BG 156: Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by Kenneth Folk, a long-time Theravada practitioner and meditation teacher, who describes in exquisite detail his spiritual journey. It began in earnest at the age of 24, when having done several hits of LSD, he had a life-altering experience that put him squarely on the path of seeking. Several years later, he really began gaining some traction, when he met his teacher Bill Hamilton, who claimed that enlightenment was something that could be systematically attained by applying a technique.

By dedicating himself completely to those techniques, and through doing years of intensive meditation practice in the West and in Asia, Kenneth claims that he went through a gradual development through the various “stages of enlightenment,” described in the literature of Theravada Buddhism. Listen in to hear Kenneth describe these stages, as well as the many things he learned along the way. And listen in to next week’s episode, to hear Kenneth complete his story.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to Part 2, Unifying Developmental Enlightenment and Timeless Realization.

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Vince: Hello, Buddhist geeks, this is Vince Horn. And I’m joined today, actually I’m really excited. I’m joined today by a close friend and a teacher of mine named Kenneth Folk. Kenneth, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.

Kenneth: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Vince: Yeah.

Kenneth: I’m excited about this too.

Vince: Cool. Cool. So, you’re a long time practitioner. Probably been practicing, what about fifteen, twenty years. Something like that?

Kenneth: About, lets see, since 1982 was my first big opening. So, twenty some, however many that is.

Vince: Long, just longer than I’ve been alive. [Laughs] Let’s up it that way.

Kenneth: [Laughs] OK.

Vince: And in most of your practice, most of your formal practice has been in the Theravada tradition, so you’ve done a lot of retreats here in the West and also in Asia. Which, maybe we’ll get into that more. And currently you’re a meditation teacher, kind of spare time, online. You do most of your teaching and sharing and there’s a community you’re leading at So if people are interested they can check it out. And then, your main career is actually as a ESL teacher. English as a Second Language. I understand you just finished your Masters. And I remember you starting your Bachelors, so you did this in like, a couple years. You just flew through school.

Kenneth: I did. I started my, my Bachelors four years ago. So I got my Bachelors and my Masters in four years. I was able to test out of a lot of stuff. So, that’s the advantage of starting college when you’re forty-eight years old.

Vince: [laughs] Nice. And I bet you had some of the benefits of the meditation practice to help with the studying and stuff too.

Kenneth: Yeah, I suppose that it doesn’t hurt to be able to concentrate.

Vince: And then, just to say a little bit about how we met. I met you through Daniel Ingram who’s someone we’ve had on the show a few times. And you guys were friends for a long time. And I met you at the annual three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. And it was so cool, you were on staff there. And, I had a chance before I got there, to be e-mailing with you about my practice. And then we chatted before the retreat started. I was there for six weeks. And then afterwards. And it was really nice speaking with you. I felt like I had a lot of support. And, because you have a unique perspective, which we’ll get into, it really helped me figure some stuff out and find a direction to go in after that, which was my first long retreat. So I really appreciated that. And then, since then, I’ve been bugging you and pestering you every once in awhile, saying, “Hey Kenneth, you want to be on Buddhist Geeks?”. And the timing just wasn’t right. So finally, I bugged you enough and the timing was right, so thank you for again, taking the time.

Kenneth: The truth is a feel really honored to be on the show. And I’ve always wanted to be on the show. But it was a matter of, really just not having enough time being in college and Grad school. And so now, the time is right. And because I’m not in school I can devote so much more time to teaching. So if there’s a big influx of business or website or new students, well, I’m in a position now to, to take care of them.

Vince: Nice. So, one thing that I thought would be fun, and I’ve heard you share little bits and pieces of your, kind of your story. I thought it would be cool to go into your spiritual path. You said your first opening was in 1982. It would be interesting to hear, kind of how you got into this stuff and then how it progressed from there.

Kenneth: Good. Well, it will be fun for me to tell the story. Because, although I’ve told parts of it, I’ve never really told the whole thing. So, I might wax eloquent and tell the whole story here.

