Wings to Awakening

The Treasures of the Teaching

Botanical GardenNowhere in the Canon does the Buddha list the seven sets of teachings under the name of Wings to Awakening. He mentions the seven sets as a group many times when he is summarizing his main teachings, but there is no firm evidence as to whether he ever actually gave a name to the group. In one passage he applies the term “wings to self-Awakening” to the five faculties [§77]; and in two passages [§§24-25] he makes reference to the seven Wings to Awakening, which may or may not denote the seven sets. Nevertheless, given the fact that the Buddha called the five faculties wings to self-Awakening, and all seven sets are equivalent to the five faculties, the name “Wings to Awakening” for all seven seems appropriate. This was the name that they definitely had in early post-canonical texts, such as the Petakopadesa, and that they have maintained ever since.

The seven sets have played an important role throughout the history of Buddhism in all of its various branches. They provided the framework for the earliest Abhidhamma texts, systematic presentations of the doctrine that were added to the early Canons a few centuries after the Buddha’s passing away. They were also part of the first Buddhist text translated into Chinese, and later came to exemplify “Hinayana” teachings in T’ien-t’ai and other Chinese doctrinal systems. Tantric Buddhism features mandalas containing 37 deities, symbolic of the 37 factors making up the seven sets. Tibetan architecture, probably following the treatises of the medieval Indian universities, identifies the various parts of standard stupa design as symbols of the seven sets. Thus the Wings provide one of the few common threads that, in actual or symbolic form, run through all the traditions claiming descent from the Buddha.

One of the peculiarities of the Wings, viewed as a whole, 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 the passage [§106] where the Buddha makes a similar distinction between the noble eightfold path of stream-entry and the tenfold path of Arahantship.

There is some disagreement among later writers as to which of the two sets, the faculties or the strengths, should be considered the more intense, although there is one canonical passage [§85] where the term “faculty” seems to rank on a higher level than “strength.”

Another hypothesis — not necessarily at odds with the first — is that the Buddha wanted the number of factors to total 37 because the number had symbolic meaning. In ancient times, before the development of the decimal system, multiplication tables were arranged in hexagonal patterns. The complete table used to calculate the ratios used in tuning musical instruments to reciprocal scales — scales that played the same notes going up as going down — had one member in the middle surrounded by three hexagonal rings containing, in ascending order, six, twelve, and eighteen members, giving a total of 37 members. (See the diagram on the back cover of this book.) The table of whole-number ratios that formed the basis for trigonometry, and thus for the study of astronomy, contained 37 members. Thus the number 37 carried connotations of basic completeness. This principle is at work in Plato’s Laws, where the ideal city has 37 guardians, and it may also be at work here.

A related consideration may be that the number seven, in the seven sets, was symbolic of treasure. The universal monarch was said to have seven treasures that formed his spontaneous regalia [MN 129], and noble wealth consists of seven qualities [AN 7.7]. The Buddha explicitly borrows this number symbolism when he states that the seven sets are the treasures of his teaching.

Another possibility, which we have already noted [I/A], is that musicians in the Buddha’s time recognized seven systems for tuning the musical scale — all other systems being rejected as discordant — and the Buddha may have borrowed this numerical symbolism to suggest that his teachings formed a complete guide to all the possible ways in which a Samana — a person in tune (sama) — could tune his or her mind to the truth.

From a less historical and more practical point of view, the important question about the seven sets is how they fit into the general plan of Buddhist practice. Their role is most succinctly stated in §25: the development of the seven sets follows on the development of virtue and leads naturally into the development of transcendent discernment, thus filling the role that other passages assign to concentration practice.

This suggests — and again, the suggestion is borne out by passages that deal with the issue in more detail — that the seven sets are to be developed in the course of a concentration practice based on a moral life and aimed at the development of discernment.

When §23 ends its list of preconditions for the practice of the seven sets with four meditation practices — actually three, as the perception of inconstancy is an integral part of mindfulness of in-and-out breathing — it is simply listing the concentration practices most frequently recommended in the texts as focal points for developing the skills of the seven sets. Nevertheless, although the seven sets focus most specifically on the practice of concentration, the close interconnections among virtue, concentration, and discernment mean that the sets include the factors of virtue and discernment as well, thus encompassing the entire path of Buddhist practice.

A virtuous and moral life is an absolute prerequisite for practicing the sets. This is a point that cannot be overstated, a fact reflected in the large number of canonical passages that hammer it home: far too many to include in this anthology. Some of the sets — the five faculties/strengths and the noble eightfold path — actually include the practice of a virtuous life in their factors, under the faculty/strength of conviction, and under the factors of right speech, right action, and right livelihood in the eightfold path. The remaining sets, the texts tell us, are meant to follow on the development of personal virtue in the same way that sunrise follows on the pre-dawn colors in the eastern sky.

