I came across this article by Jack Kornfield in which he says that it is better to talk about enlightenments, since there are different versions of it. (So, this is not about different levels of enlightenment, but different enlightenments.)

Of course, I can imagine that Mahayana teaches something different than Theravada or other traditions and vice versa, but this article refers also to different types of enlightenment within Theravada.

Added by request:

  1. enlightenment as a shift in identity;

  2. liberation from greed, hatred and delusion;

  3. devotion and surrender, being carried by the Buddha’s “grace";

When you actually experience consciousness free of identification with changing conditions, liberated from greed and hate, you find it multifaceted, like a mandala or a jewel, a crystal with many sides. Through one facet, the enlightened heart shines as luminous clarity, through another as perfect peace, through another as boundless compassion. Consciousness is timeless, ever-present, completely empty and full of all things. But when a teacher or tradition emphasizes only one of these qualities over the others, it is easy to be confused, as if true enlightenment can be tasted in only one way. Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, enlightenment consciousness is experienced in a myriad of beautiful ways.

He also describes different gates through which one can get enlightened: The gate of impermanence, suffering, no-self. So far there is no surprise. He then mentions more gates:

There are many other gates: the gates of compassion, of purity, of surrender, of love. There is also what is called the “gateless gate.”

The way enlightenment expresses is also different according to JK:

  • This is enlightenment as love.

  • This is enlightenment as emptiness.

  • He expresses enlightenment as fullness.

  • Enlightenment as mindfulness.

  • The Dalai Lama personifies enlightenment as compassionate blessing.

  • He expressed enlightenment as wisdom.

(I would suggest to read the article.) Naturally, I'm a bit puzzled now.

Do suttas also talk about different types?


2 Answers 2


The are the 3 Bodhis: Sammasambuddha, Pacceka-Buddha, Arahath. Then there is Sopadisesa-nibbana and Anupadisesa-nibbana. But I don't think that's what you are asking about when you say different types.

What you need to keep in mind is that same thing can be described in many different ways. To give an analogy, an elephant can be described as 'heavy' by some, 'tall' by some, 'large' by some, 'gracious' by some, 'noisy' by some etc.

One person can say "spreading the light" to which another might say "dispelling the darkness". But they both refer to the same thing.

On the other hand, different teachers and traditions might label different experiences as enlightenment depending on their understanding or misunderstanding. That does not mean there are many types of enlightenments. Otherwise the Buddha would have listed them down under the Third Noble Truth.

enlightenment as a shift in identity

This is cutting off of identity-view(Sakkayaditti) when one attains Sotapanna. It is also partial liberation from delusion.

liberation from greed, hatred and delusion;

This is when one attains Arahanthship. So it appears that Jack Kornfield might have gotten confused by the descriptions of different stages of enlightenment and different stages of mental purifications.

devotion and surrender, being carried by the Buddha’s “grace";

This is not a description of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism. But it may just mean that if one devoted oneself to the Buddha and submit to the practice of holly life under him, one will attain enlightenment.

There are many other gates: the gates of compassion, of purity, of surrender, of love. There is also what is called the “gateless gate.”

There are only 3 real gates. Others may bring one close to enlightenment, but the meditator still has to attain absolute certainty of either impermanence, suffering or non-self to get to Nibbana. Read here for more details.

This is enlightenment as love.

This maybe referring to attaining the Jhanas through Metta meditation. But there is more work to be done from there to reach enlightenment.

This is enlightenment as emptiness

This maybe talking about ākiñcaññāyatana(infinite nothingness), the 7th Jhana or the 3rd Arupajhana. But it's still not enlightenment.

He expresses enlightenment as fullness.

This maybe talking about the rapture and joy arising in the first jhana or the fruits of Buddhanussati meditation: "When a bhikkhu is devoted to this recollection of the Buddha, he is respectful and deferential towards the Master. He attains fullness of faith, mindfulness, understanding and merit. He has much happiness and gladness." -Visuddhimagga

Enlightenment as mindfulness.

Mindfulness leads to enlightenment and Arahaths are said to be always mindful. But mindfulness itself is not enlightenment.

The Dalai Lama personifies enlightenment as compassionate blessing.

Dalai Lama is not Theravada, but he could just mean that enlightened beings are compassionate and a blessing to the world.

He expressed enlightenment as wisdom.

Wisdom leads to enlightenment. Seeing impermanence, suffering and non-self is wisdom.

  • 1
    I think you and I have similar ideas/interpretation of what being enlightened (aka being an arahant means). New question: Would you say that someone is not an arahant yet so long as dosa still comes up in the mind stream, even though that person does not cling to the dosa but just observes its coming and going in a neutral way?
    – user13579
    Oct 7, 2018 at 15:58
  • @Medhiṇī if Dosa comes up he's not even a Anagami, let alone Arahath. Even a person without any attainment who is just practicing Metta meditation can overcome Dosa and not react. Oct 8, 2018 at 0:49
  • That's what I thought as well, @Sankha Kulathantille. Yet, that person I'm thinking of, was a highly respected teacher and said to be an arahant. He himself didn't say this, as far as I know; but his students and meditators were saying this of him. However, when asked about anger he - the teacher - said that anger still came up, he just wouldn't grasp it. Why he was still considered to be an arahant is puzzling to me.
    – user13579
    Oct 10, 2018 at 17:38
  • If the anger comes up, he is not an Arahant. If he himself didn't claim to be an Arahant, he cannot be held responsible for what people around him say. Oct 11, 2018 at 6:03

"Wanderers of other sects who ask thus may be answered in this way: 'How then, friends, is The Goal one or many?' Answering rightly, the wanderers of other sects would answer thus: 'Friends, The Goal is one, not many.' - MN 11

Although, even in Pali Canon, "the goal" is described as many things:

  • cessation
  • liberation
  • final knowledge
  • highest bliss
  • attainment of the deathless

So, as Jack Kornfield said, "the goal" is "multifaceted" as "crystal with many sides". However, because of the language limitations we can only speak about one of these qualities at a time. That said, I would not go as far as to say there are different types of enlightenment.

Instead, according to my teacher, enlightenment manifests differently according to the needs of the situation - and because there are infinitely many different situations, there are infinitely many forms enlightenment takes, but it is still the same enlightenment.

  • That sounds like as if enlightenment in your tradition (not Theravada, right?) is understood as something different than in Theravada. That's interesting. Do you have a definition of enlightenment for me (to get some context)?
    – user13579
    Oct 7, 2018 at 16:02
  • I'd suggest that enlightenment is the same in all cases regardless of whether one has even heard of Buddhism. After all, the Buddha hadn't. It may be sensible to speak of different levels or depths of enlightenment but not different types. All roads lead to Rome.
    – user14119
    Oct 8, 2018 at 11:38

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