The Buddha said:
“Origination, origination”—thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light (SN 12.65 Bodhi).
Before we return to this text, let us understand the issues first.
Bhikkhu Bodhi vs Bhikkhu Analayo
I first heard about this controversy between Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Analayo from Doug Smith on his YouTube channel. Let me explain it by quoting both of them.
Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:
Translators of Buddhist texts into English have rendered bodhi and its cognates, particularly buddha, in two different ways, each based on an implicit metaphor. Bodhi has been translated as “enlightenment” and “awakening,” buddha as “enlightened one” and “awakened one.” While the former alternative in each pair prevailed among earlier translators, in recent years a swing has taken place to “awakening” and “awakened one.”
In his paper, Bhikkhu Bodhi argues in defense of “enlightenment.” Bhikkhu Analayo disagrees and argues for “the preferability of understanding bodhi to refer indeed to a form of ‘awakening.’” Most modern translators prefer awakening and refer to the Buddha as “the Awakened One.”
Now, these are two of the foremost experts in early Buddhism. It would seem a bit imprudent for me to put my two cents in. But I do think I have something to add.
I should clarify, that I am not going to engage the arguments of these two giants. Rather I am going to offer my own perspective. I am going to suggest that they both are right, at least partly. Then I will end with Bhikkhu Thanissaro, another giant in early Buddhism.
Defining Awakening and Enlightenment
The Oxford English Dictionary defines awakening as “1. an act of waking from sleep. 2. an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of something.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines enlightenment is defined as “the action of enlightening or the state of being enlightened.” It says enlighten means to “give (someone) spiritual knowledge or insight.”
Notice the difference. Awakening has to do with “becoming suddenly aware.” It is gaining vision. Although the idea usually associated with awakening is “an act of waking from sleep,” that is not Buddhist awakening. Buddhist awakening is “an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of” the nature of reality.
Notice enlightenment deals with light, which is a metaphor for knowledge. The European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries was called the Enlightenment because it brought lost knowledge to Europe, the knowledge of the Greek and Roman civilization.
The Buddha was the Awakened One
I think that Bhikkhu Analayo is correct, Buddha means “Awakened One.” The Buddha was not given light or knowledge from someone else. He was enlightened because he was first awakened. That is, he suddenly became aware of the nature of reality, and by seeing reality as it is, he gained “spiritual knowledge or insight.”
Notice that vision comes before knowledge, “thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light” (SN 12.65 Bodhi). Awakening is about gaining new eyes, enlightenment is about knowledge.
Aharants are awakened because they are enlightened. They are taught the Dharma (i.e. light), and thereby are awakened. They are not a buddha because they were not awakened on their own but were enlightened by the Buddha’s Dharma. Only self-awakened individuals can be called buddhas (i.e., paccekabuddha).
This means that Bhikkhu Bodhi is not wrong in saying the Buddha was enlightened; he was. But the significance of the word buddha is in his self-awakening “in regard to things unheard before” (SN 12.65 Bodhi).
Buddha and Dhira
And finally, I think that Bhikkhu Thanissaro clinches my argument by showing that buddha should be translated as “awakened” and the Pali word dhira should be translated as “enlightened.”
In the Glossary to his sutta translations, Handful of Leaves, he writes:
Enlightened one: Throughout these volumes I have rendered buddha as “Awakened,” and dhira as “enlightened.” As Jan Gonda points out in his book, The Vision of the Vedic Poets, the word dhira was used in Vedic and Buddhist poetry to mean a person who has the heightened powers of mental vision needed to perceive the “light” of the underlying principles of the cosmos, together with the expertise to implement those principles in the affairs of life and to reveal them to others. A person enlightened in this sense may also be awakened in the formal Buddhist sense, but is not necessarily so (396-397).
We can conclude that the word Buddha means “the Awakened One.” He had the vision of reality first, and this vision gave him the knowledge and insight unknown in this age.
- Anālayo, Bhikkhu. “Awakening or Enlightenment? On the Significance of bodhi.” Mindfulness (2021) 12:1653–1658. https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/awakeningenlightenment.pdf
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu with Matthew Abrahams. “In Defense of ‘Enlightenment.’” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Summer 2021. https://tricycle.org/magazine/enlightenment-vs-awakening/
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “On Translating ‘Buddha.’” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2020. https://www.academia.edu/44864912/On_Translating_Buddha_
- Smith, Doug. “What Does “Buddha” Mean? A Recent Article May Change Your Mind.” Doug’s Dharma. YouTube. https://youtu.be/c_R2Y2P1sjI
- Smith, Doug. “What does ‘Buddha’ Mean: A Live Controversy! Anālayo’s Response.” Doug’s Dharma. YouTube. https://youtu.be/14ghdkSddK8
- Thanissaro, Bhikkhu. Handful of Leaves: Volume One: An Anthology from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 2004.