The texts explain the precepts that underline a virtuous life, not as rules imposed by an outside authority, but as guidelines for action that a person would voluntarily undertake when accepting the importance of the principles of kamma and skillful action in shaping the course of one’s experiences. Killing, for instance, is obviously an unskillful action when viewed in the full light of its kammic consequences. The same holds true with other actions forbidden by the precepts, such as drinking alcohol, stealing, illicit sex, lying, and abusive language. [For a more complete list, see §§103-104.] Passage §103 shows that the Buddha’s teachings on virtue consist not only of the “don’t’s” of the precepts, but also of the “do’s” of such positive standards as sympathy, reliability, and genuine helpfulness. Skillfulness is not simply a matter of avoiding bad consequences; it also actively cultivates the good.

In keeping with the teaching that kamma is essentially intention, the precepts are designed to focus on the state of mind motivating the act. A precept is broken only when one does so intentionally. Thus the practice of observing the precepts requires constant attention to the factor of intention in one’s actions; it also requires that one develop the “sublime attitudes” (brahma-vihara) of good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity [§98], which strengthen one’s ability to side with skillful intentions. In this way, the Buddha’s approach to morality is to use the realm of personal action as an arena for the comprehensive training of the mind.

These three aspects of the Buddhist approach to morality — the avoidance of bad kamma, the development of skillful mental states, and the purification of intention — follow the pattern of the heart of the Buddha’s teachings as presented in the first verse of §7. They also explain why virtue is a necessary foundation for the practice of concentration: A moral life brings about absence of remorse [AN 10:1]; people who, in all honesty, have no reason for remorse over their actions or for anxiety over the consequences of those actions, feel a natural sense of inner joy. This joy is intensified when they reflect on the positive acts of kindness and generosity that they have performed for others. Thus intensified, this joy then provides the basis for the inner pleasure that allows for concentration. In this way, a healthy sense of self-worth is a necessary precondition for a stable mind [§238].

In addition, the practice of virtue forces one to develop a number of the “concentration” factors in the sets themselves, on a preliminary level of skill, thus making them strong and fit for formal concentration practice. To maintain a precept, one must keep it constantly in mind: this strengthens mindfulness. One must stick to one’s determination to abide by one’s principles: this strengthens persistence. One must pay attention to the present moment, for that is where the decision to keep or break a precept is made; and one must remain firm in one’s cultivation of the sublime attitudes: these factors strengthen concentration. One must be clear about one’s motives for acting, and at the same time be sensitive in knowing how to apply a particular precept to one’s present situation: e.g., being quick to see how to avoid an issue in which telling the truth might be harmful, yet without telling a lie. This strengthens one’s ability to analyze the mind in the present moment, intensifying one’s powers of discernment in general.

These four factors — mindfulness, effort, concentration, and discernment — are the central elements in all of the seven sets. Thus, the practice of virtue exercises, on a rudimentary level, the qualities of mind needed for concentration practice.

A close look at the seven sets will show that a similar relationship exists between these qualities, as they are developed in concentration practice, and the transcendent discernment toward which they lead. On the one hand, concentration is needed as a basis for discernment; on the other hand, discernment is exercised in developing concentration, becoming more precise and penetrating as a result.

To understand how this happens, we must first note that the seven sets fall into two types.

The first type consists of the four frames of reference, the four right exertions, and the four bases of power. Each of these sets focuses on a single factor in the “concentration aggregate” [§105] of the noble eightfold path: the frames of reference on mindfulness, the right exertions on effort, and the bases of power on concentration. Their factors are defined in such a way that the proper development of any one set involves the other two sets, together with the factor of discernment. In this sense they point out the “holographic” nature of the path: each part must include the whole, just as every piece of a hologram can reproduce the entire holographic image.

The sets included in the second type are the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, and the noble eightfold path. Each of these sets lists its factors in a causal chain progressing through a spiraling loop. The five faculties and strengths start with conviction, which then leads naturally to persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and then discernment. Discernment, in turn, provides a basis for even firmer conviction. Similarly, the seven factors for Awakening start with mindfulness, which develops into an analysis of (present) mental qualities, persistence, rapture, serenity, concentration, and finally equanimity. Equanimity, in turn, provides a steady basis for the further development of mindfulness. The noble eightfold path starts out with right view and right resolve, which together constitute discernment, leading to right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Concentration, in turn, forms a basis for the clearer development of discernment. In this way the various factors of the path are mutually reinforcing in an upward spiral that leads to Awakening.

Comparing the sets in the second type with one another, however, we find a certain complexity in their feedback loops. In terms of their most important factors, we see that:

The faculties and strengths depict the causal sequence as:

effort » mindfulness » concentration » discernment.

The factors for Awakening give it as:

mindfulness » discernment » effort » concentration.

The noble eightfold path presents it as:

discernment » effort » mindfulness » concentration.

