concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


The claims made about enlightened beings and their achievements in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions are clearly metaphysical claims that lie beyond possible experience in our current state of life. The claim that we can verify these claims through our own experience is based on such remote possibilities as to be, in practice, no more justifiable than belief in the full revelation of God at the end of history in the monotheistic religions. I have argued that if Buddhists want to take the Middle Way seriously, then they need to decisively reject the revelatory appeals to the enlightened state of the Buddha which exist in their tradition: for more on this argument see The Trouble with Buddhism. I have also argued there, contrary to most Buddhists with whom I have discussed this, that the possibility of moral or spiritual progress does not depend in the the least on believing that there have been enlightened beings in the past.

Nevertheless, the abuse of the concept of enlightenment as the basis of an epistemological appeal in religious tradition does not make it a meaningless concept. The concept of enlightenment as the most objective state that human beings can reach, individually or collectively, can also be a useful one, so long as that concept does not become confused with the metaphysical concepts of perfection, reality, or ultimate non-duality. Buddhists who can look back at stories of the Buddha and interpret them without this metaphysical baggage (though losing it is much more difficult than many Buddhists seem to think) may still be able to find inspiration in them without slipping into dualism. Enlightened beings without metaphysical baggage can be seen as inspiring because of their wisdom, compassion, energy and other qualities, that can become the basis of positive imaginative identification. We can only try to make progress if we find progress meaningful, and an appreciation of the concept of enlightened beings may be one way (far from the only way), of creating the meaningful possibility of positive change where otherwise there may only have been indifference or despair.

Enlightened beings, were they ever to exist, would be people, not ciphers of perfection. They would be people who have achieved the furthest degree of integration available to them as individuals - that is, people whose ego is identical with the whole of their psyche, or as near to that as humans can actually achieve. This means that their response to the world would be the best adapted one possible, in which conditions were addressed as fully as possible, without unnecessary defensiveness. The energies available to them as an organism would be channelled with complete efficiency and guided by maximal awareness. Such a being would create positive, non-violent relationships wherever possible because this is the best way to address conditions, but also be able to think critically beyond the assumptions dominating a particular social context, and thus perhaps be deeply challenging to the people around. Stories of the Buddha and of other great religious figures can often provide a good idea of what such a state would be like in practice, interpreted though they often are in the misleading terminology of purity, perfection or godliness.

An enlightened person, however, could be completely different from the Buddha as he is depicted. An enlightened person could be ugly or beautiful, ill or healthy, disabled or able-bodied, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, higher class or lower class, uneducated or highly intellectualised, married or single. His or her theoretical enlightened status is purely based on what he or she does with the resources they begin with as an individual, not on their achievements or their appeal to others.

Enlightenment also does not have to be conceptualised in individual terms, but can also be conceptualised in social terms. An enlightened society would be an integrated society, made up of integrated people working harmoniously together to address conditions. An integrated society, like an integrated individual, would have the wisdom to realise that its current identifications are not the whole of its identity, and that its collective ego can be stretched to take in more and more identifications. Wisdom and compassion would be part of the structure of such a society, and its political and social systems would be those that, in practice, proved themselves best adapted to addressing conditions.

These concepts, however, remain merely notional, as well as ill-defined. We need to be very wary of any attempt to use them for perfectionistic purposes or to create epistemological short cuts: they do not tell us what to believe, or justify any type of action with 'enlightenment' as its end, but have a merely inspirational function. They deserve considerable caution - more than they have generally received in the Buddhist or other religious traditions. In many ways they also deserve little emphasis, because they are simply a conceptual extrapolation from experience, in no way essential to the development of objectivity within experience. They are one conceptual by-way in a theory of moral objectivity, in no way a starting point or even important enough to be what Kant called a 'regulative idea'. If necessary we should be able to let go of the concept of enlightenment with a clear conscience, because a degree of integration is good enough for anybody.

Links to further discussion

Enlightenment from thesis (scroll down to f.iii at the end of this page)

Buddha (concept page)

The Trouble with Buddhism

The Middle Way and faith


Return to concepts page