We’re joined again this week by Kenneth Folk, a long-time Theravada practitioner and meditation teacher. Kenneth completes his harrowing spiritual story, all the way to the point, where he says that he, “got off the ride and was done.” He speaks about how uncommon it is, in Western Buddhist circles, to believe that enlightenment is possible, a phenomenon that his teacher Bill Hamilton described as the “mushroom culture.”
Kenneth then goes on to describe two different ways of understanding enlightenment: one as a developmental process, much the way his path is described, and then two, as a timeless realization that’s available at any moment. After his awakening, Kenneth went on to explore the timeless realization through the direct teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, the Dzogchen teachers of Tibet. He found that the direct and developmental teachings could be integrated, and that integration led him to what he calls the “3-speed transmission”. Listen in to hear about the 3-speed transmission, and how one can shift between levels, all the while supporting a deepening sense of awakeness and non-distracted-ness.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened.
Kenneth: There’s a kind of a culture that has grown up in Theravada Buddhism that it is shameful to admit that you have attained any of this. That nice people don’t talk about this, kind of in the way that nice people don’t look up ladies’ skirts. This is a shameful thing, and probably this came about from the rules for monks. Monks are not allowed to claim any state or attainment except to other monks. And for better or worse, I think for worse, we developed, especially in the West, what Bill Hamilton called the “mushroom culture.” By mushroom, he said, “Keep them in the dark and feed them stuff.”
Vince: You mean shit? [laughs]
Kenneth: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. So, this mushroom culture has fed on itself to the point where all of us are stumbling all over ourselves trying to let people know what’s going on without saying it. And I really think it’s high time that some of us say this, which is why I’m saying it, and why I appreciate what Daniel Ingram has done, and he’s really been a pioneer in just coming out and say, “Look, I’m enlightened, and it’s a good thing. And I would really like to help other people get enlightened, and I can do that by telling the truth.” So, that’s where I’m coming from when I have the audacity to make these outrageous claims.
I also want to say that the mushroom culture is not in force everywhere. I can illustrate that by telling a story about when I was at Sayadaw U Kundala’s monastery. This was my third Asian trip, and this was the retreat on which I got Second Path. When I would go to interview with Sayadaw U Kundala, Sayadaw U Kundala doesn’t speak English or, at least, he didn’t at that time, and so there was a translator, a Burmese woman. She would translate what I had to say. So, if told Sayadaw U Kundala that I’m experiencing fruitions, which is Theravada Buddhist way of saying, “I’ve attained a path.” And said to him, this is the second time this has happened. It happened some years back in Malaysia, so this is Second Path. And I would ask him very technical questions about how to re-experience the fruitions from Second Path versus the fruitions from First Path, for example. He would explain to me, “Yes, you can do both of those things by making a resolution to experience either one of those types of fruitions.”
So, of course, the translator would tell her friends at the monastery about this Western yogi who was making such progress. The Burmese are very generous and very eager to share their form of Buddhism with foreigners. So, I became kind of a curiosity at the monastery. “Oh, look, here’s this Western yogi who is actually getting it, actually making some progress by our system.” People would come around and give me gifts, hoping to gain merit, because according to the tradition if you give a gift to someone who has attained some level of enlightenment, you gain merit. Essentially, brownie points, Buddhist brownie points for giving the gift. The more enlightened they are, the more brownie points you get.
When I left there, I got a ride to the airport by a very nice man who was a member of the Board at that monastery. And he appararently was well connected in Rangoon, because when we get to the airport, he kind of waved his hand and I didn’t have to wait in the Customs’ line with all the other people at the airport. We just went to the front of the line, walked through, smiled at the armed guards there, and I then walked in to the waiting room at the gate and just sat there, all by myself, waiting for other people to go through customs and come in.
But I was walking away, this man, the Board member, shouted to me and waved, and he said, “You got two, come back for a third.” So, here’s this guy, in the middle of a public airport, not the least bit ashamed to say to me, “You got Second Path.” This was so counter to my understanding of how Western Buddhists viewed these things, with everybody succumbing to the mushroom culture and really frowning upon any kind of disclosure.
Ok, so that was a bit of a digression. Now, we go back to, I’m claiming that I had attained Third Path. So, now, we’re talking about the mid-90’s through the early 2000’s, and I was really depressed during this time. So I had access to all kinds of remarkable mind states, all these jhanas, and yet, my life was in a shambles, my brain chemistry was scrambled. I was taking Prozac and whatever antidepressants seemed to work best. I tried several. I was taking an anti-anxiety drug at night, in a very low dose, but I couldn’t sleep at night. So, here I am, you’d think that, according to all of the legends about what an Anagami is, a Third Path practitioner, I should have been really together, and I wasn’t.
