Wake Up! Understanding Enlightenment in Buddhism


What is the meaning of enlightenment in Buddhism?  The concept of ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’ and how it relates to the other concept of ‘no-self’ (anattā or anatman) is truly one thing that sets Buddhism apart from any other major religion.  After all, “Buddha” means “The Awakened One”.

But enlightenment, which is the reason we practice Buddhism, is perhaps one of the most confusing concepts to explain in Buddhism.

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  
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Why Do I Have to Wake Up?

Seeing one’s own nature is Buddhahood ~ Zen Master Bassui

Hey, being unenlightened sure seems like a wonderful thing!  We love falling madly in love with people, enjoy things that delight our senses, and live our life to the fullest before we die.

But is it all that it’s cracked up to be?  Not really, because we have many attachments when we are unenlightened that cause our suffering (called “Dukkha” which is part of the four noble truths) such as:

  • Suffering from physical and mental conditions:  birth, growing old, illness, and dying
  • Suffering from attachment to changing things:  money, fame, power, lust, politics, etc.
  • Suffering on things because they don’t measure up to our expectations (because of impermanence [things change]):  physical appearance and beauty, strength, gadgets (smartphones, electronics, etc.), etc.

When we become enlightened, everything becomes clear so things that used to bother us, no longer do, and we can understand our place in the universe.

“You” Are Not You

Hello, is there anyone up there?! (CC0 Photo via Comfreak on Pixbay)

Enlightenment is something that happens suddenly to you when you recognize there has never been a thing known as “you” (ego), and it was all just a mental fabrication.  This is referred to as the concept of “no-self” (anattā or anatman) in Buddhism.  That’s pretty heavy stuff for most of us to come to terms with.

As Zen Master Dōgen said:

Only be accepting that the ego is a fabricated illusion do we walk the Buddha’s way.

This means that seeing “you” (ego) as a “permanent” and “separate self” is the illusion.  We exist due to causes and conditions and will cease to exist when that happens.

When you realize this, you become awake.

Author Timothy Freke made this very clear:

Enlightenment is not something that benefits “you” or “me.”  It is the absence of the illusion of there being a “you” or “me” to benefit.  Enlightenment is held up as the ultimate goal of Buddhism, but ironically it is only when the concept of being a “someone” who could achieve anything is abandoned that enlightenment naturally occurs.

So, Who Am I?

Photo by Beverly & Pack on Flickr

So how can “you” be enlightened when there can’t be a thing such as “you”?

First, it’s important to understand that “ego” (referred to as “ātman” in Buddhism)  is in our mind and creates the false sense of self (thus a “you”) that is independent and separate.  Because this is a delicious and attractive prospect to us, we cling to it…tightly.  This clinging to “self” creates all our suffering because it’s like a clenching fist that won’t “let go”.

As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche explains:

Clinging to this mythical self is just like gripping an imaginary object in our hand. What does it accomplish?  It only gives us a headache and ulcers. And we quickly develop many other kinds of suffering on top of that. This “I” becomes proactive in protecting its interests, because it immediately perceives “other.” The instant we have the thought of “I” and “other,” the whole drama of “us” versus “them” develops. It all happens in the blink of an eye. We desire one thing and try our best to get it; we hate or fear another and work to keep it away; and there are still other things we don’t care about one way or another.

Compared to other religions of the world where ‘you’ are permanent (such as having a soul), Buddhism says the opposite.  Sentient beings (such as people) don’t have an independent self that is unchanging.  Physically you can see your body change, but even ‘you’ change as you are interconnected with everything around you.  Because we are very much attached to the concept of ‘me’, it’s hard to grasp this concept also.

The Buddha said that the concept of ‘you’ is a temporary condition caused by the combination of physical and mental components of existence.  You will eventually lose the body, and be no more (but not to worry, read my article about rebirth for more on this).

