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What Is Spiritual Enlightenment?

Regular meditation is a central element on the path to spiritual enlightenment.
Buddha's teachings are followed by some who wish to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
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  • Written By: Leo Zimmermann
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2014
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Spiritual enlightenment is a concept mostly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism. Enlightenment implies complete perfection, which involves qualities such as detachment and awareness. This spiritual belief purports that life is full of suffering produced by desire and other emotions that attach the soul to worldly things; suffering is the inevitable result of attachment to these necessarily transitory things. A soul thus becomes enlightened when it remains in the world yet becomes free of attachment to it. Enlightenment is considered the end of a being's spiritual journey, be it within one life or across many.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is called nirvana. Nirvana is believed to be a state of peace and unity with the cosmos. Different forms of Buddhism teach different techniques for achieving nirvana. Orthodox Buddhists, for example, try to directly follow Buddha's teachings: in particular, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Others, such as Zen Buddhists, may use challenging mental exercises, such as koans. Most forms of Buddhism also use regular meditation as a central element of the path to spiritual enlightenment.

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Hinduism also uses the concept of nirvana, considering it a representation of freedom from desire and other worldly passions. Spiritual enlightenment is also part of the conclusion to the Hindu cycle of reincarnation. In this belief, souls enter many different bodies through the course of their existence. In each of the lives they lead, they develop spiritually. The ultimate goal of this spiritual development is moksha, a liberation from the system of earthly suffering, which includes the idea of spiritual enlightenment.

Enlightenment is generally considered a mystical concept. That is, it contains the promise of a spiritual clarity lying beyond description by words and attainment by action. For example, one cannot become enlightened by reading, even if one can recite the words of every sage. Enlightenment is a potentially universal experience, but each being comes to it through a unique path. Teachers may provide assistance and provocation along the way, but they cannot impose enlightenment on their pupils; one becomes enlightened alone.

The concept of spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism and Hinduism is related to but distinct from ideas such as salvation and transcendence associated with Christianity. Whereas most versions of Christianity emphasize love of Jesus Christ as a prerequisite to spiritual completeness, enlightenment usually implies liberation from teachers and doctrine—one famous Zen koan suggests: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" Enlightenment also does not involve the existence of a heaven distinct from earth. It places more emphasis on a transformation of the soul's relationship to the world of objects. The enlightened being continues a corporeal existence after having gained awareness of the illusory nature of reality. There is no separate space to which one ascends.

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