Steps Toward Awakening
I have been drawn to the way in which Buddhism presents thirty-seven aspects of enlightenment, divided into seven groups. I cherish the way that they provide a vital, basic structure of the entire Buddhist path and practice – and how everything about the thirty-seven aspects is related to the four noble truths.
Geshe Tashi Tsering, in Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth, states that “the thirty-seven aspects are an integral framework for anyone who is studying Buddhism, since they clearly show what is needed, and at what stage, on the journey to enlightenment” (page 40). He further states that “the practices associated with each of the thirty-seven aspects are tools that can take us from where we are now all the way up to enlightenment.” I find this inspiring and reassuring.
In this article, I would like to briefly describe each of the thirty-seven aspects. They present a comprehensive programme for ultimate liberation – and freedom from suffering.
The thirty-seven aspects of the Path to Enlightenment are: (1) four mindfulnesses, (2) four right exertions, (3) four bases of power, (4) five spiritual faculties, (5) five powers, (6) seven factors of enlightenment, and (7) the noble eightfold path.
1. Four Foundations of Mindfulness
The four bases of mindfulness are contemplation of the physical body (kaya), feeling (vedana), the mind or thoughts (citta), and mental objects or qualities (Dharmas).
Regarding these four foundations of mindfulness, the Buddha stated: “This is the only path, O Bhikkhus, for the sake of the purity of sentient beings, the deliverance from sorrow and lamentation, the extinction of pain and grief, the attainment of the Noble Path, the realization of Nirvana, the cessation of suffering – this is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness” (From Paravahera Vajiranana Mahathera, “Buddhist meditation in Theory and Practice”, Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, 1975).
2. Four Right Efforts
The four right efforts are: first, exertion for unskillful mental states not to arise (preventing bad or unwholesome mental states from arising); second, exertion for the abandoning of unskillful mental states (abandoning unwholesome mental states that have arisen); third, exertion for the arising of skillful mental states (effort to develop wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen); and fourth, exertion for the sustaining of skillful mental states (effort to maintain or guard wholesome mental states that have arisen).
3. Four Bases of Power
The Buddha taught how to develop strength of mind or fortitude – a mind with the ability for concentration. Four principles are given in the Pali Canon (Samyutta Nikaya, chapter 51). These are known as the four Iddhipada, or paths to power, or bases of power. They have been extrapolated from their specific context of meditation, and are often cited as guides to success in general. The four bases of power are: first, desire (will, intention, aspiration, purpose); second, persistence (perseverance, effort, energy); third, intent (intentness, consciousness, thoughts, mindfulness, concentration); and fourth, discrimination (ingenuity, analysis, investigation, contemplation).
The Samyutta Nikaya (in the Viraddha Sutta), highlights the significance of these four mental qualities: “Bhikkhus, those who have neglected the four bases for spiritual power have neglected the noble path leading to the complete destruction of suffering. Those who have undertaken the four bases for spiritual power have undertaken the noble path leading to the destruction of suffering.” And finally the Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta states: “These four bases of power, when developed and pursued, are of great fruit and great benefit [emphasis mine].”
4. Five Spiritual Faculties
Spiritual progress depends on developing five virtues – faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. These virtues are called, in Sanskrit and Pali, indriya, variously translated as faculties, controlling faculties, or spiritual faculties.
They may be described as follows: first, faith provides the element of inspiration and aspiration which steers the mind away from the quagmire of doubt, and settles it with serene trust in the Triple Gem as the supreme basis of deliverance; second, energy kindles the fire of sustained endeavour that burns up obstructions and brings to maturity the factors that ripen in awakening; third, mindfulness contributes clear awareness, the antidote to carelessness; fourth, concentration holds the beam of attention steadily focused on the rise and fall of bodily and mental events, calm and composed; and fifth, the faculty of wisdom (which the Buddha calls the crowning virtue among all the requisites of enlightenment) drives away the darkness of ignorance and lights up the true characteristics of phenomena.(2)
The five faculties, as a group, accomplish the collective task of establishing inner balance and harmony. Faith and wisdom form one pair, aimed at balancing the capacities for devotion and comprehension; the faculties of energy and concentration form a second pair, aimed at balancing the capacities for active exertion and calm recollection. Above the complementary pairs stands the faculty of mindfulness, which protects the mind from extremes and ensures that the members of each pair hold one another in a mutually restraining and enriching tension.(2)
5. Five Powers
The same five virtues are called strengths or powers (bala).
6. Seven Factors of Enlightenment
The seven factors leading to enlightenment are: first, mindfulness (remembering the Dhamma); second, investigation (of the Dhamma); third, energy; fourth, joy or rapture; fifth, tranquillity or relaxation (of both body and mind); sixth, concentration (a calm, one-pointed state of concentration of mind); and seventh, equanimity (being able to face all the vicissitudes of life with calm of mind and tranquillity, with dispassion and detachment).
