Lesson 6

The seven Factors of Enlightenment

So far the milestones on the path, encountered in practice or in theory, can be summarized as follows.

* One makes the intention to develop one’s mind, using discipline, concentration, towards wisdom (each time a small step in the direction of wisdom is made, one can use it to have more discipline, resulting in more concentration, etcetera).

* One learns the method of vipassana: its naming and noting, its switching, dealing with the hindrances via the helpers, and the theory of the four foundations of mindfulness, giving a classification into four types of objects; they are used to provide support for the stability of mindfulness.

* On deals with the ‘coarser’ hindrances, by untangling the coalitions of factors that make them strong.

* One encounters the three fundamental characteristics of existence:
non-permanence, suffering, and self-lessness (uncontrolability).
While making aquaintance with these, it is good to remember that the suffering aspect can be domesticated.

* With enforced discipline and concentration one reaches the state of equanimity, independently of the state of mind that is present.

—— It was here that we left our story, last week. ——

* Then one develops the so called seven factors of enlightenment.
The first four are essentially four of the five helpers (confidence is not mentioned,
because it is no longer needed at the time the other factors appear).

1. Energy (comming from effort)
2. Mindfulness
3. Concentration
4. Investigation (towards knowledge).

Then there are three more factors needed.

5. Equanimity (already developed to some extent in our theoretical story)
6. Tranquility
7. Joy.

Some explanation is in place. After the powerful experience of the three characteristics, it is already quite a relief to reach an equanimous state. So what can tranquility and joy add to this? Well, one may compare equanimity to the state of mind of a sailor in a storm: even if the waves are large and sometimes go over him, with a steady mind he continues to sail. The state of tranquility may be compared to the state of mind of a sailor when the storm has settled. And the state of joy to that when the sun starts shining.

* By now the meditator has developed the mind with the seven factors of enlightenment. But one is not yet enlightened! What is needed is one the one hand a strong determination to go on, and at the other hand a total surrendering. (These look like contradicting each other, but one simply takes the middle way.) It is surrendering to mindfulness and wisdom. Before the final step happens, hindrances may come back. In the form of frightening or seductive images, in the form of boredom or interest. The meditator should now that all of these phenomena are distractions. With the seven factors this should not be difficult, otherwise the practice is not yet mature. Either way, one just goes on.

* The finishing step. What is important is to realize that this step cannot be done by us: it has to happen. That is similar to the ‘Divine Grace’ in the theistic religions.  [A possible neurophysiological interpretation of this is the following. If we want to do something, the neurons that are in favour of this behaviour should be in the majority, their number should exceed that of the neurons that act inhibiting. By gradually developing the right attitude and other skills, suddenly the neurons obtain the majority.]

* And then it may happen. Consciousness is fully present. But there is not any (ordinary) object. One is aware of consciousness itself. This is called nibbana (in English or Italian nirvana). All objects, both physical and mental, have disappeared. Nevertheless there is awareness. It works as a kind of resetting of the consciousness process. At this very moment the circle of conditioning is broken. There is no more craving to be the imagined ‘boss’. This, because one has the clear peaceful insight that there is no boss, that all phenomena are conditioned by the laws of nature. During the three characteristics one was fighting this dawning view. Now one has accepted it. The wordt ‘nibbana’ literally means cessation and is called this way, as the experience causes the fundamental craving to stop once and for all.

This first time momentary view of nibbana is called ‘maggacitta’ or ‘path-conciousness’. Immediately after that a few moments of consciousness arise that are called ‘phala’ or ‘fruit of the path’. During those moments nibbana remains, but does not have the liberating effect any longer: one already is liberated. After that normal consciousness returns, with an object and a mind-state. But the meditator understands that an important negative state of mind will not come back any longer: wrong view (believing in ego as something substantial) and its side-effect consisting of existential doubt.

What as been described is the first stage of purification. After this there are three more stages possible. At the second stage the ingredients greed and aversion are diluted. At the third stage they are eliminated (greed only for sensory craving). At the fourth last stage one eliminates pride, sleepiness, restlessness, desire for existence, and ignorance. Now the meditator is an arhat, a fully enlightened person.

Even then one may (need to) continue to practise: although all negative states have been eliminated, one can now develop more positive states (remember the different goals of concentration and insight meditation, cf. lesson 2). These include loving-kindness, compassion, and shared joy.

In the later Mahayana Buddhism (starting around 100 A.D.) one emphasizes the development of positive qualities and practises them first. In the original Theravada Buddhism one emphasizes the elimination of negative states and sets this as goal. One also can take the middle way, in which both are practised. Such a road has been described in the canonical texts, the suttas.