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The Sudden/Gradual Polarity: A Recurrent Theme In Chinese Thought

Peter N. Gregory
Journal Of Chinese Philosophy Vol.9 1982 pp. 471-486
©1982 By Dialogue Publishing Company, Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A. .

During the weekend of May 22-24, 1981, the Institute for Transcultural Studies sponsored a conference on "The Sudden/Gradual Polarity: A Recurrent Theme in Chinese Thought." Funding for the conference was provided by a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. The purpose of the conference was to explore the various historical and philosophical issues constellated around the sudden/gradual polarity in an effort to recast its significance in as broad an intellectual context as possible. It focused, however, on the manifestations of this polarity within Chinese Buddhism. While the controversy surrounding the sudden/gradual polarity was not without precedent in other Buddhist traditions, it assumed its greatest significance in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, where its articulation displayed a number of characteristically Chinese features linking it to non-Buddhist modes of thought. The fact that this polarity assumed particular importance in the Chinese Buddhist tradition suggests that it resonated with, or gave form to, a similar pre-existent polarity within Chinese thought. One of the main objectives of the conference, therefore, was to explore how this polarity formed part of a larger discourse in Chinese intellectual history.

The conference thus sought to take an approach different from those of previous discussions of the significance of the sudden/gradual controversy in Chinese Buddhism. Instead of trying to locate the source of the debate within the Indian Buddhist heritage, the conference attempted to provide a new perspective on the process of Buddhism's accommodation with some of the dominant themes in Chinese intellectual history, as well as Buddhism's effect upon that tradition. While exploring the fundamental religious and moral issues behind the sudden/gradual controversy as it was conducted within the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the conference also investigated how it could be reformulated as a paradigm by which to elucidate some of the tensions inherent in other traditions of moral and spiritual cultivation.

In order to achieve as broad an interdisciplinary approach as possible, the conference assembled thirteen scholars from a variety of fields, including Indian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Religious Studies, Chinese Intellectual History, Neo-Confucian Studies, Chinese Literature, and Chinese Art History. Following is a brief summary of the twelve papers presented at the conference.

1. Luis Gomez, University of Michigan, "Purifying Gold: The Metaphor of Effort and Intuition in Buddhist Thought."

This paper provided a comprehensive historical and philosophical overview of the sudden/gradual controversy in Buddhism. As a working hypothesis, the paper began by characterizing the fundamental philosophical rift at stake in the controversy as lying between (1) the understanding of enlightenment as a sudden leap into a state or realm of experience that is integral, ineffable, and innate and (2) the understanding of enlightenment as a gradual process of accumulation (or reduction), as being describable, as having degrees, and as being susceptible to progressive cultivation. As a corollary to this, the first position considers the state of bondage as the result of an error of perception (or conception), thus comparing enlightenment to the experience of opening the eyes, while the second position considers the state of bondage as the result of attachment (or karmic conditioning), thus comparing enlightenment to the process of overcoming a bad habit. Whereas the first position represents the situation seen from the perspective of enlightenment, the second position represents the point of view of those seeking enlightenment. Thus, in the context of Indian Buddhism, the philosophical framework for the sudden/gradual controversy lay in the doctrine of the two truths.

The first main section of the paper analyzed the two most famous historical instances of the sudden/gradual controversy. The first began in China in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century with Shen-hui's attack on the "gradualistic" teachings of the Northern Line of Ch'an, against which he promoted the "sudden teaching" of the Southern Line. The second took place in Tibet during the last decade of the eighth century in the debate between the Chinese subitist Mo-ho-yen and the Indian gradualist Kamalasila. An examination of the content of these debates reveals that the putative issue-the sudden/gradual controversy-included a whole complex of issues which can be grouped into various sets of polarities (e.g., insight vs. concentration, activity vs. rest, developed vs. innate Buddhahood, the obligatory nature of moral practices vs. their natural unfolding, etc.). When the positions of the various figures in the debates are compared, they line up differently in regard to the various doctrinal issues involved, the subitist in one context holding some of the doctrinal positions of the gradualist in another context. The sudden/gradual controversy thus does not divide along any single polarity. Nor does there seem to be any way to predict the specific doctrinal positions of a proponent of one side or the other in the debates. Nevertheless, there is considerable overlap in the way clusters of positions group together in the actual debates. Sudden and gradual therefore do not form a simple and static polarity, but represent more, two opposing modes of thought which can best be translated into the basic, and very general, dichotomy of intuition and effort.

