Our study text for this week’s class in the course “Against the Stream”, is the Dhammacakkappavatthana Sutta, traditionally viewed as the Buddha’s very first discourse. In that Discourse, the Buddha presents, in a very terse form, the foundational learning he took from his experience of bodhi. Bodhi is the word most frequently used in the Pali texts to refer to the world-changing experience in which Gotama Siddatha recognized the Dhamma; the term buddha, in fact, means “one who has experienced bodhi”, and the choices we have to make in understanding the meaning of bodhi determine, to some extent, how we understand the man whose teachings we are studying.
The root meaning of bodhi is knowledge, with the strong connotation of special or supreme knowledge. The most common translation of the word into English is “enlightenment”; that’s the second definition that the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary assigns to the word, before giving up and defining it teleologically as “the knowledge possessed by a Buddha”. But another common meaning of the Pali term , is “waking up”. In that sense, the word is sometimes used in the Pali literature to refer to the simple everyday process of waking from sleep.
As Stephen Batchelor points out, both “Awakening” and “Enlightenment” are metaphors, with similar but subtly different connotations. “Enlightenment” evokes a scenario in which a sudden light reveals or clarifies the nature of something that had been obscured by darkness; in the context of the metaphor, that darkness is presumed to correspond to our ignorance or delusion. In the metaphor of Awakening, one also becomes newly aware of something that had been there all along, but, in this case, the reason we had not seen is that we had been in a state of diminished awareness (deep sleep), or even delusion (dream); what we awaken to is simply the reality of our daily experience, in all its multiplicity, complexity, difficulty, and ambiguity.
While the reality that we recognize in the bodhi experience is implicit in the metaphor of Awakening, in the metaphor of Enlightenment that reality is not implicit but must be explicitly supplied by the metaphorist or by the ideological context in which the metaphor is used. In a Christian context, for example, one might become Enlightened regarding the nature of divinity and salvation – one would come to know God or to know Christ. In a Mahayana Buddhist context, Enlightenment would reveal the Emptiness of all formations. In a Brahminic context, an Enlightenment experience would reveal the identity of Atman, the individual Self, and Brahman, the Godhead. As I read the texts of the Pali Canon, the newly Enlightened Buddha experienced “the nature and vision of things as they are”, i.e. the reality of the world as we become aware of it through what Glenn Wallis calls “the sensorium”: the eye confronting visible objects, the ear confronting sounds, the nose confronting odors, the tongue confronting tastes, the tactile senses confronting texture and weight, and the mind striving to make sense of it all. If I am reading those texts correctly, then, there is no significant difference between “Enlightenment” and “Awakening” as English words to translate the bodhi realized by the Buddha.
That said, I prefer the word “Awakened”, only because it avoids those connotations that the other word brings with it from its use in other contexts, and I will mostly use that word in the articles I write and the translations that I prepare for our study. If you prefer the more traditional word “Enlightened”, feel free to read it that way.