Let’s go to 2004. In 2004, I found myself at a meditation center in New Mexico. One day, meditating intensively, doing walking meditation, I was walking under a pepper tree out in the desert, I gave myself permission to be enlightened. My teacher, Bill Hamilton, had died in 1999, so this is five years, about five years after his death. On his deathbed in the hospital, he told me, he said, “I’m thinking about, if I ever get out of this hospital bed, I’m going to write a book and I’m going to come out of the closet as having attained Arahatship.” Now, those were not his exact words, and I can’t remember the exact words, but it was very clear to me what he was saying. He had attained Fourth Path, this thing that, as far as I knew, wasn’t supposed to happen. People would—in the Buddhist circles where I hang out in, basically, around the Insight Meditation society culture— people would speak in hushed tones about how some person who, “Oh maybe Dipa Ma was a Third Path, or maybe Sayadaw U Pandita, attained Arahatship.” Very few people were even rumored to be Arahats. So, here was Bill, this regular guy, regular American guy, saying that he had done, he had attained this lofty goal of enlightenment, and I believed him. It seemed like a very credible claim to me from what I knew of him.
So back to the desert, here I am, walking under the pepper tree, giving myself permission, saying, “You know what, I’ve suffered enough. If there is some kind of a suffer-o-meter to determine who has the right to be enlightened, I think I’ve finally gotten there. Can I just be done with this already?” And it occurred to me that I actually was. In that moment, I realized I was done with this. I turned to an imaginary Buddha, standing next to me, and I said, “Done is what’s need to be done,” which is a kind of a traditional formula, where supposedly the freshly minted Arahats would walk up to the Buddha, and they would say, that’s something like “Done is what’s needed to be done.” It was done. I knew that this ride, and this is what Bill Hamilton called “the ride.” The ride that had begun on that day when I saw the white light back in ‘82, this thing that had taken hold of me, and had been the most important thing in my life for these 22 years, was over. Whatever it was that I was trying to get to, it was no longer an issue.
So, that was 2004, and this is 2010, so, about six years ago this happened. I’ve never had occasion to doubt that. That particular circuit was completed in that moment. And, interestingly enough, my depression went away. I was able to stop taking my antidepressants and my anti-anxiety medicine, and I haven’t had any trouble sleeping since then. Something very significant happened that day, and although, it was not, by any means, a spectacular thing, and some said it was a joke, because I remember thinking, “Well, you know, big deal. I don’t even know why I went through that. I can’t remember why I was going through that process for 22 years, but it’s over now, and I wonder what I’ll do next? I don’t know what my new project will be.”
I remember walking into my little yogi trailer out in the desert, and writing on my calendar, this as June, 13th, I wrote on my calendar, “I see the elephant.” By that, I meant that, where I had been able to see parts of it, I’d been able to see parts of the puzzle, it finally all came together and made sense to me how the various practices, how they go together. Of course, it’s a reference to the blind men in the elephant where one blind man says, “The elephant is like at tree,” because he’s holding the elephant’s leg. Another man says, “The elephant is like a wall,” because he’s touching the side of the elephant. And one guy says, “The elephant is like a snake.” Well, a blind man can’t see the whole elephant. In that moment, I saw the elephant.
Now, does that mean that I achieved some kind of Superman status and became a perfect being, incapable of any immoral act, blah, blah, blah? No, not at all. Does that mean there is nothing more for me to accomplish in this life, and now I can go around for the rest of my life in a cosmic bliss out? No, it most certainly doesn’t mean that. What it means is that there is an organic physio-energetic process that is inherent to humans, most people will never even begin it. But some people do, and if you are on this ride, you know. It has an end. There is a time when the circuit is complete and the ride is over.
Now, my practice, since then… I’m just as excited about practice as I always was, but it’s a very different orientation. Whereas before, I was out of sync and I was being pulled along by this kind of dharmic gravity, you could say. I didn’t know where I was being pulled, but I knew I was being pulled. Well, that’s over, but now there’s the sense of being in sync with it. So, really, it’s more like kind of rolling down a grassy hill, like you used to do when you’re a kid. It’s effortless, and if I just surrender to it, it goes deeper.
