When meditation teachers address the pursuit of enlightenment with their students, they either discuss the gradual or sudden approach. The gradual approach focuses on the value of virtue and on the accumulation of wholesome karma. Meditation techniques which concentrate and calm the mind are taught. The cultivation of mindfulness and clear comprehension is encouraged. The mind thus becomes a precise instrument for perceiving things as they really are. In the gradual approach, wisdom is seen as an unfolding process and even enlightenment is seen to progess in stages.
In the sudden approach, however, the teacher’s perspective is that we all have Buddha nature and that we cannot “practice” to become what we already are. Concerning oneself with virtue will not lead to the goal since cultivating karma, even wholesome karma, is still involving oneself with the phenomenal world. Even the quest for enlightenment is seen as keeping oneself trapped within a dualistic conceptual framework. When the student makes statements that belie the fact that he or she is already enlightened, the teacher points out the errors in his or her thinking.
Both approaches are valid and students at different stages of development gravitate to one or the other of these schools of thought. Although it is not immediately clear to the casual observer, what both schools have in common is the quality of mind that enables one to directly perceive or experience the reality to which they both point. This quality of mind is referred to as a “non-judgmental” or “choiceless” awareness. Although meditators hear about this state of mind quite frequently, it is not until they recognize that it is one of the primary causes and conditions for the arising of insight that its true significance is appreciated.
The consequence of making judgments is to perpetuate obsessive patterns of mind. If we judge the contents of mind to be good, positive, or fortunate, we grasp at them. By doing so the presence of these patterns are reinforced. If we judge the contents of mind to be important, we focus on them, watching to see where they will lead. If we judge the contents of mind to be bad, negative, or unfortunate, we tend to resist them. Although the patterns will be suppressed, they will continue to persist on an unconscious basis. Every form of reactivity to our mental patterns actually invests them with additional power to influence us.
It is not easy to cultivate a non-judgmental or choiceless awareness. However, the consequences of remaining present in this way are quite significant. Issues that have been deeply repressed begin to rise to the surface providing us with the opportunity to consciously address them. By recognizing our self-destructive patterns, their power to control our behaviors diminishes. Our attachments typically decrease as we discover more subtle levels of impermanency and realize our inability to stop or control the incessant rise and fall of phenomena. We may perceive the unfulfilling nature of sense experience and abandon the pursuit of meaningless goals. Ultimately, as the mind experiences the selfless nature of all phenomenal existence, it may turn for its security to the freedom of the unconditioned.
Choiceless awareness is a quality of mind that is free from making judgments, decisions or generating commentary as it meets with sense experiences. It is a mind that responds to each new moment without the burden of its past history or of making future projections. When the mind no longer clings anywhere, not even to the idea of not clinging anywhere, we realize, either suddenly or gradually, that we truly already are that for which we have been searching.