The Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind includes an interesting article by Jack Kornfield on the multifaceted nature of enlightenment. A brief excerpt follows and the entire article can be read online. It will serve as the subject of our Monday night dharma discussion.
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.