Heaven, Hell and the Middle Way

Heaven, Hell and the Middle Way

“I sell round trip tickets to Heaven and Hell. And nobody is buying.” – Joshu Sasaki Roshi

Joel Groover: Could we talk a bit about what you have called dynamic jhana vs. static jhana?

Kenneth Folk: Yes. There is a Flash animation on my website that shows a mountain and two yogis. The one on the left is the dynamic yogi, and the one on the right is the static yogi. The idea is that you want to get up and down through all the strata of mind and objectify them all. So a dynamic yogi will go up and down through all the strata of mind. In each sitting he is going to get to every stratum of mind that is available to him and, over time, as the days and months and years go by, he gets higher and higher up the mountain in each sitting. Eventually, he gets to the top. He has objectified everything in the field of attention, and he is enlightened.

Now, the static yogi, on the other hand—the yogi on the right—he just goes up to the first stratum of mind and sits there with this idea of mastering it, with the idea of becoming a jhana master. He is not even going to move up the mountain until he feels he has mastered the first level. So eventually he moves up to the next level, and the next. But it is taking a long time. The upshot of this is that while the dynamic yogi gets enlightened, the static yogi takes much longer and ends up just getting old. His beard turns gray. He has a toothless, blissed-out grin on his face, but he never actually gets enlightened.

It is more important in my system to see the entire package of mind than it is to achieve any particular, arbitrary level of mastery of any particular level of mind.

JG: I have to laugh for multiple reasons here. It is a funny animation, but it is also such abstract territory for me. But it is important because I am trying to figure out what is the role of concentration practice here, for me.

KF: This is always tricky because, for most people who are asking these questions, they are trying to understand something they can’t see.

JG: Exactly.

KF: And so they are turning to teachers and saying, “Can you describe this to me?” It is sort of like the way a blind person would ask a sighted person to describe color or to describe the landscape.

JG: And what happens is they often are like a blind person who has heard vivid and interesting descriptions of what it is like to see and wants to explore that and is interested. But then you’re forced to make the decision—what is your approach? And assuming there is a way for you to learn how to see, which way do you go? So it is tricky.

KF: But the prognosis is good because people who apply themselves will eventually be able to see this. What almost always happens when people do get to the point where they can see it, they say, “Wow. I only half-believed there was such a thing as jhana.”

Now they see that jhanas are actually very clear. This is something that is hard, as a sighted person so-called—it is kind of hard to convey how clear these things are. So people will say, “Well I don’t know what you’re saying. It seems kind of speculative.” And I will say, “I’m sitting in my living room right now looking at a bookshelf with all of these different colored books on it.” That is not particularly speculative. I’m just describing what I see. It’s the same with jhana.

Because of the nature of jhana—even more than bookshelves—different people will describe it in different ways, and different people will emphasize different things about jhana. The question to ask is, “What is the relationship of jhana to this larger process of getting enlightened?” So let’s go back to first principles: the idea is to objectify the phenomena that are arising in the mind. When you do that, you naturally dis-embed from those phenomena. You stop confusing yourself with your experience. You develop what I think of as Teflon mind, where nothing is sticking, and that is enlightenment. So what does jhana have to do with that?

Well, jhana is really just a way of exploring and talking about the territory of your mind. It is a way of describing the territory, and because the mind is set up in these strata or layers, and because these layers are recognizable, it’s possible to have these discrete experiences depending on which layer you happen to be visiting at the time. When we talk about jhana we are deliberately choosing from the many different layers of mind and picking out the stable and pleasant ones, the jhanas, and giving them special status. Well, that is an arbitrary call. There is no particular reason to say that the levels of mind that contain jhana are special, except that they are pleasant and stable.

So if you look at my model of 20 strata of mind, some of them are pleasant and stable and some of them are not. Those that are pleasant and stable have been traditionally categorized as jhana. So we’re picking and choosing. Let me explain this in detail so that you can see what I mean.

When you go to the first stratum of mind, it just so happens that when you become absorbed in it you can have a pleasant experience, and that is the first jhana. In addition, there is an insight knowledge to be gleaned there: Knowledge of Mind and Body, the first of the insight knowledges. Contrast that with the second stratum of mind—it is not stable; there is no way to bliss out on it on it for hours and say, “Here I am being happy in jhana.”

But that second stratum of mind does contain an insight knowledge, which is the second insight knowledge, traditionally called Knowledge of Cause and Effect. And the same with the third stratum of mind, which contains an insight knowledge [Knowledge of the Three Characteristics] but, because it is unstable, does not contain a jhana.

At the fourth stratum of mind, which is stable, there is a jhana there, which is the second jhana. So, the fourth layer of mind, like the first, has both an insight knowledge [Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena] and a jhana.

JG: And the point is to be able to dis-embed from all of those.

KF: Yes. And when we talk about jhanas as jhana practice, there is a tendency to privilege those states: “Those are really so special. We really want to master those particular states.” Well that is horse feathers. What you really want to do is dis-embed from all of it. Why would you want to master jhana states more than you would want to master unstable and unpleasant states? Why would you settle for being a jhana master when you could be happy and free across the entire spectrum of experience?

