Sudden Awakening in Zen Buddhism

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July 4th

Churchill Elangwe

Sudden awakening

All of us on this earth desire happiness and many of us go through great efforts to achieve that goal. Some look for happiness in material things, but are often disappointed because of the transitory nature of the material world. Others look to religion and spirituality for happiness, but too often their attempts fail because of the difficulties of most such paths and the lack of perseverance and discipline on part of the seekers.

It has been found that the energy that lies dormant in us, once awakened, can lead to eternal bliss and happiness. However, rigorous practice can be daunting for most of us, and as a result, most seekers using such methods fail to achieve the bliss and happiness they deserve. An example will be some one without patience would want to practice to the extreme in order to attain (satori) or sudden awareness, which is the key concept of Zen.

There are two type of processes that one can obtain awakening in Zen Buddhism. There is the sudden and gradual awakening. Sudden awakening is the type of awakening ordinary people directly access their source of wisdom and compassion within and to awaken by recognizing the true nature of one’s own mind. The approach is one of utilizing ones own inborn awareness in an atmosphere of wise guidance and compassionate support. Meanwhile the sudden awakening is a none traditional Buddhist tradition. It is spontaneous, lively and thoroughly modern while at the same time possessing a rich treasure of ancient tradition, lineage and wisdom

Hui-neng the famous sixth patriarch of the cha’n an illiterate monk who came from outside of the rigid hierarchical structure of gradual meditation practices, achieves the instantaneous awareness of the oneness of all reality. Nevertheless, he inherited the religious authority of the fifth patriarch. The head of the Buddhist order in china. The most famous incident in Hui-neng’s story concerns a dharma contest organized by Hung-gen the fifth patriarch who challenged his charges to each write a verse(gatha) distilling their understanding of their “original natures”. He promised to read them and award his spiritual robe and bowl (a symbol of dharma transmission;) and the title “Sixth Patriarch” will go to the student demonstrating true realization. The task quickly devolved onto the shoulders of the head monk, Shen-hsiu, who, it was assumed, would be the master’s likely successor. Shen-hsiu, stole out and wrote his verse anonymously on the wall of the new dharma hall:

The body is the bodhi tree.
The mind is like a mirror bright.
Take heed to keep it always clean
And let not dust collect on it.

A straitforward articulation of the necessity of diligent practice, She-hsiu hoped this verse would show the master that his student has at least some understanding. The first line states that the body is like the Boddhi tree which means the body is the basis for reaching enlightenment. The second line compares the mind to the bright mirror because the mind is the bright wisdom of Buddhahood. The third and the last line translates that our minds is not yet bright therefore we must keep is clean and prevent dust from collecting on it. (Thien-An 29, 30)

Meanwhile, Hui-neng who has recently arrived in the monastery was still working in the threshing room when this happened. Immediately Hui-neng realized the author of the verse lacked full understanding. He got someone to write his reply and submitted it to the master:

The Bodhi is not like a tree
The mirror bright is no where shining
As there is nothing from the first
Where can the dust itself collect?

It is obvious Hui-neng’s (gatha) is the exact opposite of Shen-hsiu’s. Hui-neng’s gatha is not at all obvious to intellectual understanding because it is a product of a profound spiritual experience. Very soon word of the new verse reached Hung-gen the fifth patriarch. The master came to read it and immediately...
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