Epistemology and enlightenment

“How do you know the Buddha was enlightened?” asked the ogress in “Eating an entire epistemologist.”

Here are some similar questions:

I won’t give any answers to these. Instead, I will suggest that Buddhists ought to ask them, and ought not to accept answers that are based just on “someone holy said so” or “I had a vision” or “it’s here in this book.”

[You might like to listen to my podcast discussion of this post with Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist Association.]


Garbage in the sea

Epistemology is the study of “how do we know what we know?” That seems to me a question everyone should ask, about as many things as possible.

Much of what we think we know must be wrong, because it changes so often. This is obviously true of factual knowledge; but perhaps more importantly of ethical knowledge. Within living memory, everyone knew that it was fine to dump rubbish in the ocean, and premarital sex was wrong. Now, everyone knows dumping rubbish in the ocean is wrong, and most people agree that premarital sex is fine.

Acting on mistaken “knowledge” often has bad results. Ways of sorting out what’s so are precious.

Problems with epistemology

The great triumph of epistemology has been to point out that two traditional sources of knowledge—experts and holy books—are not necessarily reliable.

Many Buddhist scriptures say that the earth is flat. A century ago, many Buddhist leaders said that believing the earth is spherical was heresy. The flatness of the earth is not just a random fact that scripture got wrong. Without it, the religion couldn’t function. Traditional Buddhist ethics is based on reward or punishment in heaven or hell. According to Buddhist cosmology, the hells are underground, and the heavens are flat planes up in the sky. Scriptures list the different heavens with their altitudes above the earth. If people didn’t believe this, they would have no motivation to behave ethically, and society would collapse. If the earth is a ball spinning in empty space, where could the heavens be? Anyone teaching this must be silenced.

Another contribution of epistemology is the realization that we can never be absolutely certain about anything. No source of knowledge is entirely reliable.

So, what sources of knowledge are good enough?

Unfortunately, academic epistemology, which claims to study this question, hasn’t got much more to say. It asks the wrong question: “How can we know anything, in general?” (“Like what?” asked Surya. “Like anything,” said the ogress.) What we need instead are practical ways to determine whether knowledge about particular kinds of things is reasonably reliable.

Technical disciplines—sciences, jurisprudence, journalism—have useful methods of this sort. But, there are still problems.

Problems with experts

Unless you have spent many years learning one of these specialized methods, you can’t apply it yourself. That means you have to take experts’ word for it—or not. How do you know whether they know what they are talking about?

Accredited experts may disagree. In that case, which ones do you believe?

Worse, entire technical disciplines can go off into outer space for decades at a stretch, completely losing touch with reality. In the mid–20th century, psychoanalytic theory was widely accepted as providing reliable insight into the workings of healthy minds (as well as ill ones). It became, for many, a powerful framework for understanding ethics, life, and meaning. Nowadays, orthodox psychoanalysis seems like a creepy delusion; you can only ask “what on earth were they thinking?”

A current example might be nutrition. Supposed experts endlessly hammer on the message that it is frightfully important to eat what they tell us to. However, their recommendations change dramatically every eight years or so. Not long ago, vitamin E was the key to preventing cancer; now that’s false, and moreover it causes heart disease and stroke. Soy was good for you, because it contains isoflavones, which prevented cancer; now it is bad for you, because isoflavones screw up your endocrine system. Food is mainly fat, carbohydrate, and protein; each repeatedly cycles in and out as “good” or “bad” relative to the others. Clearly, whatever method nutritionists are using to produce their “knowledge” does not work at all.

Beyond these problems, there are many aspects of life where there are no “experts” with wide credibility. These include particularly areas concerned with meaningness. How can we—and how do we—make sensible decisions about problems of ethics, purpose, and value?

Experts in enlightenment

Buddhism, and other religions, are attractive partly because they have supposed experts on meaning, who claim to have definitive answers.

Should we believe them? Why?

