Five Spiritual Powers ...Sarah Doering
Dharma Talk / Three Month Retreat / October 1999
Doering has had a long association with the Insight Meditation
Society and with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. On both
boards for many years, she has been a devoted practitioner of
insight meditation, and has been teaching at IMS for the past
several years. Sarah is currently one of the resident teachers
at the newly opened Forest Refuge.]
forty-five years after his enlightenment, the Buddha wandered
about northern India teaching. He spoke publicly as many as
ten thousand times. But he was not teaching in order to argue
philosophical theories. He was teaching for one purpose only:
to bring to an end all the suffering which he saw around him.
assumption underlying all his teaching is that we don’t
have to be the way we are—that all the sorrow and pain
and grief and fear that we all know is not necessary. It can
be eliminated. New ways of being can be cultivated. He taught
so that we may know not suffering, but happiness and peace.
These teachings are trainings for a spiritual way of life. This
means a way that is real and true, and beneficial for all beings,
both now and in times to come.
I want to speak about five qualities of heart and mind which
are known as the “five spiritual powers.” They’ve
been called “five priceless jewels,” because when
they’re well developed, the mind resists domination by
the dark forces of greed and hate and delusion. When the mind
is no longer bound by those energies, then understanding and
love have no limits. These five powers are also called the “controlling
faculties.” When they’re strong and balanced, they
control the mind, and generate the power which leads to liberation.
The five are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.
I first heard this list, I was puzzled. I come from a Christian
background. Faith seemed, of course, exactly right to be there.
Wisdom, too, belonged on the list. But the others—effort
and mindfulness and concentration—sounded very clinical
and psychological and dry. Where, I wondered, was love? I did
not in any way understand then that the cultivation of these
five factors leads directly to love. They’re all necessary.
They all work together and interweave very closely.
here means trust and confidence in the Dharma—inspires
an outpouring of energy. When energy is strong, then the effort
to be alert and pay attention is easy. Mindfulness prospers
and becomes more and more continuous. The stronger the continuity
of mindfulness, the more focused and steady the mind. Concentration
grows. As concentration deepens, in the stillness of an attentive
mind, wisdom emerges. It’s the wisdom of emptiness, whose
only expression is love.
first of the five faculties, faith, actually is a rather suspect
word today. The most conspicuous examples of faith are in the
various extremes of religious fundamentalism, where faith is
often a coercive force, a force which is used to control insiders
so that they’ll stay within the confines of the faith.
It’s also a force that’s sometimes imposed upon
outsiders in order to encourage them to believe. But faith in
the sense that I want to speak of tonight has nothing to do
with force. It has nothing to do with conventional belief. It’s
an innocence of conviction, an open heart that is not afraid
to trust, and so can move beyond the known. It senses the possibility
of transcendence—that what seems to be, isn’t all
there is. It senses that there’s some profound human possibility
to be realized, even though it’s not immediately apparent.
faith is born in experience. It can’t be given. It arises
spontaneously, out of seeing and knowing for oneself. From it
flow devotion and gratitude and commitment. It’s a natural
self-giving. It stems from knowing the problematic nature of
life, from realizing that human existence is very imperfect.
Because of this one is sensitive to what else might be, to some
other way of being. Faith may arise from hearing the Buddha’s
words that say there’s a cause for suffering, a cause
that can be removed so that suffering comes to an end. It may
arise from seeing someone whose presence, whose manner or words,
are so compelling, that they suggest possibilities not at all
understood. It may come from reading something that suddenly
reveals a meaning that speaks to the heart. It may dawn through
music or art or, as happened to me, from a glimpse of something
seen in nature.
of us has our own story, which brought us here tonight. No one
here is without faith. You came in response to an attraction
to some wordless possibility—some possibility of discovery,
of change, that’s implicit in these long weeks of silence.
Faith is critical for a spiritual journey, for it’s through
faith that we move from the known to the unknown. Without faith,
not much is possible in any endeavor. If there’s no end
goal which we particularly value, or if we lack faith in our
own strength and ability to get to it, we tend to stay in a
rut. We don’t go much of anywhere.
faith first dawns, the mind is filled with brightness and love
and devotion. But faith that’s new is vulnerable. If it
meets a skeptic who doubts, and has many views and opinions,
faith wants to run away and hide. At least I did, in those years.
