As we unfold through a life of practice, powerful qualities of heart and mind take root and grow in us. An ancient list of these wholesome inner qualities—one that spread beyond the Buddha’s teaching to become important in Yoga and other South Asian traditions—is the five spiritual faculties. Like many of the Buddha’s lists, the five faculties are both qualities we develop concurrently, and a linear map of the development of wisdom. Unusual among the lists, the five faculties are also known as the five powers, with the developing and mature versions of the same qualities understood as both the same and distinct enough to be listed twice (SN 48.43). This one short list describes elegantly how practice unfolds from the first flush of interest in the path all the way to the flowering of liberating insight.
The five spiritual faculties (indriya) and five powers (bala)
Taking the faculties as a linear map of practice, starting with faith recognizes that the discipline of practice requires an initial enthusiasm for the path and trust of the teachers and community we begin exploring with. This “bright faith” motivates us to dive into meditation, mindfulness, study, or other expressions of the path, and supports us to work with the conditions of our life to make ongoing practice possible. We may go for refuge, start to live by the precepts, commit to a daily meditation period, and begin to bring mindfulness into our activities. As practice develops, difficulties and hindrances naturally arise, but as mindfulness and the precepts start to bear fruit, we gradually experience “confirmed faith”—the direct experience that the path is good and leads to good results. The Pāli word saddhā is commonly translated as “faith,” but since inner confidence is the heart of the quality, “conviction” and “confidence” are also good translations.
Even with enthusiasm and dedication to our practice, it takes persistent, determined effort to develop on the path. Hindrances trouble our meditations, and the ever-changing winds of gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and the challenging conditions of our world continue to make things difficult. The faculty and power of energy is the inner determination to keep going even when we might previously have just given up. Energy is related to the “right/wise effort” aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, and is defined as having energy “roused up for giving up unskillful qualities and embracing skillful qualities” (SN 48.10).
It is important as we cultivate energy to remember the Middle Way, and the advice the Buddha gave to the musician monk Soṇa, to practice with the same balanced effort as tuning a stringed instrument: neither too tight nor to loose (AN 6.55). Excessive or unbalanced effort, the Buddha tells Soṇa, leads to restlessness, while not bringing enough effort leads to laziness. Many tools are offered in the practice to help balance our energy, from somatic tools like working with posture, breath, and movement, to emotional practices like lovingkindness and many kinds of concentration and tranquility training. The heart of viriya as a power is the unshakeability of our determination to find the liberation of the heart that is the culmination of the path.
Mindfulness is the heart of the meditative limbs of Dharma practice, and here sits at the center of the list, grounding the faculties on either side of it. Buddhist mindfulness is a practice of directed inquiry, and it grows best when rooted in the soil of strong faith in the path and the energy to persist in addressing and subduing the hindrances as they arise. In the discourses that describe the five faculties, mindfulness is first defined as the ability to “remember and recall what was said and done long ago,” drawing on the literal definition of the Pāli word sati as “memory” (SN 48.10). After that, it is defined as usual in the Eightfold Path as being the four foundations of mindfulness: bringing clarity and understanding to the body, feelings, states of mind and heart, and important aspects of our practice.
Concentration, or immersion, follows mindfulness in the lists of the faculties and powers exactly as it does in the Eightfold Path, where these are the seventh and eighth limbs of the path. Samādhi refers to a varied set of extraordinary states in which the senses are drawn inward and the thinking mind is substantially settled and unified. Formally, the limb of samādhi and the spiritual faculty and power of samādhi all refer to the four states of meditative absorption known as the jhānas. These are embodied states of profound ease, energy, and happiness, based in the concentrated mind, and the Buddha praised them as a pleasure not to be feared because they are not dependent on sensual contact that would inspire craving (MN 36).
When the list of the five spiritual factors is taken as a linear map of how practice develops, just as in the Eightfold Path, we see that immersion grows in the fertile soil made ready by mindfulness and determined practice, and is the precursor to the insight and clarity of the wisdom faculty. Focused, stable attention brings an extraordinary depth and precision to the practice of inquiry, and the states of jhāna themselves are liberating as we realize that sensual pleasures and the temporary successes of life are not as fulfilling as we habitually think they will be, and that the mind at rest and the heart at peace is a far greater joy.
Wisdom in the list of the five faculties can be understood as both the quality of discernment and clear seeing that is developed all the way along the path, and as the culminating states of practice where insight and letting go of the causes of suffering unfold. As we move through our lives, we practice wisdom every time we pause to assess a situation and attempt to respond from our precepts and the heart of compassion rather than reactivity. The wisdom that grows gradually as we practice helps us bring discernment to difficult choices and heal from past unskillful conditions. In its mature form as a power, wisdom cuts through the illusions of permanence that inspire grasping and suffering through understanding that all experiences arise and pass (AN 5.14).
Balancing the Factors
One of the elegant aspects of the lists of the five spiritual faculties and the five powers is their internal symmetry. With mindfulness as a fulcrum in the center, the rest of the set can be seen as two pairs: faith balancing wisdom, and energy balancing concentration. In this way the whole list becomes an expression of the middle way between extremes, which is a primary quality of all of the Buddha’s teachings.
Faith balances wisdom because the experiential knowing and steady discernment of wisdom is a counterweight to the enthusiasm and initially unverified confidence of faith, while the heart-centered devotion and trust of faith balance the sometimes dry assessment and analysis that characterize wisdom. The presence of faith at the outset of the path also provides an emotionally-grounding refuge that carries us through the inevitable difficulties that arise, while wisdom at the end offers the mature certainty that we have gone a good way.
Energy balances concentration/immersion by preventing mind states of excessive stillness and inactivity to arise as we cultivate concentration. Because concentration is supported by tranquility and stillness, if there isn’t enough energy in the system, we can fall into dull states known as “sinking mind.” But when the energies of determination, striving for progress, and emotional intensity are too high, distraction and restlessness are stirred up. Concentration settles the anxieties of effort and striving through gathering and settling the attention, balancing excesses in the energy faculty.
It is in the balancing factors that the list can be seen not just as a linear description of the unfolding of spiritual life but, like the seven factors of awakening, as a set of both activating and calming qualities to cultivate concurrently. The center three qualities in the list—energy, mindfulness, and concentration—can alone be seen as a brief version of the seven factors, with energy standing in for the three arousing factors of investigation, energy, and rapture, and concentration summarizing the three calming factors of tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. In both lists, mindfulness is the central balancing quality, always helpful no matter what state we find ourselves in.