Posted by: Michael Rickicki | 05/24/2010

Ajahn Amaro and the Five Spiritual Faculties

I had the pleasure to attend a day-long retreat with Ajahn Amaro today at NYIMC. Ajahn Amaro is one of the few teachers by whom I feel truly inspired. Today’s them was the five spiritual faculties. Although it would be great to post an essay by him on the subject I was unable to find any at hand. That being said Bhikkhu Bodhi’s treatment of the same will have to do:

The practice of the Buddha’s teaching is most commonly depicted by the image of a journey, the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path constituting the royal roadway along which the disciple must travel. The Buddhist scriptures, however, illustrate the quest for liberation in a variety of other ways, each of which throws a different spotlight on the nature of the practice. Although the alternative formulations inevitably draw upon the same basic set of mental factors as those that enter into the eightfold path, they structure these factors around a different “root metaphor” — an image which evokes its own particular range of associations and highlights different aspects of the endeavor to reach the cessation of suffering.

One of the groups of factors given special prominence in the Suttas included by the Buddha among the thirty-seven requisites of enlightenment is the five spiritual faculties: the faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. The term indriya, faculties, applied to this group as a whole is derived from the name of the ancient Vedic god Indra, ruler of the devas, and the term accordingly suggests the divine-like quality of control and domination. The five faculties are so designated because they exercise control in their own specific compartments of the spiritual life. As the god Indra vanquished the demons and attained supremacy among the gods, so each of the five faculties is called upon to subdue a particular mental disability and to marshal the corresponding potency of mind toward the breakthrough to final enlightenment.

The notion of faculty is partly akin to the ancient Greek conception of the virtues. Like the virtues, the faculties are active powers which coordinate and canalize our natural energies, directing them toward the achievement of an inward harmony and balance essential to our true happiness and peace. Since the faculties are to serve as agents of inward control, this implies that apart from their restraining influence our nature is not under our own control. Left to itself without the guidance of a superior source of instruction, the mind is a prey to forces that swell up from within itself, dark forces which hold us in subjection and prevent us from attaining our own highest welfare and genuine good. These forces are the defilements(kilesa). As long as we live and act under their dominion we are not our own masters but passive pawns, driven by our blind desires into courses of conduct that promise fulfillment but in the end lead only to misery and bondage. True freedom necessarily involves the attainment of inner autonomy, the strength to withstand the pushes and pulls of our appetites, and this is accomplished precisely by the development of the five spiritual faculties.

The qualities that exercise the function of faculties are of humble origin, appearing initially in mundane roles in the course of our everyday lives. In these humble guises they manifest as trustful confidence in higher values, as vigorous effort toward the good, as attentive awareness, as focused concentration, and as intelligent understanding. The Buddha’s teaching does not implant these dispositions into the mind from scratch but harnesses those pre-existent capacities of our nature toward a supramundane goal — toward the realization of the Unconditioned — thereby conferring upon them a transcendental significance. By assigning them a task that reveals their immense potential, and by guiding them along a track that can bring that potential to fulfillment, the Dhamma transforms these commonplace mental factors into spiritual faculties, mighty instruments in the quest for liberation that can fathom the profoundest laws of existence and unlock the doors to the Deathless.

In the practice of the Dhamma each of these faculties has simultaneously to perform its own specific function and to harmonize with the other faculties to establish the balance needed for clear comprehension. The five come to fullest maturity in the contemplative development of insight, the direct road to awakening. In this process the faculty of faith provides the element of inspiration and aspiration which steers the mind away from the quagmire of doubt and settles it with serene trust in the Triple Gem as the supreme basis of deliverance. The faculty of energy kindles the fire of sustained endeavor that burns up obstructions and brings to maturity the factors that ripen in awakening. The faculty of mindfulness contributes clear awareness, the antidote to carelessness and the prerequisite of penetration. The faculty of concentration holds the beam of attention steadily focused on the rise and fall of bodily and mental events, calm and composed. And the faculty of wisdom, which the Buddha calls the crowning virtue among all the requisites of enlightenment, drives away the darkness of ignorance and lights up the true characteristics of phenomena.

