Is Enlightenment a misleading goal? Is it more of a thought-form than just an experience? I am asking because there is a lot of discussion of awakening, enlightenment, satori, differences, levels, etc. and I think that this distracts from the simple truth of growing in awareness, which is both individual and collective.

In other words, is it better to stop thinking about "how to get to 'it' " and just get on with life? In any field, we don't try to attain a specific goal, because - then what? Artists don't try to reach a level, they just make more art. So I would say, is it more helpful to not talk about enlightenment and talk instead about simply becoming more aware?

My prompt for this question comes from what I read (long ago) about how people asked the Buddha after his enlightenment something like: "What are you? Are you an angel? Are you a devil? What?" and he said "I am awake." So, his answer was about a condition of being, not an endpoint. Like how a rainbow is an arrangement of circumstances, not a thing that you can touch. This is not coming out right... I think that the word "enlightenment" focuses on a rainbow - something that does not exist. Talking about it prolongs ignorance, perhaps?

Is this addressed specifically in the Buddhist literature? Thank you.

  • 1
    Just my 2 cents: it's going to be very hard to practice if you don't consider the path as the path to the end of suffering, which is exactly how the Buddha put it. You start getting entangled in "when will I finally know how everything works and why," and you might never get out. It's not part of the path. You work to get out of the cycle. That's what the Buddha taught. After that, it's your business.
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 19:31
  • Now,if you look at the path the way he taught, then you don't need to feel overshadowed by a goal defined as "knowing everything."Because that only gets you asking the wrong questions,e.g."What's the underlying nature of this very moment?" everywhere you go.You can go crazy like that.However,if you have faith in the Buddha,then your job is noticing "Is there any stress here?" and working to alleviate it,in whatever way you can,within the framework of morality.Develop your morality;be persistent with your practice and your appropriate attention to how you're feeling.Work your way on from there.
    – Sadhana
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 19:36
  • Watch the movie "Lucy". I like that better than my old favorite of "The Matrix". I can relate to it better, because it is less thought-oriented, and more experience-oriented. A rainbow is an experience.
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:48
  • It's not just enlightenment. It may be 'misleading' to think in terms of any goal. I feel you might be misunderstanding what it means to be 'Awake'. As much as a 'condition of being' this is a condition of not-being' and it is not a 'thing' like a rainbow. Rather it would be the realisation that all things are like rainbows.
    – user14119
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 14:30

10 Answers 10


I'd like to add one phrase from Larry Rosenberg in his book Breath by Breath. The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation (2012), p.45:

Finally, enlightenment is the experience of intimacy with the entire universe. There is no separation whatsoever. You totally disappear in the process of uniting with the raw content of the present moment. And because you do, you have never been more alive.

When you see it this way, enlightenment can never be a misleading ideal.

  • Thank you, very succinct description. Perhaps no one should say more than that. My experience of explaining this to people is that they cannot take it in or align with it. Either they have already felt the possibility on an intuitive level, or it is never going to get in.
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:31
  • @nocomprende - the only thing we've to do is: going beyond...gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.. Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 16:21
  • beyond what? Even that is a mystery.
    – soulsings
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 23:47
  • @soulsings - beyond our ego; beyond our senses... Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 14:56

This is a very well know paradox, perhaps the main paradox of Buddhism. On one hand, there is no Enlightenment -- on the other hand, Enlightenment truly occurs! Most of Zen lore revolves around this very pivot point.

You are right in your intuition that thinking and talking of Enlightenment is counterproductive. At the same time, to simply go on with life is not Enlightenment either.

Enlightenment requires getting to the very bottom of things. Once you get to the bottom of things, you're no longer fooled with words such as "Enlightenment" -- instead, you directly see what is being referred to. And then in the practical sense, Enlightenment means mastery of skillful action rooted in the right understanding.

When such a master acts, the skill is quite obvious to everyone. Because the master is in harmony with all things, her action is very efficient. Needless to say, the master knows how to act as to avoid hurting herself or others.

  • Thank you. I liked your definition at the end of 3rd paragraph. 4th paragraph reminds me of my Guru. I have not seen her in a long time.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 22:46

Enlightenment is an experience, which you get here and now, when you practice Vipassana.

