What enlightenment is, is the most foolish question one can ask. Only the enlightened could say and s/he’s not talkative, at least not the Buddhist one.
Nevertheless, as a result of recent publications about a Tibetan master who emerged from his solitary retreat, a master who since can’t stop smiling, the question popped up again, and the concept of “being extinguished” and its accoutrements needs to be addressed.
I’m not going to analyse the master’s state of mind. That would be disrespectful. Instead I will delve a little bit in a couple of enlightenment-related words that are etymologically nearly identical in Buddhism and Hinduïsm, but cover very different contents in each of these philosophies.
“Being extinguished”, i.e. being enlightened, or having attained, is in the Pali language, the holy language of the Theravāda or Small Vehicle “aggi nibbuto“. Aggi meaning ‘fire’, nibbuto meaning ‘it is extinguished’. As far as the few texts go that Franklin Edgerton studied, of which he produced a dictionary a similar concept does not appear in Mahāyanistic Hybrid Sanskrit manuscripts. Hence the condition of being enlightened seems to be treated / appraised / analysed differently in both main streams of Buddhism. The Northern enlightened person doesn’t stop smiling – so it seems, his Southern counterpart looks content but doesn’t raise the corners of his lips or shows his teeth.
The classical Sanskrit of the Hindu and pre-Hindu philosophies has the words ‘agni‘, fire, and ‘nibbuta‘, but as far as the Monier-Williams dictionary goes there is no combining of the two, at least not in the sense of ‘being enlightened’, ‘having reached extinction’.
Nibbuta in the Buddhist sense of the word is closely related to another word: upekkhā. This word too appears in Hindu of pre-Hindu scriptures: upekshā.
Roshen Dalal in his “Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide” states that upeksha is “the cultivation [of] indifference to the vices of others.”
The Monier-Williams dictionary has a list of possibilities; upeksha denotes a number of negative states of mind: “overlooking”, “disregarding”, and/or “indifferent”.
The first radio-speaker on Buddhism in England, a Hindu scholar, and those writers and translators who delved into the Buddhist lore used this Monier-Williams Hindu-based translation when speaking about the Buddhist concept of upekkhā. They concluded that the Buddhists too considered life full of suffering (dukkha – Pali / duhkha – Sanskrit). To alleviate this suffering, they went on, the Buddhists longed for a new life and on the way to rebirth (reïncarnation, they used the hinduïstic concept) they cultivated upekkhā, the above-mentioned negative states of mind with regard to everything worldly.
It has taken nearly 100 years before this broken pot was mended and put upright. Upekkhā in the Buddhist sense of the word means, roughly, equanimity, not indifference. Dark Dream (what’s in a name) has a very nice explanation of the constituant parts of upekkhā: “Upekkhā is formed from the prefix upa and the root ikh meaning, “to see.” The prefix upa generally means unto, to, towards, near, with; it has the notion of bringing towards or with.”
Dark Dream’s commentators generally hack his apposition to this other word of apekhha to pieces, but I think he deserves better; those Theravādin can be so harsh and unforgiving.
To give a very nice insight into the intrinsic meaning of the Buddhist upekkhā a passage out of the (Greater) Lion’s Roar (PTS MN I.12; 79-80), a Theravāda (or Small Vehicle) text in which Buddha reminisces on his path towards enlightenment when he was still on the path of the sadhu, the life-denying ascetic, though already possessed with fully developed loving-kindness (metta) and upekkhā:
“Then I lay down to sleep in a charnel ground (a field of bones where the dead, i.e. the sadhus and the poorest who would/could not be cremated, were abandoned), leaning on a skeleton. A bunch of cows (gomandala) having come up to me, dribbled on me, splattered their stool on me, showered me with dust and stuck twigs into my ears. But not by me was an evil heart created against them. This then came to be for me through abiding in upekkhā (even-mindedness, equanimity).”