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The issue of sudden, instantaneous realization or gradual path as an approach to Buddhist practice has a long history in Asia, with considerable spiritual and historical consequence. Although the context and specific concerns around this issue were no doubt culturally and spiritually different in ancient Tibet and China, the same issue presents itself today, as Buddhism adapts in the West. Particularly where many are enamored by or are marketing the possibility of a “quick path”, “enlightenment in one life time”, or “instantaneous realization”. Combined with modern Western proclivities toward “the quick fix”, convenience, expediency, and easiness, traditional expressions and teachings from Zen, Mahamudra and Dzogchen can be fraught with misinterpretation and appropriation.
Or on the other hand, a gradual approach to the path might suggest a pious, plodding, ritualized and moralistic (dharmic-correctness) approach to buddhist practice, as though somber puritanical religiosity had been morphed into buddhist practice, accompanied by a fascination with culturally Tibetan/Chinese/Japanese, etc., forms of religious practice. As the following two books demonstrate, it is easy to misread the meanings of both gradual and instantaneous, to side with one or another, and to assume a firm distinction between the two.
In approaching this issue, a review of two books is engaged:
The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri: Shabkar’s Essential Meditation Instructions, by Shakbar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, translated by Sean Price (Tsadra Foundation and Snow Publications, 2018), and Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition, by Sam van Schaik Snow Lion Publications, 2015).
In many ways these two books being reviewed in tandem here are vastly different in character, idiom, and approach. One might assume that each attracts a very different readership as well. Yet each in their own way provides a valuable approach to this seminal issue of gradual and instantaneous enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism and in both Chinese and Tibetan Zen. And it is pertinent in the arena of approaches to Buddhist practice altogether. It can influence how one engages in practice over a lifetime (which is not necessarily so instantaneous!)
The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri: Shabkar’s Essential Meditation Instructions, translated by Sean Price / Gelong Tenzin Jamchen, is a work by a renowned accomplished yogi regarded as a rebirth of Milarepa, Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851 C.E.). Shabkar is best known for his brilliant songs of spiritual realization and instruction, and his consummate repertoire of songs, writings and teachings (current tally, 180 works), most of which arose spontaneously in his mind and voice in the midst of years of retreat. What enabled such effulgent and abundant eloquence, as suggested by Erik Pema Kunsang in his introduction to The Flight of the Garuda, was ”a result of the attainment of realization and ‘untying the knot of the throat chakra.’”1
Shabkar’s work is translated by a dedicated buddhist practitioner and monastic, Sean Price / Gelong Tenzin Jamchen, who lives firmly in the tradition and practice of that which he is translating. He has dedicated years to finding, translating and bringing forth lost view and meditation texts by great masters into the daylight of current study, practice and transmission. He walks his talk.
This particular work is a brief compendium of the entire buddhist path and fruition, a lam rim (stages of the path) work in both prose and poetic form and arranged in accord with questions and requests from Shabkar’s students. As with all lam rim works, it is adorned with a rich abundance of quotations from tradition, in this work in tandem with Shabkar’s own exquisite songs. It progresses through themes classic to lam rim literature and approach: renunciation, the necessity of a spiritual teacher, the preciousness of human existence, ethics as the basis for a spiritual path, compassion, relative and absolute bodhicitta, the Bodhisattva Vow, Mind Training, the meditative path of śamantha and vipashyana, and culminating in Mahamudra and Dzogchen (chapter title: Buddhahood Without Meditation), with their indeed spontaneous and instantaneous flourishes. He then concludes with highly practical chapters on “How to Prepare for the Bardo”, “The Benefitit of Retreat” and “Encouragement to Adopt A Nonsectarian Outlook (a Ri-mé anthem). This is a jewel of a book for the Buddhist practitioner as well as a newcomer who would like to know the basic character and trajectory of buddhist spiritual practice. It is precise yet inspiring, instructive and eloquent. And being as it is couched in the direct interchange of Shabkar with his students, in song, it has a freshness and vitality that makes it more “user friendly” and engaging than longer and more arduously categorizing and detailed lam rim texts…at least those in more difficult translations and in the grips of stiff overly-academic rendition.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once noted that what was missing in the English translation (by Herbert Guenther at the time) of Gampopa’s classic lam rim text The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, was Gampopa’s sense of humor…he noted that in the Tibetan, Gampopa is really funny!
Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition by Sam van Schaik, is an academic work by an accomplished scholar who specializes in the translation and exploration of texts from the caves of Dunhuang in Central Asia, where a treasure trove of ancient texts dating from the ninth and tenth centuries survived the ravages of desert sands, political upheavals, and time. His style is decidedly academic and fastidiously precise and investigative, yet he is clearly educated in and sensitive to the perspectives of buddhist meditation practice. Van Schaik includes translations of works by indigenous Tibetan and non-Tibetan sources (an Indian Mahayana master, Chinese Ch’an/Zen masters and a Korean master). He precedes each translation with an introduction to the particular text, placing it the context of Tibetan history, literary genre, use for actual practice both ceremonial and meditative, and use as an aid to teaching. Though the book Tibetan Zen is decidedly academic in style, its translations of Zen works provide surprising and brilliant instruction to the practitioner of Buddhist view and meditation. The immediacy of Zen dialog and instruction steps right out from thick academic underbrush into clear, lucid expression
Van Schaik chooses to employ the Japanese word Zen, due to its popular recognizability, even though the book is really about the influence of Chinese Ch’an (which the Japanese translated into Zen and which would linguistically be samten in Tibetan, dhyana in Sanskrit. It means meditation. It refers to traditions of Buddhism based in meditation, or “meditation schools”. So he coins the unusual but intriguing term “Tibetan Zen”.
If one who is not usually drawn to ploughing through academic complexity is able to make an exception here, the rewards are tantalizing in the vitality, eloquence, characteristic directness and profundity of the Ch’an/Zen translated works. And frankly, as one who does enjoy an occasional dip into academic waters, van Schaik is a good deal more accessible than many. His virtuosity in scholarship combined with his role in bringing to daylight previously undisclosed very early records of Tibetan history and religion bring to the reader a unique and rich perspective with which to read the translated documents.
Whereas van Schaik provides an array of different Zen writings from different masters and on varied subject matters addressed in the early manuscripts (arranged under the headings: Masters of Meditation, Teachers and Students, Encounters wand Emptiness, Debate, Observing the Mind, Funerals and Miracles, Zen and Tantra, and others), for the sake of this review, we will engage the most famous Ch’an/Zen figure in Tibetan chronicles, Moheyan, and keep to the topic of instantaneous and gradual enlightenment.2
Lama Shabkar, author of The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri: Shabkar’s Essential Meditation Instructions is famed for his Dzogchen realization and spontaneous songs pointing directly to the fundamental nature of mind and all phenomena. In many ways his pith instructions typify a more instantaneous enlightenment approach, reflecting the fruitional perspectives of Dzogchen and Mahamudra (both also have gradual paths). Yet this particular work of Shabkar demonstrates the necessity of the gradual approach if one is ever going to have a genuine experience and insight into the fruition views of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. As translator Sean Price quotes Shabkar in his introduction:
“These days some people say, ‘There is no need to expend great effort on the preliminary practices. What’s the point of so much complication? It’s enough just to practice Mahamudra devoid of all elaboration.’ Don’t listen to such nonsense. How can one who hasn’t even reached the shore talk about the sea?”
For those who are most familiar with Shabkar through his highly fruitional songs of pith instruction in The Flight of the Garuda, such a quote from Shabkar, the great realized Dzogchen yogi, may seem surprising. And this entire work dedicated to the gradual path, The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri, may seem ironic. Yet it is worth keeping in mind that Shabkar was also an avid student of Tsongkapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, the primary work of the Geluk tradition on the stages of the path. Shabkar’s first teacher was a Gelukpa master, and Shabkar started his dharmic career as a Gelukpa monk. Throughout his life, Shabkar deferred to the Lamrim Chenmo whenever he got stuck in his practice and understanding. The first teaching his root guru, the Mongolian chieftain and Dzogchen master Ngakyi Wangpo steered him into was the Lamrin Chenmo. A little later, during an extended retreat on an island in the middle of the vast Lake Kokonor (Tso Ngönpo), Shabkar had a vision of Je Tsongkapa which influenced the rest of his life. Toward the end of his life, after years of supplicating Guru Rinpoche, Shabkar had a vision of him. Shabkar asked Guru Rinpoche why he had never shown up in vision to him previously, even though Shabkar had had many visions of deities and other great masters. Guru Rinpoche replied that when, in his very early years of practice, Shabkar had the vision of Je Tsongkapa, that was in actuality none other than he himself, Guru Rinpoche. Throughout his life, then, Shabkar combined the fruitional teachings and realization of Dzogchen and Mahamudra with the gradual path teachings of Atisha’s Kadampa lam rim work Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, and Tsongkapa’s Lamrim Chenmo. Shabkar references the Lamrim Chenmo repeatedly in The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri, and it provides the template for the entire work.
