Gradual Cultivation and Sudden Enlightenment

This talk was given by Grand Master Wei Chueh on December 22, 2001, at Buddha Gate Monastery. It was translated orally by Ven. Jian Hu, then transcribed and edited into its present form.


President and vice president of the Buddha Gate Dharma Support Society, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, we welcome you all. Today our topic will be "Gradual Cultivation and Sudden Enlightenment."

Different Paths to Buddhahood

    What is meant by gradual cultivation? It means gradual practice and attainment, going through the various stages of practice from an ordinary or mundane being all the way to Buddhahood. Just like going to school, we start from elementary school, go on to junior high, high school, college, eventually earning a doctorate degree. Climbing step by step, we ultimately perfect all virtues and merits and reach Buddhahood-this is called gradual cultivation.

    What is meant by sudden enlightenment? Being enlightened means that we are awakened to this present mind, this mind that is originally pure, this awareness, this bodhi mind. When enlightened, this mind is Buddha, this mind is the Way. Once we are enlightened we still need to maintain this enlightened understanding and practice until we achieve perfection. This means that whether we are in motion or still, whether it is day or night, the mind is always free from clinging and delusion; it is always clear, mindful, and in control. Maintaining this enlightened state until perfection, until Buddhahood is reached, is the practice of sudden enlightenment. So, sudden enlightenment is to realize that if this ordinary mind in the present is free from any effort or pretension, then this very mind is wisdom, true suchness, the profound bodhi mind of the Tathagata (Buddha). When we are enlightened then we realize that everyone possesses Buddha nature, that everyone can become a bodhisattva. When we are awakened we realize how precious and real we are and that all human beings in this world are endowed with infinite hope and infinite life.

    Gradual cultivation means to attain the fundamental principle by way of (perfecting our) actions. Sudden enlightenment means to realize the fundamental essence first and then perfect our actions. If we don't have the chance or causal conditions to practice sudden enlightenment then we can practice gradual cultivation. It may seem that gradual cultivation and sudden enlightenment are very different methods but in fact they are compatible and not conflictive.

Relative and Absolute Truths

    Buddhism is the truth of our life. In terms of the highest truth, there is just one, but there are also conventional truths. For example, family ethics is a kind of conventional truth; the rules and regulations of a school are also conventional truths. Social order is also a kind of truth. However, the Buddha Dharma is the truest of all truths. The principle of gradual cultivation and sudden enlightenment is the truest of all truths in Buddhism. There are many conventional truths, but they change with time and space. The Buddha Dharma does not change with time and space.

    Worldly laws or truths change with time and space because they are relative truths. For example, what is considered good and right in the United States may not be the case in Mainland China or Taiwan. This is because in the United States, in China, and in Taiwan, lifestyles, cultures, and histories are different. In some places, such as Afghanistan and some tribes in China, a husband can have several wives, while most other countries believe in monogamy. Who is right? Who is wrong? It is not easy to say for sure. This is because with different times and different places, the nature of this kind of morality, culture, or history changes. This is called relative truth.

    The truth that we want to discuss today doesn't change with time and space; it is the same in the past as it is in the present day. This truth is that everyone has this mind, this sentient mind, regardless of race, age or gender. Everywhere in the world, everyone in the past, present or future has this mind. This is a fact. It is the absolute. The Platform Sutra of the sixth Patriarch states that, "In terms of space, there are east, west, north and south; in terms of people, there are rich, poor, noble and common; but this mind that everyone has is neither in the east, west, north nor south; neither rich, poor, noble nor common; neither male, female, old nor young." So this is an absolute truth. Just like when we say that everyone has life; everyone wants to stay alive and is afraid of death. We all want to be happy and to avoid suffering. In this respect everyone is the same. So the sutras tell us that everyone can be a bodhisattva or a Buddha since everyone has this mind, this awareness. Because of this, we should cherish and take care of ourselves, and we also should respect and care for the lives of others.

    Even though we all have this mind or awareness, the level of wisdom and compassion that is generated from each being is different. Why are there such differences? If some people are wiser than others, it doesn't mean that they have more awareness than others; it just means that their minds are clearer. They have less discrimination, vexations, and delusions. When people don't a have a high level of wisdom, they have more deviant views and more attachments, which delude the mind. So we should understand that everyone is equal in their inherent awareness but with varying degrees of ignorance and vexations that determine how wise we are, how rich or poor we are, how happy or unhappy we are. It can even affect our life span. If we wish to reach the highest state, we need to practice Buddhism diligently.

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