Like an artist, if you do not take some effort to paint, there will be no art; likewise, if you do not do Vipassana, there will be no enlightenment. This cannot be achieved with by tying too hard, craving for it, thinking about it, etc. It is the natural realization from the practice of Vipassana.

Enlightenment is not a conditioned existence, but when you have achieved something beyond conditioning, or an unconditioned state. When you achieve this state, you are no longer creating new fabrications. This is because you have understood the law of cause and effect and 4 noble truths with regard to our mind matter phenomena.

  • Thank you. If I understand you, I think you are saying that the word enlightenment means something like "what is happening now", a verb rather than a noun? I thought that the conventional meaning is of something like a state, which is perhaps my misunderstanding. Maybe that is a common misunderstanding?
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 17:01
  • You stop creating new fabrication Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 6:02
  • That is a nice way to look at it, thank you. I love hearing all these excellent ways of looking at things, sometimes one will come to mind at just the right time.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 0:34

If Enlightenment is taken as an all or nothing thing that must be achieved to be "successful" at Buddhism, then it is a bad idea.

If it's taken as an ideal to strive towards to ensure maximum gains, then it's a good idea.

What one gains from practicing can be achieved in degrees and the pseudo-paradoxes of Enlightenment vanish once one abandons this all or nothing view. If perfect Enlightenment is not possible, so what? Isn't it worthwhile to have a life that's better than what you have now, even if it's not perfect?

  • 1
    Thank you, I like what you are saying. "Achieved in degrees", and "so what?"
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:41

In any field, we don't try to attain a specific goal, because - then what?

I don't think that "no specific goal" is true of medicine, for example. If I go to my doctor with any complaint (for example, a complaint about my shoulder), then there is a specific goal.

Similarly I suspect that Buddhism has a specific goal: its goal is the third noble truth i.e. cessation.

I think that the word "enlightenment" focuses on a rainbow - something that does not exist.

To an extent that's true, but maybe that's a good thing.

I.e. everything which exists is "conditioned": for example a feeling, a person, a table, a mountain "exist because of" (or "dependently co-arise with") this and that, and will cease to exist when those conditions change (all things are conditioned and impermanent and unsatisfactory).

Whereas "enlightenment" is supposed to be none of the above: i.e. it's unconditioned, timeless, and satisfactory.

In other words, is it better to stop thinking about "how to get to 'it' " and just get on with life?

I think that at least some elementary Buddhist doctrine is helpful with its generic advice about "how".

You wouldn't tell doctors just to get on with treating patients, without teaching doctors "how" to do that. You teach them skills ("wash your hands") and useful theories or views (for example, about "germs").

If I understand you, I think you are saying that the word enlightenment means something like "what is happening now", a verb rather than a noun?

Hmm, grammar. Do you know the word "reify"? I suspect that grammar encourages us to do that: "enlightenment", "love", "pain", "I" and so on are nouns and pronouns.

You're thinking maybe it should be seen as a verb?

How about seeing it as an adjective instead?

Instead of seeing "a dog" see "a location or a being with dog-nature" or "dog-like properties" or "dogginess".

Instead of seeing "enlightenment" (noun) or "enlightening" (verb) how about seeing "enlightened" (adjective)?

Note that enlightenment is characterized as an absence or negative:

  • Not conditioned, not unsatisfactory, not impermanent
  • Not ignoble (nor base, vulgar, common, or unprofitable)
  • Out-blown, extinguished (like a blown-out candle)
  • Cessation or liberation (from suffering)
  • Dis-identification (contrast with Hindu nirvana which is 'identification with God')
  • Absence of defilements (kleshas)

Talking about it prolongs ignorance, perhaps?

Maybe you're right.

Going back to the doctor-and-medicine analogy, maybe "health" can be defined as "absence of any disease" (like "enlightenment" is "absence of any defilement").

I don't go to the doctor to talk about "health"; instead I only go to:

  • Talk about specific disease
  • Talk about lifestyle habits/skills (e.g. diet and exercise) to avoid disease

The doctor has (in my experience) nothing much to say about health itself. For example I would go for a yearly check-up and once the doctor said (part-jokingly), "You're very healthy. Go away: I don't want to see you again for another two or three years."

