudden flash of insight rather than a gradual revelation. Zhongfeng Mingben, a Chinese Chan (Zen) master in the Linji (Japanese, Rinzai) lineage, described the sudden approach to enlightenment in verse:

Chan practice does not involve any progression,
The absolute essence is free from all extremes and representations.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
In one realization, all is realized,
In one flash of cognition, all is cognized.

According to an aphorism attributed to Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, sudden awakening occurs by “pointing directly to the human mind so that one may see the nature and achieve buddhahood.” In some accounts, a focus on “seeing the nature” (Japanese, kensho; Chinese, jianxing) frees followers from the extended regimens of training outlined in so-called conventional forms of Buddhism. This “subitist,” or sudden, approach to liberation—what we in the business call a “soteriology”—is so central to Zen’s identity that the broader East Asian Buddhist tradition often refers to it as the “Sudden Teaching.”

There is, however, great debate as to exactly how sudden “sudden enlightenment” is. In some Zen descriptions, as in certain strands of the Rinzai school, only an awakening that simultaneously perfects all aspects of Buddhist training—morality, concentration, wisdom, compassion, etc.—may be authentically described as sudden enlightenment. Such a consummate sudden enlightenment, termed “sudden awakening [accompanied by] sudden cultivation” (dunwu dunxiu), is said to be like a sword cutting through a spool (all the spool’s threads are cut simultaneously) or like the dyeing of a spool (all its threads are dyed simultaneously).

Other traditions, such as the central strand of the Korean Zen (Son) school, instead interpret “seeing the nature” to suggest that even after a sudden vision of buddhanature, certain engrained proclivities (vasana) of mind still remain, and can only be removed gradually. The idea here is that just because one knows in a flash of insight that one is a buddha does not mean that one is then fully able to act as a buddha. This process is compared to the maturation of a person: at the moment an infant is born, it may be fully endowed with all the potential abilities of a human being, but it takes many years of growing up before that child learns how to act like an adult. This interpretation is called “sudden awakening [followed by] gradual cultivation” (dunwu jianxiu).

Even Zen masters who fervently advocate radical forms of subitism often describe having multiple experiences of awakening over many decades of training before they achieve conclusive sudden enlightenment. The 12th-century Chan master Dahui Zonggao championed the new technique of koan (Chinese, gong’an) meditation, calling it a shortcut to enlightenment because it requires no stages or steps, just repeated inquiry into a koan topic. Yet in his account of his own training, Dahui describes experiences of several awakenings—some from examining koans and others from reading scriptures.

The Son master T’aego Pou, a strong proponent of the koan technique in Korea, talks about having four separate awakenings: two from investigating koans, one from tasting soup, and a final one from reading the Perfect Enlightenment Sutra (Chinese, Yuanjue jing). And the Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku describes several discrete awakenings during his career, including one when he hears the ring of a distant bell, another when an old woman strikes him with a broom while he is out on alms-round, and a final awakening prompted by reading the Lotus Sutra. Even the most cursory perusal of Zen literature will show that few practitioners have had a single moment of sudden enlightenment in which all practices are simultaneously perfected. “Sudden” is therefore not typically a temporal suddenness (as in achieving full enlightenment in a single instant) but a lack of progression in practice, as Zhongfeng notes in his verse.

To this day, dedicated meditators in Korean Zen monasteries routinely expect to spend years, if not decades, in full-time training in order to make real progress in their practice. Zen sermons and dialogues are categorical in calling for the transformative experience of sudden enlightenment, but Zen monastic training is focused far more intently on discipline than awakening: monks and nuns will need the disciplined life of the monastery in order to prepare themselves to take that final “leap off the hundred foot pole” into enlightenment.





Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters