The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

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scientific pentagram diagram showing angles, proportions, and other things I don't understand.

Buddhism is full of lists: the three trainings, the four foundations of mindfulness, the five skandhas, the eightfold path, the twelve-fold dependent origination, the 37 limbs of awakening, and so forth. Often these lists are presented in a rather static way, as if we’re just being offered an overview of some area of life. So the four foundations, for example, are often described as simply being four aspects of our experience that we can be mindful of, and the five skandhas as simply a way to break down the idea of a unified self.

The five spiritual faculties

One such list is the five faculties, or five spiritual faculties, as it’s often termed. If you aren’t familiar with the five spiritual faculties, they’re a very common teaching. They are faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. They tend, as I’ve suggested is often the case, to be presented as if they just are, or as if they are five things we simply need to develop in order to become awakened. That’s how they’re often presented in the scriptures, as in the following:

A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment. What five? The faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

My impression of the Buddha is that he wasn’t really interested in providing overviews, but that he was instead very interested in how things work. He had a mind that was perhaps a bit like an engineer’s. His teaching on dependent origination, for example, is all about how one thing provides conditions for another arising and that to another, each of those conditions leading to a greater sense of freedom and joy. So when I see Buddhist lists one of my first thoughts is, how might the items on that list work together as a dynamic system.

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The five spiritual faculties as a dynamic system

As it happens, when I was doing some background reading for writing this article, I found that there’s a relatively early text that does just this with the five spiritual faculties. In one Sanskrit commentarial work, “The Discourse on the Analysis of Topics” (or Arthaviniscaya Sutra) they’re presented as a dynamic series, with each of the factors building on the previous one. Although this text is called a “sutra,” a term usually reserved for records of things the Buddha and his disciples said, the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics is actually a commentarial text. It was created by monks a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, as they tried to explain some of the teachings found in the actual scriptures. And in the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics the five spiritual faculties are described as contributing, step by step, to the development of the skillful qualities needed for awakening to take place.

Here’s how that works:

  1. The faculty of faith is an awareness of the possibility of practicing in order to be happier.
  2. The faculty of vigor allows us to actually practice and develop skillful qualities.
  3. The faculty of mindfulness helps us to preserve and maintain those skillful qualities.
  4. The faculty of concentration allows us to stay focused on those skillful qualities.
  5. And finally the faculty of wisdom allows us to “penetrate and reflect on the birth” of those things, and thus to develop insight.

This early text tries to show the five spiritual faculties as working together as a system. And the explanation makes sense, although I’ll shortly show another way of looking at how they can work together.

The five spiritual faculties, moment by moment

Recently I taught a class in a local Buddhist center where I explained how the five spiritual faculties can work, moment by moment, working together more or less simultaneously, in order to help us move from unskillful to skillful states of mind, from states of mind that cause suffering to states of mind that are imbued with a sense of peace, calm, and even joy.

So let’s say that we experience anger, and see how the five spiritual faculties function. Because they work together in a simultaneous way, we could deal with them in any order.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the activity of observing our experience. Without mindfulness no practice can take place, which is why I prefer to start with its role. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see that anger has arisen. So rather than simply being angry, now we’re aware that we’re angry.

These days there’s a tendency to see mindfulness as the only spiritual quality we need. But really it’s nothing more than simply observing. In itself it does nothing, which is why we also need the other spiritual faculties.

2. Wisdom

Often (especially in a Buddhist context) we might think about wisdom as an enlightened quality, as seeing reality as it really is, as something that arises at the end of the path and that we’ve yet to gain. But early Buddhism saw wisdom as consisting also of a very mundane form of understanding spiritual truths. For example, understanding that “There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds” are forms of wisdom.

So, in our example of being angry, our mindfulness tells us that anger is present. Wisdom tells us that this anger isn’t good for us and will likely lead to our suffering. Our wisdom also knows that there are alternatives to anger — curiosity, patience, kindness, and so on — that will make us happier in both the short and long terms.

3. Faith

Faith in Buddhism is not blind belief. It’s more like a sense of confidence and clarity. It’s from a root that literally means “to place the heart upon.” So we can know on some level that anger is going to cause problems for us, but on some other level believe that we need anger to get what we want. So our confidence in our practice is compromised.

But as we continue to mindfully observe actions and consequences unfolding in our lives, and with wisdom to see how those things are connected to each other, we can start to have more confidence that letting go of anger, and instead practicing things like curiosity, patience, and kindness, has both short- and long-term benefits.

So in this example, we’ve now mindfully noticed that anger is present, have wisely seen that anger causes suffering, and now, with faith, have confidence that some alternative to anger is more appropriate. Now, coming from the heart, there’s a desire for change. But we still haven’t actually acted.

4. Vigor

Vigor is virya, also sometimes rendered as “energy.” This is the faculty of taking action. So, now that we have confidence that non-anger is preferable to anger, we now act. We can act by letting go: we might have angry thoughts or be speaking angry words, and we simply let go of those. We can act by opening up to the possibility of acting in ways that are more helpful than anger, so that we have a sense that curiosity, patience, and kindness are there, waiting in the wings, ready to be activated. And some actions involve actually bringing those skillful qualities into being. We speak kindly or apologetically, for example. Or we empathetically try to understand a person we’re angry with.

5. Concentration

Concentration is samadhi, which comes from a root meaning something like “bringing together” or “holding together.” It refers to the mind being unified around one purpose.

Often when we hear the word “concentration” we think of a narrow focus, but that’s not necessarily what samadhi is about. Samadhi is more about having an absence of internal conflict, and therefore continuity of mindfulness.

So, in our example of dealing with anger, our concentration can mean keeping up a sustained effort to respond skillfully. As we all know, that’s difficult to do. There are parts of the mind that want to be angry and that see anger as solving our problems. And those parts of us can be very persistent, and can come back over and over again and hijack our attention. This is why maintaining concentration is necessary. So that’s one thing that concentration can mean in this instance.

But it can also refer to the state of mind that emerges from mindfulness, wisdom, faith, and vigor. As we continue to give priority to the wiser parts of our mind, the more reactive parts become weaker. They’re less able to affect us. They’re less able to control us. We’re less likely to do things we regret by acting unskillfully. And so, over time, we experience less inner conflict. The mind is more harmonized, more (to coin a word) samadhic.

But although I started to talk in that last paragraph about the long-term functioning of the five spiritual faculties, what I want to emphasize is how they function moment by moment, and how they’re intrinsic to every act of skillful change that we bring about. They function together, supporting each other, very time we work with an unhelpful or destructive habit. And as we exercise them over and over again in this way — at least if we do this in a half-way consistent way — they become stronger. So when the scriptures say something like “A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment,” this is what they’re talking about: change, taking place moment by moment, and those acts of change developing habits that help liberate us from suffering.

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