July 05, 2010

Waking Up

Buddhism is founded and has its raison d’etre in terms of this experience that the Buddha, or at that time he was simply Siddhartha Gotama had beneath the bodhi tree in what is now called Bodhgaya.  This experience is often referred to as enlightenment but strictly speaking I think it’s more useful to and more correct to think of it as awakening.  Now what is the difference?  Both terms, Enlightenment and Awakening, are metaphoric.  Enlightenment is based on the metaphor of light and awakening on the metaphor of waking up.  The word in Pali and in Sanskrit is Bodhi.  Bodhi has it’s roots in the idea of waking up, it doesn’t suggest at all the idea of illumination, or enlightening, or light.  The Buddha does in other contexts use that metaphor—he says that what he’s experienced has shed light on things but the key term is about waking up.  Now what this means is that what happened to the Buddha beneath this tree is comparable, or is similar to, the experience that each of us has every morning when the alarm goes off, or waking up.  What actually occurs when we wake up?  Why did the Buddha use that metaphor?

- Stephen Batchelor, from the first talk of his Tricycle Online Retreat

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Mark's picture

"Enlightened" is a term the European Romantics started using about the Buddha back in the 19th Century, and of course it is weighted with our Western historical notion of Enlightenment. The word makes bodhi seem like something big and mysterious that comes upon you from outside, and many Westerners hence attach themselves to notions of an "enlightenment experience" (which many teachers seem willing to present as a goal). On the other hand, "awakening" suggests something natural, something everyone can do, good to be sure but in the end no big deal. Something, in short, available to everyone here and now, not after lifetimes of arduous effort.