Enlightenment in Buddhism
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The English term enlightenment is the western translation of the term bodhi, "awakening", which has entered the Western world via 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 dhyana, 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 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.
- Translation 1
- Bodhi 2.1.1
- Prajna 2.1.2
- Kensho and satori 2.1.3
- Knowledge 2.2
- Freedom 2.3
- Nirvana 2.4
- Insight 2.1
- Anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi 3.1
- Buddha's awakening 3.2
- Dhyana and insight 3.3
- Two traditions 3.4
- Two kinds of dhyana 3.5
- Development of Buddhahood in Buddhist traditions 3.6
Western understanding of enlightenment 4
- Enlightenment as "Aufklärung" 4.1
- Awakening 4.2
- Romanticism and transcendentalism 4.3
- Enlightenment and experience 4.4
- Bodhi Day 5
- See also 6
- Notes 7
- References 8
- Web references 9
- Sources 10
- External links 11
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. 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 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. K.R. Norman:
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 later development.
In 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 Nyanatiloka,
(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 the Buddha eventually were superseeded by Pratītyasamutpāda, the twelvefold chain of causation, and still later by anatta, the emptiness of the self.
In Theravada 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.
In Mahayana 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".
Kensho and satori
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", 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 attain Buddhahood.
East-Asian (Chinese) 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 thought. 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 attained:
- Insight into his past lives
- Insight into the workings of Karma and Reincarnation
- Insight into the Four Noble Truths
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 kiinds 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 basis",
... 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 non-duality".
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 translations.
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 Buddha is 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 narrative.[note 5]
The Ariyapariyesana Sutta[note 6] describes how the Buddha was 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 knowledges (vidhya):
- 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, lead the Buddha himself straight to liberation. called "awakening."
Dhyana and insight
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. 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.
The Buddhist tradition has incorporated two traditions regarding the use of jhana. There is a tradition that stresses attaining insight (bodhi, prajna, kensho) as the means to awakening and liberation. But it has also incorporated the yogic tradition, as reflected in the use of jhana, which is rejected in other sutras as not resulting in the final result of liberation. The problem was famously voiced in 1936 by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, in his text Musila et Narada: Le Chemin de Nirvana.[note 9]
Schmithausen discerns three possible roads to liberation as described in the suttas, to which Vetter adds the sole practice of dhyana itself, which he sees as the original "liberating practice":
- The four Rupa Jhanas themselves constituted the core liberating practice of early buddhism, c.q. the Buddha;
- Mastering the four Rupa Jhanas, where-after "liberating insight" is attained;
- Mastering the four Rupa Jhanas and the four Arupa Jhanas, where-after "liberating insight" is attained;
- Liberating insight itself suffices.
This problem has been elaborated by several well-known scholars, including Tilman Vetter, Johannes Bronkhorst, and Richard Gombrich. Both Schmithausen and Bronkhorst note that the attainment of insight, which is a cognitive activity, can't be possible in state weherin all cognitive acitivy has ceased. According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, dhyana itself constituted the original "liberating practice". According to Alexander Wynne, the ultimate aim of dhyana was the attainment of insight, and the application of the meditative state to the practice of mindfulness. According to Frauwallner, mindfulness was a means to prevent the arising of craving, which resulted simply from contact between the senses and their objects. According to Frauwallner this may have been the Buddha’s original idea.[note 10] According to Wynne, this stress on mindfulness may have lead to the intellectualism which favoured insight over the practice of dhyana.
Two kinds of dhyana
According to Richard Gombrich, the secquence of the four rupa-jhanas describes two different cognitive states:
I know this is controversial, but it seems to me that the third and fourth jhanas are thus quite unlike the second.[note 11]
Alexander Wynne further explains that the dhyana-scheme is poorly understood. According to Wynne, words expressing the inculcation of awareness, such as sati, sampajāno, and upekkhā, are mistranslated or understood as particular factors of meditative states, whereas they refer to a particular way of perceiving the sense objects:
Thus the expression sato sampajāno in the third jhāna must denote a state of awareness different from the meditative absorption of the second jhāna (cetaso ekodibhāva). It suggests that the subject is doing something different from remaining in a meditative state, i.e. that he has come out of his absorption and is now once again aware of objects. The same is true of the word upek(k)hā: it does not denote an abstract 'equanimity', [but] it means to be aware of something and indifferent to it [...] The third and fourth jhāna-s, as it seems to me, describe the process of directing states of meditative absorption towards the mindful awareness of objects.[note 10][note 12]
Development of Buddhahood in Buddhist traditions
In Theravada Buddhism, reaching full awakening is equivalent in meaning to reaching Nirvāṇa.[web 3] Attaining Nirvāṇa is the ultimate goal of Theravada and other śrāvaka traditions.[web 4] It involves the abandonment of the ten fetters and the cessation of dukkha or suffering. Full awakening is reached in four stages.
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."
But Mahayana Buddhism also developed a cosmology with a wide range of buddhas and bodhisattvas, who assist humans on their way to liberation.
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.
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.[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. This romantic vision is also recognizable in the works of Ken Wilber.In the oldest Buddhism this essentialism is not recognizable.[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.
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 Religious Experience. 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 missionaries. 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 idealism.
It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.[note 13]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 influences.[note 14]
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.  "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 15], would, according to Mohr, be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.
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.
- Buddhist philosophy
- Buddhism and psychology
- Enlightenment (spiritual)
- See also Theosophy or Pantheism? Friedrich Max Müller's Gifford Lectures on Natural ReligionLourens Peter van den Bosch, : "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 world."
- Majjhima Nikaya chapter 36
- See VimuttiEncyclopedia.com,
- 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
- See Musial and NaradLouis de La Vallée Poussin, . Translated from the French by Gelongma Migme Chödrön and Gelong Lodrö Sangpo.
- theravadin.wordpress.com: "In this order, therefore, what we should understand as vipassanā is not at all a synonym for sati but rather something which grows out of the combination of all these factors especially of course the last two, samma sati and samma samadhi applied to the ruthless observation of what comes into being (yathābhūta). One could say, vipassanā is a name for the practice of sati+samadhi as applied to anicca/dukkha/anatta (i.e. generating wisdom) directed at the six-sense-process, including any mental activity."[web 2]
- Original publication: Gombrich, Richard (2007), Religious Experience in Early Buddhism, OCHS Library
- According to Gombrich, "the later tradition has falsified the jhana by classifying them as the quintessence of the concentrated, calming kind of meditation, ignoring the other - and indeed higher - element.
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.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 Buddhism.
[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".
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