Is Enlightenment Gradual Or Sudden?
When we speak of the word 'enlightenment', what might come to mind is the image of an electric bulb within suddenly switching on, illuminating the darkness of our delusion with the all-pervading light of wisdom. Of course, this happens suddenly, with a sense of great surprise and wonder. If the experience of being enlightened is truly so, is this to say that enlightenment is always sudden in nature? Yes, as above, and no. No, because there is a process of spiritual practice that leads up to the moment of realisation too.
As this process is involved, the 'one' moment of illumination is not as 'out of the blue' as we assume. In this sense, enlightenment is gradual too, or graduated. Many of us romanticize the coming of 'one' grand moment of great enlightenment, when our relatively dull minds at the moment takes a mighty leap and springs to new life, similar to what happened to the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. The truth is, before it arrives, there is hard work needed to get ready, and there are really more 'less enlightening' moments than expected along the way too. In the case of the Buddha, he was already as spiritually ripe as ripe could be, while we need to work harder at further ripening ourselves!
For a less abstract picture of the process of many gradual enlightenments leading to many sudden enlightenments, imagine a large drinking glass, filled with multiple smaller glasses within, each nested in another, in the manner of Russian (matryoshka) dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other. (The 'Matryoshka Principle' of the interdependence of 'objects within similar objects' appears in nature too, such as the layering of onion skins.) When water, which represents the topping up of the conditions for spiritual insight fill the nested glasses, it first fills the innermost glass, till it brims over.
The process of topping up represents the gradual nature of advancing towards enlightenment, while the process of overflowing represents the [[sudden nature of enlightenment – the moment a great insight 'strikes'. In short, the sudden nature is dependent on the less noticeable gradual nature of change, which can take place over the course of many lifetimes. The combination of past and present diligence explains why some are more 'prone' to sudden insights than others.
How quickly one becomes enlightened depends on personal efforts. All is karmically fair and square!
Truly insightful moments are always sudden and surprising. If they are not so, they would not be true breakthroughs, not significantly insightful enough to effect a life-changing paradigm shift. The Buddha too expressed delightful surprise on the night he attained Buddhahood, when he saw that all beings have Buddha-nature, that they too could realise Buddhahood like he did.
When the innermost glass brims over, overflowing with insight, nothing is lost, as the next outer glass begins the process of topping up immediately, to work towards the next greater insight… till the entire large glass of all glasses finally overflows with the greatest insight that encompasses all insights. As such, the process of spiritual cultivation towards Buddhahood is not via the realization of a single insight, but the culmination of many insights, with each dependent and building upon the previous in a series, leading to the 'grand finale'.
Gradual and sudden enlightenments, being parts of the same process, are thus non-dualistic. Again, since how swiftly one stage of insight is realised and leads to the next is conditioned by our diligence in Dharma practice, let us not pine for moments of overflowing illumination, and forget that they are possible only with moments of topping up!
Wonderful, wonderful! All sentient beings have
the wise and meritorious signs of Tathagatas (Buddhas),
but all because of delusions and attachments (now) cannot realise them (yet).
- The Buddha (Upon Enlightenment)