- The Way of Wisdom
- The Five Spiritual Faculties
- Edward Conze
- The Wheel Publication No. 65/66
- Copyright © 1980 Buddhist Publication Society
The Five Spiritual Faculties
Spiritual progress depends on the emergence of five cardinal virtues -- faith, vigour,
mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. The conduct of the ordinary worldling is governed
by his sense-based instincts and impulses. As we progress, new spiritual forces gradually
take over, until in the end the five cardinal virtues dominate and shape everything we do
feel and think. These virtues are called, in Sanskrit and Pali, indriya, variously
translated by faculties, controlling faculties, or spiritual faculties. The same five virtues are called powers (bala) if emphasis is on
the fact that they are "unshakable by their opposites."
Faith is called "the seed," and without it the plant of spiritual life cannot
start at all. Without faith one can, as a matter of fact, do nothing worthwhile at all.
This is true not only of Buddhism, but of all religions, and even the pseudo-religions of
modern times, such as Communism. And this faith is much more than the mere acceptance of
beliefs. It requires the combination of four factors -- intellectual, volitional,
emotional and social.
1. Intellectually, faith is an assent to doctrines which are not substantiated
by immediately available direct factual evidence. To be a matter of faith, a belief must
go beyond the available evidence and the believer must be willing and ready to fill up the
gaps in the evidence with an attitude of patient and trusting acceptance. Faith, taken in
this sense, has two opposites, i.e. a dull unawareness of the things which are worth
believing in, and doubt or perplexity. In any kind of religion some assumptions are taken
on trust and accepted on the authority of scriptures or teachers.
Generally speaking, faith is, however, regarded as only a preliminary step, as a merely
provisional state. In due course direct spiritual awareness will know that which faith
took on trust, and longed to know: "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face
to face." Much time must usually elapse before the virtue of wisdom has become strong
enough to support a vigorous insight into the true nature of reality. Until then quite a
number of doctrinal points must be taken on faith.
What then in Buddhism are the objects of faith? They are essentially four: (1) the
belief in karma and rebirth; (2) the acceptance of the basic teachings about the nature of
reality, such as conditioned co-production, emptiness, etc.; (3) confidence in the
"Three Refuges," the Buddha, the Dharma and the Order; and (4) a belief in the
efficacy of the prescribed practices, and in Nirvana as the final way out of our
difficulties. I shall say more about them when I have dealt with the other aspects of
2. In this sceptical age we, anyway, dwell far too much on the intellectual side of
faith. shraddha (Pali: saddha) the word we render as "faith," is
etymologically akin to Latin cor, "the heart," and faith is far more a
matter of the heart than of the intellect. It is, as Prof. Radhakrishnan incisively puts
it, the "striving after self-realization by concentrating the powers of the mind on a
given idea." Volitionally, faith implies a resolute and courageous act of
will. It combines the steadfast resolution that one will do a thing with the
self-confidence that one can do it. Suppose that people living on the one side of a
river are doomed to perish from many enemies, diseases and famine. Safety lies on the
other shore. The man of faith is then likened to the person who swims across the river,
braving its dangers, saving himself and inspiring others by his example. Those without
faith will go on dithering along the hither bank. The opposites to this aspect of faith
are timidity, cowardice, fear, wavering, and a shabby, mean and calculating mentality.
3. Emotionally, faith is an attitude of serenity and lucidity. Its opposite here
is worry, the state of being troubled by many things. It is said that someone who has
faith loses the "five terrors," i.e. he ceases to worry about the necessities of
life, about loss of reputation, death, unhappy rebirth and the impression he may make on
an audience. It is fairly obvious that the burden of life must be greatly lightened by
belief in karma, emptiness, or not-self. Even an unpleasant fate can be accepted more
easily when it is understood as a dispensation of justice, when vexations are explained as
an inevitable retribution, when law seems to rule instead of blind chance, when even
apparent loss is bound to turn into true gain. And if there is no self, what and whom do
we worry about? If there is only one vast emptiness, what is there to disturb our
4. Socially, and that is more difficult to understand, faith involves trust and
confidence in the Buddha and the Sangha. Its opposite here is the state of being submerged
in cares about one's sensory social environment, cares which spring from either social
pressure or social isolation. The break with the normal social environment is, of course,
complete only in the case of the monk who, as the formula goes, "in faith forsakes
his home." To a lesser extent it must be carried out by every practitioner of the
Dharma, who must "live apart" from his society, in spirit if not in fact. The
company of others and the help we expect from them are usually a mainstay of our sense of
security. By going for refuge to the Buddha and the Sangha one turns from the visible and
tangible to the invisible and elusive. By placing one's reliance on spiritual forces one
gains the strength to disregard public opinion and social discouragement. Some measure of
defiant contempt for the world and its ways is inseparable from a spiritual life. The
spiritual man does not "belong" to his visible environment, in which he is bound
to feel rather a stranger. He belongs to the community of the saints, to the family of the
Buddha. Buddhism substitutes a spiritual for the natural environment, with the Buddha for
the father, the Prajnaparamita for the mother, the fellow-seekers for brothers and
sisters, relatives and friends. It is with these more invisible forces that one must learn
to establish satisfactory social relations. In carrying out this task, faith requires a
considerable capacity for renunciation.
This concludes our survey of the four factors which go into the making of faith. Like
other spiritual qualities, faith is somewhat paradoxical in that in one sense it is a gift
which one cannot obtain by merely wanting to, and in another sense it is a virtue
that can be cultivated. The capacity for faith varies with the constitution of the
individual and his social circumstances. It is usual to classify types of personality
according to whether they are dominated by greed, hatred or confusion. Those who walk in
greed are said to be more susceptible to faith than the other two, because of the kinship
which exists between faith and greed. To quote Buddhaghosa (Visuddhimagga III,75):
"As on the unwholesome plane greed clings and takes no offence, so faith on the
wholesome plane. As greed searches for objects of sense-desire, so faith for the qualities
of morality, etc. As greed does not let go that which is harmful, so faith does not let go
that which is beneficial."
As regards social conditions, there are ages of faith and ages of unbelief. The present
age rather fosters unbelief. It puts a premium on intellectual smartness, so that faith is
easily held to indicate nothing but a weak head or a lack of intellectual integrity. It
multiplies the distractions from the sensory world to such an extent that the calm of the
invisible world is harder to reach than ever. It exposes the citizen to so great a variety
of conflicting viewpoints that he finds it hard to make a choice. The prestige of science,
the concern with a high standard of living, and the disappearance of all institutions of
uncontested authority are the chief foes of faith in our present-day society. It is
largely a matter of temperament whether we believe that matters will improve in the near
As a virtue, faith is strengthened and built up by self-discipline, and not by
discussing opinions. Intellectual difficulties are by no means the most powerful among the
obstacles to faith. Doubts are inevitable, but how one deals with them depends on one's
character. The first of our four "articles of faith" well illustrates this
situation. There are many sound reasons for accepting the rebirth doctrine. This is not
the place to expound them, and I must be content to refer the reader to the very
impressive "East-West Anthology" on Reincarnation which J. Head and S.L.
Cranston have published in 1961 (New York, The Julian Press Inc.). Yet, although belief in
rebirth is perfectly rational and does not conflict with any known fact, the range of the
average person's vision is so limited that he has no access to the decisive evidence,
which is direct and immediate experience.
The rebirth doctrine assumes at least two things: (1) that behind the natural causality
which links together events in the world of sense there are other, invisible chains of a
moral causality, which assures that all good acts are rewarded, all bad actions punished;
and (2) that this chain of moral sequences is not interrupted by death, but continues from
rebirth to rebirth. To the average person these two assumptions cannot be proved
absolutely, conclusively and beyond the possibility of a doubt. However plausible they may
seem on rational grounds, Buddhism teaches that they become a matter of direct experience
only after the "superknowledges" (abhijna, abhiñña) have been
developed. The fourth "superknowledge" is the recollection of one's own previous
rebirths, and the fifth the knowledge of the rebirths of other people, by which one
"sees that whatever happens to them happens in accordance with their deeds."
There are many well-authenticated cases of persons spontaneously remembering certain
details of one or the other of their own previous lives, and these people obviously have
an additional reason for belief in rebirth which is lacking in those who cannot recall
ever having lived before. Full certitude on the issue is, however, given to those only who
can, on the basis of the fourth jhana and by taking definite prescribed and
disciplined steps on emerging from that jhana, "recall their manifold former
lives," according to the well-known formula: "There I was, that was my name,
that was my family, that was my caste, such was my food, this was the happiness, this the
suffering which I experienced, this was the duration of my life-span. Deceased there I was
born elsewhere and there had this name, etc." When a monk has practised properly and
successfully, "these things become as clear to him as if lit up by a lamp" (Visuddhimagga,
Until that time comes, we cannot claim that we fully know the doctrine of karma
and rebirth to be true. We take it partly on faith. And this faith of ours is maintained
less by our dialectical skill as by the virtues of patience and courage. For we must be
willing to wait patiently until we are spiritually ripe for the emergence of the
super-knowledges, however far off that might seem to be. And secondly, we must be willing
to take risks. Life nowhere offers a one hundred per cent security, and for our
convictions least of all. Employed in gaining wealth a merchant must risk his property.
