What Disappears at Enlightenment

Excerpts from “On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young,” from Har-Prakash Khalsa’s blog (September 5, 2009):

Enlightenment is not yet another thing that you have to get. 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.

Sakkaya-ditthi is the perception that there is an entity, a thing inside us called a self. That goes away. The ambiguity is the word perception. The actual word is ditti in Pali, or drishti in Sanskrit, which 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.

So if we take “self” to mean “the perception of 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.

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.