The Short Path of Sudden Enlightenment

A white pelican sails south across the darkening sky, heading deeper into the high desert marshlands. We follow in the hope it's leading us to a flock we can photograph before the afternoon rain sets in. The first warning drops splash dust on the washboard road as a flock of ibis flap madly against the north wind. A large mink runs across the road, dives into the canal, emerges on the other side and roots through the brush for supper. A short-eared owl roosts on a wooden fencepost, craning its head at impossible angles to pick up the soft sounds of field mice in the dense marsh grass. A yellow-headed blackbird throws its head back over its shoulder, singing ecstatically from its perch on a swaying cattail. A pair of trumpeter swans explodes on the canal beside us: running over cloudy water to take flight, great alabaster wings gulping air and harsh voices bugling surprise, they rise slowly from the reed-lined channel and glide against the wind to the further edge of the lake. The sun blinks through thinning clouds, throwing off a triple rainbow like a casual afterthought.

It's moments like this that I fall back into a wordless space of wonder at the profound transparency of nature. Because it is impossible to say anything about what I am experiencing, nature speaks for itself. It's an odd state of mind, one that our common ancestors encountered on a daily basis: overwhelmed by awe in the face of creation, the boundaries between self and world dissolve in a mystical union transcending conscious thought.

For the original schools of sudden enlightenment, this interruption in the flow of ordinary consciousness offers the perfect opportunity for a higher integration of one's original nature with the eternal Way (Tao) that gives rise to everything from within. But such opportunities are not, by tradition, restricted to such moments of nature mysticism. The renowned Chan teacher, Ta-hui, for example, insisted that enlightenment had to be sought amid the typical difficulties of everyday life, such as misunderstanding, delusion, uncertainty, distress, etc.

So, enlightenment is not restricted to ancient monks living in harmony with nature. It is an experience open to all, regardless of where or when they live. Indeed, this has been one of the distinguishing features of Chan (Zen in Japan) since its early days: ordinary people of every walk of life possess an enlightened nature that simply must be awakened, much like a sleeper startled from a dream, in order to be fully and immediately realized.

As I wrote in my previous post, this awakening to our original enlightened nature involves interrupting the ordinary flow of linear, language-based, thinking so that we can rediscover "the mind within the mind". Focusing on external circumstances or teachings is not what triggers the moment of enlightenment, in other words. Rather, it is focusing on the absence of internal commentary. Because it is impossible to "think" without words, this practice of stopping the flow of running commentary on our lives involves cultivating a mindset of no-thought (wu-nien) in an attempt to experience each moment as it is without silently talking to ourselves about it.

This is epitomized in one version of the enlightenment of Hui-neng, the famous Sixth Patriarch of Chan:

When the two were face to face in the stillness of the night, the Fifth Patriarch expounded the Diamond Sutra to Hui-neng. When he came to the sentence, "Keep your mind alive and free without abiding in anything or anywhere," Hui-neng was suddenly and thoroughly enlightened, realizing that all truths are inseparable from self-nature. Ecstatically he said to the Fifth Patriarch, "How could I expect that the self-nature is in and of itself so pure and quiet! How could I expect that the self-nature is in and of itself unborn and undying! How could I expect that the self-nature is in and of itself self-sufficient, with nothing lacking in it! How could I expect that the self-nature is in and of itself immutable and imperturbable! How could I expect that the self-nature is capable of giving birth to all truths!" (adapted from "The Golden Age of Zen" by John Wu)

This kind of sudden breakthrough experience has elements common to the breakthroughs of many others: laughter, surprise, recognition, insight. Indeed, the laughter and surprise seem in large part a response to recognizing our own self-nature, whose intrinsically enlightened state has, until that moment, been hidden from us by the conditioned nature of our personality (as the old saying goes, It is like turning the corner in a strange city and bumping into your father -- of course, you recognize him). But it is the nature of sudden insight that is most often associated with enlightenment -- an instantaneous grasp of a body of perennial truths that are universally agreed upon by all who experience this singular moment of self-realization.

Paradoxically, awakening to the perennial truth leads experiencers to see absolute truth and conventional truth as one, not two. This is part of the experience of swallowing the whole of the river in one gulp, wherein all dualities are united within the individual. This grasp of the non-duality of reality and appearance is expressed in the analogy of the statue of a golden lion: its form is that of a lion but its substance is of gold. Because its nature is that of a golden lion, its lion-form cannot be separated from its gold-substance. This analogy hints at the experience of non-duality that lies at the heart of enlightenment, in which the boundaries between self and other, inner and outer, collapse.

Hui-neng's awakening is the quintessential example of sudden enlightenment. According to tradition, he was an illiterate woodcutter from the uncivilized parts of China. Upon meeting the Fifth Patriarch, he was assigned to work in the kitchen and so was exposed to a minimum of formal teachings. Recognizing his potential, the Fifth Patriarch met with Hui-neng in the middle of the night to instruct him in private. The lack of sophistication and access to the scriptures plays a large part in Hui-neng's sudden leap into enlightenment: because he had no deeply ingrained habits of acquired conditioning, his true self was quick to recognize itself.

