In recent years, a subtle shift has occurred. The once nearly ubiquitous English word for the Buddha’s realization under the Bodhi tree, “enlightenment,” has fallen out of favor and has increasingly been going by a different name, “awakening.” Perhaps you have noticed this change as well and thought, So what? Trends change, like all conditioned things. Besides, isn’t the dharma beyond words—wouldn’t it, by any other name, smell as sweet?

But according to the scholar, translator, and monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, it’s not that simple.

The rise of “awakening” was not simply an emergent phenomenon but a deliberate decision by prominent scholars and translators whose word choices have since reverberated throughout the wider culture of Buddhist practitioners, as Bhikkhu Bodhi explains in his recent paper “On Translating ‘Buddha’” (published in November 2020 in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies). He notes that scholars such as the former president of the Pali Text Society, K. R. Norman, and its current president, Rupert Gethin, as well as prominent Western dharma teachers have adopted “awakening” as a translation of the Pali word bodhi, some contending that this is a more accurate rendering. In contrast, Bhikkhu Bodhi argues that the case for “awakening” is actually inaccurate and misleading and that its widespread use has concealed from the average English speaker a crucial aspect of the Buddha’s supreme attainment.

Tricycle spoke to Bhikkhu Bodhi about his paper and how our choice regarding this one word can change how we think about the Buddha’s teachings.

Why is it important which word we use to translate the Buddha’s awakening? Well, you said his “awakening.”

Oh, sorry. His enlightenment. You see how it’s become an ingrained habit of the mind. When I began to translate Buddhist texts during my early years in Sri Lanka, I took as my models the earlier generation of Western translators of Buddhist texts into English, including the British monk Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, the German monks Nyanatiloka and Nyanaponika, the English-educated Sri Lankan monk Walpola Rahula, and others like Piyadassi and Nārada. They all used “enlightenment” for bodhi or sambodhi, and “the enlightened one” to refer to the Buddha. In my own translation work I have adhered to these renderings.

In recent years, I noticed that more and more Western translators were using “awakening” and “awakened one.” I was quite tolerant of translators making their personal choices between the two alternatives, but recently some of my scholar friends challenged my use of “enlightenment” and “enlightened one,” telling me this was incorrect. They maintained that the verbal root budh means “to awaken,” and therefore that I should render bodhi or sambodhi as “awakening” and buddha as “the awakened one.” So I wrote that paper because I decided I had to come to the defense of “enlightenment.”

In your paper you argue that “waking up” is only one meaning of the root budh and in fact is a secondary or derivative meaning. The verb, you say, primarily signifies “to know.” Do I have that right? Yes, that is correct. The classical Pali text on grammar, Saddanīti, assigns to this root the meanings of “knowing (or understanding),” “blossoming,” and “waking up,” in that order of importance. The Pali-Sanskrit noun buddhi, which designates the intellect or faculty of cognition, is derived from budh, yet entails no sense of “awakening.” Further, when we look at the ordinary use of verbs based on budh in the Pali suttas, we can see that these verbs mean “to know, to understand, to recognize.” My paper cites several passages where rendering the verb as “awakens” would stretch the English word beyond its ordinary limits. In those contexts, “knows,” “understands,” “recognizes,” or “realizes” would fit much better. The verbs derived from budh that do mean “awaken” are generally preceded by a prefix, but they are not used to refer to the Buddha’s attainment of bodhi.

So, you argue, the more important question to ask is whether that type of knowing is better captured by the English word “awakening” and the metaphor of waking up or “enlightenment” and the metaphor of shedding light. And you conclude that “enlightenment” is preferable. Why is that? I rest my case largely on the use of imagery in the texts. The root budh itself has no reference to light, but the imagery used to illustrate the Buddha’s attainment usually involves light, radiance, or luminosity. The texts speak of his attainment of sambodhi as the arising of light. They refer to the Buddha as a “maker of light” and “one who dispels darkness.” That kind of imagery is quite in keeping with the use of “enlightenment” as a rendering of bodhi. On the other hand, we find absolutely no similes, metaphors, or imagery in the canonical texts that illustrate the Buddha’s attainment of complete sambodhi as a waking up from sleep or the Buddha as one who has woken up from the sleep of ignorance or who wakes other people up from sleep.

