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VII. Spiritual Faculties

The Buddha spoke about five spiritual faculties which turn into spiritual powers if we cultivate and develop them. We all have these faculties within and developing them means making them powerful qualities which become factors of enlightenment. As long as they are only faculties, they are potentials for enlightenment.

The Buddha compared them to a team of horses with one lead horse and two pairs that are pulling a wagon. The lead horse can go as fast or as slow as it likes, the others have to fall into step with it. The pairs have to be in balance with each other, otherwise if one goes faster than the other, the wagon will topple.

The leading faculty is mindfulness. It is up to us how much of it we can find in any given moment. Mindfulness is a moment-to-moment mental factor which can be compared to an observer. If we have an observer with us all the time, it is more likely that we will stay on the path.

The first pair that has to be balanced is faith and wisdom. There is an analogy that the Buddha gave for these two qualities: he compared faith to a blind giant who meets up with a small, very sharp-eyed cripple, called wisdom. The blind giant, named faith, says to the small, sharp-eyed cripple named wisdom: "I'm strong and can go very fast, but I can't see where I'm going. You're small and weak, but have sharp eyes. If you will ride on my shoulders, together we could go very far." This tells us that faith without wisdom, while being a strong faculty, is yet unable to find the right direction. We say "faith can move mountains," but being blind, faith doesn't know which mountain needs moving. However coupled with wisdom, there is enormous potential. The reason for such strength, is that heart and mind are brought into harmony. The mind can have wisdom and the heart can have faith. When heart and mind are brought to a point of co-existence, of no separation, the power which develops, is far greater than just 1 + 1 = 2. It is more like 2 to the power of 2.

Faith as a quality in the heart has such great value because it is connected with love. We can only have faith in something or someone we love. Faith is also connected to devotion, which is a giving of oneself and a lessening of pride. These are valuable and necessary spiritual qualities. If we are devoted to a high ideal such as Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha, then we have the understanding that there is something greater than ourselves.

The devotion we can have for that ideal is manifested in giving our love and admiration, respect and gratitude, which are very important and helpful qualities to develop.

But the Buddha taught that blind faith is useless. Blind faith means that one believes what one is told without personal investigation, that one has faith in something that one's family adheres to, or because it has been written down in special books, because it has been transmitted from teacher to disciple, because it is something that one likes anyway, that promises some mystical revelation, or because the teacher is a respected person. All these are no reasons to follow a spiritual path. Do not believe because somebody told you so! But if there is some wisdom in the mind, and without it life would be quite unbearable, we can quite easily investigate whether our faith and devotion are justified.

We can for instance, verify the first and second Noble Truths within ourselves many times in a day. If we do that, we know what they mean, only believing them is not very helpful, because it will not make any difference in our hearts and minds. We can check out the impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of all worldly phenomena without much difficulty. Thereby we gradually gain more and more wisdom.

The unwavering faith in the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha is one of the results that a stream-enterer (sotapanna) gains when s/he has the first path moment, because until then the fetter of doubt still exists. If we have established unwavering faith within ourselves in the veracity and exactitude of the Buddha's teachings, we have taken an important step. The heart quality within us will have opened up in a way which will be most helpful, but understanding has to go along. In Pali the one word citta denotes feeling and thinking, but in English we have to distinguish between heart and mind because we consider feeling a heart quality and thinking a mind quality, otherwise, we can't express what we really mean.

Our thinking capacity is rationality and logic, which is impaired by our emotionalism, by the reactions to our feelings. The formula for growth is: "purification of emotions brings clarification of thought." If our emotions are pure, as they are for example in devotion, gratitude, respect and faith, our thoughts have a much greater capacity for clarity. The impure emotions connected with passions of either wanting or not wanting, are those which hinder our thinking capacity. We can't think "straight" when we are under the sway of strong emotions.