Vince: Great.

Kenneth: I want to set it up just by saying that I am audacious enough… What I really want to say here is that it’s possible to get enlightened. And I know that, because it happened to me. And it wasn’t entirely by accident. In other words, twenty-eight years of working at it, and it’s an ongoing process… So I’m hoping that by telling the story, other people understand that regular, average people who aren’t wearing robes, and aren’t even Asian. Or whether they’re Asian or not. It is possible for ordinary people to get enlightened.

The first time that, even the concept of meditation entered my consciousness, was when I was in high school in Southern California. I remember watching a film strip. And this particular film strip was about Japan. And they showed some Zen monks, sitting. And the captions said that the idea here was for the mind not to wander. And if the mind wandered for any of these people who were sitting in black robes, cross legged on the floor, they would raise their hand. And then some other guy in a black robe would whack them with a stick. That just struck me as being so remarkable. In the first place, that you would volunteer to be whacked by a stick. And in the second place that you would even care if your mind wandered. So that kind of rattled around for many years, but the truth is that I wasn’t spiritually inclined at all.

So fast-forward until I was twenty-four years old, it’s 1982 now. I was a suicidally depressed cocaine addict in Los Angeles. I was a professional musician, and I had a lot of free time to sit around being depressed and wondered how my life had gone so terribly wrong. I was trying to kick my cocaine habit, and I was not able to do that, it was lingering and torturing me.

One night, having exhausted all of the cocaine in the house, and feeling depressed, I then took 4 hits of LSD, and while I’m neither advocating nor taking any kind of a moral stance on drugs this is what happened to me. So, I took the LSD and I watched a couple movies on Television.

I watched part of the movie Shogun about a European ship pilot who, I believe, was shipwrecked in Japan and essentially adopted Samurai culture. There was one scene that just happened to come on during the short period of time I was watching it. It’s where this European pilot, who has become a Samurai, decides to commit ritual suicide, Seppuku, in front of his Shogun, or his Samurai master. So he takes out his knife, and he’s about to plunge it into his abdomen and disembowel himself. Just as he’s tensing his muscles to do this, another Samurai reaches over and grabs his hand, and prevents him from doing it, because the Shogun had given a signal “No, don’t let him do it.” I thought to myself “What changes would go on in the mind of a person who had accepted death completely in a moment and yet didn’t die?” This seemed extremely profound to me. So I turned off the T.V., I went into my bedroom and lay on my back on my bed, and I had nothing really left to do except reflect upon the unsatisfactoriness of my life.

One last movie reference here. I thought about a movie I had seen called Little Big Man. There’s a scene in that movie where an old Indian chief goes outside, lies down on the funeral pyre, it’s not lit, it’s just a bunch of sticks at this point. So he lies down on it and says to himself “Today is a good day to die.” This goes through my mind, and I thought to myself “Yes, yes indeed, today is a good day to die.” My mind felt so powerful, and so focused in that moment, I really believed, I was absolutely convinced, that I could will myself to death. By the way, in the movie, the old Indian chief doesn’t succeed the first time, he lies down and he doesn’t die, he gets up and goes about his business. But at the end of the movie he does it again and it works, he dies.

So I’m lying there, meditating, I had learned to meditate a couple of years earlier. My brother thought he’d do it as a kind of relaxation exercise, just follow the breath and kind of go into the dark void, behind your eyelids and relax. As I was going about dying, a very scary thing happened. It occurred to me that if I did die, I would be opening myself up to whatever forces were out there. I had a very visceral sense that there were some kind of malevolent forces, some kind of evil that would just wash over me and take over if I let down my guard. I think I also understood the irony in that moment that I had never let down my guard before. So here I was, 24 years old, and somehow I had managed to keep up this wall, to keep something, who knows what, from entering my consciousness and taking it over. I could feel this malevolence clamoring outside the gates, trying to get in, and it was very scary to say the least.

