The modern science of geology was born during the Victorian era. During this period, the generally accepted understanding of landscape was that it was formed gradually, over immense periods of time. Erosion, sedimentation, burial, compression, uplift- all of this took place slowly and steadily. It wasn't until the twentieth century that the essentially cataclysmic and sensational nature of many geologic processes was understood, and added to the overall picture of how landscapes form.
Mirroring this sensibility, during the 700's, Northern Chinese Ch'an (Zen) schools understood enlightenment as a gradual practice; the southern schools, however, maintained that enlightenment was sudden and immediate. The competing arguments eventually became counterproductive and even distracting to practice.
Consequently, Ch'an master Sekito Kisen eventually wrote the famous Sandokai poem which attempted to bridge the gap between the two schools. (Suzuki Roshi's excellent book Branching Streams Flow In The Darkness discusses the poem, and many other Zen ideas. Highly recommended reading.)
The easy way out for everyone is to contend that both points are true: enlightenment is immediate, and enlightenment is gradual. This, however, is a strictly philosophical solution. It's a bit harder to implement anything on the ground floor of practice.
In this day and age, everyone wants to race to the top. The ground floor isn't interesting to us. We're all in a way big hurry. It's hard to remember we're not in the hedge fund management business, where whole lifetimes of salary get earned in a single week. It takes time to earn anything worthwhile.
In AA meeting rooms one often sees a sign that says :"The elevator to sobriety is broken. Please use the steps."
Yesterday it occurred to me that in my own experience, everything that becomes possible, becomes possible because of persistence. One must be willing to make an effort not once, not ten times, not a hundred times, but ten thousand times. In other words, the foundation of inner practice is indeed gradual, magnificently geologic in its time scale.
Indeed, persistence pays off in something that may appear to happen instantaneously. Earth movements work like this. For a thousand years, perhaps, plates move imperceptibly along a fault line until enough pressure has built up, and suddenly bang! An earthquake occurs. The earthquake alters the landscape immediately, tangibly.
We now know that all of the work that went into creating the energy that ultimately caused that change was hidden from ordinary sight.
And think about this one... exactly what do we seek in our inner landscape... one earthquake after another?
For myself, I am dogged in my persistence, and even actively averse to attempting to storm the gates of heaven. I'm not a warrior but a gardener: not a scaler of walls, but a cultivator of flowers. There is no need to race to heaven.
As Suzuki said in Branching Streams (p.71):
"Just to feel good, we study, and just to feel better we practice Zazen. No one knows what will happen to us after sitting for one, two, or ten years. No one knows, and it is right that no one knows. Just to feel good we sit Zazen, actually. Eventually that kind of purposeless practice will help you."
Well, of course, I must confess my own practice is hardly purposeless. But his insight remains valid: persistence must become the heart of practice. Impatience only serves our dissipation. Within attentive containment, active persistence, we may discover a true connection to the heart.
In the meantime, we need to live this ordinary life,a best we can, with utmost joy. As I said to my wife yesterday:
You gotta live a little, or else you'll never notice it when you're dead.
May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.