What is Buddha’s enlightenment?

what is Buddha's enlightenment

what is Buddha's enlightenmentHappy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! April 15th is another big holy(i)day for Kadampa Buddhists, marking the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrating the attainment of enlightenment in 589 B.C.E. I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to say something short and simple about what Buddha’s enlightenment means to me.

Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha

For sure, on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, we remember the kindness of the historical Buddha, the one everyone has heard of, the one who started his life as Prince Siddhartha and became known as Buddha Shakyamuni. Without his appearing in our world to give teachings, there would be no Buddhism or Buddhist meditation in our lives today. You can read his inspiring life story in Introduction to Buddhism.

Faith in our own potential

As a Buddhist, I have faith or confidence in the Founder of Buddhism, Buddha Shakyamuni — faith in his enlightened nature of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom, in his teachings, in his example. But effective faith in Buddha necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential. He only appeared in this world to teach us Buddhism because he knew we could all be just like him, that we already had within us the seeds of enlightenment. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni is just one of countless Buddhas – those who have perfected their qualities until they cannot be perfected further, out of a compassion that yearns for the capacity to free every single living being from suffering.

The imperative to become enlightened

Buddha's enlightenmentAs I sit here with my dying cat Nelson, (whom I’ve had to join in the yard to write this as he wants to go outside in accordance with his feral upbringing,) there is an imperative to become enlightened for his sake. If every cat is as adorable as he is, which they are, if that is possible, which it is, then samsaric suffering is truly brutal, pervasive and heart-breaking. Nelson is only a year and a half old, but already has a tumor that is taking up half his small body. He hasn’t eaten in days, and each day drinks less, trundles around less, suffers more. Right now he is just lying here under the table, bravely and uncomplainingly accepting his fate, as animals seem to do so much better than us. He is still managing a faint purr when I reach down to stroke him.

What did Nelson do to deserve this? As a person, nothing. He is naturally pure, like all of us. His ignorance, his real enemy, drove him to engage in deluded actions that have led to this. He needs, like all of us, to purify his mind of suffering and all its causes (ignorance, delusions, and karma) so that he never has to take another samsaric rebirth again. How am I going to help him do that if I am just an ordinary person who cannot even speak the language of cats, or read his mind, or follow him from life to life? I love him and I want to protect him. I can perhaps give him some temporary love and protection for the days or weeks he remains with me here, but that is nowhere near enough. I cannot settle for that. I want to give him peace by blessing his mind all the time, and as soon as he is in a human body I want to show him how to end mistaken appearances and suffering once and for all. I want to set the example that Buddha Shakyamuni and many other great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have set for me.Buddha peace

That is a lot for me to accomplish even for one small cat, so what about my other cat, also joining us here at the table for a spell, not in pain but still in a cat’s body? And what about the feral cat colony I discovered last month, one of whose members is the spitting image of Nelson and no doubt a relative, that live a mile down the road? And what about everybody else?!

Sadness won’t do it, although it can be an impetus. I need to attain enlightenment.

My teacher says in Modern Buddhism page 26:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day.

That is what we need. And we need it fast.

That wish alone dissolves away my sadness and helplessness and leaves me blissful and energized. Compassion is bliss, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings. One minute sad for Nelson, the next blissed out, that’s how it works. Nelson is purring in agreement. (I like to think of his purrs as him tuning into Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, enlightened mind, blessings.*) He would tell me, if he could, that he would far rather I be blissful than sad because I’m far better at helping him feel peaceful if I am feeling that way myself. Our mental states are catching. Blessings are contagious.

Is bodhichitta pie in the sky?

Someone commented on this article, How would you save this bear?, about a month ago:

“As much as I know intellectually that bodhichitta is more beneficial, I don’t really feel it in my heart. For me the idea of becoming a Buddha to benefit others seems very abstract, compared to directly helping beings now. Have any of you got any advice on how to increase my faith that developing bodhichitta is the best way to help others?”

I replied:

“For one thing, it is not an either/or, in the sense that if we are not trying to help any individuals now as well, it is hard to say we are working to help everyone!

The way I see it is that we already want to help others and we already want to improve ourselves (largely so we can be of more use to others.) If we increase both those wishes — wanting to help more and more people until we want to help everybody, and wanting to improve ourselves more and more until there is no further room for improvement – we have bodhichitta. So the seed is there, we just have to keep watering it.”

A couple of days later, I had Nelson in his usual spot on my/his meditation cushion, and decided to respond to this comment further:

bodhichitta mind of enlightenment “Hello again, your comment came into my mind this morning when I was meditating with my small cat Nelson purring next to me. He looks to me for protection, love and food, which I try my best to provide him, but I’d like to scoop him out of samsara altogether. To do that — and to help all my current nearest and dearest — I need to generate bodhichitta because I need to become a Buddha with the necessary power. To develop bodhichitta, I need love and compassion for all living beings at least equal to what I have for Nelson. He is an example showing me what I need. So even to help our nearest and dearest, we need bodhichitta, let alone to help everyone else.”

With our thoughts, we create our world

We can choose how we think. We may think our thoughts rule us, but that is only if we are not exerting control over our own mind. We can learn to think big, enlightened thoughts instead of small, selfish ones. We can ignore the inappropriate attention that leads to all our baseless, disturbing delusions, and choose to think realistic things that will liberate and enlighten us. With our thoughts, we create our world, to summarize what Buddha taught us. We are what we think. There is no Nelson outside my experience of Nelson. There is no world outside my experience of the world. So I am in the process of creating a better me, a better world, and a better Nelson, for his and everyone’s sake.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is a good time to remember all this and renew our intention to follow in kind Buddha Shakyamuni’s footsteps by developing compassion and wisdom.

