What Is Spiritual Awakening?

The word “awakening” is used in religion in two senses. It can mean a widespread revival of interest in religion among a community — such as the Great Awakenings that punctuate American history — or it can mean a personal realization and transformation. It is this latter sense that concerns us here.

The metaphor of awakening enters the world’s spiritual vocabulary around the middle of the first millennium B.C., when Siddhattha Gotama utters the words buddhosmi,[1] “I am one who has awakened.” If others had already awakened before Gotama, their names and details are lost to us.

The evidence for Gotama’s words comes from the Doṇa Sutta.[2] This sutta, like so many others, consists of a prose section and a metrical section. The prose section provides a setting for, and a doctrinal expansion of, the material in the verses. It also contains mythological elements. We can conclude that the prose passage was composed at a later date. This layered composition makes sense when we consider the suttas’ Sitz im Leben. The suttas are not verbatim records of historical events. They are teaching tools, designed to be committed to memory and chanted in order to inculcate Buddhist doctrine. Here as elsewhere, an original author has rendered a saying of the Buddha into verse, and a second hand has added the narrative. The charm of the story should not detract us from its origins in the imagination of the second author. Only the core teaching is likely authentic.

The story in the Doṇa Sutta is this. Gotama is traveling on a path between the villages of Ukkaṭṭhā and Setabya. He leaves the path and sits down cross-legged at the root of a tree to meditate. Some distance behind him on the path, a man named Doṇa observes Gotama’s footprints ahead of him. These footprints are remarkable for their containing wheel-marks within them — marks so detailed that Doṇa can make out a hub, a rim, and a thousand spokes within each wheel. Marveling at this phenomenon, Doṇa follows the footprints until he comes across Gotama sitting under a tree. Struck by the impressive tranquility of Gotama, Doṇa approaches him.

“Are you a god?”[3] he asks. When Gotama replies no, Doṇa asks him in turn if he is a gandhabba, a yakkha, or a human being.[4] To each Gotama again replies no; he is not one of these.

Having dismissed these four possibilities, Gotama volunteers an explanation. He is a buddha, “one who has awakened.”

The Doṇa Sutta, with its metrical portion and its undifferentiated notion of awakening, must be relatively early. Later Buddhist doctrine distinguishes four grades of awakening. Individuals who have reached these four grades are named, in ascending order, the stream-enterer,[5] the once-returner,[6] the non-returner,[7] and the arahant.

We shall focus on the condition of the stream-enterer — a sort of minimum qualification for awakening. A convenient collection of doctrines related to stream-entry appears in the fifty-fifth book of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Stream-Entry Collection.[8] In the Giñjakāvasatha, or Brick Hall Sutta,[9] the Buddha’s cousin and attendant, Ānanda, asks the Buddha to discern the spiritual condition of four named disciples: Sāḷha, Nandā, Sudatta, and Sujātā. The Buddha replies that the monk Sāḷha is an arahant, the nun Nandā is a non-returner, the layman Sudatta is a once-returner, and the laywoman Sujātā is a stream-enterer.

This narrative is so neatly structured as to cast doubts on its authenticity, but it does convey Buddhist teachings on the four grades of awakening and gives the distinguishing marks of each grade. The arahant reached full enlightenment “by destroying the outflows.”[10] The non-returner reached her condition “by abandoning the five fetters.”[11] The once-returner has reached his condition “by destroying the three fetters, and by weakening lust, hatred, and delusion.” The stream-enterer reached her stage “by destroying the three fetters.” These three fetters, whose destruction defines the minimal form of awakening, are belief in a self, doubt, and attachment to rites and rituals.[12]

The last two reflect early Buddhism’s cultural context. Doubt means specifically doubt about Buddhist doctrine and practice, while attachment to rites and rituals refers to adherence to the brāhmaṇa religion. If we exclude these last two, we are left with one universal element, the elimination of belief in a self.

