What is enlightenment?

What is enlightenment?


In most spiritual practices and pursuits, the concept of Enlightenment looms as an ultimate goal, but what exactly is it? If you google “what is enlightenment?” you first get a dictionary definition as follows:




1.the action of enlightening or the state of being enlightened.

“Robbie looked to me for enlightenment”



wisdomeducationlearningknowledge; More

2.a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent exponents include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

Now, this is like asking “what is insistence?” and get the answer “the action of insisting or the state of being insistent”! Even a child, when not being obnoxious for the sake of it, understands that it is a no no to define something by itself as in “an ice cream is an ice cream”, but most major encyclopedias in the world commit the same crime where enlightenment is concerned. Could it be because they have no actual idea what it is?

The next thing you will find is myriads of articles on Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay in answer to this question, starting with “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Reading further will get you more explanation such as “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

Some Buddhists define enlightenment as: “a final spiritual state marked by the absence of desire or suffering” Really? That sounds like the definition of death; would you like to live in total apathy, indifferent and unaffected by anything that happens and lack of any desire? No “enlightened” guru in any book or movie ever explains what enlightenment actually is and how to achieve it; just do what I do, have no sex, no food you like, have as little material existence as possible, meditate for 30 years relinquishing family, love, anything that matters to you until nothing matters, and then you will be enlightened! I have a simpler solution for this: just put everybody on a heroin drip and mechanical support for life and keep a few convicts in the purgatory of taking care of the rest. Full apathy would be achieved! Enlightenment is supposed to be something desirable, not a state of stupor! Or what about another Buddhist definition: “the awakening to ultimate truth by which man is freed from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations to which all men are otherwise subject” or the definition by Hinduism as “a state of transcendent divine experience represented by Vishnu: regarded as a goal of all religion”.

You can go through pages and pages, and as you look into Buddhist and Hindu versions you find things such as : Sadhguru: “What you call enlightenment is conscious self-annihilation”, “In Theravada Buddhism, bodhi is associated with the perfection of insight into the Four Noble Truths, which brings about the cessation of dukkha (suffering; stress; dissatisfaction). The person who has perfected this insight and abandoned all defilements is an arhat, one who is liberated from the cycle of samsara. While alive he enters a sort of conditional nirvana, and at death he enjoys the peace of complete nirvana.” “In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhi is associated with the perfection of wisdom, or sunyata. This is the teaching that all phenomena are empty of self-essence.”, “In Mahayana Buddhism, the ideal of practice is the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who remains in the phenomenal world to bring all beings to enlightenment. The bodhisattva ideal is more than altruism; it reflects the reality that none of us are separate. “Individual enlightenment” is an oxymoron.” or Shunryu Suzuki: “It is kind of mystery that for people who have no experience of enlightenment, enlightenment is something wonderful. But if they attain it, it is nothing. But yet it is not nothing. Do you understand? For a mother with children, having children is nothing special. That is zazen. So, if you continue this practice, more and more you will acquire something – nothing special, but nevertheless something. You may say “universal nature” or “Buddha nature” or “enlightenment.” You may call it by many names, but for the person who has it, it is nothing, and it is something.”

Some call enlightenment awareness, understanding, “to know” and many other synonyms, and this is about it more or less that you can find. The most common platitude is “You will know when you attain it!”

Immanuel Kant’s version is the most prolific, being the closest to anything specific. All else goes more and more abstract. So what is Enlightenment, this precious state of being? The answer, is simple, agrees and is congruent with everything ever said about it:

Well, enlightenment, besides being defined comically through itself in major dictionaries and encyclopedias, is also defined in the same forums through synonyms such as: insight, wisdom, understanding, awareness, education, learning, knowledge; illumination, awakening, instruction, teaching; sophistication, advancement, development, open-mindedness and more. Cambridge dictionary also defines it as “the state of understanding something”. Now, imagine that you are in a room full of people where a professor is giving a talk about his new book and his work in general and you want to understand something. You want to gain wisdom on a subject or gain knowledge and instruction about something in the book. Essentially, to be enlightened about the information in the book. Who would you need to ask if you want to understand the book, the author, the wisest guy in the room about the book, the person who created it or somebody else? To understand the work and make sense of it would you try to agree with the writer or his detractors?

