“At every level the flavor of the Teaching is of a single nature, the flavor of freedom. It is only the degree to which this flavor is enjoyed that differs, and the difference in degree is precisely proportional to the extent of one’s practice.” – Bhikkhu Bodhi
Joel Groover: OK. So for me it has been kind of a revelation and… you know, it is funny to me. I’ve done a lot of reading of the magazines and dharma books and it was still a revelation that, actually, that these things are real—that these, the Paths, are actually something that people attain. I was really unaware of that. And now, I had studied in a Tibetan tradition when I was younger and took a class on Buddhism, but the Paths were presented, the Paths and Bhumis, along with like the nagas, the water spirits. It was just so bound up in … and this just may be my fault. I was a logical positivist at heart and maybe not listening carefully, but I didn’t really take this seriously.
KF: When I first began thinking about enlightenment, it was after my own first opening in 1982. And when I read about enlightenment it was mostly from the Zen point of view. A person could be forgiven for reading about Zen and concluding that enlightenment is just something that some people believe—in other words, that it is not an objective phenomenon, but just another thing to believe. Because the way it is sometimes presented in Zen, it sounds like an airy fairy, nebulous kind of wisdom that… it is a little bit hard to tell the difference between that and, say, any kind of religion.
JG: I heard one Zen student say, “Well, enlightenment is just moment to moment. You can be enlightened in one moment and not in the next.” What do you think of that?
KF: It is true from a particular point of view, from a particular perspective. From what I call the 3rd Gear perspective, that is true. There is only this moment. This moment is either awake or it isn’t. From another perspective, from the developmental perspective of 1st Gear, that is not at all true. There is an objective, developmental reality that is just as real as your body, to the extent that you can even say this body is real, which again is a matter of perspective, because it is possible to see this body arising and passing away in the mind.
But once you accept that this body is real, you can also accept that there is a developmental process that we call enlightenment, and it unfolds in a very predictable way. Although there are infinite variations depending upon… you can think about deep structure versus surface structure, which is a Noam Chomsky idea. Every human being has a face and most of us have two eyes and a nose and two ears, and so to a certain extent we are all the same, but within that structure, that deep structure of the basic face, there’s so much variation that you can recognize any of the several billion people on earth by the individual quirks of their face.
So we have deep structure and surface structure. The same thing applies to development, to just about any kind of human development. For example, every human being starts out as a fetus and is born an infant, becomes a toddler and adolescent, and eventually becomes a grown-up, should they be so fortunate to survive that long. And that is something we take for granted: that this development just happens in this particular order. Well, why does it happen in this order? Couldn’t it just be chaotic?
But the fact is, it is not chaotic. So when you think about the mind in the same terms, you can see that the mind develops, too. And there is a kind of development of the mind that is optional. Most people won’t ever experience it. If you just look at the raw numbers of all humans, most people will never get this kind of development we are talking about right now, which we are calling enlightenment. And they might not even believe it exists.
But it does exist, and it is just as real as this body.
JG: I hope this isn’t too big a subject, but do you consider the development process that you’re talking about to be wholly material in nature, in that there is no transcendent dimension to it and it could be eventually parsed out by physiologists if they could understand what was going on? Or is it something more mysterious and perhaps spiritual in nature, I guess you could say?
KF: Ultimately it is very mysterious because if you take it far enough, the entire universe is arising and passing away in the mind in this moment—all of this is happening within awareness; all of this is not other than awareness. So it is very mysterious. It certainly can be seen from the point of view of spirituality, and at the same time it can also be thought of, at least the developmental aspect of it, in a materialistic way.
In fact, I think of the developmental process of enlightenment as a physio-energetic process. The reason I say that, there is something quasi-physiological about it. “Quasi,” because apparently scientists cannot measure this energy that yogis experience and that is variously referred to as ki or chi or kundalini.
JG: Yes. Now my friend the neurologist, for example, will say, “Absolutely, thought is a material process. It is the brain acting upon itself.” And so it makes sense to him that cessation of thought in meditation, for example, would have a direct physiological correlate or experience. But talk about chi or prana and he starts to sneer. And he does not even believe that acupuncture works through any kind of energetic system but is just… I can’t remember the term he used for that, but it has to do with manipulation of the standard nervous system and pain-response, that sort of thing.
I don’t know if this is getting into tangential territory, but it is relevant, isn’t it? Because you are talking about an actual developmental process that does involve what traditionally has been called prana or kundalini energy, right?
KG: Yes. And we might do better not to be too eager to sneer. If you look at the history of science, if you sneer at anything that cannot be measured, you look foolish later because we keep finding ways to measure things we previously could not. It is certainly possible that someday we will find a way to measure kundalini.
