The English term enlightenment is the western translation of the term
bodhi, "awakening", which was popularised in the Western world through
the 19th century translations of Max Müller. It has the western
connotation of a sudden insight into a transcendental truth.
The term is also being used to translate several other Buddhist terms
and concepts used to denote insight (prajna, kensho and satori);
knowledge (vidhya); the "blowing out" (Nirvana) of disturbing emotions
and desires and the subsequent freedom or release (vimutti); and the
attainment of Buddhahood, as exemplified by Gautama Buddha.
What exactly constituted the Buddha's awakening is unknown. It may
probably have involved the knowledge that liberation was attained by
the combination of mindfulness and dhyāna, applied to the
understanding of the arising and ceasing of craving. The relation
between dhyana and insight is a core problem in the study of Buddhism,
and is one of the fundamentals of Buddhist practice.
In the western world the concept of (spiritual) enlightenment has
taken on a romantic meaning. It has become synonymous with
self-realization and the true self and false self, being regarded as a
substantial essence being covered over by social
conditioning.[page needed], [page needed],
[page needed], [page needed]
Kensho and satori
3.2 Buddha's awakening
3.2.1 Canonical accounts
3.2.2 Critical assessment
3.3 Development of
Buddhahood in Buddhist traditions
4 Western understanding of enlightenment
4.1 Enlightenment as "Aufklärung"
Romanticism and transcendentalism
4.4 Enlightenment and experience
6 See also
9 Web references
11 External links
Robert S. Cohen notes that the majority of English books on Buddhism
use the term "enlightenment" to translate the term bodhi. The root
budh, from which both bodhi and
Buddha are derived, means "to wake up"
or "to recover consciousness". Cohen notes that bodhi is not the
result of an illumination, but of a path of realization, or coming to
understanding. The term "enlightenment" is event-oriented, whereas
the term "awakening" is process-oriented. The western use of the
term "enlighten" has Christian roots, as in Calvin's "It is God alone
who enlightens our minds to perceive his truths".
Early 19th century bodhi was translated as "intelligence". The term
"enlighten" was first being used in 1835, in an English translation of
a French article, while the first recorded use of the term
'enlightenment' is credited (by the Oxford English Dictionary) to the
Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (February, 1836). In 1857 The
Times used the term "the Enlightened" for the
Buddha in a short
article, which was reprinted the following year by Max Müller.
Thereafter, the use of the term subsided, but reappeared with the
publication of Max Müller's Chips from a german Workshop, which
included a reprint from the Times-article. The book was translated in
1969 into German, using the term "der Erleuchtete". Max Müller
was an essentialist, who believed in a natural religion, and saw
religion as an inherent capacity of human beings. "Enlightenment"
was a means to capture natural religious truths, as distinguished from
mere mythology.[note 1]
By the mid-1870s it had become commonplace to call the Buddha
"enlightened", and by the end of the 1880s the terms "enlightened" and
"enlightenment" dominated the English literature.
Bodhi (Sanskrit, Pāli), from the verbal root budd, "to awaken", "to
understand", means literally "to have woken up and
understood". According to Johannes Bronkhorst, Tillman
Vetter, and K.R. Norman, bodhi was at first not specified.
It is not at all clear what gaining bodhi means. We are accustomed to
the translation "enlightenment" for bodhi, but this is misleading ...
It is not clear what the buddha was awakened to, or at what particular
point the awakening came.
According to Norman, bodhi may basically have meant the knowledge that
nibbana was attained, due to the practice of dhyana.
Originally only "prajna" may have been mentioned, and Tillman
Vetter even concludes that originally dhyana itself was deemed
liberating, with the stilling of pleasure of pain in the fourth
jhana. Gombrich also argues that the emphasis on insight is a
Theravada Buddhism, bodhi refers to the realisation of the four
stages of enlightenment and becoming an Arahant. In Theravada
Buddhism, bodhi is equal to supreme insight, and the realisation of
the four noble truths, which leads to deliverance. According to
(Through Bodhi) one awakens from the slumber or stupor (inflicted upon
the mind) by the defilements (kilesa, q.v.) and comprehends the Four
Noble Truths (sacca, q.v.).
This equation of bodhi with the four noble truths is a later
development, in response to developments within Indian religious
thought, where "liberating insight" was deemed essential for
liberation. The four noble truths as the liberating insight of
Buddha eventually were superseded by Pratītyasamutpāda, the
twelvefold chain of causation, and still later by anatta, the
emptiness of the self.
