Literal Enlightenment

William B. Turner
3 min readJan 10, 2021

We have discussed the point that the word “enlightenment” is a bit of a problem for modern Buddhists in the West because it has its own, particular meaning now and because people have various associations with it that more get in the way than help elucidate what the Buddhist path is about. We typically use the word, “awaken” instead, which is what “buddha” means in the language the Buddha spoke anyway.

Some teachers also say that the Buddha realized “the deathless.” That does not mean that the historical Buddha is still running around in India at 2,500 years old. He died. He’s long dead. No way anyone alive today could have laid eyes on him.

What it means is that, after that lifetime ended, he did not have another rebirth to die from. He explained that we are caught on the wheel of samsara according to which causes and conditions result in a perpetual round of rebirths and deaths, or redeaths. “The deathless” means no more deaths. The body of the Buddha went the way of all flesh. He has long since been reabsorbed multiple times as scattered chemical elements.

But the body is not the interesting part of any human. Again, immediately after death, the body stays exactly the same for some time, except that the internal organs, especially the heart and brain, are not functioning at all. The interesting part of any human is the ineffable presence of mind, personality, selfhood, whatever you want to call it, that makes any human a human. The Buddha may have had no self from his interior perspective, but he was still a recognizable, distinct human to others until the end of his life.

What happened to that? We could discern its presence while he was alive and we could have discerned its absence had we been present at his death.

Remember that Buddhism is non materialist. Thought is primary. Thought matters more than matter. Your body is just a lump of chemicals zapped with enough electricity to keep it moving for the duration of your life. Where it moves and how it moves, what your body does, is the result of thoughts. Every good deed and every bad deed is the result of some thought. That’s the part we’re interested in, even though we can’t find where thoughts come from.

Arguably (we don’t know, we may never know), what happened to the Buddha’s thoughts, or capacity for thoughts, is that they dissipated entirely into space. Since Benjamin Franklin first started finding ways to control electricity, we have made huge strides in…

William B. Turner

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.