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The English term enlightenment is a mistranslation of the term bodhi, "awakening", which has entered the Western world via the 19th century translations of Max Müller. It has the connotation of a sudden insight into a transcendental truth, whereas the Buddhist tradition sees the attainment of bodhi as a gradual path of attaining understanding.
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.
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.
Robert S. Cohen notes that the majority of English books on Buddhism use the term "enlightenemnt" 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 Enleuchtete". 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". Originally the term referred to realisation of the four stages of enlightement 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,
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.
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 empahizes 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:
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]
... 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 "enlightement" 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 enlightenment, known as perfect Buddhahood (Sanskrit 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'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):
Buddhahood is the attainment of full awakening and becoming a Buddha. The full enlightenment attributed to buddhas is known as samyaksaṃbodhi (Sanskrit; Pāli: sammāsaṃbodhi) 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 Theravada Buddhism, reaching full awakening is equivalent in meaning to reaching Nirvāṇa.[web 2] Attaining Nirvāṇa is the ultimate goal of Theravada and other śrāvaka traditions.[web 3] It involves the abandonment of the ten fetters and the end of rebirths, therefore 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.
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.
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.
The romantic idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality has been popularized especially by D.T. Suzuki.[web 4][web 5] Further popularization was due to the writings of Heinrich Dumoulin.[web 6] 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.
...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.
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.
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 9]
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.[dead link]  "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 10], would 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 9]
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.
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".