Buddhist answers usually involve “enlightenment,” or similar terms such as “bodhi,” “nirvana,” “kensho,” and so forth. I mostly find these answers unhelpfully abstract and theoretical. What can we know about enlightenment, and how?

Here the supposed experts disagree, loudly. They disagree both about theory (what enlightenment is) and about practice (who’s got it, and how you could get it).

Different brands of Buddhism have stories about enlightenment that sound very different.

For many Buddhists, these questions may seem irrelevant, because attaining enlightenment is not a realistic, personal goal. However, the experts also disagree violently about how you should practice Buddhism. And their explanations of why their methods work (and the other brands’ methods are no good) intimately involve enlightenment. So this is not something we can ignore.

Who is enlightened?

This is where abstract theory meets the real world of practice. Unfortunately, there is even less agreement here. Within traditions that agree about what enlightenment is, there are always sub-groups who quarrel about who’s got it.

For instance, several modern Theravada teachers invented their own meditation methods, which turned into sub-sects. Some Theravadins claim that only their own sect’s method works, so followers of the other sects are not enlightened.

Here are some videos in which Bhante Sujato is polite but firm in explaining deficiencies of the Other Leading Brands. (He seems insightful, but I don’t practice Theravada, so I have no opinions about its competing sub-sects. )

Based on invalid texts and Abhidhamma categories which obviously don’t exist… spiritual materialism
Rampant, institutionalized overestimation… thousands of unqualified but certified stream-enterers
Wrong ideas about enlightenment, probably imported from Hinduism and Mahayana

There are similar arguments within modern Zen.

The Mahasi sect (in Theravada) and Sanbo Kyodan (in Zen) both aim for sotapatti/kensho (initial enlightenment) as directly as possible, and claim beginners can get it in their first month-long retreat. This “rapid upward spiritual mobility” has made both sects particularly successful and influential in America, with huge numbers of students, teachers, and certifiably enlightened folks.

Competing sects say that the Mahasi and Sanbo Kyodan methods can’t possibly work, or certainly not that fast, and that their supposed “enlightenment” experiences are really only some confused jhana or makyo.

That criticism might just be envy and self-justification, since the competing methods work (if at all) only after many years of hard practice. Or, critics could be quite right in pointing out “rampant, institutionalized overestimation” in the “fast” sects.

How could we know?

How do experts determine who is enlightened?

If you want to know if someone is a competent mathematician, you have to ask a mathematician. On the other hand, if you want to know if someone is a competent nutritionist, there’s no point asking nutritionists, in my opinion, because the whole field is hogwash.

Supposedly, only an enlightened person can say if someone else is enlightened. They have special magic insight. Ordinary people can’t tell. So how does that work?

A skeptical view is that a supposed enlightenment expert (such as a Zen master) will declare you to be enlightened if:

This is cynical, but seems to account for most of what actually happens. A year ago, I wrote about an interesting incident of this sort.

Concerning people outside their own sect, most Buddhist masters are reluctant to say anything. Perhaps most of them don’t believe that other Buddhist sects can produce enlightenment. Alternatively, maybe the methods for judging enlightenment do not apply, because they are based on conforming to specific behaviors required by the sect. No special enlightened insight is involved.

Later on this page, I’ll take a slightly less cynical view. Still, I think this skepticism is an important “null hypothesis”—the default view we ought to take unless there is good evidence that it is wrong.

Should experience remove doubt?

In my solitude
I have seen things very clearly
that were not true.

—Antonio Machado

According to some Buddhist texts, and some supposed experts, enlightenment is unmistakable. If you experience it, you know it, and it removes all doubt.

This is particularly common in “experiencing Oneness” theories of enlightenment. When you first taste chocolate, you cannot doubt your own experience of it. You know what chocolate is like. Similarly, if you directly experience your Absolute Oneness With Everything, that is indisputable. You know The Ultimate Truth. No one can dispute this, because The Ultimate Truth is itself an experience, and like all experiences it is private and unmistakeable.

There’s a couple of problems with this. You can (apparently) be mistaken about what you have experienced, and (more importantly) you can be mistaken about what it means.