But it occurred to me that this evil was so evil that I thought this must be what Satan is, this religious notion of the devil. Now, I wasn’t the least bit religious. I thought that anything religious was ridiculous. I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in the devil. But somehow here I’m thinking the Devil’s gonna get me. [Laughter] And it was no joke. But it then occurred to me. Well, ok I don’t believe in the Devil, but if there is such a thing as the Devil, there must also be such a thing as God. In which case, if I open myself up entirely, then I don’t know, it would either be a wash, or God would win. And somehow that gave me just enough courage to go ahead and take the leap. So I did. I opened up entirely and surrendered to death. And set about the business of dying once again. And something really extraordinary happened. Looking back on it, or reading later about near death experiences, I realized what I had had was a classic near-death experience.

So, the first thing that happened was I had this kind of instantaneous life review. All the things that I’d done that were bad, so to speak, and all the things I’d done that were good, and the fruit of each of those things, this is something that I would later learn, is an insight into Karma. There was no judgment whatsoever. It was completely accepting. All right, this is how it is. This is what happened. No harm no foul. But these are the Karmic results of what you did.

Next thing that happened, I found myself being drawn up through some kind of a tube toward the sky, kind of maybe a glass tube would describe this, and it was a long glass tube. So, I’m going up and up and it’s going on and on, but it’s fascinating. I’m riveted by this experience. And there were some kind of little semi-disembodied beings on the other side of this glass tube, trying to get my attention, keeping pace with me as I am being sucked up toward the sky, and apparently trying to communicate with me. And I remember thinking, “Well, this was kind of a challenge. I’ve got to find a way to communicate with these beings, but we don’t have a language in common. And so how can I communicate with them?” And it seemed to me it was kind of a quest or a challenge. I should find some common ground with these things, so I could communicate. Well, it didn’t happen. I wasn’t able to come up with any common ground. Eventually I outpaced them and they just disappeared.

So I am being sucked up ever faster, this is accelerating. And I was able to see that there was an end to this thing, and the end of it was white light, or this blinding perfect light beyond imagining. And just about the time I first glimpsed it, because I was going so fast, I was pulled into it and merged with it. And this was by far, far and away, the most extraordinary experience of my life. Because now I was one with this kind of cosmic consciousness. And it was a literally mind-blowing experience. I was thinking this must be what people are talking about when they say “God”. But it wasn’t God as I had understood. It wasn’t this kind of simplistic notion of this big guy up in the sky that is like me only big and powerful. It was everything. And in that moment of merger with this cosmic consciousness, or Godhead, would be a way to describe this. It was as though I knew everything. Or everything that needed to be known was known, and yet there was no reason to ask, because it was all there.

This felt really good, and I thought, “All right, everything up until now, my entire life, has been a dream. And now I am awake. Now this is real.” And almost immediately I realized that it wasn’t going to last. I was getting kicked out of the garden. Later I wrote in my journal, “As I lay naked beneath God’s crushing foot, I asked him to throw me a bone. Nobody’s gonna believe this.” At that time, I’d never even heard anybody talk about anything like this. So I thought nobody will believe this. So, isn’t there something I can take back with me? It wasn’t clear whether there was or not. Nonetheless, I was kicked out of the garden, and found myself lying on my back on my bed. With my minds completely blown.

Now, as it happened, my cocaine addiction vanished in that moment. I just never had any inclination to use it again and I suppose you could say that was the bone. I was thrown a bone, and that was it. My life changed completely in that moment and it set me on a quest to try and understand what had happened to me and to try and get it back, because the glow of it in some sense is, I suppose, never wore off, because I knew that there was this reality beyond my ordinary little self, but that was not accessible to me at that time. And so, I began to read.

I began reading self-improvement books like, there’s a fellow named Dr. Wayne Dyer, I suppose there still is such a fellow, and he write books about how to realize your potential as a human being. So that was a place to start. And then at some point I got on to the Ram Dass book, Be Here Now. This started to really click with me now. So, he was making these semi-understandable references to enlightenment and spirituality in talking about his guru and his, all kinds of really interesting stories but, still not particularly clear. It wasn’t really coming around for me.

