Enlightenment is not an all-or-nothing experience according to some Buddhists.  In spite of Zen koans romanticizing the instant enlightenment of its characters in response to a dramatic event or dialogue, there are degrees of enlightenment.  According to the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) master Tun-shan Lian-chieh (Tozan Ryokai in Japanese), there are exactly five degrees.

To understand the five degrees, the concepts of the absolute and the relative must be understood.  These are the Sho and the Hen.  The Sho represents the transcendent aspects of reality–the absolute, the empty, the one, the sameness.  The Hen, meanwhile, represents the varied phenomena of the world as they appear.  Reconciling the relative with absolute (in the spirit of the Flower Ornament Scripture, Vimalakirti’s Discourse Sutra, and Lotus Sutra, among others), Master Ryokai offers these five permutations of Sho and Hen:

  • First is Sho-chu-hen (Hen in the midst of Sho); in this first degree of enlightenment, the relative world appears in its variegated forms.
  • Second is Hen-chu-sho (Sho in the midst of Hen); the principle of unity begins to take predominate in the mind while the principle of manifoldness recedes.
  • Third is Sho-chu-rai; awareness of body and mind drop away as the experience of true emptiness emerges.
  • Fourth is Ken-chu-shi; the concept of Shunyata itself disappears into the experience of phenomena.  Each phenomena takes on its own ultimate uniqueness.
  • Fifth is Ken-chu-to; phenomena and emptiness interpenetrate each other.  Intentionless action arises (reminiscent of the Taoist concept of Wu-Wei).