JG: And to be fair, he is mostly upset about medical claims made—you know, “Put on these magnetic bracelets and your chi will do this or that.” He sees the real-world consequences of people excepting on faith the purported medical benefits of…
KF: I would have to agree with him that there is a lot of foolishness going on, basically having to do with selling people things. So yeah, I’m not so sure about magnetic bracelets. On the other hand, maybe I’m the fool and later we will find out that I sneered too soon. [laughs]
So with regard to kundalini, the important thing to me is that I do experience something that is very suspiciously similar to what other yogis have been writing about for thousands of years, and that my contemporaries also talk about. Now whether you embrace kundalini or not, there is something going on—there is a development going on and it is happening in a particular order. It doesn’t matter who the yogi is; the sequence of events cuts across individuals, traditions, and cultures. So that brings us to the Four Paths of Enlightenment as developed by Theravada Buddhism.
So we say that Theravada Buddhism has a particular system of understanding enlightenment, but it is important to point out that enlightenment is not unique to Theravada Buddhism. We are just talking about their way of describing it.
So they have mapped four “Paths,” or four levels of enlightenment. The “Path” word has to be clarified because in this context it is a technical term that refers to having attained a particular landmark of development. It does not mean the journey or the path leading up to that moment.
Any time somebody says First Path, Second Path, Third Path, they are talking about these developmental landmarks. So at First Path, also known as stream entry, the yogi is someone who has attained that particular developmental landmark called First Path. We’re not talking about a person working up to First Path, so it is a little bit confusing. After attaining First Path, a yogi is actually working toward Second Path.
Now within those four Paths, the territory can be further subdivided into the 16 Insight Knowledges. Altogether, this process that includes the 16 Insight Knowledges is called the Progress of Insight. So the Progress of Insight is a big deal in developmental enlightenment because it helps a teacher understand where a yogi is and, based on that understanding, to give targeted advice to tweak the practice to be more efficient.
Let’s talk about the Progress of Insight as it unfolds between the very beginning, a beginning yogi, and the time that that yogi attains First Path. Because once you understand the Progress of Insight, you have a very profound understanding of how your own mind is set up. I talked about how there are 16 Insight Knowledges, 16 subdivisions within the Progress of Insight. But there is a simpler way to pack it up, which is to divide the Progress of Insight into fourths. The first thing that happens is you are doing what Bill Hamilton called a “slow stirring of the mud,” trying to see what is going on in your own mind. Second, there is a time when the mind opens up and you are able to see the workings of your own mind on a moment-by-moment basis and see that things are arising and passing away in your mind.
That particular opening is called the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena, often abbreviated to the “A&P.” The A&P is crucial to this whole thing, because before the A&P you are not really doing vipassana. You are doing the technique but you’re not penetrating the object, and so things seem solid. At the point of the Arising and Passing Away, everything can be seen to be made up of smaller phenomena that are coming and going momentarily—you just keep digging and drilling down, and you just keep uncovering things that are changing constantly.
JG: This experience of the Arising and Passing Away, is it true that this is often, for practitioners who have had this experience, this is sort of something that they immediately can… If you asked them, “Can you point to a single experience in meditation that was the most profound or revealing to you?” they don’t even hesitate. They know that it was this. And, as Daniel Ingram pointed out, that it is often followed by a question in their mind, “Gee, am I enlightened? That was such a big deal.”
KF: That’s right. The Arising and Passing Away is so profound—it is such a huge shift in perspective from the conventional, pre-enlightened perspective, that it is a life changing event for most people. Almost everybody who’s had the experience can point to the time before and the time after the A&P. So that is one way of understanding the first opening.
JG: And it does not have to do with whether you’re even a vipassana practitioner, right? If you are paying attention enough that you start to see everything as unified or—I don’t know how to put this into words. But this is not unique to vipassana. Is this kensho, for example, in Zen? Or…
KF: It probably is not kensho, but it is also not unique to vipassana.
JG: And I apologize here. I had a profound, what I would describe as unitive experience that in some way seems to match the descriptions I have read of the Arising and Passing Away, but I’m still a little unclear as to whether I have really actually crossed the Arising and Passing Away, or if it was just a really profound unitive experience. So I guess that is why you put the emphasis on a teacher because when students who don’t know this path, haven’t traveled the path, try to parse this stuff out, I think they need to sit down with a teacher and really discuss this and get into it, right? To really figure out where they are…
KF: Yes, it is very hard to figure out where you are just by reading about it, and it is frankly sometimes hard for a teacher to figure out where you are. So in some cases it is going to be clearer than others. But the question you raised—the difference between, for example, kensho, which is the realization of emptiness or awakeness recognizing itself… what is the difference between that and the Arising and Passing Away? Sometimes they can both happen as part of a single event. The person, while they are having the Arising and Passing Away, will also have the unitive experience or the awakening-to-awareness experience of kensho.
It also seems to me that people can have one or the other of those. So there are those who have the Arising and Passing Away without the kensho. Some people have the kensho without the Arising and Passing Away.
JG: OK. This is helpful.
