Summary: Enlightenment in the original Buddhist texts is a very technical term whose meaning depends on context, and it is not easy to discuss in English. It is not an experience so much as a different way of knowing. We cannot recognise a level of Enlightenment beyond the level of our own experience, but we can listen to guides who point us to a stage beyond where we now are.

A student asks:

What is meant by Enlightenment? I’m sure that not being Enlightened yet, we don’t and can’t have a certain definition.

Lama Shenpen replies:

I agree with that last comment.

Furthermore, in Buddhism what we translate as Enlightenment or Awakening is a very technical subject as it is in the Far Eastern cultures generally. It is not a matter of ‘is this Enlightenment or not?’ but what degree or even what kind of Enlightenment or even whether it is genuine Enlightenment or not. It is a term with a lot of context which of course the English translation doesn’t have. Enlightenment or Awakening in English are pretty general terms and that is why in Discovering the Heart of Buddhism I get people to explore what these words suggest to them. If we use Sanskrit terms it all sounds so technical that they don’t touch the heart and if we use our own words they are not precise enough and strike different people in different ways. All we can do is go to the experience itself and let ourselves be guided as to what there is there to discover, what we call it is secondary. The important point about Enlightenment as in the Buddha’s Enlightenment is not that it is an experience. It is realising that what we were suffering was actually a distorted version of Reality that can actually simply drop away as if it had never been, revealing the true Nature of Reality which is no other than the world we see now and yet vastly more. It is knowing in a different way. So of course we cannot know it as a kind of bit of scientific knowledge. It is of a nature quite different to such knowledge – the moon is of a completely different nature to its reflection in water.


Can Western Buddhism somehow dispense with the idea of Enlightenment?

Lama Shenpen:

To talk of Western Buddhism in which there is no talk of Enlightenment (or however you want to talk about it) is not the Buddha Dharma that is the heart of what we call Buddhism in Buddhist cultures.


I doubt that Dharma followers have a monopoly on enlightenment, and I am sure that given enough patience, it is a state of being explicable to the most sceptic of scientists.

Lama Shenpen:

I would say the concept of Enlightenment could be described in terms that a scientist might possibly accept makes sense on some level but a sceptical scientist would not necessarily accept that possibility. It would be surprising if Buddhism were the only tradition that taught the path to Awakening…or put in other words that the Dharma could only be discovered in the Buddhist tradition. Dharma is Reality itself that is the essence of our being. It would be surprising if only yogins from one given tradition ever discovered it.


But the best proof would be in meeting such a person. I’ve met some at least close, and there is no doubting they have qualities that are rare and very beautiful to be near.

Lama Shenpen:

I would not call this a proof. I would call it convincing evidence of something but whether it is evidence of Enlightenment or not is another matter. I would use a metaphor here – it is like being on a journey and you meet someone who says they have just come from the destination you are seeking. They describe the destination in terms that inspire you to follow their example – the only proof is to arrive there yourself. Nobody can recognise a level of Enlightenment beyond the level of their own experience but that doesn’t mean they cannot listen to guides who are pointing them to a stage beyond where they now are.

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