BuddhaSasana Home Page English Section

What does it mean to be enlightened?

Bhikkhu Bodhi

The word "buddha" was already known and in circulation before the Buddha appeared on the Indian scene. The word means "enlightened," and spiritual seekers would commonly discuss the question "Who is a Buddha? Who is enlightened?" Once an aged brahmin named Brahmayu heard that the ascetic Gotama, the man rumored to be a Buddha, had arrived in his town and he decided to pay him a visit. When the old brahmin arrived, the Buddha was in the midst of a discussion with many people. Since the old brahmin was highly distinguished, when he came into the midst of the crowd, everyone gave way to him. The Buddha too realized that this was a highly respected brahmin, the teacher of several generations of pupils, so he asked Brahmayu to come right up to the front of the assembly and to take a seat beside him.

Brahmayu then said to him, "Honorable Gotama, I would like to ask you some questions." The Buddha invited him to ask what was in his mind, and the brahmin phrased his questions in a four-line verse, the basic point of which was, "How can one be called a Buddha, an Enlightened One?" The Buddha responded in verse:

"What has to be known, that I have known;
What has to be abandoned, that I have abandoned;
What has to be developed, that I have developed;
Therefore, O brahmin, I am a Buddha."

This answer tells us, very concisely, three characteristics of an Enlightened One. These are not only three characteristics of a Buddha; they are also three objectives at which we aim in following the Buddha's teaching. If someone were to ask, "What is your fundamental purpose in taking refuge in the Triple Gem? What is your purpose in following the precepts? What is your purpose in practicing meditation?" your answer should come down to the same three points: to fully know what should be known; to abandon what should be abandoned; and to develop what should be developed. These are the goals of the Buddhist path and the three accomplishments that mark the attainment of enlightenment.

If you are familiar with the Buddha's First Sermon, you would immediately recognize that these three tasks are aligned with three of the Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth is the noble truth of dukkha, usually translated suffering, unsatisfactoriness, or stress. What is the task to be performed in relation to this noble truth of suffering? The noble truth of suffering is to be. correctly "known," fully known, fully understood. The noble truth of the origin, or cause, of suffering is craving, and the task to be performed in relation to this truth is abandonment: craving is to be "abandoned." The fourth noble truth, the Noble Eightfold Path, is the truth that has to be "developed." The one noble truth that isn't mentioned in the Buddha's verse is the third truth, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. This has its own task as well: the cessation of suffering is to be "realized." But when the other three tasks are accomplished, realization of the noble truth of the cessation of suffering will naturally follow.

1) What does it mean to say that our task is "to know that which should be known"? What we have to know, what we have to understand, is that which is closest to ourselves, what we usually refer to as our self. What we usually refer to as our self is this complex of body and mind. For most of us, from the time we are born right up to the time of our death, our minds face outwardly, engaged in a tireless quest for pleasure and sensual gratification, for the enhancement of our self, for the confirmation of our sense of ego-identity. Very few people stop and turn around to consider the question, "What is it that I call my self? What is the 'I' behind the reference I make to myself?" And yet, if you reflect for just a moment, you will see that this is the most important question we can ask. If, from the day of your birth until the day you draw your final breath, the best you can do when you are asked, "Who are you? What is your identity?" is to pull out your driver's license or show your birth certificate, without really knowing who you are or what you are, then you've made a pretty bad job of your journey from birth to death.

Our task in following the Buddha's teaching is to investigate what it is we refer to as "I," as "my self;" as "what I am." We usually take these terms to refer to some kind of persisting entity, an ego, a substantial self possessing a real identity. But the Buddha teaches that all such ideas are deceptions. When we look, when we investigate the referents of the terms: "I," "me, " and "my self," what we find are just components of bodily and mental experience. To aid investigation, the Buddha has neatly classified these components of bodily and mental experience into five groups. These are called the "five aggregates of clinging" because they are the things that we ordinarily cling to with the ideas, "This is mine, this is what I am, this is my true self."

So we find, underlying these notions of "I" and "self," just these five aggregates: the aggregate of bodily form, the material substance that constitutes our bodies; the aggregate of feeling: pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings; the aggregate of perception: the mental function of identifying the characteristics of things, acts of identifying, recognizing, and remembering; the aggregate of volitional formations, the various functions connected with volition; and the aggregate of consciousness: the light of awareness arising on the basis of the six sense bases.

For each of us, this is the totality of what we call our self. Our task in following the Buddha's teaching is to come to know, to come to understand, the true nature of these five aggregates. We thereby come to know what constitutes our real identity. From birth, through adulthood, to old age and death, this whole process of life is just a succession of the five aggregates bound together as conditions and conditionally arisen phenomena. The bodily aggregate or form is the basis, and on this basis, the mental aggregates arise and pass away. Through meditation practice, we examine very deeply, with a fine focus, the nature of these five aggregates as they occur from moment to moment. We see them arising, standing, and dissolving, which gives us the insight into impermanence. From the understanding of impermanence comes the insight into suffering, the unsatisfactory nature of the five aggregates. We then realize that these changeable five aggregates are undependable, insecure, unreliable, and therefore cannot be taken as our self: they are empty or selfless.

2) The second project the Buddha's teaching sets for us is "to abandon that which should be abandoned." What should be abandoned are the defilements. The Buddha uses the word kilesas as an umbrella term that includes all the mental states that cause suffering and unhappiness in our lives. The Buddha's teaching offers a detailed investigation of the mind which enables us to understand how the mind works. But this investigation is not undertaken in the value-free way in which contemporary psychology might describe the workings of the mind. Buddhist psychology defines its values clearly and sharply. It draws definite ethical distinctions, draws them without hesitation or ambiguity, because these ethical distinctions have vital implications for our desire to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.

