The Seven Factors for Awakening

Trees in the ParkThe seven factors for Awakening (bojjhanga) are closely related to the practice of the four frames of reference. The texts use two patterns to describe this relationship. The first pattern is a spiral, showing how the seven factors for Awakening build on the four frames of reference [§92]. This point is reflected in the position of mindfulness — defined as the practice of any one of the four frames of reference — as the first factor in the list. Discernment, in the role of the analysis of mental qualities into skillful and unskillful, builds on right mindfulness and leads to persistence, which in the form of right effort/exertion maximizes the skillful qualities and minimizes the unskillful ones. This in turn leads to four factors associated with jhāna: rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity. Equanimity, here, is not a neutral feeling, but rather a balancing or moderation — an evenness of mind — with regard to any feeling or object that arises. It is identical with the equanimity in the fourth jhāna [§149] and with the inherent equanimity in the fifth factor of five-factored noble concentration [§150], which can develop out of any of the four jhanas. As such it can lead either to greater mastery of meditation — as the purity of mindfulness that accompanies the fourth jhāna provides the basis for even more precise analysis of qualities, thus allowing the causal loop to spiral to a higher level — or to the state of non-fashioning that opens to Awakening. . . .

The second pattern for describing the relationship between the factors for Awakening and the four frames of reference is more holographic. As we have already noted [II/B], all the factors in the list are all implicit in the “approach” stage of frames-of-reference meditation. The texts themselves make this point by saying that the development of any one of the frames of reference brings the factors for Awakening to the culmination of their development [§92].

The differences between these two patterns — a spiraling sequence building on the four frames of reference, and a holographic formula implicit in the frames of reference — is largely one of emphasis. As the dual nature of this/that conditionality indicates — with mental factors building on one another over time and strengthening one another in the present — both aspects act together in actual practice. . . .

A closer look at the topic of appropriate attention will show how the processes of discernment can foster concentration to the point where both issue in Awakening. Because this topic is so central to the practice, we will have to treat it in detail.

The term “appropriate attention” (yoniso manasikara) can also be rendered as “wise reflection,” “the proper approach,” or “systematic attention.” It is essentially the basic insight that enables one to see which issues are worth paying attention to, and which ones should be ignored. Passage §51 gives what is probably the best depiction of this process. The meditator ignores questions that lead to the proliferation of mental effluents, and pays attention to questions that help weaken them. As we noted in I/B, the knowledge that puts an end to the effluents deals with experience in the phenomenological mode. Thus, the best questions for weakening the effluents are ones that lead the mind into that mode.

Now, not all questions are helpful in this way. Some deal in terms that focus the mind on narrative or cosmological issues in ways that actually obstruct a phenomenological viewpoint. For this reason, the Buddha found it necessary to divide questions into four classes: [1] those meriting a categorical answer, [2] those meriting an analytical answer, [3] those deserving a counter-question, and [4] those deserving to be put aside [AN 4:43].

The first class includes questions that are already well-phrased and can yield straight answers useful in weakening one’s mental effluents.

The second class includes those that are poorly phrased but are close enough to becoming useful that they can be clarified by a redefinition of terms.

The third class covers instances where the real issue is not the question as phrased, but the confused line of thinking or hidden agendas behind the asking of the question. Once these underlying elements are exposed and corrected by the proper counter-question, fruitful questions can then be framed.

The final class of questions covers instances where both the question and the act of asking it are so misguided that any attempt to get involved in the issue would lead only to the proliferation of mental effluents, and so the whole issue should be put aside.

Of these four classes of questions, the class meriting categorical answers is of most interest here, for it’s the class that can act as a focal point for appropriate attention.

The vast majority of the questions that the Buddha asks and answers categorically in the texts fall into three general sorts: (a) those that seek to identify terms and categories useful for the task of ending stress and suffering; (b) those that seek to place particular events in their proper category; and (c) those that seek to understand the causal role of events assigned to the various categories: how they condition, and are conditioned by, one another. A sub-set of (c) consists of questions concerning the effect that one’s questions and one’s approach to the practice in general have on the mind.

All of these three sorts of question are closely related to the three stages of frames-of-reference meditation: sorts (a) and (b) relate to the first stage, and sort (c) to the second, whereas the sub-set of (c) dealing with the questioning approach itself leads directly to the third.

This last sub-set also forms the overall principle for delineating all four classes of questions mentioned above: the effect that the process of asking and answering has on the mind. In simple terms, this principle means viewing experience in terms of cause and effect, viewing questions in terms of cause and effect, classifying them according to the results that come from trying to answer them, and treating them only in ways that will help lead to the ending of suffering and stress. This is the proper function of appropriate attention in its most mature form.

