Out of the Shadows: A Realistic View of Enlightenment

Out of the Shadows: A Realistic View of Enlightenment

“Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.” -Trungpa Rinpoche

Joel Groover: You had been discussing what enlightenment is and isn’t, from your perspective.

Kenneth Folk: We need to get away from the idea that enlightenment is a cosmic bliss out. I find that to be a pernicious and highly prevalent misconception. Everybody wants to think, “Okay, I’m going to get enlightened and then my life will be pleasant all the time. I’ll have a beatific smile on my face. I will wear flowing white robes. Everybody will love me and bow down and kiss my feet. I will never say anything rude or harsh. I will lose my sexual desire because, after all, sexual desire is a little bit icky. And let’s see—I’ll never get angry.” Come on. That’s kids’ stuff.

And yet it is so deeply ingrained. People so want it to be true. But let’s take a step back from that and be grown-ups about it. Let’s look at what really happens, and at what we really want. Do we really want to go to some kind of childish heaven, or do we want a kind of freedom that is equally free in heaven and in hell?

JG: The Tibetans have a lot to say with this, right, in the teachings on the different realms? They have some pretty instructive ideas about hell realms, the hungry ghost realms, and how we cycle through all of those. Whether we like it or not, those realms may cycle through into our own particular situation. Wasn’t it Joseph Campbell who talked about the Tibetans and all of a sudden they are literally facing one of their hell realms, when the Chinese invaded and occupied and started killing and torturing them? Some of the torture techniques were literally the same as those in the Tibetan hell-realm texts.

KF: Yes. Now that is a very good point. So yes, if you are a Tibetan yogi and you are enlightened, that does not mean the Chinese will not come to your country and kill everybody you know and torture you. If they do, what you would really like to have is the kind of freedom that is equally accessible in hell and in heaven, because you’re not going to be smiling beatifically while you’re being tortured. You need a much deeper, a much more grown-up enlightenment than that.

JG: And it is not going to be scholarly in nature either.

KF: Right. It is not something you’re going to think yourself through. And luckily, enlightenment is an objective phenomenon that does not have much to do with what we believe. The real enlightenment is the grown-up kind. That is fortunate for us because if we practice, this process unfolds irrespective of our desires or beliefs about it. That is the beautiful thing about development.

For example, I can’t, through an act of will, prevent the aging process. So I will be 52 years old this year and if I were a real believer in the power of positive thinking, maybe I could try to think myself out of aging. Well, what are the odds? As far as I know, everyone in human history has progressed through a particular life-cycle. You start out as a baby, then you’re a child, then you’re a grown-up and then you get old and you die.

So it is a very good bet that I will get old and die, and at this point in my life my body is not as strong as it was 20 years ago. I cannot think myself out of that. There are biological realities that are not amenable to our manipulation. And enlightenment is one of these biological realities.

But in the case of enlightenment, you can cultivate the process in the way that you can cultivate a growing thing, in the way that you can cultivate a plant. So if you do not plant a seed, for example, and don’t water it and tend it, it may not grow.

That is the same with enlightenment, and the reason a lot of people will not get enlightened is simple: they are not cultivating.

JG: And I suppose the reality also is that a lot of people will never even be interested in the subject. Or, some might be interested, but not seriously pursue it because it seems like this impossible thing to achieve, like some kind of self-perfection.

KF: I’m trying to debunk the notion that when you’re enlightened you’re going to be perfect… you’re still going to be at times sanctimonious and judgmental and petty and churlish. All of these things arise, and enlightenment is not the absence of what we consider to be shameful emotions and thoughts, but rather the quality of un-stickiness.

JG: I’ve got a friend who was raised in a particular Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and he just regards it all as a cult, basically. He is done with it. He is a really grounded guy and he still does chi gung and stuff. But he does not want anything religious anywhere near him. He will not touch it with a 10-foot pole. There is a little bit of reactivity there, but I can’t say anything like “you should be back in the dharma.” That does not seem right to me. He has really made his decision and he knows what he’s doing. And yet that decision might forestall the developmental enlightenment process. Who knows?

KF: Yeah. And you have to be okay with that because, the truth is, most of the people we know, unless you live in a meditation center—and maybe even then…

JG: Right. [Laughs]

KF: … most people we know are not on this ride. And to form some kind of an attitude that everybody is inferior because they do not meditate or they are not getting enlightened—well, that is just not helpful at all.

JG: At the same time what I have been surprised by—you know, I started practicing again after I quit for about 10 years, because I felt like I had no choice. It was just, “I’m getting so neurotic and unskillful and behaving so badly that I have to do this.” When I started again, it was just to try to restore some balance, and yet there is this strangely obsessive focus that can take hold with people where they are, in a very sincere way, just focused on practice and doing this, to the point were some people are doing multiple long retreats and so on. So I guess there are those who are not interested and then there are those who are very keenly interested. Is there anything to say about that? I think there is a term in Pali for it. Samvega?

KF: Yes. Samvega is this zeal or eagerness to become enlightened, and that is something that for most people only really kicks in after the all—important 4th Insight Knowledge, the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena. That is one of the reasons that we can say people will look at their lives and say, “That was my life before [the Arising and Passing], and now this is my life after.” At that moment of penetrating the object for the first time and seeing that the supposed rope is actually just a bunch of ants that are in turn made up of molecules—well, from that moment you are on the ride. This is what Bill Hamilton called “the ride.”

And that ride has a gravity, a karmic gravity of its own. It is going to pull you whether you like it or not. If you resist it, it tends to make you miserable. If you go with it, you are, on balance, better off even though you may have to go through some miserable times as part of a natural progress.

JG: But you’re going to go through that anyway.

KF: You are going to go through misery no matter what. One saying is, “Better not to begin. Once you begin, better to finish.” This ride that you get on only feels complete—only ends—with arahatship. And you’re really not going to be satisfied until that time, once you begin the ride. There are a few fairly weak moments of stability along the way. Those are the Path markers. So when a yogi gets First Path, there is a little bit of a platform. You feel as though you are off the ride for a little while and then you realize that you are on it even more thoroughly than before. You have to work toward Second Path, at which time you have another little plateau, a little bit of a resting place, and then you’re back on the ride again, and you just stay on the ride more and more deeply until arahatship.

Now arahatship is unique in that in some ways it is the very easiest call to make in terms of placing a yogi on the map. This is an easy call to make because in the moment of arahatship, you know you’re off the ride. This is huge, because you have been sucked along by this karmic gravity for some period of time, usually decades for most people, and then suddenly that is over.

It is not that your questions were answered as much as that you no longer have the questions. It doesn’t solve the problem, it’s just that you no longer have the problem. The problem was that you thought something was wrong. After arahatship, you no longer think there is something wrong with the world. Things are as they are. So if you look at the old stories in the suttas, the monks would walk up to the Buddha—on a fairly routine basis they would do this—and say “Done is what needs to be done.”

Because that is exactly how it feels. It is easy to imagine why they would say it in this way. That brings up another topic, which is how has the mythology of enlightenment gotten so out of hand that we don’t even believe that enlightenment is possible anymore, and that we think those people from the time of the Buddha were talking about something that is no longer available to us?

That is a preposterous notion. Human nature has not changed very much in 2,500 years, with apologies to those who would wish otherwise. And this is very good news for people with samvega [zeal for awakening], because it means that the potential for enlightenment is, was, and always will be built into the very fabric of every human being on this planet.