Employed in taking life, a soldier must risk his own life. Employed in saving his soul,
the spiritual man must risk his own soul. The stake automatically increases with the
prospect of gain. Of course, we may be mistaken. I sometimes wonder what I would think if,
on dying, I would not, as I now fondly imagine, wake up on the Bardo plane, but find
myself confronted with Acheron and the three-headed Cerberus, or, worse still, were
ill-treated with fire and brimstone in a Christian hell. The experience would, I admit, be
rather disconcerting. All that I can say in the face of such uncertainty is that I am
willing to take the consequences, and that I hope that my fund of boldness, audacity and
good humour will not run out.
One has the choice to magnify intellectual doubts, or to minimize them. It seems not
unreasonable that one should blame the difficulties of the teaching on one's own distance
from the truth, one's own intellectual and moral imperfections. How can one expect to
remember one's past lives, if at present one cannot even recall hour by hour what one did
during one single day a mere month ago? If one hesitates to accept, as not immediately
obvious, the doctrine that this world is the result of ignorance and of the craving of
non-existent individuals for non-existent objects -- is this not perhaps due to the very
denseness of one's own ignorance, for which one can collect plenty of proofs all day long?
Doubts are effectively overcome when one purifies one's own life, so as to become more
worthy of knowledge. It is a condition of all learning that one accepts a great deal on
trust, that one gives the teacher the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise one can learn
nothing at all, and remains shut out from all truth. To have faith means to take a deep
breath, to tear oneself away from the daily cares and concerns, and to turn resolutely to
a wider and more abiding reality. At first we are, by ourselves, too stupid and
inexperienced to see the tracks which lead to salvation. So we must put our trust in the
Sages of the past, and listen intently to their words, dimmed by distance and the noise of
the present day, but still just audible.
One last word about tolerance, without which faith remains raw and unsure of itself. It
is a perpetual trial to our faith that we should constantly meet with people who believe
differently. We are easily tempted to wish this irritant removed, to coerce others, if
only by argument, and to annihilate them, if only by dubbing them fools. Intolerance for
people of other faiths, though often mistaken for ardour, betrays nothing so much as
doubts within oneself. We can, of course, always console ourselves by assuming that the
others, in their own way, believe what we do, and that in the end it all comes to the same
thing. But that does not always sound very convincing, and what we must, I am afraid,
learn to do is to bear with their presence.
Next to faith, vigour (Skr.: virya; Pali: viriya). Little need be said
about the need for being energetic if one wants to achieve something. Without vigour,
without strenuous effort, without perseverance, one obviously cannot make much progress.
Everybody knows what "vigour" is, although a generation which made the fortune
of the discoverers of "night-starvation" might wish that it had more of it.
The fact that faith and vigour are virtues does not, however, imply that they are good
all through, and that, regardless of the consequences, they should be strengthened at all
times. Excess is to be deprecated, even in virtues. All the five virtues must be regarded
as one whole. Their balance and harmony is almost as important as the virtues themselves. They support each other to some extent, but they also stand in
each other's way. The one must sometimes be used to correct the excess of the other. In
this way, concentration must come to the rescue of the latent faults of vigour. When
vigour and energy have it all their own way, tranquillity is in danger. We all know people
with a large dash of adrenalin in their blood, who are always busy, perhaps even
"madly efficient," but not particularly restful. Vigour by itself leads to
excitement, and has to be controlled by a development of concentrated calm.
Similarly, faith alone, without wisdom, can easily become mere credulity. Wisdom alone
can teach what is worth believing. This can be illustrated by Don Quixote, who in
literature is perhaps the purest embodiment of faith, and whose actions demonstrate that
too much faith, by itself, is not necessarily a good thing. Cervantes' novel gives a fine
and detailed description of all the chief attributes of faith. Don Quixote vigorously,
fearlessly, without complaining, and even serenely endures all tribulations because he
wants to help others, all of them equally, according to their needs. When he dashes into
the middle of the boiling lake, he reaches the very height of self-abandonment of which
faith as such is capable. "And just when he does not know what will happen to him, he
finds himself among flowery fields beautiful beyond those of Elysium." His faith has
conquered the senses, it transmutes the data of common-sense experience, and the barber's
basin becomes Mambrino's helmet. And yet, when we consider
the intellectual basis of his faith, we find that it consists in nothing more than a
belief in the truth and veracity of the Romances which describe the fictitious and not
particularly edifying doings of the knight-errants of the past. This is the reason why his
adventures form a sorry sight, why he is a caricature even of a knight of the Middle Ages,
why, shorn of all common-sense, faith in this case becomes slightly pathological.
Mr. Blyth claims that "the Don Quixote of the First Part is Zen incarnate," that "the man who surpasses Hakuin, Rinzai, Eno, Daruma
and Shakyamuni himself is Don Quixote de la Mancha, Knight Errant." Zen, it seems, like all good things, can be abused. It is not very
probable that, when the cloak of "Zen" is thrown over them, all donkeys do
become tigers, all absurdities profundities. Irrationalism is not without its attractions,
but can be overdone. To suggest that one scripture, one conviction, one faith is as good
as another, smacks rather more of the spiritual nihilism of our present age, than of the
wisdom of Seng-t'san. I admit that I have always liked Don Quixote for saying that the
"perfection" of madness does not consist in going "mad for some actual
reason or other" but "in running mad without the least constraint or
necessity." But still I cannot help feeling that there is some difference, intangible
perhaps, but nevertheless real, between the perfection of madness and the perfection of
wisdom. Don Quixote's faith was a rather puerile one, because he had no judgment, and his
vision was defective. Blyth himself admits in the end that Don Quixote "lacks the
Confucian virtue of Prudence, the balance of the powers of the mind" (p.210). I am
not so sure about prudence, but the "balance of the powers of the mind" is
certainly not only a Confucian, but also a Buddhist virtue, and a very essential one.
Buddhaghosa, whom I am expounding here, leaves us in no doubt on this matter. What distinguishes a bhikkhu from a knight-errant is that he is
essentially sober and calm, that his view of the world is sweetly rational, that he avoids
violence in the pursuit of his aims, and that his estimate of his own role in the world
does not greatly exceed his actual size in relation to the universe.
A Buddhist owes his soberness to the cultivation of the third virtue of mindfulness
(Skr.: smriti, Pali: sati). Whereas faith and vigour, when driven to excess,
must be restrained by their counterparts, i.e. wisdom and tranquil concentration, the
virtue of mindfulness does not share this disability. "Mindfulness should be strong
everywhere. For it protects the mind from excitedness, into which it might fall since
faith, vigour and wisdom may excite us; and from indolence,
into which it might fall since concentration favours indolence. Therefore, mindfulness is
desirable everywhere, like a seasoning of salt in all sauces, like the prime minister in
all state functions. Hence it is said: 'The Lord has declared mindfulness to be useful
everywhere, for the mind finds refuge in mindfulness and mindfulness is its protector.
Without mindfulness there can be no exertion or restraint of the mind.' "
Although traces of it are not altogether absent in other religious and philosophical
disciplines, in Buddhism alone mindfulness occupies a central position. If one were asked
what distinguishes Buddhism from all other systems of thought, one would have to answer
that it is the dharma-theory and the stress laid on mindfulness. Mindfulness is not
only the seventh of the steps of the holy eightfold path, the third of the five virtues,
and the first of the seven limbs of enlightenment. On occasions it is almost equated with
Buddhism itself. So we read at the beginning of the Satipatthana Sutta that "the four applications of mindfulness are the one and only way (ekayano
maggo) that leads beings to purity, to the transcending of sorrow and lamentation, to
the appeasement of pain and sadness, to entrance upon the right method and to the
realization of Nirvana."
What then is "mindfulness"? The Abhidharma, guided by the etymology of the
Sanskrit term (smriti from smri, "to remember"), defines it as an
act of remembering which prevents ideas from "floating away," and which fights
forgetfulness, carelessness and distraction. This definition by itself, though correct,
does not really make the function of this virtue very clear to us today. The theoretical
assumptions which underlie the various practices summed up in the word
"mindfulness" are too much taken for granted. What one assumes is that the mind
consists of two disparate parts -- a depth which is calm and quiet, and a surface which is
disturbed. The surface layer is in perpetual agitation and turmoil. The centre, at the
bottom of the mind, beyond both the conscious and the unconscious mind as modern
psychologists understand it, is quite still. The depth is, however, usually overlaid to
such an extent that people remain incredulous when told of a submerged spot of stillness
in their inmost hearts. In most cases the surface is so turbulent that the calm of the
depth can be realized only in rare intervals.