To arrive at this mature level, however, appropriate attention must be developed step by step. These steps can be shown by taking the passages given in this section and viewing them in the context of the practice of the fourth frame of reference: focusing on the mental qualities of the hindrances and the factors for Awakening in and of themselves in the course of developing concentration.

The first step is simply to identify the hindrances and factors for Awakening as they are experienced, noting their presence and absence in the mind — a movement toward what the Buddha called “entering into emptiness” [II/B]. As III/D makes clear, there are several preliminary steps in concentration practice leading up to the ability to do this. When these are mastered, one can focus on, say, the hindrance of ill-will not in terms of the object of the ill-will but on the quality of ill-will as a mere event in the mind. The question here is not, “What am I angry about?” or “What did that person do wrong?” but simply “What is happening in my mind? How can it be classed?”

Given the well-known Buddhist teaching on not-self, some people have wondered why the questions of appropriate attention at this step would use such concepts as “me” and “my,” but these concepts are essential at this stage — where the mind is still more at home in the narrative mode of “self” and “others” — in pointing out that the focus of the inquiry should be directed within, rather than without. This helps to bring one’s frame of reference to the experience of mental qualities as phenomena in and of themselves, and away from the narratives that provoked the ill-will to begin with. Only when this shift in reference is secure can the concepts of “me” and “my” be dispensed with, in the third step below.

The second step in appropriate attention — corresponding to the second stage of frames-of-reference practice — is to inquire into the causal functioning of the hindrances and factors for Awakening, to see how they arise and cease in the course of one’s concentration practice. The aim here is to gain insight into the workings of the hindrances and factors for Awakening as one tries to eliminate the former and bring the latter to full development. The passages in this section dealing with this step treat the issue in terms of two metaphors — balance on the one hand, feeding and starving on the other — and list the desired results of the meditation as a standard of measurement for gauging the success of one’s practice.

We have met with the role of balance already in the four bases of power and the five faculties. What is special here is that, instead of finding a balance within each factor for Awakening, the meditator is to use different factors to balance out specific hindrances. The more active members — analysis of qualities, persistence, and rapture — can be used to offset sluggish mind states; the more calming members — serenity, concentration, and equanimity — counteract restless mind states.

Mindfulness is the only member of the set that is inherently skillful at all times [§97], for it is the one that keeps the need for balance in mind. To combine the portrayals of balance under this set and under the bases of power, we can say that the more active factors for Awakening should be used to prevent specific bases of power — such as desire — from being too sluggish or constricted, whereas the more calming factors for Awakening should be used to prevent desire, etc., from being too active or scattered [§66]. It is interesting also to note that, although analysis of qualities is a potential cause for restlessness, it is also the factor needed to judge when its own activity is going overboard and needs to be calmed with concentration.

Under the metaphor of feeding and starving, the skill of appropriate attention is said to feed all the factors for Awakening, just as inappropriate attention starves them and feeds the hindrances in their place. As §96 points out, the role of appropriate attention at this level is to inquire into the property that acts as a foothold for each hindrance or factor for Awakening. The feeding process is especially direct with analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening — a near equivalent of appropriate attention — and the hindrance of uncertainty. These two form a pair, in that the feeding of analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening in and of itself starves the hindrance of uncertainty, and vice versa. Appropriate attention to the effects of skillful and unskillful qualities in the mind — in other words, focusing on questions that identify such qualities as the hindrances and the factors for Awakening, and inquire into their causes and effects — not only feeds this factor for Awakening but also enables one to develop its fellow factors. Inappropriate attention to issues that excite uncertainty — asking questions that can lead only to doubt and perplexity — not only feeds the hindrance of uncertainty but also leads to a sense of confusion that prevents all the factors for Awakening from developing.

With some of the other factors for Awakening — such as mindfulness, rapture, and equanimity — the texts are vague as to exactly which properties form their potential footholds. A few of these properties can be inferred from other texts, so they are cross-referenced in the relevant passages. The remaining instances can serve as challenges for each meditator to explore through practice. Challenges of this sort are valuable in forcing one to become self-reliant at observing cause and effect and asking the right questions: two skills that are basic to the development of appropriate attention and the path of practice as a whole.

As one becomes more successful in identifying these properties and attending to them in the appropriate way, one’s skill at concentration practice improves. Concentration and equanimity then feed back into the loop by purifying mindfulness in the practice of jhāna [§72], providing a steady basis for discernment in terms of more precise analysis of qualities and more subtlety in one’s attention. This can lead either to improved abilities at concentration or to a more self-referential mode away from the “object” of the practice and turning toward the “approach” [II/B], where these activities of discernment become sensitive to themselves as events in the causal network.