Because the source of faith is outside ourselves, we’re
very dependent on its not changing in any way at all. But gradually
faith is internalized. We see for ourselves that the teaching
works. We discover that we can sit with physical pain and not
be overwhelmed. We begin to taste the happiness of a concentrated
mind. Faith deepens, and gives the courage to go beyond our
former limits. We begin to allow ourselves to feel more of what
we’re feeling. So much of what we feel, we close off,
because we fear the pain will be too much to bear. But faith
that’s been tested in the crucible of experience comes
to know that even in the midst of suffering, there is calm.
we meet difficulties, faith gives the courage to go on. It’s
important to note, however, that faith is very different from
hope. Hope is for a specific outcome. Hope is associated with
expectation and desire. If hope is disappointed, sadness and
fear or anger are the result. Faith is different. It’s
trust in the ongoing process. It’s confidence that we
can handle whatever comes—for in faith, we can. It’s
knowing that each step we take is an unfolding of our life’s
journey, even if we don’t know at all where we’re
in the truth of the Dharma, by its very nature, implies faith
that we have the ability to realize that truth. The whole movement
of deepening faith is inward, toward more and more trust in
ourselves, more and more trust in the understanding and the
love within our own hearts and our own minds. Faith has a very
great influence upon consciousness. That’s why it’s
the first of these spiritual powers. It removes the shadows
of doubt that are so debilitating. It gives a clarity to the
mind, which is energizing
or effort, is the second spiritual power. These two words are
linked, but they’re not quite the same. Energy comes first,
and effort channels it, and puts it to use. Nothing happens
without effort in any kind of endeavor, but especially, perhaps,
in spiritual practice. This practice isn’t easy. The instructions
are simple, but carrying them out isn’t simple. To be
with the breath, feeling it, knowing it, and not identifying
with it; to be with an emotion, a mind-state, feeling it, knowing,
not identifying; to be with sensations, thoughts, the whole
spectrum of experience, seeing it clearly and dispassionately—such
work is not child’s play. A lot of energy is expended
here just to get out of the pull of habit, the kind of gravitational
pull of the mind that would get us and keep us in the grooves
of habit that have been worn over years of time. The mind is
used to wandering, just erratically wandering from one thing
to the next, keeping itself busy with planning and hoping and
fantasizing, fearing, complaining, judging. It doesn’t
even know that anything might lie outside of its own limited
effort is the effort to be mindful, and to bring the mind back
when it wanders, so it knows what is happening right now. To
do this is really a very delicate balancing act. On the one
hand, hard work is needed, in the attempt to keep paying attention.
On the other hand, there’s nothing to do, because awareness
is already present. It’s just that we’ve been distracted.
Right effort is not striving. Striving leads to clinging. It
reinforces the sense of self, and can be very painful. Right
effort isn’t trying to get anything, for there’s
nothing to get. It’s not trying to penetrate something
and go deeper and deeper. Rather, it’s the effort to listen
with greater sensitivity. It’s a soft receptivity. Just
total surrender, receiving and welcoming whatever is here.
effort is balanced, without any strain, there’s no sense
of, “I should do this.” Rather, there’s just
a willingness to do. Out of that willingness there comes a more
and more constant flow of energy. This quality of energy is
bold and courageous. A Pali word describes it as “the
state of the heroic ones.” It gives patience and perseverance
in the face of difficulty. If pain arises, the heat of the energy
burns away fear, and makes it possible to do what ordinarily
is very difficult to do—to go right to the center of the
are many levels of effort. Like the gears of a car, one level
leads to the next. But the key to them all is being willing
to start fresh, to start all over again. At the beginning of
each day, at the beginning of each sitting, at the beginning
of each breath—to bring back the wandering mind and start
fresh. As we become more skilled, effort becomes smoother and
steadier, and mindfulness grows.
is the third of the spiritual powers. It’s the one factor
of mind of which we can never have too much. Mindfulness is
the observing power of the mind, the active aspect of awareness.
Mindfulness means not forgetting to pay attention, not forgetting
to be aware of whatever is happening within us, around us, from
moment to moment to moment. It’s a very subtle process.
first we notice something, there is a fleeting moment of pure
awareness, before the thinking mind jumps in. It’s a moment
that’s nonverbal, pre-verbal. It has in it no thought.
