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The term Subitism as applied to Buddhism (to disambiguate, see Subitizing) is derived from the French 'illumination subite' (lit. 'sudden illumination'), contrasting with 'illumination graduelle'. It gained currency in this use in English from the work of sinologist Paul Demiéville, whose 1947 work 'Mirror of the Mind' was widely read in the U.S. and inaugurated a series by him on subitism and gradualism.
'Subitism' is used in Ch'an and Zen scholarly discourse to denote the position that awakening or enlightenment (kensho, bodhi or satori) is instantaneous, sudden and direct, and not attained by practice through a period of time however protracted or minute, and not the fruit of a gradual accretion or realisation. A person, school or philosophy that ascribes to Subitism is referred to as a "subitist". Aspects of Dzogchen and Mahamudra may be referred to as subitist, as well as all Zen schools.
The distinction is one that is largely the result of ignorance and the competitive instinct of partisians and scholastics rather than from any orthodox Buddha Dharma. As a merely expedient means, when confronted by a belief ascribing to gradualism, the assertion of subitism may be called for; and when confronted by a belief ascribing to subiism, the assertion of gradualism may be called for. But such assertions are only used to point out a one-sided perspective. From the Zen point of view, ascribing to concepts by turning thoughts into beliefs is a slippery slope to dogmatism, and the Zen methodology for liberation of the mind is used to transcend or let go of such beliefs as gradualism and subitism, not to concretize them into a belief system that asserts one over the other. The Zen teachings of the Platform Sutra associated with the pivotal figure of Chan in China, the Sixth Ancesral Founder Hui Neng, do not endorse the confrontational distinctions of subitism and gradualism.
Chapter VIII. The Sudden School and the Gradual School
While the Patriarch was living in Bao Lin Monastery, the Grand Master Shen Xiu was preaching in Yu Quan Monastery of Jing Nan. At that time the two Schools, that of Hui Neng of the South and Shen Xiu of the North, flourished side by side. As the two Schools were distinguished from each other by the names "Sudden" (the South) and "Gradual" (the North), the question which sect they should follow baffled certain Buddhist scholars (of that time).
(Seeing this), the Patriarch addressed the assembly as follows:--
"So far as the Dharma is concerned, there can be only one School. (If a distinction exists) it exists in the fact that the founder of one school is a northern man, while the other is a Southerner. While there is only one Dharma, some disciples realize it more quickly than others. The reason why the names 'Sudden' and 'Gradual' are given is that some disciples are superior to others in mental dispositions. So far as the Dharma is concerned, the distinction of 'Sudden' and 'Gradual' does not exist."
- Faure, Bernard (2003). Chan Buddhism in Ritual Context, Chapter 1, p1.
Publisher: Routledge. ISBN 0415297486
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