Special Topics

Why Shouldn’t Chan Practitioners Be Attached to the Idea of Attaining Enlightenment?

Harboring the idea of expecting enlightenment while practicing will inevitably bring about troubles, and we could easily be led astray. For example, we may subconsciously have imagined what it would be like to be enlightened. Triggered by our anticipation, all sorts of unusual or even weird phenomena could then arise from our mind. At this moment, you may well think that you're just about to get enlightened, but, in reality, you are immersed in nothing but your own illusory thought.
With such anticipation, our mind is constantly expecting and conjecturing about enlightenment, which  in fact is little more than interference from our illusory thoughts that will definitely prevent us from applying the method earnestly. Worse still, mistaking phenomena arising from the subconsciousness for enlightenment could in some cases trigger psychological disorders. 

The Five Levels of Enlightenment

In his book Master Sheng Yen's Teaching on the Chan Method of Huatou (聖嚴法師教話頭禪), Master Sheng Yen explains that there are five different levels of “enlightenment.” The first level is the state of unification of body and mind. The second state is one of luminosity and sound where one is able to hear infinite sound and see infinite light. The third state is that of mental acuity, in which one may become, for example, adept in understanding and eloquent in speaking. In the fourth level, feeling liberated and free of any burden in mind, one would assume that one has attained enlightenment. But, in fact, one is experiencing just a state of lightness and ease, rather than real enlightenment. The fifth level is the state of actual enlightenment, whereby one experiences that the space is shattered and the ground collapses.  This is true enlightenment.

Don't be concerned about whether you may attain enlightenment or not

Some outer path practitioners, mistaking certain physical or mental reactions or unusual experiences for actually attaining realization, would beguile the general public by claiming to have reached enlightenment or the stage of attainment. However, in Chinese history, these claims are contrary to what many great Chan masters would do after they have actually attained ultimate realization. They would not boast about their realization nor would they claim that they have transcended the ordinary and entered sainthood by having attained a certain stage of realization. Real practitioners would not talk publicly about their attainment; rather, they would only emphasize the importance of not having attachment and discarding the attitude of self-centeredness. In practicing Chan, proper attitude is essential. Furthermore, the purpose of attending a seven-day retreat is not to look for enlightenment, but to devote oneself wholeheartedly to learning and applying the method. Therefore, once you are in the Chan Hall, do not be so concerned about whether you are doing well enough, or whether you're going to attain enlightenment. As long as you can trust your method without any doubt at all, and have faith that you will benefit from your own practice, it will be enough.