Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (2)


The Wording of the Thing

Buddhism is full of abstractions, terms that lend themselves to multiple translations, conceptual reformulations and biases. Ridding ourselves of the temptation to indulge in intangibles and absolutes is essential for an honest revaluation of Buddhism in the West and this is especially so when considering enlightenment. The way we talk about it must be examined carefully if we are to make sense of what it alludes to and the first step involves examining the terminology commonly used to define the thing. If the act of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment is a genuine and worthwhile human attainment, then it must be definable outside of a religious or spiritual tradition’s idiom. The type of language that is used to describe spiritual enlightenment is too often bombastic, supernatural, and out of touch with people’s experience within the traditions. What’s more, enlightenment is often described as ineffable, which opens it up to all manner of interpretation, and basically implies that such a possibility is beyond examination, leading back to the dead end of trust in wiser authorities and their spiritual capital, leading to a hierarchical a division between those who know and those that don’t. Rather than blind faith, I would suggest that we need a clearer way of talking about the thing. Rather than dismissive assertions that it is something beyond words, we can start by looking at some of the key terms within Buddhism used to define enlightenment and see what they are actually pointing to.

The language and terminology we use daily, as well as in our attempts to explain uncommon experience, are shaped by the linguistic habits we have digested and habituated through the common discourse we have with others, with our descriptions and ways of talking about the inanimate world and with ourselves through our inner-dialogue as the chatter of consciousness. The same is true at the collective level. Groups however small or large develop their own internal dialects that shape, condition, open and limit the scope of discourse. As Edward Sapir the linguist observed:

‘We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.’[i]


As far as Buddhism is concerned, it was likely DT Suzuki that first made this English word more widely known as a translation for bodhi or nirvana in the 1930s, although at the time he was translating his own Zen tradition’s term for the thing, satori.  This is important for two reasons; firstly, Suzuki was drawing on scholarly texts on Buddhism written by Westerners that had already adopted the term in the previous century. Secondly, it planted the idea of enlightenment as an instantaneous, radical, almost miraculous thing, in the minds of those Westerners hearing about this religion, from the romanticised East, for the first time from a native. The idea stuck in the western imagination and the word has been ever present since.

Enlightenment was not actually coined as a noun in English until the 1660s. In spite of there being much better translations, enlightenment persists as the most widespread term used to translate both bodhi (Sanskrit and Pali) and nirvana (Sanskrit), nibbana (Pali). It is worth beginning with an exploration of the term enlightenment to see whether it has any coinage, simply because of its omnipresent status in Buddhists circles and beyond.

Spiritual Enlightenment is a term that is primarily considered in its function as an abstract noun, that is to say, an intangible with no grounding in mundane daily experience, which points to why it is open to all manner of interpretation. Enlightenment does exist as a verb (to enlighten), as well as an adjective (enlightening), and therefore can be related to both action and the defining of experience. provides us with the following definitions:

  1. the act or means of enlightening or the state of being enlightened
  2. Buddhism the awakening to ultimate truth by which man is freed from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations to which all men are otherwise subject
  3. Hinduism a state of transcendent divine experience represented by Vishnu: regarded as a goal of all religion

The initial problem with the Buddhism definition is its reference to ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘reincarnation’. The former, like enlightenment, is defined in a variety of ways by Buddhist traditions and is open to as much speculation, the latter is a topic of debate and incredulence in ongoing secular western discourse and is impossible to prove, so remains an ideological proposition. However you take it, resting at this level of interpretation, we are left with vague pointers to insider knowledge and a phenomenon that is beyond validation.

Apart from the issues that arise philosophically in building accurate descriptions of what it is that transmigrates, the whole notion of reincarnation risks a sort of romantic idealism that permits us to believe that secretly we will live on after death and somehow remain immortal. Letting go of reincarnation as a necessary marker for defining enlightenment allows us to have a more sober discussion of the immediate significance of achieving Buddhism’s goal as a human affair so reincarnation will be set aside as a possible factor in determining the nature, function and result of the thing.

