- The Thirty-Seven Factors of Enlightenment
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
The thirty-seven factors conducive to enlightenment (bodhipakkhiya
dhamma) are important for two reasons. First, according to tradition, they were
recommended by the Buddha, shortly before his entry into final nirvana, as primary means
of gaining enlightenment. Second, these factors form a fundamental part of the foundation
of the Abhidharma, in that they belong to that category of teaching, like the teaching on
the five aggregates, that comprises the Abhidharmic contents of the Sutra Pitaka.
In Chapter 30, we talked about the characteristics of the Abhidharma
and the relation between Abhidharmic material and the contents of the discourses, or
sutras. The factors conducive to enlightenment belong to this category of material, which
is Abhidharmic in nature and yet found in the discourses. Thus they belong to the early
period of Abhidharmic philosophy.
The thirty-seven factors of enlightenment are without doubt Abhidharmic
in nature. All five characteristics of Abhidharmic material apply to them: (1) definition
of factors, (2) relation of factors to other factors, (3) analysis of factors, (4)
classification of factors, and (5) arrangement in numerical order (see Chapter 30).
The thirty-seven factors are classified under seven groups: (a) the
four stations of mindfulness (satipatthana), (b) the four right efforts (sammappadana),
(c) the four roads to power (iddhipada), (d) the five controlling faculties (indriya), (e)
the five powers (bala), (f) the seven limbs of enlightenment (bojjhanga), and (g) the
Noble Eightfold Path (atthangika magga). Since we considered the four right efforts and
the Noble Eightfold Path in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, I will omit these two groups here and
concentrate instead on the other five.
The Buddha called mindfulness the one way to the elimination of the
afflictions. The Buddha has also said that the mind is the root of all virtues. The most
important practice, therefore, is to discipline the mind. One can also understand the
importance of mindfulness from the fact that mindfulness occurs in five of the seven
groups that make up the thirty-seven factors conducive to enlightenment, and that the
first of these groups is devoted exclusively to the four stations of mindfulness
(satipatthana). Mindfulness is also taught in the Satipatthana Sutta (The Discourse on the
Stations of Mindfulness), which occurs twice in the Buddhist canon. All this indicates the
importance of mindfulness.
In recent years there has been a great resurgence of interest in the
four stations of mindfulness both within the Theravada tradition, particularly in Burma,
and also in the Mahayana tradition, where the importance of the four stations of
mindfulness as a part of the practice of meditation has now come to be appreciated. One of
the reasons these four stations have occupied such an important place in Buddhist
meditation is that they lead to the realization of the three universal characteristics
(impermanence, suffering, and not-self). Exactly how this works will become clearer once
we enumerate the four stations: (i) mindfulness with regard to the body, (ii) mindfulness
with regard to feeling, (iii) mindfulness with regard to consciousness, and (iv)
mindfulness with regard to mental objects.
Mindfulness with regard to the body is more inclusive here than it is
in the context of the forty traditional supports of meditation, where it occurs as one of
the ten recollections but is restricted only to the body. Here it applies not only to
mindfulness with regard to the body but also to mindfulness regarding the process of
inhalation and exhalation, the elements of matter, the decomposing body, and so forth.
Mindfulness with regard to feeling refers to the emotional contents of
personal experience, to feelings that are pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent.
Mindfulness with regard to consciousness--or, to be more precise, mindfulness with regard
to thought--implies observation of the arising and perishing of thoughts. Mindfulness with
regard to mental objects refers to the contents of consciousness, particularly concepts
such as impermanence and the like. With the first station of mindfulness, we exhaust the
material dimension of personal experience, and with the three subsequent stations we
exhaust the mental dimension of personal experience (i.e., the aggregates of
consciousness, volition, perception, and feeling). The thorough application of mindfulness
results in abandoning the three erroneous views (permanence, happiness, and self) and
attaining insight into the three universal characteristics (impermanence, suffering, and
not-self). Interpretations of the objects of the four stations of mindfulness vary
according to the various traditions of Buddhist meditation. In general, however, the
explanation here should be acceptable to most of the traditions.