The second section of the paper explored two of the polarities at issue in the controversy -those of insight vs. concentration and activity vs. reexamining the former from a strictly Buddhist perspective and the latter from a comparative perspective. The issue of insight vs. concentration illustrates how the sudden and gradual positions intertwine. Kamalasila's position on the necessary cooperation of insight and concentration, for example, is essentially the same as that advocated by Shen-hui. Kamalasila's misinterpretation of Mo-ho-yen's position suggests that he was probably responding more to issues relevant to his own polemical context than to the actual position of his opponent. The second polarity discussed in this section -that of activity vs. rest- raises the question of quietism, in terms of which the controversy has often been discussed. Despite the frequent use of this term, it is not clear to which side in the debate it should be applied. While the issues raised by the Buddhist debates may call to mind the controversy over quietism in the Christian tradition, an examination of the particular historical and theological contexts in which the debates were conducted in each religious tradition shows that they were so different as to render the use of the term "quietism" meaningless when referring to Buddhism.

The third and final section of the paper pointed out the danger inherent in assuming that a metaphor common to different religious traditions indicates some kind of relation in the deep structure of those religions. The mirror, for example, serves as one of the most frequent metaphors for sudden enlightenment in Buddhism (although it is also used to illustrate the opposite position as well). The same metaphor is found in the Christian tradition in the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, where it has several points in common with some of the doctrinal positions usually associated with the subitist position of Southern Ch'an. Nevertheless, when taken within the total context of his thought, the metaphor of the mirror turns out to be based on an entirely different complex of theological assumptions and expresses a gradualistic vision of the soul's progress. We must thus be cautious in comparing religious metaphors cross-culturally and can only do so meaningfully by remaining sensitive to the particular doctrinal and historical context in which they are articulated.

2. John McRae, Yale University, "On Shen-hui's Early Teaching Career."

This paper discussed the historical background and doctrinal milieu of Shen-hui's early teaching career. Shen-hui was to gain fame for his attack on the Northern Line of Ch'an for its allegedly "gradualistic" teachings and his concomitant championing of the teaching of "sudden enlightenment," which, in a series of public sermons given in 830, 831, and 832, he claimed represented the authentic Ch'an transmission handed down to his teacher, Hui-neng. The paper argued that despite the image of Shen-hui as a vehement anti-Northern polemicist, his early teachings were developed within the general doctrinal framework of Northern Ch'an. The paper went on to examine three Tun-huang texts associated with the Northern School which demonstrate the close affinity between, if not the mutual influence of, Shen-hui's early teachings and those of Northern Ch'an. The paper concluded with a discussion of two metaphors -those of the sun underlain by clouds and the mirror- which can be taken as defining the conceptual matrices of early Ch'an.

3. Robert Zeuschner, University of Southern California, "Sudden and Gradual in the Division Between the Northern and Southern Lines of Ch'an."

This paper began by analyzing the Southern Ch'an charge, first made by Shen-hui, that the Northern teachings were "gradualistic" and did not even admit the possibility of sudden enlightenment. It then went on to examine some relevant passages in the Northern Ch'an texts to ascertain the validity of Shen-hui's allegations. While Northern Ch'an literature never explicitly advocates a step-by-step form of practice gradually leading to enlightenment, it does, nevertheless, lend itself to such an interpretation. A further examination of Northern Ch'an writings, however, reveals that the Northern Line did not -as the author claims Shen-hui to have charged- reject the possibility of sudden enlightenment. The Kuan-hsin lun for example, clearly states that 'enlightenment takes place in a moment." The paper suggested that, whereas the Southern position can be characterized as "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation," the Northern position can be characterized as "gradual cultivation followed by sudden enlightenment." The paper then argued that part of the confusion that has usually attended discussions of the sudden/gradual controversy as it pertains to the split between these two lines of Ch'an has to do with the fact that key terms such as "enlightenment" were actually being used in different ways in each tradition. In order to clarify the debate, the paper proposed a fourfold scheme of the various stages of practice and enlightenment: (1) a prepatory stage involving progressive proficiency in moral and meditative practices, (2) an initial and transforming experience of insight, (3) a process of further cultivation wherein one's life is gradually brought into accord with one's insight, and (4) the ultimate perfection of Buddhahood which leaves no room for further improvement or attainment. When the Northern and Southern positions are analyzed in terms of this scheme, the Northern position will be seen to place great emphasis on the first stage, virtually none on the second, and some on the third; the Southern position, by contrast, minimizes the importance of the first stage, places greatest emphasis on the second, and gives only some consideration to the third. Both lines tacitly take the fourth and final stage for granted.

