Seven Factors of Enlightenment

by Cathleen Williams
Manager, City Center Meditation Hall, San Francisco Zen Center

This will be the most boring lecture–alas, it’s all necessary. It’s about seven ways we can sit down, watch our minds, and develop concentration, discipline, and all the other factors to free ourselves from suffering. “At what cost?” you might think to yourselves, watching me narrowly. At no cost–it’s all free, and it’s all right here. There is the small matter of giving up your own way, but you have to do that anyway when you die. Why not start before? Then death will be another passing event, not a major crisis. Meanwhile you will freely function on the path and think, “What, me worry? Never again!” So with this short introduction, let us pass on immediately to the seven factors of enlightenment.

The seven factors are mindfulness, effort, investigation, joy (or rapture), concentration, tranquility, and equanimity. They are divided into three arousing factors, three stabilizing factors and a central point of application. The three arousing are effort, investigation, and joy. The three stabilizing factors are concentration, tranquility, and equanimity. The common link is mindfulness.

First I want to admit freely that we’re not getting to all the seven factors in this talk. I had planned to combine this lecture with a workshop, and, then (guess what?) things changed. So I’ll be talking only about mindfulness, which is central, and investigation. I feel like I’m leaving you hanging with only two of the seven, but I have some kind of confidence that we are all pretty serious about practice here, and if you find the first two useful, you might be tempted to go right on without me and find out about the last five for yourself.

Here's a metaphor to start with. To begin the path is like being an explorer facing a tangled jungle, which is the unexplored mind. The explorer (us, you and me) intrepidly enters the Way; the end of suffering is in there somewhere in this jungle. We want to find it. At first there seems to be a path, but suddenly it changes, disappears, the treasure map is wrong. We, the novice explorers, get rapidly lost in the emotional and mental paths which branch out all over the place. We start out thinking that the path is clear and apparent, but then it seems to disappear and all we see is a jungle maze for quite a while. We begin with a naïve notion; we have an idea of path which is not the path itself, it’s just an idea, and, like any other idea, subject to change, tumult, suffering…the whole works of illusion and delusion. The path is simply the experience of actually walking, or training, but, at first, you really think you have a goal which is graspable, like the treasure of Nirvana or some such.

The fortunate explorer finds a native guide to help him: someone who knows the territory intimately, who's spent twenty or thirty years walking the paths and now sees the jungle as his home. Well, we know this is the teacher, or senior student we trust, someone who is clearly comfortable with what he does. He or she has some tools to help in the jungle, ones which are well worn and have proved their worth in use. In fact, Buddhism has whole trunks of tools, but we are going to concentrate here on the essential, the pocket kit, the ones which work in any circumstances. There are seven items in this kit, the seven factors of enlightenment. The guide shows us how to employ these factors to calm and stabilize the mind in the midst of this unknown territory. Lucky us, because once we get inside there and start looking around, we might easily panic at the incredible amount of jungle we see.

"The other thing is that not only are we training our wild and jungley minds, our hearts get called into action too. The guide just points out all the other beings out wandering around, how lost they are, just like us, and how much they could use a helping hand. In fact, there’s no difference between one suffering and another suffering, and, pretty soon, we find our hands are going out automatically when things get hard for our fellow travelers. Sometimes it can’t be a hand, sometimes it’s simply the wholehearted wish to ease suffering. More and more, this impulse to ease suffering mysteriously arises. Looking down inside ourselves, we find the same old us, and, yet, joy arises and sentient beings are eased. We are, like the bodhisattvas in the sutras, coming exactly from this treasure we seek so hard to find in our minds and hearts–paradoxical isn’t it? Yet, at the beginning, even in the middle, and almost at the end, the jungle still surrounds us, Buddha Nature can still appear to be just a distant dot on the horizon of zazen.

