How did the Buddha get enlightened? And what does that mean, anyway?

buddhist shrine under a bodhi tree

According to scripture, Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment through three phases or “watches” of the night while sitting underneath a ficus tree like the one seen here in Kandy, Sri Lanka. | robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

After the Buddha became a spiritual seeker, he spent six years practicing with different teachers and subjecting himself to extreme austerities until he came to the realization that what he was doing wasn’t going to get him where he wanted to go. Lasting freedom from suffering still eluded him.

According to the early Buddhist scriptures, it was then that the Buddha-to-be remembered an experience he had had as a boy, when he had spontaneously entered into a deep and joyful meditative state. It occurred to him that the same kind of meditative state might help him gain the insight he was looking for.

So at the age of 35 he vowed to sit in meditation, without getting up, until he had discovered ultimate freedom. There he remained, in the shade of a large ficus tree, for seven weeks, in a northeastern Indian town known as Bodhgaya.

On the 49th day, according to legend, the Buddha entered into a state of concentration so deep and clear he began to see the nature of his mind and that of the universe. During three phases or “watches” of the night, he apprehended how suffering and unhappiness are caused by our actions, and by our clinging to an illusory sense of self. And he understood how to let go of all that.

When the morning star rose in the sky, the man who had been Siddhartha Gotama, the prince of the Shakya tribe, was now the Buddha—the Awakened One.

The Buddha would spend the next 45 years of his life sharing the path of practice that leads to awakening so that others could work to attain the same state of enlightenment—freedom from suffering and from the cycle of birth and death—that he had achieved.

Temple

Tricycle is more than a magazine

Gain access to the best in sprititual film, our growing collection of e-books, and monthly talks, plus our 25-year archive

Subscribe now