It’s a moment of seeing with very great clarity and no
thought. The thing noticed is not yet separated out, but is
simply part of the whole flow of the process of life. Perception
then fixates on the thing, puts boundaries around it and labels
it. Then the thinking mind jumps in, and the mind is back in
its everyday mode.
ordinary circumstances, that first pristine moment of awareness
is very brief, and it goes unnoticed. What this practice of
mindfulness does is to prolong the moments of pre-verbal knowing.
The effect of doing that, over time, is profound. It’s
a kind of deep knowing which changes the way that we understand
mindfulness is present, it’s like an empty mirror. It
sees whatever appears before it with no distortion. Mindfulness
has no likes and no dislikes. There is no passion or prejudice
to color what is seen. It knows things in the round, as it were—in
their totality, just as they are.
question, of course, is, “How can we come to such clarity?”
“Interest” is the answer. Get interested in what’s
going on. Krishnamurti once said that the way to watch thoughts
is the way that you would watch a lizard crawling on the ceiling
of a room. This seemed to me a very odd recommendation when
first I heard it. I had no connection with it at all, until
a few years later. Then I found myself on the island of Antigua,
in the Caribbean. I had just arrived. It was late at night and
I was half-asleep, but too tired to go to bed. Suddenly, out
of the corner of my eye, I noticed something moving on the wall.
Attention woke up. It was galvanized. Now, what was moving was
a lizard. It was a big one, maybe between nine and ten inches
long from the tip of its tail to its nose. It was a dull, mottled
brown. Nothing remarkable; it looked very ordinary. I sat, attention
just riveted, as it climbed the wall, slowly crawled across
the ceiling, down the other side, and then slithered out an
intensity of that brief little moment was so great that I can
see every detail in my mind’s eye right now. Interest
was amazingly total. Awareness was complete. There wasn’t
a thought, an emotion, to disturb what was seen. All that was
there was the seeing of each movement of this little creature
from the moment it appeared to the moment it disappeared. Krishnamurti’s
words came back into my mind then, and I knew exactly what he
had meant. Interest makes the difference. When interest is there,
awareness is total, and it’s effortless.
the breath may not have the same compelling quality as seeing
a lizard crawling on the ceiling, but the more careful attention
we pay to it, the more we get into the habit of paying attention.
Interest grows. Careful attention in itself creates interest,
for it brings us close to experience—increasingly close,
so that we see the texture, the detail, the remarkable wonder
of experience. In the doing there comes a brightness and a vividness
Dickinson knew this quality well. She lived a very quiet life,
saw few people, and spent most of her time alone in her room.
Yet she was so attentive, and saw with such sensitivity and
precision, that she could only sum up her experience in this
way: “To live is so startling, there’s little time
for anything else.”
attention opens the heart. When there is interest, real interest,
there’s no judgment. Whatever appears is welcome. Acceptance
is unconditional. Awareness has a benevolent quality, a friendly
quality, about it, which leads to bodhicitta. This welcoming
acceptance allows whatever comes to reveal itself in its fullness.
Ultimately, mindfulness opens into the realm of the sacred.
To speak of knowing things as they are, as they really are—what
is that but spiritual talk?
effort…mindfulness…The fourth spiritual faculty
is concentration. Concentration arises naturally out of the
effort to be mindful. It gives the power which makes mindfulness
so effective. Concentration is often defined as “one-pointed
attention.” In the context of insight meditation, it is
steady, one-pointed attention upon a succession of changing
objects. Concentration keeps attention pinned down upon whatever
object mindfulness is noticing. As mindfulness moves from, say,
the breath to a sound, concentration moves with it, and again
keeps attention focused and steady. In each case it lasts for
just a moment, because the mind moves so quickly. But it begins
again in the next moment, with the same intensity. This so-called
“momentary concentration” provides the power for
the work of our practice.
key to developing concentration is one word: effort. It’s
the effort to pay close attention, to keep coming back. Usually
the energies of the mind are scattered in a thousand different
directions. The mind is all over the place, and its energy is
simply frittered away in random thoughts and desires, hopes,
fears, feelings. All the huge potential power that it has is
wasted. But as the effort to be mindful becomes more consistent,
these scattered energies come together and converge around a
single point, and the mind becomes focused, like a lens. If
parallel rays of light fall upon a piece of paper, they won’t
do much more than warm the paper. But if the same amount of
light is focused through a lens, the paper will burst into flame.