4. Jeffrey Broughton, California State University, Long Beach, "The Tibetan Ston-mun: Content Examination and Sudden Seeings."

This paper discussed, and included a translation of a major portion of, the late Northern Ch'an text Tun-wu chen-tsung yao-chueh ("Determining the Essentials of the True Teaching of Sudden Enlightenment"), which exists in a number of partial Chinese Tun-huang manuscripts as well as one complete Tibetan translation. This text is of particular interest in that it reveals the fusion of Northern and Southern motifs that seems to have been characteristic of late Northern Ch'an writings. The text also seems to have circulated widely among the proponents of sudden enlightenment (stonmun) in Tibet in the later part of the eighth century, and is thus of further interest in revealing the general doctrinal background out of which Mo-ho-yen, the principal spokesman for the subitist position in the Tibetan debates-emerged. The text focuses upon "examining the mind" (k'an-hsin), a major theme running through Northern Ch'an meditation texts. The text lacks the polemical tone of the statements attributed to Mo-ho-yen in the records of the Tibetan debates and seems to have been written for followers within the tradition. A comparison of this text to the position of Mo-hoyen as it was defined in the course of the debates suggests that the polemical context of the debates might have forced Mo-ho-yen into taking a more radical position than that generally found in the teaching tradition in which he stood.

5. Peter Gregory, Stanford University "Sudden Enlightenment Followed by Gradual Cultivation: Tsung-mi's Analysis of Mind."

This paper examined the meaning of sudden enlightenment as it was understood by Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841), traditionally reckoned as the fifth patriarch in the Ho-tse lineage of Southern Ch'an founded by Shen-hui. It began with a discussion of Tsung-mi's analysis of the various meanings of "sudden" and "gradual" as they were used in his day by Buddhists in different traditions. Tsung-mi first differentiates between the use of these terms as they apply to classifications of the Buddha's teachings and descriptions of the course of Buddhist practice. In regard to the latter, he goes on to enumerate five different ways in which the terms are used in reference to practice and enlightenment: (1) gradual cultivation followed by sudden enlightenment (a position which he identifies as that of Northern Ch'an), (2) sudden cultivation followed by gradual enlightenment, (3) gradual cultivation and gradual enlightenment, (4) sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation, and (5) sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation. The remainder of the paper was devoted to the discussion of the fourth position, that of sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation, which Tsung-mi attributed to Shen-hui. Tsung-mi held that although the experience of enlightenment entailed a sudden insight into one's true nature, it was still only the first stage in a ten-staged process culminating in the complete realization of Buddhahood. Tsung-mi thus contended that sudden enlightenment did not obviate the necessity of a gradual process of further spiritual cultivation; rather, it formed the indispensable ground upon which authentic Buddhist practice had to be carried out. The paper went on to examine Tsung-mi's analysis of Mind, which derives from the Awakening of Faith, as providing the rationale for his theory of sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation, underlining the importance of the tathagatagarbha doctrine in furnishing an explanation of the ontological basis for enlightenment.

