Sudden Awakening

Recently unearthed Chinese texts provide new inspiration in the search for enlightenment here and now.

Nina Wise

In 1998, not long after my fourth trip to Lucknow to “be with the master,” as my friends said (words that stuck in my gullet despite my boundless reverence for Papaji), I met Wendi Adamek in a novel-writing class at the University of Iowa, and was immediately struck by her wit, talent, and demure beauty. During a dinner party one evening in her white clapboard house near campus, Wendi took me on a tour of her home. The bookshelves in her office supported the weight of a serious collection of books on Buddhism—in Chinese. This slim and bespectacled dark-haired woman in her early thirties was not only an aspiring fantasy novelist, it turned out, but also, and primarily, a scholar of medieval Chinese Buddhism. (Wendi is now an Assistant Professor of Chinese Religion at Barnard College.) In a rush of excitement, Wendi told me that she had recently been awarded a sizeable National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to conduct research on materials discovered at a remote archaeological site in China. Her enthusiasm was contagious—as her dinner party guests chirped away in the garden munching roasted corn and barbecued salmon, Wendi and I lingered in her office, and she unveiled the details of her research.

In 1900, a caretaker at the Magao Caves near the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang, in China’s Gansu Province, accidentally broke through a cave wall. To his surprise, he came upon a pile of dusty, time-worn scrolls that scholars later informed him had been concealed in the secret enclave for centuries. Wendi was most elated about a recovered eighth-century text called the Lidai fabao ji, by a radical Buddhist sect called the Bao Tang. Up to that point, it had been a “phantom work,” a work referred to in other texts of the era but never before seen. The Bao Tang embraced a formless practice known as “sudden awakening” and claimed that realization was available to everyone, laypeople and ordained, men and women, royalty and peasants alike. Wu Zhu, the sect’s founder, also claimed that awakening required no formal practice: “The dharma is separate from all contemplation practices. No-thought is precisely no-practice, no-thought is precisely no-contemplation.” In fact, Wu Zhu attested that by engaging in any formal practice one gave substance to impediments that did not in fact exist.

The teachings articulated in the Lidai fabao ji were nearly word for word what Poonjaji had uttered in his living room in Lucknow twelve hundred years after the text had been compiled; these were teachings I hadn’t received from any of my many dharma teachers during two decades of Buddhist study. Suddenly, this obscure text from eighth-century China seemed utterly relevant to the crossroads I had encountered on my own path. Should I continue to practice in the dharma hall, following my breath and noting sensations, thoughts, and feelings as they arose and passed away in an attempt to reach enlightenment, or should I give up all effort and all practices and simply rest in what I had recognized as innate Buddha-nature? Would the former deliver me where I hoped to land, and was I capable of the latter? Wendi, who most often engages in dialogue with other academics, seemed bemused by my sudden interest and did not hesitate to answer the questions I thrust upon her. Who was this character Wu Zhu, and what happened to the Bao Tang?

The sect mushroomed partially as a response to the fact that Buddhism in eighth-century China, while highly popular, had become quite formalized, thanks in part to the lavish support of the T’ang dynasty. Grand and ornate monasteries flourished throughout the empire, but ordination cost a fortune, and monks were required to conduct complex purifications, recite sutras, chant prayers for the protection of the empire, and perform daily ceremonies. Buddhism was popular among laypeople who—like practitioners throughout the world today—attended retreats and made offerings. But the practice as a whole, Wendi explained, was oriented toward ritual, purification, and the gaining of merit rather than attaining direct realization of the innate nature of mind, or Buddha-nature.

While these descriptions of T’ang-dynasty Buddhism did not precisely parallel my own experience in the centers where I had practiced, there were striking resemblances. I had practiced in my neighbor’s zendo for years, bowing and staring at the walls, reciting lineage prayers and chanting the Heart Sutra, which, while mysteriously calming, were also hauntingly opaque. I had sat in retreat after retreat in Vipassana meditation halls following my breath and noting all sensations, and had been soothed and inspired each evening as brilliant teachers delivered moving, insightful, and poetic dharma talks. But no one mentioned enlightenment. I had attended initiations, transmissions, and empowerments with highly revered Tibetan rinpoches, reciting prayers in Tibetan as the great masters wielded bells and drums with impressive dexterity and wrathful and benign deities seemed to take on a three-dimensional presence and float out of their colorful brocade frames on the walls. But no matter where I turned, enlightenment continued to be a condition that was essentially unattainable by the likes of me. At best, awakening was a state to be achieved through untold devotion, dedication, striving, prostrations, prayers, and endless hours on the zafu that would gradually result, if you were among the karmically blessed, in perhaps delivering you a bit closer to the cherished but unutterable outcome.

Beginning in 730 C.E., offshoot movements arose in China attacking the establishment and claiming that institutionalized Buddhism, in the words of Wendi, “nurtured the illusion that awakening was a condition to be achieved rather than one’s own inherent reality.” The most famous movement became known as the Southern School of Ch’an (which later flourished in Japan as Zen), whose hallmark was the teaching of sudden awakening, the direct realization of one’s innate awakening independent of any affiliation with a government-supported monastery or any particular ritual or practice. The Bao Tang claimed allegiance to the Southern School, and the Lidai fabao ji, written by anonymous members of the sect, gained notoriety because of the clarity of its nondual teachings.

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