Mahayana Buddhism, bodhi is equal to prajna, insight into the
Buddha-nature, sunyata and tathatā. This is equal to the
realisation of the non-duality of absolute and relative.
Buddhism pannā (Pali) means "understanding", "wisdom",
"insight". "Insight" is equivalent to vipassana', insight into the
three marks of existence, namely anicca, dukkha and anatta.
Insight leads to the four stages of enlightenment and Nirvana.
Buddhism Prajna (Sanskrit) means "insight" or "wisdom",
and entails insight into sunyata. The attainment of this insight is
often seen as the attainment of "enlightenment".[need quotation to
Kensho and satori
Satori are Japanese terms used in
Zen traditions. Kensho
means "seeing into one's true nature." Ken means "seeing", sho means
"nature", "essence", c.q Buddha-nature.
Satori (Japanese) is often
used interchangeably with kensho, but refers to the experience of
kensho. The Rinzai tradition sees kensho as essential to the
attainment of Buddhahood, but considers further practice essential to
Buddhism emphasizes insight into Buddha-nature.
This term is derived from Indian tathagata-garbha thought, "the womb
of the thus-gone" (the Buddha), the inherent potential of every
sentient being to become a Buddha. This idea was integrated with the
Yogacara-idea of the ālaya vijñāna, and further developed in
Chinese Buddhism, which integrated Indian
Buddhism with native Chinese
Buddha-nature came to mean both the potential of awakening
and the whole of reality, a dynamic interpenetration of absolute and
relative. In this awakening it is realized that observer and observed
are not distinct entities, but mutually co-dependent.
The term vidhya is being used in contrast to avidhya, ignorance or the
lack of knowledge, which binds us to samsara. The Mahasaccaka
Sutta[note 2] describes the three knowledges which the Buddha
Insight into his past lives
Insight into the workings of
Karma and Reincarnation
Insight into the Four Noble Truths
According to Bronkhorst, the first two knowledges are later additions,
while insight into the four truths represents a later development, in
response to concurring religious traditions, in which "liberating
insight" came to be stressed over the practice of dhyana.
Vimutti, also called moksha, means "freedom", "release",[note
3] "deliverance". Sometimes a distinction is being made between
ceto-vimutti, "liberation of the mind", and panna-vimutti, "liberation
by understanding". The Buddhist tradition recognises two kinds of
ceto-vimutti, one temporarily and one permanent, the last being
equivalent to panna-vimutti.[note 4]
Yogacara uses the term āśraya parāvŗtti, "revolution of the
... a sudden revulsion, turning, or re-turning of the ālaya vijñāna
back into its original state of purity [...] the Mind returns to its
original condition of non-attachment, non-discrimination and
Nirvana is the "blowing out" of disturbing emotions, which is the same
as liberation.[web 1] The usage of the term "enlightenment" to
translate "nirvana" was popularized in the 19th century, due, in part,
to the efforts of Max Muller, who used the term consistently in his
Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, is said to have achieved full
awakening, known as samyaksaṃbodhi (Sanskrit; Pāli:
sammāsaṃbodhi), "perfect Buddhahood", or
anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, "highest perfect awakening".
The term buddha has acquired somewhat different meanings in the
various Buddhist traditions. An equivalent term for
Tathāgata, "the thus-gone". The way to
Buddhahood is somewhat
differently understood in the various buddhist traditions.
In the suttapitaka, the Buddhist canon as preserved in the
Theravada-tradition, a couple of texts can be found in which the
Buddha's attainment of liberation forms part of the
The Ariyapariyesana Sutta[note 6] describes how the
dissatisfied with the teachings of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta,
wandered further through Magadhan country, and then found "an
agreeable piece of ground" which served for striving. The sutra then
only says that he attained Nibbana.
The Mahasaccaka Sutta[note 7] describes his ascetic practices, which
he abandoned. There-after he remembered a spontaneous state of jhana,
and set out for jhana-practice. After destroying the disturbances of
the mind, and attaining concentration of the mind, he attained three
Insight into his past lives
Insight into the workings of
Karma and Reincarnation
Insight into the Four Noble Truths
According to the Mahasaccaka Sutta these insights, including the way
to attain liberation, led the
Buddha himself straight to
liberation. called "awakening."
Schmithausen[note 8] notes that the mention of the four noble truths
as constituting "liberating insight", which is attained after
mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as
Majjhima Nikaya 36. Bronkhorst notices that
...the accounts which include the
Four Noble Truths
Four Noble Truths had a completely
different conception of the process of liberation than the one which
includes the Four Dhyanas and the destruction of the intoxicants.