The third definition is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it actually captures a commonly held perception amongst many Buddhists. Secondly, it manages to capture the sort of definition that pushes enlightenment off into the ‘light’ recesses of the unattainable; an abstract elsewhere phenomenon that makes discussing the human experience of it impossible. Switching to the verb, we get the following from Collins Concise Dictionary:

  1. to give information or understanding to; instruct; edify
  2. to free from ignorance, prejudice, or superstition
  3. to give spiritual or religious revelation to
  4. Poetic to shed light on

To enlighten is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object. There is an interaction between a doer and a receiver of the act of doing, which implies relationship and potentially, transmission. Points two and three could conceivably play a part in an eventual description of the thing, but they would need to be qualified. Point three is problematic because of the liberal interpretive possibilities regarding the word spiritual. Whereas religious can be clearly defined as in relation to the phenomenon of religion, spiritual leaves us with little to grapple with. What emerges is a shift from the abstract to the more tangible but a multiplicity of interpretation remains. Translation is problematic. Anyone who speaks another language will know all too well how difficult it can be to capture exact meanings when communicating complex or nuanced ideas and how idioms often don’t match up across languages, and therefore cultures. Verbs that are common place in one language may find no true equivalent in a second language, or exist only as a noun.

Bodhi has its root meaning in the verbs to awaken or to know. Interestingly, as it was translated into other Asian languages when Buddhism migrated, differences in meaning emerged so that in Japanese we have kak, which means to be aware, and in Tibetan byang chub, which means purified and perfected. The different regional translations of bodhi may have served to highlight an element of bodhi that was more pertinent to the time and social circumstances in which Buddhism was seeded there. Each term may highlight insight gained from those cultures in their own development of their unique expressions of Buddhism and its goal. This would suggest that in the West we ought to do the same and be very clear as to what we are pointing.

Initially, I will use awakened as a replacement for enlightenment as it is more tangible and faithful to bodhi’s root meaning. It is also a term that is increasingly used by the alternative dharma movement and can therefore link the work in this text back to those who are unabashed in claiming they have achieved the thing. Such folks include Kenneth Folk, Daniel Ingram, and Shinzen Young.


To awaken exists as a verb and noun and relates to everyday experience as well as being a metaphor – we can wake up from physical sleep; we can wake up metaphorically from a state of ignorance. If ignorance is sleep, then to be awake is to cease to be ignorant. Such ignorance needs to be contextualised to mean becoming awake to one’s confusion, patterned habits and behaviour at a subjective level, and to the interconnected networks of relationships in society that lead and encourage people to be asleep to the conditions in which they live. The same applies to knowing. You can come to know how things are. You can explore different fields of knowledge and gain knowledge firsthand. In both cases, there are tangible, replicable processes taking place that can be understood by the individual and spoken of, elaborated and shared.

Awakening describes the process of becoming or of awakening into the nature of nirvana. From this there is an initial sense of process rather than a fixed goal.


Although nirvana may be associated with the idea of a perfect, blissful existence, it is not attributed such renderings in early Buddhist texts, implying instead the end or completion of practise through extinguishing the self. This appears to imply the annihilation of the self as the hub of human existence, but which self is eradicated? The loss of a self-existing, atomised-self cannot mean total annihilation of the person after all, otherwise the possibility of an awakened individual communicating with the world would never have be possible. If nirvana means the shedding of that which causes suffering, then there is a conflict with the body and our material existence. The notion of non-existence taken to its logical end means the body is the final piece to dissolve and decay before the evaporation of the embodied self. Meanwhile, the body, made of flesh and bone, is subject to the processes of erosion and decay that afflict all physical matter whilst existing in between the dichotomy of pleasure and pain. Physical suffering is an inevitable result of physical existence, so the suffering that can feasibly be eliminated during embodied existence is emotional and psychological, but not all suffering in all senses. To awaken from the suffering-self in practical terms must be concerned primarily with the psychological and emotional dimensions of being and their liberation from the characteristics of the suffering-self.

Death is revered in Buddhism and typically signifies the completion of the path of awakening and an opportunity to embrace liberation, or final release, but is it a release into non-existence? Turning off the light seems to mean just that when nirvana’s original meaning is explored. Although an honest reading of nirvana’s significance may lend itself to eventual nihilism, agnosticism may be a more honest position to take and one that reflects later Mahayana emphasis on buddhahood and the returning of the awakened individual in order to free other beings from the cycles of the suffering-self and collective ignorance that sustains it. We still have no idea what consciousness really is and to assume it evaporates at the moment of death is to display an act of faith. Either way, what is of primary importance is this life and our commitment to the world we inhabit for it is only there that change can occur.

The issue for those who take Buddhism’s claims seriously is to avoid holding out hope. An investment in the notion of buddhahood as supernatural being acts as a sort of cushion from the fear of being ultimately inconsequential and of the figurative and literal turning to dust which awaits our physical form and constructed self. Aside from being an act of faith, belief in nihilism seems to lead too often to hopelessness. We are not truly isolated, we are not truly atomised, and as consciousness inhabits an organic form in an organic environment, all of our acts are participatory and it is in participation that something meaningful may occur with the brief life we have. Motivation is distorted by the belief in continuation of the self and the nihilistic sense of meaninglessness, the wise choice being that we commit fully to this life in its finitude.

