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.


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The Method of Sudden Enlightenment

    Because the Buddha knew that many people would think that this was a long and difficult path, he taught us another method-sudden enlightenment of the true mind and directly realizing Buddhahood, which doesn't take three asamkheya kalpas. This is the method of sudden enlightenment. An analogy is education; normally one goes through elementary school, junior high, high school, and then to college. But some students who are smart can skip some grades in high school and go directly to college.

    I believe that after having heard of gradual cultivation and sudden enlightenment, all of you will probably want to practice the sudden enlightenment method. Sakyamuni Buddha had to go through three asamkheya kalpas and he doesn't want us to suffer the same way unnecessarily. That is exactly what we will be teaching in the seven day Zen retreat. You will learn how to realize the true nature of the mind and become a Buddha.

The Four Stages of Thought

    Sudden enlightenment is to understand, as the sutra says, "A mind without mundane defilement is the way to supreme enlightenment." That is, the ordinary mind is the Buddha mind. Everyone has a mind, but of all the thoughts in your mind, which is the Buddha? For example, when you are thirsty, the thought of wanting to drink water arises. When you see a cup of water, the thought of picking up the cup arises, and when you take a sip, the thought of picking up the cup has ceased and it is the thought of drinking that is in your mind. When you first take a sip, the thought that "this is good!" arises. When you take the second sip, the thought becomes less intense, and when you take the third sip, you don't want to drink anymore. By this time the thought of drinking the water has ceased. Then you see a cookie in front of you so another thought arises, "I want to eat the cookie."

    In every single thought there are four stages--arising, abiding, changing, and ceasing. Each day of our lives so many thoughts arise. This mind of ours is always going somewhere; we either have good thoughts or bad thoughts, random thoughts or delusive thoughts; they are like the waves of the ocean, like bubbles on the waves that come and go so quickly. All day long our mind never rests; even at night, our mind doesn't rest and we dream. Dreaming means our mind is clinging. The sutra says that 840 million thoughts go by each day and night. In fact, each thought that comes and goes is like a dream. When we say life is like a dream it is not a mere allegory; we are literally living in a dream. Every day we dream about new cars or dancing or playing mahjong; we dream about money, lust or power. These are our dreams when we are awake. Because we are always dreaming during the day, when we are supposed to rest at night, we continue to dream about what happened in the daytime. When the mind is not dreaming then it is asleep. So we can see that half of our life is spent on sleeping and the other half is spent on dreaming. In Buddhism, these are two of our biggest attachments and delusions.

    Because our thoughts are subject to birth and death (they come and go), that is why humans have birth, aging, illness, and death. Every thought goes through four stages--arising, abiding, changing and ceasing. For example, when we want to drink water, the thought of drinking water arises; when we pick up the cup, the thought of drinking is abiding; when we take one and then two sips and our feelings start to change, that is changing; finally we decide we don't want to drink anymore and the thought goes away. Because our thoughts go through these four stages-arising, abiding, changing and ceasing, that is why in our lives we go through the cycle of birth, aging, illness, and death. That is also why this world comes into being, persists for some time, but eventually deteriorates and becomes empty. This earth is in the "abiding" stage now, but it is always changing; many other planets and stars are also aging, and one day this universe will perish. All humans, animals, and plants go through these four stages.

    In order to escape the horror or fear of living, growing old, getting sick and dying, the mind must be free from the four stages of coming, abiding, changing and ceasing. In order to do that we need to realize the bodhi mind, the original nature.

    The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch states, "Without realizing the original mind, all Dharma learning is in vain." If we don't realize the bodhi mind, the profound, lucid, true mind, then all the practice we do merely brings blessings that, although pleasant, are nevertheless impermanent. This will not help us much in attaining enlightenment. So, what is enlightenment? It means to understand the mind. Where is this mind, the very mind that is listening to the lecture now?


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