6. Neal Donner, Institute for Transcultural Studies, "The Perfect and the Sudden: Tien-t'ai Light on the Platform Sutra. "

This paper consisted of three major parts. The first discussed Chih-i's understanding of the terms "sudden" and "gradual" in the context of his thought on teaching and practice. Chih-i's thought is highly complex and dynamic--he uses various classificatory rubrics in different discussions of the Buddha's teaching, for example- and defies the kind of procrustean formulation into which later interpreters attempted to make it fit (such as Chan-jan's "Five Periods and Eight Teachings"). In terms of the rubric that Chih-i uses in his Fu-hua hsuan-i ("The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra "), his primary work on doctrine, "sudden" refers to the Avatamsaka, because in that sutra the Buddha directly expounded the context of his enlightenment without making any concessions to the limited capacity of his audience to understand. "Gradual" refers to all other sutras expounded by the Buddha, who, conscious of his disciples' limitations, used a variety of expedients to communicate his message. In terms of meditation, "sudden" (or "sudden-perfect" as it is more often referred to in this context) designates that type of practice outlined in the Mo-ho chih-kuan ("Great Calming and Contemplation"), Chih-i's magnum opus on Buddhist practice, in which ultimate reality is taken as the object of meditation from the very beginning. "Gradual" designates that type of practice in which ultimate reality is approached through a series of proximate meditational objects.

The second part of this paper discussed the attitude toward meditation found in the Platform Sutra, making the controversial argument that its teaching of sudden enlightenment, and its concomitant repudiation of the necessity of meditation practice, should be seen as reflecting its proselytizing effort to make enlightenment accessible to the mass of lay Buddhists. The third part of the paper discussed a number of striking similarities between the practices, ideas, and terms found in the Platform Sutra and those found in Chih-i's opera, suggesting the likelihood of T'ien-t'ai influence, if not directly upon the sutra itself, then at least upon the formative tradition out of which it developed.

7. Robert Gimello: University of Arizona,'The Sudden and the Gradual in Early Hua-yen: A Study in the Emergence of a T'ang Religious Discourse."

The paper presented at the conference was only the prolegomena to a more extensive study that would discuss the establishment in early Hua-yen thought of the p'an-chiao distinction between "the sudden teaching" and "the gradual teaching," and treat the relation between it and other early Hua-yen notions regarding the duration of the course to enlightenment, against the background, and as an example, of the dominant styles of religious and secular discourse taking shape in the early T'ang. This effort would not only involve tracing the sudden/gradual distinction and its attendant doctrines back into the early history of Chinese Buddhism, but would also involve tracing the "lateral" or synchronic connections between these explicitly religious concepts and certain ideas or modes of discourse seen in contemporary literature, non-Buddhist thought, and political culture. The actual conference paper set forth a series of philosophical reflections which sought to develop a theoretical framework for applying structuralist methods of analysis to such a discussion. The paper went on to discuss the earliest manifestation of the sudden/gradual controversy in China, docu mented in Hsieh Ling-yun's Pien-tsung lun, as revealing the particularly Chinese Problematik out of which the terms were to come into general currency in the Chinese Buddhist world. It then discussed the emergence of the sudden/gradual distinction in the various doctrinal classification schemes employed by Chih-yen, the figure responsible for the systematic formulation of early Hua-yen doctrine.

8. Miriam Levering, Oberlin College, "The Sudden/Gradual Polarity as Reflected in Sung Intellectual Discourse: The Case of Ta-hui Tsung- kao (1089-1163)."

This paper discussed the critical role that doubt played in the writings of the Sung dynasty Ch'an Master Ta-hui, and the innovative revaluation that he gave to it in his practical methods of Ch'an instruction. In the recorded sayings of earlier Ch'an figures such as Lin-chi, doubt was seen primarily as an obstacle to the realization of one's own inherently enlightened nature. Ta-hui also regarded doubt as a hindrance to enlightenment, casting it as the very expression of the unenlightened mind. Enlightenment accordingly consists in the elimination of the basis of doubt. Ta-hui's originality lay in his use of doubt as a means to the realization of enlightenment by emphasizing the importance of hua-t'ou as a device for focusing all of one's doubts into one Great Doubt. The more intense one's doubt, the deeper one's eventual enlightenment. The paper went on to venture that Ta-hui's emphasis on the role of doubt as a vehicle for precipitating an experience of enlightenment might be depicted as a subitist move to counter some of the more "gradualistic" forms of Ch'an practice--such as "silent illumination Ch'an"- prevalent in his day. As the title suggests, the paper presented at the conference was but a preliminary draft of a larger project discussing Ta-hui's thought in the context of Sung intellectual discourse.