In the same way, concentration focuses the energy of the mind,
and gives it the power to cut through surface appearance.
concentration deepens, the mind becomes calm and centered. It’s
less reactive. It comes into greater emotional balance. We can
more easily let go and let things be. The mind has a spaciousness
which gives room for pain and anger and fear all to arise and
pass, without our being broken by them, or needing to act them
is very powerful, but it’s only a tool. Despite its astonishing
power, it cannot of itself lead to wisdom. When it’s balanced
with mindfulness, the two together cut through conventional
reality, and understanding unfolds by itself.
is the last of the spiritual qualities. It is ongoing inspiration
for the work of the other four, and also their fulfillment.
Wisdom is not knowledge. It cannot be learned from books, for
it is intuitive understanding that arises from close observation
of experience. It is insight into reality, into the nature of
things as they are.
aspect of wisdom is seeing the omnipresence of anicca—impermanence.
Wisdom knows that nothing in this conditioned realm will last.
It knows that everything that arises passes away. It knows that
change occurs at every level from the cosmic to the microscopic.
A star, a civilization, a tree, a thought—each arises,
evolves through time, disintegrates and disappears. Timetables
differ of course, for every phenomenon and event. And change
can be so rapid—or so slow—that it is not ordinarily
seen at all. But the trajectory is always the same. Whatever
is, will be was.
may think we know this truth, and perhaps we do. But is it living
wisdom? For each of us, the mark of impermanence reveals itself
most intimately in our inescapable mortality. We all are going
to die. However unwelcome that thought may be, death is at the
end of every life. You and I are no exception. Everything that
is born will die. But because we do not live our lives from
this place of understanding, we suffer.
is a constant clash between the nature of existence and our
desires. In a world of radical change, we want permanence and
security and enduring happiness, and they cannot be found. We
live in an imaginary world, and grasp and cling to the way things
used to be, or how we want them to be, and find it hard to accept
the way they actually are. The result is dukkha—suffering,
all the dissatisfactions and sorrows of the human heart. Dukkha
is the second truth, which wisdom more and more deeply comes
the deepest lesson that wisdom has to teach is the fact of anattà—the
fact that nothing is inherently substantial and real. We think
that we are separate, solid entities, and struggle to protect
and satisfy and gratify our precious sense of self, not understanding
that at the closest level of examination, no permanent, unchanging
self is ever to be found. The constituents of mind and body
are, in fact, in constant flux. Body, sensations, thoughts,
emotions, arise and disappear, arise and disappear, moment by
moment by moment. Keen observation reveals that mind and body
are an ever changing process, a moving energy field. There is
no permanent being behind phenomena to whom it all is happening.
There is no one here to suffer. A Sri Lankan monk summed this
fact up very simply: “No self. No problem.” Yet
this truth is baffling, and eludes us until the mind is purified.
doors of perception are gradually cleansed as the spiritual
powers gather strength. Mindfulness sees ever more deeply, and
greed, hate and delusion diminish. Our endless likes and dislikes
thin out and fall away. The confusion that clouds perception
begins to dissolve. We glimpse the interweaving laws of impermanence,
suffering and selflessness, and the knowledge is transforming.
The way that we understand ourselves and live our lives begins
don’t hold on so much, and make fewer demands upon existence.
We begin to relax, and ease more into the flow of things. We
can delight in the good things of life when they are present,
and accept change without protest when they end. The heart opens
wider as it learns there is nothing to lose…
sense of self lessens. We become less selfish, less self centered.
As mindfulness reveals our dukkha and we experience its pain,
we begin to feel the suffering of others. Boundaries disappear,
and we turn to the needs of others as if they were our own.
Gradually the delicate art of loving without possessing becomes
apparent—the art of how to care, yet not to care. There
is a growing sense of similarity, of oneness, of communion with
all—which more and more means that the only possible response
is concern and care for all.
is very hard won. It comes from facing our own suffering and
learning the profound lessons that suffering has to teach. The
lessons are all about letting go. Not holding on to desire,
but letting it go. Wherever we hold, the sense of self is present
together with suffering. When we let go, self vanishes and suffering
dissolves into lightness, ease and peace.
is in the deep understanding of suffering that compassion comes
to full bloom. For when the heart/mind no longer holds to anything,
it is fully open. There is no self-centeredness and so, no separation.
No I, no you. Love then is boundless, and ceaselessly responsive.