In the Mahavairocana Sutra, we find the phrase “mind just as it is,” synonymous to what the seminal Awakening of Faith (skt. Mahayana-shraddhotpada) calls “inherent wakefulness.” Nirvana Sutra calls it buddha-nature (skt. tathagatagarbha or sugatagarbha or buddhadhatu), the Prajnaparamita literature calls it prajna, while the Sukhavativyuha literature calls it “pure land” (we might go as far as drawing a parallel to the esoteric meaning of “Kingdom of God”). In all these texts, testament to widespread acceptance of such notions across influential Buddhist lineages, the premise is that the “original state of mind” is bright and clear. This original state, or primordial awareness, becomes obscured because of vijnanas, processes that fragment the world into arbitrary conceptual categories, making the resultant perceived realm an illusion, or perhaps a projection, since vijnanas imply the pervasive influence of reactive patterns (skt. klesha). The original state of mind is revealed by removing klesha and cultivating bodhicitta, the awakening heart-mind. This process is explained in terms of (a) three kalpas, (b) six nirbhayas, and (c) ten bhumis. The first describes the elimination of klesha which covers bodhicitta; the second describes the cultivation of bodhicitta while preventing its contamination by klesha; the third described the gradual process of revealing bodhicitta. Taken together, these three describe the process of growth of awakening heart-mind. Let’s have a look at the three kalpas first.
The term “kalpa” means an immeasurable duration of time (skt. maha-asamkhyeya-kalpa). In exoteric Mahayana, it takes three of these immense aeons to complete the path of bodhisattva to complete awakening of Buddhahood. However, Shingon interprets the term as three levels of grasping the unreal (skt. mithya-graha), namely the coarse (skt. sthula), the subtle (skt. sukshma), and the very subtle (skt. prasukshma). The Awakening of Faith describes these three veils as follows: confused action, the perceiving, and the perceived. Therefore, Shingon does not conceive kalpa as an immense duration of time. Instead, it conceives it as layer of delusion. This leads to a controversial issue which must be clarified before describing the Shingon concept of kalpa.
Disputes surrounding the sudden vs. gradual awakening are largely based on whether wakefulness (skt. bodhi) is determined by the length of practice or not. According to Kukai’s system of doctrinal evaluation, the exoteric schools affirm the kalpa (duration) requirement, though there is considerable dispute around that for Mahayana schools like Tendai or Kegon (and Zen). Shingon presupposes inherent buddhahood but in practice it nevertheless requires the triguhya (‘three mysteries’) meditation and claims that practice is the actualizing of human-Buddha identity. In practice, it would seem, there is no difference between esoteric and exoteric, but the rationale involved in practice is quite different. The two are different because of the interpretation of the term kalpa. It follows that in Shingon wakefulness is not a matter to be realized in terms of a duration of time (whether short or long). In other words, wakefulness does not take place in time, strictly speaking. Thus, the sudden/gradual dispute only arises in an attempt to temporalize wakefulness.
The first, coarse kalpa is the delusion of grasping the self-sense of separate existence. It’s a delusion because such self is impossible, while its seemingly-real appearance is a distortion. Every Buddhist school teaches this self is devoid of essence (skt. pudgala-shunyata or pudgala-nairatmya), instead of which only five aggregates are found, none of which is this self. According to Shingon, the shravaka and pratyekabuddha have transcended the first kalpa, and have realized the emptiness of self-sense of separate existence.
The second, subtle kalpa is the delusion of grasping the reality of phenomena. It’s a delusion because phenomena are also devoid of essence (skt. dharmashunyata or dharmanairatmya), so that experience is neither absolutely real, nor absolutely unreal. According to Shingon system of evaluation (see the post on Ten Stages), those who practice according to Yogacara gain insight into mind-onlyness, while those who practice according to Madhyamaka realize the middle. Through the insight into emptiness of phenomena, both transcend the second kalpa.
The third, very subtle kalpa is the delusion of grasping to ignorance (skt. avidya), namely distinguishing phenomena in terms of conditioned and unconditioned. According to Shingon system of evaluation, Tendai and Kegon (and Zen) have transcended the third kalpa by realizing the synthesis of the conditioned and unconditioned. Through such synthesis Tendai realized the realm of suchness, while Kegon and Shingon realized the realm of Dharmadhatu, the dynamic creative universal realm, a seamless fusion of emptiness and form.
Thus, this three kalpa theory is a categorization of Buddhism into Hinayana, Triyana, and Ekayana. Hinayana refers to the shravaka and pratyekabuddha vehicles; Triyana, meaning ‘three vehicles,’ claims the superiority of the bodhisattva vehicle; Ekayana does not discriminate the three but encompasses all three within one universal vehicle. Shingon is also Ekayana, but it is esoteric, and therefore called Vajra-Ekayana.
Doctrinally, Kegon and Shingon are closely related. What distinguishes the two is the interpretation of Dharmadhatu. The Avatamsaka Sutra (ch. Huayen ching, jap. Kegon kyo) describes Dharmadhatu from the perspective of cause. This distinction is important. Shingon, unlike Kegon, does not speak of one becoming Buddha (which ‘becoming’ presupposes a duration of time), because one already is Buddha by one’s inherent buddha-nature. Shingon practice is the revelation of Buddhahood in a concrete context – the attributes indicated by six elements, four mandalas, and three secrets. This brings us back to sudden vs. gradual awakening theories. The process of awakening is gradual, but once awakened, one realizes that the very moment is abrupt, sudden, and direct – like a flash of lightning. Shingon awakening – consisting of direct awareness of one’s inherent bodhicitta – refers to the latter. Apart from such distinctions, both approaches are Ekayana, transcending the three kalpas, and realizing Dharmadhatu. Hence, master Shubhakarasimha’s Commentary on the Mahavairocana Sutra says,
“If one transcends the three graspings in one’s lifetime, then in the present life one shall realize Buddhahood. Why should the duration of time be discussed?”
Next, the six nirbhayas.
Notes from Minoru Kiyota’s “Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice”