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ENLIGHTENMENT . In the context of Asian religious traditions, especially of Buddhism, what is often translated as enlightenment typically refers to that existentially transformative experience in which one reaches complete and thorough understanding of the nature of reality and gains control over those psychic proclivities that determine the apparent structures and dynamics of the world. As is consistent with a general South and East Asian notion that final truth is apprehended through extraordinary "sight" (hence, religious "insight" or "vision"), enlightenment is often depicted as an experience in which one is said to "see" things as they really are, rather than as they merely appear to be. To have gained enlightenment is to have seen through the misleading textures of illusion and ignorance, through the dark veils of habitual comprehension, to the light and clarity of truth itself.

The English word enlightenment usually translates the Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit term bodhi, meaning in a general sense "wise, intelligent, fully aware." Thus, bodhi signifies a certain "brightness" (again, a visual theme) to one's consciousness. The term bodhi is built on the same verbal rootSanskrit budh ("awaken, become conscious")as that from which derives the adjective buddha ("awakened one"). Thus, an enlightened being, a buddha, is one who has dispelled all of the personal and cosmic effects of ignorance and has become fully awake to reality as it truly is. From the word bodhi come also the terms sambodhi and sambodha, the "highest" or "most complete enlightenment."

The word enlightenment also, yet less often, translates other Sanskrit and Sanskrit-related terms from a variety of religious traditions other than Buddhism. The Jain notion of kevalajñāna (omniscience, knowledge unhindered by the karmic residues of former modes of understanding the world) describes in part the quality of an arhat, a person worthy of highest respect. The paradigmatic arhats in the Jain context are the twenty-four tīrthakaras, those "ford-crossers" (the most recent being Vardhamāna Mahāvīra in the sixth century bce) whose experiences of such enlightenment stand at the center of Jain religious history. Similarly, yogic Hindu traditions teach of the experience of samādhi ("absolute equanimity") and of kaivalya ("the supreme autonomous state of being free of ignorance"), both of which lead the yogin to the experience of moka, the release from the hitherto ceaseless and painful cycle of transmigration.

But it is to Buddhist traditions that the experience of enlightenment is most pertinent. Although Buddhist lessons regarding enlightenment (bodhi and its correlatives, Chinese pudi, wu, or jue, Tibetan bya chub, and Japanese satori ) vary somewhat, Buddhism in general has stressed the key significance of that experience in which one fully and compassionately understands the world without discoloring or disfiguring it according to one's desires, expectations, or habits. The Buddhist insight into the nature of pain and suffering, of fear and doubt, of the feelings of insecurity and hopelessness, is that these states arise in one's ignorant mind as one selfishly tries to have reality the way one wants it rather than to know it as it is. The Buddhist way to freedom from the suffering these states cause, therefore, is to removeusually through the practice of meditation or through the development of compassionthe conditions one places on the world, on other people, and on oneself. Thus, Buddhist enlightenment constitutes an experiential transforming and normative "deconditioning" of the self and of the world.

And what, from a Buddhist perspective, would people "see" when they have so deconditioned their response to, and analysis of, the world? Sanskrit and Pali accounts of Siddhārtha Gautama's enlightenment at the age of thirty-five as he sat under a tree near what is now the north Indian town of Bodh Gayā through the night of the full moon in the spring of ca. 538 bce might well serve to summarize the elements early South Asian Buddhist understanding of the process and nature of enlightenment.

First, people would have to confront and defeat, as Gautama is reported to have done, all of the various temptations, selfish desires, and fears (sexual lust, faint-heartedness, physical weakness, passion, laziness, cowardice, doubt, hypocrisy, pride, and self-aggrandizement) that usually define and delimit their sense of identity, an exceedingly difficult task represented in Buddhist myth and iconography as Gautama's struggle in the late afternoon with the demonic and tempting Māra, the evil one.

Secondstill following hagiographical accounts and traditional teachings as the paradigmthey would enter into four levels of meditative absorption (Sanskrit, dhyāna ; Pali, jhāna. Technical terms will hereafter be given first in the Sanskrit, with Pali and other terms following when appropriate.) At the first level they would detach their attention from the objects of the senses and look inward into their own minds. Their thoughts would be discursive in nature, and they would feel relaxed but energetic. Entering the second level, their thoughts would no longer be discursive, but they would still feel great energy, comfort, and trust. At the third level the feeling of zest would give way to a sense of dispassionate bliss, and at the fourth level they would feel free of all opposites such as pleasure and pain, euphoria and anxiety. This fourth level of meditation would be characterized by pure and absolute awareness and complete calmness.

Gautama is said to have mastered all four of these stages of meditative concentration and could move from one to the other with ease. This was to be of central importance to his subsequent series of insights gained through the night, for through them he perceived what are known as the six types of extraordinary knowledge (abhijñā ; abhiññā ): magical physical powers, the ability to hear voices and sounds from all parts of the universe, the ability to know other people's thoughts, memory of his former lives, the ability to see all creatures in the world, and the extinction of all harmful psychological states. One would have to use these skills in order to understand the nature of suffering in the world, for not to do so would mean that one were merely a wizard or magician rather than a healer.

Third, having gained control over their entrapping emotions, and having mastered the four levels of contemplation, aspirants would endeavor through meditative analysis of their lives to comprehend how the present is determined by the sum total of their past actions. They would see that each person is responsible for his or her own personality and that others cannot be blamed for one's psychological predicament. This third stage of enlightenment finds narrative representation in traditional accounts of Gautama's ability to remember, in order, all of his former lives (pūrvanivāsānu-smti-jñāna ; pubbenevāsānusatti-ñāa ) and to understand how all of those lives led to the present one. Gautama is said to have gained this insight during the first watch of the night.

Fourth, they would develop their ability to understand other people's idiosyncratic psychological and existential predicaments in the same manner as they have understood their's own. That is to say, they would be able to see how people have become who they are how they have created their own problems, even though they may not know it. Aspirants for enlightenment would then be able to respond fully and compassionately to any given situation with other people. Buddhist hagiographies say that Gautama gained such a skill during the second watch of the night, a time in which he attained the "divine vision" (divyacaku ; dibbacakkhu ) to see all of the former lives of all beings in the universe.

Finally, they would comprehend and destroy the source of all psychological "poison" (āśrava ; āsava: "projection, befuddling outflow") and come to realize what are known as the four noble truths: (1) that conditioned existence is permeated by suffering (dukha ; dukkha ); (2) that this suffering has an origin (samudāya ); (3) that, because it has its cause, this suffering, therefore, can come to an end (nirodha ); and (4) that the way one brings an end to all suffering is to follow the Buddhist way of life, known as the Noble Eightfold Path. To tread this path, one practices: (1) the right view (di ; ditthi ) of the true nature of things, (2) right thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration.

Gautama is said to have realized the four noble truths during the third watch of the night, in the dark hours before dawn. Gaining these insights, he saw that one's ignorance of the fact that it is the thirst (tā ; tahā ) for sensual, emotional, or personal gratification that leads one to think and act in certain ways, and that those thoughts and actions then determine how one understands and lives one's life. In other words, it is people's desire to have the world the way they want it to be rather than to know it as it is, free of their preconceptions and demands, that leads to suffering. The cure for this disease, according to Buddhist tradition, is to relinquish one's attachment to the world as one thinks it is, or should be, so that one can be free to see it as it really is. One has to blow out the flames of one's unquenchable desires in order to know the cool waters of truth, of dharma.

This "blowing out" of conditioned existence, this nirvāa (nibbāna ), is enlightenment. Gautama is said to have attained nirvāa as the sun came up, an appropriate time to be "awakened" to the nature of reality. Standing up from his place under the tree, Gautama then walked forth as the Buddha.

Theravāda Buddhism recognizes three different types of people who have gained enlightenment. The term sāvakabodhi ("enlightenment gained by one who has heard [the Buddha's lessons]") applies to the disciples of the Buddha; paccekabodhi ("enlightenment in solitude") refers to the enlightenment experienced by a person who has never actually heard the Buddha's teachings but, nevertheless, has understood in full the nature of reality. (Theravāda tradition does not recognize the teachings of a paccekabuddha but does not dispute the validity of his or her experience); sammā-sambodhi is the complete and absolute enlightenment known by Gotama (Gautama) and other Buddhas in other world cycles.

Recognizing the important link between ignorance (avidyā ; avijjā ) of the way things are and the craving (tā ; tahā ) to have them otherwise, Theravāda Buddhist commentarial tradition has tended to equate the experience of enlightenment with that of the extinction of desire (tākaya ; tahākhaya ), and thus not only to nirvāa but also to the third of the four noble truths, namely, nirodha ("cessation"). Other near-synonyms for nibbāna appear throughout the earliest Pali texts: the abolition of passion (rāgakaya ; rāgakkhaya ), the cessation of hatred (dośakaya ; dosakkhaya ), the extinction of illusion (mohakaya ; mohakkhaya ), and uncompounded or unconditioned existence (asaskta ; asamkhata ) all restate the general connotations of the enlightenment experience.