On the first point, it’s not uncommon for someone to go to their Buddhist teacher and say, honestly, “O Teacher! How wonderful! I have had an enlightenment experience! Now I know without doubt The Ultimate Truth!” and the teacher will say “No, that’s just makyo—you need to practice a lot longer before you are truly enlightened.”

(It’s also common to encounter people who seem to sincerely believe they are enlightened, but who everyone else considers insane or just confused.)

Intense non-ordinary experiences often include what seem to be profound insights into the fundamental nature of reality. But the second problem is that those can be totally wrong.

Here’s a fun example:

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

This was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in 1871. He was a Transcendentalist—a school of All-Is-One monist spirituality. He was also smart enough to recognize that the intense conviction that you have discovered The Ultimate Truth during a non-ordinary experience is not reliable.

Non-ordinary experiences and insight

I’ve had dramatic, non-ordinary spiritual experiences myself. I can’t doubt that they exist. I do have questions about their meaning and value.

Some non-ordinary experiences don’t seem to imply anything at all. Even at the time, it’s just “wow!” The experience is indescribable and intense, but it doesn’t seem to have any meaning beyond its own feeling-quality.

Some non-ordinary experiences include revelations or insights that seem profound and unquestionable at the time. Among these, some are obviously stupid a few hours later (like Holmes’ discovery of turpentine).

I’ve had intense meditation experiences that included insights that seemed right for months or years after—but that I eventually decided were wrong after all. There’s others that I still think were profound and correct, a decade or two later.

My conclusion from this is that overwhelming meditation experiences can be valuable sources of insight, but they are unreliable. They can convince you of things that aren’t true. You need to test them against other ways of knowing.

Non-ordinary experiences and transformation

“Enlightenment experiences” are supposed to produce profound personal transformation (as well as insights). They can permanently alter the way you experience the world, and the way you act in the world.

Again, I have had meditation experiences that I think permanently altered my perception and way of being. (I am not claiming these were “enlightenment” experiences, of course!) Despite my self-perception of transformation, I am skeptical of it.

I’ve seen many a friend go to a weekend workshop on biodynamic crystal dowsing, or holistic orgone chakra balancing, and come back totally transformed. Or so they said. Now they saw the world completely differently, and they were at peace with everyone and everything. They had finally got it, and everything was going to be different forever.

Usually that high lasts about three days; sometimes a month. Then, somehow, life is about as usual. Evidently, it is possible to be entirely wrong about personal transformation.

So, I don’t take my own seriously. I hope I deal with life better than I did twenty years ago, and I believe that’s partly due to transformative non-ordinary experiences, but I don’t put much stock in it.

I’d consider it much more likely if there were good empirical data. Science, in other words. Anecdotes—even my own experience of myself—aren’t reliable. It’s too easy to fool yourself.

What is enlightenment good for?

Keep your silly ways or throw them out the window
The wisdom of your ways, I’ve been there and I know

Buddhism has the dogmatic belief that enlightenment is way better than anything else, and the solution to all problems. There is scant evidence for this, and almost no explanation. It’s just asserted, at great length, in Buddhist advertising hype (“scripture”).

If we drop the dogma, then why should we care about enlightenment at all? Is it actually good for anything? How can we know?

There are different stories about what’s so great about enlightenment. We could classify those in terms of stories about what kind of thing enlightenment is.

For example, if enlightenment is a special kind of knowledge, understanding, or insight: is what you discover true? How do we know? And, more important, is it useful? What is it useful for? If it’s good for something, we ought to see someone getting results with it. Do we?

If enlightenment is an experience, or state of consciousness, then it must be a highly enjoyable one. (What other use could a purely subjective quality be?) Advocates say that enlightenment is infinitely better than sex & drugs & rock & roll. Is that true? How could we know? If it is true, should we care? Sex & drugs & and rock & roll are very good indeed. They are easier than enlightenment. Maybe they’re good enough? Maybe they are all your brain and body need?

