Enlightenment (spirituality)

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While actual freedom may resemble spiritual enlightenment to the casual observer at first, it must be understood that they are radically and irreconcilably different.

This article will aim to present how enlightenment was conceptualised in early Hinduism and Buddhism and how this idea morphed and evolved into present day understandings in various traditions. The difference between actual freedom and various forms of enlightenment will be made clear. A case will be made for Enlightenment par excellence and how it differs from an actual freedom – and how modern claimants such as enlightenment pursuing pragmatic and secular Western Buddhists are not pursuing Enlightenment per se.

The sources used here will be the Vedas, the Upanishads, early Buddhist texts i.e. the Pali Nikayas and contemporary scholarship on these. We also rely extensively on Richard's writings on the topic which are based on a 11 year experience of enlightenment and his own study of the Pali Nikayas [1]

Enlightenment in the Vedas and Upanishads

The Vedas were composed between 1500-1200 BC, with the Upanishads being the latter parts of the Vedas, composed between 1000BC and 1400 CE - with most of the primary upanishads composed in the last few centuries BC. The Upanishads are also referred to as Vedanta (end of Vedas).

The Vedic idea of death proclaims that the innermost, indomitable spirit of human beings is immortal, while the body is mortal. The physical body can never attain immortality; it has to decay and decease. The body should not die before its full life, but should die after living a full life and drop off like a ripe cucumber from its stem, while the spirit immortal should reach out to the dmmortal:

Tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sugandhiṃ pusṭivardhanam Urvārukamiva bandhanāt mrtyormukrīya māmrtāt. (RV, 7/59/12)

In the Vedic quest one is exhorted to reach the eternal, immortal aspect of their existence using the bodily vehicle – mainly through progeny and rituals. In the later Upanishads we see the development of ascetic meditative techniques and yoga as a means to moksha [2] instead. Familial ties and elaborate rituals are downgraded in favour of renunciation and a mentalised attainment of immortality. This was almost certainly due to the influence of Buddhism and Jainism – as well as the influence of ancient pre-Buddhist ascetic groups such as Sramanas and Yatis.[3]

Enlightenment in Early Buddhism

There are 4 major points to grasp as regards enlightenment as described in the early suttas of the Pali Nikayas.

1) Re-discovery: When the Buddha became enlightened, he did not report that he had discovered something new. Rather, he reported that he had re-discovered in his awakening something that had been lost, but was now found again – namely the absolute indexed in the early Vedic period. Note that this is not the Vedantic and Neo-Vedantic Brahman as has been claimed.

Nagara Sutta (SN 12.65; PTS: S ii 104) (translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu ©1997):

“...It is just as if a man, travelling along a wilderness track, were to see an ancient path, an ancient road, travelled by people of former times. He would follow it. Following it, he would see an ancient city, an ancient capital inhabited by people of former times, complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. (...) at a later date the city would become powerful, rich, & well-populated, fully grown & prosperous. In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, travelled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path ...”

However it must be said that the Buddha was also quite critical of Vedic practices and rituals. The 8 fold noble path is a Buddhist rather than a Vedic innovation. Some believe that the 'Rightly Self Awakened Ones' were ancient Buddhas, Jaina ascetics or other ascetics (Sramana, Yati) rather than Vedic Rishis.

2) Nibbana: This utterly ineffable absolute is nibanna (Pali: unbinding, blowing out, quenching). It is acausal, atemporal, beyond the sense realm and beyond the grasp of any conceptual framework. It is in other words an absolute of pure ontological and metaphysical alterity – the heavy-duty spiritual absolute![4]

3) Immortality: The earliest suttas of the canon emphasise immortality (amato-/amata- in Pali which is translated more commonly as 'deathless') rather than nibanna. Buddhists today tend to be rather shy of rendering amata as immortal, tending to see it as a synonym for nibanna or even as a synonym for the undying dhamma. Whereas the pursuit of immortality in early Hinduism is relatively uncontroversial. [5] [6]

4) Anatta: While the anatta or no-self doctrine is considered virtually synonymous with Buddhism today, few realise that the canonical support for it is far from convincing. The only sutta dealing directly with anatta is the Anattakakhana Sutta, which stops short of an explicit denial of a self.[7] The sutta is read more directly as the denial of self-hood of each of the constituents of the body-mind rather than the denial of self as such. The anatta doctrine is the touchstone of Theravadan orthodoxy today and may have emerged after hegemonic struggles with other Buddhist orders such as the Pudgalavada, in the centuries following the death of the Buddha. Given Theravada is the only surviving Hinayana Buddhist order today, its metaphysics of self in the form of anatta, reigns supreme.

