In “Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened” (BG 156) and “Unifying Developmental Enlightenment and Timeless Realization” (BG 157), Kenneth Folk shared his spiritual journey and practical path to enlightenment with Buddhist Geeks listeners. In the interview below, the long-time Theravada practitioner and meditation teacher explores his integrative approach to the theory and practice of awakening in more detail. Folk was interviewed by Atlanta-based freelance writer Joel Groover.
“It is good to tame the mind, because a well-tamed mind brings happiness.” -Buddha
JOEL GROOVER: You have talked about the traditional story of the elephant and how the different blind men, as they touch a different part, see only a piece of the whole. Could you talk more about how one starts to see the elephant for what it is?
KENNETH FOLK: First, let me just say that the basic idea here is that it is possible to be enlightened. The way to get enlightened is to see clearly what is going on. And that means objectifying or “taking as object” whatever is in your experience, and that experience can be categorized.
So you can initially divide that up into four categories of experience: There’s personal experience, then transpersonal experience, then what could be called the transcendent, and then there is the absolute.
And if all of that can be seen, anything that is objectified is not “I.” Because surely “I” must be the one who is looking. Even that is debunked, because at the transpersonal level, which is the second of the four, the “I”, the sense of the watcher, is directly targeted. So one phrase for that is “turn the light around.”
And when the watcher is targeted, when the object is the so-called witness, well then who is zoomin’ who? Who is looking at whom?
The idea isn’t to answer any questions; it is just to objectify it. So objectifying it is the whole program. Because when everything is objectified, including the transpersonal watcher, then all of the changing phenomena of mind and body, which is first, then the transpersonal watcher, which is second, then the more subtle level of the knowing, which is the transcendent—when all of that is objectified, there is awareness. There is still awareness, but it cannot be objectified. It cannot be taken as object because it is irreducible. That which cannot be further reduced is just awareness.
And it is also possible to completely surrender until there’s just that awareness. In that moment, you cannot even say what is going on. That is ineffable. These moments can happen many times; the experience opens up until there are spaces between the phenomena that arise in the mind. We normally miss those. When that is recognized—when awareness just is with itself, instead of filling the gaps with noise—there is … space is what is really going on in the mind.
So this understanding of these four perspectives—the four categories of perspective, the fourth of which is the absolute (it has an asterisk by it because it is not really a perspective). But when everything in those first three categories is seen, that is full enlightenment. And then you can further divide that up in fairly elaborate ways. But it is all with the aim of generating practices that target each level until literally nothing is going on that cannot be objectified.
A lot of this basic understanding actually comes from Ken Wilber, way back in 1973 when he wrote The Spectrum of Consciousness. He pointed out that the arguments between the various Buddhist traditions are basically coming from the fact that the mind is set up in this stratified structure, and the different traditions are targeting different parts, different places in the mind.
It has become so clear to me over the years that Wilber has this right. Theravada Buddhism is targeting the personal category of perspective; Advaita—not that it is Buddhism, but it is similar—is targeting the transpersonal and the transcendent; and Dzogchen and Zen are targeting the absolute.
JG: And for me the question has been in my own practice, figuring out how to take the right approach, a balanced approach. So I felt like for a long time I was just sort of staring into space with the idea that as soon as I took an object I was creating subject and object and that that was dualistic. So I was trying to just observe without any observer, so to speak. But really I was kind of just spaced out. So the discovery of concentration practices has been kind of what is helping me, I think, move my practice forward a little bit.
It seems to me that that gets to maybe the mushroom culture a little bit, not talking about samadhi. Anything to say there?
KF: Yeah. With regard to samadhi (concentration), samadhi has been really highly valued in Theravada Buddhism, and Advaita, and frankly Zen. But they are all talking about it in different ways. In Zen, they sometimes manage to make it sound like it is your enemy, because they will say, “Well, there isn’t any state that we are interested in.” Because, after all, they are targeting the absolute.
