Should we believe we have no enlightenment whatsoever?

I mean, acting like you're the Dalai Lama, famous sage or future Buddha may well come off as offensive and stupid. But if we authentically believe we are identical to a Buddha, just somewhat unrealised, is that as insane and arrogant?

If you are going to answer "that's what you realise" then please provide a reference point.

8 Answers 8


According to Theravada teachings assuming that you are enlightened, believing so is discouraged unless you are truly enlightened (at which point it has no value to you anymore). The reason behind avoiding such beliefs is to avoid the practicing Buddhist from becoming stuck in the path to understanding. Simply put, if you believe you have attained Nirvana, you have nothing more to do. But if in reality you have not brought your understanding to Nirvana (an incomplete journey) then you will be limiting yourself by your own declaration, thus prolonging sansara. According to Lord Budhdha's teachings, sansara is not a place to wait or rest - 'Appamado amathapadan' sums this up. One wrong move, and you would be trapped for eons in sansara.

If we look at the essence of enlightenment, we can think of it as seeing through our own bubble (the world) and in doing so, realizing the true nature of the process which we think of as 'myself'. For someone enlightened, there is no requirement to prove that a 'self' exists. As such, an enlightened mind have nothing to gain by declaring enlightenment. An Arhath will only declare enlightenment when that declaration could help someone else to fulfill the understanding towards Nirvana.

Ultimately the real question is not about enlightenment, its about one trying to gain something by declaring their level of understanding. Such an act in itself contradicts the enlightened mind. When you are enlightened, your sense of 'myself' will lose its value, as there is nothing worth clinging into - you have seen through everything in your world and found nothing worth keeping. As there is no one to suffer anymore, you are in the eternal bliss of Nirvana.

On the other hand, one can act like a sage or maybe even try to imitate an Arhath, but such imitation will not bring enlightenment to you. You will be just another actor portraying the qualities of someone else. In fact, this is a classic mistake most of the laypersons make when they observe Sila. This is not to say observing Sila is useless. But at its essence, Sila is not something to observe for the practicing Buddhist. For the practicing Buddhist, its an effect of the understanding, the realization and acceptance of the true nature of the world. The actual cause of his Sila is a realization. In contrast to someone who simply observe Sila as a rule or agreement, the Sila attained as a result of understanding is not a burden to the practitioner, its not limiting him, its not a sacrifice to him. Its simply how he lives because of his realization.

OP, you can start by thinking what would you gain by believing that you are enlightened and mimicking the sages. Not saying its bad, but it will not bring you any closer to enlightenment. And you run the danger of convincing yourself that you are enlightened when you are not! Imagine running 10,000 meters race and celebrating that you won the race before completing the last lap. Do not let all that effort go in vain.

TL,DR; Until you are enlightened, believing so, will become your own hindrance to enlightenment.

  • so that is the case even if you think you have in some sense completed the race but have not yet crossed the finishing line?
    – user23322
    Jan 21, 2022 at 8:07
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    @again_insane_buddhist the race is important to you until you compete. The moment you finish it (attained enlightenment), it becomes no use to you anymore. Because there will be no sanknka of 'self' left. Whether oneself is enlightened or not becomes important only to the non enlightened. Its like after you crossed the finish line for good, there is no more race, no one running it, you have no value in the race anymore, no value in the concept of 'self' who ran the race even.
    – Sampath
    Jan 21, 2022 at 12:58
  • yes, but you didn't answer my question directly (which is fine)
    – user23322
    Jan 21, 2022 at 13:04

It's interesting that "Should we believe we have no enlightenment?" could be interpreted in two very different ways:

Should practitioners collectively eliminate belief in the concept of enlightenment? Answer is no, because the concept of enlightenment is valuable a goal to work toward, and a basis for admiring and following the Buddha's footsteps.

Should I as a practitioner claim that I possess no wisdom? No, because this is almost never true. Claiming that I have no wisdom, when I do have some, goes against one of the practice of rejoicing in pure activities. So it is good to admit to having some wisdom, but safest to also admit that more still needs to be accumulated. Usually when I have heard people belittling their own wisdom, it seems to be based on avoiding downfall #15 in this Wiki list:

  1. Falsely stating that oneself has realised profound emptiness and that if others meditate as one has, they will realize emptiness and become as great and as highly realized as oneself.
  • Great answer! +1
    – user17652
    Feb 18, 2022 at 9:54

Personally I read "having" enlightenment as a type of identity view, attributing enlightenment to a "self" as if the self is something -- instead I think it might be "less wrong" for me to consider whether enlightened behavior is or isn't (currently) present.

I think that's the bulk of the way in which it's taught in the suttas -- i.e. "good/skillful behavior is good and leads to nirvana" and so on, the talk is about the behavior not the person (though there is also talk of karma)

Similarly when teaching modern pre-school children, you're supposed to tell them about good and bad behavior -- not try to teach them "you are bad" nor "you have evil", or anything like that, again the subject is various behaviors etc.

