Thursday, June 17, 2010

Buddhist Geeks - On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young is one of my favorite teachers (thanks to ~C4Chaos) - so this interview is cool to read. Below the interview I'll post a couple of his videos so you can get a sense of his teachings - if you aren't already familiar with him.

On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young

On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young

16. Jun, 2010 by Shinzen Young and Har-Prakash Khalsa

Har-Prakash Khalsa: Given that, in your own words, “enlightenment is a multi-faceted jewel”, is there a description of enlightenment that you like?

Shinzen Young: In this regard I tend to go towards my Buddhist background. Scholastic Theravada Buddhism says that three things go away at the initial experience of enlightenment. It’s very significant that it’s put in terms of an elimination process; something goes away, rather than an attainment, a “getting” of something. So enlightenment is not yet another thing that you have to get. And meditation as a path to enlightenment could be described as merely setting the stage for Nature/Grace to eliminate from you what needs to be eliminated.

The technical terms in Pali for the three things that go away are “sakkaya-ditthi”, “vicikiccha”, and “silabbata-paramasa”. Sakkaya-ditthi is the most important. Sakkaya-ditthi is the perception that there is an entity, a thing inside us called a self. That goes away.

HPK: When you say “the perception that a thing inside us called a self” goes away, do you mean completely away?

SZY: The ambiguity is the word perception. The actual word is ditti in Pali, or drishti in Sanskrit, which I think you know means “view”, literally. In this context ditti or drishti refers to a fundamental paradigm, or concept about something. So in this case perception is perhaps not the best word. It’s more like the fundamental conviction that there is a thing inside us called a self disappears. According to the traditional formulation after enlightenment that never comes back. However, if by perception of self we mean momentarily being caught in one’s sense of self, that happens to enlightened people over and over again, but less and less as enlightenment deepens and matures.

According to the traditional formulation between the initial enlightenment experience where you see there is no “thing” called a self in me or in anyone else and the full unfolding of that, there are four stages you pass through. As you go through those stages you get caught in the self a gazillion times, in a sense just like anyone else, but not like anyone else. Because even while you’re caught in it, the fundamental paradigm that this is a real thing that I’m caught in is gone.

So if we take “self” to mean “the perception self-is-a-thing in me”, that is gone forever. But if we take “self” to mean: A) mental image, internal talk and emotional feeling arising within, and B) one’s clarity and equanimity around them are not sufficient in that moment, then even a somewhat enlightened person may get caught in self, for awhile. Certainly that is going to happen over and over again.

I like to analyze subjective experience into three sensory elements: feel (emotional-type body sensations), image (visual-thinking) and talk (auditory-thinking). Those sensory elements continue to arise for an enlightened person forever. Sometimes when the feel-image-talk arises the enlightened person is momentarily caught in them but even though they’re caught in that, some part of them still knows it’s not a thing called self. That knowing never goes away. The frequency, duration and intensity of identifying with feel-image-talk diminishes as the months and years go on as you go through deeper and deeper levels of enlightenment. There are exceptions, but typically it takes months, years, indeed decades learning how not to get caught in feel-image-talk when it arises. So, even an enlightened person will have moments of, in a sense “non-enlightenment”, but those become fewer and shorter and less intense as time passes.

You can have a “no-self experience” even when there is the arising of feel-image-talk as long as there is so much clarity and equanimity that you’re not caught in them. Furthermore, as the process of enlightenment deepens you find you experience longer and longer durations during which little or no subjective activity needs to arise. So enlightened people have three kinds of no-self experiences. In the first subjective elements of self simply don’t arise. Subjective space vanishes. In the second emotion in the body and visual thinking and verbal thinking all arise, perhaps even intensely, but you don’t get caught in them because they never tangle or coagulate. In the third the subjective elements arise and you do get caught in them but some part of you still knows this experience is a wave called body-mind, not a particle called self. So to sum it up, what disappears at enlightenment is a viewpoint or perception that there is a thing inside this body-mind process called self.

So the main characteristic of enlightenment according to the earliest of the Buddhist formulations centers around seeing through sakkaya-ditthi, “self as thingness”. But the tradition also talks about two additional factors.

First there’s the vicikiccha, which means fundamental confusion or doubt. After you’ve had the experience of enlightenment you see how confused most people are are about how their sense of self arises, and what the nature of suffering is. A lot of that fundamental confusion goes away for you.

Then there’s silabbata-paramasa. Silabbata-paramasa means ascribing more to morality and religious observances than they can really deliver. We can see silabbata-paramasa as a kind of self-limiting mechanism occurring in people all around the world. A person’s spiritual development can evolve into strong ethics and morality, which is good, but there it stops. Or a person’s spiritual development includes participating in rituals and ceremonies such as going to church, making vows, and keeping the ritual observances. Again, all this is good. A person can evolve to that point, but they often get caught in “I’m keeping my nose clean and I’m going to church, so that’s it.” Thinking that’s all there is to spiritual life is a cul-de-sac in religion.

At enlightenment a person sees very clearly that although ethics and religious observances have their place and can certainly be important, there are aspects of the spiritual path that don’t get delivered by ethics and observances alone. Something else is possible, indeed required for true spiritual maturity. That something else is seeing through the sakkaya-ditthi.

