Enlightenment in Buddhism

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The English term enlightenment has been used to translate several Buddhist terms and concepts, most notably nirvana, bodhi, kensho and satori.[1] When referring to the Enlightenment of the Buddha (samma-sambodhi) and thus to the goal of the Buddhist path the word enlightenment normally translates the Pali and Sanskrit word bodhi.


Kensho and Satori are Japanese terms used in Zen traditions. Kensho means "seeing into one's true nature." Ken means "seeing", sho means "nature", "essence".[2] Satori (Japanese) is often used interchangeably with kensho, but refers to the experience of kensho.[2] The Rinzai tradition sees kensho as essential to the attainment of Buddhahood, but considers further practice essential to attain Buddhahood.

Bodhi (Sanskrit, Pāli) literally means "to have woken up and understood" and refers to the particular form of understanding or knowledge that the Buddha attained upon his awakening. This knowledge is an understanding into the causality by which sentient beings come into existence, as well as the operations of the mind which keep sentient beings imprisoned in craving, suffering and rebirth. Bodhi is thus the understanding of the way to liberate oneself from this imprisonment.

Yogacara uses the term āśraya parāvŗtti, "revolution of the basis",[3]

... a sudden revulsion, turning, or re-turning of the ālaya vijñaña back into its original state of purity [...] the Mind returns to its original condition of non-attachment, non-discrimination and non-duality".[4]

In this awakening it is realized that observer and observed are not distinct entities, but mutually co-dependent.

The full enlightenment attributed to buddhas is known as samyaksaṃbodhi (Skt.; Pāli: sammāsaṃbodhi) or anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, "highest perfect awakening".[5]

Buddha's awakening

Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, is said to have achieved full enlightenment, known as perfect Buddhahood (Skt. samyaksaṃbuddha; Pāli: sammāsaṃbuddha).

In the suttapitaka, the Buddhist canon as preserved in the Theravada-tradition, a couple of texts can be found in which the Buddha recounts his own awakening.[6][7]

In the Vanapattha Sutta (Majjhima, chapter 17)[8] the Buddha describes life in the jungle, and the attainment of awakening. After destroying the disturbances of the mind, and attaining concentration of the mind, he attained three knowledges (vidhya):[9][10]

  1. Insight into his past lives
  2. Insight into the workings of Karma and Reincarnation
  3. Insight into the Four Noble Truths

Here, Insight into the Four Noble Truths is called "awakening."[9] The monk (bikkhu) has

...attained the unattained supreme security from bondage"[11]

Awakening is also being described as reaching Nirvana, the extinction of the passions whereby suffering is ended and no more rebirths take place.[12] The insight arises that this liberation is certain:

Knowledge arose in me, and insight: my freedom is certain, this is my last birth, now there is no rebirth"[12]

So awakening is insight into karma and rebirth, insight into the Four Noble Truths, the extinction of the passions whereby Nirvana is reached, and the certainty that liberation has been reached.[12]


Buddhahood is the attainment of full awakening and becoming a Buddha. The term buddha has acquired somewhat different meanings in the various Buddhist traditions. An equivalent term for Buddha is Tathāgata, "the thus-gone".

In Theravada Buddhism, reaching full awakening is equivalent in meaning to reaching Nirvāṇa.[web 1] Attaining Nirvāṇa is the ultimate goal of Theravada and other śrāvaka traditions.[web 2] It involves the abandonment of the ten fetters and the cessation of dukkha or suffering. Full awakening is reached in four stages.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism the Bodhisattva is the ideal. The ultimate goal is not only of one's own liberation in Nirvāṇa, 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 some Zen traditions this perfection came to be relativized again; according to one contemporary Zen master, "Shakyamuni buddha and Bodhidharma are still practicing."[13]

But Mahayana Buddhism also developed a cosmology with a wide range of buddhas and bodhisattvas, who assist humans on their way to liberation.

Path to Buddhahood

Meditating Buddha

The way to Buddhahood is somewhat differently understood in the various buddhist traditions. Nevertheless, for all traditions the study of the sutras is essential, and gaining insight a prerequisite.


Theravada Buddhism follows the Seven Stages of Purification, described by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga (Path to purification). It is based on the classical Noble Eightfold Path, but emphasizes insight in the three characteristics of life, namely dukkha, anatta and anicca. It distinguishes four stages of enlightenment, in which the ten fetters are gradually abandoned.


