Saturday, September 21, 2019

Gradual Enlightenment

In The Science of Enlightenment, a book written by Shinzen Young, Shinzen says that people can become enlightened gradually without knowing it.

He writes:

... in my experience as a teacher, enlightenment usually sneaks up on people. Sometimes they don't quite realize how enlightened they've become over time because they have gradually acclimatized to it.

This intrigued me so I searched for more information on it. I found a file on the Shinheads facebook group, (Shinzen Enlightenment Interview.pdf) that discussed this in greater detail and I have quoted the relevant excerpt below.

What Shinzen describes seems to be that the effects of meditating regularly over a long period of time produce the changes in a person that constitute enlightenment, whether you know it or not, whether or not you have the insight reported by people who experience sudden enlightenment.

Shinzen says that gradual enlightenment occurs when someone "gradually works through the things that get in the way of enlightenment" and "over a period of years, and indeed decades, within that person the craving, aversion and unconsciousness - the mula kleshas (the fundamental “impurities”), get worked through. This means that if you learn to let go attachments and aversions, then over time you will awaken gradually.

If this is the case, then one can simply meditate and not worry about having any particular insight or crossing any particular milestone.

You can judge your progress and the effectiveness of your meditation practice by your own observation as to how it helps you to live with increasing equanimity and compassion. If you find your equanimity and compassion are increasing over time, then you are probably doing it right.

Here is the excerpt from Shinzen Enlightenment Interview.pdf

However, for most people who’ve studied with me it doesn’t happen that way. Not suddenly. What does happen is that the person gradually works through the things that get in the way of enlightenment, but so gradually that they might not notice.

You remember that I said in traditional Buddhism it’s very significant that it’s formulated that something passes away and it’s not something that you get? So what typically happens is that over a period of years, and indeed decades, within that person the craving, aversion and unconsciousness -­-the mula kleshas (the fundamental “impurities”), get worked through. Because it’s gradual, they may not realize how much they’ve changed. As the mula kleshas get worked through they suffer less and the fundamental alienation between inside and outside diminishes. But because all this is happening gradually they’re acclimatizing as it’s occurring.

In acclimatizing they may not realize how far they’ve come. However, they often do notice it when “the doo doo hits the fan”. Like a major bereavement, a major illness like cancer, a serious injury, or their life is somehow threatened. Then they notice how everyone around them is freaking out and how much less they’re freaking out. Then the contrast becomes suddenly very evident. That’s when they would tend to notice it. That’s why I like telling the story about the samurai.

“This samurai went to the Zen temple on the mountain and lived there for many years. He didn’t seem to be getting anything out of the practice. So he said to the Master, ‘I think I need to leave. Nothing’s happening as a result of this practice’. So the master said ‘Okay. Go.’

As he was coming down the hill one of his former comrades, a fellow samurai, saw him in the tattered robes of a Buddhist monk –which is equivalent to a glorified beggar from a samurai’s point of view –and he said ‘how could you be so undignified to join the counter-­-culture of Buddhist beggars?’ and he spit on him. Now in the old days the samurais were extremely proud. Any insult to their personal dignity meant a fight to the death. So the monk who had formerly been a samurai just walked on and after he’d walked a certain distance, it occurred to him that not only did he not need to kill this guy, he wasn’t even angry.

As the story goes he turned around and bowed towards the mountain three times where he had practiced. He bowed in his recognition of all that he had worked through. He recognized he no longer needed to kill someone that had offended his dignity. He noticed how fundamentally he had changed as a human being.”

Of course, it’s not just samurai in 16th century Japan. The same things apply to 21st century North Americans. Maybe they’ve been practicing for 10, 20, or 30 years and it doesn’t seem that much has changed. And then something big happens and then they realize how different they’ve become compared to ordinary people. I’ll give you an example that happened just a few weeks ago. Someone who has been coming to retreats for quite a while went to have a biopsy to determine whether they had a serious cancer or not. While waiting for the results this person noticed they weren’t worried. Anyway, it turned out that the biopsy was negative. So all the unnecessary suffering that would’ve happened but didn’t, that was the effect of that person’s years and years of practice. It’s my impression that many more people have that gradual unfolding than have the sudden...

Here are some excerpts from an article on gradual enlightenment written by Sensei Herb Deer who teaches at the Sweetwater Zen Center.

July 20, 2013

Gradual Enlightenment is Better. ~ Herb Deer

First of all, let’s define enlightenment as being selfless, compassionate, wise and present and throw in for good measure the realization that everyone and everything is connected in oneness. This should mean, for example, that an enlightened person puts the care of others before satisfying selfish desires and is able to communicate with honesty and integrity about any struggles with this.


Sudden enlightenment is a spontaneous awakening to our oneness with all things and the perfection of our life, such as the Buddha had when he saw the morning star under the Bodhi tree.


This sudden awakening experience is described in every spiritual tradition in one way or another. In Zen, it is emphasized especially in the Rinzai lineage as crucial for spiritual enlightenment.


Gradual enlightenment, on the other hand, is the slow and patient process of growing and maturing in our practice through consistent discipline and progress. The consistent and persistent practice of being mindful of our activities leads us to progressively refine our experience of emptiness and oneness in our daily life.

The Soto Zen School tends to embrace this more.

Maybe we can all agree that manifesting enlightenment in daily activities is the most profound expression?

But I say that the gradual process of awakening is more important to embrace in a spiritual path for several reasons.

First of all, the sudden kensho experience is like grace in that it cannot be guaranteed as a result of practice. Some people have a better chance at it if they practice with more effort and determination. But ultimately we could never judge the merit of anyone’s practice by using kensho as a measuring stick.

Second, kensho isn’t meant to take care of long-term emotional and behavioral patterns, and it doesn’t. This has been proven over again by ‘enlightened’ charismatic Zen teachers exposed to be abusive to their students in many ways.

Having a kensho experience may help us to see our karma more clearly, but it will not change our long-term patterns of emotions, behaviors and addictions.

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