Like all such examples, Hui-neng's awakening is non-sequential. It happens, but it happens all at once and what sets it in motion cannot be predicted. It is the "self-nature" using whatever is at hand to throw off the veil of the personality and come to the fore as a "pure consciousness event" (awareness without any object of thought). Indeed, Hui-neng's response to his teacher lays bare one of the major stumbling blocks to enlightenment: "How could I expect ... " he asks four times in a row. It is this very penchant to conceive of awakening as a stereotyped experience from which we will act in a stereotyped manner that keeps us from accepting our innate "self-nature" without any of the stereotyped trappings of enlightenment. In this vein, an enlightened layperson, Layman Pang, once famously wrote of such expectations, Neither saint nor sage, I am just an ordinary person who has completed his work.

The great teacher, Ma-tsu, held that one should simply allow artificial constraints to drop away, thereby allowing "the Tao to circulate freely". All that is needed, he held, was that we staunchly maintain faith in the fact that our own mind is a Buddha. "It is your everyday walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, your personal encounters and contacts with things, which are entirely this path," he famously stated.

Ma-tsu's spiritual descendant, Lin-chi I-hsuan, continued this line of teaching: if our faith in the truth of our intrinsic Buddhahood is strong enough, we will be enlightened instantaneously and not need to become enlightened. One of the most influential teachers of the sudden enlightenment schools, Lin-chi constructed one of the best-known koans to be handed down: There is a true person of no rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet realized this -- look, look!

One of Lin-chi's own successors, Yuan-wu K'o-ch'in, produced the monumental work, 'The Blue Cliff Record', which catalogs 100 of the most famous koans and their appended commentaries. It was Yuan-wu's contention that rather than being mere records of ancient teachers, koans directly point to the mind of every living individual and, as such, provide a living road to immediate awakening. Moreover, Yuan-wu taught that it was counterproductive to study the entire body of koans but, instead, to focus on just one, since a breakthrough in that one allows us to penetrate them all.

Yuan-wu's student, the brilliant Ta-hui Tsung-kao, carried these ideas further, teaching that koans were not meant to be studied in their entirety, which could distract students from the essential point. Rather, the focus of contemplation was the crucial phrase (hua-t'ou) carried within each koan. By bringing the mind to bear on the koan's turning point, Ta-hui affirmed, the meditator emulates the enlightened mind of past masters. Following an enlightened teacher's intent like this is like following a stream back to its source, tracing back the radiance emanating from the mind, as the ancient saying goes. By patterning our mind after an enlightened teacher's, it is said, we awaken that enlightened awareness within ourselves.

This kind of meditating on the crucial phrase of a koan (k'an-hua meditation), according to Ta-hui, comprises the short-cut to sudden enlightenment. Many of his own writings take the form of koans, such as, "Keep investigating until your mind has nowhere to go." Finding the crucial phrase within such a saying and then concentrating on it whenever "sitting, standing, walking, or lying down" produces a building tension that is spontaneously released in a breakthrough of the ego's point of view. Suddenly, awareness has no fixed location: the mind is alive and free, as the Diamond Sutra says, without abiding in anything or anywhere. The Buddha nature of one is the Buddha nature of all.


The triple rainbow fades into the grey mists. The flock of white pelicans glides on the lake, weaving dream-like designs in the rain-spattered ripples as they bow in unison to their fish brethren. The warbling calls of sandhill cranes echo up and down the glacial valley. Nighthawks swarm over the marsh grass, harvesting insects. The road beckons homeward.

Why aren't we moderns talking about sudden enlightenment anymore? It's not that we suffer from a lack of knowledge, after all -- we have more access than ever to the most profound practices of ancient cultures. And we could not be more aware of the limits of our contemporary form of knowledge, which none of us would dare mistake for wisdom -- certainly, we have nothing to gain by continuing to let technology drag us along a course we never agreed to. Perhaps we no longer trust in our intuitive grasp of the nature of reality -- or perhaps it is simply that we no longer believe in our fullest potential. Whatever the reason, I hope this treatment of sudden enlightenment, brief and inadequate as it is, evokes the kind of interesting questions that make life a little richer for both those familiar and unfamiliar with this matter that has absorbed many of the greatest minds of antiquity.


For background material, I have relied on the article Short-cut Approach of K'an-hua Meditation by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. in "Sudden And Gradual", edited by Peter N. Gregory (ISBN 81-208-0819-3). Although sometimes difficult to find, this volume is a treasure trove of serious thought about the historical approaches to enlightenment.


'The Toltec I Ching,' by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden, has been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, "64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World," hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Go to the main site to see sample chapters, reviews and the link to Larson Publications for ordering the book.

Two companion volumes, The Five Emanations, and The Spiritual Basis of Good Fortune, have recently been published that expand on carrying the practices forward in the modern world.