Mahāyāna stresses prajñā and Karuṇā, insight and compassion. It has developed a rich variety of teachings, including the use of mantras, such as the Daimoku in Nichiren Buddhism, and devotion to Buddha ancestors.


In Tibetan buddhism the stages of the path are described in the Lamrim texts. They are elaborations of Atiśa's 11th Century root text A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa).[web 3]

Sudden and gradual

In Zen Buddhism there are two main views on the way to enlightenment: sudden and gradual enlightenment. Early Chán recognized the "transcendence of the body and mind", followed by "non-defilement [of] knowledge and perception".[14] In the 8th century the Ch'an-history was effectively re-fashioned by Shenhui, who gave prominence to Hui-neng and emphasized sudden enlightenment, as opposed to the concurrent Northern School's gradual enlightenment.[15] According to the sudden enlightenment propagated by Shenhui insight into true nature is sudden; thereafter there can be no misunderstanding anymore about this true nature. This emphasis is also maintained by the contemporary Rinzai school.

In opposition to this, the Sōtō school emphasizes silent illumination and the practice of shikan-taza, just sitting. Chinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full Buddhahood. This is also the standpoint of the contemporary Sanbo Kyodan school, according to whom kensho is at the start of the path to full enlightenment.[2]

This gradual cultivation is also recognized by Tozan, who described the Five ranks of enlightenment.[web 4] Other example of depiction of stages on the path are the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures which detail the steps on the Path, and the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin.[16] This gradual cultivation is also described by Chan Master Sheng Yen:

Ch'an expressions refer to enlightenment as "seeing your self-nature". But even this is not enough. After seeing your self-nature, you need to deepen your experience even further and bring it into maturation. You should have enlightenment experience again and again and support them with continuous practice. Even though Ch'an says that at the time of enlightenment, your outlook is the same as of the Buddha, you are not yet a full Buddha.[17]

Western understanding of enlightenment

In the western world the concept of enlightenment has begotten 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.[18]


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 denominations.

Romanticism and transcendentalism

The romantic idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality has been popularized especially by D.T. Suzuki.[web 5][web 6] Further popularization was due to the writings of Heinrich Dumoulin.[19][20][web 7] Dumoulin viewed metaphysics as the expression of a transcendent truth, which according to him was expressed by Mahayana Buddhism, but not by the pragmatic analysis of the oldest Buddhism, which emphasizes anatta.[21] This romantic vision is also recognizable in the works of Ken Wilber.[22]

In the oldest Buddhism this essentialism is not recognizable.[23][web 8] According to critics it doesn't really contribute to a real insight into Buddhism:[web 9]

...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.[24]

Enlightenment and experience

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It was popularised by the Transcendentalists, and exported to Asia via missionaries.[26] 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,[27] various religions, and German idealism.[28]

It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.[29][note 1]

The notion of "experience" has been criticised.[34][35][36] Robert Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.[34][note 2]

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.[38][39] "Pure experience" does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity.[40][41] 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.[42] A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by "cleaning the doors of perception" as per romantic poet William Blake[note 3], would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.[44]

Bodhi Day

Sakyamuni's 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 10]

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.

See also


  1. 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 Carrithers:

    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.[30]

    See Sekida for an example of this influence of William James and Christian conversion stories, mentioning Luther[31] and St. Paul.[32] See also McMahan for the influence of Christian thought on Buddhism.[33]

  2. 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".[37]

  3. 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."[43]


