Can a Person Attain Enlightenment Just by Practicing Mindfulness?

Can a Person Attain Enlightenment Just by Practicing Mindfulness?

enlightenment 1

The answer to the question of whether a person can attain enlightenment by only practicing mindfulness (obviously) depends on what definition of mindfulness and enlightenment one chooses to work with.

Let’s start by establishing what is actually meant in Buddhism by the term “enlightenment”. As part of our role as Buddhist monks and Psychologists (that specialise in researching Buddhist meditation), we come across a lot of Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditation teachers who are only too pleased to inform us that they have attained enlightenment. In our opinion, there are many reasons why these individuals decide to inform us (and others) that they are enlightened. Some of the most obvious reasons (in ascending order of “believability”) are that these people:

  •  Are in fact enlightened beings and like to tell other all about their hidden qualities.
  • Believe that enlightenment simply means having a superior intellect compared to other people around them.
  • Have had – or believe they have had – some kind of genuine spiritual experience.
  • Know full well that they are not enlightened but claim to be so in order to get an ego-kick or because they think it will help their career or reputation.

If it is accepted that (for example) enlightenment means simply being more intelligent than the average person or having given rise to genuine spiritual experiences, then it is certainly possible that exclusively practising mindfulness (i.e., rather than combining it with other spiritual and meditative practices) could lead to enlightenment. However, in our opinion, none of the meditation teachers we have met who informed us that they are enlightened, were, in fact, enlightened. Based on a synthesis of the Buddhist commentaries and canonical texts, we recently explicated enlightenment as a state in which all gross and subtle forms of suffering have completely ceased and in which the following “competencies” are present: (i) omniscience, (ii) deathlessness, (iii) dwelling in emptiness, (iv) unconditional blissful abiding, (v) freedom to take rebirth in any realm according to the needs of beings, (vi) great compassion (Sanskrit: maha karuna), and (vii) command over animate and inanimate phenomena.

Now that we have (hopefully) provided a clearer picture of what constitutes a Buddhist interpretation of enlightenment, and before we provide our opinion on whether mindfulness alone can lead to enlightenment, let’s move on now to briefly examine what is meant in Buddhism by the term “mindfulness”. Providing an absolute definition of the Buddhist depiction of mindfulness is not an easy task because Buddhist traditions do not necessarily interpret and practice mindfulness in the same way. In terms of the foundational (i.e., Theravada) Buddhist vehicle which is what might be regarded as constituting a more ‘exoteric’ approach to Buddhist practice, mindfulness – which is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path – is principally understood to play an important role in regulating meditative concentration. In this more exoteric interpretation, mindfulness is generally practised as a means of ensuring that concentration remains positioned on a specific meditative object (which can also include the present moment).

Based upon how mindfulness is interpreted in exoteric Buddhist contexts, there do not exist strong grounds for arguing that the exclusive practice of mindfulness can lead to enlightenment. The primary reason for this is because mindfulness – according to the traditional Buddhist model – is just one component of the “right path” to enlightenment. The other components of this path are the remaining seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path (for a more detailed discussion of the Noble Eightfold Path see our post on the Scientific Study of the Noble Eightfold Path).

Although we have just argued that it is improbable that enlightenment could be reached just by practising mindfulness, if we make a slight adjustment to what is meant by the term mindfulness by adopting a more esoteric definition, then our opinion on this matter changes accordingly. A more esoteric definition of mindfulness, using the words of Dudjom Rinpoche, is the “simple recollection of the recognition of your own nature”. We would argue that exclusively practising mindfulness in a manner consistent with this more esoteric definition could actually lead to enlightenment.

There is a great deal of synergy between the abovementioned exoteric and esoteric Buddhist delineations of mindfulness because both of these approaches effectively view mindfulness as a faculty that regulates meditative concentration. The main difference between the two models is that in the exoteric approach something external and separate from the individual is taken as the object of meditative concentration, while in the esoteric approach the individual’s inherent enlightened nature becomes the main focus of meditation. Both of these methods constitute completely valid approaches and – as far as we see it – there isn’t any contradiction between them.

Although we are using the terms “exoteric” and “esoteric, it should be remembered that esoteric Buddhist practices will never bear fruit unless a person has first internalised and mastered the exoteric Buddhist teachings. Likewise, even very basic or seemingly exoteric practices such as simply observing the breath can become extremely potent and esoteric if they are practised in the right way.

Mindfulness plays an essential role in helping us progress along the path to enlightenment. As we grow in spiritual insight and awareness, our understanding of both mindfulness and enlightenment should also evolve. As we discussed in a recent (and free to download) article that we wrote called The Lineage of Mindfulness, it is important to allow our understanding of mindfulness and enlightenment to constantly change. Indeed, if we become attached or try to hold onto what we think constitutes mindfulness or enlightenment, then we distance ourselves from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. It is likewise very important that we avoid becoming attached to the idea of “attaining” enlightenment because for as long as enlightenment is seen as a future goal, it will remain exactly that.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

Dudjom Rinpoche. (2005). Wisdom Nectar: Dudjom Rinpoche’s Heart Advice. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

Nanamoli Bhikkhu. (1979). The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga. Kandy (Sri Lanka): Buddhist Publication Society.

Nyanaponika Thera. (1983). The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. London: Rider.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2025). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer. [In Press]

Author: Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Dr Edo Shonin Dr Edo Shonin is research director of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness Research, and a chartered psychologist at the Nottingham Trent University (UK). He sits on the editorial board for the academic journal Mindfulness and the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Edo is internationally recognised as a leading authority in mindfulness practice and research and has over 100 academic publications relating to the scientific study of meditation and Buddhist practice. He is the author of ‘The Mindful Warrior: The Path to Wellbeing, Wisdom and Awareness’ and primary editor of academic volumes on ‘The Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness’ and ‘Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction’. He has been a Buddhist monk for thirty years and is spiritual director of the international Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has also received the higher ordination in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Edo regularly receives invitations to give keynote speeches, lectures, retreats and workshops at a range of academic and non-academic venues all over the world. Ven William Van Gordon Ven William Van Gordon has been a Buddhist monk for almost ten years. He is co-founder of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation, Mindfulness, and Psychological Wellbeing and the Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has been ordained within Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions and has extensive training in all aspects of Buddhist practice, psychology, and philosophy. Prior to becoming a Buddhist monk, Ven William Van Gordon worked for various blue chip companies including Marconi Plc, PepsiCo International, and Aldi Stores Limited where he worked as an Area Manager responsible for a multi-site £28 million portfolio of supermarkets with over 50 employees. Ven William Van Gordon is also a research psychologist and forms part of the Psychological Wellbeing and Mental Health Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University. His area of research expertise is the study of ‘authentic spiritual transmission’ – within mainstream Buddhism itself as well as within contemporary Buddhist-derived clinical interventions. His current research projects are concerned with evaluating the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness for the treatment of various health conditions. Ven William Van Gordon has numerous publications relating to the clinical utility of meditative interventions including in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. As a separate undertaking, William is currently writing-up his doctoral thesis which relates to the effects of meditation on work-related wellbeing and performance. Ven William Van Gordon enjoys fell running, martial arts, DIY, reading and writing poetry, caring for cancer patients, and studying civil litigation. He is a keen mountaineer with some arctic expedition experience.

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