Let us look at the four roads to power (iddhipada): (i) wish or desire,
(ii) energy, (iii) mind or thought, and (iv) reasoning. These four factors are also found
in the twenty-four modes of conditionality (see Chapter 39), where they are termed
'predominant conditions' (adhipati). Both the 'roads to power' and 'predominant
conditions' clearly suggest the power of the mind to influence experience.
A simple example is the power to control, up to a certain point, the
movements of our bodies and the exercise of our speech. This is a case of the undeveloped
power of the mind, desire, energy, and reason to control physical phenomena. When these
predominant factors are intensified by cultivation of the five factors of absorption
(initial application, sustained application, interest, happiness, and
one-pointedness)--particularly the intensification of one-pointedness, which occurs upon
attaining the fifth stage of the form-sphere absorptions--they become roads to power.
Through intensification, the predominant factors lead to what are
called mundane types of super knowledge and the supramundane knowledge. There are five
types of mundane super knowledge: the ability to fly through the sky cross-legged, to walk
on water, to move through the earth, to read the thoughts of others, and to recollect
one's former lives. The supramundane knowledge is knowledge of the destruction of the
defilements (asava), ignorance, and so forth. This is perhaps why it is sometimes said
that the four predominant conditions may be either mundane or supramundane. If they are
directed toward the mundane sphere, they result in the five types of mundane super
knowledge, whereas if they are directed toward the supramundane sphere, or nirvana, they
result in penetration of the Four Noble Truths and in the destruction of the defilements.
Like the four roads to power, the five controlling faculties
(indriya)--(i) faith, (ii) energy, (iii) mindfulness, (iv) concentration, and (v)
wisdom--are also found in the twenty-four modes of conditionality. In the Book of Causal
Relations (patthana), the five controlling faculties are defined as dominating factors.
There is a very close connection between the five controlling faculties and the four roads
to power, as indicated by their mutual presence in the modes of conditionality and their
similarity in the sense of controlling, dominating, or mastering.
The five faculties are called 'controlling' because they are said to
control or master their opposites: faith (or confidence) controls lack of faith (or
doubt); energy controls laziness; mindfulness controls heedlessness; concentration
controls distraction; and wisdom controls ignorance. Like the four roads to power, the
five controlling faculties can only really control their opposites when they are
intensified by the factors of absorption. For instance, faith can only function as a
controlling faculty when it is strengthened by the presence of the three factors of
absorption of interest, happiness, and one-pointedness; and wisdom can only function
effectively when it is strengthened by initial application, sustained application, and
one-pointedness. These five factors of absorption strengthen and intensify the five
controlling faculties so that the latter can function effectively to propel one toward
enlightenment. Similarly, the five controlling faculties strengthen the five factors of
absorption. For instance, concentration strengthens interest and happiness. Thus the
relationship between the two sets of factors is one of reciprocal support and
Although the five controlling faculties are indispensable in bringing
about the transformation from a doubtful, lethargic, heedless, distracted, and ignorant
mode of being to an enlightened mode of being, they must be cultivated in a balanced way.
What this means is that within the five controlling faculties there are factors that
balance each other. For instance, faith and wisdom are a reciprocal pair: if faith is
allowed to dominate wisdom, this results in a weakening of one's critical faculties, one's
intellectual powers of analysis and investigation; and if wisdom is allowed to dominate
faith, this diminishes confidence to the point of uncertainty and a lack of initial
commitment to practice.
Similarly, if energy is allowed to dominate concentration, this leads
to agitation, and if concentration is allowed to dominate energy, this leads to sloth and
torpor. Thus faith, energy, concentration, and wisdom must be developed and maintained in
a balanced manner, and the faculty that enables one to do this is mindfulness. Mindfulness
is the watchdog that ensures the proper reciprocal, balanced relationship between faith
and wisdom, and between energy and concentration.
