The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

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.

See also:

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.

Read More

Seeing Eye to Eye

Stephen Cope, Yoga Journal: When it comes to practicing mindfulness, the yoga and Buddhist traditions have much in common.

Not long ago, I was flying from Boston to San Francisco late at night. As the plane roared down the runway, the young woman sitting next to me appeared to be meditating. Given the restraints of air travel, she had adopted a remarkably good posture–eyes closed, sitting with her hands palms-up on her thighs. She sat that way for a good 30 minutes.

Later, as the flight attendant began to serve snacks, my seatmate introduced herself as Beverly. She had just been on a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, a well-known New England center for vipassana meditation. I told her that I was a yoga teacher and I had done many different kinds of meditation, including vipassana. We dived into a long conversation about yoga and meditation, and after a while she stopped for a moment, clearly thinking hard about something. “Can I ask you a question?” she asked, furrowing her brow. “If you teach yoga, how can you be doing vipassana without getting confused? I thought yogis taught samadhi practice and Buddhists taught the insight practices.”…

Indeed, Beverly was voicing an interesting and persistent misunderstanding that the yoga meditation traditions teach only what she referred to as samadhi–by this she meant concentration practices–and that the Buddhist traditions primarily stress insight, or vipassana, practice. This misperception is often flavored with the view that samadhi is really about “blissing out,” while insight is about the more serious business of seeing clearly. I have noticed that this confusion has become a stumbling block–especially for the many yoga students who are learning the deeper practices of meditation almost exclusively from Buddhist teachers.

The word samadhi has different meanings in the yoga and Buddhist lexicons. To Buddhists, it usually refers to a whole spectrum of concentrated mind states. (The Buddha said, “I teach only sila, samadhi, and panna”–ethical practice, concentration, and insight.) To yogis, on the other hand, samadhi frequently refers to advanced stages of practice–stages that may, in fact, include much of what the Buddha referred to as both samadhi and panna. In classic yoga, of course, samadhi is the eighth and final limb of the eight-limbed (ashtanga) path.

This confusion has led to the misperception that the classic meditation traditions in yoga–those based on Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra–rely exclusively on concentration techniques for enlightenment. This is not so. There are many views about the role of meditation–not only between practitioners of Buddhism and yoga, but also within each of those wide-ranging traditions. But my seatmate and I were in luck: She practiced a form derived from Theravadan Buddhism (based on the Pali Canon), and I practiced a form derived from classic yoga. As it turns out, both are part of the same classic meditation tradition; each relies on sophisticated methods of training in both concentration and insight.
It All Starts with Concentration

In each of these classic paths, practice begins with the cultivation of the mind’s natural capacity for concentration. This capacity reveals itself all the time in daily life. For example, while on a recent vacation in Florida, I was lying on a beach reading a book. My body and mind were already relaxed–an important precondition for attentional training. I lifted my eyes for a moment, and they drifted to a tiny red granite rock that was just in front of my towel. I was fascinated by its color and shape. My attention sank into the rock and examined it. The rock held my attention for a couple of delightful minutes of spontaneous samadhi.

Several curious things happen when one’s attention sinks into something in this fashion: The stream of thoughts in the mind narrows; external, distracting sensory input is tuned out (I was no longer aware of the sun burning my skin); brain waves lengthen; feelings of oneness with the object arise; a peaceful and calm mind state emerges. These experiences happen to us more frequently than we think. At the symphony, the mind gets locked onto a beautiful violin line in a Bach concerto. At dinner, we find a morsel of food particularly remarkable. Both of these experiences involve a natural emergence of one-pointed attention.

It turns out that this natural capacity for attention can be highly trained. The mind can learn to aim at an object, stay on it, penetrate it, and know it. The object can be either internal, like the breath or a body sensation, or external, such as an icon or a candle. As concentration develops on the object, the mind becomes still and absorbed in the object.

The side effects of this highly concentrated state are quite delightful and can include equanimity, contentment, and–sometimes–rapture and bliss. These concentration experiences are, in fact, sometimes even referred to as “the experiences of delight.” In Buddhism, they are highly cultivated in a series of concentration stages called the jhanas (absorptions). In the classic yoga tradition, a similar, but not identical, series of stages is identified in the development of the final three limbs of the path–dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi.

As our concentration matures through these stages, we are trained to sustain attention on the object without lapses for longer periods of time. Our uninterrupted concentration now becomes powerful–like a laser beam–and we see only the “bare” qualities of the object, beyond categorization and discriminatory thinking.

At these deepest levels of the training, another remarkable result emerges: The mind becomes secluded from the pull of distressing emotions and is temporarily free of craving, clinging, and aversion. In Western psychological terms, we might say the mind is completely secluded from conflict. As a result, concentration techniques provide a much-needed haven for the mind.