This doesn’t mean that you are not in the physical (human) world right now, because you are.  You can pinch yourself and feel the pain caused by it.  What’s being said in that moment by moment, the concept of “you” is being created by your ego (mind).  So, loosen that grip on your ego and become liberated!

It’s important to note that the two major branches of Buddhism, Theravada, and Mahayana, look at the concept of “no self” (anattā or anatman) differently as explained by Barbara O’Brien:

Very basically, Theravada considers anatman to mean that an individual’s ego or personality is a fetter and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana.

Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self (a teaching called shunyata, which means “emptiness”). The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because we are not really separate, autonomous beings.

Awakened or Enlightened?

Before we go any further, a little clarification is needed.  You will hear the terms “enlightened” (and “enlightenment”) and “awake” (and “awakened”), which refer to the Pali term “Bodhi”.  The Buddha said he was “buddho”, meaning “awake”.  Both ‘enlightened’ and ‘awakened’ mean the same thing and are not the best terms to use to describe Bodhi, but it’s what has been used for a long time now.

Let’s use these two terms as they relate to the Buddha:  Prince Siddhartha Gautama became “awake” (buddho) when he realized the true nature of things.  This happened during his meditative concentration under the Bodhi tree when he overcame all the obstacles and temptations in his mind and, no pun intended, the “lights came on” or “enlightened” (as far as understanding the true nature of things) and became the Buddha.

Often, you’ll see a circle, halo, or light radiating from the Buddha’s head in paintings and statues, but this is purely a symbolic metaphor for ‘enlightenment’ (by using light) of his mind, and not of anything spiritual or God-like.

Photo by Spamily on Flickr

Finding What is Hidden

What’s hidden?  You’re already enlightened my friend.  As Barbara O’Brien explains:

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that, in our deepest selves, we are already perfect, complete and enlightened. However, we don’t understand ourselves this way. Instead, we are caught up in the delusion of ordinary appearances and conceptualizations to see ourselves as limited, imperfect and incomplete.

If we could sum up ‘Enlightenment’ simply (no easy feat!) it is to find what is hidden.  But what is hidden?  First, let’s give some analogies:

  • Imagine you have been in a massive pitch dark room for years.  One day a flashlight appears, and you begin searching, and eventually, you come across a mirror and see your face in it.  Even though you haven’t seen your face for many years, it’s instantly recognizable.  You know that’s “you”.
  • You have been in a coma for many decades, only to finally wake up one day and see your parents.  Even though their appearance has changed, you intuitively know they are your parents.
  • You were born blind and have never seen what the world looks like.  You receive the surgery that gives you your vision and you can finally see the world around you.

Enlightenment is much like this, as it is discovering what is already there inside you (often referred to as your “Buddha nature” in Mahayana).  As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains:

Before attaining enlightenment one sees the world through clouded vision, unable to understand the true nature of things.  After attaining enlightenment, one looks upon all the world’s phenomena like a blind person who can now see.

The Enlightened Superstar

We would probably not even be talking about enlightenment if it were not for Prince Siddhartha Gautama who persisted in meditation under a pipal tree (later to be called the Bodhi tree) until he became “awake”.  His enlightenment, and determination to share this knowledge with others, created one of the world’s largest religions.   He was then able to see and understand the world as it truly is and explained this with the Three Dharma Seals.

Upon achieving enlightenment, the Buddha said:

Marvelous, marvelous!  All sentient beings have the Tathāgata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.

“Tathāgata” is a Pali and Sanskrit word the Buddha used when referring to himself.  So, he’s saying everyone has “Buddha Nature” and can achieve enlightenment, and end suffering.

I wonder if the Buddha saw the world as the character “Neo” did in the movie The Matrix?  Well, more on that later.

Your Mind, the Lotus Flower

Often you will see a picture or statue of the Buddha sitting atop a lotus flower throne.  This is because the lotus flower is often used to dramatically illustrate enlightenment.

Just like our mind, the lotus flower grows beneath the surface of the water, which is dark, murky, and muddy (much like our perception of the world and ourselves).  But, through constant effort, it finally breaks the surface of the water and blossoms in the bright and beautiful world (which is unseen).

