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The Case of Sudden v. Gradual
Contemporary scholars of Zen history have largely debunked the old notion that this remarkable form of Buddhism was divided into Northern and Southern Schools based on a philosophical rift concerning sudden vs gradual enlightenment.
Classical texts reveal that senior adepts of each school tended to simultaneously affirm both a developmental path AND the possibility of a sudden change of state, or shift of understanding, that cannot be superceded.
It has also been argued that the historical division into Northern and Southern schools was mostly political in nature — different lineages of Zen exhibiting divergent relationships to the center of Imperial power in China. Certain schools worked more closely with the state government… while others maintained more independence & a wary distance from official institutions.
Assume for the moment that this is correct. Why, then, have we told each other a centuries-old legend about the disagreement between the sudden & gradual paths? Perhaps collectively, we wished to keep both of these ideas in play? They both represent essential wisdom-skills that culture must not forget.
So-called “gradual paths” suggest a Way or Work of self-refinement involving a wisdom-oriented education, progressive accumulation of beingness, clarification of values, and training a capacity for full-spectrum authentic presence. The beginning of such an accumulative path is, typically, a felt-gesture of orientation or attunement —toward a teacher, teaching, tradition or else simply the abstract notion of a human developmental journey that we associate with the intersubjective community of the genuinely wise.
Making that felt-connection, orienting yourself in this fashion, aspiring to the way, moving orthogonally to conventional sufferings and limitations, is often symbolized in rituals of initiation or inspirational vows. However, those rites, as useful as some of them may be, are only occasional and tangible representations of a self-initiatory shift of mode. We apparently have an innate ability to amplify our self-cultivation mode in tandem with a clarified sense of benevolent directionality.
Such a mode-shift does not merely begin our “journey” along a “way.” It is also an ongoing skill that we re-ignite countless times. We are called upon to remember our alignment, touching the evaluations that seem to lead beyond the limitations of the current self, feeling and embodying our wish to grow. This seems to be the fuel or preliminary condition that allows us to make full use of particular communities, teachers and practices.
So that is a key wisdom-skill that should be culturally remembered.
And so-called “sudden” paths suggest our capacity to access a seemingly unbeatable state of mind in which we appear to bypass all questions, answers, paths and programs of development.
Seeking is undermined in this condition. One enters a kind of benign trap from which the possibility of an alternative viewpoint ceases. Even the most simple activities of distinguishing ourselves from the rest of Being are suspended or outshone.
Descriptions of this state inevitably fail and succeed simultaneously. The notion of paradox gives a hint of its flavor. The sense of being equally yourself & not yourself gives a taste. The boundaryless condition of all boundaries is… sort of correct.
The writhing head of your existential dilemma is severed in a single stroke.
Although we are tempted, sometimes usefully, to think of this ontologically — as the discovery or entrance into the primordial underlying objective condition of the universe — we can neither confirm nor deny that. What we do know is that sometimes human beings can get into this state through certain practices or lucky accidents.
It is a key wisdom-skill that should be culturally remembered.
So the beauty of overlaying the sudden vs gradual dichotomy upon the history of the Northern & Southern schools of Zen is that it acts as a shared memory of two of the crucial skills for human beings attempting to cultivate a planetary wisdom-civilization.