Mindfulness and concentration are the two virtues which are concerned with the
development of inward calm. The principal enemies of spiritual quietude are: (1) the
senses; (2) the movements of the body; (3) the passions, wants and desires; and (4)
discursive thinking. They have the power to be enemies when: (1) they are not subjected to
any discipline; and (2) when the ego identifies itself with what takes place on the
surface of the mind, participating heartily in it, and the illusion arises that these
activities are "my" doings, "my" concerns and the sphere in which
"I" live and have my being. When thus busy with worldly things, we have neither
strength nor freedom. In order to conquer these enemies of spiritual quietude we must: (1)
withdraw the senses from their objects, as the tortoise draws in its limbs; (2) keep watch
on our muscular movements; (3) cease wanting anything, and dissociate all wants from the
ego; and (4) cut off discursive thinking.
By an effort of the imagination one must try to see oneself at rest, floating freely,
with no force exerted on one's spiritual self. The practice of mindfulness then is a
series of efforts which aim at maintaining this isolation. Mindfulness is the name given
to the measures which we take to protect the patch of inner calm, which may at first not
seem very large. One, as it were, draws a line round this domain and at its boundaries
keeps watch on trespassers. The expectation is that conscious attention will disintegrate
the power of the enemies, diminish their number, and dissociate them from the ego. However
diverse in nature the numerous exercises which come under the heading of mindfulness may
seem to be, they all have in common this one purpose, that of guarding the incipient and
growing calm in one's heart.
1. First, as regards the sensory stimuli, there is the "restraint of the
senses," also called the "guarding of the doors of the senses." For two
reasons sense stimulation may disturb inner calm: (1) because it gives an occasion for
undesirable states, like greed, hate, etc., to invade and flood the mind; (2) because
attention to the sensory world, however necessary and apparently innocuous, distracts from
the object of wisdom, which is the emptiness of dharmas. One cannot grasp what is
meant by "restraint of the sense dominants," if one regards it as quite a
natural thing that the mind should dwell on sense-linked objects. This is, indeed, most
unnatural. In its natural purity thought abides in the calm contemplation of emptiness.
The mind which sees, hears, etc., is a fallen mind.
The capacity of sense-experience to compel the mind to act in a certain way is greatly
diminished if each sensory stimulus is examined at the point where it passes the threshold
of consciousness. Attention, normally passive, involuntary and compulsive, is subjected to
voluntary control. In the process of imposing some control on the senses one will be
surprised to find how keen they are to function, how eager to find suitable objects with
which to feed one's impulses and instincts, one's hopes and fears, one's interests and
appetites, satisfactions and grievances. It is not so bad that one should see things, hear
sounds, etc., but it is a threat to spiritual health when one gets interested and
entranced, when one takes up what is seen and heard and seizes on it as a sign of what
The practice of mindfulness is not confined to taking note of what enters the mind by
way of the sense-organs. One also tries to determine what is allowed to enter, and to
generally reduce the number of sensory impacts by restraining the use of the physical
organ, for instance, when one walks with eyes directed only a few feet or yards ahead. In
addition, by an effort of the will one refuses to co-operate with one's habitual impulses
in building up a mere casual observation into a thing of moment to which one returns again
and again. Finally the intruder is weakened and worn down by appropriate reflections. He
is kept out of the heart and devalued -- as trivial, as already passed, as nothing in
particular, and by thinking that "this does not concern me at all, this means nothing
to me, it is only a waste when salvation and Nirvana are considered."
2. Secondly, as regards the muscular movements of the body -- an unquiet body is
a concomitant of a disturbed mind, both its cause and symptom. It is important to
mindfulness that one should consciously notice the position and movement of the body when
walking, eating, speaking, etc., and suppress and correct those movements which are
uncontrolled, hasty and uncoordinated. This practice can, it is true, not be carried out
at all times. In London traffic, for instance, the unhurried and unflurried demeanour of
the mindful has little survival value. Where, however, it can be applied, we come to
cherish this exercise which pulls us together, sometimes to an amazing extent in an
amazingly short time. Insignificant as it may seem, compared with the splendours of
Buddhist art and metaphysics, this training is their indispensable foundation stone. It is
by his dignified and self-possessed deportment that the bhikkhu is recognized. And, of
course, we should not forget that the mindful attention to muscular movements includes the
breathing practices, which are a most fruitful source of insight.
3. Where we have to face the disturbance of the passions and of stray thoughts
in general, the defence of our inward calm becomes more difficult. Mindfulness itself
turns into incipient concentration.
At this point one may ask whether the practice of the five cardinal virtues, from faith
to wisdom, is at all likely to be furthered by writing articles about them. It is, of
course, not an entirely useless undertaking to guard the traditional teaching from current
misunderstandings, quite apart from the pleasure of putting fleas into peoples' ears, and
fomenting discussions about the importance of faith, or the value of erudition. But what
about the virtues themselves? Thomas a Kempis once said that he would rather feel
compunction than know the definition of it. What matters to a Buddhist is that he should
be strong in faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom, and what use to him is
the knowledge of how they are defined? Detailed advice on how these virtues should be
practised, it is true, can never be given in articles written for the general reader. Such
advice must always be addressed to one person at a time, must take their individual
constitution into account, and can, therefore, be given only by word of mouth.
On the other hand, if mindfulness is a virtue, then the ability to recollect one's own
virtues is also a feature of the Buddhist life. And how can one attend to the presence or
absence of mental states in oneself if one is unable to recognize them for what they are?
The Satipatthana Sutta recommends systematic meditation on the wholesome and unwholesome
mental states which arise in the mind. To quote the Sutta, one knows, for instance: (1)
when there is vigour that there is vigour; (2) when there is no vigour that there is no
vigour; (3) how the vigour which did not exist came to be produced; and (4) how and under
what conditions it will grow to greater perfection. Psychology is so vital to Buddhist
instruction because one cannot know anything definite about the furniture of one's mind
unless one is acquainted with the categories into which mental conditions can be analysed.
A mindful man is well informed about his own mental condition. His capacity for
introspection is highly developed. And his interest in his own mind will not really make
him self-centered as long as he remembers that he has to deal with the rise and fall of
impersonal processes. In addition, in the case of the higher mental states, rational
clarity is imperative if constant self-deception and wasteful groping in the dark are to
be avoided. In a new country a map is helpful so that one may know where one is. The
manuals of mystical theology written by the practising contemplatives of the Catholic
Church are also rich in descriptions of the sublimer virtues.
But this is not all. Where the Buddhist virtues are described for a lay audience one
must not omit to mention the all-important fact that the upper ranges of these virtues
demand a reformation of the conduct of life which is greater than almost any layman is
willing to undertake. The higher mindfulness, and nearly the whole range of concentration
and wisdom, presuppose a degree of withdrawal from the world which is incompatible with
the life of an ordinary citizen. Those who are unwilling to achieve a radical seclusion
from the world can practise these virtues only in a very rudimentary form. It is quite
idle to pretend that they do not involve a complete break with the established habits of
life and thought. Unless we make the sacrifices involved in withdrawing from the world, we
are bound to remain strangers to the fullness of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
But if the monastic life is a necessary condition for these virtues, why talk about
them at all? Partly because it is salutary, though painful, that we should see their
absence in us, and partly because they constitute the subjective counterpart of the
scriptures which we read. The Suttas describe the world as it appears on a spiritual level
on which concentration and wisdom have come to maturity. The understanding of the
scriptures is furthered by an understanding of the subjective attitude which corresponds
to them. And so, although we are forced to go beyond the range of our immediate
experience, and although the description tends to become more intangible as it rises to
loftier heights, we will now, leaving aside the higher ranges of mindfulness, try to
explain the traditional definitions of concentration and wisdom, as they are handed down
Concentration (samadhi) continues the work of mindfulness. It deepens our
capacity to regain the peaceful calm of our inner nature. But here we are at once faced
with the difficulty that in Buddhist psychology "concentration" occurs twice:
(1) as a factor essential to all thought; and (2) as a special, and rather rare, virtue.
1. In its simplest form, concentration is the narrowing of the field of attention in a
manner and for a time determined by the will. The mind is made one-pointed, does not
waver, does not scatter itself, and it becomes steady like the flame of a lamp in the
absence of wind. Without a certain degree of one-pointedness no mental activity at all can
take place. Each mental act lasts, strictly speaking, for one moment only, and is at once
followed by another. The function of concentration is to provide some stability in this
perpetual flux, by enabling the mind to stand in, or on, the same object, without
distraction, for more than one moment. In addition it is a synthetic quality (sam-a-dhi
= syn-thesis), that binds together a number of mental states which arise at the same time,
"as water binds the lather of soap."
