In his conversation with Matthew Abrahams, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi argues for “Enlightenment” over “Awakening” as our best English-language translation of bodhi, the Pali word for the Buddha’s transcendence (“In Defense of ‘Enlightenment,’” Summer 2021). With due respect to the eponymous Ven. Bodhi, I find “Enlightenment” to be the less enlightened of the two English terms.

I mean “less enlightened” here in its secular sense: less informed by the liberal values of the historical Enlightenment, the seventeenth-to-nineteenth century European intellectual and social movement. These values include reason, critical thinking and discussion, human equality, individual freedom, naturalism, tolerance, democratic institutions, science, and literacy. Ven. Bodhi devotes significant attention in his conversation with Abrahams to associations between the Buddha and historical-Enlightenment values. He notes in particular the Buddha’s enlightened (in this secular sense) process of inquiry, his use of Socratic dialogue in teaching, and his encouragement of careful reasoning. We might also note the Buddha’s many cautions against blind faith, reflexive adherence to tradition, and unquestioning trust in authority. 

We might furthermore speculate that early translators of Pali intentionally chose “Enlightenment” over “Awakening” in part to associate bodhi (and the Buddha)—approvingly—with such values, which freed Europe from religious authoritarianism, launched the Scientific Revolution, and enabled modern democratic societies. But I suspect early European translators—most prominently Max Müller—intended otherwise. They aimed not to associate the Buddha’s transcendence with the historical Enlightenment, but to appropriate its metaphor of illumination (Descartes’ light of reason) in the service of its great counter-movement, Romanticism. The reactionary German Romantic movement opposed the historical Enlightenment. Romantic values, including intuitionism, supernaturalism, revelation, and subservience to a collective or national spirit (often embodied in a representative hero), align closely with the religious authoritarianism that the historical Enlightenment supplanted. 

The Pali Canon presents us with both enlightened and romantic images of the Buddha. Alongside the reason- and inquiry-encouraging Buddha whom Ven. Bodhi mentions, the Canon also presents romantic images of bodhi issuing in cosmic effulgences and emanations, miraculous revelations, and supernatural omniscience that justifies submissive faith. It is to these romantic canonical images, rather than the enlightened ones, that Ven. Bodhi turns in his defense of the traditional English translation of bodhi as “Enlightenment.” For Venerable Bodhi, the Buddha’s transcendence is a revelation of esoteric light, rather than a realization to which the Buddha awakens. “Beyond the range of intellect and reason,” it is an attainment less to  aspire to or emulate than to worship. 

For early, Orientalist, mystically-inclined translators like Müller—and for succeeding traditionalist monastic translators including Ven. Bodhi—the choice of “Enlightenment” performs a two-fold function. It emphasizes romantic and religious-authoritarian understandings of the Buddha’s transcendence over enlightened ones. And it undermines the association of “Enlightenment” as a metaphor of illumination with liberal values. Indeed, after approving of enlightened aspects of the Buddha’s “method,” Ven. Bodhi dismisses outright the association of “Enlightenment” with “Locke, Kant, and Voltaire” when the discussion turns to transcendence. In this context, the historical sense of “Enlightenment” becomes an unrelated and irrelevant second meaning of the word for the Venerable.

Moreover, although Ven. Bodhi objects to “Awakening” as an inaccurate literal translation of bodhi, he defends “Enlightenment” primarily on figurative grounds. “Enlightenment” is a free translation—certainly freer than “Awakening,” which is a common figure of speech in English for coming to “know” or “realize” (literal translations of bodhi which the Venerable endorses). But I have no objection to free translation, an interpretive style which aims to convey in a target language (in this case, English) the meanings of terms as their speakers understood them, rather than their literal meanings.  

With its contrasting enlightened and romantic images of the Buddha, the Pali canon requires interpretive choices in the course of translation. The interpretations governing our translation choices are unavoidably based on the values we see at the heart of the dharma. We can choose to defer to tradition, relying on the authority of a sacred text or semi-sacred commentary. We can even reason, circularly, that such fundamentalism is not a choice but a requirement of text-based faith (even if our text presents mutually exclusive, incommensurable images). This is the choice of religious authoritarianism, and it is anti-rational. 

Or we can rely on our own capacities of discernment as we weigh our thoughts and intuitions against our values and experience. This is the basic lesson of the historical Enlightenment, and it is the sandiṭṭhiko, ehipassiko, paccattaṃ veditabbo (“visible in this life,” “come see for oneself,” “to be understood for oneself”) aspect of the dharma that draws so many of us to the teachings of the Buddha. 

The Buddha’s own relentless pursuit of truth as a bodhisattva—an uncompromising process of experimentation, observation, and inference that led to his transcendent discoveries—supports the latter approach—both to the dharma and to translating bodhi. So too do canonical texts such as the “Simile of the Snake” discourse and many others. By this approach, “Awakening,” with its connotations of coming from unknowing or delusion to a more lucid, self-aware understanding, represents bodhi better than mystifying, confounding “Enlightenment.” The enlightened choice is ours to make.

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