Okay, I’d like to wrap it up by saying that there are two ways, generally speaking to conceive of enlightenment. One of them is developmental enlightenment, which is everything I just described, that was all about developing through time, this kind of spiritual materialism as Trungpa Rinpoche would say, where you get something. You think of this as something you’re going to get. Now, in practice, you don’t get anything. But you can, at least, think of it in those terms. This is a very important aspect of enlightenment and it’s, letss say, one side of the coin or one way of understanding it.
There’s another way of understanding enlightenment. Where we have development on the one hand, on the other hand, we have Realization. Now, Realization, this is a very exciting thing. Realization doesn’t happen through time. In any given moment, in this moment, either I’m awake, either awakeness is awake to itself, or it isn’t. If it is, that can be called a realized moment. Now, it isn’t possible to develop through time to that moment, it isn’t possible to develop through time through to this moment. This moment is here, it’s complete. It’s best out of it’s being outside of time. It’s not the future, it’s not the past, and it’s not the present, because it isn’t within the time stream. In this moment, it can be seen that there is Awakeness, there is Awareness, that is aware of itself. That doesn’t require anything, that’s just the way it is. And, the reason is possible to go through a lifetime and not notice that, is because we’re distracted.
Now, since I went through my big process and started to think of myself as this… shortly after my developmental enlightenment, thinking, “Wow, I’m kind of a big deal! Look what I did.” Never mind the fact that I was also able to see that “I am a fiction.” But still there was a possibility of corrupting it, of saying “I accomplished this.” About that time, it was in 2004, shortly after my enlightenment, that I moved to Massachusetts, got on staff there in the maintenance department, which is where I met Vince. It’s also where I met my wife and I began to see that my wife was able to see that this moment, she was able to see the Awareness, the Awakeness. She was able to be awake, in this moment, without having gone very deeply into this developmental process. In other word, she hadn’t yet attained First Path and yet in some ways, I felt like I was a baby compared to her in terms of just being awake. And I began to get really interested in direct path teachings, for example: Ramana Maharshi, and Eckhart Tolle, and Adyashanti, and the Dzogchen masters, Tulku Urgyen and Tsokyni Rinpoche.
I began to ask myself, for one thing, how is it possible that these teachers are teaching a kind of Awakeness that doesn’t involve grinding through 22 years of abject depression? OR are they? I guess the question is what were they doing? Since 2004, I’ve been applying myself to learning the techniques, and the non-techniques, if you will, of the direct path. And I have been asking if there is a way to teach this where Realization and development are taught side by side, and I think there is a way. My own understanding, I think is much more complete since I stopped thinking only in developmental terms and really embraced direct path teachings, and I’d like to talk about how I tie these two things together in my own teaching, which I call the 3-speed transmission.
Vince: Sure. Yeah, let’s get into it. It’s interesting, his is something that only recently kind of formally merged in the way that you’re talking. When I met you, you weren’t really talking in these terms, so this is kind of a recent development. Yeah, so let’s jump into it and also, while you’re describing it, I’d love to hear some of the influences on this, because obviously this is a model or an approach, so that there were certain teachers, aybe some you’ve already mentioned who kind of influenced you in this regard.
Kenneth: Good. The most influential teacher for me in this was Ramana Maharshi. Ramana taught a method of self-inquiry where he would have the yogi ask “who am I?” And he explained, and this is characteristic of all the Advaita teachers, he explained that if you ask “who am I?” and if you let your consciousness turn back on itself and take itself as object, you come to a place that can be called the Witness. I don’t know that Ramana called it this, but some people do. So, you come to this pure witnessing consciousness. This way of seeing is a transpersonal way of seeing, and by that, I mean that it’s not the small self anymore. It’s looking at the world through an entirely different lens. If you do that, if a yogi does that and becomes absorbed in this witnessing consciousness, a couple of things happen: for one, in the moment of being absorbed in that way, you aren’t suffering because you’re not personally involved in the life of this individual. So this Kenneth, from the point of view of the Witness, whether this Kenneth lives or dies, that’s not an issue. So, it’s an immediately freeing point of view.
I should say that the Witness is not a nebulous affair. To be locked in to this particular perspective, it’s very clear when this happens and I would urge people to experiment with this. Ask “who am I?” until you get to a point where it seems that there’s only this transpersonal “I” knowing itself. The other interesting thing that happens here with this witness, which by the way, is what I call “second gear practice.” The other interesting thing that happens is that it burns itself out. Ramana called it the stick that stirs the fire and is eventually consumed by it. So this is an extremely important clue on how to get to the point where you can see this awareness anytime, or rather how to get to where you can surrender to this awareness without being distracted. Well, there’s a very pragmatic way to do that, and that’s to dwell as the witness.