9. Rodney Taylor, University of Colorado, Boulder, "Sudden/Gradual: A Persistent Paradigm Within Neo-Confucian Self-Cultivation."

This paper examined the role of quiet-sitting (ching-tso) within the regimen of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation. Buddhist terminology has often been used to characterize the different attitudes toward self-cultivation in the Ch'eng-Chu and Lu-Wang traditions: while the former's emphasis on effort can be likened to gradual cultivation, the latter's emphasis on intuition can be likened to sudden enlightenment. Moreover, since the practice of quiet-sitting is frequently cited as a prime example of Buddhist influence on Neo-Confucianism, a discussion of the different attitudes toward this practice within the Neo-Confucian tradition naturally gives rise to questions of the nature and degree of Buddhist influence on Neo-Confucianism. The paper explored such questions by examining the development of the practice of quiet-sitting. It began with a discussion of the two Sung dynasty figures primarily responsible for its incorporation into Neo-Confucianism, Lo Tsung-yen and Li T'ung. It went on to discuss Wang Yang-ming's reaction against the practice in his effort to redefine the investigation of things (ko-wu). The paper then discussed the two Tung-lin scholars Ku Hsien-ch'eng and Kao P'an-lung who, in response to the excesses of some of Wang Yang-ming's more radical followers, reinstituted the practice as a major component of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation. As Kao P'an-lung's writings on quiet-sitting furnish one of the most extensive and articulate discussions of the practice available, they are discussed in more detail. In conclusion, the paper took up some of the questions raised at the beginning, discussing the relative applicability of a number of theoretical models for characterizing the influence of Buddhism on Neo-Confucianism (historical interrelationship, eclecticism, syncretism, and synthesis).

10. James Cahill, University of California, Berkeley,"Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's 'Southern and Northern Schools' in the History and Theory of Painting: A Reconsideraion."

Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's theory of the Southern and Northern Schools of painters was one of the most influential formulations in traditional Chinese art criticism. The paper discussed it in relation to the sudden/gradual polarity, arguing that the sectarian division of Ch'an into a southern and northern lineage furnished Tung with an analogical, rather than a substantive, model for classifying painters into broad, stylistic groupings. Tung identified the painters of colored landscapes with the Northern School and painters of ink monochrome using graded washes with the Southern School. Tung's scheme generally followed earlier formulations in contrasting Sung dynasty professionals working in detailed, decorative, academic styles with Yuan dynasty amateurs working in free, spontaneous styles. However, since its adoption of "Southern" and "Northern" as categories for classifying painters was not bound by any rigid, objectifiable criteria (such as Sung vs. Yuan or professional vs. amateur) , but was based on a wholly subjective evaluation of style, it avoided the kind of objections that could inevitably be raised against earlier schemes whose classification of painters was always somewhat arbitrary and forced. Since rational reasons could not be used to justify stylistic preferences, an appeal to lineage, or to orthodoxy, provided Tung with the only available form of justification for his theory. Tung's formulation, then, did not imply a Ch'an aesthetic, or that there was a Ch'an content to landscape painting. Rather, it functioned in much the same way as Yen Yu's use of the Ch'an analogy in his theory of poetry. Ultimately, the intellectual context for understanding Tung's theory has more to do with NeoConfucian ideas than with Ch'an.

11. Richard Lynn, University of British Columbia, "The Sudden and the Gradual as Concepts in Chinese Poetry Criticism: An Examination of the Ch'an-Poetry Analogy."

This paper examined the use of the Ch'an-poetry analogy first given definitive expression in the Sung dynasty by Yen Y in his Tsang-lang shih-hua. The paper argued that the use of terms such as "sudden" and "gradual" as critical categories in Chinese poetics is best understood analogically- that is, the student of poetry somehow acquires poetic genius "just like" the student of Ch'an achieves enlightenment. The paper explored the nature of this analogy, traced its origins, and followed its various ramifications in Sung and post-Sung critical texts. It showed that some critics were as much influenced by Neo-Confucian interests in self-cultivation as by elements borrowed from Ch'an. In some cases it is possible to discern a three-way analogy between Ch'an, Neo-Confucianism, and poetry. The situation became more complicated in mid-Ming times with the emergence of Wang Yang-ming's School of Mind and its commitment to individualistic forms of the search for self-realization, for, from then on, theorists of poetry often allied themselves with either a "gradualist" approach to genius analogous to Ch'eng-Chu orthodox methods of self-realization or a "sudden" approach analogous to the heterodox (and even iconoclastic) methods advocated by Wang Yang-ming and his later school.