But maybe this is just a bit of pedantry on my part -- nit-picking a choice of words, making a distinction that's not worth insisting on -- and not a distinction or a choice of words that I should try to force on you.

And yet, to the extent that "I" have been arrogant and insane myself, perhaps it's a distinction I find helpful -- a "reality check" to try to stop an "ego trip".

But like I tried to say in a previous answer, if you want to see yourself as having an identity that is somehow identical to the Buddha's, who am I criticize, or even to disagree?

It's maybe classically a question of a Middle Way, meaning "neither one extreme nor the other", with "I am unenlightened" being perhaps one extreme, "I am enlightened" being another -- instead the suttas talk about, for example, verified confidence in the three jewels. Confidence, faith, strength, and so on, are important, useful -- maybe the belief that you "have" some enlightenment is more helpful to you somehow, in that way, than it is harmful. I think some people take their confidence not so much from "having" enlightenment but from judging their own intentions, keeping the precepts, generosity too, and so on.

Oh I should mention, the Bikkhuni Sutta -- even if "I have enlightenment" were a form of conceit, the Bikkhuni Sutta implies there's a kind of conceit (like, "if he could do that then so can I") which may be instrumental, necessary:

'This body comes into being through conceit. And yet it is by relying on conceit that conceit is to be abandoned.' Thus was it said. And in reference to what was it said? There is the case, sister, where a monk hears, 'The monk named such-and-such, they say, through the ending of the fermentations, has entered & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & realized them for himself in the here & now.' The thought occurs to him, 'The monk named such-and-such, they say, through the ending of the fermentations, has entered & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & realized them for himself in the here & now. Then why not me?' Then he eventually abandons conceit, having relied on conceit. 'This body comes into being through conceit. And yet it is by relying on conceit that conceit is to be abandoned.' Thus was it said, and in reference to this was it said.

As for whether it's insane or arrogant, I find the Zen story titled Nothing Exists:

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

Two things I get from that story, one was the youth "desiring to show his attainment" and the other was Dokuon's question at the end, which I think is a fundamental question or purpose of Buddhism -- i.e. the problems of kilesas, how they originate and how to end them -- the anger (on both sides) maybe coming partly from a wounded pride!

  • I'm not sure what the problem with "having" enlightenment is, beyond the point about practice always being incomplete. why doesn't an apple have a red colour in the same way as someone may "have" the quality of enlightenment
    – user23322
    Jan 19, 2022 at 3:44
  • I think that the beliefs "I am enlightened" and "I am not enlightened" are both potentially confusing, or with unwanted side-effects -- whether they're actually a problem might vary. Apart from "enlightened", the "I am" part of the statement might be confusing -- A thicket of wrong views -- so I'm inclined not to use it in this context, not to think in those terms i.e. about that grammatical "subject", the suttas seems to be mostly "objective" in their descriptions of Dharma.
    – ChrisW
    Jan 20, 2022 at 6:55
  • In this specific case I think the poster explained their own motive ("my ego blends into acting" and "it definitely seems wrong").
    – ChrisW
    Jan 20, 2022 at 7:03
  • Dokuon wasn't angry when he smacked Tesshu (and having read a bunch of Tesshu, my guess is that he's probably making himself seem dumber than he was...dude was hella self deprecating). Tesshu's big problem was that he was dwelling in emptiness and thinking it was enlightenment - same as the Buddha's original teachers. Emptiness has to return to form. Emptiness is form. Form is emptiness. Now, if Tesshu had hit him back, that would have been a great answer!
    – user22122
    Jan 20, 2022 at 13:40
  • @000 Dokuon wasn't angry I thought maybe he thought it wasn't inappropriate to pretend to be angry, to act as if he were (see also "wrathful"). having read a bunch of Tesshu Maybe he got wiser? :-) The story does say, "as a young student...".
    – ChrisW
    Jan 20, 2022 at 15:14

Let me first say that the problem doesn't exactly lie in the belief that one is a sage or a buddha. The problem arises when one expects to be treated as a sage or buddha by the rest of the world. I mean, there are two sides to this:

  • The internal state of being awakened (buddha nature) which anyone can realize
  • The social role of being awakened for others (the role of a sage or a teacher)

Sometimes people become confused because they want to be awakened for themselves — like being awakened for others, where the other is a reflection in a mental mirror — and that can lead to attachments. But recognizing that one has the essence of awakening within one is non-problematic, and arguably an essential aspect of the dharma.

You can think of it like being at a costume party where everyone has forgotten they are wearing masks. You may realize that you're wearing a mask, and understand the essence that lies underneath it. But you can't expect anyone else to realize, because mostly they don't even see that they are wearing masks. You have to find the right attitude that allows that inner essence to reveal itself even through the mask that others see.

  • apparently not true for some. see the suranagama sutra
    – user23322
    Jan 19, 2022 at 17:52
  • @again_insane_buddhist: I don't know what to do with such a vague comment. can you be more specific? Jan 19, 2022 at 18:15
  • I was referring to its claims - about demonic possession - that as long as you don't believe you have nothing more to accomplish you will be fine
    – user23322
    Jan 21, 2022 at 8:05

Perceiving a Dalai Lama as sgae of future Buddha, thinking that it has something to do with awakend, is of course offensive toward the Sublime Buddha, his Dhamma and Bhikkhu Sangha, and such is also proper seen as stupid, good householder.