It calls in question the reliability of these accounts, and the
relation between dhyana and insight, which is a core problem in the
study of early Buddhism. Originally the term prajna may
have been used, which came to be replaced by the four truths in those
texts where "liberating insight" was preceded by the four jhanas.
Bronkhorst also notices that the conception of what exactly this
"liberating insight" was developed throughout time. Whereas originally
it may not have been specified, later on the four truths served as
such, to be superseded by pratityasamutpada, and still later, in the
Hinayana schools, by the doctrine of the non-existence of a
substantial self or person. And Schmithausen notices that still
other descriptions of this "liberating insight" exist in the Buddhist
"that the five Skandhas are impermanent, disagreeable, and neither the
Self nor belonging to oneself";[note 9] "the contemplation of the
arising and disappearance (udayabbaya) of the five Skandhas";[note 10]
"the realisation of the Skandhas as empty (rittaka), vain (tucchaka)
and without any pith or substance (asaraka).[note 11]
An example of this substitution, and its consequences, is Majjhima
Nikaya 36:42-43, which gives an account of the awakening of the
Buddhahood in Buddhist traditions
Theravada Buddhism, reaching full awakening is equivalent in
meaning to reaching Nirvāṇa.[web 2] Attaining
Nirvāṇa is the
ultimate goal of
Theravada and other śrāvaka traditions.[web 3] It
involves the abandonment of the ten fetters and the cessation of
dukkha or suffering. Full awakening is reached in four stages.
Bodhisattva is the ideal. The ultimate goal
is not only of one's own liberation in Buddhahood, but the liberation
of all living beings.
In time, the Buddha's awakening came to be understood as an immediate
full awakening and liberation, instead of the insight into and
certainty about the way to follow to reach enlightenment. However, in
Zen traditions this perfection came to be relativized again;
according to one contemporary
Zen master, "Shakyamuni buddha and
Bodhidharma are still practicing."
Buddhism also developed a cosmology with a wide range of
buddhas and bodhisattvas, who assist humans on their way to
Western understanding of enlightenment
See also: Buddhist modernism, Transcendentalism, and Perennial
In the western world the concept of enlightenment has taken on a
romantic meaning. It has become synonymous with
self-realization and the true self, being regarded as a substantial
essence being covered over by social conditioning.
Enlightenment as "Aufklärung"
The use of the western word enlightenment is based on the supposed
resemblance of bodhi with Aufklärung, the independent use of reason
to gain insight into the true nature of our world. In fact there are
more resemblances with
Romanticism than with the Enlightenment: the
emphasis on feeling, on intuitive insight, on a true essence beyond
the world of appearances.
The equivalent term "awakening" has also been used in a Christian
context, namely the Great Awakenings, several periods of religious
revival in American religious history. Historians and theologians
identify three or four waves of increased religious enthusiasm
occurring between the early 18th century and the late 19th century.
Each of these "Great Awakenings" was characterized by widespread
revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers, a sharp increase of
interest in religion, a profound sense of conviction and redemption on
the part of those affected, an increase in evangelical church
membership, and the formation of new religious movements and
Romanticism and transcendentalism
The romantic idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless,
transcendent reality has been popularized especially by D.T.
Suzuki.[web 4][web 5] Further popularization was due to the writings
of Heinrich Dumoulin.[web 6] Dumoulin viewed metaphysics as
the expression of a transcendent truth, which according to him was
Mahayana Buddhism, but not by the pragmatic analysis of
the oldest Buddhism, which emphasizes anatta. This romantic vision
is also recognizable in the works of Ken Wilber.
In the oldest
Buddhism this essentialism is not recognizable.[web
7] According to critics it doesn't really contribute to a real insight
into Buddhism:[web 8]
...most of them labour under the old cliché that the goal of Buddhist
psychological analysis is to reveal the hidden mysteries in the human
mind and thereby facilitate the development of a transcendental state
of consciousness beyond the reach of linguistic expression.
Enlightenment and experience
A common reference in western culture is the notion of "enlightenment
experience". This notion can be traced back to William James, who used
the term "religious experience" in his book, The Varieties of
Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the
notion of "religious experience" further back to the German theologian
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who argued that religion is
based on a feeling of the infinite. Schleiermacher used the notion of
"religious experience" to defend religion against the growing
scientific and secular critique.