Buddhaghosa stresses the fact that intellectual concentration is also found in
unwholesome thoughts. The mind must be undistracted so that the murderer's knife does not
miss, the theft does not miscarry. A mind of single intent is capable of doing what it
does more effectively, be it good or bad. The higher degrees of this kind of concentration
owe much to the presence of the "hunting instinct," and can best be observed in
a stoat following a rabbit. Intellectual concentration is a quality which is ethically and
spiritually neutral. Many scientific workers have an unusually high capacity for
concentrated thought. Anyone acquainted with the "scientific humanists" who
inhabit our big cities will, however, agree that their intellectual achievements are not
conducive to either peace of mind or spiritual progress. When Sir Isaac Newton boiled his
watch instead of the egg his landlady had given him, he thereby showed the intensity with
which he focussed his mind on his intellectual task. But the result of his intellectual
labours has been to cast a dark shadow over the spiritual radiance of the universe, and
ever since, the celestial harmonies have become nearly inaudible. As H.W. Longfellow, in
his poem on "The Arsenal at Springfield," has put it:
Is it, O man, with such discordant noises,
With such accursed instruments as these,
Thou drownest Nature's sweet and kindly voices,
And jarrest the celestial harmonies?
2. How then does concentration as a spiritual virtue differ from concentration as a
condition of the intellect? Spiritual or transic concentration results less from
intellectual effort than from a rebirth of the whole personality, including the body, the
emotions, and the will. It cannot possibly be achieved without some discipline over the
body, since we must be able to endure the prescribed posture, practise the prescribed
breathing exercises, and so on. It is further built on a change of outlook which we can
well describe as "ethical." Tradition is quite unambiguous on this point. Before
spiritual concentration can be even approached, we must have stilled or suppressed five
vices, which are known as the "five hindrances": sense desire, ill will, sloth
and torpor, excitedness and sense of guilt, and doubt. Where these hindrances are present,
where concentrated thought is fused with greed, the desire to excel, to get a good job,
etc., there concentration as a spiritual virtue is not found.
In this sense physical ease and self-purification are the first two distinctive
features of spiritual concentration. The third is the shift in attention from the sensory
world to another subtler realm. The methods by which this shift is effected are
traditionally known as the four trances (jhana) and the four formless attainments.
They are essentially a training in increasing introversion, achieved by progressively
diminishing the impact of the outer stimuli. As a result of their successful withdrawal
and renunciation the spiritually concentrated release the inward calm which dwells in
their hearts. This concentration cannot be won, however, unless no attention is given to
sensory data, and everything sensory is viewed as equally unimportant. Subjectively it is
marked by a soft, tranquil and pacified passivity, objectively by the abstraction into an
unearthly world of experience which lifts one above the world, and bestows a certainty
greater than anything the senses may teach. The experience is so satisfying that it burns
up the world, and only its cold ashes are found when one returns to it.
And so we come to wisdom (Skr.: prajna; Pali pañña), the highest virtue
"Wisdom is based on concentration, because of the saying: 'One who is concentrated
knows, sees what really is'." Is concentration then
an indispensable pre-condition of wisdom? The answer lies in distinguishing three stages
of wisdom, according to whether it operates on the level of: (1) learning about
what tradition has to say concerning the psychological and ontological categories which
form the subject-matter of wisdom; (2) discursive reflection on the basic facts of
life; and (3) meditational development. The third
alone requires the aid of transic concentration, whereas
without it there can be proficiency in the first two. And the wisdom which consists of
learning and reflection should not be despised.
The main stream of Buddhist tradition has always greatly esteemed learning. Our
attitude to the apple of knowledge differs from that of many Christians. On the whole, we
regard it as rather more nourishing than baneful. The wisdom, which is the fifth and
crowning virtue, is not the wisdom that can be found in the untutored child of nature, the
corny sage of the backwoods, or the self-made philosopher of the suburbs. It can operate
only after a great deal of traditional information has been absorbed, a great deal of
sound learning acquired. The required skill in metaphysical and psychological analysis
would be impossible without a good knowledge of the material on which this skill ought to
be exercised. From this point of view learning is perhaps less to be regretted than its
The second stage, after learning, is reflection, which is an operation of the
intellect. Even the relative beginner can greatly increase his wisdom by discursive
meditations on the basic facts of life. Finally, it is on the level of mental
development (bhavana) that this meditational technique reaches its maturity,
and then it does, indeed, require the aid of mindfulness and concentration.
"Wisdom" is, of course, only a very approximate equivalent of prajna.
To the average person nowadays "wisdom" seems to denote a compound made up of
such qualities as sagacity, prudence, a well-developed sense of values, serenity, and
sovereignty over the world won by the understanding of the mode of its operation. The
Buddhist conception of "wisdom" is not unlike this, but more precise. It is best
clarified by first giving its connotations, and then its actual definition.
As for the connotations, we read in the Dhammasangani:
"On that occasion the dominant of wisdom is wisdom,
understanding, search, research, search for dharma; discernment, discrimination, differentiation, erudition,
expert skill, subtlety, clarity, reflection,
sagacity, a guide (to true welfare and to the marks as
they truly are), insight, comprehension, a goad (which urges the mind to move back on the
right track); wisdom, wisdom as virtue, wisdom as strength (because ignorance cannot
dislodge it), the sword of wisdom (which cuts through the defilements), the lofty (and
overtowering) height of wisdom, the light, lustre and
splendour of wisdom, the treasure of wisdom, absence of
delusion, search for dharmas, right view." From mere cleverness wisdom is
distinguished by its spiritual purpose, and we are told expressly
that it is designed "to cut off the defilements."
Now to the actual definition: "Wisdom penetrates
into dharmas as they are in themselves. It disperses the darkness of delusion,
which covers up the own-being of dharmas."
What then does wisdom meditate about? Wisdom may be held to concern itself with three
possible topics: (1) true reality; (2) the meaning of life; (3) the conduct of life.
Buddhist tradition assumes that the second and third depend on the first. In its essence
wisdom is the strength of mind which permits contact with the true reality, which is also
called the realm of dharmas. Delusion, folly, confusion, ignorance and
self-deception are the opposites of wisdom. It is because ignorance, and not sin, is the
root evil that wisdom is regarded as the highest virtue. A holiness which is devoid of
wisdom is not considered impossible, but it cannot be gained by the path of knowledge, to
which alone these descriptions apply. The paths of faith, of love, of works, etc., have
each their own several laws.
As the unfaltering penetration into the true nature of objects, wisdom is the capacity
to meditate in certain ways about the dharmic constituents of the universe. The rules of
that meditation have been laid down in the scriptures, particularly in the Abhidharma, and
a superb description can be found in the latter part of Buddhaghosa's Path of
Purification. Mindfulness and concentration were, as we saw, based on the assumption
of a duality in the mind -- between its calm depth and its excited surface. Wisdom
similarly assumes a duality between the surface and depth of all things. Objects are not
what they appear to be. Their true reality, in which they stand out as dharmas, is
opposed to their appearance to commonsense, and much strength of wisdom is required to go
beyond the deceptive appearance and to penetrate to the reality of dharmas
Texts 1-3: Translated by Edward Conze
Text 4: Translated by Nyanaponika Mahathera
Text 5: Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli
1. The Five Faculties
(a) From the Milindapanha
The king said: "Is it through wise attention that people become exempt from
further rebirth?" -- "Yes, that is due to wise attention, and also to wisdom,
and the other wholesome dharmas." -- "But is not wise attention the same
as wisdom?" -- "No, Your Majesty. Attention is one thing, and wisdom another.
Sheep and goats, oxen and buffaloes, camels and asses have attention, but wisdom they have
not." -- "Well put, Venerable Nagasena."
The king said: "What is the mark of attention, and what is the mark of
wisdom?" -- "Consideration is the mark of attention, cutting off that of
wisdom." -- "How is that? Give me a simile." -- "You know
barley-reapers, I suppose?" -- "Yes, I do." -- "How then do they reap
the barley?" -- "With the left hand they seize a bunch of barley, in the right
hand they hold a sickle, and they cut the barley off with that sickle." -- "Just
so, Your Majesty, the yogin seizes his mental processes with his attention, and by his
wisdom he cuts off the defilements." -- "Well put, Venerable Nagasena."
The king said: "When you just spoke of 'the other wholesome dharmas,' which ones
did you mean?" -- "I meant morality, faith, vigour, mindfulness and
concentration." -- "And what is the mark of morality?" -- "Morality
has the mark of providing a basis for all wholesome dharmas, whatever they may be. When
based on morality, all the wholesome dharmas will not dwindle away." -- "Give me
an illustration." -- "As all plants and animals which increase, grow, and
prosper, do so with the earth as their support, with the earth as their basis, just so the
yogin, with morality as his support, with morality as his basis, develops the five
cardinal virtues, i.e. the cardinal virtues of faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration,
"Give me a further illustration."