In particular, they can begin to ask questions about their own acts of questioning, to see what latent assumptions are still causing them uncertainty and getting in the way of their further development. In this way, they come to the third step in their development.

According to the texts, the most insidious issues that can excite uncertainty are questions that center on the concept of “I”: “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” In the cosmological or metaphysical mode, this concept leads to such questions as: “Does the self exist?” “Does it not exist?” In the psychological or personal narrative mode, it leads to a sense of self-identity, attachment to the object with which one identifies, and all the suffering that inherently results. In either mode, this concept leads to uncertainty about the past and future: “Did I exist in the past?” “Will I exist in the future?” “What will I be?” All of these questions obviously pull the mind out of the phenomenological mode; passage §51 shows that the Buddha regarded them as leading to mental effluents and thus unworthy of attention. The one time he was asked point-blank as to whether or not there is a self [SN 44.10; MFU, pp. 85-86], he refused to answer, thus showing that the question deserves to be put aside.

What then of the well-known Buddhist teachings on not-self? From the way these teachings are expressed in some of the texts, it might be inferred that the Buddha held to the principle that there is no self. Here, though, it is important to remember the Buddha’s own comment on how his teachings are to be interpreted [AN 2.25]. With some of them, he said, it’s proper to draw inferences, whereas with others it’s not. Unfortunately, he didn’t illustrate the distinction between the two types of teachings with specific examples. However, we’re apparently safe in assuming that if we try to draw inferences from his statements to give either a categorical answer (No, there is no self; or Yes, there is) or an analytical answer (It depends on how you define “self”) to a question that the Buddha showed by example should not be asked or answered, we are drawing inferences where they should not be drawn.

A more fruitful line of inquiry is to view experience, not in terms of the existence or non-existence of the self, but in terms of the categories of the four noble truths, which §51 identifies as the truly proper subject of appropriate attention. If we look at the way the Buddha phrases questions about not-self [SN 22.59, MFU, pp. 79-80] in the context of the duties appropriate to the four noble truths [§195], we see that they function as tools for comprehending stress and abandoning the craving and clinging that cause it.

Thus this line of questioning helps bring about the ending of the mental effluents. Rather than asking, “Do I exist?”, one should ask, “Is this mine? Is this me? If these things are regarded as me or mine, will there be suffering?” These questions, when properly answered (No, No, and Yes), can lead directly to the phenomenological mode and on to release from clinging and from suffering and stress. Thus they are worth asking.

When applied to the hindrances and factors for Awakening, this line of inquiry can bring the mind to the third stage of frames-of-reference meditation by calling into question the “me” and “my” assumed in the first step of questioning. This undermines any sense of self-identification, first with the hindrances — such as “I’m drowsy” — and then with the factors for Awakening — such as “My mind is serene” [§167]. All that then remains is the radically phenomenological mode that enters fully into the emptiness on the verge of non-fashioning [II/B], where there are no longer any questions, but simply awareness that “There are mental qualities”… “There is this.” This is the threshold to Awakening.

Throughout the process of developing appropriate attention in the course of the second and third stages of frames-of-reference meditation, the spiraling loop of the factors for Awakening continually feeds back on itself, as the factor of equanimity allows the factors of mindfulness and analysis of qualities to gauge the success of the practice and call for adjustments where needed. The standard of measurementto be used in this evaluation is given in the formula that frequently accompanies the definition of the factors for Awakening in the texts: each factor ideally should depend on “seclusion… dispassion… cessation, resulting in letting go.” The terms in this list occur both in mundane [§98] and in transcendent [§92] contexts, which indicates that they have both mundane and transcendent levels of meaning. On the mundane level, they play a role in the practice of jhāna [for the role of letting go in concentration see §71]. As they develop and reach transcendence, they bring the mind to the state of non-fashioning. By basing one’s practice on the seclusion, dispassion, and cessation found in the jhāna that takes letting go as its object [§72], and by feeding it through the constant evaluation provided by appropriate attention and analysis of qualities to the point of ever more refined levels of letting go, one brings together the mental qualities of attention and intention in a mutually reinforcing way that heads in the direction of Awakening. At the highest level of letting go — the “knowing but not holding” that we equated with the perceptual mode of emptiness on the verge of non-fashioning in section II/E — appropriate attention gives way to transcendent clear knowing.

The intention underlying the practice of jhāna gives way to the stillness of the resulting transcendent freedom. This is how the factors for Awakening, in the words of the texts [§92], “when developed & pursued, lead to the culmination of clear knowing & release.” 

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.]