According to the Buddha's teaching, unethical actions and impure mental states can never give rise to true and lasting happiness. Rather, unethical actions and defiled mental states inevitably germinate in unhappiness, in suffering. It is true that defiled states of mind, especially greed and craving, are accompanied by pleasure and enjoyment. If that weren't the case, the world would be filled with enlightened people. And yet the pleasure that accompanies present craving and greed is just a superficial coat that covers a bad seed. When that seed germinates and bears its fruits, it will bring pain and suffering either in this life, or if not in this life, then in future lives. In contrast, wholesome states of mind may sometimes be accompanied by present pain, because to develop them we have to go against the current, against the natural grain of the mind. But when those wholesome states bear their fruits, inevitably they will lead to happiness, to peace, and to inner well-being. Again, this is part of the same law, the law of moral causation.

The unwholesome mental states are called kilesas. The word can be translated afflictions because they bring suffering. It can also be translated defilements because they defile and corrupt the mind. The Buddha has analyzed the nature of the defilements and has beautifully explained how they can all be traced to the three "root defilements" of greed, hatred, and delusion. Our task in following the Buddha's teaching, in practicing the Dhamma, is to overcome, to eliminate, to abandon the defilements of greed and hatred that give rise to many other branch defilements. But greed and hatred spring ultimately from delusion or ignorance. And thus to eliminate all the defilements, we have to eliminate ignorance.

Ignorance is what covers up the five aggregates, what we refer to as I, mine, and myself. Thus the way to overcome ignorance or delusion is through the first task "knowing that which should be known." When we know that which should be known, ignorance falls away - greed, hatred, and all the other defilements fall away. It isn't possible, however, to accomplish this merely by having the desire to do so. We can't expect simply to think, "I want to know that which should be known;" and immediately it is known. That's why the whole practice of Buddhism is a process of walking a path. The great gift that the Buddha offers the world is not simply a profound philosophy, not simply a penetrating psychology, but a practical, systematic, step-by-step path that we can cultivate in every aspect of our lives.

3) To cultivate the path means to "develop that which should be developed." This is the third project the Buddha speaks of in his four-line verse: "That which should be developed, that I have developed." So what the Buddha has developed is what we have to develop. One cultivates the path in order "to abandon that which should be abandoned," namely, the defilements. And again, one cultivates the path in order "to know that which should be known," the five aggregates.

How does developing the path do this? Again, the path is structured in such a way that it proceeds not suddenly, not abruptly, but in a gradual step-by-step manner to help us climb the ladder to the ultimate freedom of enlightenment. One has to begin by keeping the coarser expression of the defilements under control. One does this by observing the precepts. One observes the Five Precepts or the Eight Precepts. These control the coarser expressions of the defilements, the defilements that erupt in the form of unwholesome actions.

Observing the precepts is not merely a matter of abstaining from negative actions. One also has to cultivate their counterparts: virtuous, wholesome actions. These suffuse the mind with pure and purifying qualities. One has to be compassionate and kindly towards others, to be honest in one's dealings with others, to be constantly truthful in one's communications, to be responsible to one's family and society, to observe right livelihood, to be diligent, to be respectful of others, to be patient under difficult conditions, to be humble and upright. All these virtues gradually help to purify the mind and make the mind bright, clean, and radiant.

To develop what must be developed, it isn't sufficient merely to cultivate morality. One must go further and cultivate concentration. When we try to collect and concentrate the mind, we begin to understand how our minds work. We gain insight into the workings of our own minds. By understanding the workings of our own minds, we're gradually changing the shape of the mind. First, we are beginning to weaken and undermine those unwholesome qualities that defile the mind. We are scraping away the soil in which the unwholesome roots have been lodged. We have to remember that the unwholesome roots have been lodged in our minds throughout beginningless time. The process isn't a quick or easy one, but requires gradual, persistent, and dedicated effort.

As one practices consistently, the mind will eventually settle into firm concentration. It acquires the skills needed to remain settled upon an object consistently, without wavering, and this provides the opportunity for wisdom to arise. Wisdom is the third quality that needs to be developed. Wisdom comes through examination, through investigation.

To be sure, wisdom does not arise only from meditative concentration. Even in your day­to-day life, when you study the Buddha's teachings, especially the important discourses on the development of wisdom, such as the teachings on the five aggregates, dependent origination, and the Four Noble Truths, you are investigating the Dhamma and thereby creating the conditions for wisdom. You are generating a conceptual wisdom that is already starting to dig away at the root of ignorance. So just by studying the teaching and reflecting on the teaching, you are already shaking the deep root of ignorance.

But the ultimate wisdom is experiential. When one has developed a strongly concentrated mind, one uses that mind to investigate the five aggregates. As one observes one's own experience, one directly sees into their real nature, into "the true characteristics of phenomena." Generally, one first sees the arising and falling away of the five aggregates. That is, one sees their impermanence. One sees that because they're impermanent, they're unsatisfactory. There's nothing worth clinging to in them. And because they're impermanent and unsatisfactory, one cannot identify with any of them as a truly existing self. This is the empty or self-less nature of the five aggregates. This marks the arising of true insight wisdom.


With insight-wisdom, one cuts deeper and deeper into the root of ignorance until one comes to fully understand the nature of the five aggregates. When one does so, one can then say that one has "known that which should be known." And by fully knowing that which should be known, the defilements "that should be abandoned have been abandoned;" and the path "that should be developed has been developed." One then realizes that which should be realized, the extinction of suffering right here and now. And, in the Buddha's own words, that is what makes an Enlightened One.

Bhikkhu Bodhi
BPS Newsletter, No. 55, 2006,

[Back to English Index]
last updated: 01-04-2008