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Title: Bodhi  
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Subject: Buddhism, Mysticism, Subitism, Enlightenment (spiritual), Buddhism and psychology
Collection: Buddhist Philosophical Concepts, Buddhist Terminology
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Sculpture of the buddha meditating under the mahabodhi tree

Bodhi (Sanskrit: बोधि; and Pali) in Buddhism is the understanding possessed by a Buddha regarding the true nature of things. It is traditionally translated into English with the word enlightenment, although its literal meaning is closer to "awakening." The verbal root "budh" means to awaken.

Bodhi is presented in the Nikayas as knowledge of the causal mechanism by which beings incarnate into material form and experience suffering. Although its most common usage is in the context of Buddhism, the term buddhi is also used in other Indian philosophies and traditions.


  • Etymology 1
  • Soteriological meaning 2
  • Buddha's awakening 3
  • The Buddhist Path 4
  • Development of the concept 5
    • Early Buddhism 5.1
    • Mahayana 5.2
      • Buddha-nature 5.2.1
      • Harmonisation of the various terms and meanings 5.2.2
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Web references 9
  • Sources 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


Bodhi is an abstract noun formed from the verbal root *budh- (to awake, become aware, notice, know or understand) corresponding to the verbs bujjhati (Pāli) and bodhati or budhyate (Sanskrit).

The feminine Sanskrit noun of *budh- is buddhi.

Soteriological meaning

The soteriological goal of Indian religions is liberation or moksha (also called mukti). Liberation is simultaneously freedom from suffering and the endless round of existences. Within the Sramanic traditions one who has attained liberation is called an arhat (Sanskrit; Pali: arahant), an honorific term meaning "worthy" acknowledging the skill and effort required to overcome the obstacles to the goal of nirvana.

According to the Buddha the path to liberation is one of progressively coming out of delusion (Pali: Moha). This path is therefore regarded as a path of awakening. Progressing along the path towards Nirvana one gains insight into the true nature of things. A Buddha is one who has attained liberation and an understanding of the causal mechanism by means of which sentient beings come into existence. This mechanism is called pratitya samutpada or dependent origination. The knowledge or understanding of this is called bodhi.

Buddha's awakening

In the suttapitaka, the Buddhist canon as preserved in the Theravada-tradition, a number of texts can be found in which Gautama Buddha tells about his own awakening.[1][2]

In the Vanapattha Sutta (Majjhima, chapter 17)[3] the Buddha describes life in the jungle, and the attainment of awakening. After destroying the disturbances of the mind, and perfecting concentration of mind, he attained three knowledges (vidhya):[4][5]

  1. Insight into his past lives
  2. Insight into the workings of Karma and Reincarnation
  3. Insight into the Four Noble Truths
Insight into the Four Noble Truths is here called awakening.[6] The monk (bhikkhu) has
...attained the unattained supreme security from bondage.[7]

Awakening is also described as synonymous with Nirvana, the extinction of the passions whereby suffering is ended and no more rebirths take place.[8] The insight arises that this liberation is certain:

Knowledge arose in me, and insight: my freedom is certain, this is my last birth, now there is no rebirth.[9]

So awakening is insight into karma and rebirth, insight into the Four Noble Truths, the extinction of the passions whereby Nirvana is reached, and the certainty that liberation has been reached.[9]

The Buddhist Path

The Buddhist tradition gives a wide variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga) to liberation.[10] Tradition describes the Buddha's awakening,[11] and the descriptions of the path given in the Sutta Pitaka.[web 1][web 2] By following this path Buddhahood can be attained. Following this path dissolves the ten fetters[12] and terminates volitional actions that bind a human being to the wheel of samsara.

The Theravada-tradition follows the Path to purification described by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. It features four progressive stages culminating in full enlightenment. The four stages are Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arahat.[12][13][web 3]

Three types of buddha are recognized:[14]

  • Arhat (Pali: arahant), those who reach Nirvana by following the teachings of the Buddha.[14] Sometimes the term Śrāvakabuddha (Pali: sāvakabuddha) is used to designate this kind of awakened person;
  • Pratyekabuddhas (Pali: paccekabuddha), those who reach Nirvana through self-realisation, without the aid of spiritual guides and teachers, but don't teach the Dharma;[14]
  • Samyaksambuddha (Pali: samma sambuddha), often simply referred to as Buddha, one who has reached Nirvana by his own efforts and wisdom and teach it skillfully to others.[14]

Development of the concept

The term bodhi acquired a variety of meanings and connotations during the development of Buddhist thoughts in the various schools.

Early Buddhism

In early Buddhism, bodhi carried a meaning synonymous to nirvana, using only some different metaphors to describe the insight, which implied the extinction of lobha (greed), dosa (hate) and moha (delusion). In Theravada Buddhism, bodhi and nirvana carry the same meaning, that of being freed from greed, hate and delusion.


In Mahayana-thought, bodhi is the realisation of the inseparability of samsara and nirvana,[15] and the unity of subject and object.[15] It is similar to prajna, to realizing the Buddha-nature, realizing sunyata and realizing suchness.[15]

Mahayana discerns three forms of bodhi:[16]

  1. Arahat - Liberation for oneself;[1]
  2. Bodhisattva - Liberation for living beings;
  3. Full Buddhahood.

Within the various Mahayana-schools exist various further explanations and interpretations.[15]


In the Tathagatagarbha and Buddha-nature doctrines bodhi becomes equivalent to the universal, natural and pure state of the mind:

Bodhi is the final goal of a Bodhisattva's career [...] Bodhi is pure universal and immediate knowledge, which extends over all time, all universes, all beings and elements, conditioned and unconditioned. It is absolute and identical with Reality and thus it is Tathata. Bodhi is immaculate and non-conceptual, and it, being not an outer object, cannot be understood by discursive thought. It has neither beginning, nor middle nor end and it is indivisible. It is non-dual (advayam) [...] The only possible way to comprehend it is through samadhi by the yogin.[17]

According to these doctrines bodhi is always there within one's mind, but requires the defilements to be removed. This vision is expounded in texts such as the Shurangama Sutra and the Uttaratantra.

In Shingon Buddhism, the state of Bodhi is also seen as naturally inherent in the mind. It is the mind's natural and pure state, where no distinction is being made between a perceiving subject and perceived objects. This is also the understanding of Bodhi found in Yogacara Buddhism and the mind's natural and pure state as in Dzogchen.

To achieve this vision of non-duality, it is necessary to recognise one's own mind:

... it means that you are to know the inherent natural state of the mind by eliminating the split into a perceiving subject and perceived objects which normally occurs in the world and is wrongly thought to be real. This also corresponds to the Yogacara definition ... that emptiness (sunyata) is the absence of this imaginary split[18]

Harmonisation of the various terms and meanings

During the development of Mahayana Buddhism the various strands of thought on Bodhi were continuously being elaborated. Attempts were made to harmonize the various terms. The Buddhist commentator Buddhaguhya treats various terms as synonyms:

For example, he defines emptiness (sunyata) as suchness (tathata) and says that suchness is the intrinsic nature (svabhava) of the mind which is Enlightenment ([18]

See also


  1. ^ This also includes Pratyekabuddha, but is not being mentioned by Fischer-Schreiber et al.


  1. ^ Warder 2000, p. 45-50.
  2. ^ Faure 1991.
  3. ^ Bhikkhu Nanamoli 1995.
  4. ^ Warder 2000, pp. 47–48.
  5. ^ Snelling 1987, p. 27.
  6. ^ Warder 2000, p. 47-48.
  7. ^ Bhikkhu Nanamoli 1996, p. 199.
  8. ^ Warder.
  9. ^ a b Warder 2000, p. 49.
  10. ^ Buswell 1994, p. 1-36.
  11. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 21-25.
  12. ^ a b Walsh (translator) 1995, p. 25-27.
  13. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 71-72.
  14. ^ a b c d Snelling 1987, p. 81.
  15. ^ a b c d Fischer-Schreiber 2008, p. 51.
  16. ^ Schreiber 2008, p. 51.
  17. ^ Sebastian 2005, p. 274.
  18. ^ a b Hodge 2003, p. 31-32.

Web references

  1. ^ Samyutta Nikaya 56.11 Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion
  2. ^ Digha Nikaya 2 Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life
  3. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Stream Entry Part 1: The Way to Stream-entry


  • Peter N. Gregory (1991), Sudden and Gradual (Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought), Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 8120808193

Further reading

  • A. Charles Muller (translator) (1999), The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. State University Press of New York
  • Lu K'uan Yu (translator) (1978), The Surangama Sutra. Bombay: B.I. Publications
  • Kenneth R. White (editor) (2005), The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment including a Translation into English of the Bodhicitta-Sastra, Benkenmitsu-nikyoron, and Sammaya-kaijo. New York : The Edwin Mellen Press

External links

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