This treasure, Buddha Nature, is not within our conscious control. We can't simply will to sit down and observe it emerge, but, although it is obscure, nonetheless we feel its effects. If not, you wouldn’t be on this jungle path to start out with. But what is it? You have to ask yourself what you think it is…clouds of glory, power, seeing clearly, manifesting the Prajna Paramita, finding Emptiness, and on and on. I was frequently entranced by the idea of angels appearing, as they did to the Virgin Mary, and telling me some esoteric secret. It just took me forever to get over that one. I really wanted to be a mystic. It was not to be. But my asking this question: “What is the spiritual for me,” brought me to understand slowly, over time, all the ideas I had about spirituality and how they affected my practice, how attached I was (and still am) to certain notions, and how letting them go has led to more settled mind.

I often think that, as we sit down at first and look at what’s in the mind, we take a lot on faith. Yes, there’s an impulse, an urge to do this, but where’s it coming from? We also hear that we are immediately enlightened beings as soon as we sit in zazen, so we root around dubiously in our minds, looking for it. Buddha Nature as a term is wildly and widely used and applied, and almost everybody has an idea, an intellectual construct, of what it is, usually, oh yes, this is the spiritual Self. Its actual appearance is much beyond our usual lives and experience. In fact it is incorrect to say, “we have Buddha Nature.” Putting it this way makes it seems that it is something we can attain, perhaps through enlightenment. But as soon as we talk about anything using the words “I” or “my,” it becomes a question of subject and object, and we are far away from being exactly our true selves. Our true self appears instantly when we let go. 

Just sitting in zazen, without an object, letting things come up, mental or physical, letting them go, without reference to “I” or “mine,” is enlightened practice. This is the place we take refuge, the place which is spiritual, rather than talking about spiritual. This is what Dogen means when he says that in sitting down in zazen you are immediately your original self. True zazen is actually the movement of the heart towards its home. Suzuki Roshi's son said, when I asked him once what zazen was, that he did zazen because it made the heart more tender. The tender heart is naturally in a place of concentration and compassion and non-attachment.

So if you've been around folks who have been practicing this for a while you may feel that their being is a little different from yours; but actually you sense your own being, your true Buddha Nature as it has been revealed by many years of training, concentration, and study of the Dharma. We are not different one from the other, we all have the same nature. We are easily seduced by our senses and mind into believing that everything is different, and, believing this, of course we think the one on the opposite cushion, looking good in black and sitting up straight and never, never moving, has a better practice, is more spiritual, and on and on. Not so. Our connection, our common nature, is so intimate there’s no distinction at all. Do you believe this? It’s true. On the bodhisattva path we learn to let these judgments go, forget about uniforms, doing it right, watching other people and imitating them. How does this happen? With your own aspiration, devotion, practice, and willingness to say “yes” to your life, faith then develops that the trained mind does lead to the heart of zazen, because you, you, not someone else, see that your continued effort bears fruit. Fruit, as every gardener knows, does not leap forth from the tree in Spring. There is a progression of events – planting, fertilizing, and so forth. Just so, the trained mind begins with mindfulness, the solid basis of practice.

Mindfulness…well, mindfulness is just paying attention. “Just paying attention”—three words that convey an awful lot of time and effort on the zafu. So let's re­define it. Mindfulness is paying attention with intent. First how do we pay attention? This is an interesting question, one which draws forth various answers depending on who you're reading or listening to. For instance, it is possible to pay attention in a very broad way, commenting on everything that comes along; or the focus can be greatly narrowed to a fine point of breath, a mental state, or a physical condition. Buddhism has many varied meditative techniques, and they all fall broadly into two categories, concentration and insight.