Photo by Ben Ashmole on Flickr

Just like the lotus flower breaking the surface of the water, we too can break through the surface of our deluded perceptions of the world.  But it takes both constant effort and faith.

If the lotus flower (let’s pretend it’s a sentient being for a second) believed the world was just this muddy water and nothing was above, it would never become ‘enlightened’ and break the surface.  Or, if it did believe that there was this beautiful world above the water’s surface, and spent much effort to get there, but one day gets discouraged and stops…not knowing it was just moments away from the surface.

Therefore, continued practice, faith, and effort are needed, and that you should never give up.

YOU are the ONE

In the movie The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) awakens from within the “Matrix” and can “see” the world around him is just computer code.  Here’s the scene:

Now, of course, this movie doesn’t have anything to do with Buddhism, but it does have some concepts we can draw from:

  • In the scene shown above, Neo saw that everything was ‘connected’ and ‘equal’, which are fundamental Buddhist concepts.  When he realized this, he was for all purposes “enlightened”.  There was no going back for him because he saw the world for what it truly is…in his case, a computer program.
  • When the Buddha sat under the pipal tree, he was attacked by “Mara” or “Maara” (more on that here).  Could the ‘agents’ in the Matrix be considered ‘Mara’ for Neo?  Quite possibly, and Neo can defeat Agent Smith (whom we can relate to ‘Mara’) whose goal is to ensure that everyone is kept in the false and delusional world of the Matrix.
  • Neo then sets forth to free mankind who have been imprisoned in the delusion of the Matrix so they can ‘wake up’ and see the world as it truly is:

So, perhaps Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) could have been like Keanu Reeves playing the character Neo if he lived in our time.  I suppose I’d be ok with that if he didn’t also play a role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and also doesn’t fly around in a computer program.

Meditate on This

We’ve talked a lot about what enlightenment is, but how do you become ‘enlightened’?  The goal of meditative concentration (part of the Noble Eightfold Path) is enlightenment.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains the path:

One can seek enlightenment by practicing meditation, but how should we practice so that we can attain enlightenment?  Total and complete enlightenment is not attained easily.  one must develop small moments of insight and understanding each day.  These small, daily bits of enlightenment accumulate over time, until they culminate in a sudden flash of great enlightenment.

Getting started with meditation ideally requires a teacher, but if you don’t have one where you live, here are five ways you can learn.

Don’t Fall Back Asleep

So, what do you do after you become enlightened?  Get ready for it…you continue practicing!  Becoming enlightened is not the last step on the path, becoming a Buddha is.

Mahayana Buddhists who follow the Bodhisattva path can become Buddha’s as well, but they choose to remain in the cycle of birth and death (samsara) in order to help others become enlightened as well.

But let’s look at it another way, that becoming enlightened is just as good as becoming a Buddha (or Arhart in Theravada).  As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains (note that ‘Chan’ and ‘Zen’ are the same, except Chan refers to the original school in China, and Zen the school that Chan became in Japan):

Chan practitioners are humanistic because they have developed meditative concentration for generations and seek enlightenment rather than attaining Buddhahood.  After attaining enlightenment in this human world, they are liberated in the present moment of their lives.  They find peace and freedom in body and mind, understand the mind, and see their nature.  All of this comes from enlightenment-why worry about being unable to become a Buddha?

But What Do I Know?

It’s often said that trying to explain enlightenment is fruitless, and I agree.  As someone who is clearly not enlightened, my goal with this article is to try and make a few concepts clearer and easier to understand for laypersons like you and me.

But, of course, I’m not enlightened!  So, I will leave you with this parting thought by Ven. Master Hsing Yun:

Enlightenment must be directly experienced and is not something an average person can wildly speculate about.  Those who casually imitate the words and actions of Chan practitioners without doing the work to attain enlightenment will fall short and invite the ridicule of those who truly know.


Article Notes

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