Is enlightenment sudden or gradual? Both. Magga and phala, or path and fruit, while slowly practiced, culminate in a transcendental understanding which occurs once and for all and does so at the speed of light.
Dreams, if caught and seen, often happen in an instant. Though they appear to unfold in time, the end and the beginning, in many cases, can be seen to arise simultaneously in the course of meditation. And how could it be different? The entire dream is already complete in our head. In this same way, as we appear to ask the right questions in linear time, we become the right answer if we follow the path of the question to its fruition because the end is always in the beginning – the entire question and questioner are dream, as is time itself.
Our comprehension of the four noble truths results in liberation from mental suffering and culminates in an instant. We recognize this instant in our mundane consciousness only after it has occurred, the instant culmination of gradual practice. These fruitions, which come at the expense of literally thousands of hours of meditation, usually do not result in full liberation in and of themselves. However, they result in liberation from the questions we have asked. In Buddhist cosmology, these thousands of hours are infinitely preferable to thousands of lifetimes lost within these untranscended dreams.
Dedicated to the path to liberation in as many conscious moments as we can muster on and off the cushion, the major “questions” have been clearly outlined in the earliest Buddhist texts. They are the ten fetters:
- Identity View
- Attachment to Rites and Rituals
- Doubt About the Path
- Sensual Desire
- Ill Will
- Craving for Material Existence
- Craving for Formless Existence
Number 10, “ignorance,” is ignorance of the four noble truths. Again, the end is in the beginning.
Samatha is learning to sit, learning to achieve a tranquil mind and cultivating the five powers (faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom) and, while it can be described here linearly, does not happen in any order but occurs naturally through the practice of sitting and focusing on the breath. In moments that occur at the speed of light, sudden strides are made through gradual practice. Path becomes fruit.
Once significant strides have been made or even right from the beginning, we can begin to consciously take the path of freedom from each of the 10 fetters. By using the faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom that we have achieved in samatha and applying this power to a fetter, we may expect phala (fruit) from magga (path) as night follows day.
As human beings we have precious little time. Sitting in samatha can cultivate a type of transcendence, but we need to consciously direct our power to the defilements of mind in order to reach moments of final liberation. It is in these moments that we become something different.
“Sole dominion over the Earth,
Going to heaven,
Lordship over all worlds:
The fruit of stream entry excels them.”