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Gradual and sudden enlightenment (Southern and Northern Chan)

About this time in the development of Chan there arose a sometimes contentious conflict between the teachings of gradual enlightenment and sudden enlightenment — between intellectual and intuitive knowledge, between sophisticated urban Buddhism and unlettered rural teachers, and between promoters of the abstruse but challenging Lankavatara Sutra sanctioned by Bodhidharma and the cryptic Diamond Sutra.

Prior to this time there is little mention or evidence of disagreement or competition between methods of spiritual practice; the period seems to have been harmonious and creative. However, the many developing streams of thought and practice were the harbinger of conflicts to appear in the following two or three generations.

Historically it was a battle between what would eventually be known as the Northern and Southern schools of Chan, and it concerned two fundamentally opposing views of the functions of the human mind. Although we will not go into the convoluted history of political intrigues that affected the outcome of this dispute, we can learn something about these conflicting philosophies (still alive today) by looking at Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor, and at two masters whose names are associated with this debate, Shenxui and Shenhui.