There are two major definitions of “enlightenment:” one from the West and one from the East.
The Age of Enlightenment came about in the west during the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time, there were unprecedented advancements in science and people chose to uplift rationality over mythology. From this alone, it’s easy to tell that the Western definition of enlightenment puts more emphasis on the intellect of men.
According to Immanuel Kant, enlightenment has to do with freeing oneself from one’s need to rely on others for how they understand the world: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.)”
Simply speaking, Kant’s definition of enlightenment could mean having the courage to stand on your own and rely on your own understanding without simply just going with the flow and letting others’ opinions or “knowledge” affect your own. It’s daring to be independent and to “freely think,” or to think for yourself. And compared to the Buddhists’ definition of enlightenment, this Western sense of it is a touch colder.
This is very similar to the Buddhists’ definition of enlightenment, as well, but there is a difference.
According to Buddhism, to reach a state of enlightenment is to reach a state of total wisdom and knowledge. However, compared to Kant’s definition, enlightenment as it is known by the Buddhists does not come without an endless supply of compassion. Without compassion, there is no enlightenment.
With Buddhism, this state of enlightenment is the “end goal’ for its devotees. A lot of the practices of Buddhism serve to help its followers reach that state of perfect wisdom and peace. In fact, the term “enlightenment” itself comes from the bodhi term, “awakening.” This further implies that true enlightenment is preceded by an individual reaching a state of awakening. During this state of awakening, one begins to see that one needs to free themselves from life’s often harmful impulses. It’s acknowledging that there are two modes of existence: the relative, in which we see only what appears to us in the physical sense, and the ultimate, in which we see the pure, true nature of these things.
When you refer to the Buddhist meaning of “enlightenment,” it implies that there is this complete and total sense of inner peace, which comes from freedom from outside influences and the never-ending cycle of rebirth.
This is where the definitions of both Kant and Buddhism also converge: to be enlightened is to be completely free from external influences. They both see harmful external influences as ultimately holding us back from reaching the best versions of ourselves.
No matter which version of the word you prefer, I do believe it’s good to want to reach that state of enlightenment yourself. It’s a great purpose to have to live.