It is also worth noting in passing that the Lamrim Chenmo had as its basis, in addition to Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which was, as Drigung Kagyu teacher Khenchen Konchok Gyaltsen observes, the first purely Tibetan lam rim text, noting that Atisha’s famous lam rim was Indian in origin.3 As Shabkar is considered an incarnation of Milarepa, then his lineage blood runs in the vein of Gampopa as well, in his realization of Mahamurda, in his exemplary life of sustained retreat, and in the lam rim template of the Jewel Ornament of Realization. Thus Shabkar, in his own life and practice, embodied a Ri-mé spirit of non-sectarian Buddhism, bringing together the teachings of the Nyingma, Geluk, and Kagyu lineages, and displaying immense respect for each distinct lineage as well as their harmonization.
Tibetan Zen comes at the issue more historically and literarily, through analysis of translated documents in terms of how they were actually used in practice, and in terms of clarifying their meaning against a back-drop of later Tibetan characterizations.
According to (until now) popular Tibetan historical accounts (reaching back to the 17th Century C.E.), during the eighth century, in the formative years of Buddhism taking root in Tibet, there were two principal influences, Indian Buddhism and Chinese Ch’an/Zen Buddhism.
The Indian Buddhist approach, brought to Tibet by Santirakshita, Kamalashila and others, stressed a gradual accumulation of merit and wisdom, and gradual purification of confused habitual tendencies, toward eventual buddhahood.
The Chinese approach, as embodied in Ch’an/Zen Buddhism, emphasized instantaneous enlightenment, in which enlightenment is a suddenly arising spontaneous realization, free of any relative reference points and replete with all the qualities of buddhahood. Any attempt to cultivate it or develop it was itself conditioned, and thus a fruitless, unenlightened pursuit.
Some Ch’an/Zen pronouncements, labeled “anti-practice”, discouraged religious practices other than meditation, such as the accumulation of merit, the intentional practice of the six paramitas, an ethical discipline in life, and so on, which are all hallmarks of the gradual path.
According to the “official” Tibetan history, then, Tibet was faced with a choice of these two emphases and directions. The story goes that in order to resolve this issue, and thus pave the way forward for Buddhism in Tibet, a debate was held, the Great Debate of Samye. Kamalashila, being Indian and representing the gradual approach, was faced off against the Chinese master Hwashan (identified by van Schaik as Moheyan), representing the sudden enlightenment approach. The “official” story says that Kamalashila won the debate, and thus the gradual path of Indian Buddhism was adopted by Tibet, and the sudden path Ch’an/Zen proponents summarily expelled…and the rest, so it goes, is history.
It is interesting to note in passing than Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, when asked during a 1970s Naropa Institute class why the debate was resolved in favor of the gradual path, answered that the instantaneous enlightenment proponent “did not understand the profundity of the gradual path.”
Van Schaik, however, provides textual support for a very different view of events, drawing from the Dunhuang manuscripts and other historical sources. He observes that the Great Debate of Samye was a politically motivated story only consolidated “probably in the 11th and 12th Centuries” by a Tibetan clan seeking to cement its role in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. According to van Schaik’s exploration of the influence of Ch’an/Zen in Tibet, the influence and debate lasted years, and was not the result of a single debate. The extended consideration was encouraged and sponsored by Tibetan King Trisong Detsen and the Tibetan court. Van Schaik indicates that Ch’an/Zen influence only waned in the 16th Century, long after its supposed 8th century dismissal. And that it had far more influence on Tibetan Buddhism than officially acknowledged.
Van Schaik’s book then proceeds to provide translations demonstrating the early influence of Ch’an/Zen in Tibet, and its continuation and influence for many years after it was supposedly eliminated from the Tibetan scene. Toward the end of his book, he explores the interactions of Ch’an/Zen teachings and teachers with those of Tantra and Dzogchen.
