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The term subitism points to sudden enlightenment, the idea that insight is attained all at once. The opposite approach, that enlightenment can be achieved only step by step, through an arduous practice, is called gradualism.
The application of the term to Buddhism is derived from the French illumination subite (sudden awakening), contrasting with 'illumination graduelle' (gradual awakening). It gained currency in this use in English from the work of sinologist Paul Demiéville. His 1947 work 'Mirror of the Mind' was widely read in the U.S. It inaugurated a series by him on subitism and gradualism. [web 1]
Subitizing, also derived from the Latin adjective subitus, is the rapid, accurate, and confident judgments of numbers performed for small numbers of items. It is important to be aware subitism can also be used in this context.
A core problem in the study of early Buddhism is the relation between jhana/dhyana and insight.[note 1] The Buddhist tradition has incorporated two traditions regarding the use of dhyana. There is a tradition that stresses attaining insight (bodhi, prajna, kensho) as the means to awakening and liberation. But it has also incorporated the yogic tradition, as reflected in the use of jhana, which is rejected in other sutras as not resulting in the final result of liberation. The problem was famously voiced in 1936 by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, in his text Musila et Narada: Le Chemin de Nirvana.[note 2]
Schmithausen, in his often-cited article On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism, notes that the mention of the four noble truths as constituting "liberating insight", which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36. Schmithausen discerns three possible roads to liberation as described in the suttas. Vetter adds a fourth possibility, which pre-dates these three:
According to Tilmann Vetter, the core of earliest Buddhism is the practice of dhyāna. Vetter notes that "penetrating abstract truths and penetrating them successively does not seem possible in a state of mind which is without contemplation and reflection." Vetter further argues that the eightfold path constitutes a body of practices which prepare one, and lead up to, the practice of dhyana.
Bronkhorst agrees that dhyana was a Buddhist invention, whereas Norman notes that "the Buddha's way to release [...] was by means of meditative practices." Gombrich also notes that a development took place in early Buddhism resulting in a change in doctrine, which considered prajna to be an alternative means to "enlightenment".
It is not at all clear what gaining bodhi means. We are accustomed to the translation "enlightenment" for bodhi, but this is misleading [...] It is not clear what the buddha was awakened to, or at what particular point the awakening came.
Bronkhorst notes that the conception of what exactly this "liberating insight" was developed throughout time. Whereas originally it may not have been specified, later on the four truths served as such, to be superseded by pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination / dependent arising), and still later, in the Hinayana schools, by the doctrine of the non-existence of a substantial self or person. And Schmithausen notices that still other descriptions of this "liberating insight" exist in the Buddhist canon:
"that the five Skandhas are impermanent, disagreeable, and neither the Self nor belonging to oneself";[note 3] "the contemplation of the arising and disappearance (udayabbaya) of the five Skandhas";[note 4] "the realisation of the Skandhas as empty (rittaka), vain (tucchaka) and without any pith or substance (asaraka).[note 5]
Discriminating insight into transiency as a separate path to liberation was a later development. This may have been to due an over-literal interpretation by later scholastics of the terminology used by the Buddha, or to the problems involved with the practice of dhyana, and the need to develop an easier method. According to Vetter it may not have been as effective as dhyana, and methods were developed to deepen the effects of discriminating insight. It was also paired to dhyana, resulting in the well-known sila-samadhi-prajna scheme. According to Vetter this kind of preparatory "dhyana" must have been different from the practice introduced by the Buddha, using kasina-exercises to produce a "more artificially produced dhyana", resulting in the cessation of apperceptions and feelings. It also led to a different understanding of the eightfold path, since this path does not end with insight, but rather starts with insight. The path was no longer seen as a sequential development resulting in dhyana, but as a set of practices which had to be developed simultaneously to gain insight.
The distinction between sudden and gradual is also apparent in the differentiation between vipassana and samatha. According to Gombrich, the distinction between vipassana and samatha did not originate in the suttas, but in the interpretation of the suttas.
The emphasis on insight is also discernible in the Mahayana-tradition, which emphasises prajna:
[T]he very title of a large corpus of early Mahayana literature, the Prajnaparamita, shows that to some extent the historian may extrapolate the trend to extol insight, prajna, at the expense of dispassion, viraga, the control of the emotions.
Although Theravada and Mahayana are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice too may reflect emphasis on insight as a common denominator:[note 6]
The term is used in Chan Buddhism to denote the doctrinal position that enlightenment (kenshō, bodhi or satori) is instantaneous, sudden and direct, not attained by practice through a period of time, and not the fruit of a gradual accretion or realisation. Aspects of Dzogchen and Mahamudra may be referred to as subitist, as well as the Rinzai school.
In the 8th century the distinction became part of a struggle for influence at the Chinese court by Shenhui, a student of Huineng. Hereafter "sudden enlightenment" became one of the hallmarks of Chan Buddhism, though the sharp distinction was softened by subsequent generations of practitioners.