To remain incarnate is to do so as a creature that experiences itself as part of an ongoing collective existence and to awaken may free a person from the networks of the suffering-self as they exist within the collective but not isolate that person from those networks. Since the individual continues to exist as a human being, which is to say, is embodied and finite, the capacity to function in relationship to the world, the living animate creatures and inanimate objects that inhabit it must remain.

Is it possible that extinguishing the flame may thus involve birthing the individual into an ongoing experience of consciousness in which the atomised self no longer operates as a distinct operational force concerned with self-preservation? Taking this line of thought is problematic. I acknowledge this. It highlights how notions such as buddhanature may have evolved and how such a concept seems to imply some greater intelligence which is merged with and acted from. An alternative is to take the notion of extinguishing to be literal, but that would imply that bodhi is only possible at the point of death, or that one commits some form of suicide.

A further option is that we are part of a collective, a single species or entity that manifests itself through the multiplicity of human births in an evolutionary spiral towards some unfathomable goal. Perhaps it too easily becomes clear why metaphysics is not a central concern of earlier Buddhisms.

These lines of thought are problematic and rather than take Buddhist doctrine literally, or speculate on unanswerable questions, I will take it as possible to awaken to our all too human condition, to reduce self-referential suffering that based around an atomised self and that such a project does have value and should be made more accessible to those who are non-religious. The ontological issues emerging in this section are part of the motivation for exploring this topic phenomenologically.

Dismantling the phantom-I

Nirvana needs to be qualified, for we can only make sense of the world by giving it form and relating ideas to practice. Here it will mean the dismantling (extinguishing) of the structures and modalities of self that lead to psychological and emotional suffering and that surround the ‘phantom-I’.

We go through a self-making process following lines of becoming once we emerge into the world after birth. These lines are multiple and interwoven, consisting of;

  • family
  • the education system
  • societal values and norms (held within the prominent social symbols and dominant narratives)
  • ethnocentric concerns regarding power, race
  • class identity
  • the accompanying distortion of emotional and sexual expression that mark out the clan/s we participate in and stand against
  • the warping of our senses in order to adapt to the ideological lines that run through the dominant model of becoming that we are woven into

To peel away the conditioning that we adopt from these lines means gaining increasing clarity about the empty nature of the phantom-I and our identification with a false stable core.

Nirvana signifies ending the unconscious influence of these insidious forces, gaining insight into their structures and impulsive attraction and robbing them of their psychic hold. In this way, they begin to falter and their vacuousness becomes increasingly evident. At that moment, a symbolic resorting occurs and a new symbolic order becomes possible: one in which suffering is reduced and spaciousness begins to fill experience and allow room for creativity.


Dukkha is intimately related with bodhi and is probably best understood as an umbrella term for a variety of negative human experiences, most commonly translated as suffering. Some attempts have been made to find an alternative single worded translation with ‘dissatisfaction’ being perhaps the most well-known. Another alternative provided by the well-known Secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor is anguish, which he elaborates in his Buddhism without Beliefs. Any attempt at simplification though leaves out important elements of the concept of dukkha and although it is cumbersome to do so, indicating the range of afflictions that are encompassed within the term is vitally important. This is especially so as such a concept is the starting place of most forms of Buddhism through the teaching of the Four Truths. Furthermore, having a more complete sense of the meaning and significance of dukkha is vital to meditative practice.

As an umbrella term Dukkha might include the following: emotional and psychological pain and discomfort, confusion, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, the feeling or sensation of being incomplete, of being separate from experience, from the world and from others, the loss of what you have, separation from what you desire, frustration, depression, anxiety and existential loss. Further nuances could be added but this brief list develops the concept of dukkha beyond suffering as pain to include existential suffering, deep confusion about what and how we exist and relate to the world, and that perennial sense of things not being quite right, or complete.

As these forms of subjective suffering centre on a false self, I shall use the following phrase ‘the suffering-self’ to encompass all of the above forms of dukkha, but please do not consider this self to be only the individual’s affliction. It is helpful to consider these faces of suffering as shared realities that are a feature of our embeddedness in lines of interbeing, rather than referents to an isolated you or I.

[i]               Edward Sapir’s most famous quote:

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