The next group of factors of enlightenment, the five powers (bala)--(i)
faith, (ii) energy, (iii) mindfulness, (iv) concentration, and (v) wisdom--are numerically
and terminologically identical to the five controlling faculties. These five factors are
called powers because on this stage faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom
become firm, steady, and powerful.
The Buddha indicated that the five controlling faculties and five
powers are two aspects of the same thing, just as an island in the middle of a river can
lead people to call one side of the river the eastern part and the other side the western
part, even though the two parts of the river are one and the same. Similarly, the five
controlling faculties and the five powers are one and the same. The five controlling
faculties are potentialities that must be intensified and developed through their
combination with the five factors of absorption. When they become firm and steady through
this intensification, they can then be termed powers.
We might add that the five powers become absolutely unshakable only in
the case of the noble ones (see Chapter 35). On becoming a stream-winner, for example,
faith becomes an unshakable power because the fetter of doubt is removed.
Although only the five controlling faculties and five powers are listed
in the thirty-seven factors, in the expanded Abhidharmic classification of the controlling
faculties and powers, there are three more faculties added to the five already mentioned
(mind, joy, and vitality), and two more powers (moral shame and moral dread, known
collectively as 'the guardians of the world'). Moral shame and moral dread are explained
as one's own sense of moral uprightness and fear of censure or blame. They are called
guardians of the world because, when developed to the level of powers, they become
guardians of wholesome actions.
The last group we will consider here are the seven limbs of
enlightenment (bojjhanga): (i) mindfulness, (ii) investigation, (iii) energy, (iv)
interest, (v) tranquillity, (vi) concentration, and (vii) equanimity. Mindfulness again
appears as one of the factors, and again it leads the group, because it is with
mindfulness that the way to enlightenment begins.
Thus it is through awareness of one's situation that progress on the
path begins. This progress is sustained through investigation--in this case, the
investigation of factors. Energy occurs here, as it did in the four roads to power, the
five controlling faculties, and the five powers. Energy is essential to sustain the
progress one makes along one's spiritual path. All too often, our efforts are sporadic; we
make a great effort for a short period of time and then relapse for a much longer time. If
progress is to be sustained it must be steady, and energy contributes to steady,
consistent progress along the path. The fourth factor, interest, which is also one of the
five factors of absorption, is suffused with happiness, although it can best be understood
more as interest than as joy or rapture per se (see Chapter 34).
Tranquillity in this context is the tranquillity of mind that results
from eliminating the afflictions of ignorance, ill-will, and attachment. Concentration is
synonymous with one-pointedness, which is one of the five factors of absorption.
Equanimity is the elimination of the mind's tendency to wander. Like so
many Abhidharmic terms, equanimity functions on a number of levels. At the level of
feeling, it can be indifference. At the level of the cultivation of the Four Immeasurable
meditations (brahmavihara), equanimity is even-mindedness toward sentient beings--the
absence of attachment to near and dear ones, and the absence of aversion to enemies. In
the analysis of personal experience in the teaching on the five aggregates, equanimity is
the neutralization of the eight worldly conditions (happiness and pain, gain and loss,
praise and blame, and fame and infamy). Here, in the context of the seven limbs of
enlightenment, equanimity is that integrated and unshakable state of mind which is totally
free of mind's habitual tendency to wander.
These thirty-seven factors were codified, preserved, and taught by
generations of masters for one reason only: they were found to be useful and beneficial in
developing one's mind, and particularly in aiding progress toward enlightenment. Whether
we choose to concentrate on the four stations of mindfulness, the four efforts, the four
roads to power, the five controlling faculties, the five powers, the seven limbs of
enlightenment, or the Noble Eightfold Path, familiarity with these factors of
enlightenment can manifestly and immediately aid our progress toward that goal.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 341-348].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing