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Buddhadharma : Fall 2018
SAM VAN SCHAIK 75 Whatever the details, there is a reason why the story of this debate holds such a place of importance in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, the question of whether enlightenment comes instantaneously or as the result of gradual cultivation never went away. The sudden approach, far from being vanquished in the eighth century, is still alive and well in Tibetan Buddhism, most notably in Dzogchen, as taught in the Nyingma school, and in the Mahamudra of the Kagyu school. Both Dzogchen and Mahamudra teach that awakening is already present in the true nature of the mind, and both feature sto- ries of masters who attained sudden enlightenment. Some Tibetan teachers have criticized Dzogchen and Mahamudra, claiming that they teach that the mere suppression of thoughts is the same as enlightenment, just as Moheyan did. This is not a fair criti- cism, however, as Dzogchen and Mahamudra both emphasize that a peaceful and blank state of mind should not be mistaken for true enlightenment. And when we look at his original writings, we see that Moheyan didn’t teach the suppression of thought either. Although they teach the sudden approach, there is no reason to think that either Dzogchen or Mahamudra were deeply influenced by Zen teachings. The sudden approach has its roots right in Indian Buddhism, in sutras like the Perfection of Wisdom, which are accepted by all Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Thus, the story of the Samye debate is really about a tension inherent in Mahayana Bud- dhism: if we all have buddhanature—if enlightenment is always right here, though unrecognized—what is the role of practice? This isn’t simply a sectarian issue, representing differences of understanding between one school and another. All Mahayana traditions have grappled with it and found their own solutions to it. It is still a rele- vant question, and often a topic for debate, as Buddhism finds new audiences in the West. The story of the Samye debate is really about a tension inherent in Mahayana Buddhism: if we all have buddhanature—if enlightenment is always right here, though unrecognized—what is the role of practice?