Insight: Exploring the Steady Mind

Through the practice of concentration, the mind becomes a highly attuned instrument. And as the mind matures in steadiness, something extraordinary begins to happen: This concentrated mind develops the capacity to explore itself. It becomes capable of systematically examining the ways in which all phenomena–thoughts, feelings, and sensations–arise and pass away into the stream of consciousness. Mental phenomena previously too fleeting to be noticed begin to fall within perceptual range. In effect, the mind may begin to take itself as its own object.

The rudiments of this subtle investigative mind are perhaps not so common in everyday life as the rudiments of a concentrated one. Nonetheless, anyone who has entered a contemplative mode may have experienced them. Sitting in church, at prayer, we are suddenly aware of the ways in which other thoughts intrude. Or, resting quietly under a tree, we watch as a wave of difficult feeling moves through the stream of consciousness like a dark storm cloud and then drifts away.

It turns out that this investigative capacity of the mind can be systematically developed and trained. And this training, as you might imagine, depends on an altogether different attention strategy: Rather than narrowing the stream of attention, we learn to methodically widen it and observe the endless fluctuation of thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations.

Through insight practices, the meditator learns to attend to as many mental and physical events as possible exactly as they arise, moment to moment. The meditator sees precisely how the world of ordinary experience and the Self are actually constructed. (“I have seen the builder of the house,” said the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment.)

This type of training is known as insight training, and though it has been well developed in the Buddhist meditation traditions in America, it has not been quite understood in the yoga traditions as they’ve been transmitted to us. This explains our misperception–and Beverly’s–that insight practice does not exist in the yoga tradition.

The question of why the insight series of Patanjali‘s program remains neglected in actual practice–at least in America–is a fascinating subject for another time. (Yet it’s undeniable that his program does depend on the development of insight—as the conclusions of Books Three and Four of his Yoga Sutra make clear.)

Once Patanjali lays out the training in concentration–dharana, dhyana, and samadhi–he instructs the practitioner to use the resultant attention skills to explore all phenomena in the created world, including the mind itself. The yogi learns to use the “perfect discipline” (samyama) of concentrated mind to explore the entire field of mind and matter. Indeed, much of the third book of the Yoga Sutra, which is widely believed to be just about the attainment of supernormal powers, actually contains Patanjali‘s instructions for a systematic exploration of the field of experience.

Moments of insight can be more than a little terrifying. Some Buddhist traditions will even refer to these as “the experiences of terror” because, as we begin examining experience closely, we discover that the world is not at all as it appears to be. Insight practices in both traditions effectively deconstruct our ordinary way of seeing ourselves and the world. Learning to bear this moment-to-moment reality can be fragmenting and can cause considerable anxiety. As a result, we need a regular return to concentration and calm. In order for our practice to proceed successfully, we must develop a systematic interplay between the experiences of delight and the experiences of terror.
Reaching a Clearer View of Reality

At the conclusion of these meditation paths, meditators in both traditions see thousands of discrete events arising and passing away in each millisecond. Patanjali describes the most momentary vision of phenomena that he believes humanly possible–dharma megha samadhi, in which they are seen as a rainstorm in which each separate raindrop is perceived.

Meditators in both traditions see how all phenomena (including the Self) simply arise and pass away due to causes and conditions. Buddhists discover the so-called three marks of existence, which consist of suffering (duhkha), no self (anatman), and impermanence (anicca). Yogis discover the similar “four erroneous beliefs”: the belief in the permanence of objects, the belief in the ultimate reality of the body, the belief that our state of suffering is really happiness, and the belief that our bodies, minds, and feelings comprise who and what we really are.

Some aspects of the views at the end of the paths are not identical. Yogis discover that behind this “shower” of phenomena lies an abiding pure awareness (purusha)–unborn and unchanging–while Buddhist meditators see pure discontinuity and momentariness, an emptiness that gives rise to form.

Nonetheless, it does seem apparent to me that what is truly freeing in both traditions is much more similar than either tradition seems to realize. In the final stages, meditators in both traditions see that the world of ordinary experience and the Self are actually constructions, compounds in nature rather than “real things” in and of themselves.

The great classic meditation traditions are interested in two outcomes: helping the practitioner end suffering and helping her see reality more clearly. Both traditions discovered that these dual goals are intimately connected, and that only the strategy of methodically training both concentration and insight can accomplish these astonishing end states. It is for this reason that both traditions are valued as authentic and complete paths toward liberation.

Stephen Cope is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and senior scholar in residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health located n Lenox, Massachusetts. He is the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam, 1999) and The Complete Path of Yoga: A Seeker’s Companion to the Yogasutra (Bantam, available in 2004).

Read more

Read More

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.