On a meditation retreat several years ago, late one evening after the Dharma talk, a woman raised her hand and asked one last question: “Is enlightenment just a myth?” When we teachers went back to our evening meeting, we asked each other this question. We exchanged stories about the creative freedom of Ajahn Chah, the enormous field of metta around Dipa Ma, the joyous laughter of Poonja, and of our own awakenings. Of course there is enlightenment.
But the word enlightenment is used in different ways, and that can be confusing. Is Zen, Tibetan, Hindu or Theravada enlightenment the same? What is the difference between an enlightenment experience and full enlightenment? What do enlightened people look like?
APPROACHES TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Early on in my practice in Asia, I was forced to deal with these questions quite directly. My teachers, Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, were both considered among the most enlightened masters of Theravada Buddhism. While they both described the goal of practice as free-dom from greed, hatred and delusion, they didn’t agree about how to attain enlightenment, nor how it is experienced. I started my monastic training practicing in community with Ajahn Chah. Then I went to study in a monastery of Mahasi Sayadaw, where the path of liberation focuses entirely on long silent meditation retreats.
In the Mahasi system, you sit and walk for weeks in the retreat context and continuously note the arising of breath, thought, feelings and sensations over and over until the mindfulness is so refined there is nothing but instantaneous arising and passing. You pass through stages of luminosity, joy, fear and the dissolution of all you took to be solid. The mind becomes unmoving, resting in a place of stillness and equanimity, transparent to all experience, thoughts and fears, longings and love. Out of this there comes a dropping away of identity with anything in this world, an opening to the unconditioned beyond mind and body; you enter into the stream of liberation. As taught by Mahasi Sayadaw, this first taste of stream-entry to enlightenment requires purification and strong concentration leading to an experience of cessation that begins to uproot greed, hatred and delusion.
When I returned to practice in Ajahn Chah’s community following more than a year of silent Mahasi retreat, I recounted all of these experiences—dissolving my body into light, profound insights into emptiness, hours of vast stillness and freedom. Ajahn Chah understood and appreciated them from his own deep wisdom. Then he smiled and said, “Well, something else to let go of.” His approach to enlightenment was not based on having any particular meditation experience, no matter how profound. As Ajahn Chah described them, meditative states are not important in themselves. Meditation is a way to quiet the mind so you can practice all day long wherever you are; see when there is grasping or aversion, clinging or suffering; and then let it go. What’s left is enlightenment, always found here and now, a release of identification with the changing conditions of the world, a resting in awareness. This involves a simple yet profound shift of identity from the myriad, ever-changing conditioned states to the unconditioned consciousness—the awareness which knows them all. In Ajahn Chah’s approach, release from entanglement in greed, hatred and delusion does not happen through retreat, concentration and cessation but from this profound shift in identity.
How can we understand these seemingly different approaches to enlightenment? The Buddhist texts contain some of the same contrasting descriptions. In many texts, nirvana is described in the language of negation, and as in the approach taught by Mahasi Sayadaw, enlightenment is presented as the end of suffering through the putting out of the fires of craving, the uprooting of all forms of clinging. The elimination of suffering is practiced by purification and concentration, by confronting the forces of greed and hate and overcoming them. When the Buddha was asked, “Do you teach annihilation? Is nirvana the end of things as we know them?” he responded, “I teach only one form of annihilation: the extinction of greed, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of delusion. This I call nirvana.”
There is in the texts, as well, a more positive way of understanding enlightenment. Here nirvana is described as the highest happiness; as peace, freedom, purity, stillness; and as the unconditioned, the timeless, the undying. In this understanding, as in Ajahn Chah’s approach, liberation comes through a shift of identity—a release from attachment to the changing conditions of the world, a resting in consciousness itself, the deathless.
In this understanding, liberation is a shift of identity from taking anything as “self.” Asked, “How is it that one is not to be seen by the king of death?” the Buddha responded, “For one who takes nothing whatsoever as I or me or mine, such a one is freed from the snares of the king of death.” In just this way, Ajahn Chah instructed us to rest in awareness and not identify with any experience as I or mine.
Jack Kornfield - Inquirind Mind 2010