  • Excellent. If I may add to Chris's answer... let us rely on the Truths and learn to attain the Emptiness of the Prajnaparamita.. let us not give up hope for We shall never attain Awakening by either wanting it strongly nor by not wanting it strongly!
    – Ahmed
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 21:49
  • "Dogginess" - ha ha! "It's a doggie-dog world." I don't see health as absence of disease, but I will consider your metaphor of enlightenment as empty. Still, difficult to make "no thing" a goal. I agree about the noun-ification problem. I think that is what my question is really about. When has a doctor learned "enough"?
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:27

In Zen, Shunryu Suzuki talks about enlightenment as beginner's mind in his book, Zen Mind, Begginer's Mind.

Over and over he says enlightenment is not something we attain, but when we stop trusting in false senses of self, then who we are and always have been and already will be apparent.

It is necessary to stop trying to achieve or attain, but we must keep practicing or the goal slips further away. It is not easy to talk about, read the book linked to or a hard copy. Roshi Suzuki's words will do far more for helping you drop the mask and see what is here right now than I can possibly hope to.

  • Thank you. Some people cannot seem to conceive of not "trusting in false senses of self" as a goal. To them, it is just a non-sequitur. Like the advice to fly: "throw yourself at the ground and miss."
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:45
  • Or throw yourself at the ground and not miss. There is no logic in beginner's mind. It is a world of mystery. When asked a question a master replies "uncertain." That may be all we can say.
    – soulsings
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 23:46

'Enlightenment is ego's ultimate disappointment.' Chogyam Trungpa

  • Yeah, I love that quote. Is it from "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism"? I read that about 15 years ago.
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 0:36
  • Not sure. I've been listening to these audio lectures. chronicleproject.com/CTRlibrary/index_CTRlibrary.html Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 2:42
  • I upvoted to cancel the downvote. I like this answer. Thank you, Barry. A little nutshell like this gets stuck in the mind and wont back down, like the sand grain that makes a pearl. That is why we have Masters.
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:38

I think you are at it with your idea, it just needs more accuracy.

Enlightenment is the way and the goal. If we go deep into samsara, then enlightenment is our goal. If we are enlightened, then enlightenment is our way.

  • Thank you, I agree, I think it just quite missed the nail somehow. Can't explain.
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:39

All excellent answers to an excellent question. I wish to add my two cents.

The literal meaning of nibbana is "quenching", or "blowing out" like a candle that has been snuffed out. Since it is impossible to define the sublime because it happens at a level inaccessible to words, a negative definition is the only possible metaphor. Thus, it is not something that one achieves, but something that one can create conditions for it to happen.

When you plant a seed, you cannot force it to grow: you just can provide water, fertiliser, care and protection until, in due time, it offers its fruits.


Contemporary literature is enough for you? There is a Dzogchen text from Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche called "The Mirror: Advice on the Presence of Awareness":


He starts saying:

A practitioner of Dzogchen must have precise presence and awareness. Until one really and truly knows one's own mind and can govern it with awareness, even if very many explanations of reality are given, they remain nothing more than ink on paper or matters for debate among intellectuals, without the possibility of the birth of any understanding of the real meaning.

Certainly the subject of enlightenment or The Dharma can become hindrances. But we need guidance to achieve the proposed states of mind. Saying that we should "just become more aware" sometimes isn't enough, usually we need some insight.

He makes the following metaphor:

If a sick person knows perfectly well the properties and functions of a medicine and is also expert in giving explanations about it, but doesn't ever take the medicine, he or she can never get well.

He says that we can get lost in the theory, but he never says we shouldn't study it. The point is that theoretical knowledge alone can't produce any enlightenment.

So, without chattering about it, or getting caught up in trying to hide behind an elegant facade, one should try really and truly to cause the presence of awareness actually to arise in oneself, and then carry it into practice. This is the most important point of the practice of Dzogchen.

There is a handful of words, ink and pixels pointing us to the right direction. It is a two edged sword.

  • Thank you. You quoted: "... without the possibility of the birth of any understanding of the real meaning." Yes, that is what I find when talking, such as with friends. But what of the people who do not relate at all? No kind of fishing lure will catch a bird.
    – user2341
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 15:35
  • You are right, people unrelated to Buddhism needs to learn the Dhamma, if they seek enlightenment of course. But point of the text is that Buddhist people sometimes get lost in Dhamma. They talk and discuss about it, but they don't put it in practice.
    – eric
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 21:38

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