The factors of enlightenment are included in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s core teaching on mindfulness meditation, in the section dealing with contemplation on Dhamma. One contemplates whether they are present or absent, how they are cultivated and how they are fully developed.
How are they developed? It is not helpful to think ‘I can’t investigate until I have perfected being mindful. These are not developed in a linear way, but as a spiral, one on top of the other. Mindfulness naturally leads to investigation, which naturally energises the mind and body, which naturally leads to joy, etc. Too much investigation will lead to over-thinking, and it is not helpful to have too much energy, or too much joy, or too much concentration – rather, these are brought into balance in your meditation, like adding spices to a curry. You put more effort into investigation when you notice you are becoming dull and sleepy, because this will cause energy to arise and bring joy to the practice; or you say, ‘relax’ when you notice you are too energetic and need to calm down, which will naturally support concentration, which is a basis for equanimity to arise.
Mindfulness (sati) is awareness in the moment. It requires us to step back from blindly reacting to our experience and creates the space for us to investigate ‘what’s this about?’
Investigation (dhamma-vicaya) is holding an object up and seeing it as it is. Investigation creates interest, which energises the mind.
Energy (viriya) is what keeps us alert in our attention and firm in our posture.
We can strengthen energy by reflecting on the benefit of effort and the danger of indolence. When the mind and body are energised the mind becomes clear and joy can naturally arise.
Joy (piti – the first i is an ee sound) is a gladdening the heart, which is a light hearted joyfulness. We can cultivate joy through a sense of gratitude, an appreciation of the teaching, or recollecting one’s good actions. This kind of joy is associated not with sensual excitement but relaxation. When the heart is joyful, tranquillity can naturally arise.
Tranquillity (passaddhi). When we experience tranquillity, the mind is alert but relaxed and the body naturally relaxes and comes to a point of balance. When the mind is tranquil it is undistracted and concentration can naturally arise.
Concentration (samadhi) is the ability to rest with or in an object without turning away. We hold back from absorption and use the concentrated mind to establish a balanced and open state of clarity which gives rise to equanimity.
Equanimity (upekkha) is being unmoved by whatever arises in the mind. Observing whatever arises and ceases in the mind dispassionately, not grasping nor rejecting nor judging anything, but seeing it as it is. This supports mindfulness, and so the spiral continues.
We can see the 7 factors as a natural progression beginning with mindfulness and supported by mindfulness which helps to bring them into balance.
It is a developmental path, not a path of attainment. And it is headed in one direction – letting go.
The word enlightenment sounds very grand and is easy to grasp as a goal, but we have to remember that enlightenment is about letting go. Letting go of the grasping mind is the end of suffering. Comparing the practice to a journey, enlightenment is more about laying down a burden (the grasping mind) than arriving at a destination.
It is easy to grasp progress along the path and think – this is it, I’ve got it. It’s all about mindfulness, or investigation, or that feeling of energy which leads to joy – that’s it; or calm and concentration, or equanimity – and without realising, we’ve attached a self to the experience and created something out of it that isn’t there. Not realising we’ve been fooled again. So we keep reminding ourselves – nothing is certain – it’s a path of relinquishment. Keep asking, is it let-go-able? If it is, let it go.
The thought, “I have perfected the factors of enlightenment – when will enlightenment arise in me?” is like waiting for a bus to arrive, and should be observed like any other thought, with equanimity.
Martin Evans 20 September 2020