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See also Subitizing

The term Subitism as applied to Buddhism is derived from the French 'illumination subite' (lit. 'sudden illumination'), contrasting with 'illumination graduelle'. It gained currency in this use in English from the work of sinologist Paul Demiéville, whose 1947 work 'Mirror of the Mind' was widely read in the U.S. and inaugurated a series by him on subitism and gradualism[1].

The term is used in Ch'an and Zen discourse to denote the position that awakening or enlightenment (kensho, 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 all Zen schools.

The distinction is a merely expedient means: when confronted by a gradualist belief the assertion of subitism may be called for; and when confronted by a belief ascribing to subitism, the assertion of gradualism may be called for, in both cases to point out a one-sided perspective. The Zen methodology transcends or lets go of such beliefs and does not concretize them into a belief system. The Zen teachings of The Platform Sutra, associated with the sixth ancestral Founder Hui Neng, the pivotal figure of Chan in China, do not endorse any confrontational distinction.

Chapter VIII. The Sudden School and the Gradual School

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."

See also


  • Faure, Bernard (2003). Chan Buddhism in Ritual Context, Chapter 1, p1.

Publisher: Routledge. ISBN 0415297486


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.

Early Buddhism

Dhyana and insight

A core problem in the study of early Buddhism is the relation between jhana/dhyana and insight.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Refn The Buddhist tradition has incorporated two traditions regarding the use of dhyana.Template:Sfn 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.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn The problem was famously voiced in 1936 by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, in his text Musila et Narada: Le Chemin de Nirvana.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

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.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn Schmithausen discerns three possible roads to liberation as described in the suttas. Vetter adds a fourth possibility, which pre-dates these three:Template:Sfn

  1. The four Rupa Jhanas themselves constituted the core liberating practice of early buddhism, c.q. the Buddha;Template:Sfn
  2. Mastering the four Rupa Jhanas, where-after "liberating insight" is attained;
  3. Mastering the four Rupa Jhanas and the four Arupa Jhanas, where-after "liberating insight" is attained;
  4. Liberating insight itself suffices.

This problem has been elaborated by several well-known scholars, including Tilman Vetter,Template:Sfn Johannes Bronkhorst,Template:Sfn and Richard Gombrich.Template:Sfn


According to Tilmann Vetter, the core of earliest Buddhism is the practice of dhyāna.Template:Sfn 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."Template:Sfn Vetter further argues that the eightfold path constitutes a body of practices which prepare one, and lead up to, the practice of dhyana.Template:Sfn

Bronkhorst agrees that dhyana was a Buddhist invention,Template:Sfn whereas Norman notes that "the Buddha's way to release [...] was by means of meditative practices."Template:Sfn 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".Template:Sfn


According to Johannes Bronkhorst,Template:Sfn Tillman Vetter,Template:Sfn and K.R. Norman,Template:Sfn bodhi was at first not specified. K.R. Norman: Template:Quote

According to Norman, bodhi may basically have meant the knowledge that nibbana was attained,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn due to the practice of dhyana.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

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 pratityasamutpada, and still later, in the Hinayana schools, by the doctrine of the non-existence of a substantial self or person.Template:Sfn And Schmithausen notices that still other descriptions of this "liberating insight" exist in the Buddhist canon: Template:Quote

Discriminating insight into transiency as a separate path to liberation was a later development.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn This may have been to due an over-literal interpretation by later scholastics of the terminology used by the Buddha,Template:Sfn or to the problems involved with the practice of dhyana, and the need to develop an easier method.Template:Sfn According to Vetter it may not have been as effective as dhyana, and methods were developed to deepen the effects of discriminating insight.Template:Sfn It was also paired to dhyana, resulting in the well-known sila-samadhi-prajna scheme.Template:Sfn 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.Template:Sfn 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.Template:Sfn


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.Template:Sfn


The emphasis on insight is also discernible in the Mahayana-tradition, which emphasises prajna: Template:Quote