For those first few years I really didn’t even know there was something called enlightenment or if i even heard the word it wasn’t clear what it might mean. I began reading Buddhist books so now I was getting ever closer. I remember reading Alan Watts and learning something about Zen meditation and then reading The Three pillars of Zen. I remember reading Ouspensky writing about Gurdjieff. All these hints but most of this, frankly, was way too vague, and not particularly helpful.

It wasn’t until 1990 so eight years after my first opening, I met a fellow named Bill Hamilton in Southern California. He was a Buddhist teacher who taught vipassana meditation, in the Mahasi Sayadaw style, and he started talking about enlightenment as though it were something fairly concrete. And he talked about four paths of enlightenment that could be systematically attained by systematically applying the technique. And there were even subdivisions of enlightenment within each of those four paths. And Bill Hamilton, this teacher, began to almost immediately to broadly hint that he had attained at least two of these four paths of enlightenment. And suddenly this all became real for me. Now, rather than being some vague, airy, fairy, Zen teachers would tell stories about, he was a guy who was saying there is something called enlightenment, and I’ve got it. At least I’ve got some significant amount of it, and am working towards getting more of it. Now notice how this is all sounding much like spiritual materialism there’s something called enlightenment and I’m getting it. And yeah, that’s exactly how I was conceiving it at the time, but I really embraced this practice.

Within a few months of meeting this teacher, he had convinced me to do a three-month retreat at IMS, mediation society, which is where I met Vince. This is back in ‘91 I did the three month IMS retreat and I went through a lot of these stages that were described thousands of years ago in the progress of insight. There are these very precise accounts of what happens when a Yogi meditates, and these things happen in invariable order and it doesn’t really matter who you are. This is a remarkable thing that your mind is actually set up, it has the structure and even if you don’t tell a Yogi what to expect, that you will go through these stages just like thousands and millions of Yogis have in the past.

Now after the three-month retreat I went back home to Southern California from Massachusetts, where the meditation center is, and I gave my report to Bill Hamilton, my teacher. And he listened to it, and fell asleep during part of it, because I got a little too verbose with what I thought about what was happening. And he’s really only interested in what was happening. For example, what were the sensations that you felt when you meditated? It took me years to figure out that my teachers didn’t care what I thought about my meditation. It seems so important to me, but they didn’t care. They couldn’t tell anything by that. They could tell where I was on these maps by what actually happened to me. So, if I said, “When I follow the rise and fall of my abdomen, I feel warmth, tightness, expansion, contraction.” Those really simple terms are so much more relevant to a vipassana teacher than anything you think or I think about our meditation.

Well, after listening to this report, Bill told me that I had gone through 11 of the 16 insight knowledges, or nanas, leading up toward the 1st path of enlightenment. And I hadn’t attained 1st path. I was getting there. I was pretty close. So, what I should do, he told me, is go to Asia and do an extended retreat. Which I did.

I had retired, by the way, from being a professional musician. And I’d like to point out, at this moment, that although my drug addiction went away with my first opening in 1982, my depression did not. And I was plagued by depression throughout these years, to the point of being dysfunctional many times. And I gave up playing music professionally in ‘89 or ‘90. Partially as the result of burn out on that lifestyle and that scene. But also because I was depressed, I couldn’t really do anything. And I was consciously or unconsciously committing myself to my spiritual endeavor, my spiritual quest.

