How can you tell if someone is enlightened?

At the start of his book „Precious Teachers“ Sangharakshita tells that he has sometimes been asked if one of his teachers was more spiritually developed than the rest. He goes on:
„A similar question was once put by a disciple to one of the members of the celebrated trio of spiritual masters that was made up of Chattrul Rimpoche, Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, and Dudjom Rimpoche… The master replied, „One of us is indeed more spiritually developed than the others, but you disciples will never know which one it is.“

An unenlightened disciple cannot see directly into an enlightened person’s mind. But if this is the case, how, then, is a spiritual follower to determine whether a teacher is enlightened? This is a very relevant question when, nowadays, many teachers and authors of books claim to be enlightened. To provide an answer let’s turn to what the Buddha himself said in the Pali Canon.

In the Pali Canon to be enlightened is to be completely free of the three root poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. There is no compromise in the Pali Canon with this definition of enlightenment. I’m emphasising this because many modern claims of enlightenment are clearly not based on such a straightforward and stringent definition, but are instead based on a claim of some experience of insight or glimpse of enlightenment that, however, does not destroy the root poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Because of this we have the confusing situation where many people claim to be enlightened even if they sometimes acknowledge that they still have much work to do to overcome their limitations. In other words they are not free of greed, hatred and delusion. According to the Buddha’s own definition they are not enlightened.

But how, then, could we tell if someone was enlightened? In the Canki Sutta the Buddha advises that the proper test of the truth of someone’s claim to be enlightened is an examination of their conduct for any evidence of greed, hatred or delusion. If we cannot see directly into a person’s mind to test whether they are enlightened or not, we can nevertheless rely on the indirect evidence of their ethical purity or otherwise. A person’s actions of body and of speech are a decisive indicator of the extent of their spiritual attainment.

In the Vimamsaka and Thana Suttas the Buddha gives some detailed advice on how to go about testing the ethical conduct of a teacher.

Is the appearance of ethical purity a recent phenomenon or has it been consistently evident for a long time? Here the Buddha is advising caution with initial appearances, and even suggests that one of the ways to examine a person’s behaviour is to get close to them and to live next to them.

A person’s behaviour should then be carefully examined in a variety of circumstances, watching not just for initial responses but paying attention to what might happen later.

How does the person respond when faced with adversity? If suffering the loss of a relative or of wealth, or becoming ill, does the person respond with equanimity? Do they reflect that suffering happens when one clings to the self, or do they become afflicted with sorrow and grief?

If they become a popular and even famous teacher, how do they respond to such popularity and fame?

In their dealings with other members of the sangha, do they say one thing to one person and something else to another? Are their later dealings in harmony with their earlier dealings? Do they publicly rubbish some members of the sangha whilst praising others?

Do they make false claims in their conversations and teachings, saying that they know or see things when they don’t?

Do they avoid indulging in sensual pleasures out of fear of the consequences, or because they are truly without lust?

When teaching or in discussion how does a person respond to an issue? How do they apply reasoning? Are they dull? Can they make the meaning plain and clear?

These are tough criteria! But they are minimum ethical standards expected of someone who claims to be enlightened. And, of course, it would also be expected of an enlightened person that they were unfailingly compassionate and kind.

But where does this leave us if, when we look at our spiritual teachers, we conclude that we either do not know them well enough to be able to judge them in the way the Buddha suggests, or we conclude that, as far as we can tell, they are not enlightened? Let’s return again to Sangharakshita;

„For my part, I have never tried to find out how my teachers compared with one another, spiritually speaking. Indeed, I never thought in such terms. It was enough that they were vastly superior to me in wisdom and compassion and that, by a strange combination of circumstances, I had come to be in contact with them and could benefit from their teaching and spiritual influence.“

From our own observations we can surely judge whether someone is spiritually superior to ourselves, even if we also see imperfections in them. I made a decision fourteen years ago to go and live at a retreat centre with fellow buddhists I regarded as my potential teachers. I lived for six and a half years in everyday close proximity to them and was able to clearly see their virtues and their failings – as they could also see mine! — and was able to gain enormous benefit from their spiritual example. None of my teachers would claim to be enlightened but it is enough that they are my kalyana mitras (spiritual friends) whose guidance is invaluable to my spiritual progress. They do not have to be perfect to be invaluable teachers.

And if we ourselves become teachers then we have a tremendous responsibility to be honest with others about our personal failings and not to give, or encourage others to hold, misleading impressions about our own spiritual attainments.

And if your spiritual teacher claims to be enlightened then why not follow the advice of the Buddha in the Vimamsaka Sutta, and directly ask them „ Can you honestly say that you never give way to any feelings of anger or irritability or to any feelings of lust or desire? Can you honestly say that you fully understand that all things whatsoever are impermanent, that life is unsatisfactory, and that everything is empty of fixed and separate self-nature; and can you honestly say that you always act in accordance with this understanding? “

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
Tallinn, December 2009


  • Sangharakshita „Precious Teachers“
  • Canki Sutta „In the Buddha’s Words“ p.96 – 103
  • Vimamsaka Sutta „In the Buddha’s Words“ p. 93 – 96
  • Thana Sutta „Numerical Discourses of the Buddha“ p.119 – 121