Paradise in Sudden Enlightenment
by Wang Keping
The pinnacled churches throughout the European continent, and the communicants within at their silent devotions to lit candles are generally a source of awe and reverence to visitors from the Far East. This scenario is in direct contrast to the crowded, bustling temples of China, where worshipers burn incense and make fervent wishes, kneeling and kowtowing, to brightly painted statues of Buddha or Bodhisattva.
Chinese people are not religious, in the sense of worship for its own sake. This does not, however, inhibit large numbers, particularly in rural areas, from performing ritual obeisance based on the concept of luck, and superstition for entirely practical purposes. Stories of miracles abound at the temple. A woman declared barren bears a healthy baby (generally a son) as a result of her constant prayers to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and is so convinced of the power of the Bodhisattva that she uses her own experience to convert others. The other extreme occurs when disappointment makes one whose prayers have apparently been ignored pour scorn on their erstwhile icon.
What significance, then, does Buddhism have to the Chinese in general? To sincere followers, it is "the paradise of supreme happiness" (jile shijie). According to descriptions in certain sutras, this paradise is one flowing with rivers that refresh the spirit with the many sweet fragrances exuding from bunches of flowers, dewed with jewels, floating along it. All beings there are free from misery and so enjoy pure happiness. Here there is no sin, misfortune, distress, sadness or mortality.
From a Buddhist point of view, human life has two possible states. Mortal life is perceived as the fountainhead of suffering. It is termed the bitter sea (ku hai) from which no one can escape. But it does offer the possibility of a Utopia, characterized by a beautiful environment, and happiness born of release from care, worry and social ills. In so doing it is hoped to instill in followers a sense of hope that will endorse their convictions, rather than plunge them into a morass of total despair. There is also instruction on how to reach this paradise on completion of a certain procedure, and a long period of spiritual cultivation. The portrayed paradise is inviting, but to the pragmatic, value-orientated Chinese its "entry procedure" is simply not feasible.
Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism provides a simpler way to find spiritual paradise that is accessible to all its followers: sudden enlightenment (dun wu). This is a special kind of wisdom or prajna based on negation of the temporal world and the belief that all have the potential bodhi or innate ability to attain Buddhahood or Buddhata. Within this philosophy, the paradise of supreme happiness is secured immediately upon enlightenment. It is possible to approach Buddhahood by preserving and nourishing the potential bodhi while simultaneously pursuing everyday activities. Confinement to religious rituals is not required, as these are seen as nothing more than formal pretensions. Chan Buddhism thus directs the attention to an inner, rather than external, paradise.
Sudden enlightenment requires non-attachment to external objects, this being regarded as the foundation of all spiritual freedom. It also requires the ability to suspend thought, so as to maintain an open mind. According to the sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, the principle of sudden enlightenment means understanding and achieving wisdom without going through any complex, gradual procedure. From this point of view, understanding is natural and comes spontaneously. Enlightenment occurs when a mind has been purified and is void of all desires. The mind is enlightened through the abandonment of all elements of existence (dharmas) and by keeping itself empty, and therefore open. Sudden enlightenment means detachment from emptiness on becoming aware of emptiness, and also detachment from the absence of emptiness. In the same way, it means detachment from the self on becoming aware of it and also detachment from the absence of the self. On reaching this level, the state of Nirvana is possible.
What, then, happens on attaining sudden enlightenment? According to Chan Masters, at this stage, the person concerned is supposed to "step over the top of the hundred-foot bamboo" (baichi gantou, gengjin yibu). In so doing, they will fall down to the opposite side of the bamboo they originally climbed in search of enlightenment. There is then nothing more expected of this person.They live their life in the normal way, pursuing accustomed activities. After enlightenment, however, old things are seen from a new perspective, as although the enlightened person may live no differently from previously, they themselves are no longer the same.
Chinese culture lacks divinity in a rigid religious sense. Its philosophies and religions have blurred boundaries. Chinese scholars think about philosophy in the spiritual sense and about religion philosophically. As regards the state of happiness, philosophy and religion often overlap in a mutual focus on the human condition.
1 Cf., Aparimitayus Sutra (Amituo jing), and Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra (Dawuliangshou jing), etc.
2 Cf., "The Zen (Chan) School," in Wing-tsit Chan (tr.). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.
(Princeton/New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963), p.441.