"As the builder of a city when constructing a town first of all clears the site,
removes all stumps and thorns, and levels it; and only after that he lays out and marks
off the roads and cross-roads, and so builds the city, even so the yogin develops the five
cardinal virtues with morality as his support, with morality as his basis."
The king said: "What is the mark of faith?" -- "Faith makes
serene, and it leaps forward." -- "And how does faith make serene?" --
"When faith arises it arrests the five hindrances, and the heart becomes free from
them, clear, serene and undisturbed." -- "Give me an illustration." --
"A universal monarch might on his way, together with his fourfold army, cross over a
small stream. Stirred up by the elephants and horses, by the chariots and infantry, the
water would become disturbed, agitated and muddy. Having crossed over, the universal
monarch would order his men to bring some water for him to drink. But the king would
possess a miraculous water-clearing gem, and his men, in obedience to his command, would
throw it into the stream. Then at once all fragments of vegetation would float away, the
mud would settle at the bottom, the stream would become clear, serene and undisturbed, and
fit to be drunk by the universal monarch. Here the stream corresponds to the heart, the
monarch's men to the yogin, the fragments of vegetation and the mud to the defilements,
and the miraculous water-clearing gem to faith."
"And how does faith leap forward?" -- "When the yogin sees that the
hearts of others have been set free, he leaps forward, by way of aspiration, to the
various fruits of the holy life, and he makes efforts to attain the yet unattained, to
find the yet unfound, to realize the yet unrealized." -- "Give me an
illustration." -- "Suppose that a great cloud were to burst over a hill-slope.
The water then would flow down the slope, would first fill all the hill's clefts,
fissures, and gullies, and would then run into the river below, making its banks overflow
on both sides. Now suppose further that a great crowd of people had come along, and unable
to size up either the width or the depth of the river, should stand frightened and
hesitating on the bank. But then some man would come along, who, conscious of his own
strength and power, would firmly tie on his own loin-cloth and jump across the river. And
the great crowd of people, seeing him on the other side, would cross likewise. Even so the
yogin, when he has seen that the hearts of others have been set free, leaps forward, by
aspiration, to the various fruits of the holy life, and he makes efforts to attain the yet
unattained, to find the yet unfound, to realize the yet unrealized. And this is what the
Lord has said in the Samyutta Nikaya:
By faith the flood is crossed,
By wakefulness the sea;
By vigour ill is passed;
By wisdom cleansed is he."
"Well put, Nagasena!"
The king asked: "And what is the mark of vigour?" -- "Vigour
props up, and, when propped up by vigour, all the wholesome dharmas do not dwindle
away." -- "Give me a simile." -- "If a man's house were falling down,
he would prop it up with a new piece of wood, and, so supported, that house would not
The king asked: "And what is the mark of mindfulness?" --
"Calling to mind and taking up."
"How is calling to mind a mark of mindfulness?" -- "When mindfulness
arises, one calls to mind the dharmas which participate in what is wholesome and
unwholesome, blamable and blameless, inferior and sublime, dark and light, i.e. these are
the four applications of mindfulness, these the four right efforts, these the four roads
to psychic power, these the five cardinal virtues, these the five powers, these the seven
limbs of enlightenment, this is the holy eightfold path; this is calm, this insight, this
knowledge and this emancipation. Thereafter the yogin tends those dharmas which
should be tended, and he does not tend those which should not be tended; he partakes of
those dharmas which should be followed, and he does not partake of those which
should not be followed. It is in this sense that calling to mind is a mark of
mindfulness." -- "Give me a simile." -- "It is like the treasurer of a
universal monarch, who each morning and evening reminds his royal master of his
magnificent assets: 'So many elephants you have, so many horses, so many chariots, so much
infantry, so many gold coins, so much bullion, so much property; may Your Majesty bear
this in mind.' In this way he calls to mind his master's wealth."
"And how does mindfulness take up?" -- "When mindfulness arises, the
outcome of beneficial and harmful dharmas is examined in this way: 'These dharmas
are beneficial, these harmful; these dharmas are helpful, these unhelpful.'
Thereafter the yogin removes the harmful dharmas, and takes up the beneficial ones;
he removes the unhelpful dharmas, and takes up the helpful ones. It is in this
sense that mindfulness takes up." -- "Give me a comparison." -- "It is
like the invaluable adviser of a universal monarch who knows what is beneficial and what
is harmful to his royal master, what is helpful and what is unhelpful. Thereafter what is
harmful and unhelpful can be removed, what is beneficial and helpful can be taken
The king asked: "And what is the mark of concentration?" -- "It
stands at the head. Whatever wholesome dharmas there may be, they all are headed by
concentration, they bend towards concentration, lead to concentration, incline to
concentration." -- "Give me a comparison." -- "It is as with a
building with a pointed roof: whatever rafters there are, they all converge on the top,
bend towards the top, meet at the top, and the top occupies the most prominent place. So
with concentration in relation to the other wholesome dharmas." -- "Give
me a further comparison." -- "If a king were to enter battle with his fourfold
army, then all his troops -- the elephants, cavalry, chariots and infantry -- would be
headed by him, and would be ranged around him. Such is the position of concentration in
relation to the other wholesome dharmas."
The king then asked: "What then is the mark of wisdom?" --
"Cutting off is, as I said before, one mark of wisdom. In addition it
illuminates." -- "And how does wisdom illuminate?" -- "When wisdom
arises, it dispels the darkness of ignorance, generates the illumination of knowledge,
sheds the light of cognition, and makes the holy truths stand out clearly. Thereafter the
yogin, with his correct wisdom, can see impermanence, ill, and not-self." --
"Give me a comparison." -- "It is like a lamp which a man would take into a
dark house. It would dispel the darkness, would illuminate, shed light, and make the forms
in the house stands out clearly." -- "Well put, Venerable Nagasena."
Milindapanha, pp. 51-62
(b) From the Akshayamati Sutra
The five faculties are faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Here what
is faith? By this faith one has faith in four dharmas. Which four? He
accepts the right view which assumes renewed becoming in the world of birth-and-death; he
puts his trust in the ripening of karma, and knows that he will experience the fruit of
any karma, that he may have done; even to save his life he does not do any evil deed. He
has faith in the mode of life of a Bodhisattva, and, having taken up this discipline, he
does not long for any other vehicle. He believes when he hears all the doctrines which are
characterized by the true, clear, and profound knowledge of conditioned co-production, by
such terms as lack of self, absence of a being, absence of a soul, absence of a person;
and by emptiness, the signless and the wishless. He follows none of the false doctrines,
and believes in all the qualities (dharmas) of a Buddha, his powers, grounds of
self-confidence, and all the rest; and when in his faith he has left behind all doubts, he
brings about in himself those qualities of a Buddha. This is known as the virtue of faith.
His vigour consists of his bringing about (in himself) the dharmas in which
he has faith. His mindfulness consists in his preventing the qualities which he
brings about by vigour from being destroyed by forgetfulness. His concentration
consists in his fixing his one-pointed attention on these very same qualities. With the
faculty of wisdom he contemplates those dharmas on which he has fixed his
one-pointed attention, and penetrates to their reality. The cognition of those dharmas
which arises in himself and which has no outside condition is called the virtue of wisdom.
Thus these five virtues, together, are sufficient to bring forth all the qualities of a
Akshayamati Sutra (quoted in Shikshasamuccaya).
2. The Restraint of the Senses
(a) From Ashvaghosha's Saundaranandakavya
By taking your stand on mindfulness you must hold back from the sense-objects your
senses, unsteady by nature. Fire, snakes, and lightning are less inimical to us than our
own senses, so much more dangerous. For they assail us all the time. Even the most vicious
enemies can attack only some people at some times, and not at others, but everybody is
always and everywhere weighed down by his senses. And people do not go to hell because
some enemy has knocked them down and cast them into it; it is because they have been
knocked down by their unsteady senses that they are helplessly dragged there. Those
attacked by external enemies may, or may not, suffer injury to their souls; but those who
are weighed down by the senses suffer in body and soul alike. For the five senses are
rather like arrows which have been smeared with the poison of fancies, have cares for
their feathers, and happiness for their points, and fly about in the space provided by the
range of the sense-objects; shot off by Kama, the God of Love, they hit men in
their very hearts as a hunter hits a deer, and if men do not know how to ward off these
arrows, they will be their undoing; when they come near us we should stand firm in
self-control, be agile and steadfast, and ward them off with the great armour of
mindfulness. As a man who has subdued his enemies can everywhere live and sleep at ease
and free from care, so can he who has pacified his senses. For the senses constantly ask
for more by way of worldly objects, and normally behave like voracious dogs who can never
have enough. This disorderly mob of the senses can never reach satiety, not by any amount
of sense-objects; they are rather like the sea, which one can go on indefinitely
replenishing with water.
In this world the senses cannot be prevented from being active, each in its own sphere.