Freedom has to be very flexible in order to be meaningful. You want to have the capacity to be enlightened in heaven or hell.

JG: I see what you are saying. It is that we start with gross objects and we dis-embed all the way up to the highest and most subtle strata of mind, and that includes unpleasant, pleasant, hellish, heaven-like, all along the way.

KF: That’s right. And as it happens, most of the hellish situations are fairly low on the range. By the time you get into the higher strata of mind, they are all heavenly. For example, I teach the five suddhavasa jhanas, which are above the eight jhanas that are normally spoken about and are available to Third Path [of the Four Stages of Enlightenment] practitioners and higher.

JG: Territory that is very far from where I am! So, for me, it is such an academic topic. It is something I would at least like to have a conceptual understanding of, so that I can figure out which way I want to go in terms of practice.

KF: There is a story from my own practice that might bring it home a little bit. My teacher Bill Hamilton talked about jhanas from the time we first met, and I didn’t really believe—I was not sure whether they were quasi-imaginary phenomena. In my own experience, the practice did not look like that early on. My mind seemed more of a chaotic jumble.

JG: I’m right where you are talking about. I have enough confidence in others to feel that, at this point, we are not talking about quasi-imaginary phenomena, but when you see the disagreements [about jhana], you wonder what is going on.

KF: From my point of view, most of the disagreements are just semantic. But I do see what you mean: if people who can supposedly see this stuff don’t even agree on what it looks like, then how does it correspond to objective reality? But what happened for me was that I was on retreat in Malaysia as part of a year-long retreat and after a couple of months in Malaysia I got First Path. And on that day I could suddenly see these four very discrete states that seemed like rooms in my mind that I could go into. And the only thing required to go there was to want to go there.

JG: This point in and of itself seems important. I just heard a dharma talk where someone was saying, you know, “Don’t worry about enlightenment or Nirvana. You do not have to have long-term, lofty goals like that. Just practice, and it is okay. Try to get whatever measure of freedom you feel comfortable with.” It was a talk designed to kind of mollify skeptical students who refuse to believe that enlightenment exists. But isn’t it important for people to know that there are actually these Paths and that the qualitative nature of your practice changes when you attain them?

KF: Well, the Buddha sure thought it was important. That is a big part of what he talked about. I think it is very important. What would be the advantage of not telling people what happens? It would be like not telling a child that adulthood is coming. There is a lot to be gained by having a heads-up.

JG: I did not mean to interrupt. You were in the middle of that. You got First Path, and at that point the jhanas became no longer some abstraction where you had any doubt that…

KF: That’s right. The very day that I got First Path, the jhanas just showed up that day. I was able to pick them out. If they arose spontaneously in my practice I could see them happening while I was in them, and I also found that I could jump from one to the other just by inclining the mind toward one or the other. So if I found myself in the first I would say “Well maybe I will just go to the third,” and I would suddenly be in the third. And then I could go to the second or the fourth—in any order this could happen. These states have, and traditionally are thought of as having, characteristic traits. For example, the first jhana feels to me like quiet exhilaration. The second jhana is this deep, gurgling joy. The third jhana is chilled-out bliss, and the fourth jhana is equanimity and flow. So once you see that, you can see that there is this fractal relationship, or this nested relationship of jhanas, where each jhana has the aspects of the others contained within it.

So you can be in the first jhana and you can see the second [jhana] aspect in the first jhana. You can see the deep, gurgling joy aspect of the quiet exhilaration. And I could get—just by turning my mind toward it—I could go into several layers of this. It is a very complex but predictable relationship. I’m talking about this in past tense, but that ability has never left. That is a frankly trivial thing to do for me now, to investigate the jhanas in terms of various combinations of aspects.

JG: Is this something that all practitioners who attain First Path, or the majority of them, are able to do? I have seen people on your discussion boards saying, “This is what happened to me. I got First Path. I was doing noting practice with no view of jhana particularly, or goal of attaining jhana, and suddenly I discovered access to these new strata of mind.”

 It is not unusual for it to happen that way, especially for people who have already heard that there is such a thing as jhana. On the other hand, I talk to advanced practitioners who have come up in some other tradition, or in no tradition at all, and already have one or more Paths. Yet they don’t recognize jhanas in their experience. And so I have to just take them through it from the point of view of phenomenology and point out to them that they actually do have access to these states, which they did not really even notice.

JG: And is that because they incline the mind only toward the absolute all the time?

KF: Possibly. Or possibly because these states have been invalidated by their teachers.

JG: Makyo.

KF: Yeah. Exactly. In the Zen tradition they are going to say that all of these states are just makyo, and don’t pay any attention to it. If you do that, then you can be a very advanced practitioner and not only not experience jhanas— you can convince yourself that they don’t exist.

JG: And maybe at times people even turn away from, say, pleasant states that are arising—they sense some kind of absorption coming on—almost out of a fear of that as makyo or illusion. “This is not what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in any states.”

