Sudden Anointment

The eminent Tsung-mi holds the key to deciphering the enlightenment equation. Here is his assessment to Shen-hsiu’s verse:

“Sentient beings originally have an enlightened nature just as a mirror a luminous nature, but defilements cover it from view just as a mirror is darkened by dust. If we rely on the teachings of a master and extinguish our deluded thoughts, then, when those thoughts are eliminated, the nature of the mind will be enlightened and there will be nothing that is not known. It is like wiping away dust: when the dust is eliminated, the essence of the mirror is luminous and clear and there is nothing that is not reflected in it.” (Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought; Edited by Peter N. Gregory, 1987)

Tsung-mi says that this is one-half of the equation; it only alerts mind that the defiled-garbha needs to be eliminated before the True Light of Pure Mind can shine unhindered; it’s a method of dismantling all conditioned origination, but has not clearly awakened to the realization that all phenomena is intrinsically empty and hence devoid of Mind’s essential Stature, with No-thing arising or cessating— luminous and intrinsic purity; indeed, setting the stage for Hui-neng’s spontaneous ,“Where’s the defiling dust to cling”?


“One day an acolyte passed by the threshing room reciting this verse. As soon as I heard it I knew that the person who had written it had yet to know his own nature and to discern the cardinal meaning. I asked the boy: ‘What’s the name of the verse you were reciting just now?’
“The boy answered me, saying: ‘Don’t you know? The Master said that birth and death are vital matters, and he told his disciples each to write a verse if they wanted to inherit the robe and the Dharma, and to bring it for him to see. He who was awakened to the cardinal meaning would be given the robe and the Dharma and be made the Sixth Patriarch. There is a head monk by the name of Shen-hsiu who happened to write a verse on formlessness on the walls of the south corridor. The Fifth Patriarch had all his disciples recite the verse, [saying] that those who awakened to it would see into their own self-natures, and that those who practiced according to it would attain emancipation.’
”I said: ‘I’ve been treading the pestle for more than eight months, but haven’t been to the hall yet. I beg you to take me to the south corridor so that I can see this verse and make obeisance to it. I also want to recite it so that I can establish causation for my next birth and be born in a Buddha-land.’
“The boy took me to the south corridor and I made obeisance before the verse. Because I was uneducated I asked someone to read it to me. As soon as I had heard it I understood the cardinal meaning. I made a verse and asked someone who was able to write to put it on the wall of the west corridor, so that I might offer my own original mind. If you do not know the original mind, studying the Dharma is to no avail. If you know the mind and see its true nature, you then awaken to the cardinal meaning?? My verse said:

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Buddha nature is always clean and pure;
Where is there room for dust?

“Another verse said :
The mind is the Bodhi tree,
The body is the mirror stand.
The mirror is originally clean and pure;
Where can it be stained by dust?

“The followers in the temple were all amazed when they heard my verse. Then I returned to the threshing room. The Fifth Patriarch realized that I had a splendid understanding of the cardinal meaning. Being afraid lest the assembly know this, he said to them: ‘This is still not complete understanding.’”

In keeping with the tenants of the sudden-enlightenment school, the character of Hui-neng maintains that he is illiterate and is thus dependent upon the young acolyte reading Shen-hsiu’s verse to him.  This is meant to convey that awakening to Pure Mind does not consist exclusively in erudite scholarly acumen, but rather first and foremost “raw and intuitive” Dharma ability. Yampolsky’s footnote indicates that it is only in the Dunhuang text that the two-version’s of Hui-neng’s stanza appears; apparently the unknown authorship of this fictionalized account within the southern-school was unclear which verse was best suited for the occasion; most likely between two redactors clearly at odds as to who had the best translation. The concluding lines of this segment appear to place Hung-jen in a compromising position: should he proclaim to his monastic community right there on the spot that Hui-neng has made mince-meat out of Shen-hsiu’s dharma ability? Or better to wait for a private one-on-one opportunity that is better suited to salvaging his premier pupil’s (Shen-hsiu’s) pride. While this has merit, the concluding line, “This is still not complete understanding”, indicates the greater need to balance out that enlightenment equation.

Tsung-mi had a marvelous ability to bridge the gap between the whole notion of gradual vs. sudden enlightenment. His genius intended to show that a middle-ground (in the spirit of Gautama Buddha himself) needed to be struck. In fact, both Shen-hsiu’s and Hui-neng’s stanza’s complement each other. Together they strike a balanced chord within the Unborn Continuum. Peter N. Gregory writes:

“Tsung-mi followed Shen-hui in criticizing the Northern line for its sole emphasis on a graduated meditative regimen to the neglect of sudden enlightenment altogether. Yet, while he maintained that Shen-hui’s teaching was “sudden”, he held that it contained a gradual component as well. In fact, he described Shen-hui’s teaching in regard to practice and enlightenment as advocating the necessity of a sudden experience of enlightenment to be followed by a gradual process of cultivation, in which the practitioner’s initial insight into his true nature is systematically deepened until it becomes integrated into every aspect of his life.” (Emphasis mine) (Peter N. Gregory, ibid, pgs 279-280)

Tsung-mi brought the need for that balanced enlightenment equation to a heightened new level. His approach to the complimentary practice of both gradual and sudden was multiform. For our purposes within this series on the Platform Sutra the following is paramount:

SUDDEN CULTIVATION FOLLOWED BY GRADUAL ENLIGHTENMENT (tun-hsiu, chien-wu). The analogy that Tsung-mi uses to illustrate this position is that of someone learning archery. He says that “sudden” refers to the act of aiming directly at the bull’s eye (which he says is used as a metaphor for resolving to attain supreme enlightenment) while “gradual” refers to the process by which one’s aim gradually becomes perfected until one can hit the bull’s eye consistently without missing. Tsung-mi further explains that “sudden” here has to do with the intentionality (yun-hsin) of one’s practice, not with the sudden perfection of meritorious practices. (Peter N. Gregory, ibid, pg 282)

It’s interesting to note that this “balanced approach” is also best suited for the Unborn Mind Zen adept. Tozen originated this following process: after an adept has discovered the “Word” within the Lankavatara Sutra, this does not in itself complete the adept’s training; it’s a deeper recognition leading to greater cultivation of the self-realization of Noble Wisdom. It all has to do with the “Sudden-Impregnation” of the Bodhi-seed (Sudden-Anointment of Light), followed by the maturation through the “Gradual-Cultivation”of that Seed of Bodhi. The Way of the Unborn Buddha Mind is hence conferred, but it is only the beginning and not the end of practice. Whether or not the Bodhichild comes to fruition within the Dharma-womb of Suchness is a matter of a disciplined-adepts cultivation; indeed, it all boils down to that “intentionality” behind one’s quest for the Unborn. It’s all about the Recollective Resolvement towards full-enlightenment. A good analogy is the continuum-cycle of the Moon: the imageless face (indicative of the dark principle) of the New Moon gives way to eventual crescent-stages leading to the quarter-stages that builds to a rising-crescendo with the Fullness of Luminous Light. The following Bodhi-Pearl reflects the spirit of this Noble Self-realization:

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