Enlightenment and Non-Duality in Advaita Vedanta

The first systematic exponent of the Advaita doctrine [8] is likely Gaudapada, who lived 300-600 CE[9][10] at least 800 years after the Buddha (460-380 BC). Advaita Vedanta hence does not find mention in the Pali canon, although it does seem that Advaita itself was influenced and coloured by Buddhism – but as we we will see, it reaches starkly difference conclusions in regards to salvation as compared to both early Buddhism and modern Theradava.

For the Vedanta, non-duality (advaita) means the absence of an ultimate distinction between the Atman, the innermost self, and Brahman, the divine reality, the underlying ground of the world. From the standpoint of the highest realization, only one ultimate reality exists — which is simultaneously Atman and Brahman — and the aim of the spiritual quest is to know that one's own true self, the Atman, is the timeless reality which is Being, Awareness, Bliss.

The Absolute here is very much one with the phenomenal world and not the metaphysical absolute that the Buddha was referring to.

Non-Duality in Buddhism

Since all schools of Buddhism reject the idea of the atman, none can accept the non-dualism of Vedanta. From the perspective of the Theravada tradition, any quest for the discovery of selfhood, whether as a permanent individual self or as an absolute universal self, would have to be dismissed as a delusion, a metaphysical blunder born from a failure to properly comprehend the nature of concrete experience. According to the Pali Suttas, the individual being is merely a complex unity of the five aggregates, which are all stamped with the three marks of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness.[11]

Claudiu's Version (Old)

In a spiritual context, Enlightenment (with a capital E) refers to some permanent shift in one's state of consciousness, such that one embodies or, if one is still on the path, becomes closer to embodying a particular spiritual goal or path.

For example, in some western Buddhist contexts that are derived from the Theravadan Buddhism tradition, becoming an Arahat means fully seeing the Anatta, or No-Self aspect, of all phenomena, such that you see there never was a self in the first place (only sensations or thoughts that impute a self).

Different spiritual traditions and different sects within the same tradition, can often have lengthy disputes about what is or isn't Enlightenment, or who is or isn't Enlightened. But they generally agree that it is some form of awakening to the truth of how reality really is.

Enlightenment and Actual Freedom

In this sense of "seeing how things really are", actual freedom can initially seem similar, if not the same as, Enlightenment. After all, when you are actually free, you see that all that exists and ever existed was the actual world, right?

Further there are many other parallels, for example the 'reality' that is normally experienced on a day-to-day basis, doesn't ultimately actually exist, i.e. there is something other than it that is more fundamental.

However you will find the further you go that actual freedom is quite a different thing entirely!

The Spirit

The core difference is that with all the varying forms of Enlightenment, an affective feeling-being, self, or Self in some form still persists.

This can be tricky to see at first as many traditions define Enlightenment as the ending of self, or the seeing there never really was a self, etc. But as 'I' am 'my' feelings and 'my' feelings are 'me', a key giveaway is if emotions, moods, or feelings continue to persist, in whatever form.

  • Are you radiating love and compassion? Are you swimming in ecstatic bliss? Are you emanating or capable of emanating loving-kindness to all sentient beings in all directions? These are all emotions, in the sense of affective movements (whether they are experienced absent of a ‘center’ or not) -- so, not actual freedom.
  • Are you experiencing the same emotions as before of normal day-to-day life (anger, lust, desire, etc.), but you "see" that they arise on-their-own in a field of sensations, and it doesn't mean there actually is a self? These are still emotions -- so, not actual freedom.

It's actually possible to see this relatively easily by considering what is meant by the word "spiritual" in this context. It's simply an adjective meaning "of the spirit" or "relating to the spirit". It's easy to see that Enlightenment is something that the 'spirit' does or that the 'spirit' attains, or some goal elevating or promoting the 'spirit' above all else. And 'spirit' in this context is simply a synonym for soul — the same soul that disappears entirely upon actual freedom, and that disappears temporarily in a PCE.