12. Francis Cook, University of California, Riverside, "Sudden Enlightenment in Dogen's Zen."

This paper confuted the common misconception that Dogen's form of Zen teaching is gradualistic. It argued, instead, that Dogen, faithful to the Chinese Ch'an tradition to which he was heir, maintained that the experience of enlightenment was sudden. His teaching concerning the nature and attainment of enlightenment is based on his understanding of Buddha-nature and is given its most explicit formulation in the principle of the oneness of practice and enlightenment (shusho itto). While Dogen's position had its antecedents in the Platform Sutra and other Chinese sources, it also exhibited features that are novel and unique. His understanding of enlightenment thus derived from his own religious experience as well as the Zen tradition in which he stood. Moreover, one of the primary issues in the various historical manifestations of the sudden/gradual controversy had to do with the necessity of moral and intellectual preparation for the attainment of enlightenment. Dogen's teachings that practice and enlightenment are identical and that moral cultivation is the organic unfolding of practice-enlightenment can therefore be seen as representing both a continuation and radicalization of continental ideas of sudden enlightenment.

In his closing remarks Professor Wei-ming Tu currently at Harvard University discussed a number of the issues raised at the conference. Among these, he pointed out that the discussion of the sudden/gradual polarity raises the problem of how enlightenment should be understood by scholars of the various Chinese religious traditions. As useful and necessary as historical and cultural analyses are to such an understanding, the problem cannot be explained away by reducing it to a parochial concern of a particular culture at a particular point in history. He argued that, unless an attempt is made to understand the larger, and far more difficult, problem of the meaning of enlightenment as a religious experience, it will be impossible to understand the religious issues at stake in the sudden/gradual controversy. Professor Tu suggested that scholars need to take the truth claims of the religious traditions seriously and should adopt what anthropologists call an "emic" approach. Nevertheless, while scholars should be empathetic towards these traditions, they should, at the same time, also approach them with critical self-awareness.


The papers presented at the conference, and the discussion that they precipitated, revealed the complexity of the sudden/gradual Problematik. As it was manifested in Buddhism, the sudden/gradual rubric was seen to contain a host of epistemological, ontological, and ethical issues, such as the nature of delusion (is it fundamentally an error in perception or is it rooted in the whole personality structure?), the nature of enlightenment (Does it admit of degrees or is it indivisible? Can it be approached through a series of progressive approximations or is it given all-at-once in its entirety?), the nature of ethical and religious action (Is it something that must be consciously cultivated as a necessary precondition for enlightenment or is it rather the spontaneous and natural out-flowing of the experience of enlightenment itself and therefore something to which no special attention need be directed at all?), the nature of religious language (Is ultimate reality ineffable or can something meaningful in fact be said about it?).

A particularly interesting and significant conclusion reached by the conference -and demonstrated most notably by Luis Gomez' paper- was that, in the specific historical instances of the sudden/gradual controversy, there was no necessary or even predictable way in which the positions taken by the actual participants could be correlated with the complex of issues contained within the sudden/gradual rubric. In fact, it was seen that the subitist on one occasion might very well hold a number of doctrinal positions maintained by the gradualist on another. The complexity of the doctrinal issues involved suggested that "sudden" and "gradual" did not represent clearly defined doctrinal positions so much as they did a general stance towards religious cultivation that could best be characterized in terms of the relative emphasis given to effort and intuition.

Despite the vague sense of the polarity, several attempts were made to define it more precisely. It was generally agreed that, within the Buddhist context, the basic philosophical framework for the sudden/gradual polarity was provided by the doctrine of the two truths. Accordingly, the subitist position could be generally characterized as one in which enlightenment was regarded from the absolute perspective of the goal, i.e., as talking about the issue from the point of view of ultimate truth, whereas the gradualist position could be generally characterized as one in which enlightenment was regarded from the relative perspective of the means by which the goal was attained, i.e., as talking about the issue from the point of view of conventional truth. As a corollary to this characterization, the subitist position would tend to emphasize apophasis; the gradualist, kataphasis.

