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Enlightenment (from Old High German arliuhtan "illuminate", Middle High German erliuhtunge "light up", "enlightenment"; Latin illuminatio ), also illumination , describes a religious-spiritual experience in which someone gets the impression that their everyday consciousness has been exceeded and that they have a special one , permanent insight into a - of whatever kind - holistic reality . In common parlance today, “enlightenment” is usually understood to be a sudden realization or inspiration .

There are different views about the processes that are denoted by the term enlightenment in the religious sense, and the reasons for their occurrence, which are related to the respective philosophical or religious background of the person making the judgment. In some cases, enlightenment is viewed as a spontaneous breakthrough or as the end result of a process of spiritual practice and development obtained through one's own strength, according to other interpretations it is due to divine grace , and still others establish a connection between the two. Usually associated with the idea of ​​enlightenment is the assumption that it changes the personality profoundly and permanently.

In European traditions, enlightenment is often considered a mystical experience. In the terminology of Asian religions , there are no expressions that correspond exactly to the European term "enlightenment", but comparable phenomena play a central role in many Eastern traditions (see Bodhi ).

Concept history


The term “enlightenment” comes from the ancient philosophical metaphor of light . The starting point for its creation was formed by passages in Plato's Dialogue Politeia and in the Seventh Letter attributed to Plato . In the Politeia , Plato states that the first thing to do is to find out what constitutes justice in the state, and then to apply the result of this investigation to the individuals. One should look at the state and the individual justice determination comparatively and rub against each other like two firewoods, then perhaps justice will flash out like a spark, that is to say come to a sudden realization of its general nature. The author of the Seventh Letter writes that the realization of the meaning of Plato's “ unwritten teaching ” is the fruit of frequent joint efforts by the philosophers, but that it does not arise in the soul gradually, but suddenly, like a fire that is kindled by a spark. Then continue to nourish it from within. One should rub names, explanations, views and perceptions against one another and examine them in this way, then insight and understanding about every object could shine. After the Seventh Letter, the lighting up marks the end of a five-stage process of cognition, the first four steps of which are discursive .

The neo-Platonic metaphysics of light ties in with these passages and with the light metaphors of Plato's allegory of the sun and the allegory of the cave . In the 3rd century Plotinus , the founder of Neoplatonism , developed a doctrine of the vision of the Light of One . In the process, the looking philosopher becomes enlightened in the sense of the religious concept of enlightenment that is still common today.

The Neoplatonic term eklampsis or ellampsis ("shining out") was taken up by the ancient church fathers . Above all, the very influential late antique church father Augustine († 430) created a Christian theory of "illumination" from the Neoplatonic ideas. For him, enlightenment results from the presence of divine light in the soul.

Middle Ages and Modern Times

In Middle High German, the words erliuhten and erliuhtunge were used in both a physical and a figurative religious sense. Both meanings of “enlighten” and “enlightenment” were also common in the early modern period .

In common parlance in the 20th and 21st centuries, “enlightenment” primarily means “sudden knowledge”, “idea”, “flash of thought”, “inspiration”. This use of the term ties in with the religious one, but it is often about a non-religious context. A sudden, often seemingly wonderful clarity is obtained about a question or a problem, and the impressiveness of such a lightning-like knowledge is to be emphasized by the term "enlightenment", which is reminiscent of religious enlightenment experiences.


The concept of awakening ( Sanskrit bodhi ), which is often imprecisely translated as "enlightenment", has a central meaning in Buddhism . He can be found in " Buddha " ("the awakened") and " Bodhisattva ". Bodhi comes from the Sanskrit root budh , which means "wake up, recognize, perceive, understand".

There are two successive stages of Buddhist awakening. The first represents the individual liberation from the cycle of suffering of sentient beings, the cycle of rebirths ( samsara ) . The awakened one has removed all causes of suffering from his mind and only experiences peace. This is called "attaining nirvana ". According to the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, there is a second stage of development, on which full awakening occurs, with which comprehensive knowledge is additionally obtained.

According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama , the historical Buddha, achieved the state of an awakened in Bodhgaya after meditating under a poplar fig for many weeks . Some time afterwards, he began to share his findings in discourses. His teaching says that every living being has the potential to achieve lasting peace and bodhi. He taught for about 45 years and died of old age. According to the Buddhist tradition, he entered the Parinirvana .

