What Is Enlightenment?

Printed in the  Winter 2021  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Cianciosi, John"What Is Enlightenment?" Quest 109:1, pg 26-29

By John Cianciosi

Theosophical Society - John Cianciosi was born in Italy and educated in Australia. In 1972, he was ordained a Buddhist monk in Thailand and trained under one of that country’s most gifted and influential meditation masters, the late Venerable Ajahn Chah. Later he served as abbot and spiritual director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. In 1995 he left the monastic life and moved to the Chicago area. He is the author of The Meditative Path: A Gentle Way to Awareness, Concentration, and Serenity (Quest Books, 2001). He has worked at the national headquarters of the Theosophical Society since 2005 and is currently the director of public programs.The word enlightenment can be used in many general ways, such as having an “enlightened attitude,” which may mean being more progressive or advanced in the way we approach life. However, in spiritual circles it tends to refer to some form of exalted spiritual experience or achievement of great significance. There are some who claim to be enlightened, and many more who believe that their teacher, guide, or guru is enlightened. Then there is my favorite meaningless saying: “You are already enlightened, you just don’t know it!” Or the other one: “Those who know don’t speak. Those who speak don’t know.” Obviously whoever said that didn’t know!

I am somewhat familiar with the Theravada Buddhist tradition (which I like to call the “humble vehicle”), which clearly and explicitly discusses what enlightenment means. By referring to some of the early texts found in the Theravada Pali canon, I would like to shed some light on what the Buddha meant by enlightenment. (Pali is the language in which early Buddhist scriptures were written. It is closely related to Sanskrit.)

As many know, Buddha is not a name; it is more of a title, like president, designating a fully enlightened one or a fully awakened one. The man Siddhatha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit) was not the Buddha until something extraordinary happened at a specific time and place after six years of spiritual striving as an ascetic. This is what the Buddha is recorded to have said about his experience while sitting in meditation under the bodhi tree:

When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the destruction of the taints (asavas). I directly knew as it actually is: “This is suffering . . . This is the origin of suffering . . . This is the cessation of suffering . . . This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering” . . .

When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: “It is liberated.” I directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming into any state of being.”

Though this does not actually tell us what that experience was, it does indicate that it was radically transformative: it completely freed the Buddha from the taints (all forms of mental defilements that are dependent on ignorance, including craving, attachment, hatred, fear, resentment, and despair). It also clearly indicates that this experience was the culmination and completion of the spiritual quest, with nothing more to be done. And lastly, the Buddha definitely knew he was enlightened and said so.

It is said that after his enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next forty-nine days in the vicinity of the bodhi tree experiencing the utter bliss of his liberation—certainly not something one would easily forget!

The scriptures also refer to achieving enlightenment as realizing nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). When Venerable Sariputta (Sanskrit Sariputra), one of the Buddha’s chief arahants (a Pali word that refers to someone who is fully enlightened), was asked to explain what nibbana was, he gave a very informative and valuable answer: “The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion; this, friend, is called nibbana.”

In Buddhism, greed (lust), hatred, and delusion (ignorance) are considered the three underlying defilements of mind (poisons, if you wish) that support all other negative mental and emotional states experienced by unenlightened beings. Freed from these defilements, the enlightened person experiences no such negative states of mind. While still living, the fully enlightened person would still be subject to the normal vicissitudes of life, such as painful bodily feelings and pleasant feelings, sickness and health, youth and old age, gain and loss, praise and blame, and so forth, but none of these things would have the power to disturb the enlightened person’s unshakable peace. This is clearly indicated in the following text, which uses the term “uninstructed worldling” for the unenlightened and “instructed noble disciple” for an enlightened person:

When the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one . . .

When the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling—a bodily one, not a mental one.

And again here:

Just as a rock of one solid mass remains unshaken by the wind, even so neither visible forms, nor sounds, nor odours, nor tastes, nor bodily impressions, neither the desired nor the undesired, can cause such a one to waver. Steadfast is his mind, gained is deliverance.

So what would enlightened persons be like and how would they behave? We may not know who is enlightened, but based on the above, we can know that there are certain things an enlightened person would not do. In his book Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm writes the following about an arahant or fully enlightened person:

There are nine things that an arahant by nature cannot do: store up possessions, intentionally kill any form of life, steal, perform sexual intercourse, tell a deliberate lie, and act improperly out of desire, out of ill will, out of delusion, or out of fear . . . For instance, since sensory desire has been totally transcended, there is no spark left to ignite the passion for sex. All arahants are “potently impotent.”

Some positive attributes that are often mentioned as natural expressions of enlightenment are the four brahmaviharas, or four divine abodes, divine emotions, or sublime attitudes: lovingkindness towards all beings, compassion for all who suffer, joy with the happiness of others, and equanimity or unshakable peace under all circumstances. The life of such a person would be a blessing to the world. In fact, the Buddha gave the following instructions to the first group of sixty arahants: “Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of devas and humans.”