Another very suggestive attempt was made by Robert Gimello, who defined the issue in the following terms: "Is ultimate reality so distant from and yet so continuous with the mundane that one can have only a mediated and step by step access to it? Or is it so proximate, and yet so autonomous and so utterly unlike our illusions or expectations of it, that one can reach it only all-at-once and only without any mediation whatsoever?" While this was one of the more interesting and viable definitions of the polarity put forth at the conference, it also served to underline the complexity of the issue. That is, the subitist position is often identified with a radical assertion of nondualism. Yet, if we define the two positions in terms of continuity and discontinuity, then, on an empirical level at least, the subitist position is seen to presuppose a fundamental dualism, as any sudden leap into enlightenment can only be possible if there is a radical cleavage between the unenlightened and enlightened states.

The conference also did much to clarify the discussion of sudden and gradual enlightenment by analyzing how the terms were used in different contexts. A point that was made in several of the papers was that the terms "sudden" and "gradual" contained a wide spectrum of meanings and were, in fact, used in quite different ways. This meant that the various participants in the debates were often employing the same terms to argue about different things. Within the context of Chinese Buddhism, the terms had a specific range of meanings as they were used by the scholastic tradition to classify types of doctrines taught in different Buddhist texts. They also had another, although partially overlapping, range of meanings as they were used by the Ch'an schools to characterize different approaches to Buddhist practice. To make matters even more confusing, the term "enlightenment" was also used to cover a variety of different meanings. It could refer to the fundamental ontological ground that made religious practice possible, an initial experience of insight, or the culmination of religious practice. Thus, in the debates whether enlightenment was sudden or gradual, the participants were often talking at cross purposes.

Although it was not addressed explicitly, the general working assumption around which the conference was organized proved to have provided a fruitful approach to what has often been treated as a purely Buddhological problem. The papers and discussion gave support to the idea that the importance of the sudden/gradual controversy in Chinese Buddhism could be understood, in part, by seeing it as elaborating a tension already present in Chinese thought (such as that between what Richard Mather, in an article on the Chinese intellectual world in the third century, has characterized as naturalness and conformity). Because this tension was given one of its most articulate expressions in the Buddhist debates of the eighth century, we are justified in using the Buddhist terms "sudden" and "gradual" to characterize this polarity without thereby implying that it was a specifically Buddhist paradigm, or that its use in later non-Buddhist contexts necessarily reflected a Buddhist influence. In fact, it seems to have been due to their very vagueness and generality that the terms could be adopted by Yen Yu and Tung Ch'i-ch'ang as categories in their theories of Chinese poetry and painting, as Richard Lynn and James Cahill ably demonstrated, without necessarily suggesting any explicitly Buddhist content.

When considered in terms of the very broad polarity of intuition vs. effort, the sudden/gradual rubric has a wide applicability which can be seen as operating at different levels of generality throughout the course of Chinese intellectual history. On the most general level, the polarity can be seen as reflected in the tension between the early Confucian and Taoist traditions. Moreover, within the Confucian tradition itself, it can be seen as reflected in the different points of emphasis between Mencius and Hsun-tzu, or between the Ch'eng-Chu and Lu-wang schools of Neo-Confucianism. Even within the latter, it can further be seen as operative in the different interpretation of Wang Yang-ming's Four Sentence Teaching given by his disciples Ch'ien Te-hung and Wang Chi.


As was originally intended, papers presented at the conference are being revised for publication in a volume to be edited by Robert Gimello and Peter Gregory, the conference directors. This volume will constitute the second in a series on East Asian Buddhism to be published jointly by the Institute for Transcultural Studies and the University Press of Hawaii. The first volume in the series, Studies in Ch'an and Hua-yen Buddhism, also edited by Gimello and Gregory, grew out of a conference held at the Institute for Transcultural Studies in May, 1980 and is scheduled for publication in the autumn, 1982. Another volume, dealing with the significance of the Japanese Zen Master Dogen and to be edited by William LaFleur of the University of California at Los Angeles, is being planned as the third in the series.