The answer is ridiculously obvious and it applies to every other situation as well: agreeing with the most knowledgeable, powerful and competent person available is always a good idea unless you are suspicious of their intention. Agreeing and following the advice of the best tennis player in order to be enlightened about tennis is what every rational person would choose, so:

Enlightenment is agreeing with the divine, with nature, with what is, because if the creator force is all knowing and all powerful, at least in comparison with any human, that makes it the cleverest and most competent entity in the universe.  Agreeing that everything that exists, including humans, is exactly as it should be, since if it wasn’t, god, being all knowing and all powerful would have made it differently or changed it. That is enlightenment! It is the only valid choice, unless of course if we wish to believe that god is a swindler who wants to trick us or grossly incompetent.

Wait, isn´t this happiness? The feeling that everything is exactly, deliciously as it should be, the state of being where one feels that nothing is missing, that everything is just right, where nothing bothers us and no change could make it better? Well, according to anyone’s experience of happiness of any kind, yes, so…


And, of course, everything includes our material forms, our egos, our sexuality, our dark thoughts, our selfishness and all the rest. Everything means everything and in no way excludes human nature which apparently collectively disgusts us, shames us, disappoints us and alarms us. How is this for a paradox: believing that the creator is all powerful and all knowing, a source of goodness and righteousness and at the same time believing that he created us wrong and dysfunctional, immoral, petty and dirty!

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  1. This is poorly written and, frankly, quite offensive to many of the profound teachings and traditions that the author flippantly dismisses. New-agey BS that will, at some turn, try to sell you something to give you this “happiness-enlightenment” (look deeper into those traditions that are dismissed for yourself – try reading a good translation instead of n-times removed watery interpretations). This organization is exploiting the traditional knowledge and medicines of indigenous people in SA and this is the next step in their nu-enlightenment-capitalist-colonialist project. Don’t fall for it.

    1. Author

      Why so much anger and negativity? You seem to live with a belief system where everything and everybody is nasty and horrible. You do not seem like a very happy person. I am not trying to sell anything to anybody, and I am not dismissing any profound teaching and tradition other than pointing out that they are abstract and give no clear answer, and as for capitalist colonialist etc aphorisms exploiting medicine and traditional knowledge of the indigenous people, doesn’t all knowledge belong to the whole of humanity? Chill my friend and stop being a one person hate group

  2. I find this article interesting and would like to add another aspect. Enlightenment is raised consciousness. Another way to look at it, is as a practical understanding of how love is the single force that makes all the difference for humanity and our environment. Everything comes from either pure Divine Love or misdirected love. Enlightenment is the embodiment of unconditional Divine Love together with the understanding of how it is the great healing and attracting force for us.

    Misdirected love is the love of money, pleasure and comfort, power over others, and other forms of negativity, indecision and inaction. All human misbehaviour, in my opinion, comes from misdirected love which results in the person not loving them self or feeling unlovable. This results often in them seeking attention through misbehaviour because negative attention in better than no attention.

    Enlightenment includes the understanding that the solution to misbehaviour is love. However, this can be challenging if they feel unlovable. However, love remains the great healing force and everything else exacerbates the problem. This understanding and the ability to apply it to help situations, in my view, is enlightenment.

    Big smiles and happy days to you and yours!

    1. Author

      Dear Stephen,
      Again you fall into platitudes and generalities. It seems you have a problem with an actual definition that works and you want to go into descriptive abstracts. Truth is in the simple, not in complication upon complication and platitude upon platitude. We are trying to define things precisely and you are trying to fuzz them up. Please read the article carefully.

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