KF: Right. And that comes from a misunderstanding of what the point of the practice is and how it works. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the practices that actually lead to enlightenment. That is something that I hope to clear up. What leads to developmental enlightenment is the objectification of phenomena. That’s it. [Realization of what is always already here, on the other hand, is not developmental and happens in this moment through surrender.] And it is laughable to me now to think how much I had to go through to get to the point of understanding this. I’d like to clear this up for people, because there are so many ideas to stumble over.

Someone might say, “Oh, the most important thing is to become absorbed in jhanas.” Well, actually that is about 180 degrees away from the most important thing.

JG: You’re just embedded in a subtle stratum?

KF: Yes. To be absorbed is to be embedded. The human mind allows us a vast range of experience. To get enlightened, we have to access and objectify the entire range, and in order to access some strata of mind you have to have a high degree of concentration because that is what allows you to get to these subtle states. But to become absorbed in them is the opposite of objectifying them. So what has to be done is, you have to be able to both access these strata of mind and objectify them.

JG: Someone on your discussion boards said something to the effect of, “let’s dispense with this myth of concentration.” I’m wondering what he was talking about?

KF: What he was talking about was this notion that is coming either from certain jhana teachers or it is coming from certain students who misunderstand what those teachers are saying—I’m not sure which—that achieving some arbitrary level of absorption is crucial to the path. That is a complete misunderstanding. We just need to reframe the whole discussion here.

The entire mind, the entire range of phenomena, has to be objectified, and in order to do that you have got to access every stratum of the mind. In order to do that, you have got to have a certain level of concentration, actually quite a high level of concentration. Now that says nothing about sitting in one place, becoming absorbed in pleasant states. And so anyone who is saying that there is a prerequisite for enlightenment that includes sitting in one place as a static jhana yogi, being absorbed in pleasant states for some period of hours—that person is just flat wrong.

Jhana is not a big deal. We have got to stop taking it out of our experience and making it special. Jhana is very natural and will happen and does happen to anyone who gets even First Path. The fact that people are getting to First Path and only then understanding what jhana is—I don’t know how much clearer it could be–this proves that it isn’t necessary to achieve some arbitrary level of mastery over jhana before getting First Path.

JG: You can see why the crucial distinction is dis-embedding, and isn’t dis-embedding just another way of saying vipassana.

KF: Yes. Vipassana is objectification, and objectification instantly leads to dis-embedding.

JG: But if you do not really have a clear understanding of what you’re doing…for example when I was a college student and I started doing raja yoga, the teacher said “Meditation is about absorption.”

KF: Ha!

JG: These were Indian graduate students, pretty serious meditators who I’m sure were getting into deep absorption states, but there was no explicit understanding of the need to investigate those states or to dis-embed from them, at least that I could see. So at one meeting a person stood up and was just like “I do not know what has happened. What is going on? My meditation has left me.” He was just so agitated because he was probably hitting one of these stages.

KF: Yes. So look what happened there. That person was probably investigating his experience and actually making progress. He had probably entered one of these unstable states, which happen after some of the stable states. (Stable and unstable layers of mind alternate or are sandwiched in-between each other in the lower levels. Later on in the higher levels, they are all stable.) But the point is, if you are in stable states in the first three jhanas and then suddenly you get into the unstable states, developmentally, between the third jhana and the fourth, you might be very tempted—and let’s face it, most people do have this experience of saying, “Oh my meditation used to be so good and now it has all gone to hell.”

Unless your teacher understands how these stages line up developmentally, you could get some really bad advice. Your teacher might say, “Oh no, you are doing it wrong. You have to do this to get back to stability.” That is not true. You are doing it right and if you continue on, accepting the instability and becoming free within what now appears to be a hell realm—that is the way forward.

JG: OK, so we have the one extreme view of somehow absorption for its own sake having value. And then you have this other view that seems to be predominant, and you can see why it arose, which has to do with extreme suspicion of anything related to this stuff: jhana, concentration practices. So I guess the flaw there is you have all of these subtle strata of mind that people are saying “Don’t even pay attention to this. Don’t dis-embed from it,” and if you don’t recognize its existence you cannot, by definition, dis-embed. So there is the danger of becoming attached to pleasant states, yes, but there is also the unrecognized danger in not being able to dis-embed from those states.

KF: That’s right. Pleasant states are not the problem at all. The problem is being embedded. You can be just as embedded in pleasant states as you can be in unpleasant states. It is very common for us to be embedded in anxiety and anger and various hell-realm phenomena. And it is frankly not so common for us to be embedded in the pleasant states of jhana because most people do not have access to those states.

But once we get this main idea that embeddedness itself is the problem, irrespective of the state, we have solved it, conceptually. Now in order to actually get enlightened, we have to take that knowledge and apply it, and actually do it—actually objectify things and dis-embed. But once you know that your job is to objectify and dis-embed, it doesn’t matter what the state is. So you work all day long to objectify phenomena in daily life and when you’re sitting, you go deep and you objectify phenomena at more subtle levels. It just so happens that when you sit your mind often quiets down and you access subtler states, which also have to be objectified.

JG: Wow. Well that is very clear.