He provides the case for the extensive interfusion of Zen, Tantric, and Dzogchen teachings and practices, suggesting at one point, “It looks like Zen and atiyoga were performing similar functions at this time, providing the contemplative context to tantric sadhana practice.”
Overall, he suggests, “we are seeing the transmission of texts and teaching lineages without the firm distinctions imposed by the later traditions.” This is an indication of a very early Ri-mé, non-sectarian, spirit in Tibet, which included Indian,Tibetan, Chinese and Korean influences and teachings. And, as we see through van Schaik’s book, this process engendered a highly creative debate as well as a blending of the gradual and instantaneous enlightenment approaches.
One poignant passage in van Schaik’s book, from a description of a teacher of the sutra and a teacher of atiyoga, portrays the coexistence of sudden and gradual in the image of a garuda (a mythological bird that is born fully-developed from the egg, then soars through space in a single bound, representing the dynamic of sudden realization):
“What is a master who teaches ati yoga like? A great garuda who cuts through the sky yet is aware of all living beings, clarifying the vehicles individually, yet cutting through space. Clarifying means that he teaches the great meaning without mixing anything up. Like the sky-soaring garuda, he draws forth the greatness of the meaning, while teaching the divisions of the paths that one should traverse.”
In Moheyan’s Introduction to Instantaneous Meditation, translated by van Schaik, Moheyan points to conceptualization as the root of the worldly cycle of birth and death. He instructs on meditation that encounters this conceptualization, looks at it, and seeing it yet not becoming ensnared in it, discovers it has no real nature, and thus ignites non-thought. He calls this meditation “instantaneous tathagata meditation”, or “observing the mind”.
As regards method, Moheyan states:
“Some say it is not possible to engage in meditation without a method; so what meditation method should one practice? A person who has renounced all meditation sits in non thought; this is the method by which one engages in meditation in the greater vehicle.”
This, then, is the spontaneous approach to practice, one might say being “suddenly free from fixed mind”, yet not something different than practice, dispelling any notion that the spontaneous approach precludes practice or effort, or a gradual path. Rather, it is pointing to how one practices in accord with the ultimate understanding of the Buddha. And he notes that if one can become enlightened all at once (and those are fewer, as tradition says, than stars in the daytime sky), great, but if not, one needs to engage the methods and contexts of the gradual path…that’s what they are for!
Moheyan instructs, “If you experience the movements of the deluded mind and do not conceptualize or follow them, then each thought is liberated as soon as it comes. This is the correct meditation.” This passage dispels the notion that the spontaneous approach is the suppression of concepts, a critique that was employed by some Tibetans against the instantaneous path approach. Rather it directs one to experience and see concepts nakedly, and by doing so the thoughts self-liberate. And, projected forward in time, this is right out of the Shabkar playbook of Mahamudra and Ati!
Moheyan goes on, in another document, to demonstrate how the six perfections or the ten perfections (paramitas) are included in non-conceptual meditation. He thus, in this and other ways, pays special attention to the harmonization of instantaneous meditation and gradual practice. As van Schaik observes, “The texts of Moheyan translated here show a similar concern with harmonizing the doctrine of single method (instantaneous tathagata meditation) and instantaneous result with the existence of various practices and the need for a graduated approach.”
Coming from different angles and vastly different styles then, both these books converge on the seminal issue in buddhist view and practice of whether enlightenment is instantaneous or gradual. Far from being a rarified issue pertinent only to scholars and/or meditators, the question defined the trajectory of Buddhism in Tibet, culturally, spiritually, and politically. How, then, can we draw lessons from this history and its vital manuscripts to inform how we might approach similar issues today?
Many years back, during a visit to Colorado by Chagdu Tulku Rinpoche, the Nyingmapa Dzogchen yogi and meditation master who spent the later part of his life implanting those teachings and practices in the West, I was an attendant to Rinpoche. After serving him lunch one day, there was a gap in his schedule, and I thought to ask him a brief question stemming from a group study I was involved with of a translated dzogchen text on thogal. Rinpoche abruptly interrupted me and shouted “You should not be reading that book!” Taken back and feeling a bit bruised, I slithered off to other duties. A while later, as I served tea to Rinpoche, he said to me that the reason he so vehemently declared what he had was that this book had the power to ignite realization. And that traditionally there is an entire preliminary practice to be done prior to having access to that book. And that it requires proper teaching and transmission from a lineage lama to be engaged. He said that without this preparation, if one reads the book, one would only conceptualize its teaching, and thus waste a precious opportunity forever for the book to awaken one to realization.
