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.


The Four Stages of Achievement

    There are four different levels of achievement leading to the highest state. The first level is that of the arhat. The arhat's wisdom and awakening are much higher than those of the ordinary being. The second level is called the pratyekabuddha. The pratyekabuddha's wisdom and mind surpass those of the arhat. The third level is called the bodhisattva. If bodhisattvas can, in addition, remove the "ignorance of Dharmas" (the lack of knowledge to understand and teach all the different paths to enlightenment to all beings), then they have surpassed the pratyekabuddha. Finally, the fourth stage is that of the Tathagata or the Buddha. The Buddha has eradicated all the three different kinds of ignorance (the ignorance of delusive views and habits, the ignorance of Dharmas, and the ignorance of beginningless delusion) and has reached perfection. Arhat, pratyekabuddha, bodhisattva, and Buddha are the four levels of enlightenment. Only the Buddha's enlightenment is the most complete. These are the four kinds of saints in Buddhism; each one of them has achieved a higher degree of perfection than ordinary beings. What does it mean to be a saint, a holy one? It means that if the mind, this very mind that is listening to the lecture now, can purify its afflictions and eradicate its attachments, then this mind is exactly the same as the mind of the Buddha. How do we reach the state of the Tathagata or Buddhahood? There are two paths: the first is gradual cultivation and the second is sudden enlightenment.

The Path of Gradual Cultivation

    The path of gradual cultivation means to practice the six paramitas-charity, moral conduct, tolerance, diligence, meditation, and prajna wisdom. These are the vows and conducts of the bodhisattva. By perfecting these six paramitas, one will reach Buddhahood. To achieve perfection one must do so first in terms of time, and second in terms of merit. In terms of time, it is like going to school; it takes so many years to complete elementary school, high school, college, and so on. Besides the time it takes, one also needs to finish the required courses; this is equivalent to perfecting the merit. In terms of time, it takes a bodhisattva three asamkheya kalpas (eons) to reach perfection. In terms of merit, the six paramitas need to be completed.

    What are three asamkheya kalpas? A kalpa is a measurement of time much longer than a million or even a billion years. There are three different kinds of kalpas: the small, middle and large kalpas. What is a small kalpa? Originally, the life span of a human being is 84,000 years. On average, every one hundred years, human life span decreases by one year until the average life span is only 10 years. Then, every hundred years it will increase by one year until it reaches 84,000 years again. This whole span is called one small kalpa. A middle kalpa is equal to 20 small kalpas. It takes four middle kalpas to complete the four stages of the life of the universe: birth, abiding, deterioration, and emptiness. A large kalpa is equal to four middle kalpas, which is one cycle of the universe. It takes countless large kalpas to make one "asamkheya" kalpa and it takes three asamkheya kalpas to complete the path of a bodhisattva. It takes that long for a bodhisattva to complete the six paramitas.

The Charity Paramita

    Charity is the first of the six paramitas. How does one perfect the charity paramita? Contrary to what some may think, donating a million or even a billion dollars doesn't constitute the perfection of charity. Aside from the giving of money and property, we need to be willing to give up everything we own, even our life, in order to perfect the charity paramita. In his previous lives, charity was the first thing that Sakyamuni Buddha practiced. In order to save a dove, he cut off his own flesh to feed an eagle; he fed himself to hungry tigers so they wouldn't starve to death. These are examples of giving up one's life for others.

    In a previous lifetime, when the Buddha was a prince, there was a drought in the country and people were starving. He gave all the treasures and food in the palace to the people. His father, the king, became worried and told his son, "If you continue giving this way, there'll be nothing left in the palace and our rule will come to an end." so the king expelled the prince from the palace. Even though he was exiled and owned nothing, the prince still wanted to help the people. He remembered that the dragon king of the ocean had a Mani pearl, which can fulfill all of one's wishes. He tried many ways to obtain the Mani pearl from the dragon king but failed. In desperation, he set forth to empty the ocean water. Drawing the water with buckets day after day, he exhausted himself and finally fainted. His sincerity deeply moved the four heavenly kings who then proceeded to help him; with their powers they emptied half of the ocean in half an hour. The dragon king, startled and moved by the sincerity of the prince, voluntarily gave the Mani pearl to the prince. This is an example of trying to perfect the charity paramita. Every other paramita needs to be perfected, and this takes three asamkheya kalpas. In addition, another hundred small kalpas are needed to perfect the thirty-two marks and eighty fine characteristics of the Buddha.

    The sutras describe the thirty-two marks of the Buddha. An example is brahma-sound, which means that when he speaks, people of all different dialects are able to understand him; Chinese-, Japanese-, English-speaking people and even animals are able to understand his words without any translation. Another mark of the Buddha is that anything he eats always tastes excellent. In contrast, we have to season our food for it to taste good to us.

    How does one accomplish the thirty-two marks? Within each of the thirty-two marks, there are eighty fine features and it takes great merits to accomplish each of these marks. What does it take to accomplish the merits for one mark of the Buddha? We consider deeds such as building a temple or saving a life to be of great merit, but these are very far from the merits of the Buddha. The scripture says that if everyone in the world became sick and was about to die, and you cured everyone with the medicine you had, that is an example of the merits needed to accomplish one of these marks of the Buddha. We can see that it is not easy to do these great deeds, to complete the six paramitas, to cultivate for three asamkheya kalpas and to become a Buddha.

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