But they should not be allowed to grasp either the general features of an object, or its
particularities. When you have beheld a sight-object with your eyes, you must merely
determine the basic element (which it represents, e.g. it is a sight-object), and should
not under any circumstances fancy it as, say, a "woman" or a "man."
But if now and then you have inadvertently grasped something as a "woman" or a
"man," you should not follow that up by determining the hairs, teeth, etc., as
lovely. Nothing should be subtracted from the datum, nothing added to it; it should be
seen as it really is, as what it is like in real truth.
If you thus try to look continually for the true reality in that which the senses
present to you, covetousness and aversion will soon be left without a foothold. Coveting
ruins those living beings who are bent on sensuous enjoyment by means of pleasing forms,
like an enemy with a friendly face who speaks loving words, but plans dark deeds. But what
is called "aversion" is a kind of anger directed towards certain objects, and
anyone who is deluded enough to pursue it is bound to suffer for it either in this or a
future life. Afflicted by their likes and dislikes, as by excessive heat or cold, men will
never find either happiness or the highest good as long as they put their trust in the
Saundaranandakavya, xiii, 30-56
(b) From the Prajnaparamita
The Lord: When he practises the perfection of meditation for the sake of other beings
his mind becomes undistracted. For he reflects that "even worldly meditation is hard
to accomplish with distracted thoughts, how much more so is full enlightenment. Therefore,
I must remain undistracted until I have won full enlightenment." ...
Moreover, Subhuti, a Bodhisattva, beginning with the first thought of enlightenment,
practises the perfection of meditation. His mental activities are associated with the
knowledge of all modes when he enters into meditation. When he has seen forms with his
eye, he does not seize upon them as signs of realities which concern him, nor is he
interested in the accessory details. He sets himself to restrain that which, if he does
not restrain his organ of sight, might give him occasion for covetousness, sadness or
other evil and unwholesome dharmas to reach his heart. He watches over the organ of
sight. And the same with the other five sense-organs -- ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.
Whether he walks or stands, sits or lies down, talks or remains silent, his
concentration does not leave him. He does not fidget with his hands or feet, or twitch his
face; he is not incoherent in his speech, confused in his senses, exalted or uplifted,
fickle or idle, agitated in body or mind. Calm is his body, calm is his voice, calm is his
mind. His demeanour shows contentment, both in private and public.... He is frugal, easy
to feed, easy to serve, of good life and habits; though in a crowd he dwells apart; even
and unchanged, in gain and loss; not elated, not cast down. Thus in happiness and
suffering, in praise and blame, in fame and disrepute, in life or death, he is the same
unchanged, neither elated nor cast down. And so with foe or friend, with what is pleasant
or unpleasant, with holy or unholy men, with noises or music, with forms that are dear or
undear, he remains the same, unchanged, neither elated nor cast down, neither gratified
nor thwarted. And why? Because he sees all dharmas as empty of marks of their own,
without true reality, incomplete and uncreated.
Prajnaparamita, ch. 68.
(c) From the Visuddhimagga
This is the morality which consists in the restraint of the senses: "Here
someone: (1) having seen a form with his eye, does not seize on its general appearance, or
the (accessory) details of it. That which might, so long as he dwells unrestrained as to
the (controlling) force of the eye, give occasion for covetous, sad, evil and unwholesome dharmas
to flood him, that he sets himself to restrain; he guards the controlling force of the
eye, and brings about its restraint. And likewise (2) when he has heard sounds with the
ear, (3) smelled smells with the nose, (4) tasted tastes with the tongue, (5) touched
touchables with the body, (6) cognized mind-objects (dharmas) with the mind."
Having seen a form with his eye: when he has seen a form with the visual
consciousness which is capable of seeing forms, and which in normal language is usually
called the "eye," though it actually is its tool. For the Ancients have said:
"The eye cannot see forms because it is without thought; thought cannot see forms
because it is without eye. When the object knocks against the door (of sight) one sees
with the thought which has eye-sensibility for its basis." In the expression
"one sees with the eye," only accessory equipment is indicated, just as one may
say, "one shoots with a bow" (and not "with an arrow"). Therefore, the
meaning here is: "having seen form with visual consciousness."
He does not seize on its general appearance (lit. "the sign"): he does
not seize on its appearance as man or woman, or its appearance as attractive, etc., which
makes it into a basis for the defiling passions. But he stops at what is actually seen. He
does not seize on the details of it: he does not seize on the variety of its accessory
features, like the hands or feet, the smile, the laughter, the talk, the looking here, the
looking away, etc., which are in common parlance called "details" (anubyanjana)
because they manifest the defiling passions, by again and again (anu anu) tainting
with them (byanjanato). But he seizes only on that which is really there, i.e. the
impurity of the 32 parts of the body) like Mahatissa, the Elder, who lived on Mount
Cetiya. Once that Elder went from Mount Cetiya to Anuradhapura, to gather alms. In a
certain family the daughter-in-law had quarrelled with her husband, and adorned and
beautified like a heavenly maiden, she left Anuradhapura early in the morning, and went
away to stay with some relatives. On the way she saw the Elder, and, as her mind was
perverted, she gave a loud laugh. The Elder looked to see what was the matter; he
acquired, at the sight of her teeth (-bones), the notion of repulsiveness (impurity), and
thereby reached Arahatship.... The husband who ran after her on same road, saw the Elder,
and asked him whether he had by any chance seen a woman. The Elder replied:
"Whether what went along here
Was a man or a woman, I do not know.
But a collection of bones is moving
Now along this main road."
That which might, etc.: that which might be the reason, or that non-restraint of
the faculty of the eye which might be the cause, why in this person, when he dwells
without having restrained the faculty of the eye with the gate of mindfulness, i.e. when
he has left the door of the eye open, such dharmas as covetousness, etc., flood
him, i.e. pursue and submerge him. That he sets himself to restrain: he sets
himself to close this faculty of the eye with the gate of mindfulness. And one who sets
himself to do that, of him it is said that he guards the controlling force of the eye,
and brings about its restraint.
But it is not with reference to the faculty of the eye itself that there is restraint
or non-restraint (i.e. it does not apply to the initial stage of the impact of stimulus on
the eye), and it is not concerning the eye considered as a sensitive organ that
mindfulness arises, or the lack of it. But it is at (the stage of the apperception of the
object, with such and such a meaning and significance, and the volitional reaction to it,
which is technically known as) the "impulsive moment," that there is lack of
restraint, if and when immorality arises then, or lack of mindfulness, or lack of
cognition, lack of patience or laziness. Nevertheless one speaks of the non-restraint of
the sense of sight. And why? Because when the mind is in that condition, also the door (of
the eye) is unguarded. The situation can be compared with that of a city: when its four
gates are unguarded, then, although in the interior of the city the doors of the houses,
the storerooms and private rooms are well guarded, nevertheless all the property in the
city is actually unguarded and unprotected, and robbers can, once they have entered
through the city gates, do whatever they like. In the same sense also the door (of the
eye) is unguarded when, in consequence of the arising of immorality, etc., there is lack
of restraint at the "impulsive moment."
But when morality, etc., arise at that moment, then the door (of sight) also is
guarded. Just again as with the city: When the city-gates are well guarded, then, although
in the interior the doors of the houses, etc., are unguarded, nevertheless all the
property in the city is actually well guarded and well protected; for the city-gates being
closed, robbers cannot enter. Just so also the door (of the eye) is guarded when morality,
etc., arise at the "impulsive moment." The same explanation applies to: when he
has heard sounds with the ear, etc. The restraint of the senses thus consists, in short,
in the avoiding of the seizing of the general appearance, etc., of sight-objects, etc.,
which lead to one's being pursued by the defiling passions.
And it should be achieved through mindfulness. For it is effected by mindfulness, in so
far as the sense-organs when they are governed by mindfulness, can no longer be influenced
by convetousness, etc. Therefore, we should remember the "Fire Sermon"
(S.iv,168) which says: "It were better, monks, if the eye were stroked with a heated
iron bar, afire, ablaze, aflame, than that one should seize on either the general
appearance or the details of the forms of which the eye is aware." The disciple
should achieve a thorough restraint of the senses, in that, by unimpaired mindfulness, he
prevents that seizing on the general appearance, etc., which makes the consciousness which
proceeds through the door of the eye, etc., with forms, etc., for its range (province),
liable to be flooded (influenced) by covetousness, etc.
And one should become like Cittagutta, the Elder, who lived in the great Kurandaka
Cave. In that cave there was a delightful painting which showed the seven Buddhas leaving
for the homeless life. One day numerous monks were wandering about in the cave, going from
lodging to lodging. They noticed the painting and said: "What a delightful painting,
Venerable Bhikkhu!" The Elder replied: "For more than sixty years, brethren, I
have lived in this cave, and I have never known whether there is a painting here or
whether there is not. Today only I have learned it from you people, who use your
eyes." For all that time during which the Elder had lived there, he had never lifted
up his eyes and looked more closely at the cave. At the entrance to the cave there was a
large ironwood tree. To that also the Elder had never looked up; but he knew that it was
in flower when each year he saw the filaments which had fallen down on the ground.
