In Buddhism there has been much discussion of the issue of sudden and gradual approaches in practice. In fact, after the Sixth Patriarch, this became a very controversial topic of debate among people practising Zen. But the issue of sudden and gradual is not a matter of this or that; in one way or another our practice includes both sudden and gradual aspects. If we don’t get attached to just one side, we can appreciate the sudden and gradual aspects from a number of different perspectives.
Usually the sudden aspect of practice is understood to be the moment of the enlightenment experience, kensho or satori, which always happens suddenly. This sudden enlightenment experience is of crucial importance, but we should also appreciate the gradual practice that leads up to that moment, and the gradual practice of deepening, refining, and clarifying our vision after the enlightenment experience.
Kensho means ‘to see the nature,’ the Buddha nature. To experience kensho is to see that this life, as it is, is the very life of the Buddha. Even though our life is the enlightened way itself, because our understanding is not quite right, we somehow don’t see that this is so. The Rinzai school especially emphasises the importance of having this sudden opening.
[This article was first produced in The Zen Center of Los Angeles paper The Ten Directions in October 1981 and is reproduced here with their kind permission. ]
Published in the April 1989 edition of Buddhism Now.
Image: Zen Master with Meditation Staff, and Chinese-Style Landscapes, probably late 1620s–1644, Japan. Painting by Unkoku Tōeki. © Metropolitan Museum of Art.