Should Enlightenment Be a Goal?

No. That’s all. Have a nice day.

Alright, so I guess it’s unskillful to just leave it at that. There’s been a long debate in Buddhism, especially Zen, about sudden vs. gradual enlightenment. Sudden enlightenment means that “good works” like meritorious actions, meditating, keeping the precepts, or even holding Right Views are beside the point.

Enlightenment just happens because really, it’s just the realization that all beings are already enlightened.

Gradual enlightenment is the opposite of that: that abiding by the precepts, meditating, being mindful etc. we are slowly waking ourselves up. I think I touched on this in another post and called sudden enlightenment, “No mirror” and gradual, “Polishing the mirror,” or some such shit like that.

The two really go together, but not in the way we might think.

The logical way for them to go together would be: I climb a steep hill (gradual) and then, finally, get to the top (sudden). Or, I weed, fertilize, and prune my garden (gradual) until it’s healthy, beautiful, and perfect (sudden).

That’s an incorrect view because it’s dualistic and serves as a means for further craving. It’s dualistic because it implies that gradual cultivation stops when sudden enlightenment occurs. Here’s the gist of how they really go together:

You’re climbing a steep hill (gradual) and then a bird shits on your head (sudden).

You’re outside gardening on a cloudy day; plucking the weeds, pruning, and fertilizing (gradual). Then, the sun comes out (sudden).

So the two are connected, just not in terms of one causing the other. Climbing the hill didn’t cause the bird to shit; working in the garden didn’t cause the sun to come out. Both of those events would’ve happened anyway, you just wouldn’t have been there to witness them.

Sudden and gradual don’t run parallel to each other, and gradual cultivation doesn’t terminate in sudden enlightenment. It’s like sudden enlightenment is a spiral, and gradual cultivation is a straight line running through it. Or, something like this: enlightenmentcircle

with the straight line being gradual cultivation, and the intersecting points (the blue dots) being sudden enlightenment(s). Each of those dots is a sunny day in the garden, or an encounter with bird droppings on the side of a hill. And it doesn’t stop, not for Bodhisattvas. Unlike the pic, those circles keep going infinitely inward and outward.

But that line that passes through them can be finite if we stop walking the Eightfold Path or cultivating the six or ten Perfections. Paraphrasing Huineng: a candle can dispel a thousand years of darkness, and a single cloud can obstruct a thousand years of light.

So there is no final goal for the Bodhisattva. There’s no hilltop, no perfect garden. The hilltop and the perfect garden are unsurpassed, complete awakening. But, you aren’t a Bodhisattva anymore at that point; you’re a Buddha.


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