According to the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhist practitioner strives for Bodhi in order to leave the cycle of suffering of rebirth. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, is about the development of the Bodhi spirit (Sanskrit bodhicitta ). This means that the practitioner wants to attain Bodhi for the benefit of all sentient beings. He does not want to enter nirvana until all other sentient beings have also attained bodhi. This is expressed in the bodhisattva vow .

The two usual translations of Bodhi as “enlightenment” or “awakening” illustrate two different doctrines of Mahayana with their different accentuation: the concept of spontaneous enlightenment ( Huineng ) and that of gradual meditative self-perfection ( Shenxiu ). Even with spontaneous enlightenment, according to these teachings, it is not a one-time, final process. Rather, all masters have deepened their acquired insight for decades, often also with other masters. The idea of ​​being able to achieve a lightning-like "enlightenment" is said to be detrimental to the calm, patient meditative practice.

The Zen -Buddhismus referred relevant experience as Satori .


Alevis belief is strongly determined by universalism . The focus is on the human being as an independent being. The relationship to fellow human beings and to nature is considered important. In contrast, the question of death and the concept of the hereafter is of secondary importance; rather, life in this world is in the foreground. The human soul is considered immortal, it strives for perfection through ethical progress and thus also for immediate enlightenment.


In Jainism , as in other traditions of Indian origin, the term bodhi for enlightenment is common. "Jina" and "Buddha" are used as honorary titles for Mahavira , the founder of the religious community. The literal meaning of bodhi is “perfect knowledge” or “wisdom” (making a person a Buddha or Jina), the enlightened or enlightened mind of a Buddha or Jina. As in Buddhism and Hinduism, enlightenment in Jainism is synonymous with liberation from samsara .

Jainism assumes that through every activity of the human being, fine matter flows into the soul (jiva) and attaches itself to it. The Jainas call this matter karma . It binds the soul. In Jainism, asceticism strives to destroy the karma that has penetrated into the soul and in this way to end the entanglement in the cycle of suffering. Omniscience is achieved when the soul, by destroying the karma that has penetrated it, comes into unlimited possession of its natural abilities (seeing, knowing, power, delight) and thus also of its unlimited knowledge.


In Jnana Yoga , the term Jnana is used for “higher knowledge” . In the Advaita philosophy, this spiritual knowledge contains the final recognition of the unity between Atman (individual soul ) and Brahman (absolute consciousness, world soul ). The goal is redemption ( moksha ) from the cycle of rebirths (samsara) .

In Raja Yoga , the highest level is Samadhi , the complete calm of the mind. The stage ultimately aimed at is nirvikalpa samadhi , the formless state in which there is no longer any distinction between subject and object and unity with Brahman is achieved. However, nirvikalpa samadhi is viewed by some as a temporary state. The permanent state of non-duality is Sahaja-Samadhi , the natural state in which the universal self is realized during all activities after the identification with the limited ego has been removed.

In the Samkhya philosophy, the term buddhi ("knowing") was established. The aim of both Samkhya and Yoga is to differentiate between Purusha , the absolute spirit, and Prakriti , the primordial matter. Prakriti includes the elements, sensory perception, thinking (Manas), the ability to differentiate ( Buddhi ) and I-consciousness ( Ahamkara ). Yoga like Samkhya, unlike Advaita Vedanta, are strictly dualistic. In Hindi today , buddhi means "mind, intelligence, knowledge."


Daoist enlightenment is explained as attaining the eternal Dao and becoming one with it (see Zhenren , Daoist mysticism ). Daoism does not refer to a divine being, but the gods traditionally revered can play a role. The basic work for religious Daoism is the Daodejing of Laozi , but the Daozang also describes a variety of methods for attaining enlightenment.

The Daoists say, “In order to return to your true being, you must become a master of silence. Sit motionless like a stone and let your mind become calm. Turn the spirit into yourself and observe the inner glow. ”In contrast to the Indian religions, Daoism does not start from a cycle of rebirths.

The difference between Buddhist Nirvana and the Dao is that the Dao is a transcendent operating principle that is immanent in the manifested world. It is considered the cause of everything, as the only true being. The Dao represents the order of things, so that every being and every thing has its own way, its own Dao. In Daoism, as in other traditions, it is not a question of overcoming a world that is viewed as illusory, but of finding harmony between microcosm and macrocosm .

