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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
11 spring 2 01 1 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly all roads lead To nirvana Jack Kornfield describes his encounters with different approaches to enlightenment. The word “enlightenment” is used in differ- ent ways, and that can be confusing. Is Zen, Tibetan, Hindu, or Theravada enlightenment the same? What is the difference between an enlightenment experience and full enlighten- ment? What do enlightened people look like? Early on in my practice in Asia, I was forced to deal with these questions directly. My teachers, Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, were consid- ered among the most enlightened masters of Theravada Buddhism. While they both described the goal of practice as freedom from greed, hatred, and delusion, they didn’t agree about how to attain enlightenment, or how it is experienced. I started my monastic training by practicing in a community with Ajahn Chah. Then I went to study in a Mahasi Sayadaw monastery, where the path focused 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 mind- fulness is so refined that 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 comes a dropping away of identity with anything in this world, an open- ing to the unconditioned beyond mind and body; you enter into the stream of liberation. This taste of stream-entry requires purifica- tion 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 after more than a year of silent Mahasi retreat, I recounted my expe- riences—dissolving my body into light, pro- found insights into emptiness, and hours of vast stillness and freedom. Ajahn Chah smiled and said, “Well, something else to let go of.” His approach to enlightenment was not based on having any particular meditation firsT ThoughTs illusTraTions by eric hanson