While the Patriarch was living in Bao Lin Monastery, the Grand Master Shen Xiu was preaching in Yu Quan Monastery of Jing Nan. At that time the two Schools, that of Hui Neng of the South and Shen Xiu of the North, flourished side by side. As the two Schools were distinguished from each other by the names "Sudden" (the South) and "Gradual" (the North), the question which sect they should follow baffled certain Buddhist scholars (of that time). (Seeing this), the Patriarch addressed the assembly as follows:
So far as the Dharma is concerned, there can be only one School. (If a distinction exists) it exists in the fact that the founder of one school is a northern man, while the other is a southerner. While there is only one dharma, some disciples realize it more quickly than others. The reason why the names 'Sudden' and 'Gradual' are given is that some disciples are superior to others in mental dispositions. So far as the Dharma is concerned, the distinction of 'Sudden' and 'Gradual' does not exist.[web 2]
While Southern School placed emphasis on sudden enlightenment, it also marked a shift in doctrinal basis from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra to the prajnaparamita tradition, especially the Diamond Sutra. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, which endorses the Buddha-nature, emphasized purity of mind, which can be attained in gradations. The Diamond Sutra emphasizes śūnyatā, which "must be realized totally or not at all".
Once this dichotomy was in place, it defined its own logic and rhetorics, which are also recognizable in the distinction between Caodong (Sōtō) and Linji (Rinzai) schools. But it also leads to a "sometimes bitter and always prolix sectarian controversy between later Ch'an and Hua-yen exegetes". In the Huayan classification of teachings, the sudden approach was regarded inferior to the Perfect Teaching of Huayan. Guifeng Zongmi, fifth patriarch of Huayan and Chan master, devised his own classification to counter this subordination. To establish the superiority of Chan, Jinul, the most important figure in the formation of Korean Seon, explained the sudden approach as not pointing to mere emptiness, but to suchness or the dharmadhatu.
Guifeng Zongmi, fifth-generation successor to Shenhui, also softened the edge between sudden and gradual. In his analysis, sudden awakening points to seeing into one's true nature, but is to be followed by a gradual cultivation to attain buddhahood.
This gradual cultivation is also recognized by Dongshan Liangjie, who described the Five Ranks of enlightenment]].[web 3] Other example of depiction of stages on the path are the Ten Bulls, which detail the steps on the Path, The Three Mysterious Gates of Linji, and the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin Ekaku. This gradual cultivation is described by Chan Master Sheng Yen as follows:
Ch'an expressions refer to enlightenment as "seeing your self-nature". But even this is not enough. After seeing your self-nature, you need to deepen your experience even further and bring it into maturation. You should have enlightenment experience again and again and support them with continuous practice. Even though Ch'an says that at the time of enlightenment, your outlook is the same as of the Buddha, you are not yet a full Buddha.
In the Fivefold Classification of the Huayan school and the Five Periods and Eight Teachings of the Tiantai-school the sudden teaching was given a high place, but still inferior to the Complete or Perfect teachings of these schools.
Chinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, followed Zongmi, and also emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full Buddhahood.
In contemporary Korean Seon, Seongcheol has defended the stance of "sudden insight, sudden cultivation". Citing Taego Bou (太古普愚: 1301-1382) as the true successor of the Linji Yixuan (臨済義玄) line of patriarchs rather than Jinul (知訥: 1158-1210), he advocated Hui Neng's original stance of 'sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation' (Hangul: 돈오돈수, Hanja: 頓悟頓修) as opposed to Jinul's stance of 'sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation' (Hangul: 돈오점수, Hanja: 頓悟漸修). Whereas Jinul had initially asserted that with enlightenment comes the need to further one's practice by gradually destroying the karmic vestiges attained through millions of rebirths, Huineng and Seongcheol maintained that with perfect enlightenment, all karmic remnants disappear and one becomes a Buddha immediately.
‘Some people,’ he said, ‘start off by studying literature in their youth. Then they indulge in the pleasures of the world until they are fed up with them. Next, when they are at an advanced age, they turn to books on Vedanta. They go to a guru and get initiated by him and then start the process of sravana, manana and nididhyasana, which finally culminates in samadhi. This is the normal and standard way of approaching liberation. It is called krama mukti [gradual liberation]. But I was overtaken by akrama mukti [sudden liberation] before I passed through any of the above-mentioned stages.’[web 4]
The teachings of Bhausaheb Maharaj, the founder of the Inchegeri Sampradaya, have been called "the Ant's way", [note 8] the way of meditation,[web 7] while the teachings of Siddharameshwar Maharaj and his disciples Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ranjit Maharaj have been called "the Bird's Way",[note 9] the direct path to Self-discovery:[web 7]
The way of meditation is a long arduous path while the Bird's Way is a clear direct path of Self investigation, Self exploration, and using thought or concepts as an aid to understanding and Self-Realization. Sometimes this approach is also called the Reverse Path. What Reverse Path indicates is the turning around of one's attention away from objectivity to the more subjective sense of one's Beingness.[note 10] With the Bird's Way, first one's mind must be made subtle. This is generally done with some initial meditation on a mantra or phrase which helps the aspirant to step beyond the mental/conceptual body, using a concept to go beyond conceptualization.[web 7]
The terms appear in the Varaha Upanishad, Chapter IV:
34. (The Rishi) Suka is a Mukta (emancipated person). (The Rishi) Vamadeva is a Mukta. There are no others (who have attained emancipation) than through these (viz., the two paths of these two Rishis). Those brave men who follow the path of Suka in this world become Sadyo-Muktas (viz., emancipated) immediately after (the body wear away);
35. While those who always follow the path of Vamadeva (i.e., Vedanta) in this world are subject again and again to rebirths and attain Krama (gradual) emancipation, through Yoga, Sankhya and Karmas associated with Sattva (Guna).
36. Thus there are two paths laid down by the Lord of Devas (viz.,) the Suka and Vamadeva paths. The Suka path is called the bird’s path; while the Vamadeva path is called the ant’s path.[web 8]