About the 3-speed transmission. The 3-speed transmission is obviously a kind of tongue-in-cheek, a pun on a car transmission, and also the Buddhist idea of transmission where you’re transmitting enlightenment from one individual to another. The basic idea is this: third gear is just to surrender to Awareness. In this moment, there is only Awareness. The entire manifest world is arising and passing away within Awareness, in this moment, and that’s something that can be directly apprehended. That is Realization, to see that in the moment. That’s third gear. If you can do that, do that.
Now, it may not always be possible. Maybe the momentum of distraction is very strong, and any amount of my suggesting to surrender to awareness it’s not working. It’s falling on deaf ears. Fine. In that case, downshift. You would downshift to second gear, and second gear is to dwell as the witness. You do that by asking, “who am I?” until you feel the clear sense… you ask, “Who am I? Who am I?” and the answer comes back, “I.” And you stay there, you sit with that, becoming absorbed in that sense, that transpersonal sense of “I,” understanding that not only are you getting a break from the difficulties of being an individual, but understanding that this will eventually burn itself out. The very subtle subject-to-object duality of self taking itself as object, if you will, consciousness taking consciousness as object, even that collapses, and when that falls away, there’s only awareness. So, second gear, dwelling as a witness, is both a short-term fix to suffering because it’s upstream from suffering. Suffering is only going to happen to an individual, and the Witness is upstream, you could say, from the individual. It has the long-term benefit of leading to the complete collapse of subject-object duality, for at least, a moment, but there are no limits to how many moments this can happen.
Now, let’s say you’re listening to this and you say, “Okay, I’ve tried ‘Who am I?’ and for whatever reason, I’m not getting any traction with that.” Then I say, “No problem, downshift to first gear.” First gear is balancing concentration and investigation, ala vipassana-samatha meditation. Now, the idea here, this is a very mechanistic developmental approach, where you are going to access and penetrate a finite number of strata of mind over a period of years, this takes most people years or decades, getting to ever more subtle layers of mind until you get to the point where you have seen through all the layers of mind and, thus, are no longer confusing them with self.
The way these things can work together is that the higher you get on this developmental scale, the less distractible you are. The less distractible you are, the more likely it is that you will be able to surrender entirely to Awareness. There’s a way that the first gear practice of samatha-vipassana as taught in Theravada Buddhism, there is a way that that can be parlayed into the Witness, and this is one of the most exciting things that I’ve discovered, is how these things tie in, and I’ll tell you exactly specifically how that is.
If a yogi can get to the point where they can develop the jhanas, the realms of absorption, to the level of the sixth jhana, that jhana is called the “jhana of infinite consciousness.” For those of you who don’t have experience with the jhanas, you’ll be surprised once you develop this, how clear these are. It might be easy to imagine that these are just kind of made up or imaginary, but once you experience them, you realize that these are real in the sense that the rooms in your house are real. You can walk from your kitchen to your dining room and you can tell which is which. They look different, they have different characteristics in all sorts of different ways, and you can learn to very skillfully navigate this territory.
So, let’s say you get to the place where you can access the jhana of infinite consciousness. If you do, when you do, and I hope you will, you’ll notice that the predominant characteristic of the sixth jhana, the jhana of infinite consciousness, is none other than the Witness. When you get in touch with that Witnessing consciousness, you can then go to the other jhanas, and notice that this Witnessing consciousness is also present in the other jhanas. In fact, it’s the one thing that looks the same when you go from one jhana to the next, there is this one thing in common. It’s the Witness, the sense of the watcher, this impersonal watcher of the situation.
So, what are you going to do with that? Well, at that point, you’ve made the transition from first gear to second. I initially presented these in reverse order. I said, “Notice Awareness as Awareness now,” that’s third gear. If you can’t do that, downshift to second gear, which is the Witness. If you can’t do that, go to the first gear. But if you’re working your way up, from first gear, that’s fine, too. Once you get to sixth jhana, you do have access to the Witness, and you can dwell as this transpersonal, trans-jhanic watcher. By trans-jhanic, I mean, that you can put the Witness in the foreground and watch the jhanas cycle through your experience in the background. This is a very efficient way, not only to develop further strata of mind, but also to develop the Witness to the point where it burns itself out, and there’s just Awareness, which is Realization.