But in the case one does no more seek in what is subject to decay, yet has found firm faith by seeing the reality of worlds, such one, with firm faith into the Gems and with virtue pleasing for Noble Ones, if he wishes, he might declare: No more downwardly for me, heading toward final release.

And of course it's never a 'we' thing, but individual gain by ones own right effort and not a just a culture thief.

One should take care, as someone declaring attainments, beyond world, having not attained, is recognized as Biggest thief in the world, and likewise someone who makes a an ungiven fraud-copy of the Noble Domain.

  • I like this answer a lot, thanks!
    – user23322
    Jan 23, 2022 at 15:39
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    This is a good answer, but there's no need to disparage the Dalai Lama.
    – ruben2020
    Jan 23, 2022 at 19:37
  • That's also offensive toward the Dhamma, as one deserving dispraise is good to be blamed. A fool, thinking enlightened, does praise the blame and dislike blame of whats worthy to praise. Paves the road downwardly daily, step, by step maintaining a copy in trade.
    – user23368
    Jan 24, 2022 at 0:05

There are some people who have partial achievements like the first level of jhana or second level of jhana, and imagine that they are now fully enlightened, mistaking bliss arising from meditation for enlightenment.

Yet some others think reaching a certain level of intellectual understanding is the same as being fully enlightened. Worse still, their understanding may be wrong and they're unaware of it (i.e. the Dunning Kruger effect).

When you think you're fully or even partially enlightened but you're not, it is a form of delusion and therefore a hindrance.

Therefore it's best to assume that you have the potential for enlightenment but you have no enlightenment presently. This will be true for most people in most cases.

So how can you know that you're fully liberated? The test is if you no longer experience even the slightest anger, hatred, envy, aversion, guilt, remorse, greed, lust etc. then you're free.

"There is such a criterion, monks, whereby a monk... could affirm the attainment of enlightenment... What is that method?

"In this, monks, a monk seeing an object with the eye recognizes within himself the presence of lust, hatred or delusion, knowing 'Lust, hatred or delusion is present in me,' or he recognizes the absence of these things, knowing 'There is no lust, hatred or delusion present in me.' Now, monks, as regards that recognition of the presence or absence of these things within him, are these matters to be perceived by faith, by persuasion, by inclination, by rational speculation, by delight in views and theories?"

"No, indeed, Lord."

"Are not these matters to be perceived by the eye of wisdom?"

"Indeed, Lord."

"Then, monks, this is the criterion whereby a monk, apart from faith, apart from persuasion, apart from inclination, apart from rational speculation, apart from delight in views and theories, could affirm the attainment of enlightenment: 'Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been accomplished, what was to be done is done, there is no further living in this world.'"

[Similarly for ear, nose, tongue, body (touch), mind.]

SN 35.152

  • but isn't even-one, according to some buddhists, partially enlightened?
    – user23322
    Jan 23, 2022 at 20:06
  • 1
    @again_insane_buddhist To my understanding, Buddha Nature is more about the potential to become enlightened and not about being partially enlightened. But of course stream entry is an example of partial enlightenment.
    – ruben2020
    Jan 23, 2022 at 20:16
  • agreed that is one way of looking at Buddha nature
    – user23322
    Jan 23, 2022 at 21:36

"You have to develop your skill. As with any skill, it’s going to go through levels of refinement. And it includes factors that are very different from the goal — things like the desire of right effort, which entails wanting to do things skillfully. And even though we’re here to get rid of aversion, there has to be a certain amount of aversion, too. To begin with, you have to be averse toward the results of unskillful behavior. That aversion will eventually have to get honed down. But just because it’s there doesn’t mean that you’re going in the wrong direction. You’re learning how to approximate things.

It’s as if we’re digging for gold underground. You don’t dig for gold with a gold shovel; you use an iron shovel or a steel one. Or it’s like trying to get fresh water out of salt water. The salt water may be cool, and you want cool, fresh water when you drink it. But you don’t go straight from cool salt water to the cool fresh water. You have to take it through heat first; you heat the water and distill it. Then it can cool down again.

So there are parts of the path where you really have to put in energy, and that’s going to require desire. You’re making concentration: creating a state of concentration in the mind. You’re creating a state of becoming, in which you take on the identity of someone doing concentration in the world of the mind. That, too, requires desire. It’s simply a matter of learning how to refine your sensitivity as to what’s skillful and what’s not. Which kinds of desires are skillful, and which kinds of desires are not? Which kinds of skillful qualities are appropriate for one particular situation, and which ones are appropriate for another?"

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "Success by Approximation" https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Meditations7/Section0010.html


But if we authentically believe we are identical to a Buddha, just somewhat unrealised, is that as insane and arrogant?

Conceit is an obstacle to Enlightenment and should be abandoned.

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