Over to you — your comments are warmly invited below. What does Buddha’s Enlightenment Day mean to you?

Short video

A short video of Nelson tuning into Buddha’s blessings on my/his meditation cushion:

Nelson the cat, Buddha's Enlightenment Day
Nelson’s grave


Update: Nelson died at 5:30am on Saturday April 14th, 2012, in my arms in front of my shrine, after spending the night lying on my chest. So many kind people have been praying for him, including Geshe Kelsang, for which I am very grateful, and I’m sure Nelson is too. May he and all animal beings, human beings, and others quickly be released permanently from suffering and mistaken appearances, and find enlightened bliss.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

29 thoughts on “What is Buddha’s enlightenment?”

  1. Thank you so much! Beautiful & inspiring & heart touching. Thats what Buddha’s Enlightenment Day means to me – a day to recognize our possibilities, to feel grateful, to be inspired…

  2. Luna, my heartfelt condolences on your loss of sweet Nelson. With us all being Bodhisattvas in this samsara realm, we do struggle to alleviate the suffering of even those closest and dearest to us. I truly believe the loved pets do teach us unconditional love, and if I can send a million chants of Amitoufo for Nelson and all other sentient beings, I do so with all of my un-bodhicitta-ed Being. We do our best and our pets are happy while they have our love. Virtual hugs to you, dear Luna. Keep at it. Tara

  3. I loved your post. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this and your story with sweet Nelson.

  4. Enlightenment in Buddhism, is the ultimate spiritual realization or awakening. Enlightenment or spiritual awakening of the highest order is the goal of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that everyone has the potential for enlightenment and that the Eight-Fold Path can empower Buddhists to eliminate suffering and experience enlightenment.

    1. Very true. Thank you very much for leaving a comment, Lama Surya Das, I have so much enjoyed reading your books and appreciate you for all you do to flourish Buddhism in the West.

  5. Your article brought me tears of joy. Compassion = bliss will be my focus of the day. This left me inspired, and with a “yea I can do this” feeling. I wish to become enlightened for the benefit of all living beings xoxo

    1. Ryan, you have way more love for your kids than I do for my cats!!!! I greatly admire human parents, their love is relentless, 24/7, and faces many more challenges over a period of many more years.

  6. Prayers going out to Nelson. I’m sure he’s in a Buddha’s pure land already. Most fortunate.
    “Our mental states are catching. Blessings are contagious.” Love this bit 🙂

  7. I promise that if I gain enlightenment before Nelson I will always be there to help him move towards enlightenment. I promise that if I gain enlightenment before any of you, I will always be here to help each of you move towards enlightenment.

  8. Touched so much by this article and your faith!! Today we have to be most grateful for buddhist teachings and express our gratitude by offering our practice, love, compassion for the sake of all living beings. Thank you for reminding us how precious this human life is. My gratitude always.


  9. What does Buddha’s enlightenment mean to me? Well, April 15th (four years ago) was the day that I began a new life, a life of sobriety and spirituality. I had been a Buddhist in name for many years, but did not actually begin a regular practice until I stopped polluting my mind with excessive amounts of alcohol. Now that I have learned to live a sober life, I seek the enlightenment that Buddha found, in order that I may help others escape their suffering. I am still just a beginner on the path, and realize that I know very little. But I have been blessed to be called to teach meditation to other people who are recovering from substance abuse problems. Many of these people have never known the peace of having a quiet mind. Thanks to the enlightenment Buddha attained, and to his turning the wheel of Dharma, I am now blessed with a way to help others in a way I never could have otherwise.
    19 hours ago · Like

    1. Happy birthday, Tracey. I achieved my first day on sobriety March 9th 2008 and walked into a Kadampa class a few weeks later, never to look back. Love alwaz, Mike.

  10. what a good lesson i have learned this morning ! what happen to Nelson is very sad but i endurstand that the best way to help him and other living being is compassion , love and practice meditation everyday, thanks for sherring the story of Nelson with us, i ll keep him in my pray xx

  11. I spent so many years not being clear about compassion and bodhichitta. Mainly because of a lack of faith in my own potential, part of me just didn’t go very deep into the understanding of these minds. I would hear teachings about compassion and bodhichitta and all I could hear in my head was “okay but what do I DO?” It’s coming clearer and clearer that when we develop these minds due to contemplating or seeing suffering, or even just having flashes or assimilations of these minds, we already are doing something, many things. We are creating the causes for a connection with that person, to be able to liberate them, we are bringing the most meaningful mind possible. Just like you are saying, being blissful, that is doing A LOT!

    We go down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other, but I kept trying to drag the mountain of self with me up the mountain of other, making it about me even while thinking I was helping.

    Thanks to Buddha I can learn to develop a mind which is a source of peace and happiness for all beings, that is what I will celebrate this weekend!

    Thanks for the inspiration!!

    1. Great comment, thank you Donna!!! As Geshe-la says, mental actions are more powerful than verbal and physical actions. Love your mountain example too!

  12. Brilliant! Really like these articles that are drawing out the meaning of these special holy-days. I remember in the past that for me all I thought of them was: we have 3 Lama chopas this month, rather than the usual 2. Thanks again for your kindness.

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