The Tendai school say that there are three distinct approaches to spiritual practice: the gradual, the variable, and the sudden.
The gradual, as the name suggests, proceeds through stages. First, you accept the Buddhist life—the precepts and so on. Second, you cultivate equanimity — calming and steadiness in meditation. Thirdly, having cultivated that steadiness, you practise insight into the way how things are—the way that you are. Having done all of that you cultivate compassion—the bodhisattva path. You proceed in that way in the direction of the Buddha.
The metaphor – metaphors are very important – used is the ladder. It’s an unusual metaphor because you’d expect the familiar metaphor of the path to be used.
The path is an obvious conceptualization of practice as the idea that you’re going somewhere. You start from one position and through effort, you get to another position. Obviously that is the case with the ladder too, but in an oddly vertical way. In one way, you change position. In another, you don’t.
The metaphor which is used for the sudden approach is another unusual metaphor. It is the metaphor of a magician being able to suspend himself in mid air. That metaphor obviously takes advantage of the very close relationship in Chinese between the words for space, sky and emptiness.
The idea is that entering into somewhere is completely entering that place. Having a slight experience of emptiness is simultaneously having that experience – which can have its own life of growth and development – but which is also entering into the whole space.
That sudden idea of practice is, for better or worse, one that was taken up by the subsequent Zen tradition.
It pays to carefully consider the ways in which these two metaphors are a complement and contrast to each other. They exemplify the point that it really is impossible to understand Buddhism without taking the metaphors seriously.
And taking them seriously means taking them on their own terms.