Our education system doesn't take any notice of that, nor do parents teach this to their children, yet the Buddha taught it quite clearly. Each human being has a right and left hemisphere in the brain which we classify as male and female, the right being female, left being male. The left or male side is in charge of the right side of the body and vice versa. Just as the pairs of horses have to balance, both sides, male and female have to attain a harmonious whole. The male side is usually connected to our rationality, logic, linear thinking, understanding. The female side is connected to feelings, nurturing, caring, compassion, love, all the emotional qualities. Each of us has both sides, the emotional and the mental capacity. Very few people develop both equally. Therefore their cart often topples. Emotionalism is just as much a danger as thinking without being in touch with one's feelings. That too can go very much astray.

In school we were taught to debate. We were given a subject to debate with another child. When we finished, we changed sides and were asked to hold the opposite view and debate, giving all factors of the other side. Any child can do it, any grown-up can do it. It is just straight-forward thinking. One can have the opposite opinion by the flip of a coin. There is no inherent truth in any opinion, because it's simply linear thinking. However, if these thoughts are connected to our feelings we can no longer debate the opposite side. This is the old story of having to bite into a mango to know its taste. We can be told many things about a mango. It's sweet, delicious, soft, but we cannot imagine its taste unless we get the feeling of the mango on our tongue and have the personal experience. Then we can no longer debate whether the mango is sweet or not, because we have experienced the truth. This is the difference between just thinking or thinking coupled with the experience of feeling.

A person who goes too far on the side of rational thinking has to learn to balance with feelings, the female side. Anyone who thinks to the extent where the experience of feelings is hardly known, has to practice much mindfulness of feelings. On the other hand, the female side is often emotionalism. This means we are carried away by our emotions and consequently our thinking is impaired. The quality of logical thinking, of delving into a thought process and being able to analyze, is not possible when the emotions are at the forefront. Of course in women this has a connection to the mores of the patriarchal society, but primarily it is due to the fact of not having developed one's potential for both sides, which is inherent in all of us.

The person who is primarily analytical is often under the impression that this will actually bring about all the desired results. Such a person, unless prodded and told often enough, will not try to get in touch with feelings. The one who is always relating and reacting to emotions is so habituated that s/he can no longer do anything else, until shown through the meditative process that there is an alternative.

If one lives only in relation and in reaction to one's emotions, life can become quite difficult. People who live like that often try to deaden their emotions as a way out of their dilemma. That's of course not the answer, rather to purify them. Naturally the person who is a thinker also has to purify the emotions, but before such a person can do that, s/he first needs to get in touch with them. The one who lives with emotions and reacts to them all the time, also has to be in touch with them, but not to deaden them, but to encourage wholesome reactions. As the purification of the emotions takes place, thinking will no longer be overshadowed by diffuse uncertainties. Unless we do that, we only use half of our potential. This is what faith and wisdom can mean to us, the emotions and the thinking. When we cultivate both, we develop our faculties into powers. Harmonizing our emotional with our thinking capacities is the essence of harmonizing faith with wisdom.

A powerful mind is a great asset, but only in conjunction with purified emotions. Faith is one such purified emotion. Faith is much easier for people whose primary defilement is greed, rather than hate. Faith arouses pleasant feelings, which is greed's direction. In this case, greed is an asset, although basically it is, of course, a negative characteristic. But if we use it in a positive way, we are engaged in a purification process, wanting that which is wholesome, which leads us to the supermundane.

First greed opens up into faith, resulting in pleasant feelings. Then we can use greed to want successful meditation, stream-entry (sotapatti), liberation. All are cravings, but they're going in the right direction, of using greed to get rid of greed. That is our best approach because greed is only truly eliminated by the non-returner (anagami). If we use our craving in that manner, we are at least searching for that which will give us the greatest benefit, rather than pleasure through the senses.

The Buddha's path is called the middle path, which means a path of balance. We have to balance all extremes, so that they become a useful basis for a harmonious person, whose practice will flourish. This is one reason why the Buddha recommended the meditation on the loathsomeness of the body. People often say they don't want to think of their body as loathsome, it is a good working machine and very useful. But we are actually enamored with our body; we are hanging on to it, loving it, trying to preserve it, keeping it young and beautifying it. We are attached to it and consider it "me". The loathsomeness of the body meditation is not designed to disgust us, but only to create a balance to our identification with our body. We can compare this with walking on a tight-rope; if we balance too far to the right, we fall down, too far on the left, we topple. Constant balancing is necessary, which has to be done by everyone for themselves.

