Buddhist monks, Hindu yogis, modern spiritual teachers, and burning-man enthusiasts may all use the word “enlightenment” — but are they speaking about the same thing?
In this article I will explore what is spiritual enlightenment, both the traditional definition as well as the modern changes to it. There is no consensus around this topic, and it’s a area of intense metaphysical debate. My purpose here is to clear out some misconceptions, and to discuss what are the optimal attitudes to develop in relation to this lofty goal.
Why is this important? Because the right attitude will empower you to live a deep and fulfilling life; while the wrong attitude will make you feel frustrated, inferior, or indifferent.
[As mentioned here, in this blog I cover the topics of meditation, personal growth, and spirituality. Most of my writing is secular in nature, but some of it is spiritual. I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. Just keep in mind that this particular article is intended for those that have a spiritual practice and are interested in the wisdom traditions of the East.]
The traditional concept of enlightenment comes from the spiritual traditions of India – notably the various schools of Yoga, Vedanta and Buddhism – and denotes the highest state of spiritual attainment. The end of the path.
Some of the synonymous of enlightenment, given by different schools of thought, are:
- Buddhism — Nirvana, Liberation, Awakening, Cessation
- Yoga — Liberation (moksha, mukti), Realization, Release, Aloneness (kaivalya), Union (yoga), Perfection (poorna)
- Vedanta — Self-realization, Self-knowledge, Jnana
All these traditions have several points of disagreement when it comes to defining the “metaphysical nature” of enlightenment. However, at their root they all seem to agree on at least three points:
- It is permanent (cannot be lost once attained)
- It involves transcending the ego
- It is the end of all forms of suffering
As you can see, the bar is high.
There are similarities between this concept and what is called Salvation or the “Kingdom of God” in Christian Mysticism, and “union with God” in Sufism, but exploring those is beyond the scope of this article.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, only one in a billion people “knows the Truth,” that is, is Enlightened. Yet, nowadays there are many people that judge themselves to be enlightened.
For 99 percent of those people, one of the following is true:
- They believe to be more advanced in the path than they actually are.
- They postulate different levels of enlightenment, calling the traditional definition “full enlightenment”
- They consider the traditional definition of enlightenment to be mythical, exaggerated, or impossible. Unable to fathom even how to reach it, they re-define liberation according to their level of experience.
There will always be people in the first category, and I’m not so worried about that. The ego is a master of deceit, and it can get very spiritual, too. I also have no problem with the second, although I find it potentially confusing and misleading to name certain stages of the way as “enlightenment,” when they actually don’t meet the traditional standards defined for this state.
There are many milestones on the way, after which permanent and deep transformations happen, and a lot of the possibility of future suffering simply drops away. I speak of this from observation of several teachers, and also from personal experience of what happened to me. These milestones are better called “awakening” – and there are many awakenings before final enlightenment / liberation.
Moving on, the real problem is people in the last category. They are distorting the essential meaning of enlightenment. Perhaps they confuse certain awakenings along the way with full liberation; judging themselves to be enlightened.
In order to “make that work,” they need to redefine enlightenment in softer terms, so that it matches their level. And then, because there is obviously a lot of work still ahead for them, they either say that “enlightenment is a step in the journey and not the end of it” or they pretend that all that is still lacking is not important (like most neo-advatins).
I don’t mean to say that everyone that claims to be enlightened is a deceitful person – nor does it mean that they are not effective spiritual teachers. But, if they do not meet the “traditional requirements,” it seems to me there are either lacking humility or self-awareness. Or else they should use another word to describe their experience/state.
Looking on the bright side, however, even such watering down of enlightenment is beneficial for some people, since it makes it feel more achievable. With that comes increased motivation and dedication to spiritual practice.
Still, one can get that benefit without distorting the initial teaching. I’ll explore how towards the end of this post.
Gradual and Sudden
Many of the traditions mentioned above agree that enlightenment is already here and now, and that it is our true nature – or the true nature of reality. It is not that we have to achieve it or become it, but rather we need to remove the obstacles to its expression.
Some teachings regard liberation as a goal, something to be consciously and methodically worked towards. They emphasize the need to transform and purify the mind – or even transcend it altogether – through practices such as meditation, spiritual study, ethics, devotion, etc. We can call this the gradual approach.
Other traditions prefer to emphasize the “already present” aspect of enlightenment, and then the teachings are centered more around enquiring into your true nature and simply living in the present with non-attachment. We can call this the sudden approach.
In my own spiritual journey, I have practice for years under both of these frameworks. There are subtle differences in the type of language they use, practices they recommend, and people they attract.
Here is a list of “pros and cons” based on my own experience and observation.
Gradual Approach (example: Theravada Buddhism, Raja Yoga, etc.)
- Gives you a more systematic approach to spiritual growth
- More visible results, including for other areas of your life
- More tools and practices
- Easier to visualize your progress
- Can trigger feelings of incompleteness, striving, and self-criticism
- Can increase a sense of spiritual ego
Sudden Approach (Zen, Dzogchen, etc.)
- Allows you to be more at ease in the present moment
- Simpler instructions and practices
- Easier to integrate in daily life
- The lack of goals can lead to “spiritual lethargy” and decrease motivation for practice
- It can be used as an excuse not to transform negative mental and behavioral patterns
- It can be confusing as to whether you are making progress or not, “doing it right” or not
- Can lead to a false sense of satisfaction and enlightenment
These approaches are both traditional, true and tested, and I respect them greatly. It is common to see seekers moving from one to another in different stages of their journey.
A combination of practices seems more desirable. Or at least being aware of the traps of your particular approach. The seeker in a gradual path can also cultivate the feeling that everything is perfect here and now, and that the true nature is always accessible. While the seeker in a sudden path can cultivate the practices and mental qualities of the “slow approach” and contemplate the truth of sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.
Let us spiritual seekers take enlightenment seriously, without changing the original meaning of this state – lest we diverge into sidetracks that only take us half-way up.
Let us take enlightenment as a direction, a North – and not a hard goal to cling on to. If enlightenment happens, that’s great. If not, let us walk with the conviction that even the first true steps in the path of liberation already brings more life benefits and superpowers than anything we can find in this world.
Spirituality, at the end, is about finding the best way to live. Passionately explore your spiritual path; but also enjoy it.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is in the public domain.