Judaism, Christianity, Islam

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, experiences of enlightenment are not a primary religious goal, but the essential thing is the fulfillment of God's will. Nevertheless, there are many reports of enlightenment experiences, especially in the Christian culture.


Augustine believed that all human knowledge is only possible through enlightenment. In his early writing About the Teacher, he paraphrases this assumption by referring to the “inner teacher”, the “Word of God”, who teaches every person about everything he can know: the world, himself and God. Man can only know something because God enlightens man. Just as the eye cannot perceive anything without the light of the sun, man cannot see anything without the light of God. The knowledge of God takes place in the enlightenment through God himself. It is at the same time a divine act of grace and the human act to go beyond oneself.

In Christian ascetics , according to Pseudo-Dionysius , who is based on Platonic ideas in his model , enlightenment ( Greek photismos ) represents the second of the three stages of mystical knowledge. In the 13th century this tripartite division is made by the Carthusian Hugo de Balma in his work Viæ Sion lugent as well as taken up by the Franciscan Bonaventure in De triplici via . The Latin name via illuminativa can be found in both . While Hugo understands this path of enlightenment mystically according to Dionysius, Bonaventure understands it as a section on the path to perfection.

In scholastic philosophy, the " light of knowledge" ( lumen intellectuale ), which is inherent in every human being and enables him to cognize, is an image of the uncreated light in which the human being participates through the knowledge of eternal essence images.

In the Eastern Churches , light phenomena such as the Tabor light play a more important role in the context of enlightenment than in the Western Churches. Individual enlightenment is still an important goal, especially among Orthodox monks; The laity also like to visit enlightened people and enjoy extremely high esteem , especially as clergy fathers and starzes . Most of them are not priests or theologians.

Brightness and light phenomena in this context are known in all Christian churches and are also found in the iconographic representations ( halos ) and also in Nahtodberichten .

Martin Luther is deeply rooted in the mystical tradition. His own experiences of God , many years of life as a monk and the writings of the mystic Johannes Tauler gave him strength and courage to formulate and steadfastly defend his Reformation doctrine of justification "solely from faith" and his doctrine of the "general priesthood of all believers ". Like many mystics, he saw and described God as bridegroom and the human soul as bride; that is precisely why he saw no need for church mediation services in such a love affair. However, he clearly distinguished himself from the enthusiasts , and many of his successors take rather skeptical attitudes towards mysticism.

More recently, Peter Dyckhoff has also described current interpretations on the subject of enlightenment in Christianity in a literary work commissioned by Vatican Radio . Today, enlightenment is generally taught and understood as a state or moment of being one with God - i.e. like Jesus - whereby in most cases this arises in humans only after their earthly death or, more rarely, during their lifetime, as for example with Thomas von Aquin . At such a moment the Holy Spirit is breathed into man through God and salvation is given. According to indications in the New Testament, truth, knowledge and knowledge about the future are also made possible by the Holy Spirit at the time of enlightenment. The Holy Spirit also reminds the enlightened one of everything that Jesus said. In this context, the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor is understood in many places - especially highlighted by a major holiday in the Eastern Church - according to which three disciples are given a foresight into Paradise, in which man is in an enlightened state, i.e. exclusively in the perfect love of God , will live.


The representatives of the mystical current within Islam are the Sufis . Your ultimate goal is to get as close to God as possible while leaving your desires behind. In doing so, God or the truth is experienced as “the beloved”. The core of Sufism is therefore the inner relationship between the “lover” (Sufi) and the “beloved” (God). The Sufi is led to God through love, whereby the seeker strives to experience the truth already in this life and not to wait for the hereafter . This is clearly reflected in the principle to die before you die , which is persecuted throughout Sufism. To this end, the Sufis try to combat the drives of the lower soul or the tyrannical ego ( an-nafs al-ammara ) in such a way that they are transformed into positive properties. In this way one can go through individual stations, the highest of which is the pure soul ( an-nafs al-safiya ). However, this last stage is reserved exclusively for the prophets and the most perfect saints.

The mystical experience of God is the state of oneness ( tauhid ) with God, which one could best describe with “enlightenment” ( Ischraq , Arabic išrāq ; cf. Schihab ad-Din Yahya Suhrawardi as representative of the philosophical-mystical direction of isrāq ), too when that term is not used in Islam.


