What Do Buddhists Mean by 'Enlightenment'?

The concept means different things even to Buddhists

Close-up of giant Buddha in Ngong Ping village, Hong Kong.

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Most people have heard that the Buddha was enlightened and that Buddhists seek enlightenment. But what does that mean? "Enlightenment" is an English word that can mean several things. In the West, the Age of Enlightenment was a philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that promoted science and reason over myth and superstition, so in Western culture, enlightenment is often associated with intellect and knowledge. But Buddhist enlightenment is something else.

Enlightenment and Satori

To add to the confusion, "enlightenment" has been used as the translation for several Asian words that don't mean the same thing. For example, several decades ago English speakers were introduced to Buddhism through the writing of D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), a Japanese scholar who had lived for a time as a Rinzai Zen monk. Suzuki used "enlightenment" to translate the Japanese word satori, derived from the verb satoru, "to know."

This translation was not without justification. But in usage, satori usually refers to an experience of insight into the true nature of reality. It has been compared to the experience of opening a door, but to open a door still implies a separation from what's inside the door. Partly through Suzuki's influence, the idea of spiritual enlightenment as a sudden, blissful, transformative experience became embedded in Western culture. However, that's misleading.

Although Suzuki and some of the first Zen teachers in the West explained enlightenment as an experience that one can have at moments, most Zen teachers and Zen texts tell you that enlightenment is not an experience but a permanent state: a stepping through the door permanently. Not even satori is enlightenment itself. In this, Zen is in alignment with how enlightenment is viewed in other branches of Buddhism. 

Enlightenment and Bodhi (Theravada)

Bodhi, a Sanskrit and Pali word that means "awakening," also is often translated as "enlightenment."

In Theravada Buddhism, bodhi is associated with the perfection of insight into the Four Noble Truths, which end dukkha (suffering, stress, dissatisfaction). The person who has perfected this insight and abandoned all defilements is an arhat, one who is liberated from the cycle of samsara, or endless rebirth. While alive, he enters a sort of conditional nirvana, and at death, he enjoys the peace of complete nirvana and escape from the cycle of rebirth. 

In the Atthinukhopariyaayo Sutta of the Pali Tipitaka (Samyutta Nikaya 35.152), the Buddha said:

"Then, monks, this is the criterion whereby a monk, apart from faith, apart from persuasion, apart from inclination, apart from rational speculation, apart from delight in views and theories, could affirm the attainment of enlightenment: 'Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been accomplished, what was to be done is done, there is no further living in this world.'"

Enlightenment and Bodhi (Mahayana)

In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhi is associated with the perfection of wisdom, or sunyata. This is the teaching that all phenomena are empty of self-essence.

Most of us perceive the things and beings around us as distinctive and permanent. But this view is a projection. Instead, the phenomenal world is an ever-changing nexus of causes and conditions or Dependent Origination. Things and beings, empty of self-essence, are neither real nor not real: the doctrine of The Two Truths. Thoroughly perceiving sunyata dissolves the fetters of self-clinging that cause our unhappiness. The dual way of distinguishing between self and other yields to a permanent nondual outlook in which all things are interrelated. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, the idea of practice is that of the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who remains in the phenomenal world to bring all to enlightenment. The bodhisattva ideal is more than altruism; it reflects the reality that none of us is separate. "Individual enlightenment" is an oxymoron.

Enlightenment in Vajrayana 

A branch of Mahayana Buddhism, the Tantric schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, believes that enlightenment can come all at once in a transformative moment. This goes hand-in-hand with the belief in Vajrayana that the various passions and hindrances of life, rather than being obstacles, can be fuel for transformation into enlightenment that can occur in a single moment, or at least in this lifetime. Key to this practice is a belief in inherent Buddha Nature, the innate perfection of our inner natures that simply waits for us to recognize it. This belief in the ability to achieve enlightenment instantly is not the same as the Sartori phenomenon, however. For Vajrayana Buddhists, enlightenment is not a glimpse through the door but a permanent state.

Enlightenment and Buddha Nature

According to legend, when the Buddha realized enlightenment he said something to the effect of "Isn't it remarkable! All beings are already enlightened!" This state is what is known as Buddha Nature, which forms a core part of Buddhist practice in some schools. In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha Nature is the inherent Buddhahood of all beings. Because all beings are already Buddha, the task is not to attain enlightenment but to realize it.

The Chinese master Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an (Zen), compared Buddhahood to a moon obscured by clouds. The clouds represent ignorance and defilements. When these are dropped away, the moon, already present, is revealed.

Experiences of Insight

What about those sudden, blissful, transformative experiences? You may well have had these moments and felt you were onto something spiritually profound. Such an experience, while pleasant and sometimes accompanied by genuine insight, is not, by itself, enlightenment. For most practitioners, a blissful spiritual experience not grounded in the practice of the Eightfold Path to achieve enlightenment will not likely be transformative. Chasing blissful states can itself become a form of desire and attachment, and the path toward enlightenment is to surrender clinging and desire. 

 Zen teacher Barry Magid said of Master Hakuin, in "Nothing Is Hidden":

"Post-satori practice for Hakuin meant finally ceasing to be preoccupied with his own personal condition and attainment and to devote himself and his practice to helping and teaching others. Finally, at long last, he realized that true enlightenment is a matter of endless practice and compassionate functioning, not something that occurs once and for all in one great moment on the cushion."

The teacher and monk Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971) said of enlightenment:

"It is a kind of mystery that for people who have no experience of enlightenment, enlightenment is something wonderful. But if they attain it, it is nothing. But yet it is not nothing. Do you understand? For a mother with children, having children is nothing special. That is zazen. So, if you continue this practice, more and more you will acquire something—nothing special, but nevertheless something. You may say 'universal nature' or 'Buddha nature' or 'enlightenment.' You may call it by many names, but for the person who has it, it is nothing, and it is something."

Both legend and documented evidence suggest that skilled practitioners and enlightened beings may be capable of extraordinary, even supernatural mental powers. However, these skills are not evidence of enlightenment, nor are they somehow essential to it. Here, too, we are warned not to chase these mental skills at the risk of mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

If you wonder if you have become enlightened, it is almost certain you have not. The only way to test one's insight is to present it to a dharma teacher. Don't be dismayed if your achievement falls apart under a teacher's scrutiny. False starts and mistakes are a necessary part of the path, and if and when you achieve enlightenment, it will be built on a solid foundation and you will have no mistake about it. 

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O'Brien, Barbara. "What Do Buddhists Mean by 'Enlightenment'?" Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-enlightenment-449966. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). What Do Buddhists Mean by 'Enlightenment'? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-enlightenment-449966 O'Brien, Barbara. "What Do Buddhists Mean by 'Enlightenment'?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-enlightenment-449966 (accessed March 23, 2023).

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