Buddhism A–Z
What is Enlightenment (Bodhi) in Buddhism?

Enlightenment is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. Enlightenment represents the highest state of spiritual awakening and liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth known as samsara. It is known as nirvana/nibbana in Theravada Buddhism and bodhi in Mahayana Buddhism and is defined differently by the two schools.

When someone, through spiritual practice, gains profound insight into the nature of existence, grasping the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of phenomena, they’re considered to have achieved nirvana. This is known as the state of the arhat, who has achieved complete liberation from suffering and the ignorance that causes it. In Mahayana Buddhism,  the definition of enlightenment is expanded to include a vow to work for the liberation of all beings.

The End of Suffering 

At the heart of Buddhist teachings are the four noble truths, which recognize the pervasiveness of suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) in life. Enlightenment is the realization of the third noble truth, which states that an end of suffering is possible.

Freedom from the Cycle of Rebirth

Buddhists believe in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara), driven by the force of karma. An enlightened being is said to have broken free from the cycle of rebirth and achieved liberation from all karma and the suffering it causes.

Direct Insight and Wisdom

Enlightenment involves direct insight into the nature of reality. This insight goes beyond intellectual understanding and involves a clear, non-conceptual realization of the nature of the self, impermanence, suffering, and the interconnectedness of all things.

Three Marks of Existence

Enlightenment is associated with a deep understanding of the three marks of existence, or “dharma seals,” that are central to Buddhist philosophy. These are: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and no self (anatta). Gaining a thorough comprehension and deep appreciation of the three marks of existence is crucial for attaining enlightenment.

Ethical Conduct

Ethical conduct is both a consequence of and part of the path that leads one to the realization of enlightened mind. Enlightenment is attained by individuals who have cultivated virtuous qualities, including compassion, loving-kindness, and ethical conduct.  Enlightened beings are believed to work tirelessly for the welfare and liberation of others.

Different Stages of Enlightenment

In Mahayana Buddhism, various models were devised by scholars to elucidate distinct forms and stages of bodhicitta (“enlightenment-mind” or “the thought of awakening”). The development of bodhicitta entails two primary stages: 1) A form of bodhicitta susceptible to being lost. 2) The enduring form of bodhicitta, which is impervious to loss and directly leads to enlightenment. Additionally, as proposed by Shantideva, there are two categories of bodhicitta: 1) Bodhicitta characterized as a mere wish or aspiration. 2) Active bodhicitta, which involves the actual practice of the path in alignment with one’s intent.

Realization of Non-Duality 

Enlightenment involves a direct realization of non-duality, which means the transcending of dualistic thinking (e.g., self and other, good and bad). It is a state of profound oneness and interconnectedness with all of existence.

Multiple Paths to Enlightenment

Buddhism acknowledges that there are different paths to enlightenment. These traditions offer various approaches to suit different individuals’ needs and inclinations, making Buddhism a flexible and diverse spiritual path.

Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the Pali Canon and the Eightfold Path. Practitioners aim for personal liberation (nirvana) through meditation, wisdom, and ethical living and attain the status of arhat.

Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the path of the bodhisattva, who postpones their own liberation to save all sentient beings.

In Pure Land Buddhism, devotees chant the name of Amitabha Buddha with faith, aspiring to be reborn in his pure land, where enlightenment is more attainable. Nichiren Buddhism focuses on the Lotus Sutra and the chanting of the mantra “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” to attain enlightenment.

Related Reading

Everything Is Enlightenment

Everything Is Enlightenment

Enlightenment is everywhere we look, says Joan Sutherland — we can choose to notice it, but at the same time, we can also trust that it will find us, wherever we are.

How Mindfulness Leads to Enlightenment

Melvin McLeod on how Buddhism uses mindfulness to develop the wisdom that frees us from suffering.

Ask the Teachers: Is Buddhism About Ethics or Enlightenment?

Bhante Sumano, Jisho Sara Siebert, and Gaylon Ferguson explore the meaning of ethics and enlightenment on the Buddhist path.

Enlightenment Is a Male Fantasy

Gesshin Greenwood offers an alternative to the “male fantasy” of striving for enlightenment. From the Winter 2018 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Buddha statue in a cage.

Just When You Think You’re Enlightened

Temporary spiritual experiences can be helpful signs of progress, says Andrew Holecek, but they can also be traps.

Enso Enlightenment

Forum: What Is Enlightenment?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Ayya Tathaaloka, Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin, and David Matsumoto explore their traditions' different perspectives on awakening.

To Touch Enlightenment with the Body

In the part two of his series, Reginald Ray talks about how the body is not just the pathway to realization but the embodiment of enlightenment itself.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.