It was popularised by the Transcendentalists, and exported to Asia via
Transcendentalism developed as a reaction against
18th Century rationalism, John Locke's philosophy of Sensualism, and
the predestinationism of New England Calvinism. It is fundamentally a
variety of diverse sources such as Hindu texts like the Vedas, the
Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, various religions, and German
It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James
was the most influential.[note 12]
The notion of "experience" has been criticised. Robert
Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical western term, which
has found its way into Asian religiosity via western
The notion of "experience" introduces a false notion of duality
between "experiencer" and "experienced", whereas the essence of kensho
is the realisation of the "non-duality" of observer and
observed.[dead link]  "Pure experience" does not exist; all
experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity.
The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even
determine what "experience" someone has, which means that this
"experience" is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the
teaching. A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by
"cleaning the doors of perception" as per romantic poet William
Blake[note 14], would, according to Mohr, be an overwhelming chaos of
sensory input without coherence.
Buddhahood is celebrated on
Bodhi Day. In Sri Lanka and
Japan different days are used for this celebration.
According to the
Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka, Sakyamuni reached
Buddhahood at the full moon in May. This is celebrated at Wesak Poya,
the full moon in May, as
Sambuddhatva jayanthi (also known as
Sambuddha jayanthi).[web 9]
According to the
Zen tradition, the
Buddha reached his decisive
insight on 8 December. This is celebrated in
Zen monasteries with a
very intensive eight-day session of Rōhatsu.
Buddhism and psychology
^ See also Lourens Peter van den Bosch, Theosophy or Pantheism?
Friedrich Max Müller's Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion: "The
three principal themes of his Gifford lectures on natural religion
were the discovery of God, the discovery of the soul, and the
discovery of the oneness of God and soul in the great religions of the
^ Majjhima Nikaya chapter 36
^ See Encyclopedia.com, Vimutti
^ According to Gombrich, this distinction is artificial, and due to
later, too literal, interpretations of the suttas.
^ See Majjhima Nikaya chaper 4, 12, 26 & 36
^ Majjhima Nikaya chapter 26
^ Majjhima Nikaya chapter 36
^ In his often-cited article On some Aspects of Descriptions or
Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism
^ Majjhima Nikaya 26
^ Anguttara Nikaya II.45 (PTS)
^ Samyutta Nikaya III.140-142 (PTS)
^ James also gives descriptions of conversion experiences. The
Christian model of dramatic conversions, based on the role-model of
Paul's conversion, may also have served as a model for western
interpretations and expectations regarding "enlightenment", similar to
Protestant influences on
Theravada Buddhism, as described by
It rests upon the notion of the primacy of religious experiences,
preferably spectacular ones, as the origin and legitimation of
religious action. But this presupposition has a natural home, not in
Buddhism, but in Christian and especially Protetstant Christian
movements which prescribe a radical conversion.
See Sekida for an example of this influence of
William James and
Christian conversion stories, mentioning Luther and St. Paul.
See also McMahan for the influence of Christian thought on
^ Robert Sharf:
[T]he role of experience in the history of
Buddhism has been greatly
exaggerated in contemporary scholarship. Both historical and
ethnographic evidence suggests that the privileging of experience may
well be traced to certain twentieth-century reform movements, notably
those that urge a return to zazen or vipassana meditation, and these
reforms were profoundly influenced by religious developments in the
west [...] While some adepts may indeed experience "altered states" in
the course of their training, critical analysis shows that such states
do not constitute the reference point for the elaborate Buddhist
discourse pertaining to the "path".
^ William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing
would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up,
till he sees all things thru' narrow chinks of his cavern."
^ Fischer-Schreiber 2008, p. 5051, lemma "bodhi".
^ a b c Carrette & King 2005.
^ a b c d e Sharf 1995b.
^ a b c Sharf 2000.
^ a b c d McMahan 2008.
^ a b c d Cohen 2006, p. 1.
^ a b Cohen 2006, p. 2.
^ Cohen 2006, p. 2-3.
^ a b Cohen 2006, p. 3.
^ Cohen 2006, p. 9.
^ Cohen 2006, p. 4.
^ Cohen 2006, p. 6-7.
^ a b Nyanatiloka 1980, p. 40.
^ a b c Schreiber-Fischer 2008, p. 50.
^ a b c d e f g Bronkhorst 1993.
^ a b c d e f Vetter 1988.
^ a b Norman 1997, p. 29.
^ Norman, K. R. (2005). Buddhist Forum Volume V: Philological Approach
to Buddhism. Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-135-75154-8.
