Since the beginning, there have been two different Buddhist paths: gradual cultivation and sudden illumination.
These two Paths aren’t really separate and it’s common for a practitioner to bounce back and forth between them. The Sudden vs. Gradual issue became a, well, issue in China when Huineng was named the 6th Patriarch rather than Shenxiu.
Huineng characterized the Southern School of Chan, which endorsed sudden enlightenment. Shenxiu represented the Northern School, which preached gradual attainment.
Most historians think that the whole thing was a bunch of BS invented after the fact, but it still serves as a decent analogy. The two Paths can be summed up in the gathas that Shenxiu and Huineng wrote. Shenxiu’s was:
The body is the Bodhi Tree
The mind is a like a clear mirror standing
Take care to wipe it all the time
Allow no dust to settle on it.
Bodhi originally has no tree
The clear mirror is nowhere standing
Since all is empty from the beginning
Where can dust alight?
Shenxiu’s gatha establishes the path of arriving at our original pure minds or Pure Being by wiping away all the poisons and afflictions. Once the mind isn’t afflicted, the path is clear and open to enlightened understanding of our true nature.
Huineng’s gatha sets up the path of neither arriving nor departing since the mind is originally empty and luminous from the beginning (hence pure in the Buddhist sense). This mind, whether afflicted or not afflicted, is identical to Dharma-nature to the point that it’s call “no-mind,” because even the mind isn’t an isolated, independent thing thus even the label “mind” is misleading.
Both paths have the same “goal” but they approach it differently. Actually, according to the Southern School (and I agree with them), the gradualist approach can actually hinder true realization.
Even though this fork in the Path is exemplified by Zen, it was there from the beginning when Siddhartha spoke of the mundane and supra-mundane aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. The mundane Path involves gradual cultivation, the supra-mundane involves direct illumination.
If we tour the different schools and branches of Buddhism, we see that these two modes of practice are present in all of them, from Theravada to Dzogchen. Secular Buddhism, still being a young school, is solely gradualist but we’ll see this same fork show up in it over time as well.
The Path of Cultivation involves following precepts to settle the mind, concentrating on meditation objects (like the breath, the body, feelings, thoughts, mantras, etc.), and investigating said objects to spot their impermanent, interdependent, and (if clung to) dukkha inciting nature.
The Path of Illumination involves resting with things as they are and letting the Way take care of itself. The most radical form of this is Silent Illumination/shikantaza practice in which one studies the teachings and then just sits, letting whatever happens happen. It’s a radical acceptance in which everything is neither affirmed nor denied, neither clung to nor released.
It’s misleading to think of these as separate paths. It’s more like this:
You’re walking down a road and, on the left side, there are all kinds of distractions. There are fast food restaurants, movies, sex, political debates, money, fame and all the suffering caused by losing those things. On the right side, there’s tranquil, untouched land. It’s cool, open, and serene.
The left side represents the worldly way of ignorance and attachment; the right side represents the renunciant way (the Path of Cultivation) of wisdom and non-attachment. Then there’s the Middle Way (the Path of Illumination), which is the whole road just as it is both beyond designations like “Left side and right side” and includes those designations as well.
Most people go from the Worldly Way into the Renunciant Way before (potentially) treading the Middle Way. Most of us also alternate between all three (which aren’t really three).
The Path of Cultivation is awesome in a bind. It can clear away the clouds, thus shedding a little light on our situation. But it can’t in itself bring one to complete understanding. That understanding is the simple, “Clouds and no clouds – both are the sky.”
Enlightenment takes no effort whatsoever. Each ounce of effort actually prevents realization from occurring because the Worldly Way and the Renunciant Way are both the same; they’re both focused on attaining something. But Bodhi can’t be attained anymore than you can attain a pearl that’s already in your pocket.
Once a person has that realization, that they’ve always been enlightened, that’s when it’s time to shift gears from Cultivation to Illumination.