The basis of Kabbalistic traditions is man's search for the experience of a direct relationship with God. A reinterpretation by Isaac Luria in the 16th century emphasizes creation and redemption .

Western esotericism

The term enlightenment has been used often in connection with Asian religious traditions over the past two centuries in various spiritual-religious communities, teachings and contexts. In the recent past, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Aurobindo Ghose , for example, have been viewed as enlightened teachers , although the reception in the West was often very different from that in the Indian cultural area. Osho was also considered enlightened.

The author Eckhart Tolle , who describes his “spiritual awakening” in his first book, draws on elements from various traditions such as Christian mysticism , Sufism and Buddhism in his works . Other authors have also reported on such experiences. The need to share it with friends and fellow human beings is often reported. However, it is difficult or even impossible for the “unenlightened” to comprehend or understand the state of consciousness of “enlightenment”. Osho proposed this area as a research area for psychology in the 1970s. The transpersonal psychology also took up the topic.

Since the mid-1990s, the " Satsang " movement spread across Europe and the USA . Their spiritual teachers (such as Gangaji and her husband Eli Jaxon-Bear , Cedric Parkin , Pyar Troll-Rauch , Madhukar ), who mostly refer to Ramana Maharshi and HWL Poonja as teachers and predecessors, are viewed by their followers as enlightened. The origin of the movement is the advaita - Vedanta, aimed at the attainment of the impersonal divine .

The American spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen coined the term "evolutionary enlightenment". His idea is that not only the so-called higher self should develop, but also the higher we . Thomas Steininger, who was then a student of Gangaji, writes about Cohen: “Andrew Cohen did not speak of 'evolutionary enlightenment' at the time, but he spoke about the ego in a completely different tone than I was used to: What is the value of one cosmic experience when my togetherness with others is still characterized by self-centeredness and arrogance? ”His followers and also his former teacher HWL Poonja is / was considered to be enlightened in the traditional sense.


Overview representations


  • Günther K. Lehmann: Enlightenment: The Unio Mystica in Philosophy and History . Leipziger Uni-Verlag, Leipzig 2004, ISBN 3-937209-99-9 .
  • Ulrich Niemann, Marion Wagner: Visions - Works of God or Product of Man? Theology and human sciences in conversation . Pustet, Regensburg 2005, ISBN 3-7917-1954-8 .


Eastern traditions

Web links


  1. Plato, Politeia 435a.
  2. ^ Plato, Seventh Letter 341c – d.
  3. Plato, Seventh Letter 344b.
  4. See on this term Werner Beierwaltes: Thinking of one , Frankfurt am Main 1985, p. 272 ​​and Werner Beierwaltes: Proklos. Basics of his Metaphysics , 2nd edition, Frankfurt am Main 1979, pp. 288–294, 378.
  5. Matthias Lexer : Middle High German Concise Dictionary , Vol. 1, Leipzig 1872, reprint Stuttgart 1974, Sp. 652 f.
  6. Examples in Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm: German Dictionary , Vol. 3, Leipzig 1862, Sp. 903 f.
  7. Examples in Ruth Klappenbach, Wolfgang Steinitz (Ed.): Dictionary of German Contemporary Language , Vol. 2, 2nd edition, Berlin 1968, p. 1121; Duden. The large dictionary of the German language in ten volumes , 3rd edition, vol. 3, Mannheim 1999, p. 1085.
  8. ^ Ernst Schwarz (translator): Bi-Yän-Lu. Notes from the Master of the Blue Rock. Koan Collection , Munich 1999, pp. 24 f., 254, 311.
  9. Ernst Cassirer: Nachgelassene Manuskripte und Werke , Volume 6: Lectures and studies on philosophical anthropology , Hamburg 2005, p. 66 f.
  10. Otto Zimmermann: Textbook of Aszetik , Freiburg 1932, pp. 75-77.
  11. ^ Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica I, q. 84, loc. 5.
  12. Gerhard Wehr: The German Mysticism: Life and Inspirations of God-inflamed People in the Middle Ages and Modern Times , Cologne 2006, pp. 180-204.
  13. ^ Gotthard Strohmaier : Avicenna. Beck, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-406-41946-1 , p. 130 f.
  14. Thomas Steininger: Experiences with Andrew Cohen - The Evolution of Enlightenment ( Memento from March 22, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) . magazine info3, May 2005.