KF: This is within the realm of mystery that you were talking about earlier, but it is okay because these things tend to shake out over time. If a yogi continues to practice well, two things will happen—they will continue to develop through time and they will have more and more of these awake moments. Now, this gets into really tricky territory because we’re talking about the difference between a time-bound phenomenon, which is development, and a situation which has nothing to do with time whatsoever, which is Awakeness or Awareness.
For right now, let’s stick with the developmental aspect of it, through time, and say that this Arising and Passing Away event signals the beginning of true spirituality for most yogis. Before that, they were thinking about it. Now they are in it. And so let’s divide the Progress of Insight into four chunks, for simplicity’s sake right now.
The first part is the solid part—you are practicing and you can sense that something is happening but you have not really broken in yet. At the moment of the Arising and Passing Away, you have broken in and things are seen to be impermanent. That is the second chunk. One way to talk about this is with the traditional simile of the rope. You’re walking down the road and you see a rope and as you get closer, you see that the rope is moving and you consider that to be a little bit fishy; probably it isn’t even a rope. As you get closer still you can see that the supposed rope is really a line of ants and as you get closer still you see that the ants are moving individually in both directions. Each and has its own body and little articulated legs and everything is moving.
If you kept on drilling down, you would see that the ant is composed of all sorts of little sub-body parts and then molecules and atoms and so on, the idea being that what appears to us to be solid is not solid; it appears solid because we’re not looking closely enough. And at the Arising and Passing Away you are looking closely enough and you finally see it for what it is. That is a life-changing event because you always assumed that things were solid and now you see in real time that they are not. So that is the second chunk of the Progress of Insight.
The third big chunk of the Progress of Insight is what is called dissolution, which is exactly what it sounds like. You see that things are dissolving. So as you’re looking at any experience, whether it is a visual experience looking across the room and seeing the bookshelf, or whether it is hearing a sound—these things are dissolving in real-time. At first this is seen to be a blissful relief, but it soon becomes threatening. So where the Arising and Passing Away tended to be a very exhilarating and exciting time, dissolution—once you really get into it and realize the implications of it—is scary and demoralizing because the salient implication is that you are dissolving. What you have always thought of as yourself is actually passing away in each moment, and this can be terrifying and upsetting.
So this dissolution, once it becomes mature, is what St. John of the cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. And interestingly, you see this in all mystical traditions. So in the gospels where Jesus says, “Father, take this cup from me”—that is the dark night. But the dark night does not last forever. The fourth big chunk of the progress of insight is when you come to accept the fact that everything is dissolving and you have equanimity. So this fourth chunk is called Knowledge of Equanimity.
JG: And this is a very profound realization or experience of equanimity, right? “Knowledge” could almost be taken to mean an intellectual understanding.
KF: When I use these terms “Knowledge of the Arising and Passing” or “Knowledge of Dissolution” or “Equanimity,” etc., “knowledge” is a translation of a Pali word, ñana, and so the knowledge that we are talking about is most definitely not an intellectual knowledge. And in fact no intellectual knowledge is required. These deep understandings are happening at the gut level.
JG: This is why someone could be depressed, say, following such an experience and be going through dissolution but not actually really consciously be aware of it in the sense of thinking, “Oh I’m realizing that things are all dissolving,” right?
KF: Oh, absolutely. You are going to say, “Oh, I’m depressed. Life is meaningless.”
In fact in this advanced Dissolution phase, also called the Dark Night of the Soul—also called, for shorthand, the dukkha nanas—is also called, in Zen, the stage of “rolling up the mat.” You want to roll up the sitting mat and go home. The last thing you want to do is meditate. You don’t want to sit down on the mat and meditate because meditation appears to be what is making you unhappy—the more you sit, the deeper you go into dissolution, and the more depressed you get.
So you need a teacher who is familiar with the territory and is willing to be straight with you and say “This is actually good. What is happening to you is good—it is not that you have regressed since the highs of the Arising and Passing. In fact, you have gone deeper, and it just so happens that you are into a part of the mind that is characterized by dissolution, and dissolution, from the point of view of the dukkha ñanas, is interpreted as a scary and threatening thing. Later on, when you progress to Knowledge of Equanimity, it won’t be threatening at all.”
JG: You see this in other [Buddhist] traditions. I’m thinking of Trungpa Rinpoche where they make a similar point to what you make about the nuclear fuel that goes into the back of the DeLorean, where they say “This is about using all of your experience as the fuel of awakening.”
KF: Yes, because in order for enlightenment to mean anything it is going to have to be just as valid in hell as it is in heaven. If all we’re doing here is finding another way to have pleasant experiences, we might as well not bother. You can take some Valium or have a drink of wine or watch television. That has nothing to do with enlightenment. Enlightenment is seeing that whatever arises is not happening to anyone.
To use the traditional Three Characteristics, it is impermanent; it is not self; and it is not satisfactory. So in the moment of enlightenment, in the enlightened moment, there is no stickiness of mind. The mind is not saying “Oh here I am being set upon by all of these phenomena.” The very sense of “I” is just another phenomenon Arising and Passing Away.