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Suddenly a Flame is Lit

Expressing the Nature of Awakening
By Judith Simmer-Brown

This article was originally published in Spiral Magazine, published by the Rubin Museum.

Note: Judith Simmer-Brown is one of the course presenters for an upcoming Shambhala Online course, Meditation: The Way of the Buddha. To learn more about the course, visit the course website.

Mystical traditions throughout the world place special emphasis on spiritual transformation through personal experience. From the extasis (rapture) of St. Teresa of Avila to the tawhid (oneness) of Rumi and the bhakti (divine love) of Shri Ramakrishna, direct experience of the ultimate is understood to engender a complete shift in understanding, clarity, and relationship with the world. But the nature of these experiences is notoriously difficult to express in words, and sacred sources employ elusive, often contradictory language to capture their qualities and contents. Some articulations emphasize the positive content, the via positiva, the cataphatic way, while others focus on the via negativa, the apophatic, articulating what this epiphany is not.

The same can be said for the enlightenment or awakening of the Buddha. According to the legends, after extensive ascetic practices and a profound spiritual journey, the young prince Gautama sat on a soft seat under a lush tree on the banks of the Nairanjana River and vowed not to arise until he came to discover the way to liberation. In the weeks of his sitting, a powerful experience dawned. The experience could not be described in conventional words, yet the Buddha was committed to communicating his expe- rience to others. He had a dilemma. If he described the experience positively, it could create clinging and fixation on the experience as something to be attained, undermining the journey. If he spoke negatively, this achievement could be taken nihilistically.

In one of his earliest discourses, the Buddha spoke of his experience negatively, describing it as nirvana, which literally means “extinction,” as in the image of the flame of suffering being snuffed out, signifying the quality of freedom of his experience. In parallel sources, he positively proclaimed himself to be a Buddha—“the Awakened One”—and later called his experience sambodhi or “Complete Awakening.” While the negative term nirvana may be more popular in Western parlance, historically it is more common for the Buddha to be known positively as the Awakened One.

In Western religion “awakening” has been more often associated with a movement in eighteenth-century Protestantism that emphasized faith rather than reasoning and highlighted the crippling power of sin and the importance of divine grace. Such movements have continued in successive waves through the mid-twentieth century, countering the formalism and hierarchy of the church, and nurturing the development of evangelical fervor and charismatic spiritual experience.

Awakening has a somewhat different emphasis in Buddhism. My beloved Sanskrit professor used to say that the word root budh implied being in impenetrable darkness, with all the ragged emotions and misperceptions that can arise. Suddenly a flame is lit, and the darkness is illuminated, bringing clarity, expansiveness, and warmth. That is why the synonym “enlightenment” is also used. In the legends it is said that after sitting in vigil at the foot of the tree through the three watches of the night, the Buddha spiritually awakened at the break of dawn.

Buddhism does not have a role for an external deity or god in the Western Abrahamic sense, and so the Buddha’s awakening is not associated with an encounter with a divine being. Instead, each being has a latent awakened nature, and the spiritual path is uncovering that nature—gradually or suddenly or some combination of the two—to realize that we all are inherently, naturally awake. While the Buddha’s world had gods and goddesses, they were minor players, subject to confusion, doubt, and even death. For Buddhism, the true ultimate is found only within one’s own experience through meditation.

Reflecting on the accounts of the Buddha’s awakening experience and its aftermath, it’s difficult to know exactly what he experienced. Buddha was notoriously cautious about speaking of bliss; he felt that bliss states could lead us to oblivious dead ends, removing us from compassionate care for others. But when speaking of the awakening, he described it as supreme insight, liberation, certainty, lucidity, and knowledge and vision.

The classical accounts speak of three elements in the Buddha’s awakening. The first was the wisdom dimension, a detailed life review of the karmic knots of suffering—his own and those of others—and non-conceptual discovery of the method to undo them. Then he had an extended experience lasting seven weeks of the bliss of freedom, the meditative aspect. Finally, he accepted the request that he teach others what he had discovered, the compassion aspect. It is often said that the Buddha’s enlightenment was not completed until he responded to the supplication of the king of the gods to share his wisdom with others. This was understood as wisdom that completes itself with commitment to compassionate engagement.

Traditional accounts say that the Buddha went in search of five of his companions on the spiritual journey to share the news of his awakening. He found them near modern-day Varanasi, India, in Deer Park, a peaceful grove of verdant trees and flowers. As he approached, the five seekers were amazed, stunned by his radiant appearance, his noble carriage, his confidence and magnetism. In spite of their hesitations, they found themselves spontaneously arising respectfully. One stepped forward to take his robe and begging bowl, another brought a seat, and another brought water to bathe his feet. Together they greeted him warmly, welcoming him, and reverently asked about the radiant glow of his complexion, his serene demeanor, the certainty in his eyes. For the first time, he publicly proclaimed he was now Awakened, the Buddha, completely beyond fear and torment. If only they would receive his guidance, they also could become free. Under a moonlit night they sat together in the hermitage grove, and the Awakened One launched his cycles of teaching.

Reading these accounts, it is easy to see how painting and sculpture have supported the way the Buddha’s awakening is understood in the tradition. Over the centuries, images of the Buddha have depicted his glowing human form, his serenity with a beatific smile, his steady strength and gentleness, and the glow of inner illumination. These representations, along with the rich lore that has accompanied them, convey the non-conceptual embodied qualities of his awakening—lucid wisdom, joyful meditation, and radiating compassion.


Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor Emeritx of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where she has taught since 1978.  As Buddhist practitioner since the early 1970’s, she became a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974, and was empowered as an acharya (senior teacher) by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2000.  Her teaching specialties are meditation practice, Shambhala teachings, Buddhist philosophy, tantric Buddhism, and contemplative higher education.  Her book, Dakini’s Warm Breath (Shambhala 2001), explores the feminine principle as it reveals itself in meditation practice and everyday life for women and men.  She has also edited Meditation and the Classroom:  Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies (SUNY 2011). She had her husband, Richard, have two adult children and three grandchildren.

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