Is Enlightenment A Constant State? Sudden vs. Gradual
Question: There are brief moments of clear mind, but is this enlightenment? Is enlightenment a constant state or are there stages of enlightenment?
There is no such thing as “clear mind“ and there is no such thing as “enlightenment”. Those are just words we use, pointing to an experience. So how can there be a constant state of enlightenment? That is the first point I want to make. If we are thinking of something that’s constant, we think of something that is occurring continuously over time. But there is no coming and there is no going. There’s no past, there’s no present and there’s no future. This moment doesn’t have the past, present, or future. There is no constant state. In fact, the only time we can experience “clear mind” or clarity is right now, but that’s already gone! There are no stages or steps of enlightenment because again, that only exists in our thinking.
Now, for teaching purposes, we talk about all this kind of stuff. In my book, I talk about sudden enlightenment and gradual enlightenment. There are a lot of arguments and controversy about this. Sudden enlightenment just means right now, in this moment, realizing our enlightened nature. The only time we can do it is now, (snaps finger) but that’s already gone. We can not realize enlightenment in the past and we can not realize it in the future. So right now, (snaps finger), this is it! We call that “sudden enlightenment”.
Gradual enlightenment means how do we use enlightenment in each moment of our lives? You often hear me talk about waking up to our enlightened nature, perceiving the truth in this moment, and responding to that truth with action. After the Buddha realized his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he continued sitting for a few weeks. Eventually, he got up and taught other people for over 40 years about what he had realized. This is what we call the function of enlightenment, or gradual enlightenment. One reason it is gradual is that wisdom and skillful means can take some time to develop. If you’re like me, it takes a long time (laughs). Waking up to our enlightened nature is the simple part. But how do we use enlightenment from moment to moment, especially when we’re in very challenging situations, like encountering people who differ from us, or who have different beliefs and different views? It’s very challenging to act skillfully during these times. That is why it takes some time. If we are practicing correctly, we can learn from our own experience. If we use this “clear mind” in this moment to pay attention to our words and our actions, we can respond to this world with more wisdom, love, and compassion.
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