Concentration practices are pretty interesting because they lead to altered mental states, many of which involve bliss, going out of the self, and so on. They can be quite addictive for these reasons; calmness and bliss are inviting states. Because they are possibilities they should be considered, practiced, and brought into the field of awareness. However, concentration practices, at least in Zen, are not an end in themselves. Concentration, by itself, does not break through the veil of illusion, that is to say, greed, hate, delusion, the idea of a permanent self, and so forth, which we are all seriously involved with inside. It's not just that we want permanency in the world: we want it in ourselves. We don't like the idea that the being we call Bob or Mary will die and dissipate. Well, if you concentrate real hard and seem to lose yourself in some interesting and blissful fashion it's not so bad. But then this is just another illusion. The core of Buddha's teachings is about impermanence, the suffering of impermanence, and the way out of the delusion of impermanence.

This is where insight comes in. Mindfulness as an insight practice is the conscious intention to be as aware as possible of what is going on in the mind. What are you actually doing in the process? You are looking at your illusions. Now you don’t take them for illusion. It’s pretty solid, the stuff that comes up, the memories, stories, the feelings, projects, relationship stories, the history, but, and this is a big but, they change. Mind changes, body changes, world changes, nothing is there that has permanent, unchanging being. To learn this, observe this, is essential practice. Mindfulness is the awareness of the present moment; it is observing and experiencing without reacting, a solid platform without judgment. Uchiyama Roshi called this “opening the hand of thought.” It is a relaxed yet penetrating look at what’s going on.

Mindfulness supports us in several ways. First by observing the present, we stay in the present. Secondly, it supports all the other factors of enlightenment. As it grows, it brings with it calmness, steadiness, and equanimity. All these are fruits of mindfulness. Most people have some experience of sitting down to do zazen when upset in some way and finding that it is a calming experience. This is the stability of mindfulness. After some period of time, zazen serves as point of reference and is our protection from being caught up by our illusory “I”s.

The third function of mindfulness is to balance the mind. When we pay attention with wide awareness, the mind is brought to a point of balance. In this balance, nothing special happens because it is our natural state, Suzuki's Roshi's “Big Mind,” and it is a very powerful one. There usually comes a time in life when you sit down with great pain and misery. Then you find that zazen has an enormous ability to bring balance to any situation.

Let’s go back to our explorer; ­the explorer, having experienced hints of treasure, sets out, not knowing what will happen during his journey, but willing to experience the unknown, whatever that is. We do this courageously. No kidding, we all are throwing ourselves into a place where we have never been before, into a place where everything that rises is Dharma, a teaching of the law, and we are constantly told to throw off that ego backpack. You do this practice for a bit, and then you begin to really understand what you’re hearing–no more self–and it’s a little scary, the implications of “no more self,” even though you’re hearing this from folks who swear it’s true and a wonderful release. You might think, “no more self,” as I did, and think, “oh, ugh, death.” But it’s not death, and it’s not total emptiness with nothing in it, as in the absence of flowers in a vase. In fact, “no more self” is hard to get a handle on; it can only be experienced, not thought of.

Nonetheless, the mind, being a busy beast and quite suspicious, demands proof. So our ancestors, in their kindness, point to the path in various ways. The Sandokai which is one of the more famous Zen teachings, says, "Thus in all things the leaves spread from the root; the whole process must return to the source." Investigating, turning the light inward, we see causes and conditions. Understanding the emptiness of causes and conditions, which come and go, leads us to understand that the leaves, branches, trunk and roots have all the same nature, Buddha nature, the absolute, the unconditioned. Everything is rooted in Buddha Nature because nothing is without Buddha nature. Groundless, without base, it requires no awakening; only that you wake up to it.

Don’t be deceived by the death of the leaves each fall. Suzuki Roshi says, "When observing many things, we should look beyond their appearance and know how each thing exists. Because of the root we exist; because of the absolute Buddha nature we exist. Understanding things in this way we have oneness." Only when we try to make the leaves and tree live forever do we have problems. The jungle explorer is faced with myriad possibilities, here a flower, there a snake, here a tiger, there, vines, here a swamp, there a pleasant walk. Every moment another possibility arises from our deep nature. If we try to hold onto it, if we freeze frame it, we lose freedom. Mindfulness and investigation keep us constantly alive to what is going on, in fact, they shed light and dissipate confusion. Both, rightly done, show us the emptiness of cause and conditions, which knowledge leads us towards non-attachment.