If enlightenment is a way of being, does it actually make you kinder, or more effective, or what? How much more? (Maybe there are easier ways to become kind and effective, if that is your goal?)

The Founding Myth

Buddhism is based on the dogmatic belief that:

There was this guy Gautama, who finally got it while sitting under a tree. He was totally transformed. Whatever he got is by definition the best thing you can get. He was as enlightened as it is possible to be.

There is zero evidence for this, and zero rational argument. It’s pure mythology.

In fact, it doesn’t matter whether there was such a guy, or whether he really got it. The important thing is that the myth hides the unexamined assumption that there is exactly one thing to get.

My guess is that some of the theories of enlightenment, told by different Buddhisms, describe real things—but they are about different things. That makes talk about “enlightenment” inherently confusing. It’s like a barroom debate about whether Spain’s La Roja or the New York Giants are the greatest football team, without anyone noticing that they play two completely different games that both happen to be called “football.”

Diverse functional definitions

Suppose we drop the idea that there is a single thing called enlightenment; and suppose we drop the idea that it is the solution to all problems. To avoid confusion, let’s drop the word, too.

Instead, let’s take more seriously the diversity of descriptions of Buddhist goals. Let’s try to clarify the vague explanations given for them. Let’s sort the ones that seem plausible from the obviously impossible. Let’s try to better understand their value, and how practice methods might develop toward that good. Let’s try to find reasonably reliable ways to evaluate progress and results.


Toasted granary bread with melted cheddar cheese

Rationality is of limited use in religion–just as it is of limited use in music. That does not make either reasoning or religion bogus.

However, rational reasoning can eliminate some bogus religious dogma. It can show that some Buddhist theories of enlightenment are clearly false.

According to many Mahayana sutras, enlightenment means becoming a god—for all practical purposes. Technically, they insist that Buddhas are not gods. But enlightenment means that you become an immortal with supernatural powers, and live in the sky. In some of the sutras, you become not merely a god but a God: you create your own universe and rule it, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

Western thought has developed excellent reasons to not believe in gods. Most of those reasons apply to Mahayana Buddhas. So, a century ago, modern Mahayana decided to quietly abandon its own theory of Buddhahood.

The Theravada theory that enlightenment means non-rebirth is also dubious in the light of Western understanding. So, it is also widely ignored by modern Theravada teachers.

The most popular modern Buddhist theory of enlightenment is that you discover that All is One, so your True Self is in fact The Entire Universe. This is taught by many Zen masters and some prominent Theravadins. There is some basis for it in the Mahayana scriptures, but it totally contradicts traditional Theravada. It probably comes mainly from Western monist mysticism.

The theory is obviously false. All is not one; chalk is not cheddar. (Try making a melted chalk sandwich.) You are not the entire universe. You are about six feet tall, whereas the universe is about six hundred sextillion miles across. Your mind is not the entire universe, either. You know nothing about most of it.

(I’ve written more about problems with monist mysticism here.)

Proponents of “All is One” usually explicitly reject rationality. They have to, because the story falls apart instantly if they don’t. Instead, they insist that in a “trans-rational” enlightenment experience, the truth that All is One is revealed. When you’ve had that experience, then you know, and rationality is irrelevant.

I don’t doubt that there are experiences of Oneness—because I’ve had them. But I don’t think they imply what monist mystics think they imply.

Since, clearly, All is not One, they don’t imply that. Oneness experiences might simply be meaningless confusion or illusion. Many typical drug experiences are like that. If you take LSD, you will probably directly experience walls breathing. That does not mean that walls breathe.

As it happens, I think the Oneness experience does contain an important insight. It’s just that mystics misunderstand it. What the experience actually points to is the fact that there is no objective separation between you and your immediate surroundings. That’s quite different from your being the same as the entire universe; and it stands up to rational scrutiny.


Recently, neuroscientists seem to be making significant discoveries about how Buddhist meditation methods work. This is exciting to me because I have studied neuroscience enough to consider it a reasonably reliable source of knowledge.

