Awakening and Enlightenment in Buddhism on the Path to Nirvana

Buddha, Awakening

by Jayaram V

Summary: In this essay, we present the meaning and significance of awakening in Buddhism which lead to the discerning wisdom, insightful awareness, meditative absorption (Samadhi) and Nirvana.


In a general sense, awakening means the sudden realization or awareness of a hitherto unknown or unobserved truth or phenomenon, which leads to a major shift in perception, thinking and understanding. One may awaken to many things, even to the beauty in an object or the evil which is hidden in the world. In Hinduism, awakening in a spiritual sense means becoming aware of the truth regarding oneself and the need for liberation. In Buddhism, it means waking up from ignorance and the helpless state of suffering, in which one finds oneself, and realizing the need to escape from suffering with appropriate means.

Buddhists try to accomplish this noble goal by practising the Dhamma and removing the hindrances and unwholesome thoughts, perceptions, feelings, attitudes, habits and other mental formations, which bind the beings to Samsara and prevent them from experiencing wholesome thoughts, equanimity, peace and happiness, or in short, Nirvana. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are meant for that only.

It is important to note that awakening is not Nirvana. It is a shift in perception, which prompts one to strive for it. Just as one wakes up from sleep, one wakes up from ignorance and delusion. Awakening is the beginning, and Nirvana is the end. The Buddha had an awakening when he witnessed for the first time, death, aging and sickness. It opened his eyes to the need to find a permanent solution to the problem of suffering. It put  him on a journey which led to his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Awakening is mostly preceded by spiritual restlessness or mental churning (Samvega).

Awakening, not self-realization

Buddhism does not have the concept of self-realization, or meditative self-absorption (samadhi) of the kind mentioned in the Classical Yoga, because it does not believe in the existence of the individual, eternal self or soul. The Buddhist idea of Samadhi or meditative self-absorption is different from that of Hinduism or Jainism. In Buddhism, Samadhi means the absorption of the mind in silence or emptiness through successive stages of deeper awareness (jhanas) by practicing Right Concentration with the help of Right Knowledge, Right Perceptions, Right Views and Right Understanding. Therefore, in Buddhism a monk does not search for the hidden-self but for the hidden truths regarding the mind and body, and the worldly phenomena and their correlation to his own suffering and mental flux.

His aim is to know the (physical and mental) self with which he is familiar, which is an aggregation of his mind and body, rather than the metaphysical Self, which cannot be known. He aims to accomplish it by observing the things with which he interacts in his mundane life and which produce varied reactions and responses in him. He tries to discipline his mind and body to see them as they are, without any hindrances of his own, so that he becomes aware of certain truths about himself and the world and understand with crystal clarity how and why he suffers.

As part of that effort, he keeps his mind and his senses wide open to the world around and to objects with which he interacts, both internally and externally, without becoming involved with them, without being distracted or disturbed by them and without being attracted or repelled by them. They are the same objects and phenomena, which produce suffering in lay people and keep them in a state of ignorance, delusion, seeking and striving, and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths.

Awakening to the truths of suffering

In Buddhism, awakening also means the realization of the nature of suffering, the causes of suffering and the means to the cessation of suffering. A Buddhist monk does not have to spend years in search of the truths concerning suffering. The Buddha found them for the benefit of others and prescribed a Way for people to overcome it and attain Nirvana or permanent freedom from suffering. Thus, in a sense awakening means awakening from ignorance of the Buddhist Dhamma and becoming aware of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Since the Buddha provided his followers with ample knowledge and guidance to attain Nirvana, the Path for the followers of the Buddha is cut out for them. They have to tread the well-trodden path, with no major surprises on the way, to attune their minds to the truths of the Dhamma through study and introspection and put them to sincere and dedicated practice to ascertain their validity.

Thus, awakening to the knowledge of the Buddhist Dharma is the first, important step in Buddhism. It awakens one’s mind to the possibility of attaining peace and happiness, freedom from suffering and Nirvana itself. Its sustained practice helps them see things as they are and become attentively aware and awake on the path. If they persist and keep up their effort, it will gradually lead them to Nirvana.

Awakening on the Eightfold Path

It is why practicing the Eightfold Path (Right Living) is so important to Buddhist awakening. The Path is not to escape from suffering or from reality but to become detached from them and cultivate indifference or sameness. The existential suffering which pervades our lives cannot permanently be removed, but our reaction to it can be. We cannot silence the world, but we can silence ourselves. We cannot totally resolve our suffering, but we can become indifferent to it, or learn to live with it with tolerance, patience, compassion and understanding. Thus, in Buddhism suffering is resolved not by reforming the world but by reforming oneself.

