The word enlightenment is commonly used to translate the Sanksrit/Pali term bodhi, which comes from verbal root budh meaning “to awake,” “to become aware,” “to know,” or “to understand.” When the Buddha attained his awakening or enlightenment, his mind was set free as the result of his long course of practice in physical, mental, and spiritual development.
On the day of his full awakening, the Buddha realized the interdependency of all things that exist through his examination of the inescapable law of cause and effect. This awakening led him to the attainment of the “Threefold Knowledge,” which earned him the position of one who had reached Sammà-sambodhi or “perfect enlightenment.” According to Buddhists, one who develops perfect enlightenment is known as a Samma-sambuddha or a "Fully Self-Enlightened One."
"A correct view of the Buddha's nature would see him in terms of the title he assigned to himself: as a Fully Self-Enlightened One (samma-sambuddha). He is self-enlightened because he has awakened to the essential truths of existence entirely on his own, without a teacher or guide. He is fully enlightened because he has comprehended these truths completely, in all their ramifications and implications. And as a Buddha he has not only fathomed these truths himself, but has also taught them to the world so that others may awaken from the long sleep of ignorance and attain the fruits of liberation."
— Bhikkhu Bodhi, Refuge in the Buddha
Due to the Buddha's enlightenment, the people from his time up to this day are given a different way of seeing reality, life, and existence. The knowledge he shared is simple yet indispensable for it provides the ultimate solution to the problematic and inherent aspect of all phenomena known as suffering.
The Threefold Knowledge
|Prince Siddharta spent six years practicing austerities for the realization of Truth and the attainment of Enlightenment.|
1. The knowledge of Dependent Origination
The first knowledge attained by the Buddha upon his enlightenment was the knowledge of Dependent Origination, which basically states that all phenomena are arising together in an interdependent web of cause and effect.
According to the Buddha, the root cause of all suffering is in ignorance and the way to eliminate it is through Wisdom. This wisdom involves the examination of each of the links in the entire causal chain of suffering. By doing so, a person discovers how they are conditioned, how they arise, and how they can be extinguished. Any realization that does not result from this sort of wisdom cannot count as true enlightenment.
Dependent origination is not a theory that he developed, but a universal truth that he directly experienced. From this experience, he gained the understanding of the chain of phenomena responsible for the origination of suffering.
2. The knowledge of his past lives and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth
The second knowledge attained by the Buddha upon his enlightenment was the knowledge of past lives or previous births. Through his awakened inner eye and by using the principle of dependent origination as his foundation, he was able to fix his mind on the chain of causation in reverse order and thus gain access to memories of his previous actions and their karmic consequences. This knowledge enabled the Buddha to realize three things:
1. He realized that he had exhausted all of his accumulated karma and that this would be his last existence.
2. He realized that all beings are cyclically reborn based on the quality of their views, intentions, and actions. This quality is a determining factor in a being’s future state of existence. Beings with wholesome qualities are reborn in pleasant states while those with unwholesome qualities are reborn in unpleasant states.
3. He realized the pointlessness of the cycle of rebirth because even if one gains access to the pleasant states of existence, it is only temporary. All phenomena have the nature of being impermanent and that includes one's life in any of the 31 Realms of Existence.
3. The knowledge of Nirvana
The third knowledge attained by the Buddha upon his enlightenment was the knowledge of Nirvana. When the Buddha directly perceived the truth behind the universal law of Dependent Origination, he was also able to see the true nature of the Five Aggregates that constituted his so-called “Self.”
Although these aggregates were the driving force behind one’s cyclic existence in Samsara, they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and have no real essence. This knowledge gave him the conviction that he had fully extinguished ignorance, that he had reached full enlightenment, and that his involvement in the round of rebirths was finally over. With the extinction of ignorance, the only thing that remained was the experience of the unconditioned, unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, and unformed, which he called Nirvana.