If we know ourselves to be reacting to our emotions, we need to start analyzing and inquiring into ourselves. It is difficult for someone who has always lived in reaction to their emotions to see beyond them. The meditation practice helps greatly, because the tranquillity that is bound to arise to some extent is conducive to penetration into reality. We need some self-knowledge, otherwise we can't make any changes. Introspection and attention to one's feelings and thoughts should provide enough insight into ourselves to lay the foundation for a meaningful change.

The other pair is energy and concentration. It's not physical energy that's needed, but rather mental energy, which has little to do with the capacities of the body. We need unwavering determination for this practice, which is transformed energy. The Buddha compared us with the man who's wearing a turban that is on fire. Obviously, if a man is wearing a turban that is on fire, he is most anxious to get rid of it. That same kind of determination is needed to practice diligently. Energy is also dependent upon one-pointed direction. We realize what is most important and don't vacillate between social life, social action, practice, entertainment and the many other options open to us. Everybody has more energy for those things they like. We have to be very careful that we don't use up our energy searching for pleasant sense contacts because we like them. We have to be attentive to the fact that pleasant sense contacts are so short-lived they will never give us complete satisfaction, and that we're using up our energy without getting any real fulfillment. So it turns into a waste of our energy.

If we see clearly through attention, mindfulness and introspection, that if we put our energy into meditation and practice of Dhamma, our dukkha is greatly reduced thereby, and that we actually have a mode of living which includes everything else, then we will certainly turn in that direction. The rest of daily living happens anyway. Most people use up about 98% of their energy just to stay alive. Not that they have to work so hard to make a living, but just to attend to their daily duties and responsibilities, just to keep going. If our energy is used for meditation, mindfulness and bare attention, the mind faculties sharpen to the point where minor things and duties necessary to stay alive, are done in an easy and harmonious flow. We can start using our energy for that, which is most important.

If energy is not coupled with concentration, it becomes restlessness and we can notice that in meditation. Sometimes there is no concentration, yet there is a lot of energy. Then mind and body become restless; we would like to jump up and run away. If concentration is too strong and there is no energy, then the third hindrance arises, namely sloth and torpor. That is also easily noticeable in meditation. People who are used to concentrating and can do it well, may occasionally lack energy, and consequently concentration becomes conducive to sleepiness. That is a time when the meditation should be directed towards insight, rather than calm.

Calm meditation which is pure concentration, may result in sleepiness when there is not enough energy. But insight meditation, with attention on impermanence, the constant arising and ceasing of thoughts and feelings, may bring up the energy that is needed. As we only have a limited amount of vigor, we have to use it in the best possible way. Most people do not realize that energy is a great asset and squander it on totally irrelevant activities. When we realize that it is essential for the spiritual path, then we may become more careful with it. As the body gets older, physical energy is reduced, but that does not have to include mind energy. On the contrary. When the body is young and full of vigor a lot of physical activity may take place, and the mind may be neglected. In a older person when body activity becomes less, the mind may receive most of the attention, and mental energy could be increased.

Energy and concentration have to balance, primarily in meditation. When these faculties become powers, they result in the meditative absorptions. When wisdom becomes a power, it means insight into the three characteristics of impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and corelessness (anatta). When faith turns into a power, then it also manifests as the four immeasurable emotions (brahma vihara): loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), equanimity (upekkha). Mindfulness is a power when all four foundations (i.e., mindfulness of body, feeling, volition and thought content) are habitually attended to. To become a master of all of these aspects is an ideal but to practice them is a necessity. And since all of us have these faculties within, there is every reason to cultivate them. One finds oneself a more harmonious and balanced person, with less difficulties, capable of helping others. To develop these five faculties should be a primary object in one's life. The balancing of them needs to be seen as connecting heart with mind.

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Dhamma Essay:
Spiritual Faculties by Ayya Khema


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