Just as much as the five faculties, considered individually, each perform their own unique tasks in their respective domains, as a group they accomplish the collective task of establishing inner balance and harmony. To achieve this balanced striving the faculties are divided into two pairs in each of which each member must counter the undesirable tendency inherent in the other, thus enabling it to actualize its fullest potential. The faculties of faith and wisdom form one pair, aimed at balancing the capacities for devotion and comprehension; the faculties of energy and concentration form a second pair aimed at balancing the capacities for active exertion and calm recollection. Above the complementary pairs stands the faculty of mindfulness, which protects the mind from extremes and ensures that the members of each pair hold one another in a mutually restraining, mutually enriching tension.

Born of humble origins in everyday functions of the mind, through the Dhamma the five faculties acquire a transcendent destiny. When they are developed and regularly cultivated, says the Master, “they lead to the Deathless, are bound for the Deathless, culminate in the Deathless.”

Although Ven. Bodhi gives an excelent description I think it misses out on the importance of balancing the faculties which is described in the following brief selection:

According to the Visuddhimagga, the balance of the faculties (indriya-samatta) is one of the ten kinds of skill in absorption (appana-kosalla), and it is one of the seven things that lead to the arising of the enlightenment factor “investigation of (material and mental) phenomena” (dhammavicaya-sambojjhanga). Imparting balance to the faculties is the equalizing of the controlling faculties of faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. For if the faith faculty is strong and the others weak, then the vigor faculty cannot perform its function of exerting, the mindfulness faculty its function of attending to the object, the concentration faculty its function of excluding distraction, the wisdom faculty its function of seeing. So the (excessive) strength of the faith faculty should be reduced by reflecting on the phenomenal nature (of faith and its objects), and by not paying attention to what has caused the excessive strength of the faith faculty. Then if the vigor faculty is too strong, the faith faculty cannot perform its function of convincing, nor can the rest of the faculties perform their several functions. So in that case the excessive strength of the vigor faculty should be reduced by cultivating (the enlightenment factors of) tranquillity, concentration and equanimity. So, too, with the other factors, for it should be understood that when any one of them is too strong the others cannot perform their several functions.

However, what is particularly recommended is the balancing of faith with wisdom, and concentration with vigor. For one who is strong in faith and weak in wisdom places his confidence foolishly in an unworthy object. One strong in wisdom and weak in faith errs on the side of cunning and is as hard to cure as a sickness caused by medicine. But with the balancing of the two, faith and wisdom, a man has confidence only in a deserving object.

If there is too much of concentration and too little of vigor, the mind will be overpowered by indolence to which concentration inclines. But if vigor is too strong and concentration too weak, the mind will be overpowered by agitation to which vigor inclines. But concentration coupled with vigor cannot lapse into indolence, and vigor coupled with concentration cannot lapse into agitation. So these two should be balanced; for absorption comes with the balancing of the two.

Again (concentration and faith should be balanced). One working on concentration needs strong faith, since it is with such faith and confidence that he reaches absorption.

As to (the balancing of) concentration and wisdom, one working on concentration (i.e. who practises tranquillity; samatha) needs strong one-pointedness of mind, since that is how he reaches full absorption; and one working on insight (vipassana) needs strong wisdom, since that is how he reaches penetration of (the phenomena’s) characteristics; but with the balancing of the two he reaches full absorption as well.

Strong mindfulness, however, is needed in all instances; for mindfulness protects the mind from lapsing into agitation through faith, vigor and wisdom, which tend to agitation, and from lapsing into indolence through concentration, which tends to indolence. So it is as desirable in all instances as a seasoning of salt in all curries, as a prime minister in all the king’s business. Hence it is said (in the commentaries): “It was declared by the Exalted One that ‘mindfulness, indeed, is of universal use.’ Why? Because the mind has mindfulness as its refuge, and mindfulness is manifested as protection, and there is no exertion and restraint of the mind without mindfulness.”



  1. We practiced together today! What a great opportunity to receive Ajahn Amaro’s teachings. My Burmese teacher also thinks the balancing of the indriya is a critical piece to mindfulness and insight meditation.

    As an alternative, you might appreciate the description from Ayya Khema here.

    I will be posting my own reflections in the next couple of days…metta

  2. Sharanam,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I look forward to to seeing your own reflections soon. Metta.

  3. Hi again. Also, you can download the talk he gave on Faith and the Five Spiritual Faculties on March 20th this year from Abayaghiri here.

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Shillelagh Studies

A hub for the music, culture, knowledge, and practice of Irish stick-fighting, past and present.