Buddhism – what is “enlightenment”?

Now more than ever, people are in search of answers to life’s biggest questions. Why do I exist? What is my life’s purpose? Why is there so much suffering in this world? How can I be happy? The answer to all these important questions can be found by understanding the most commonly used word in Buddhism and today’s spiritual teachings: enlightenment.

Don’t get me wrong, you do not need to move to China and convert to Buddhism or give up your current religion, if any, in order to be or become enlightened. Because what Buddhism calls enlightenment, other religions as well as many spiritual teachings call “awakening,” “being one with God,” the “ego-less state,” “free of pain and suffering” or even “salvation” and “delivered from sin.”

Whatever you want to call it, being or becoming enlightened has to do with “waking up.” Waking up from what, you might ask. Well, this is where it gets more complicated and somewhat spiritual, though not confined to one religion alone. In essence all religions and teachings discussing enlightenment deal with the same question. Is it possible to live without suffering and thus be enlightened?

The answer to that question is yes. How to get there depends on who you’re talking to or what religion you follow. Can Buddhism help me? Is the answer to be found in the Bible?

The first person ever to be enlightened?

Buddha, the enlightened one

Buddha, the enlightened one (Source: Radio86)

We all know the story about Siddhārtha Gautama sitting under the Bodhi tree, vowing to stay there until he found the truth. The truth about what, you ask. The truth of life. He sat down, wondering about suffering and why we suffer.

He then realized the cause of suffering and went beyond that, taking the path to the end of suffering and eventually reaching that state. That’s when he became the Buddha, the “enlightened one” or “the awakened one.” He was freed of suffering in life.

For the rest of his life he traveled and taught people what he had learned. Buddhism, now China’s biggest and most wide spread religion, was founded on his teachings, which are described in “The Four Noble Truths” and “The Eightfold Path.”

So enlightenment is only for Buddhists?

No. Depending on who you talk to, enlightenment in essence means the end of suffering, but this is dealt with in many spiritual teachings, even in religions such as Christianity. Was the Buddha the first enlightened person? No, Jesus Christ was most certainly enlightened as well. Once you understand the meaning of the word and (re-)read the Bible, you will come to realize this.

The process of becoming enlightened starts with becoming aware and focusing your attention on the present moment, the now. Enlightenment is breaking free from your ego, your current state of unconsciousness where the mind rules our daily lives.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes enlightenment as being aware. “Being enlightened is the same thing as being mindful. And you can get enlightened every minute. […] Many of us spend our days in forgetfulness. We live, and yet we don’t. We get lost in the past; we worry so much about the future […] we have no capacity for being alive in the present moment, where everything is.”

So enlightenment is all about living in the moment?

The process of becoming enlightened starts with becoming aware and focusing your attention on the present moment.

The process of becoming enlightened starts with becoming aware and focusing your attention on the present moment. (Source: Radio86)

Yes, it’s all about the now. But that’s not all. This is where the human ego comes in. Before understanding enlightenment, you need to understand what the ego is. In his book A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose German-born Canadian spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle describes the ego as the “I” or “me,” our illusory sense of self.

“It embodies the primordial error, a misperception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity. This is the ego.” He continues by saying the ego is responsible for most of our suffering. “The ego creates separation, [between our minds and who we really are] and separation creates suffering. […] The ego could be defined simply in this way: a dysfunctional relationship with the present moment.”

Our ego – that what we think we are and makes us unique, prevents us from truly living in the now, being aware of it.

The American spiritual teacher Adyashanti also talks about the ego when describing enlightenment. “Enlightenment is simply not perceiving through ego. […] It’s not seeing the world, not seeing everything through the distortion called the egoic state of consciousness. […] It’s not an alternative distorting lens; it’s just perception without a lens. Ultimately that’s what enlightenment is, perception without distortion.”

This is what Buddha discovered as well, sitting under that Bodhi tree. And this is what Jesus truly meant when he was about to be taken by the soldiers to be crucified: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They were consumed by the collective ego, they were unconscious. And He knew that.

How do I become enlightened?

"Enlightenment is simply not perceiving through ego." - Adyashanti

“Enlightenment is simply not perceiving through ego.” – Adyashanti

Again, this depends on who you talk to. According to different Buddhism schools such as Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism, enlightenment and the way of attaining this state of consciousness vary. They do all agree on one thing: reaching enlightenment takes time, often more than a lifetime, and that’s why Buddhists believe in reincarnation.

What all Buddhist religions also agree on is that enlightenment is the ultimate goal. Whatever path you take, it will ultimately lead to living free of suffering and being in complete peace and harmony with all that is; a state of eternal bliss.

However, most Western spiritual teachers believe one does not need to follow a certain path towards the future goal of becoming enlightened. It can be attained right now, because the only thing that exists is the now. It’s the moment of realization. And although it takes some practice, that moment can only be realized in the now.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanation will give you something to think about. “Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water. When we realize we are not separate, but a part of the huge ocean of everything, we become enlightened. We realize this through practice, and we remain awake and aware of this through more practice.”

In her book Radiance: Experiencing Divine Presence, spiritual teacher Gina Lake shares Eckhart Tolle’s point of view: we ARE already enlightened, we just don’t realize it. “Everyone experiences Essence [Enlightenment] several times a day, but the experience is often so brief that it doesn’t affect the egoic state of consciousness that most people live their lives in. When Essence is experienced for longer periods of time, it can shift you from ego-identification to Essence, which is your natural state.”

Try it yourself

Are you still breathing?

Are you still breathing? (Source: Radio86)

Do you want to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be in the now? To break free from your constant stream of thought and experience what enlightenment feels like?

In his book The Power of Now Eckhart Tolle gives a good tip. “The single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to disidentify from your mind. Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger. One day you may catch yourself smiling at the voice in your head, as you would smile at the antics of a child. This means that you no longer take the content of your mind all that seriously, as your sense of self does not depend on it.”

How do you create this gap in the stream of mind? It’s incredibly simple. Just ask yourself, “Am I still breathing?” Don’t just snort and think, “Of course I am still breathing!” Check whether you truly are. Take a deep, conscious breath, feel the air going into your body, the pause that follows before exhaling. Give it your full attention. Make your every breath a conscious act, instead of something you do automatically.

After a few breaths, chances are you feel a calmness taking you over and you’re probably not thinking much during this time either, yet you’re fully conscious of your surroundings. You’re in the now. You’ve just gotten a glimpse of the eternal peace which is enlightenment.

In conclusion, we might say that although enlightenment seems to be derived from Buddhism, and to most Westerners is connected to Eastern religion and perhaps even to China, it does not mean we should relinquish all our possessions, move to China and live in a Buddhist monastery. Although being surrounded by nature and other enlightened people will undoubtedly speed up the process, enlightenment can be attained wherever you are, right here, right now.