The Five Faculties

Garden Flower DisplayIndriya — the Pali word translated here as “faculty” — is connected with the name of the dominant Vedic god, Indra. Thus it carries connotations of dominance or control. Buddhist texts contain several lists of faculties, both physical and mental, but here the word denotes a list of five mental factors that must reach a state of dominance in the mind for Awakening to occur. This set is one of the most comprehensive in the Wings to Awakening, as it covers all of the factors explicitly mentioned in the sets we have covered so far, and in addition lists conviction, which the other sets imply but never specifically mention. This is why this set forms the framework for Part III of this book, in which all of the main factors of the Wings to Awakening will be discussed in detail.

As we noted in II/A, the faculties in this set form a loop in the causal progression of the mind along the path, as opposed to the “holographic” formulae of the sets we have discussed so far. Two of the faculties — the frames of reference and right exertion — we have covered in detail already. The other three — conviction, concentration, and discernment — we will discuss in detail in Part III. Here we will limit ourselves to some general observations about the set as a whole.

In the causal loop depicted by five faculties, the emphasis is on how the elements of the “concentration aggregate” in the noble eightfold path — right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration — can lead the mind from a state of conviction to one of discernment. To borrow terminology from §106, this is the process by which the mind goes from the preliminary level to the noble or transcendent level of right view. This set can also be regarded as a description of how conviction, when put into action, inherently leads through the concentration aggregate to transcendent discernment.

Passage §69 defines the faculty of conviction as the four factors of stream-entry. Other passages define these four factors in two separate ways: one [§70] listing the factors leading to stream-entry, another [§71] giving the factors that characterize the person who has already entered the stream. Both lists are relevant here, as the person working toward stream-entry must act on conviction, while a person who has entered the stream is endowed with the unwavering conviction that comes with the first glimpse of the Deathless.

In both cases, the factor of conviction has several dimensions: trust in the ability of wise people to know the ideal path of practice, belief in their teachings, and a willingness to put those teachings into practice. Western analyses of faith tend to separate these aspects of conviction, and some writers have tried to decide which aspect is dominant in the Buddhist tradition. In practice, however, all three must work together, for in Buddhism the object of conviction inherently involves all three at once.

The primary focus of conviction is the Awakening of the Buddha, and this in turn ultimately comes down to a conviction in the primacy of the mind in creating kamma, a conviction in the efficacy of kamma in shaping experience in the round of rebirth, and a belief that the Buddha made use of mental qualities accessible to all in using the laws of kamma to bring about an end to kamma and thus escape from the round. Kamma and the use of kamma to transcend kamma constitute both the truth that the Buddha taught and the explanation of how he discovered it. Thus, trust in the Buddha and belief in his teaching are two sides of the same coin.

At the same time, these truths concerning kamma are also the situation in which the listener is currently placed: the causal nexus that determines both the dynamic of continued life in the cycle of rebirth and the way out of that cycle. So, by definition, conviction in the Buddha’s Awakening is something that must be acted on. If one is convinced that one is entangled in a kammic web that can nevertheless be unraveled, one will naturally try to learn from the example of the Buddha or his disciples, developing the same mental qualities they did and attaining release oneself.

Thus, unlike a religion where trust involves the belief that the deity will provide for one’s salvation — either through grace or as a reward for unquestioning obedience — trust in the Buddha and belief in his teachings means that one’s salvation is ultimately one’s own responsibility. In this way, trust, belief, and a willingness to act are inseparably combined.

This is why conviction, the first member of the set of five faculties, leads naturally to persistence, the second. Persistence here is equal to right exertion, which develops mindfulness as the most essential skillful quality in the mind. As we saw under the frames of reference, the proper development of mindfulness leads to concentration, or the four jhanas, while the jhanas provide the foundation for the arising of discernment, the fifth and final member of this set.

When discernment is strengthened to the point of transcendence, leading to the attainment of stream-entry, it then confirms the truths that were previously taken as a matter of conviction and faith [§74]. This confirmation feeds back into the causal loop, strengthening conviction, which provides the basis for developing the faculties still further until Arahantship is attained. At that point there is no need to be convinced that the practice leads to release into the Deathless, for one has fully realized that release through direct experience [§89].

The underlying element throughout the development of this causal loop is the mental quality of heedfulness [§78]. The texts explain heedfulness as a combination of right effort, restraint, and relentless mindfulness, but as a quality of mind it goes deeper than that. Heedfulness realizes the dangers inherent in the round of rebirth and redeath, and the fact that those dangers are inherent in each careless act of the mind. It thus fosters conviction in the possibility of a release from those dangers and a sense of urgency and precision in the practice. This combination of urgency and precision provides the impetus for the full and thorough development of the faculties as one seriously pursues the possibility of release through the skillful development of the mind.

This pattern of heedfulness developing the five faculties in the quest of the security of Deathlessness mirrors Prince Siddhattha’s own quest, which began with his conviction that there was no need to resign himself to the tyranny of aging, illness, and death, and ended with the discernment that brought about his actual escape from that tyranny. This pattern also calls to mind the famous verse from the Dhammapada, that heedfulness is the path to the Deathless [§80]. The five faculties can be taken as an elaboration of that verse.

Because the five faculties are means to Deathlessness — rather than ends in themselves — they must not only be developed skillfully but also used skillfully as they are developed. The texts emphasizing this point focus on two of the faculties: persistence and discernment.

The passage dealing with persistence [§86] is probably the Canon’s most explicit analogy between the performance of music and the practice of meditation [I/A]. One should tune one’s effort so that it is neither too intense nor too slack, just as the main string of a musical instrument should be neither too sharp nor too flat. (We have already encountered this issue of balance in the proper development of the four bases of power, and we will encounter it again in the factors for Awakening.)

One then tunes the remaining faculties to the pitch of one’s effort, just as one would tune the notes of one’s scale to the tonic. Only then can one take up the theme of one’s meditation — the four frames of reference [§148] — just as one would take up and develop the basic theme of one’s musical piece.

As for discernment, passage §88 brings out the point that one’s mastery of the faculties is not complete until one discerns the “escape” from them. Normally the texts make this comment only about deceptively attractive objects or unskillful qualities in the mind, but here they use it in connection with skillful qualities. What this means is that there comes a point in the practice where one must go beyond even such skillful qualities as concentration and discernment. They are skillful precisely because their full development allows one to go beyond them.

This point is made explicit in §187, which shows exactly why the right view constituting discernment is right: it is the only view that opens the way going beyond attachment to views. DN 1 [MFU, p. 111] adds that an awakened person — through regarding views not in terms of their content, but in terms of the effect they have on the mind — comes to discern what lies beyond views, and yet does not hold even to that act of discernment. As a result of knowing but not holding, the mind experiences Unbinding in the here and now. This “knowing but not holding” is yet another reference to the perceptual mode of emptiness verging on non-fashioning: the culminating point for each set in the Wings to Awakening. 

Source: “Wings to Awakening: Part II”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, .

©1996 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

The text of this page (“Wings to Awakening: Part II”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Sixth revised edition, 2011. Transcribed from a file provided by the author. Last revised for Access to Insight on 30 November 2013.

[Notes have been excerpted from the above source by Alexander Peck.]