What Is Buddhist Enlightenment?

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Dale S. Wright
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Dale S. Wright’s book What Is Buddhist Enlightenment? attempts to break with convention by exploring interpretations of the ultimate goal of Buddhism: enlightenment. Wright begins his work by noting, “The question ‘What is Buddhist enlightenment?’ is carefully avoided, acquiring, in effect, and almost taboo status among Buddhists” (2).

This book’s contents are divided into an introduction, a three-part body, and a conclusion. The introduction—“Why Ask What Enlightenment Is?”—discusses the significance of knowing what Buddhist enlightenment is. Part 1, “Contemporary Images of Enlightenment,” consists of three essays or chapters: “The Bodhisattva’s Practice of Enlightenment,” “The Awakening of Character as an Image of Enlightenment,” and “Secular Buddhism and the Religious Dimension of Enlightenment.” Part 2, “The Moral Dimension of Enlightenment,” includes four essays: “Enlightenment and the Experience of Karma,” “Enlightenment and the Moral Dimension of Zen Training,” “Enlightenment and the Persistence of Human Fallibility,” and “The Thought of Enlightenment and the Dilemma of Human Achievement.” Part 3, “Language and the Experience of Enlightenment,” is divided into three chapters, “Language in Zen Enlightenment,” “Enlightenment and the Practice of Meditative Reading,” and “From the Thought of Enlightenment to the Event of Awakening.” The conclusion section consists of ten theses on contemporary enlightenment and there are sections are devoted to “Notes” and a “Bibliography.”

One can only applaud Wright’s attempt to challenge the “almost taboo” in Buddhist studies described in the book’s introduction. From Wright’s perspective, there is no more important question to ask than “What is Buddhist enlightenment?” given that “the image or conception of enlightenment and the practice of it are correlative” (3). Knowing the ultimate goal helps to “activate our lives and get some form of transformative practice underway” (3). However, some might be disappointed after reading—including the ten theses in the concluding section—considering that Wright does not answer the title question explicitly, although his theses are meaningful and sometimes thought provoking.

One important thesis that Wright raises is that the concept and character of enlightenment will “inevitably be reformulated from time to time as the tradition evolves” (4), thus, he suggests, bringing insight into the “open, impermanent, and historical character of enlightenment” (199). This is his main thesis, and it is a compelling one; however, Wright fails to develop it. Given the question in the book’s title, and Wright’s intention to challenge the restrictions surrounding the issue, readers will expect him to discuss how the concept of enlightenment changed from early Buddhism, to Mahayana Buddhism, to Zen Buddhism, and even to Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, Wright avoids getting into deeper discussion, and directly shifts his focus to how contemporary enlightenment might evolve, which indicates both the potential success and weakness of the book. By weakness, I mean that, without such historical exploration, the title question is not explicitly answered. By success, I mean that this book seems to be written for a Western audience without background knowledge of Buddhism; thus, the lack of historical exploration may make it more easily accessible.

The second factor hindering an answer to the title question is the author’s intention to use the word “enlightenment.” The word “enlightenment” in Wright’s book, at different times, stands for “Nirvana,” “emptiness,” or “Bodhi.” For example, the first chapter, “The Bodhisattva’s Practice of Enlightenment,” discusses the reasons for Thich Nhat Hanh’s willingness to take the blame for an instance of police brutality. The doctrine behind Hanh’s action is, in fact, the theory of emptiness and the practice of perfection. Instead of “perfection” or “emptiness,” Wright uses the phrase “practice of enlightenment” (13). In addition, Wright provides many examples from Zen Buddhism. In these examples “enlightenment” refers to “awakening,” or “Bodhi.” Although Wright admits that this “awakening” is a far better translation (201), he still prefers to use the term “enlightenment” in his book. Why? Wright indicates his intention from the very beginning: “‘Enlightenment’… was—in Immanuel Kant’s influential version—a state of ‘maturity’ in individuals and communities that gave them the courage to think for themselves rather than turning the crucial decisions in their lives over to priests and lords” (1). In this book—from beginning to the end—Wright’s efforts to connect the Buddhist and Western versions of “enlightenment”  is obvious. Thus, the Buddhist “enlightenment” which Wright explores in this book is not the “Buddhist” enlightenment, but rather the Western view of Buddhist “enlightenment.”

Last but not least, although the title of the book is “What is Buddhist Enlightenment?” Wright focuses too narrowly on Zen Buddhism, especially the Western understanding of Japanese Zen Buddhism. In chapter 5—“Enlightenment and the Moral Dimension of Zen Training”—Wright finds that “morality has rarely been a matter of primary interest in Zen history” (93). This proposal is thought provoking and makes some sense if we define Zen history as modern Japanese Zen history, or according to the popular Western understanding of Zen history. However, scholars who reject the popular Western understanding of Zen history would not agree with Wright’s claim. For example, according to the Chinese Chan research of the University of Arizona’s Albert Welter, an expert in Chinese Buddhism, “Bodhisattva Chan,” which promotes the practice of myriad good deeds, is influential in Chan history. The narrowness of Wright’s focus limits his observations of Buddhism so that he fails to represent the whole concept of Buddhist enlightenment. Perhaps Wright could consider adding a subtitle, such as “The ‘Awakening’ in Japanese Zen Buddhism.”

In conclusion, Wright’s book What Is Buddhist Enlightenment? is oriented to Western readers without a Buddhist background. Readers attracted by the title will be disappointed in that Wright does not provide an explicit answer to the title question, although the book is informative and thought provoking. In addition, the book is too focused on the “awakening” in Japanese Zen Buddhism to give justice to the concept of Buddhist enlightenment across time and cultures.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lixia Dong is a doctoral student in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dale S. Wright is the Gamble Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Asian Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He writes and teaches courses in Buddhist Studies, the Philosophy of Religion, and Contemporary Religious Thought. Wright is the author of books, articles, and reviews, including Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism and The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character, and the co-editor of a series of five books on Zen Buddhist history for Oxford University Press.



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