However, that transformation has to happen not by coercion or self-torture, but by following the Middle Way with insight, awareness and understanding, so that one knows why one has to practice  Right Living in right earnest, without any conflict or doubt. In Buddhism, that effort or journey of Right Living usually begins with present moment awareness or mindfulness practice. With mindfulness, one develops insight into the nature of things and becomes better awake and better aware. Its persistent practice leads to discernment or the sharpening of intelligence (Buddhi). The purpose of the Eightfold Path is the cultivation of Buddhi or discernment, which is important to know the right from the wrong. It is not overcoming the mind, but cultivating pure mind, which is free from hindrances and unwholesome thoughts.

Awakening through mindfulness

Thus, in Buddhism, the awakening begins with transformative knowledge, improves with mindfulness practice and culminates in discernment and meditative absorption. The practice of the Dhamma leads to the sharpening of the mind and senses and to discerning wisdom (buddhi), which helps one discern truth from falsehood, knowledge from ignorance, reality from illusion, and right living from wrong living. The Buddha as well as Buddhism acquired their names because  Buddhi (intelligence) is so important to the practice and to attain Nirvana. In Buddhism, not God, not Self, but intelligence or discerning wisdom (Buddhi) is the means and the support to acquire insight and achieve Nirvana.

The Eightfold Path is meant to purify the mind and body, remove the hindrances that afflict them and sharpen the intelligence so that one can see and understand the phenomena with greater insight. The practice of Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration on the Eightfold Path leads to the development of that wisdom. With that, one finally awakens to the truths of existence and enters the state of Nirvana.

How does it happen? It is through mindfulness practice. The Buddha taught his followers how a simple observation of mundane things in their lives could lead to profound wisdom. He taught them to begin their mindfulness practice with breathing, and gradually extern their observation to the movements of their minds and bodies to discern how they functioned in relation to various phenomena and produced different, wholesome and unwholesome thoughts, perceptions, feelings, emotions, desires, craving, clinging, pain and pleasure. In short, he taught them to practice Dhamma with their minds and senses wide open, without blind faith.

Awakening through insightful awareness

Thus, in Buddhism awakening means awakening to the truths of existence, both internally and externally, through right living according to the truths and the principles of the Dhamma. Through that, the monks to cultivate discerning wisdom and insightful awareness of various kinds, which help them see things as they are and become indifferent to them. The following are a few important insights which arise in the process. They are grouped here as external and internal respectively.

1. Awareness of existential truths and worldly phenomena

  • Awareness of the Dhamma consisting of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which constitute the Noble Middle Path.
  • Awareness of the impermanence of the world, the objects, the mind and body and why renunciation and detachment are important.
  • Awareness of the suffering produced by desires and attachments and how it can be resolved with the help of the Dhamma by overcoming craving and clinging.
  • Awareness of the emptiness of things, which in truth are mere formations and aggregations only. With that one develops distaste for worldly things.
  • Awareness of Samsara and the transmigration of souls, which intensifies their suffering if they keep making the same mistakes. It strengthens one's resolve to escape from it by overcoming the obstacles.

Awareness of the above mentioned formations help the monks cultivate detachment, sameness to the pairs of opposites, and distaste towards worldly things. It helps them realize the importance of withdrawing from worldly life, overcoming craving and clinging, and escape from suffering, duality and delusion by following the monastic discipline and the Dhamma.

2. Awareness of the mind and body and the five clinging aggregates

  • Awareness of the form (rupa) or the body and its parts. With that one becomes detached from the body and its functions and overcomes his cravings.
  • Awareness of sensory perceptions. With that, he becomes aware of how perceptions arise according to the objects and what perceptions do, and becomes detached from them.
  • Awareness of positive, negative and neutral feelings such as pain and pleasure and how they are created by attraction, aversion and ignorance. With that he realizes how such feelings arise, what causes them and what they do, and becomes detached from them. He realizes pain as pain ,and pleasure as pleasure, and it is their nature to be so.
  • Awareness of the fabrications of the mind such as thoughts and mental images. With that he becomes aware of how the mental formations arise and subside, and becomes detached from them. He sees them as they are, having an existence of their own and doing their part.
  • Awareness of consciousness and accumulated mental habits and formations. With that he realizes that consciousness is also an aggregate of formations and movements and sees lust as lust, hate as hate, envy as envy, ignorance as ignorance and so on.

With the five types of awareness a monk overcomes unwholesome thoughts, feelings and desires, as he realizes that it is the nature of the mind and body to engage in such functions and produce various, temporary formations according to their inherent nature, and he is not their cause and has nothing to do with them. He also notices the sequence or the chain of events, or how one movement leads to another and one cause leads to another.

Observing thus, he learns to see things as they are, without expectations, preconceived notions, habitual thoughts and mental formations. As he progresses further, he realizes the impermanence of things, the suffering they produce and the absence of Self in them. Thereby he attains peace and equanimity. With continued practice of right mindfulness and right concentration, he overcomes the hindrances and unwholesome states and enters the deeper states (jhanas) of meditate absorption (Samadhi). It eventually culminates in Nirvana.

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