This definition may at first appear baffling. The self and the surrounding complex of related thoughts are so ubiquitous and so familiar, and have been for so long, that it is easy to believe they have always existed. In fact, all the signs are that a newborn has no self-construct at all, and that the sense of self is not fully developed until adulthood. It develops in a sequence of stages that is not in itself the subject of memories.

Perception and imprinting begin in the womb. A baby will react more strongly to a piece of music heard before birth than to a piece never previously heard. A newborn cannot, of course, report on its experience, so the nature of this experience must be inferred from observable behaviors. Soon after birth, a baby’s eyes will follow an attractive object, such as a bright yellow ball. If, however, the object is dropped out of sight or hidden under a blanket, the baby ceases to look in that direction. Only after about three months (this and other milestones are, of course, approximate, and vary from individual to individual) will the baby continue to look at the location where the bright yellow ball was last seen. We can conclude that the infant’s mind now contains an internal representation of the ball, which persists even when the ball is not present to immediate sensory experience. Piaget named this step “object permanence.”[13] Before object permanence, experience is one undifferentiated sensory whole. After object permanence, discrete pieces of reality have been fenced off and represented in the mind as objects. There is as yet no representation of self and other — an affective condition termed “primary narcissism.”

A few months after object permanence, the infant will attempt to reach for an attractive but partially obscured object. The child is no longer simply responding to the experiences that come his way. He has imposed his own agenda on the world, and he attempts to grasp at, and perpetuate, interesting or pleasant sensations.

The very earliest age at which a self of some kind appears is about eighteen months. In a psychological experiment, a red smudge is covertly applied to a child’s nose. When the toddler sees herself in the mirror, she realizes that the red smudge is on her own nose and raises her hand to wipe it away. It is debatable, though, how well-developed the self-concept must be for this to happen; social animals will do the same thing when exposed to the mirror test.

Language and symbolic thought develop in close relationship. Before the age of two years, the child produces intelligible words, beginning with simple nouns for objects of concrete experience: “dog,” “cup,” and so on. The experience of the dog is now not only represented as an object in the mind (object permanence), but this object is in turn represented by a symbol — in this case the sound “dog.” This new capacity is termed semiotic or symbolic thinking. The gradually forming internal representation of the self is symbolized by the word “I.”

The development of language, and hence thought, continues with the addition of verbs to nouns — “dog running,” and so on. A child’s early sentences sometimes resemble a labeling of, or running commentary on, sensory experience.

By the age of three, the child’s mind is sufficiently developed for it to digress from purely instinctual responses in favor of learned adaptations to situational demands. The child forms strategies for winning its parents’ approval and avoiding their disapproval. These learned adaptations then “stick” in the mind. They will continue to be applied to new situations, even into adulthood. The desires the child experiences in these new situations are therefore learned, habitual desires rather than reflections of innate needs.

The only possible way the child can override its natural affects and instincts, while maintaining cognitive coherence, is to push its genuine and spontaneous reactions out of awareness. The means by which this disavowal happens are the defense mechanisms. The earliest defense mechanism to develop is the denial of painful reality and its replacement by pleasurable fantasy. In an example from the literature,[14] a small boy who is afraid of his father has a recurrent daydream in which he owns a pet lion, with which he can terrify other people. In reality, the boy experiences fear and an inability to control his environment; in fantasy, he experiences comfort and mastery.

At about the age of seven, thought-processes begin to develop that are not wholly rooted in concrete experience. Piaget calls this the “concrete operational” phase. Prior to this, the child uses the words “mother” and “father” to signify particular individuals. Now he uses the word “parent” to signify both “mother” and “father,” even though “parent” is not itself an object of direct experience. Moreover, the child forms a relationship between the symbols “mother” and “father” on the one hand, and the symbol “parent” on the other.[15] The symbol “parent” is a collective symbol for “mother” and “father.” This is named the “concrete operational” phase, in that the child is performing logical operations on the symbols for concrete objects.

