How Do the Buddhist Monks Pursue Enlightenment?

You must break the mind free from its societal programming to attain enlightenment.
... Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Born into royalty, Siddhartha Gautama, now known as the Buddha, lived his early years sheltered from the poverty and suffering that plagued his country of India in that time. Upon seeing this suffering first hand, Siddhartha left his home in search of understanding. After six years in meditation he attained understanding through self-liberation and realization of the true nature of the universe, a state he called enlightenment. Siddhartha immediately began teaching of enlightenment, of the wrong and right views of the world and of the path to reaching a truly free mind. These teachings form the base of Buddhism, and it is the practices and the paths of which the Buddha taught that all Buddhist monks follow in their search for enlightenment.

1 Paths to Enlightenment

Out of the recorded teachings of the Buddha arose three distinct sects of Buddhism that differ most significantly in the way they view the path to and purpose of enlightenment. The oldest tradition, Theraveda, focuses on each individual's path to enlightenment. The goal of enlightenment in Theraveda Buddhism is to attain the state of arhat, or non-returner, meaning that the person is freed from the cycle of reincarnation. Mahayana Buddhism arose around the first century AD out of a need to refocus the path to enlightenment on the benefit of all beings rather than the individual. As this is an important tenet in the Buddha's teachings, Mahayana Buddhism considers the purpose of enlightenment to be to return to Earth by choice after enlightenment in order to help others reach the same state. The third sect, Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, developed from the Mahayana tradition with the same views on enlightenment; however, Vajrayana practices are intensely psychological, designed to be the fastest route to enlightenment.

2 Renunciation of Secular Life

The Buddha taught that all of life is suffering and that suffering arises from desire; therefore regardless of what Buddhist tradition a monk falls into, the first step on his path to enlightenment is the renunciation of secular life. This requires the giving up of all worldly possessions other than medical articles like glasses and a toothbrush as well as the eight essential items the Buddha allowed his first group of disciples: three robes, a food bowl, a belt, a water filter, a razor and a sewing needle. For monks, followers who wholly devote themselves to the Buddha's teachings and the attainment of enlightenment, this step is necessary to remove the secular obstacles to the path that create desire and distract from acquiring the teachings and implementing essential practices such as meditation.

3 Meditation

Meditation is the most important physical practice in the daily life of monks, as well as any Buddhist on the path to enlightenment. Monks, however, do not employ a single kind of meditation but rather many, all with the goal of freeing the mind. A free mind in terms of Buddhist meditation comes with the realization of your own emptiness, that the self is nonexistent and that without the ego your natural state of being is one of love and compassion. As a result, monks actively engage in various types of meditation such as samatha (tranquility) and vipassana (insight) to cultivate loving-kindness and free themselves from the bonds of the ego.

4 The Middle Way

When the Buddha began his search for answers he followed a path of depravity, but what he eventually found and taught was that it is the middle way of neither depravity nor indulgence that leads to true understanding. As such, monks are required to take vows in the ten precepts that guide their actions in order to abstain from negative influence and participate rightly in those things, like eating, that benefit their experience of the world. In addition to the ten precepts, monks also engage in practices like fasting and intense periods of study and meditation, all designed to teach them the value of self control in order to foster the ability to control the self and the mind. This freedom of the mind from control by the self is at the heart of self-liberation and the attainment of enlightenment.

Tiffany Andras received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgia Tech in Biology and Biochemistry. Her work was first published in the "Journal of Chemical Ecology" as both a full-length article and the journal's cover. She has been writing professionally since 2012, with articles spanning topics from French culture to nutrition and brain disorders.