The Physical World

A lot of the times the experience or description of Enlightenment contains a central element regarding this physical world being not being the end-all be-all. For example they might say that the physical world is just an illusion, and the ultimate truth or reality lies beyond the physical world (i.e. that it is metaphysical). This is of course quite the opposite of actual freedom or even a PCE where you experience that the actual world, which is physical in nature, is all that exists and is the ultimate.

Case By Case

Surely because of the breadth and disparity of reports of Enlightenment, and descriptions of it, at least initially you may need to take each one on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps this page will grow to accommodate all the varieties that have actually occurred and been recorded.

In any case, evaluate each claim or description (or experience of your own) on its own merits, and with a clear enough eye you will be able to see whether it is indeed the same as, or distinct from, actual freedom.

The best way to do so is of course to have a PCE and see for yourself!

Actual Freedom and Enlightenment

(Old Version)

Enlightenment, in the Hindu or Buddhist spiritual sense, is, strictly speaking, the death of the ego. What remains is the soul only, now in its full, glorious, ecstatic splendor, unhampered and unhindered by any restraining ego. Now one can "be" morality and emit a moral code, as opposed to having to follow one... and of course now people will follow your moral code, which you can now set in accordance to the Divine Principles you now experience.

One now is Love Agape, being and emanating Compassion, Loving-Kindness (or if you prefer, Karuna and Metta), with likely a charismatic Presence.

This is to be distinguished from actual freedom where both ego and soul (along with Divinity, love/Love, compassion/Compassion, along with any other emotions or feelings) completely vanish, leaving one to experience oneself as just the actual flesh and blood body that one actually is anyway, thus being a personification of the purity, benevolence, and perfection that the universe actually and intrinsically is.

Other Resources


  1. http://www.actualfreedom.com.au/richard/selectedcorrespondence/sc-buddhism.htm
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moksha
  3. Ch 18 Aceticism, Patrick Olvielle Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Law 2018
  4. Thanissaro Bhikku on Nibanna in the Pali Canon
  5. [1] See here for illustrative discussion on the topic
  6. Richard talks about immortality, nibanna and 'his' own enlightenment prior to actual freedom

    "....By and large the clearly defined/ readily describable goal of the buddhavacana – immortality in the current lifetime – has been obscured by an ineffable/ indefinable and faraway aspiration called nibbāna/ nirvāṇa...Hence, also, modern-day buddhistic aspirations being more of a therapeutic nature than salvational.

    ...as amongst the many epithets ascribed to the sammāsambuddha, one in particular stands out: “amatassa dātā dhammassāmī”. Those first two words – amatassa dātā (“dispenser of immortality”) – are the crux of the epithet...

    ...Speaking from personal experience: in September 1981 when the then-resident identity inhabiting this flesh-and-blood body became awakened/ enlightened ‘he’ was immediately aware – due to its marked absence – that ‘his’ ego/ ego-self (i.e., ‘the thinker’/ ‘the doer’) had most certainly died and ‘he’ would remark to those interested how ironic it was that ‘he’ only knew for sure now (now that it had vanished completely) how there had indeed been an operant ego all the while leading up to that moment. This absence of ego/ ego-self was so remarkably obvious ‘he’ would flesh-out ‘his’ description by pointing both forefingers directly to either temple so as to pinpoint its exact location via where an interior place immediately behind the mid-point of the eyebrows was intersected by that line-of-pointing. And, speaking even more experientially, a distinct vacancy, a clear emptiness, at that precise location was an on-going and compelling experience. So compelling, in fact, and so devoid of having ever even been existent this on-going reality was, then, that upon being asked, on occasion over the following years, as to what would happen at physical death ‘he’ would speak assuredly of being “already-dead” (meaning that only an end to embodiment could occur); of how there was “no such thing as death”; of how being immortal was what being awakened/ enlightened is (as “The Absolute”, as ‘he’ called it, that is); of how anything other than that was but a dream, an illusion, an appearance.

  7. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.nymo.html
  8. Gaudapada-Kariak, page xLvii
  9. Gaudapada-Karika, page iv
  10. Gaudapada entry on Wikipedia
  11. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html