So, I was working as a pizza man, Bill told me, “You should go to Asia and do a long-term retreat.” So, I hustled enough pizzas to save up enough money. I sold my little Honda Civic and I bought a one-way ticket to Malaysia, understanding that I was going to then go to Burma. I didn’t know when I was going to come back. I really planned to get enlightened. In fact, I wanted to get 2nd path while I was in Asia, during that first trip. However long that took. I remember saying to my interview teacher, a Burmese monk in Malaysia, “I’m going to stay in Asia until I get 2nd path.” And he looked at me, in his deep voice he said, “Good plan.” That was real validation for me, because then I understood that not only did Bill Hamilton take seriously the idea that enlightenment was possible and that I could do it. But, Sayadaw U Rajinda also took this seriously. These were very real, doable, things. What happened within about two months of arriving at Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre in Penang, Malaysia, under the instruction of the Burmese monk Sayadaw U Rajinda, I did get 1st path. And the way this happened… I had gotten to a point in my practice…

And for those of you who haven’t done a Theravada Buddhist retreat, this is very intensive meditation. So, you get up early in the morning and you meditate, alternating sitting meditation and walking meditation, an hour sitting, an hour walking. Then you eat breakfast, which they feed you. There’s very little for you to do other than meditate. Maybe you’ll spend 10 minutes sweeping the floor of the monastery. And then, back to meditation all day long.

So, I had gotten to the point where I was sitting for a couple of weeks, meditation had become quite uneventful. All of the big, exciting, wow things of my earlier practice had kind of eased up and I was just sitting. This is what they call “knowledge of equanimity” on the map. And one day, after lunch, I was sitting and I got so deep in my meditation, it was almost as though I went to sleep, or just lost consciousness for a moment. And then, suddenly, I perked up and I said to myself, “What was that? Was that it? I think that was it.” It meaning, the 1st path. And I had been alerted by Bill Hamilton that 1st path is actually a great anticlimax. Whereas, the first opening, like what I had with my big unity experience and the white light, that is not enlightenment. That is, as Bill put it… it’s the relationship of a seed to the blossom that will later come to fruition. When you get to 1st path, you’ve completed a certain part of a larger circuit. So you’ve completed a sub-circuit, let’s say. And there’s a sense of stability. You know something happened. You know you’re off that portion of the ride. And, using these words very carefully, because there is the bigger ride, and the bigger ride is what’s over at 4th path.

So the day that I got 1st path in Malaysia, I remembered getting up from that sitting and just walking around laughing for about a day. I felt so free and life was good. It turned out that I immediately found out that I had access to four jhanas. Four jhanas meaning, particular, recognizable states of consciousness that are very pleasant. And I found out I was able to jump between them. So these four jhanas would normally rise in order: one, two, three, four. But, I could go from one to four or from four to two and so forth, jumping around. And depth and clarity of these new meditative states was completely different than it had been the day before. So this was some validation that what intuited to be 1st path was indeed 1st path. And Sayadaw U Rajinda, although he didn’t say to me, “Yes, Kenneth, you attained 1st path.” He hinted around to let me believe that he was buying what I was selling, that I had attained 1st path.

From there, I went to Burma. So during that retreat, that was a year long retreat, half in Malaysia and half in Burma. When I got to Burma, I practiced with Sayadaw U Pandita, this cantankerous old Burmese monk, very famous, very well thought of in Burma and around the world and a real master of the technical aspect of meditation. Sayadaw U Pandita really pounded into me what the meditation technique was. It was very important to him that I not space out or get into sleepy, dreamy, states. And we had some conflict about this, because I was actually in the review phase after 1st path. I never attempted to just sit down and say that to him. But I tried, through my reporting, to let him understand where I was. Now, whether he understood where I was or not, I’ll never know, because it’s not his style to be so direct. But, Sayadaw U Pandita didn’t like the way I was reporting and kind of prodded me to be very specific in the way I was meditating and very careful in the way I was reporting. And I think, kind of launched me on toward the next cycle. On towards 2nd path.

Now, even though I had told Sayadaw U Rajinda, in Malaysia a few months previously, that I was going to stay in Burma until I got 2nd path, I didn’t do that. After about a year, I went back to The States and moved to Alaska, of all places. And took a job as an apprentice wood carver in a little town in Alaska and became the village meditation teacher. After a few months there, I went back to Malaysia, back to Alaska, and back to Malaysia and Burma again. And while in Burma, on my third Asian retreat, I attained to the 2nd path of the 4 paths of insight. And when I got back home, Bill Hamilton, more or less confirmed that for me. So, at this point, it was abundantly clear that the 4 paths were real.