What I have presented so far refers to full enlightenment as experienced by the Buddha and his arahant disciples. However, the Theravada texts refer to four stages of enlightenment. Only the fourth stage is considered full enlightenment: the mind is completely and permanently free of all defilements. Persons of the three lower stages all have perfect view with regards to the true nature of existence, but they are not yet able to abandon all greed, hatred, and delusion. My teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, said that this was like someone holding an apple in his hand. The person knows for certain that when he lets go of the apple, it will fall to the ground, but he is still unable to let go. Nevertheless, all of these three stages represent radically transformative experiences, which are unforgettable and irreversible. The three lower stages will ripen into full enlightenment.

What is this realization that is so powerfully transformative? In the Pali scriptures we find a discourse, Upanisa Sutta, on transcendental dependent origination, which presents the following sequence: dependent on concentration (samadhi), there arises knowledge and vision of things as they are (yathabhutanyanadassana).

This is consistent with what the Buddha said regarding his own experience: that the insight only occurred “when the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability.” It would seem that only when the mind has attained to such lofty states of concentration (samadhi) will it have the power to penetrate the veil of delusion and allow true insight to arise.

In this case the actual realization or insight is described as “knowledge and vision of things as they are” (yathabhutanyanadassana). This refers to the direct penetrating insight into the three characteristics of all existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and not-self (anatta). The realization is that all conditioned existence is hollow or empty. Because all conditioned existence is of this nature, it can never provide security or happiness. Knowing this, seeing this, the mind becomes dispassionate towards all conditioned existence. There is the abandonment of all greed, hatred, and delusion. This is liberation.

So it would seem that enlightenment means a thorough penetration into the true nature of conditioned existence, or samsara. However, the scriptures refer both to sankhata, all that is conditioned, created, or compounded (everything in samsara); and asankhata, usually translated as the unconditioned, uncreated, uncompounded, which is also a synonym for nibbana or nirvana. Enlightenment, being the realization of nibbana, must also be the realization of the unconditioned. As the scripture says:

There is, bhikkhus [monks], a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

Here a misunderstanding can easily arise. As soon as we give something a name, it becomes “something” for us. Even a word like unconditioned becomes something that exists. But the Buddha never mentioned an unconditioned existence. All existence is conditioned and therefore unsatisfactory. So what about the unconditioned? Well, we can know that it is the complete absence of anything conditioned or created, any possible type of existence, and there is nobody in it!

This brings me to the last point I wish to address. From the above it is clear that the Buddha, and all other fully enlightened individuals, are free of defilements and able to live life perfectly at peace regardless of what they encounter. But what happens when they die? Everything that is born must eventually die. And so it is with an enlightened person such as the Buddha. What was born eventually died, at the age of eighty. The important difference is that an unenlightened person, still blinded by ignorance and led by craving for renewed existence, will definitely be reborn again according to the fruits of their karma. However, the Buddha was most explicit in stating that there would be no future becoming or birth for him. The fuel of greed, hatred, and delusion that kept the process of rebirth going has been completely exhausted. The Buddha was not reborn and did not reappear anywhere in any existence. This is also true for all fully enlightened beings.

On many occasions in the scriptures there are accounts of the Buddha being asked to say whether he would or would not exist after death, but he always indicated that these are the wrong questions and do not apply.

According to the Buddha’s teachings, repeated regularly and consistently throughout the Pali texts, what we term a human being is only a mind and body (nama-rupa), a combination referred to as the five aggregates (khandhas) of body, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. These are conditioned and are of the nature to arise (be born) and inevitably pass away (die). Having fully penetrated and realized the not-self (anatta) nature of mind and body, without a trace of attachment remaining, who is it that dies and who is it that could possibly be reborn? When the Buddha or an arahant “dies,” it is simply the dissolution of these aggregates, the stilling of all formations, the end of all conditioning. Only what was born dies. The fully enlightened do not, and cannot, identify with any of it.

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found;
The deed is, but no doer of the deed is there;
Nibbana is, but not the man that enters it;
The path is, but no traveler on it is seen.

I hope that what I have written sheds some light on what enlightenment means according to Buddhist teachings. I know that what I have said about the unconditioned and nibbana will not be very satisfying, at least for some people. There are many Buddhist scholars and practitioners who will also feel that it is inadequate and incomplete. This is inevitable and to be expected. The Buddha did say that nibbana was “to be experienced individually by the wise.”

Unfortunately, I cannot speak from direct personal experience, but only as a fellow seeker keen to have a better understanding of the goal of the spiritual life—not to simply satisfy an intellectual curiosity, but because it may provide a clear indication of the path to follow.


John Cianciosi was born in Italy and educated in Australia. In 1972, he was ordained a Buddhist monk in Thailand and trained under one of that country’s most gifted and influential meditation masters, the late Venerable Ajahn Chah. Later he served as abbot and spiritual director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. In 1995 he left the monastic life and moved to the Chicago area. He is the author of The Meditative Path: A Gentle Way to Awareness, Concentration, and Serenity (Quest Books, 2001). He has worked at the national headquarters of the Theosophical Society since 2005 and is currently the director of public programs.


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