^ Norman 1997, p. 30.
^ Vetter 1988, p. xxix, xxxi.
^ a b Gombrich 1997.
^ a b Schreiber-Fischer 2008, p. 51.
^ a b c Nyanatiloka 1980, p. 150.
^ Fischer-Schreiber 2008, p. 281.
^ a b Kapleau 1989.
^ Lusthaus 1998.
^ Lai 2003.
^ a b Bikkhu Nanamoli 1995, p. 340-342.
^ a b Warder 2000, p. 47–48.
^ a b Snelling 1987, p. 27.
^ a b Bowker 1997.
^ Nyanatiloka 1980, p. 239.
^ a b Gombrich 2005, p. 147.
^ Gombrich 2005, p. 147-148.
^ Park 1983, p. 126-132.
^ Park 1983, p. 127.
^ Scott 2009, p. 8.
^ Mäll 2005, p. 83.
^ Warder 2000, p. 45-50.
^ Faure 1991
^ Bikkhu Nanamoli 1995, p. 259.
^ Bikkhu Nanamoli 1995, p. 342.
^ Warder 2000, p. 47-48.
^ Schmithausen 1981.
^ Bronkhorst 1993, p. 110.
^ Bronkhorst 1993, p. 108.
^ Bronkhorst 1993, p. 100-101.
^ Bronkhorst 1993, p. 101.
^ Bronkhorst 1993, p. 102-103.
^ Harris 2004, p. 103.
^ Wright 2000, p. 181-183.
^ Dumoulin 2005a.
^ Dumoulin 2005b.
^ Dumonlin 2000.
^ Wilber 1996.
^ Warder 2000, p. 116-124.
^ Kalupahana 1992a, p. xi.
^ Hori 1999, p. 47.
^ King 2002.
^ Versluis 2001, p. 3.
^ Hart 1995.
^ Sharf 2000, p. 271.
^ Carrithers 1983, p. 18.
^ Sekida 1985, p. 196-197.
^ Sekida 1985, p. 251.
^ Mohr 2000, p. 282-286.
^ Low 2006, p. 12.
^ Sharf & 1995-C, p. 1.
^ Hori 1994, p. 30.
^ Samy 1998, p. 82.
^ Mohr 2000, p. 282.
^ Samy 1998, p. 80-82.
^ Samy 1998, p. 80.
^ Quote DB
^ Mohr 2000, p. 284.
^ Dr. Alexander Berzin,
Nirvana and enlightenment
^ Kusala Bhikshu (3/2008), Buddhist Enlightenment vs NirvanaAs of
^ "David Loy (2010), Enlightenment in
Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta:
Moksha the Same?As of September 2010[update]
^ Robert H. Sharf, Whose Zen?
Zen Nationalism Revisited
^ Hu Shih: Ch'an (Zen)
Buddhism in China. Its History and Method
^ Critical introduction by John McRae to the reprint of Dumoulin's A
history of Zen
^ Nanzan Institute: Pruning the bodhi Tree
^ David Chapman: Effing the ineffable
Vesak full moon poya day
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Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wynne, Alexander (2007), The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (PDF),
Yen, Chan Master Sheng (2006), (missing title), Boston & London:
Pali Text Society: Occurrences of the term 'enlightenment'
Joan Sutherland, What is enlightenment?', Buddhadharma February 16,
Barbara O'Brien, What is Enlightenment?
Four Noble Truths
Noble Eightfold Path
Iconography in Laos and Thailand
Mahapajapati Gotamī (aunt, adoptive mother)
Places where the
Buddha in world religions
Three marks of existence
Two truths doctrine
Ten spiritual realms
Hungry Ghost realm
Three planes of existence
Seven Factors of Enlightenment
Four Right Exertions
Four stages of enlightenment
Upāsaka and Upāsikā
The ten principal disciples
Emperor Wen of Sui
Chinese Buddhist canon
Tibetan Buddhist canon
Early Buddhist schools
Basic points unifying Theravāda and Mahāyāna
Buddhism in India
Buddhism in India
Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution
Buddhism and the Roman world
Buddhism in the West
Silk Road transmission of Buddhism
Persecution of Buddhists
Banishment of Buddhist monks from Nepal
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism
Women in Buddhism
The unanswered questions
Japanese Buddhist architecture
Korean Buddhist temples
Thai temple art and architecture
Tibetan Buddhist architecture
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Om mani padme hum
Maya Devi Temple
Temple of the Tooth
East Asian religions