All the sons of good family who have their own welfare at heart should, therefore,
"Let not the eye wander like forest ape,
Or trembling wood deer, or affrighted child.
The eyes should be cast downwards; they should look
The distance of a yoke; he shall not serve
His thought's dominion, like a restless ape."
Visuddhimagga, I, 42, 53-59, 100, 104-5, 109
3. The Control of the Mind
From the Majjhima Nikaya and Commentary
The Sutta on the Composition of Ideas:
If, whilst attending to a certain sign, there arise, with reference to it, in the
disciple evil and unwholesome ideas, connected with greed, hate or delusion, then the
I. should, by means of this sign (= cause, occasion) attend to another sign which is
II. or he should investigate the peril of these ideas: "Unwholesome truly are
these ideas! Blameworthy are these ideas! Of painful result are these ideas!";
III. or he should pay no attention to these ideas;
IV. or he should attend to the composition of the factors which effect these ideas;
V. or, with teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the gums, he should by means
of sheer mental effort hold back, crush and burn out the (offending) thought.
In doing so, these evil and unwholesome ideas, bound up with greed, hate or
delusion, will be forsaken and disappear; from their forsaking thought will become
inwardly settled and calm, composed and concentrated. This is called the effort to
The Commentary says:
I. Unwholesome ideas may arise with reference to beings -- be they desirable,
undesirable, or unconsidered -- or to things, such as one's possessions, or things which
annoy, like stumps or thorns. The wholesome counter-ideas which drive them out arise from
the following practices, which are directly opposed to them:
Greed about beings: Meditation about the repulsiveness of the body.
Greed about things: Attention to their impermanence.
Hate for beings: The development of friendliness.
Hate for things: Attention to the elements: which of the physical elements composing
the thing am I angry with?
Delusion about beings and things:
(1) When he has, in his general bewilderment, neglected his duties to a teacher, he
wakes himself up by doing some tiresome work, such as carrying water.
(2) When he has been hazy in attending to the teacher's explanation of the doctrine, he
wakes himself up by doing some tiresome work.
(3) He removes his doubts by questioning authorities.
(4) At the right time he listens respectfully to the Dharma.
(5) He acquires the skill in distinguishing between correct and faulty conclusions, and
knows that "this is the reason for that, this is not the reason."
These are the direct and correct antidotes to the faulty ideas.
II. He investigates them with the power of wisdom, and rejects them like a snake's
III. He should not remember those ideas, not attend to them, but become one who is
otherwise engaged. He should be like someone who, not wanting to see a certain
sight-object, just closes his eyes; when these ideas arise in his mind, he should take
hold of his basic subject of meditation, and become engaged in that. It may help him to
break the spell of intruding thoughts and to occupy his mind otherwise, if he recites with
great faith a passage from the Scriptures, or reads out a passage in praise of the Buddha
or Dharma; or he may sort out his belongings, and enumerate them one by one: "these
are the scissors," "this is the needle," etc.; or he should do some sewing;
or he should do some good work for a given period of time. And after that he should return
to his basic subject of meditation.
IV. He should analyse the conditions for these ideas and ask himself: "What is
their cause, what their condition, what the reason for their having arisen?"
V. He should put forth great vigour, and with a wholesome thought he should hold back
an unwholesome one.
Majjhima Nikaya, No. 20, and Papañcasudani (Summary)
4. The Buddha's Sayings on the Faculties (Indriya Samyutta)
From the Samyutta Nikaya
(a) At their Best
There are these five faculties, monks: the faculty of faith, the faculty of vigour, the
faculty of mindfulness, the faculty of concentration and the faculty of wisdom.
Where can the faculty of faith be seen (at its best)? In the four characteristic
qualities of a stream-winner.
Where can the faculty of vigour be seen (at its best)? In the four right efforts.
Where can the faculty of mindfulness be seen (at its best)? In the four foundations of
Where can the faculty of concentration be seen (at its best)? In the four meditative
Where can the faculty of wisdom be seen (at its best)? In the Four Noble Truths.
Sutta 8 (PTS, iv,196)
(b) The Measure of Achievement
By accomplishment and perfection in the five faculties one is an Arahant. If the
faculties are weaker, one is a non-returner; if they are still weaker, one is a
once-returner, or a stream-winner, or a Dhamma-devotee (dhammanusarin), or a
Thus, monks, through the difference of faculties, there is difference of result; and
the difference of results makes for the difference of individuals.
Thus, monks, he who practises the five faculties to their perfection, wins to
perfection (of Arahantship). He who practises them partially, wins a partial result. Not
barren (of results), I say, are the five faculties.
But he who is entirely, in any degree and respect, without these five
faculties, stands outside, in the class of ordinary men (puthujjana).
Sutta 18 (iv,200-202)
(c) Rooted in Experience
Thus I have heard. On one occasion when the Exalted One lived in the Eastern Cottage at
Savatthi, he addressed the Venerable Sariputta as follows:
"Do you believe, Sariputta, that the faculty of faith, if cultivated and regularly
practised, leads to the Deathless, is bound for the Deathless, ends in the Deathless; that
the faculty of vigour ... the faculty of mindfulness ... the faculty of concentration ...
the faculty of wisdom, if cultivated and regularly practised, leads to the Deathless, is
bound for the Deathless, ends in the Deathless?"
"Herein, O Lord, I do not follow the Exalted One out of faith. Those by whom this
is unknown, unseen, uncognized, unrealized and unexperienced by wisdom, they will herein
follow others out of faith. But those by whom this is known, seen, cognized, realized and
experienced by wisdom, they have no uncertainty, no doubt about it that these five
faculties, if cultivated and regularly practised, lead to the Deathless, are bound for the
Deathless, end in the Deathless. By me, O Lord, it has been known, seen, cognized,
realized and experienced by wisdom and I have no uncertainty, no doubt about it that the
faculty of faith ... the faculty of vigour ... the faculty of mindfulness ... the faculty
of concentration ... the faculty of wisdom, if cultivated and regularly practised, leads
to the Deathless, is bound for the Deathless, ends in the Deathless."
"Well said, Sariputta, well said," spoke the Lord (and he repeated in
approval the words of the Venerable Sariputta).
Sutta 44 (iv,220)
(d) Wisdom, the Crowning Virtue -- 1
It is through cultivating and regularly practising one faculty that a canker-free
bhikkhu makes known his knowledge (of final attainment):
"Ceased has rebirth, fulfilled is the holy life, the task is done, nothing further
remains after this." Which is the one faculty? The faculty of wisdom.
In a noble disciple endowed with wisdom, faith that goes along with it, is firmly
established; vigour that goes along with it, is firmly established; mindfulness that goes
along with it, is firmly established; concentration that goes along with it, is firmly
established. This, monks, is the one faculty through the cultivating and regularly
practising of which, a canker-free bhikkhu makes known his knowledge (of final
attainment): "Ceased has rebirth, fulfilled is the holy life, the task is done,
nothing further remains after this."
Sutta 45 (iv,222)
(e) Wisdom, the Crowning Virtue -- II
Just as among all heartwood fragrances that of the red sandalwood is deemed best, so,
monks, among states that partake of enlightenment the faculty of wisdom is deemed best,
namely, for the purpose of enlightenment.
Which, monks, are the states partaking of enlightenment? The faculty of faith is a
state partaking of enlightenment and it leads to enlightenment. The faculty of vigour ...
the faculty of mindfulness ... the faculty of concentration ...the faculty of wisdom is a
state partaking of enlightenment and it leads to enlightenment.
And among them, the faculty of wisdom is deemed best, namely, for the purpose of
Sutta 55 (iv,231)
(f) The Acme of Faith
Thus I have heard. On one occasion, the Exalted One dwelt among the Anga people, at
Apana, a town of the Angas. There the Exalted One addressed the Venerable Sariputta as
"A noble disciple, Sariputta, who has single-minded confidence in the Perfect One,
can he have uncertainty or doubt concerning the Perfect One's dispensation?"
"A noble disciple, Lord, who has single-minded confidence in the Perfect One,
cannot have uncertainty or doubt concerning the Perfect One's dispensation.
"Of a noble disciple endowed with faith it can be expected, Lord, that he will
live employing his vigour to the overcoming of unsalutary states and the acquisition of
salutary states, energetic, with strenuous exertion, unremittingly applying himself to
things salutary. This vigour of his, O Lord, is his faculty of vigour.
"Of a noble disciple who is endowed with faith and employs his vigour, it can be
expected, Lord, that he will be mindful, equipped with the highest mindfulness and
circumspection, and that he remembers well and keeps in mind what has been done and said
long ago. This mindfulness of his, Lord, is his faculty of mindfulness.