I have also studied it enough that I won’t take anything scientists say uncritically. They are quite capable of over-interpreting their data, and finding whatever they are looking for, whether or not it is actually there. It will take lots more experiments before I will be confident that the meditation scientists know what they are talking about.

Some meditation researchers want to go further, and investigate enlightenment scientifically. I think that’s terrific. Step one, though, is to stop talking about “enlightenment” as though it were a single, defined thing, because the word is hopelessly confused.

Some neuroscientists have an interesting guess about the mystical “Oneness” experience. If you are a monkey swinging through dense jungle, it’s critical to keep track of where all your body parts are. You always need know where you end, and the air or branches begin. Otherwise, you’ll slam into something. So, probably there is an evolved brain mechanism that keeps track of the physical self/other boundary at all times. Maybe what happens in the Oneness experience is that it stops functioning. You misinterpret your inability to feel where your body ends as having melted into the entire universe.

Learning what happens in the brain when particular spiritual goals are reached could be interesting and useful. For instance, if it turns out that the Oneness experience is just your boundary-tracker turning off, it will be harder for anyone to consider it a big deal. Neuroscience might also answer the question of whether enlightenment is one thing or several—maybe different “types of enlightenment” reliably correlate with different patterns of brain activity—and who has which.

There are limits to what it can tell us, though. If enlightenment is considered to be a type of knowledge, or a way of interacting, that will probably be inaccessible for the foreseeable future. The available techniques aren’t relevant.

And, neuroscience could never tell us what spiritual accomplishments mean—what their purpose and value is. Such judgements are outside the domain of science.

Provisional personal evidence

So far I have asked many questions and provided no answers. It might seem that I believe all knowledge is impossible.

In fact, I think our everyday experience of Buddhist practice, and our interactions with our sangha and teachers, provide a reasonably good sense of what Buddhism can do.

I think it’s important to avoid both starry-eyed romantic fantasies, and also stubborn refusal to recognize the value of Buddhism lest you get fooled again. It is good to be skeptical, to ask “is this really true?,” to take nothing at face value. It is not good to blind yourself to what you can see is true, useful, or beautiful because you are afraid to trust.

If you have practiced for long enough to make progress, you can see that a path points ahead, in whatever direction you have chosen. Then you may wonder how far it is possible to go. However, if you are happy with your direction, the question “is there some final destination, beyond which it is not possible to go?” may not matter.

Having made some progress, you can see that some people are further along the path. They may be uncommonly unruffled by adversity; unusually considerate of others; or have an electrifying personal presence. That is evidence that you, too, can go further—and inspiration to do so. As this ability to judge the progress of others increases, perhaps it develops into the ability to judge “enlightenment” as that is understood in particular Buddhisms.

If you work with a teacher, you may find that they are consistently able to give answers to your questions, that make sense, seem true when tested against your practice, and inspire further involvement. In that case, you may be willing to take some things they say on faith, at least as a default, when you cannot test them.

Further reading

I have argued earlier that mystical experiences aren’t valid metaphysical evidence. For example, you cannot argue that “All Is One” on the basis that mystics say they have experienced that. I also argued that mystical experiences are apparently diverse, which casts doubt on the theory that there is just one thing called “enlightenment.”

I’ve also earlier contrasted the Theravada, tantric, and monist theories of enlightenment.

Robert Sharf’s papers “The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion” and “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience” have been a major influence on the way I think about “enlightenment.” They cover many of the same topics as this post, in greater depth.

Brad Warner eloquently presents a similar view, against the “enlightenment as a big experience” theory, in his Buddhist Geeks interview. (Search the transcript for “supposed to fix everything forever” to find a particularly relevant bit.)

There’s an interesting discussion of intra-Theravada disputes about enlightenment here. This Appendix concerns the realization and methods of Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, whose lineage is one of the most influential in America. Apparently, he acknowledged that much of what he taught was inconsistent with scripture; here, he explains why he prioritized his visionary experience over ancient texts.