We’re always talking about “I” as though it’s a substantive, a noun, a thing inside me. The conventions of language (subject versus object, and so forth) constantly reinforce a perception that there’s a solid thing called a self that’s fundamentally separate from others. That sense that there is a solid particle or entity called self goes away at enlightenment. Your fundamental confusion about things goes away. The ascribing of more to ethics and ceremonies than they can really deliver goes away. That’s the traditional Buddhist formulation of the three things that go away at enlightenment.

HPK: Just to clarify, by “at enlightenment” you’re referring to the first stage of enlightenment?

SZY: Yes. In traditional Buddhist formulation there are four stages of enlightenment. The first stage that I just talked about is called “stream-entry”, or “sotapanna”. Then there’s “once-returner” (sakadagami), “non-returner” (anagami), and “worthy” (arahant). The process that starts at stream-entry broadens, deepens and affects more and more of your being.

You see that your subjective experience is just feel, plus image, plus talk. When they get tangled together, that creates the illusion that there’s a thing called “self”. So the first time they get completely untangled with sufficient clarity and equanimity that illusion goes away. They can still get tangled and you can get momentarily caught in them, but some part of you still knows it’s really not a thing.

Every person has brief moments during the day when feel-image-talk doesn’t arise. At those moments there’s no sense of self. The only difference between an enlightened person and a non-enlightened person is that when the feel-image-talk self doesn’t arise during the day, the enlightened person notices that and knows that to be a clear experience of no-self. The non-enlightened person actually has that experience hundreds of times a day, when they’re briefly pulled to a physical-type touch or an external sight or sound. For just a moment there is just the world of touch-sight-sound. For just a moment there is no self inside that person but they don’t notice it! But just because they don’t notice it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.

An enlightened person sees everyone as constantly experiencing brief moments of enlightenment during the day. So paradoxically being an enlightened person doesn’t make you that special. Enlightenment contains within it it’s own medicine for the “I am special disease”. Enlightenment allows you to see, as opposed to merely believe, that everyone is enlightened. Now you can say, “Well but they don’t realize it”, that’s one way to look at it, but it’s also undeniable that they are. From that perspective it’s very misleading to separate enlightened people from non-enlightened people.

You’ll remember I said that it’s the sakkaya-ditti that’s the most important of the three things that go away. Broadly that is true for enlightenment around the world. Regardless of what tradition a person is working in the perception of I-amness is affected once one’s practice has become sufficiently deep.

The salient feature that is characteristic of enlightenment that’s independent of the tradition, whether it’s Christian, Buddhist, Moslem, Hindu, Sikh, Native, Atheist, etc.—the common denominator is that “shift in perception of I-amness”. However, depending on a person’s background, and also how a person interprets the experience, the language that’s used to describe what is realized may be very different.

Buddhists formulate the “shift in perception of I-amness” as “there truly is no self”. Within a lot of Hinduism the very same experience is described as discovering the True Self in a way that implies it’s a thing – the Witness, the True Observer, Pure Consciousness, etc., etc. You might think just based on the language that the Buddhist formulation and what many of the Hindu’s talk about are unrelated or perhaps even opposite experiences.

Read the whole interview.

Shinzen Young has contributed 4 posts on Buddhist Geeks.

Shinzen Young is a Vipassana meditation teacher. Although Vipassana is traditionally a Theravada technique, Shinzen was originally ordained in Japan as a monk in the Shingon tradition. He has studied and practiced extensively in other traditions, including Zen and Lakota Sioux Shamanism.

He frequently uses concepts from mathematics as a metaphor to illustrate the abstract concepts of meditation. As a result, his teachings tend to be popular among academics and professionals. His interest in integrating meditation with scientific paradigms has led to collaborations with neuroscientists at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is working on various ways to bring a secular mindfulness practice to a wider audience, using revamped terminology and techniques and automated expert systems.


Welcome to New Viewers

Divide and Conquer: How the Essence of Mindfulness Parallels the Nuts and Bolts of Science (Google Tech Talks)

Presented by Shinzen Young.

The purpose of this talk is threefold: (1) to describe how senior adepts use mindfulness to reduce suffering and gain insight into selfhood and emotions. (2) To point out how the method they use in many ways parallels what scientists do when confronted with a complex and inscrutable system in nature. (3) To discuss how this fundamental parallelism between the two endeavors can become the basis for a productive collaboration in the future.

Bio: Shinzen Young became fascinated with Asian culture while a teenager in Los Angeles. Later he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, he went to Asia and did extensive training in each of the three major Buddhist meditative traditions: Vajrayana, Zen, and Vipassana. Upon returning to the United States, his intellectual interests shifted to the burgeoning dialogue between Eastern internal science and Western technological science. In recognition of his original contributions to that dialogue, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology has awarded him an honorary doctorate. Shinzen's innovative techniques for pain management derived from two sources: The first is his personal experience dealing with discomfort during intense periods of meditation in Asia, and during shamanic ceremonies with tribal cultures. The second is some three decades of experience in coaching people through a wide spectrum of chronic and acute pain challenges. Shinzen leads meditation retreats in the mindfulness tradition throughout North America, and has helped establish several centers and programs.

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