When he was 35 years old, Siddhārtha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree. For 49 days and 49 nights he meditated.
He achieved enlightenment.
Thereafter, he was known as Gautama Buddha, or, more simply, the Buddha. The enlightened one.
The word “enlightened” here, of course, is a translation – a stand in for several Sanskrit words with subtle meanings. “Enlightened” seems to be the best English can do, and this translation is really borrowed from Kant’s understanding of Aufklärung.
But, lax language aside, Buddha achieved permanent enlightenment, a state of peace and calm, free from suffering. Nirvana.
Presumably, one who has not achieved Nirvana cannot accurately conceptualize it, but, what I find perhaps most remarkable is the idea of this as a permanent state which lasts throughout an enlightened one’s life.
One can almost imagine fleeting moments of enlightenment: I imagine renaissance paintings of light and color. Brief gasps of clarity and meaning. Synapses straining toward meaning. Rare breakthrough which fade to an ineffable haze.
To imagine this as a lasting state seems inconceivable. Eventually the details of life settle in. One gets hungry or tired or busy or distracted. If you achieve enlightenment, do you get up and go to work the next morning? Answering emails and dropping kids at soccer practice don’t seem enlightened tasks.
If you manage to experience even a brief moment of awareness, can you hold on to that state, that enlightenment, while going about your mundane tasks?
In Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, he chronicles another man’s journey to enlightenment. His hero, a contemporary of the Buddha, takes many paths in life. He is a Brahman, an ascetic, a businessman. He leads all these lives, abandoning each when he realizes he is no closer to enlightenment than he was before.
All he finds is meaninglessness.
But Siddartha is a tale of enlightenment. The end of the story finds him, near the end of his life, as a ferryman by the river.
He leads a simple life and has all he needs.
He has achieved Nirvana.
And just as Siddhārtha Gautama’s journey was a path – a moderation between indulgence and deprecation – the path of Hesse’s Siddhartha is needed to be a journey as well.
He needed to starve, he needed to feast, he needed to love, he needed to lose. It was only by experiencing all this, living all these lives, that he ultimately found that rare, lasting state of peace.
In Buddhism, we all strive towards enlightenment. It is a long, possibly endless journey, spread over many lives. We are born, we experience, we die, and we are reborn to experience more. Some lives we get closer to enlightenment and some lives we lose ground.
And, perhaps, some day, in some life we can have that crystallizing moment, that brief insight of clarity, that sacred spasm of meaning.
And if you can hold on to that moment, you become buddha, become enlightened, achieve Nirvana.
You are free from suffering and reborn no more.