As you know, the suttas abound in similes, so if “awakening” were intended by bodhi, we would expect to find texts where the Buddha says: “Just as a man might awaken from a deep sleep, so I have awakened from ignorance and attained supreme bodhi.” But we find nothing like that. Rather, we find: “Ignorance was dispelled, and knowledge arose, just as darkness is dispelled when light arises.” And again: “In regard to these four noble truths, there arose in me vision, knowledge, and light.” The Buddha, as teacher, is compared to the sun rising in the sky and lighting up the world, and to a man who brings a bright lamp into a dark room so those in the room can see forms. Thus there is no canonical basis for preferring “awakening” to “enlightenment,” and much against this choice.

“‘Awakening’ fails to convey the depth, thoroughness, and transformative impact of sambodhi, the attainment that makes a person a buddha.”

I’ve noticed a recent trend toward the language of glimpsing: the practitioner has moments of enlightenment and tries to keep that perspective in the time between such moments. Another trend has been a move away from religious imagery, such as casting divine light, toward more psychological analogies, like lucid dreaming. Do you think people tend to favor the term “awakening” over “enlightenment” right now because it sounds more accessible? We might be able to relate more easily to “awakening” than to “enlightenment” because every day we literally wake up from sleep, while “enlightenment” suggests something exalted and remote. And I confess that in introductory talks on Buddhism I sometimes use “the awakened one” for the Buddha, precisely because it is more accessible. But one of the reservations I have about “awakening” is that to my mind it fails to convey the depth, thoroughness, and transformative impact of sambodhi, the attainment that makes a person a buddha or an arhat. The word “awakening” suggests an instantaneous change in one’s level of consciousness. But in the texts the Buddha describes his attainment as a multifaceted, comprehensive understanding, an act of penetrating the nature of reality—the nature of experience—from multiple angles. It involved understanding the four noble truths from twelve angles, the five aggregates from twenty angles, the links of dependent origination from countless angles. In my view, the word “enlightenment” better conveys this vast, profound, stable, and comprehensive level of understanding.

I would say that “awakening” better describes instantaneous insights into the nature of existence, for example, into impermanence or selflessness, than the consummate achievement of buddhahood. One might also use “awakening” to represent the first of the four stages of realization, which is usually translated as “stream-entry”—that is, the first decisive breakthrough, where, just momentarily, one dispels the darkness of ignorance, sees into the truth of the dhamma, and enters the irreversible path to liberation. So even though the texts don’t use a Pali word that corresponds to “waking up from sleep” for “stream-entry,” I would say that this attainment might be described as an awakening.

However, what my paper deals with is the appropriate word to use for the Buddha’s attainment, and for arhatship, the fourth and final stage of realization. Within the canonical texts, that’s where we find the word bodhi or sambodhi [“complete” or “perfect” enlightenment].

Why shouldn’t practitioners think of this enlightenment as easily accessible? Well, the attainment of sambodhi is not at all easily accessible. It takes dedicated practice over many lifetimes to attain that final state, even to attain the liberation of an arhat, much less the all-embracing knowledge of a buddha.The Buddha’s sambodhi is indeed an exalted attainment. It marks the mind’s final liberation from all the fetters that have held it in bondage through beginningless time. It culminates in the knowledge that fully comprehends the nature of all phenomena.

Stressing the exalted nature of those attainments prevents us from overrating our experience and thinking that because I’ve achieved an initial breakthrough or insight, I’ve achieved sambodhi. The translation “enlightenment,” in my view, underscores the elevated nature of this final goal far better than “awakening.”