"Of a noble disciple who is endowed with faith, employing his vigour, keeping his
mindfulness alert, it can be expected, Lord, that making the highest relinquishment
(Nibbana) his object, he will obtain concentration, will obtain unification of mind. This
concentration of his, Lord, is his faculty of concentration.
"Of a noble disciple endowed with faith, vigour and mindfulness, and whose mind is
concentrated, it can be expected, Lord, that he will know this: 'Without a conceivable
beginning and end is this round of existence; no first beginning can be perceived of
beings hastening and hurrying on (through this round of rebirths), enveloped in ignorance
and ensnared by craving. The entire fading away and cessation of this very ignorance which
is a mass of darkness, this is the state of peace, this is the state sublime, namely, the
quiescence of all formations, the relinquishment of all subtrata of existence, the
extinction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana.' This wisdom of his, Lord, is the
faculty of wisdom.
"The noble disciple who has faith, after thus striving again and again, after thus
applying mindfulness again and again, after thus concentrating his mind again and again,
is now fully convinced: 'These teachings which before I had only heard, I now dwell in
their personal experience, and having penetrated them with wisdom, I now see them
(myself).' This faith of his, Lord, is his faculty of faith."
"Well said, Sariputta, well said," spoke the Exalted One (and he repeated in
approval the words of the Venerable Sariputta).
Sutta 50 (iv,225ff.)
4. The Balance of the Faculties
From the Visuddhimagga
[According to the Visuddhimagga, the balance of the faculties (indriya-samatta)
is one of the ten kinds of skill in absorption (appana-kosalla), and it is one of
the seven things that lead to the arising of the enlightenment factor "investigation
of (material and mental) phenomena" (dhammavicaya-sambojjhanga).]
Imparting balance to the faculties is the equalizing of the controlling faculties of
faith, vigour, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. For if the faith faculty is strong
and the others weak, then the vigour faculty cannot perform its function of exerting, the
mindfulness faculty its function of attending to the object, the concentration faculty its
function of excluding distraction, the wisdom faculty its function of seeing. So the
(excessive) strength of the faith faculty should be reduced by reflecting on the
phenomenal nature (of faith and its objects), and by not paying attention to what has
caused the excessive strength of the faith faculty. Then if the vigour faculty is
too strong, the faith faculty cannot perform its function of convincing, nor can the rest
of the faculties perform their several functions. So in that case the excessive strength
of the vigour faculty should be reduced by cultivating (the enlightenment factors of)
tranquillity, concentration and equanimity. So, too, with the other factors, for it should
be understood that when any one of them is too strong the others cannot perform their
However, what is particularly recommended is the balancing of faith with wisdom, and
concentration with vigour. For one who is strong in faith and weak in wisdom places his
confidence foolishly in an unworthy object. One strong in wisdom and weak in faith errs on
the side of cunning and is as hard to cure as a sickness caused by medicine. But with the
balancing of the two, faith and wisdom, a man has confidence only in a deserving object.
If there is too much of concentration and too little of vigour, the mind will be
overpowered by indolence to which concentration inclines. But if vigour is too strong and
concentration too weak, the mind will be overpowered by agitation to which vigour
inclines. But concentration coupled with vigour cannot lapse into indolence, and vigour
coupled with concentration cannot lapse into agitation. So these two should be balanced;
for absorption comes with the balancing of the two.
Again (concentration and faith should be balanced). One working on concentration needs
strong faith, since it is with such faith and confidence that he reaches absorption.
As to (the balancing of) concentration and wisdom, one working on concentration (i.e.
who practises tranquillity; samatha) needs strong one-pointedness of mind, since
that is how he reaches full absorption; and one working on insight (vipassana)
needs strong wisdom, since that is how he reaches penetration of (the phenomena's)
characteristics; but with the balancing of the two he reaches full absorption as well.
Strong mindfulness, however, is needed in all instances; for mindfulness protects the
mind from lapsing into agitation through faith, vigour and wisdom, which tend to
agitation, and from lapsing into indolence through concentration, which tends to
indolence. So it is as desirable in all instances as a seasoning of salt in all curries,
as a prime minister in all the king's business. Hence it is said (in the commentaries):
"It was declared by the Exalted One that 'mindfulness, indeed, is of universal use.'
Why? Because the mind has mindfulness as its refuge, and mindfulness is manifested as
protection, and there is no exertion and restraint of the mind without mindfulness."
Visuddhimagga, (pp.129-30), Adapted from Bhikkhu Nanamoli's
translation: The Path of Purification, pp.135-36
1. The word indriya is derived from the Vedic god Indra,
the ruler of the gods in the ancient pantheon. Hence the word suggests the idea of
dominance or control. [Go back]
2. See Selected Texts below, Section 5. [Go back]
3. Don Quixote fights "commending himself to God and his
mistress" and he feels himself as an instrument of Dulcinea who infuses valour into
his arms. "She fights in me, she is victorious in me and I live and breathe in her,
receive life and being itself from her." He thus belongs to the large band of those
who sustain their faith by the love of a feminine being and his Dulcinea corresponds to
the Virgin Mary of the Catholics and to the Tara and Prajnaparamita of Mahayana Buddhism. [Go back]
4. Zen in English Literature, 1948, p.199. [Go
5. Ibid., p.201. [Go back]
6. See Visuddhimagga, IV,45-49. [Go back]
7. Faith lends itself to emotional excitement; vigour to the
excitement of doing things and wanting to do more; wisdom to the excitement of discovery. [Go back]
8. Visuddhimagga, IV,49 [Go back]
9. Majjhima Nikaya, i,57. [Go back]
10. The commentary to this passage should be consulted. It has
been translated in Bhikkhu Soma, The Way of Mindfulness, 1949, pp.18-31. [Go back]
11. Samyutta Nikaya, iii,13; Visuddhimagga,
XIV,7. [Go back]
12. E.g. Abhidharmakosha, vi, pp.142-144. [Go back]
13. Trimshika by Vasubandhu, ed. S. Levi, 1925-26. [Go back]
14. Sec. 16; commentary in Atthasalini, PTS, 1897
(=Asl.), pp.147-49. [Go back]
15. Indriya. Asl. 122: "Through
overwhelming ignorance it is a 'dominant' in the sense of 'dominant influence'; or it is a
'dominant' because by exercising discernment (dassana) it dominates (associated dharmas)."
16. Asl. 123: "As a clever surgeon knows which
foods are suitable and which are not, so wisdom, when it arises, understands dharmas as
wholesome or unwholesome, serviceable or unserviceable, low or exalted, dark or bright,
similar or dissimilar." Similarly Abhidharmakosha, I,3; II,154. [Go
17. Dharma: the four holy Truths (Asl.). [Go
18. Vebhabya; aniccadinam vibhavana-bhava-vasena. Or
"a critical attitude"? [Go back]
19. Or "examination." [Go back]
20. Or "breadth." Wisdom is rich and abundant, or
massive. [Go back]
21. Medha; also "mental power." "As
lightning destroys even stone-pillars, so wisdom smashes the defilements; alternatively,
it is able to grasp and bear in mind." [Go back]
22. Milindapanha, I,61: "It is like a lamp which a
man would take into a dark house. It would dispel the darkness, would illuminate, shed
light, and make the forms in the house stand out clearly." [Go back]
23. Because it gives delight, is worthy of respect (or
"variegated"), hard to get and hard to manifest, incomparable and a source of
enjoyment to illustrious beings. [Go back]
24. Milindapanha, as translated in my Buddhist
Scriptures, 151-52 (see Appendix, Ia). [Go back]
25. Asl. 123: "This penetration is unfaltering (akkhalita),
like the penetration of an arrow shot by a skilled archer." [Go back]
26. Visuddhimagga, XIV, 7. Dhammasabhava-pativedhalakkhana
pañña; dhammanam sabhavapaticchadaka-mohandhakara-viddhamsanarasa. [Go
27. A full translation of this text has been published, as
Wheel No. 21, under the title The Removal of Distracting Thoughts (Vitakka-santhana
Sutta). With the Commentary and Marginal Notes, translated by Soma Thera. Buddhist
Publication Society, Kandy. [Go back]
28. Sotapattiyangani: The four are: unshakable faith in
the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha; and perfect morality. [Go back]
29. Sammappadhana: the effort of avoiding or overcoming
evil and unsalutary states, and of developing and maintaining good and salutary states. [Go back]
30. Satipatthana: mindfulness as to body, feelings,
state of mind and mind-objects. [Go back]
31. Jhana. [Go back]
32. The truths of suffering, its origin, its cessation and the
way to its cessation. The Commentary says that, in the field ascribed here to each
faculty, the respective faculty is dominant at the height of its particular function,
while the other four are concomitant and are supporting the dominant function. But the
faculty of wisdom is the highest in rank among the five. [Go back]
33. That is, of his having attained Arahantship. [Go back]