Although the sequences differ, they have one pattern in common: concentration always follows after right effort and mindfulness. This suggests not only that concentration depends on these two factors, but also that effort and mindfulness, when properly developed, are meant to lead to concentration. This suggestion is borne out in the texts that deal with these factors in detail [§§1, 33-35, 58, 61].

The two factors with the most variegated roles in these lists are mindfulness and discernment. Mindfulness is essential at every step along the way. There are passages [§26] teaching that mindfulness is a prerequisite for virtue, which — together with right view — is in turn a prerequisite for right mindfulness [§27]. Similarly, mindfulness is necessary for concentration, which in turn can be devoted to the development of greater mindfulness [§149], which can lead further to discernment.

As for discernment: If we look at the lists placing discernment after the other factors, we find that certain aspects of discernment are presumed by the earlier factors. In the five faculties, for instance, conviction includes belief in the principle of kamma, which is one of the elements of right discernment. In the lists that place discernment toward the beginning of the process, we find transcendent discernment added on to the end: the seven factors for Awakening, when fully developed, lead to clear knowing (transcendent discernment) and release; when the noble eightfold path reaches the point of full Awakening, it leads to right knowledge (transcendent discernment again) and right release. The implication here is that discernment, functioning on different levels, keeps adding feedback loops of ever greater sensitivity every step along the way. This point is made explicit in §106.

For this reason, skillfulness — as a constant, sensitive mindfulness and discernment toward one’s own actions — lies at the essence of every moment in the continued development of the path.

On the one hand it creates the conditions necessary for the path to develop: knowledge of what is skillful and unskillful must necessarily precede right effort and mindfulness, and must help mindfulness lead to concentration.

On the other hand, the factors of mindfulness and concentration are necessary for discernment to become even more sensitive to the present moment. Thus, as the path spirals through its many feedback loops, it exercises discernment, making it stronger in the same way that muscles are strengthened with exercise. At the same time, the development of the path steadies the conditions that provide discernment with the solid basis it needs to become more and more precise, just as a solid foundation is necessary for sensitive measuring equipment. In this way discernment develops from a knowledge of what is skillful and unskillful, first gained through the advice and example of others, on through a more intuitive understanding of skillfulness gained through repeated action and reflection on one’s actions, to a knowledge in terms of the four noble truths and the duties appropriate to each, and finally to the knowledge that those duties have been fulfilled [§195]. The Wings thus put mundane discernment to use, and in so doing make it transcendent.

All of this explains why the Buddha said that of all the wings to self-Awakening, discernment is chief [§77]. In its more rudimentary forms it provides the conditions and feedback necessary for each step along the way; its transcendent form, at the culmination of the path, leads directly to Awakening.

The experience of Awakening, according to the texts, can take any one of four levels:

(1) Stream-entry, that is, entry into the stream leading to Unbinding — which cuts the fetters of self-identity views, uncertainty, and grasping at habits and practices — ensuring that one will be reborn no more than seven more times;

(2) Once-returning — which further weakens passion, aversion, and delusion — ensuring that one will be reborn no more than once;

(3) Non-returning — which cuts the fetters of sensual passion and irritation — ensuring that one will be reborn in the highest heavens, called the Pure Abodes, there to obtain Unbinding, never to return to this world; and,

(4) Arahantship — which cuts the fetters of passion for form, passion for formlessness, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance — bringing total freedom from the cycle of rebirth.

In all four levels, the basic dynamic is the same: virtue, concentration, and discernment bring the mind skillfully to a state of “non-fashioning” (atammayata) [§179] where all present input into the cycle of kamma is suspended. This state of non-fashioning then opens the way for the experience of the Unfabricated. To put this in terms of the two knowledges that constitute Awakening, the skillful mastery of the processes of kamma to the point of non-fashioning corresponds to the knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma; the experience of the Unfabricated corresponds to the knowledge of Unbinding.

Although all four levels require mature levels of the path factors of virtue, concentration, and discernment to bring about the two knowledges that constitute Awakening, they differ in the relative maturity of the path factors that lead up to them. Stream-entry occurs at the full maturation of virtue; non-returning, at the full maturation of concentration; and Arahantship, at the full maturation of discernment [AN 3.88; MFU, pp. 103]. Thus they also differ in the depth to which they penetrate the two knowledges of Awakening and in their ability to cut the fetters that perpetuate bondage to the cycle of kamma and rebirth. The texts report a few cases where meditators go straight through all four levels to the level of Arahantship, but in most cases the meditator will pass through the four levels step-by-step, sometimes over course of many years or even several lifetimes.

In this book, except where otherwise noted, discussions of the Awakening experience as described in the discourses focus on the level where virtue, concentration, and discernment are all fully mature, the Awakening total, and the resulting freedom absolutely unlimited. This is the point where all seven sets of the Wings to Awakening ultimately aim.

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.]