JG: Yeah. When I went to a Soto Zen center for the first time, I got no instruction really. Which at the time I was happy about. I thought, “Yeah, they really get it.” So they just said, “Let your eyes see and sit up straight and be present.” That was all the instruction I got. That was kind of what I wanted to hear at the time.
KF: That kind of instruction can, I think, be really useful if it is part of a whole package of instruction. Part of the trouble is that the people who are teaching it may or may not know what they’re saying; they might just be parroting something they have heard.
The other part is, if all they have is that instruction—and even if they have been quite successful with that—they don’t understand how to objectify the lower levels.
Let’s say you have access, anytime you can remember to do it, to notice the absolute. Well, that is very high-level practice. But if you cannot, for example, objectify your thoughts, you are embedded in those. This is pure Ken Wilber. You are embedded in whatever you cannot objectify. It is very, potentially, bad news to be embedded in your thoughts, even if you are highly enlightened by a certain definition.
If you are embedded in the perspective of the personal, then you can be a rage-a-holic like Zen masters are somewhat known for, and you’re going to rationalize it because, after all, all Zen masters are rage-a-holics, or however you want to spin that. But the problem is, they do not have a technology for dealing with it.
The obvious answer is you have to be able to see it—you have to be able to see this anger arising, name it as anger and see it pass away.
JG: And that is the gift of the Mahasi Sayadaw approach.
KF: That is exactly right.
So the way I see this, you can come from your head. You can come from your heart. Or you can come from your pants. [laughs]. A lot of what is going on, even with enlightened people, is they are coming from their pants because they do not have the whole spectrum; they are not objectifying the entire spectrum.
JG: So you’re taking an integral approach—this is interesting to me because I go to an integral group, and I struggle a lot to be honest with the integral movement that has emerged. But you know I love Ken Wilber’s ideas. You’re taking an approach that recognizes a lot of different perspectives.
KF: I love the integral idea. I love the idea of integrating what you might call the spiritual line of development with the emotional and social maturity lines of development, because they’re not quite the same. They are related. What is really exciting to me now—and this is the cutting edge of my practice—is that at a certain point, if you take the uncompromising spiritual development approach, at a certain point you get to this coming-from-the-heart perspective.
There is a way to tie this into kundalini energy and the way it moves around and stabilizes in the body. But for a long time you are practicing and you are going “Wow. This really isn’t turning me into a saint by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not losing any of my baser desires as the fantasy legends say I should.” And you can get really cynical about that.
But there does come a time when you can see the relationship between emotional maturity and spiritual development. Because when you’re coming from the heart, which develops later … First off, everybody is coming from the body, from the pants. As you develop, you eventually come from what I call the head, which is the transpersonal, but you are somewhat dissociated from your life.
But then it goes further. The energy comes back down into the heart, into the body, and now it is integrated. So you don’t have to reject your life, the people around you, or your baser desires. Those are all seen as arising and passing, and you are also able to see that the absolute is the ground in which all of this is arising, just pure awareness. It is awareness that is not other than the entire manifest world.
And so you get this integration and at that point, because the ability for empathy is so enhanced, the ability to express compassion is enhanced. And so now it becomes really interesting to say, “Well, I don’t need to get any more enlightened, but could I be a person? Could I learn how to be a person? And can I learn how to be a better community member?”—all of those things that are really not that interesting if what you’re focusing on is moving your energy up the ladder.
I have been thinking about who I most want to reach with my teaching. I do not see myself as the wide end of the funnel. So people who just want a little bit of inspiration or some light reading probably won’t like what I’m doing. So for the most part I’m talking to people who have already had the arising and passing away [the fourth Insight Knowledge of Theravada Buddhism]. They are already on the ride. I do know that there are some people who, for whatever reason—good karma would be one Buddhist way of saying it—but for whatever reason they are interested in this even before the arising and passing.