I’d like to extend the Sandokai quotation a bit to further illustrate how we return to a state of non-attachment. This is the complete verse: "The four gross elements return to their own natures, like a baby taking to its mother. Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid. Eye and form, ear and sound, nose and smell, tongue and tastethus in all things the leaves spread from the root; The whole process must return to the source." Everything has its own nature. The four elements return to theirs because they are true to themselves. There's no subject/object duality in fire; it burns and purifies. Suzuki Roshi says the nature of water is to contain things; we're mostly water you know, about 98%. The water contains all the rest of us, bones, brain, chemicals. Water does not refuse to contain one thing any more than the earth refuses to support us. If you take the elements down to their essential nature, to the atoms or smallest things, you can't find them anymore. They are simply potential. 

What if you search your mind the same way? We base our conscious interactions on eye, ear, nose, tongue, sensation; what we feel. If we examine sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, do we find an eternal permanent “I” or just a succession of impressions occurring? Our potential for sensations is constantly evoked, and then it returns to itself. We, pondering on it, believe that we retain a solid impression of the event, but, in fact, we do not. For instance, can you still taste your dinner? Or are you bringing to mind what you ate? These sensations, thoughts, consciousness, pass one by one and disappear. As things rise and fall we have the chance to come over and over again to our potential, our own nature, Buddha Nature. 

Things returning to their own nature is just like a baby taking to its mother. Those of you who have had babies know how this happens; it just happens. Those of you who watch it happen, like the man who wrote this poem, understand that there is no thought of hesitation when the baby turns. The baby's function is completely expressed; the mother's function is completely expressed. They are two yet one. We can call this independence and interdependence but the thing itself is beyond words. This is what mindfulness brings us to, the place beyond words.

I see that I have combined mindfulness and investigation a bit, so I will separate them out and discuss investigation as a separate factor of enlightenment. This factor is exactly what it implies, investigation, that is, looking into the Dharma for ourselves, not based on what someone else has learned or taught, but on our own experience and understanding. Our explorer, who is still hanging in there, started off courageously, remember? We don’t know what’s going to happen on this journey, but we’re willing to experience the unknown, whatever that is. Well, in this instance, the unknown is dinner. Actually, a small, very small dessert. So, how many people ate theirs right away? Uh huh. Hold this in your hand: look, without labeling. What is seen? Bring this to your nose, smell without labeling. What is smelled? Weigh it a bit, up and down, in your hand. What sensed? Hold it up to your ear. Go on, go on, hold it up. What is heard? Now, mindfully observing the event in process, bring this small “arising” to your mouth and place it therein. Now immediately, what happens? What is the event? Now, what is your mind doing, actually doing, at this moment? Someone want to get up and show me the “I” they found?

Investigation done in the correct way, with a spirit of openness and curiosity, deepens practice and enables us to bear with our darkest places. Eventually we can extend investigation to our relationships, our habitual attachments, and we directly observe birth and death. Our good friend, the guide, shows or demonstrates investigation when we're not sure what we're seeing, thus enabling us to be clear about what's going on. He reminds us that investigation means to look at, not to think about, so we don't trip on too much thinking.

Mindfulness and investigation: two of the seven factors of enlightenment. They are especially complementary. Mindfulness brings us to attention, and investigation shows us the truth of what is.

To end, I have a little quotation, one which I did not find in a sutra. “Faith is a candle where Reason is the sun: No one needs a candle until darkness falls.” And this is how it’s applied, at least for me. I study and study the phenomena of emptiness; many great minds have studied, explored, and explained it. I read, I learn, and, occasionally, I even think about these things. But when emotional upset, physical pain, long old histories, fall on me and things get dark, then zazen is my candle.

© Copyright Cathleen Williams, 2000

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