At age twelve or so, the second stage of removal from reality begins. Piaget named this phase that of “propositional operations,” when abstract thoughts can now be formed that are wholly removed from direct experience.[16]

This is also the age of puberty. Increased libidinal energy leads to a “redoubling of the subject’s efforts to master the instincts.”[17] Looked at from the behavioral point of view, the energy put into learned or habitual agendas is also increased. The urge to strengthen the defense mechanisms, coupled with the simultaneous increase in the capacity for abstract thought, leads to prolific intellectualizing. Thus, a fifteen-year-old girl, anxious to be loved, attempts to master her anxiety with a frantic intellectual quest for the most productive way to behave around boys.[18] At the center of these thoughts is, of course, the internal symbolization of herself — now fully solidified and identified with, and the subject of innumerable thoughts, daydreams, and desires.

Having seen how this “self” is constructed during childhood, we can now use this knowledge to examine the Buddhist definition of awakening. The “sure seeing of no-self” can be translated into psychological terms. Awakening is the realization that the internal self-construct is just that — a mental construct, around which thoughts and desires can coagulate, but which has no real and external existence as an object of experience.

Once an individual has seen this, the defense mechanisms are deprived of their cognitive support. The “I” that previously locked them in place is seen to be a chimera. Awakening is often accompanied by a rush of energy, as the effort that previously went into suppressing natural desires and pursuing unnatural ones is freed up. Neurotic and archaic agendas have no hook to which they can attach themselves, and they fall away, deprived of their power. Washburn describes this movement as “regression in the service of transcendence.”[19] The ego is immersed in the dynamic ground from which it was formed.

It is important to distinguish the experiences that accompany awakening from the knowingness that follows it. The experience itself is named awakening because it resembles the experience of awakening from a dream — a dream that consisted of identification with the fictitious, separate “I” or ego. The consciousness that follows awakening might therefore be called “postegoic,” “transegoic,” or “transpersonal” consciousness. However, the whole importance of awakening is the postegoic consciousness, and not the unusual experiences that accompany its emergence.

The classical Buddhist definition and the psychological understanding of awakening point to the same phenomenon, expressed in different terms. While the Buddhist definition reflects a preference for discourse by ontological assertion, the psychological definition reflects a more sophisticated understanding of the process by which the self-construct is both manufactured and deconstructed.


[1] Pāli buddhosmi = buddho + asmi.

[2] Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.36 (PTS A ii 37–39).

[3] Literally, “Will you be a god?” Future tense as an indicator of surprise. See Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Dona Sutta: With Dona,” Access to Insight, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.036.than.html, accessed November 13, 2012.

[4] Gandhabba-s and yakkha-s are spirits who occupy intermediate positions between gods and humans.

[5] Sotāpanna.

[6] The sakadāgāmi will be born only one more time in the human realm.

[7] The anāgāmi will never again be born in the human or lower realms, though he may be reborn in a higher realm.

[8] Sotāpattisaṃyuttaṃ.

[9] PTS S v 356–358.

[10] Pāli āsava-s, defined elsewhere as kāmāsava, bhavāsava, and avijjāsava. See, for example, the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, DN 16 (PTS D ii 81). In the commentaries, a fourth outflow, views, is added.

[11] There are ten “fetters” (saṃyojana) in all, and they are divided into five lower fetters and five higher fetters. The five lower fetters are belief in a self, doubt, attachment to rites and rituals, sensual desire, and ill will. The five higher fetters are lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance.

[12] Sakkāyadiṭṭhi, vicikicchā, and sīlabbataparāmāsa.

[13] Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder, La psychologie de l’enfant (Paris: Presse Universitaire de France, 1966), translated into English as The Psychology of the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

[14] Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1966), p. 74.

[15] Piaget, La psychologie de l’enfant, p. 74.

[16] Ibid., p. 101.

[17] Anna Freud, op. cit., p. 152.

[18] Ibid., pp. 169–70.

[19] Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development, 2nd edition (Albany, State University of New York, 1995), chapter 7.


Derek Cameron is the author of The Slacker’s Guide to Stream-Entry: A Journey of Christian Meditation and Awakening to No-Self.