Although Theravada and Mahayana are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice too may reflect emphasis on insight as a common denominator:Template:Refn

Chinese Buddhism

The distinction between sudden and gradual awakening was first introduced in China in the beginning of the 5th century CE by Tao Sheng.Template:Sfn


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.Template:Sfn

This softening is reflected in the Platform Sutra of Huineng. Template:Quote

Rivalry between schools

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".Template:Sfn

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.Template:Sfn But it also leads to a "sometimes bitter and always prolix sectarian controversy between later Ch'an and Hua-yen exegetes".Template:Sfn 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.Template:Sfn 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.Template:Sfn

Later interpretations

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.Template:Sfn

This is also the standpoint of the contemporary Sanbo Kyodan, according to whom kensho is at the start of the path to full enlightenment.Template:Sfn

This gradual cultivation is also recognized by Dongshan Liangjie, who described the Five Ranks of enlightenment]].[web 2] 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.Template:Sfn This gradual cultivation is described by Chan Master Sheng Yen as follows: Template:Quote


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.

Korean Seon

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.Template:Sfn

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).[1] 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.[2][3][4][5]


Ramana maharshi - Akrama mukti

Ramana Maharshi made a distinction between akrama mukti, "sudden liberation", as opposed to the krama mukti, "gradual liberation" as in the Vedanta path of jnana yoga:[web 3]Template:Refn Template:Quote

Inchegeri Sampradaya

The teachings of Bhausaheb Maharaj, the founder of the Inchegeri Sampradaya, have been called "the Ant's way", Template:Refn the way of meditation,[web 4] while the teachings of Siddharameshwar Maharaj and his disciples Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ranjit Maharaj have been called "the Bird's Way",Template:Refn the direct path to Self-discovery:[web 4] Template:Quote

The terms appear in the Varaha Upanishad, Chapter IV: Template:Quote

See also



  1. 퇴옹 성철. (1976). 한국불교의 법맥. 해인사 백련암 (Korea): 장경각. (Toeng Seongcheol. (1976). Hanguk Bulgyo Ei Bupmaek. Haeinsa Baekryun'am (Korea): Jang'gyung'gak.) Template:ISBN
  2. 퇴옹 성철. (1987). 자기를 바로 봅시다. 해인사 백련암 (Korea): 장경각. (Toeng Seongcheol. (1987). Jaghireul Baro Bopshida. Haeinsa Baekryun'am (Korea): Jang'gyung'gak.) Template:ISBN
  3. 퇴옹 성철. (1988). 영원한 자유. 해인사 백련암 (Korea): 장경각. (Toeng Seongcheol. (1988). Yongwonhan Jayou. Haeinsa Baekryun'am (Korea): Jang'gyung'gak.) Template:ISBN
  4. 퇴옹 성철. (1987). 선문정로. 해인사 백련암 (Korea): 장경각. (Toeng Seongcheol. (1987). Seon Mun Jung Ro. Haeinsa Baekryun'am (Korea): Jang'gyung'gak.) Template:ISBN
  5. 퇴옹 성철. (1992). 백일법문. 해인사 백련암 (Korea): 장경각. (Toeng Seongcheol. (1992). Baek Il Bupmun. Haeinsa Baekryun'am (Korea): Jang'gyung'gak.) Template:ISBN, Template:ISBN


Published sources




  1. Bernard Faure, Chan/Zen Studies in English: The State Of The Field
  2. The Five Ranks of Tozan
  3. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named deathexp2
  4. 4.0 4.1, The Bird's way

External links

Further reading

  • Template:Citation
  • Faure, Bernard (1991), The Rhetoric of Immediacy. A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Template:ISBN
  • Peter N. Gregory (editor)(1991), Sudden and Gradual. Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited
  • McRae, John (2003), Seeing through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. The University Press Group Ltd . Template:ISBN

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