Despite an abundance of opportunities these days to study and practice with authentic meditation traditions of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist lineages, one can only wonder how much of modern enamor with Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen as supposed instantaneous enlightenment teachings is conceptualized!
If the non-duality of gradual and sudden is a two-sided coin, then the other side of the coin from the instantaneous approach is that the instantaneous approach to realization actually gives birth to the so-called gradual approach. Said another way, the enlightenment of the Buddha gives rise to the 84,000 dharmas, or methods for enlightenment.
Acharya Kelsang Wangdi, director of the Kamashila Center for Study and Meditation in Berlin, recently observed, during a talk on abhidharma in Boulder, Colorado, that each and all of the Buddha’s teachings involves a realization that accompanies the particular teaching, regardless of the perceived level of the teaching. Otherwise, he noted, it would not be a teaching of the Buddha. This observation suggests that each time the Buddha taught, or for that matter any enlightened being teaches, whether later classified as a gradual or sudden approach, or a greater or lesser vehicle, the power of the teaching comes directly from and as an expression of the enlightened mind and speech of the realized person. Thus it is in fact a direct embodiment of and conduit to realization. This is what is sometimes referred to as the ekayana, the one yana/vehicle. Consequently, it is in the midst of any particular teaching and practice of the Buddha that instantaneous realization occurs. This is the conflation of gradual and sudden.
The Emanated Scripture of Manjushri decidedly dispels the notion that there is a sudden path free and clear of a gradual path. Tibetan Zen demonstrates the enduring influence of sudden path Ch’an/Zen on Tibetan Buddhism, even its “official” gradual path predilection. Van Schaik shows us how even among the Ch’an/Zen lineages, there was a lively and creative consideration of the issue of sudden/gradual, and that such great masters as Moheyan sought to harmonize the two. Perhaps this is what Trungpa Rinpoche was referring to as “the profundity of the gradual path.”
Both these books suggest that practice is essential. Neither of them suggests that one can just randomly click into enlightenment, even if informed by profound pointing out pronouncements from tradition or alluring statements about the uselessness of method and practice from those who have gone beyond it by indeed having traversed it. Or that a gradual path is a lesser approach. One can regard practice as sudden or gradual, but wherever one is in one’s practice, even if it is a so-called gradual practice, the mind is exactly there, suddenly and spontaneously, when one awakens to it. And even if as a more instantaneous-oriented practice is wholly contained in the more spontaneous meditation discipline of Ch’an/Zen, it involves awareness which is moment to moment, day to day, year to year, thus gradual. Nowness is visited again and again and again. Without the conflation of instantaneous and gradual, of spontaneous insight and practice, instantaneous realization is but another version of wishful thinking, conceptualization, hope and fear, arrogant pretension, and, in the lexicon of Trungpa Rinpoche, spiritual materialism. And gradual path without spontaneous insight is relegated to the possibility of being mired in the swamp of mere ritual habit and belief.
In engaging the gradual path and proper preliminaries, one is not necessarily relegating oneself to a burdensome and sludgy religious regimen, steeped in an extended process of purification or caught in the cultural religious customs of other cultures. Rather, the gradual path provides the environment for actual instantaneous insight to arise, through exceptional skillful means, whether in formal meditation or post-meditation. With that understanding, each of these two books, in its own style, provides a great deal of fresh insight, for the scholar, for the Zen practitioner, and for the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner. They simultaneously provide counter measures to the misconceptions about the instantaneous approach in relation to the gradual approach.
Perhaps both Moheyan and Kamashila won the debate!
- Shabkar, The Flight of the Garuda,Translated by Erik Kunsang Schmidt, Ranjung Yeshe Publications, 1986 (out of print)
- Van Schaik has written an entire book on the subject, Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen, Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig, Wisdom Publications, 2004.
- Khenpchen Gyaltsen has published a new, fresher translation of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Snow Lion Publications, 1998.