1. Introduction

Many scholars would agree that the “sudden and gradual" paradigm has caused as much ink to flow as it deserves. It is well known that the rise of Chan orthodoxy was conducive to the success of the Sudden Teaching. It calls forth the most famous argument between the “Northern” and “Southern” factions of Chinese Buddhism in the eighth century that reflected upon the supposed differences between the two schemes of meditative paths to the attainment of awakening; while the Northern school describes a “gradual” mental cultivation, the Southern school emphasizes a “sudden” spiritual insight. The complex theme of the sudden-gradual distinction, throughout Chinese culture and literature, seems to cover a bewildering succession of issues.1 Conspicuously, we are often confronted with a teleological model describing the polarity of “sudden and gradual” in resolving a hermeneutic or philosophical problem particularly contentious for Chan/Zen Buddhism.2 There are, in fact, good reasons to question this model—it may well have failed to take into account the cultural contexts in its approach. It is known that the sudden-gradual emergence reflects complicated historical and cultural circumstances within Buddhist contexts, and can be traced back in the earlier history of Chinese Buddhism.3 To avoid constraining myself to restrictive Buddhist textual and philosophical approaches in this paper, I will endeavor to demonstrate that the early attempt to affirm the sudden approach in Buddhism was an echo in the feud of the “Foreign and Chinese Debate” (yixia zibian)4 and revolved around a cunning consensus between Buddhism and Confucianism. By means of utilizing the “Foreign and Chinese Debate” as a device, I will locate the sudden approach in pre-Chan Buddhism within the socio-cultural contexts from the viewpoints of anthropological perspectives and literary criticism.


1The analogy between the geographical locations of “south-north” and the two-way of thinking (sudden-gradual) was drawn in the Six dynasties: “The learning of the Southerners is coherently lucid and concise 南人學問清通簡要…the learning of the Northerners is profoundly comprehensive and abundant 北人學問淵綜廣博…the Northerner comprehends his books as if he sees the moon in wide-openness 北人看書如顯處視月, the Southerner comprehends his books as if he peeps the sun through the window 南人看書如牖中窺日.” See Shishu xinyujianshu, Wenxue 世說新語箋疏.文學, 216. This analogy, however, does not clearly articulate the doctrinal positions in the Chinese cultural and literature histories. According to Qian Zhongshu 錢鐘書, it is more of “préfiguration rétroactive” (Bergson’s term), like the upstart rewrites his genealogy, or like the fore-generations of a high rank imperial official are endorsed with titles retroactively by the emperor. See Qian Zhongshu, Qizhuiji 七綴集, 3. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Chinese are by the author.

2John R. McRae argues the terms “sudden teaching,” “sudden awakening,” and “sudden practice” often carried affective and rhetorical power as slogans rather than demarcating clearly articulated doctrinal positions. Luis O. Cómez remarks that the “sudden” and “gradual” polarity may be seen as developing a deeply rooted tension in Chinese culture between the effortful cultivation and spontaneous intuition. Whereas Paul Demiéville suggests directly, the sudden and gradual polarity reflected in its broad scope, in the respective stances of Confucianism and Taoism. For more “Sudden and gradual” polarity discussions, see Gregory ed. Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought.

3See studies on the earliest sudden approach to Buddhism practice proposed by Zhu Daosheng 竺道生 (355? -434): Whalen Lai 1987, Heinrich Dumoulin 1963, Walter Liebenthal 1956, 1955, Chen Yinke 陳寅恪 1947, and Tang Yundan 湯用丹 1938.

4Yixiazibian 夷夏之辯, seeHongming ji 弘明集 T.52, 2102:29-49.

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