“If translators want to use ‘awakening’ and ‘awakened one,’ they’re certainly entitled to do so. But this supreme knowledge, this unsurpassed perfect sambodhi, I maintain, is better represented by the English word enlightenment than by awakening.”

It’s interesting how this small difference raises so many questions, and I think it plays into a lot of our tendencies and cultural biases—for instance, that the word enlightenment is so heavily associated with the European Enlightenment. That’s been one of the arguments used against applying “enlightenment” to signify the Buddha’s attainment. But I don’t find that argument compelling. The mind can grasp multiple meanings of a word without confusing them. I doubt that many readers of Buddhist texts today, who come across the word enlightenment to describe the Buddha’s attainment will think of Voltaire, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. During the period when my interest in Buddhism first arose, I was doing a PhD with a specialization in the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and I never conflated the two meanings of the word.

I think there is also a sense that the Enlightenment thinkers were anti-religious. But most of them were deeply religious. They disagreed with the church’s dogma but did not argue against the existence of God. The view of scientific positivism—that reason doesn’t bring you closer to God but rather supplants God—was an idea that came about in the 20th century and was quickly challenged by postmodernist thinkers. Meanwhile, in the popular culture, we see the New Age movement and a psychological turn, which regard spirituality as belonging to the domain of intuition because it’s concerned with the things that reason can’t explain. But the Buddha’s understanding and reason, as you describe it in your paper, does not seem to be at odds with the type of knowledge celebrated during the European Enlightenment. Certainly, the Buddha’s attainment of sambodhi goes beyond the capacity of reason. He described it as atakkāvacara, “beyond the range of reasoning.” But the Buddha’s method of teaching, as you can see from the canonical texts, is quite in line with the methods of argument used by the Enlightenment thinkers. He appeals to reason; he sets up logical alternatives and asks the person he’s addressing to choose between them. Often, when he’s in a discussion with an antagonist, he will box that antagonist into a corner where the antagonist faces an internal contradiction. The Buddha will analyze problems and principles into a multiplicity of aspects. So in certain respects his methodology is very similar to that of the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

The Buddha, of course, recognizes a dimension of reality that transcends the range of reason and intellect, and that has to be arrived at by a world-transcending inner realization rather than by intellectual understanding. The thinkers of the Enlightenment were opposed not to religion unilaterally, but rather to the idea that the church had the authority to define what is truth and what is falsehood. Perhaps some thinkers were opposed to religion in its entirety, but others, like Locke, Leibniz, and Kant, certainly had affirmative attitudes toward religion.

Toward the end of your paper, you write that when the Buddha claimed to have attained sambodhi, his disciples heard him saying not that he had “woken up” but that he had “attained supreme liberating knowledge.” Why is it important to make this distinction? In my conclusion, I’m trying to determine what the Buddha’s disciples would have heard him saying. I raised the question: Did they hear him say, in effect, “I am an awakened one, one who has attained awakening”? If we correctly understand the use of the word bodhi and the verbs connected with it, I think there’s no evidence that that was what they heard him say.

The objective of the spiritual quest in the Indian ascetic circles of the time was to attain the supreme knowledge that brings liberation from the cycle of repeated birth and death. So when the Buddha said that he had attained sambodhi, that he was a buddha, his first disciples heard him claim that he had attained supreme knowledge, the knowledge that brings the attainment of nirvana—the goal they were all striving for. So it wasn’t that they were asleep, living in a dream world, and now he’s woken up. Rather, they were living in the darkness of ignorance, and now he had attained the supreme knowledge that has dispelled the darkness of ignorance.

If translators want to use “awakening” and “awakened one,” they’re certainly entitled to do so. But what I maintain is that it would be a mistake to assume that the Buddha intended the words bodhi and buddha to convey those meanings. Rather, I argue, he intended to say: “I am one who has known the liberating truth. I have arrived at supreme knowledge.” And this supreme knowledge, this unsurpassed perfect sambodhi, I maintain, is better represented by the English word enlightenment than by awakening.

Read Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper “On Translating ‘Buddha’” at no cost online.

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