Enlightenment: a conceptual introduction
Traditionally, in a Buddhist context at least, the state of ‘Enlightenment’ represents the highest possible state that a human being can achieve, although of course the word ‘achieve’ has to be correctly understood as being used in a special sense. Enlightenment for Buddhists means that you have gone as far as you can possibly go, and as far as you need to go, and there is no further – in any sense – that you still have to go. Enlightenment, in a simple sense, means the end of the road. And the end of the road means that no God or gods await you beyond that, nor any secret knowledge, or hidden corners, or areas of darkness and mystification. All the big questions in life are answered, as would be all the big questions of any life. The ultimate quest is over.
The other major religions have their own ultimate states, and these differ considerably from the Buddhist Enlightenment, with only the ‘Moksha’ of Hinduism or Jainism coming close, in that Moksha is a state that can be achieved within life itself as opposed to something that might await you after death. The key point about the ultimate state in Buddhism – and the point which makes it superior to any of the others – is that it involves knowledge, and the knowing capacity, and the fulfilment of that capacity – the ultimate capacity which the human possesses – in such a way that the knowledge is illumined from within, and nothing remains to be known. Enlightenment enlightens any remaining darkness, and the knowing capacity has been fulfilled. If any other term other than Enlightenment had been chosen for this ultimate state, we would know that it did not relate to the fulfilment of this ultimate capacity, because no one would make a casual error like that in the choice of their words: it would be impossible. The Buddha didn’t say that he had been ‘saved’ or ‘liberated’ or ‘gone to heaven’ or was ‘one with God’ or any such thing: he said he had been ‘enlightened’, and the clue is right there in the name.
There is also one final decisive factor regarding the word ‘Enlightenment’ as the word which most accurately represents the ultimate state in the Buddhist quest, and this factor is not commonly appreciated. The fulfilment of the knowing capacity in Enlightenment runs directly counter to what most people are either looking for, or wanting, or even vaguely interested in, when they engage with a religion. Most people want to feel that they have been saved – in a very immediate, magical and simple way – from any further suffering, and have been transported to some kind of safe zone, thanks to their religiosity, and that it is all going to be plain sailing with regard to their ultimate salvation. And in the short term, they want to feel that they have signed up to a clear system of rewards, such that what they put in, they can expect to get back out, together with a very high rate of added interest. Buddhist religion, as a doctrine of faith and belief, is also guilty of this kind of nursery thinking, but we are talking here about the genuine Buddhist quest for Enlightenment, as opposed to the religious system of rewards and punishments. All of which is to say, if you were going to choose a word which accurately represented the ultimate state, and were hoping for an army of converts along the way, you would not choose the word ‘Enlightenment’: it is the greatest possible religious turnoff, because who wants to be enlightened when you can be saved ? Who wants to struggle to fulfil their knowing capacity when you can have all kinds of God-given ecstasies just by taking on a few beliefs ?