A couple of ways to talk about these four paths. One is in terms of what actually happens to you. In other words: What are the physical phenomena involved? And another way is to talk about what would happen to somebody… What would be the affect upon somebody who attained, for example, 2nd path? There are all kinds of stories and myths that have arisen about this. Most of them are nonsense. And it became ever more apparent to me, as I worked my way up through this system, that I was not becoming a superman and I wasn’t becoming a saint and my morality was not becoming perfected. And what was happening here was a very organic process that I’ve more recently come to think of as what I call a physio-energetic process. There is some energy that arises in the body and can be developed in stages. And that’s what’s happening. All of the stuff, all of the stories that we layer on to that, that if you reach this stage, you’re going to act a certain way or you’re going to be incapable of committing various immoral acts, that’s just fantasy island.

So, for me, through the years, these two understanding, these two ways of mapping enlightenment, of mapping developmental enlightenment, have diverged. I’ve completely given up on the notion that you’re going to develop to the point of being incapable of lying, for example, or of being incapable of anger or lust. I’m hoping that we’ll talk more about that later but I’m going to leave that aside for the moment. So, that was 2nd path.

3rd path was not so clear. It wasn’t clear. I don’t know when the exact moment happened. But, I know that at some point I was able to access jhanas, these absorption states that are beyond the first eight. The first eight jhanas are the ones we hear about mostly in Buddhism. But there are five more. And the five more are called the Suddhavasa or pure abodes. And these are said, according to traditional Theravada maps, to only be accessible to those who have attained 3rd path or beyond. So, the obvious implication of that is that if you have more than eight jhanas, you are an anagami, or a 3rd path practitioner. This, for me, sometime in the mid 90’s, I stumbled upon a ninth jhana. So, the first of the five upper jhanas, the pure abodes.

And this is kind of an interesting story, how this happened, because I was experimenting, as I often do, with techniques. I, basically, am very opportunistic. I’ll do anything just to see what happens. I was thinking about something I’d read that, according to mythology, a certain Buddha called Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of compassion, made a vow. He promised all living beings, to all humans that if we would just invoke his name, we could instantly be transported to the Pure Land, whatever that was, one of the Buddhist heavens. And, so I thought, “Well, here again I don’t believe things just because it’s something to believe in, but I’ll try it.” And I was sitting in my car and saying to myself, “Okay. With all of my sincerity, I’m going to say ‘Namo Amitabha’ in the name of Amitabha Buddha.” I’m going to invoke the name of this Buddha and see if I get transported to the Pure Land. Remember, this is all in the context of being a very depressed adult. So, I tried it, and I found, that I entered a state of boundless gratitude and happiness that seems very much like the Pure Land. I mean I can certainly imagine why somebody would call it that. So, I dubbed it the Pure Land jhana. And I found that I could conjure up that state at will by either remembering this boundless gratitude or, interestingly enough, by focusing on the third eye area which is a chakra, the brow chakra according to some systems. And later on, I realized that that was the moment where I can say for sure I had attained 3rd path.


Kenneth Folk

Kenneth Folk teaches Buddhist meditation and nondual awakening, and hosts an online dharma forum at Kenneth began practicing Theravada Buddhist meditation while working as a professional musician in 1980, and later completed extensive long term meditation retreats in Asia and the U.S. under the tutelage of Burmese masters Sayadaw U Kundala and Sayadaw U Pandita, and American meditation master Bill Hamilton, among others. Kenneth Folk is one of the few spiritual teachers willing and able to speak openly about enlightenment from both the gradual and suddenpoints of view. His "3 Speed Transmission" method of teaching combines the most pragmatic aspects of Theravada Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta in a way that is easy for modern practitioners to understand and apply. Kenneth's goal is to help others find the happiness that is not dependent upon conditions. Website: Kenneth Folk Dharma