JG: Adyashanti talks about how he sees all of these people who have had an awakening and are now working on “How do I make this abiding, an abiding awakening rather than just this sort of fleeting situation?” And I guess one thought I had was that he seems to be coming from the non-dual end, and maybe your contribution is in part helping people take an approach that involves developmental enlightenment and First Gear as well as Second and Third gear–to use that to go from that first awakening to a more abiding awakening. Does that make any sense?
KF: Yes. That is my hope as well. I know what you’re talking about because I have read most of Adyashanti’s book The End of Your World, and I’ve also heard him speak at satsang, both live and on tape.
Adyashanti teaches to recognize what is always already the case and make that the baseline of your life. And then he goes back into developmental practices. He couches it in his own language, and I find this really ironic and interesting. All along in his teaching he dismisses development. He points out that development through time is not the way—that is the long way around. Just see the reality now. See what is already here. That is the uncompromising Third-Gear approach. I love that approach.
And then he comes back and he says, (paraphrasing) “OK but now that you are advanced, I want you to do what is essentially developmental practice, but I’m going to call it something else. You are going to notice your experience; you are going to conjure up a difficult experience for you and then you’re going to really notice the thoughts and sensations and moods of your life.”
Well, that is freaking vipassana! [laughs]. Let’s just be really clear about all of this.
JG: Totally. That reminds me of the big insight I had about Krishnamurti—I went nuts for Krishnamurti when I was in my early 20s—which is that he does have objects. I would literally go into the woods and sit on a rock and stare at a tree for two hours and try to listen to the silence of the tree, try to hear the silence beyond thought or beyond actual physical sound vibrations. Well those are objects, they’re just subtle objects.
JG: And so so even Krishnamurti did what you’re talking about.
KF: That’s beautiful. Yeah. A lot to say about Krishnamurti. I won’t go there right now. I’m a big fan, too. I have come to see, not only his great strengths, but his weaknesses.
JG: I’m not the single-minded Krishnamurti guy that I once was, but I appreciate that.
KF: Well, one of the reasons it is so important to always stay open is that we go through these phases—and they’re actually quite predictable; they are map-able—and I see it as a spiral more than I see it as a linear development.
But we go through phases where we can get to a point where we see the absolute and we say “Well, none of this matters; I don’t even exist.” Why should I be concerned with karma? Everybody is just fooling themselves. And it is all true. It is all right. And yet, there is more, because the karma—this big train of karma that is following us around and generating this experience—does not evaporate the minute you see through it. It keeps on rolling. It is like there is this train of karma and the illusion of self rolling down the tracks together. When you get enlightened, the caboose of the apparent self uncouples from the train, but they are still rolling down the tracks together until the end of your life.
So you must kind of hold these ideas lightly when you come to the place where you realize that it is all an illusion. The way I have put it before, after enlightenment you step in a big bucket of dukkha and you realize life goes on.
And then you have got to behave as though all of this is real. That is where compassion comes in.
JG: And are there still hooks? Adyashanti talks about hooks—does a person have to continually watch out for hooks?
KF: Right. You have to continually watch out for hooks and you have to acknowledge that you are going to get hooked. Now there may be a time when you never get hooked but I doubt it. And frankly Adyashanti addresses this in that same book. He says he was so relieved when he read about how Nisargadatta, who was one of his heroes, answered the question, essentially, “Do you still get hooked?”
Nisargadatta’s answer was, “Well, yes, I do, but I immediately recognize that it is unskillful, and I let it go.” Adyashanti says, “Well, I was so relieved.”
So Adyashanti is not claiming, either, that he does not get hooked. But we have this theoretical continuum that we can conjure up, with “I am completely embedded and always hooked” on one end, and then at the other end of the continuum “never, ever hooked — complete Teflon mind.”
And as an ideal, we are always working toward, looking toward “never, ever get hooked,” understanding that that might not happen. And it is fine. Because part of being enlightened is seeing that even complete freedom is an idea arising in this moment, something to be seen through.