The Mahāyāna tradition, too, has understood enlightenment to include the direct perception of things-as-they-are. According to the Mahāyāna, the enlightened being sees all beings in their "suchness" (Skt., tathatā, yathābhūta ; Tib., ya dag pa ji lta ba bźin du ) or their "thatness" (tattva ; Tib., de kho na [n̄id] ), this is to say, in their uncategorical integrity. Mādhyamika Buddhist tracts hold that to perceive all things in their suchness is to see that they are empty (śūnya ) of any independent, substantial, essential, or eternal being. The Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) school of the Mahāyāna holds that a person who is to understand the similar "emptiness" (śūnyatā ) of the worldthat nothing exists in its own nature independent of a multitude or even infinite number of interdependent causes and forcesmust cultivate wisdom (prajñā ), a wisdom that is identical with awareness of all things (sarvajñātā ) and perfect enlightenment (sambodhi ).

Virtually all schools of Buddhist thought recognize the key relationship between enlightenment and the practice of meditation, for it is through meditation that the mind is understood to become clear and focused enough to allow one's illuminating awareness to shine clearly. Indeed, for Dōgen, a thirteenth-century Zen master from Japan, the practice of meditation and the entry into enlightenment are one and the same thing, for meditation is a spiritual discipline that reveals one's already enlightened mind.

Buddhist though varies regarding how long it may take to gain enlightenment and whether if, once gained, it can be blurred or lost. Possible answers to these question may into some ways be represented by two attitudes toward enlightenment in the Zen tradition. In one, represented by the Chinese ideogram kan jing (Japanese kanjō), "paying attention to purity," the mind is understood to be continually fogged and distorted by various forces, so must be cleansed gradually over long periods of sitting meditation. In another, described as jianxing (Japanese kenshō),"seeing into one's true nature," there is the possibility of a sudden recognition of the awakened state that is one's inherent nature that may take place at any moment, no matter how long one has been sitting in formal meditation. In either case, enlightenment is directly associated the ability to see the "is-as-it-isness" (Japanese kono-mama ) of the moment, free of the mind's categories, projections, habitual tendencies, desires, expectations, and demands. Indeed, according to Buddhist thought in general across its many schools, the unencumbered, direct perception into the true nature of things beyond all categorical modes of understanding, including the mind, constitutes awakened enlightenment itself.

Despite the many and long discourses on the subject, Buddhist sensibilities, particularly those associated with the various schools of the Mahāyāna, holds that the experience of enlightenment is an ineffable one, for what lies beyond all categories cannot itself be expressed in words. That it cannot be expressed, however, is part of its experience. The Mumonkan, a Zen Buddhist chronicle, recounts a story purported to appear in an as yet undiscovered sūtra that would exemplify this point: When asked about the nature of truth, the Buddha silently held up a flower in front of his followers. Nobody understood his point except for the venerable Kaśyapa, who said nothing but smiled softly. Seeing his smile, the Buddha knew that his disciple had understood, and declared Kaśyapa to be enlightened.

See Also

Buddha; Four Noble Truths; Moka; Samādhi; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā and Truth.


The most accessible Sanskrit account of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment is the Buddhacarita, Aśvaghosa's poem written in the first century ce. English translations of the sections on the temptation by Māra and the enlightenment appear in The Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, translated and edited by Edward H. Johnston (19351936; reprint, Delhi, 1972), pp. 188217, and in Buddhist Scriptures, translated and edited by Edward Conze (Harmondsworth, 1959), pp. 4853. Translations from selected Pali literatures pertinent to the enlightenment appear in Henry Clark Warren's Buddhism in Translations (1896; reprint, New York, 1976), pp. 129159. Historical and analytical discussions of the Buddha's enlightenment appear in Edward J. Thomas's The Life of Buddha as Legend and History, 3d ed. (1949; reprint, London, 1969), pp. 6180: Bhikkhu Nāamoli's The Life of the Buddha (Kandy, 1972); Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson's The Buddhist Religion, 3d ed. (Belmont, Calif., 1982), pp. 520; Hajime Nakamura's Gautama Buddha (Los Angeles and Tokyo, 1972), pp. 5765; and Winston L. King's Theravāda Meditation (University Park, Pa., 1980), pp. 117. On Zen definitions of and attitudes toward enlightenment, see Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning (New York and Tokyo, 1979).

William K. Mahony (1987 and 2005)

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