What does it mean to be enlightened?

In popular culture, we often think that the point of Buddhism is to gain enlightenment. But what exactly does that mean? The word “enlightenment” evokes the European historical period that emphasized reason, science, and political and social progressivism. However, enlightenment in Buddhism has very little to do with this notion. This is due to a slight mistranslation carried over from the first Western translations of Buddhist texts in the 1800s.

The root word for Buddhism is the Sanskrit verb bodhi, “to awaken.” Buddha is its noun form, meaning “the awakened one.” When we are dreaming, we might imagine that we have won the lottery, or that we are being chased by a monster, or that all our teeth fell out, etc. When we wake up from our dream, we realize that this experience was not real. It was just a projection of our mind based upon habitual thought patterns and emotional circumstances, known collectively as our karmic conditions. This realization of awakeness doesn’t come from reason or logic, but from deep, instinctual knowing.

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Spiritual awakening means applying that exact same realization to our waking lives. What we are experiencing in day to day life is not exactly actual reality as it is, but a dreamlike illusion. We assign meaning to objects and events around us based upon our habitual thought patterns and emotional circumstances. This is the basis of the saying, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Our experience is distorted by our likes and dislikes, just like a funhouse mirror.

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By vigilantly noticing and fixing the distortions in our experience, we can actually get to the point of seeing reality for how it actually is. In Zen Buddhism, this is known as kensho (見性), “to see one’s true nature.” Awakening means permanently sustaining this experience of reality as it is. This is the origin of the Buddha’s moniker, Tathagata (如來). Tatha means “such”, referring to the “suchness” of reality as it is. Gata means “arrive”, for one who has “arrived” at reality.

In future posts, we will go over the factors for awakening, the fetters holding us back, and the practices to get us there.

With metta,

Alex

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