This classic debate among Zen schools is intellectual and dualistic.
It brings up important and practical questions about what it means to be enlightened and what it looks like in action.
First of all, let’s define enlightenment as being selfless, compassionate, wise and present and throw in for good measure the realization that everyone and everything is connected in oneness. This should mean, for example, that an enlightened person puts the care of others before satisfying selfish desires and is able to communicate with honesty and integrity about any struggles with this.
This adds another quality to being enlightened, which is struggling with issues and being able to communicate about them with integrity.
Sudden enlightenment is a spontaneous awakening to our oneness with all things and the perfection of our life, such as the Buddha had when he saw the morning star under the Bodhi tree.
He said, “Wonder of wonders, all living beings are truly enlightened and shine with wisdom and virtue.”
It can be as grand as an earth shattering experience or a simple ah-ha moment.
This sudden awakening experience is described in every spiritual tradition in one way or another. In Zen, it is emphasized especially in the Rinzai lineage as crucial for spiritual enlightenment.
There are even specific practices used to facilitate this kind of awakening such as koans like “mu”, cultivating “doubt” using questions like “what is it” or “who am I,” or even shouts and hits to shake up our stuck intellects and snap us back to here-now.
The idea is that when enough effort and energy is poured into our questioning we exhaust our dualistic mind and finally push beyond dualism into the realm of the absolute, where oneness and emptiness are experienced spontaneously.
Gradual enlightenment, on the other hand, is the slow and patient process of growing and maturing in our practice through consistent discipline and progress.
The consistent and persistent practice of being mindful of our activities leads us to progressively refine our experience of emptiness and oneness in our daily life.
The Soto Zen School tends to embrace this more.
Maybe we can all agree that manifesting enlightenment in daily activities is the most profound expression?
But the ‘sudden school’ says the kensho experience is what makes this possible in the first place. Whereas, for the ‘gradual school’ there’s no merit in kensho unless refined discipline and consistent practice manifest the enlightened life.
Of course both sides have essential points and they are not exclusive.
But I say that the gradual process of awakening is more important to embrace in a spiritual path for several reasons.
First of all, the sudden kensho experience is like grace in that it cannot be guaranteed as a result of practice. Some people have a better chance at it if they practice with more effort and determination. But ultimately we could never judge the merit of anyone’s practice by using kensho as a measuring stick.
Second, kensho isn’t meant to take care of long-term emotional and behavioral patterns, and it doesn’t. This has been proven over again by ‘enlightened’ charismatic Zen teachers exposed to be abusive to their students in many ways.
Having a kensho experience may help us to see our karma more clearly, but it will not change our long-term patterns of emotions, behaviors and addictions.
Oprah made the term ‘Ah-ha moment’ popular to describe spiritual awakenings that can be very subtle yet very profound.
I encourage students to see all our little ‘Ah-ha moments’ as enlightenment experiences. This is a simple, yet powerful, way to embrace our inherent wisdom and compassion that is our true self.
And it is available everyday in ordinary ways.
To sit waiting for an earthshaking experience to tell us we are enlightened is not going to help us get there. It will only hold us back from appreciating our ordinary lives as extra-ordinary. Which they are, but we should still strive wholeheartedly with every ounce of effort to see that our little awakenings are our true selves being enlightened.
If we do happen to fall over in spasms of ecstatic oneness while we are appreciating our ordinary lives then great, whoop dee frickin do, but it has nothing to do with reality. It’s more of an emotional and psychological breakthrough that only has value when it brings us back full circle to appreciating our pain, sharing our issues, cleaning our messes and apologizing when we hurt the people we love. Because that’s part of being human, enlightened or not.
If a grand opening helps us to care more about others than ourselves and communicate about our issues and struggles with integrity and compassion then it is a wonderful spiritual awakening, but these things will happen with sincere long term practice whether we fall over laughing or not.
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Asst. Ed.: Kathleen O’Hagan/Ed: Bryonie Wise