  1. Schreiber 2008, p. 5051, lemma "bodhi".
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Kapleau 1989.
  3. Park 1983, p. 126-132.
  4. Park 1983, p. 127.
  5. Mäll 2005, p. 83.
  6. Wardner 2000, p. 45-50.
  7. Script error: The function "harvard_core" does not exist.
  8. Bhikkhu Nanamoli 1995.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Script error: The function "harvard_core" does not exist.
  10. Snelling 1987, p. 27.
  11. Bhikkhu Nanamoli 1995, p. 199.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Script error: The function "harvard_core" does not exist.
  13. Harris 2004, p. 103.
  14. McRae 2003, p. 88-92.
  15. McRae 2003, p. 54-56.
  16. Low 2006.
  17. Yen 2006, p. 54).
  18. Wright 2000, p. 181-183.
  19. Dumoulin & 2005-A.
  20. Dumoulin & 2005-B.
  21. Dumonlin 2000.
  22. Wilber 1996.
  23. Wardner 2000, p. 116-124.
  24. Kalupahana & 1992-A, p. xi.
  25. Hori 1999, p. 47.
  26. King 2002.
  27. Versluis 2001, p. 3.
  28. Hart 1995.
  29. Sharf 2000, p. 271.
  30. Carrithers 1983, p. 18.
  31. Sekida 1985, p. 196-197.
  32. Sekida 1985, p. 251.
  33. McMahan 2008.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Sharf & 1995-B.
  35. Mohr 2000, p. 282-286.
  36. Low 2006, p. 12.
  37. Sharf & 1995-C, p. 1.
  38. Hori 1994, p. 30.
  39. Samy 1998, p. 82.
  40. Mohr 2000, p. 282.
  41. Samy 1998, p. 80-82.
  42. Samy 1998, p. 80.
  43. Quote DB
  44. Mohr 2000, p. 284.

Web references


  • Batchelor, Stephen (1998), Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening 
  • Bhikkhu Nanamoli; Bhikkhu Bodhi (1995), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya 
  • Carrithers, Michael (1983), The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka 
  • Dumonlin, Heinrich (2000), A History of Zen Buddhism, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 
  • Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005-A), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 1: India and China, World Wisdom Books, ISBN 978-0-941532-89-1  Check date values in: |year= (help)
  • Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005-B), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 2: Japan, World Wisdom Books, ISBN 978-0-941532-90-7  Check date values in: |year= (help)
  • Faure, Bernard (1991), The Rhetoric of Immediacy. A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Universitu Press, ISBN 0-691-02963-6 
  • Gregory, Peter N. (1991), Sudden and Gradual (Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought), Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 8120808193
  • Harris, Ishwar C. (2004), The Laughing Buddha of Tofukuji: The Life of Zen Master Keido Fukushima, World Wisdom Books, ISBN 978-0-941532-62-4 
  • Hart, James D. (ed) (1995), Transcendentalism. In: The Oxford Companion to American Literature, Oxford University Press 
  • Hori, Victor Sogen (1994), Teaching and Learning in the Zen Rinzai Monastery. In: Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol.20, No. 1, (Winter, 1994), 5-35 (PDF) 
  • Kapleau, Philip (1989), The three pillars of Zen 
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1992-A), The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Delhi: ri Satguru Publications  Check date values in: |year= (help)
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1992-B), A history of Buddhist philosophy, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited  Check date values in: |year= (help)
  • King, Richard (2002), Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East", Routledge 
  • Low, Albert (2006), Hakuin on Kensho. The Four Ways of Knowing, Boston & London: Shambhala 
  • Mäll, Linnart (2005), Studies in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā and other essays, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers 
  • McMahan, David L. (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195183276 
  • Mohr, Michel (2000), Emerging from Nonduality. Koan Practice in the Rinzai Tradition since Hakuin. In: steven Heine & Dale S. Wright (eds.)(2000), "The Koan. texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism", Oxford: Oxford University Press 
  • Park, Sung-bae (1983), Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment, SUNY Press 
  • Samy, AMA (1998), Waarom kwam Bodhidharma naar het Westen? De ontmoeting van Zen met het Westen, Asoka: Asoka 
  • Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid; Ehrhard, Franz-Karl; diener, Michael S. (2008), Lexicon Boeddhisme. Wijsbegeerte, religie, psychologie, mystiek, cultuur an literatuur, Asoka 
  • Sekida, Katsuki (1985), Zen Training. Methods and Philosophy, New York, Tokyo: Weatherhill 
  • Sharf, Robert H. (1995-B), "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience" (PDF), NUMEN, vol.42 (1995)  Check date values in: |year= (help)
  • Sharf, Robert H. (2000), The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion. In: Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 11-12, 2000, pp. 267-87 (PDF) 
  • Snelling, John (1987), The Buddhist handbook. A Complete Guide to Buddhist Teaching and Practice, London: Century Paperbacks 
  • Versluis, Arthur (2001), The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance, Oxford University Press 
  • Warder, A.K. (2000), Indian Buddhism, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers 
  • Wilber, Ken (1996), The Atman Project 
  • Wright, Dale S. (2000), Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 
  • Yen, Chan Master Sheng (2006), Boston & London: Shambhala  Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links

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