Was The Buddha Enlightened? (Part 1)

Asking whether the Buddha was enlightened may seem like asking whether the Pope is Catholic. The answer would seem to be an obvious “yes.” At the core of Buddhism is the figure of the Buddha. The word “buddha” means “one who is awake” or “enlightened.” If the Buddha had not been enlightened, he wouldn’t have been the Buddha, would he? But things are not so simple. The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism is complex. If Buddhist enlightenment should turn out to be something that is implausible to attribute to anyone, then it might make perfect sense, after all, to suggest that the Buddha was not, in fact, enlightened.

The goal of Buddhist practice is not to engage in worship of the person of the Buddha, but to emulate his efforts and become enlightened, oneself. But if there are insufficient reasons to think that the Buddha was really enlightened, it seems there are correspondingly insufficient reasons to embrace Buddhism.

Did the Buddha even exist?

One way for the Buddha to have failed to be enlightened would, of course, be for him to turn out never to have existed at all. This isn’t a position I plan to devote much attention to, however. I don’t think there is enough evidence available to make a compelling case that the Buddha did not exist at all, though I do think it is reasonable to believe that many things attributed to him are myths, or at the very least worthy of skepticism. If enough of the details of the Buddha’s life should turn out to be false, it won’t really matter whether they are piggybacked onto an historical person or a fictional one (this is the same view I have of the debate over whether or not Jesus existed).

What is enlightenment?

The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism has an interesting flavor of historical paradox. By the time of the Buddha, there were already many individuals in Indian society who would take up the task of gaining higher knowledge through ascetic and meditative practices. Before gaining enlightenment, the Buddha apparently already believed that it could be gained through meditation. But if no one else had gained enlightenment through meditation before the Buddha, then why would he have thought that meditation was the right way to gain it? Of course, non-Buddhist traditions would not have accepted the claim that no one else had ever achieved enlightenment before the Buddha. In the Jain tradition, from which Buddhism appears to borrow much, the claim was that many people, most recently Mahavira, had successfully gained enlightenment. Buddhism must claim that all others who made claims to enlightenment had the right method, at least in outline, but that their enlightenment was not genuine.

Enlightenment has two sides to it: one epistemological, the other metaphysical. Both sides constitute a solution to a problem, and that problem is found in the Indian belief that when you die, you will be ceaselessly reborn in accordance with the character of your previous lives. This is the doctrine of karmic rebirth. The dominant theme of the majority of Indian philosophical/religious traditions at the time of Buddhism’s origin was that karmic rebirth is a condition to be escaped, and the consensus was that genuine knowledge (enlightenment) is constitutive of liberation. To be enlightened is both to gain knowledge of the true character of reality, and thereby to be liberated from the cycle of karmic rebirth. Buddhism fully accepts this unity of epistemological and metaphysical transformation.

Is knowledge constitutive of liberation?

The Buddhist account of enlightenment as both epistemic and metaphysical is problematic in itself. The basic structure of the Buddhist solution is that karmic rebirth is a function of ignorance, and so the elimination of ignorance by epistemic enlightenment thereby brings karmic rebirth to an end. Similar viewpoints can be found in the other Indian philosophical traditions such as Yoga and Jainism. But why should this be the case? How could knowing anything bring an end to karmic rebirth? The Buddhist answer lies in the nature of the ignorance. The cognitive core of the Buddha’s enlightenment, what he became enlightened to, is summed up in the principle of dependent origination. Nothing exists inherently or in its own right, but rather exists in thoroughgoing dependence on conditions. In particular, what we ordinarily think of as the self is a dependently originated phenomenon. The primary condition upon which what we think of as the self depends is selfish attachment. Roughly, the self is kept going both within and across lifetimes by the false belief that there is a self to keep going both within and across lifetimes. Once the (false) self stops believing in a (real) self, it stops selfishly perpetuating itself, and karmic rebirth ends.

The situation is analogous to that of Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons, where Wile runs off a cliff and keeps going only so long as he maintains the false belief that he is supported. But as soon as he becomes enlightened to the fact that he is unsupported, he falls.


Strictly speaking, though, it can’t just be the knowledge that the self is false that ends karmic rebirth. Rather, it is the consequent relinquishing of selfish attachment. Realizing that the self is false is supposed to remove all incentive for selfish attachments. After all, what is the point of selfish attachments if there is no one to enjoy the fruits of such attachments? Why try to accumulate wealth for myself, for example, if there isn’t really anyone to enjoy it?

But there are many cases where merely knowing that something is the case fails to produce the logically corresponding changes in behavior. Many people smoke, for instance, in spite of the fact that they know perfectly well that smoking is causally implicated in heart disease, cancer, and other undesirable conditions.

Enlightenment must therefore be more than the acquisition of certainty regarding the belief that there is no self. It must also involve a radical change in attitude, behavior, and motivation. But why is that important? Because the Buddhist view of karma is that the wrong kinds of attitudes, motives, and behaviors generate karma, and karma is what propels the false self from one lifetime to another.

No rebirth, no enlightenment

Since enlightenment is constitutive of liberation from karmic rebirth, it is possible to make the following argument:

1. If the Buddha was enlightened, then he was liberated from karmic rebirth.

2. If anyone is liberated from karmic rebirth, then karmic rebirth is real.

3. Karmic rebirth is not real.

4. Therefore, the Buddha was not enlightened.

The crucial premise here, of course, is #3. It is too big a task for present purposes to review all the evidence for karmic rebirth. The best bet to date for a positive case probably rests with Ian Stevenson. Stevenson claimed to have found evidence that some children have verifiable memories of previous lives. Although it is always possible that further research may end up vindicating Stevenson’s work, there are some potentially serious methodological worries that call its value into question.

But apart from worries over the quality of the evidence for rebirth, there is a very significant hurdle that confronts Buddhism, in particular, with respect to the problem of karmic rebirth. There is abundant evidence that memories are encoded in the brain. If memories carry over from one lifetime to another, then how does this happen? Buddhists cannot appeal to an immaterial soul or spirit, or non-physical self that carries the memories to a new rebirth, because Buddhism specifically denies that there is any such thing. To be sure, Buddhists do attempt to reconcile the denial of self with the affirmation of karmic rebirth, but they are short on details as to how, exactly, this happens. There is no clear account of the causal details involved. If person A dies and is reborn as person B, it doesn’t really matter whether or not what is conferred from A to B is permanent or ultimately real. What really matters is how anything gets from A to B in the first place, especially given that A and B may be separated from one another in space or in time. Of course, if it turns out that there is good reason to think that karmic rebirth really does happen, the question of how it happens becomes secondary (and this is largely what Buddhists insist on – it is more important to escape karmic rebirth than it is to figure out how it works). In the context within which Buddhism developed, acceptance of karmic rebirth was so widespread that there was no real need for Buddhists to defend extensively a belief in its reality. Their starting point was, effectively, “Given that we all know karmic rebirth is real, and that escaping it is the supreme goal of religious practice, here’s the solution the Buddha has found…” Early Buddhism simply takes the reality of karmic rebirth as not standing in need of positive evidence. But in the absence of both compelling evidence for its reality and in the absence of an account of the means by which it is alleged to occur, we have good reason to accept premise 3 of the above argument.

In a future post I will look more closely at the Buddhist account of the nature of karma.