Do we achieve awakening suddenly or is it cultivated gradually?

Do we have one moment or is it a series of mini-moments?

Does awakening need to be stabilized or once we “get it” do we have it forever?

Can it be done with words and study or is it beyond words and study?

Would our behaviour change or do we begin to change our behaviour first and then that aids in awakening?

So much blah, blah, blah!

This mind of ours is like a child, calling out to us, begging for our attention, “But why mommy? Why? What about this mommy?”

Maybe that was one of the reasons why Bodhidharma stared at a wall for so many years in pretty much seclusion – a mind that hasn’t come to rest and experienced directly its original, pure, expansive nature will be caught up in a never ending series of loops that never truly get to the heart of the matter.

In the Complete Enlightenment Sutra it says,

“Some say that, since we are born with buddha-nature, and it’s already complete, there is neither ‘illusion’ nor ‘enlightenment.’ For this reason, they ignore the existence of cause and effect. This is wrong view.”

“On the other hand, some say that instantaneously attaining our original nature is an illusion because ignorance can only be overcome through gradual practice. For this reason, they lose sight of their true changeless nature. This is also a mistaken view.”

Let’s take a quick look at the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment to gain a better insight into this situation of sudden or gradual.

Gotama, the Buddha to be, left home at the age of 29 in search of a way to end suffering and find true authentic happiness and 6 years later he found it.

Do you think that he had any mini-satori’s during that time? Do you think he had any insights or revelations during that time? Do you think he glimpsed his own inherent Buddha-Nature even briefly during this time?

Let’s look at some of the skillful means the Buddha used to achieve awakening:

  • Mindfulness in every moment (observations of his thoughts, emotions, cravings and states of mind and body)
  • The cultivation of the four immeasurables:
    • Loving-Kindness (Pāli: mettā, Sanskrit: maitrī) towards all: the hope that a person will be well; “the wish that all sentient beings, without any exception, be happy.”
    • Compassion (Pāli and Sanskrit: karuṇā): the hope that a person’s sufferings will diminish; “the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.”
    • Empathetic joy (Pāli and Sanskrit: muditā): joy in the accomplishments of a person—oneself or another; sympathetic joy; “the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings.”
    • Equanimity (Pāli: upekkhā, Sanskrit: upekṣā): learning to accept loss and gain, good-repute and ill-repute, praise and censure, sorrow and happiness (Attha Loka Dhamma), all with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others. Equanimity is “not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind—not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation.” (Source: wikipedia)
  • Meditation (both samatha and vipassana)

And he did this for a looooong time.

The sutra’s would have you believe that it happened in one night while sitting under the Bodhi tree. But this can’t be the case.

He worked diligently, daily, for a long time, gradually cultivating himself, his mind, his heart, his thoughts, words and deeds and finally he “got it”.

The Buddha himself said that it could take individuals at least seven years.

The biographer Karen Armstrong who wrote an account of the Buddha’s life had this to say about the Buddha’s enlightenment to help us put things into perspective,

“If there is any truth to the story that Gotama gained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in a single night, it could be that he acquired a sudden, absolute certainty that he really had discovered a method that would, if followed energetically, bring an earnest seeker to Nirvana.” (1)

Some days are gonna be good and some bad. Some days we’ll make progress and other days we’re gonna fall on our face. But gradually, over time, these things, the practices, these insights will lead to stunning results.

The mystic Osho called these breakthrough moments mini-satoris (mini-awakenings or kensho).

These moments happen often on the path and that,

“…many times you get it and it gets lost. You get it again and again you lose it. Then it is a mini-satori. Mini-satori means a glimpse. The possibility is you may lose it.”

“A mini-satori is a guarded statement about satori. It means that you can lose it. If you are not very alert you are bound to lose it. If you are very alert it can turn into a satori. A satori is an experience which has become established and there is no way to lose it.”

“A mini-satori is an experience which has just come like a glimpse, like a breeze. Suddenly you see that all perception is available. The aperture opens but it closes like a camera.”

“Before a Satori many mini-satoris happen, it depends — sometimes thousands of mini-satoris, sometimes hundreds, sometimes a few, sometimes one. It depends on the person. Sometimes the first satori can become THE Satori, there is no need for it to be a mini — it depends on you.”

“A mini-satori is a glimpse. It will depend on you. If you nourish it, nurture it, protect it, if you care about it, it can grow into a satori. But it is a very soft and tender and fragile sprout. It can be destroyed very easily. Any accident can undo it.” (2)

If you’ve been on the path for any amount of time you’ve probably experienced this for yourself as well. There’s these moments and times when you know you’ve leveled-up. That something has shifted. That another layer has been let go of. That you’ve softened in some way.

In Zen this is Kensho or a mini-satori as Osho described it. Kensho means to see your original nature or true essence. You gain a glimpse of it. But it’s fragile and delicate. Like a cup filled too high with water, you try as best you can not to spill it but eventually and inevitably you will.

Master So Sahn says that,

“Enlightenment and gradual cultivation feed each other like oil and fire, guide each other like eyes and feet.”

Chan Master Sheng Yen had this to say about Sudden-Awakening/Gradual-Cultivation,

“After seeing your self-nature (kensho), you need to deepen your experience even further and bring it into maturation. You should have enlightenment experience again and again and support them with continuous practice. Even though Ch’an says that at the time of enlightenment, your outlook is the same as of the Buddha, you are not yet a full Buddha.” (3)

Zen Master Zongmi said,

“There are those who say that one must first suddenly awaken and then one can gradually [practice] cultivation. This refers to awakening as ‘insight.’ (In terms of the elimination of hindrances, it is like when the sun immediately comes out, yet the frost melts gradually. With respect to the perfection of virtue, it is like a child which, when born, immediately possesses four limbs and six senses. As it grows, it gradually develops control over its actions.) Therefore, the Hua Yen Jing [Avatamsaka sutra] says that when the bodhicitta is first aroused, this is already the accomplishment of perfect enIightenment.”

You’re a baby Buddha. You’ve opened up. Cracked the seal. But you can open further. You can let go even more.

But here’s the rub: there can be no causal connection between practice and the wisdom of Awakening. But the obstacles to wisdom are deeply affected by practice.

Master So Sahn says that,

“Most people think that there is also a conceptual order between sudden enlightenment and gradual practice, suggesting that one follows after the other. In the Zen dharma however, when you keep moment-mind, abiding at one point, things that never change and things that change according to cause and conditions, true nature and appearances, substance and function are all realized simultaneously.”

“It is therefore extremely important that you abandon the view that things do or do not exist: everything is fundamentally the same True Suchness, as it is, and yet everything is clearly distinct.” (4)

Go beyond the labels and constructs of sudden and gradual and you will be free.

Works Cited
(1) The Buddha by Karen Armstrong
(2) Zen: The Path of Paradox Vol. 1 by Osho
(3) Dharma Drum: The Life and Heart of Chan Practice by Chan Master Sheng Yen
(4) The Mirror of Zen by Master So Sahn