7. Noble Eightfold Path
The eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are as follows.
First, Right View presents an understanding suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. Second, Right Intention includes the three-fold intentions of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness. Third, Right Speech means abstaining from false speech, from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, and from idle chatter. Fourth, Right Action is abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from sexual misconduct. Fifth, Right Livelihood means giving up wrong livelihood and earning one’s living by a right form of livelihood. Sixth, Right Effort involves the effort to restrain defilements, to abandon defilements, to develop wholesome states and to maintain wholesome states. Seventh, Right Mindfulness entails mindful contemplation of the body, of feelings, of the mind, and of phenomena. Eighth, and finally, Right Concentration leads to the first jhana, the second jhana, the third jhana, and the fourth jhana.(5)
The 37 factors (sometimes called steps) of enlightenment from the suttas get to the heart of the practice and teachings, and are sometimes known as the “Wings to Awakening”.
An analysis of them by Buddhaghosa (author of the Visuddhimagga) showed that there are five recurring concepts running through the 37 aspects: faith, confidence (saddha; 2 times), concentration, tranquillity (samadhi; 4 times), wisdom (panna; 5 times), mindfulness (sati; 8 times), and energy (viriya; 9 times)(3)
The Buddha mentions the seven sets as a group many times when he is summarizing his main teachings – they encompass the entire path of Buddhist practice. Furthermore, the seven sets have played an important role throughout the history of Buddhism in all its various branches. The number 37 carried connotations of basic completeness.(4)
One of the peculiarities of the 37 Aspects is that two sets are duplicates: the five faculties and the five strengths contain the same five factors. Several theories have been advanced as to why the Buddha included what is essentially the same set twice. One is that he wanted to indicate that the five factors that make up each set could exist in the mind in two distinct levels of intensity, one sufficient for the path to stream-entry, the first level of Awakening, and the other needed for Arahantship, the highest level. This may parallel another passage where the Buddha makes a similar distinction between the noble eightfold path of stream-entry and the tenfold path of Arahantship.(4)
Today, the 37 aspects of enlightenment continue to be vitally relevant to one’s daily practice and progress on the path. And this is why I continue to be drawn to them.
(1) Tsering, Geshe Tashi. Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008. (Pages 53-74.)
(2) Bhikkhu Bodhi. “The Five Spiritual Faculties”. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_22.html
(3) The Dhamma Encyclopedia. “37 factors of enlightenment”. http://www.dhammawiki.com/index.php?title=37_factors_of_enlightenment
(4) Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). “Wings to Awakening: Part II”. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/part2.html
(5) Bhikkhu Bodhi. “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering”. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html
© 2014 Alexander Peck
- For a PDF copy, click Steps Toward Enlightenment
- For an MS Word copy, click Steps Toward Enlightenment
- For a PDF summary in table form, click A Way to Awakening – 37 Aspects
- For an MS Word summary table, click A Way to Awakening – 37 Aspects
37 Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment
The thirty-seven aspects of the path to enlightenment are divided into seven groups. They provide a general structure of the entire Buddhist path.
In fact, the thirty-seven aspects are an integral framework for anyone who is studying Buddhism, since they clearly show what is needed, and at what stage, on the journey to enlightenment.
Starting from the first group, the four mindfulnesses, up to the last group, the noble eightfold path – everything about the thirty-seven aspects is related to the four noble truths – and the practices associated with each of the thirty-seven aspects are tools that can take us from where we are now, all the way up to enlightenment.
The thirty-seven aspects of the Path to Enlightenment are:
- Four mindfulnesses
- Four complete abandonments
- Four factors of miraculous powers
- Five faculties
- Five powers
- Seven branches of the path to enlightenment
- The noble eightfold path
In some Buddhist traditions, it may seem on the surface that these practices are not essential, as they may not be emphasized in the particular tradition. But in reality, they are vital. They are the basic structure of any Buddhist practice.
The six perfections, and the four means of drawing students to the Dharma, are advanced and are in addition to these thirty-seven aspects, not substitutes for them.
The six perfections (Skt. paramitas) are:
- Joyous effort
- Wisdom (realizing emptiness)
The four means of drawing sentient beings are:
- Giving (Dharma, resources, protection from harm, loving kindness)
- Speaking kind words
- Teaching according to the level of the student
- Practicing what you teach
Source: Tsering, Geshe Tashi. Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth (The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 2). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. (Pages 39-40.)
- For a PDF copy, click Thirty-Seven Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment.
- For an MS Word copy, click Thirty-Seven Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment.