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The Seven Factors of Awakening

The Seven Factors of Awakening (saptabodhyanga)
are mindfulness, investigation of
phenomena, diligence, joy, ease, concentration, and
letting go. Bodhyanga is made up of two words:
bodhi and anga. Bodhi ("awakening,"
"enlightenment") comes from the root budh-,
which means "to wake up," to be aware of what is
going on within and all around you. A Buddha is
"One Who Is Awakened." Anga means limb.
Sapta-bodhyanga can also be translated as the
Seven Limbs, or Factors, of Enlightenment.
After sitting in meditation at the foot of a ficus
religiosa, known by Buddhists as the bodhi tree,
when the morning star arose, the Buddha realized
enlightenment and said, "How amazing that all
living beings have the basic nature of awakening,
yet they don't know it. So they drift on the ocean
of great suffering lifetime after lifetime." It means
that the potentialities of the Seven Factors of
Awakening are already in us, but we don't know it.

It is said that the Buddha was reluctant at first
to share the insight he experienced under the bodhi
tree. Only after continuing his meditation did he
realize that many beings would benefit if he offered
concrete ways to help them wake up. The Seven
Factors of Awakening offer a description of both
the characteristics of awakening as well as a path
to awakening. Imagine a tree with seven large
limbs, each representing one Factor of Awakening.
Every year, each of these branches grows longer
and sends out new shoots with new leaves.
Enlightenment is growing all the time. It is not
something that happens once and is then complete.
It is reassuring that the Buddha regarded joy and
ease among these seven elements.

The First and main Factor of Awakening — the
first limb of the bodhi tree — is mindfulness
(smriti). Smriti literally means "remembering," not
forgetting where we are, what we are doing, and
who we are with. Mindfulness always arises in the
context of a relationship with ourselves, other
people, or things. It is not something we keep in
our pocket and take out when we need it. When we
see a friend on the street and recognize her, we
have not taken "recognition" out of our pocket. It
arose in the context of the situation. Our breathing,
walking, movements, feelings, and the phenomena
around us are all parts of the "relationship" in
which mindfulness arises. With training, every time
we breathe in and out, mindfulness will be there, so
that our breathing becomes a cause and condition
for the arising of mindfulness.

You might think, "I am the cause for
mindfulness being present." But if you look
around, you will never find an "I." The telephone's
ring, the clock's chime, your teacher, and your
Sangha can be favorable causes for mindfulness
being present. Imagine yourself doing walking
meditation on a beach, when suddenly the thought
arises, "Do I have enough money in the bank?" If
you return your awareness to your feet making
contact with the sand, that is enough to bring you
back to the present moment. You can do this
because you have practiced walking meditation
before. But it is your feet and not "I" that remind
you to be present.

In the Discourse on the Four Establishments of
Mindfulness, the Buddha asks, "If you practice the
Four Establishments of Mindfulness, how long
will it take to become enlightened?" First he
answers, "Seven years," but then he says, "It can
be as short as half a month." It means that
awakening is always available. It only needs
favorable conditions. The sun is there, even when
it is behind the clouds. The Buddha said, "By
practicing the Four Establishments of
Mindfulness, you will realize the Seven Factors of
Awakening." is the Second Factor of Awakening.

We humans love to investigate things. Often we
want the results of our investigations to fit a
certain mold or prove a certain theory, but at
times, we are open and allow things simply to
reveal themselves. In the latter case, our knowledge
and our boundaries expand. When we want to
investigate the bud on the branch of the tree, we
might ask, "Where have you come from? Where are
you going? Are you really that small?" The bud
might reply, "I will grow into a leaf — green in the
summer, orange in the fall. Then I will fall to the
earth, and in two years I'll become a part of the
earth. I am really not small. I'm as large as the
earth." With mindfulness, investigation takes us
deeply into life and into reality.

The Third Factor of Awakening is virya, which
means energy, effort, diligence, or perseverance.
Energy comes from many sources. Sometimes just
thinking about what we might gain in the future
gives us energy. In Buddhism, the sources of our
energy are mindfulness, investigation, and faith in
the practice. When we look deeply, we see that life
is a miracle beyond our comprehension. But for
many young people today, life is meaningless.

Many thousands of young people commit suicide
every year. In some countries, more young people
die from suicide than from traffic accidents. We
need to help young people cultivate the life-energy
that comes from experiencing the wonders of life.
We need to help their lives have meaning.

Even if we are in pain, if we can see meaning in
our life, we will have energy and joy. Energy is not
the result of good health alone or the wish to
achieve some goal — material or spiritual. It is a
result of feeling some meaning to our life. Making
an effort at the wrong time or place dissipates our
energy. Sitting in meditation for lengthy periods
before we have developed good concentration
might cause us to dislike meditation, and even to
stop sitting altogether. When Siddhartha practiced
meditation under the bodhi tree, his concentration
was already highly developed. When Kashyapa
told Ananda that Ananda would not be invited to
attend the first Council of the Buddha's disciples
because he did not have a high enough degree of
awakening, Ananda sat in meditation all night, and
by dawn he realized "the fruit of arhatship."
When Ananda arrived at the council, Kashyapa and
the others recognized that he had had a
breakthrough. His shining presence was proof
enough.

The Fourth Factor of Awakening is ease
(prashrabdhih). Diligence is always accompanied
by ease. In the so-called Third World, one often
feels more ease than in the "overdeveloped"
countries of the First World. Here, everyone is
under enormous pressure, and people need stressreduction
programs. Their stress comes from
constant thinking and worrying and from their
lifestyles. We have to learn ways to bring our
energy from our head down to our abdomen. At
least once every fifteen minutes, we need to
practice letting go.

When we are sick, we stay in bed and do
nothing. Often we don't even eat or drink. All of
our energy is directed toward healing. We need to
practice resting even when we are not sick. Sitting
meditation, walking meditation, and mindful eating
are good opportunities for resting. When you feel
agitated, if you are able to go to a park or a garden,
it is an opportunity for rest. If you walk slowly
and remember to take it easy, if you are able to sit
and do nothing from time to time, you can rest
deeply and enter a state of true ease.

The Fifth Factor of Awakening is joy (priti).
Joy goes with happiness (sukha), but there are
differences. When you are thirsty and a glass of
water is being served to you, that is joy. When you
are actually able to drink the water, that is
happiness. It is possible to develop joy in your
mind, even when your body is not well. This will,
in turn, help your body. Joy comes from touching
things that are refreshing and beautiful, within and
outside of ourselves. Usually we touch only what's
wrong. If we can expand our vision and also see
what is right, this wider picture always brings joy.

The Sixth Factor of Awakening is concentration
(samadhi). Sam- means together, a- is bringing to a
certain place, and -dhi is the energy of the mind.
We collect the energy of our mind and direct it
toward an object. With concentration, our mind is
one-pointed and still, and quite naturally it stays
focused on one object. To have mindfulness, we
need concentration. Once mindfulness is
developed, concentration, in turn, becomes
stronger.

Concentration is not wholesome in itself. A
thief needs concentration to break into a house.
The object of our concentration is what makes it
beneficial or not. If you use meditative
concentration to run away from reality, that is not
beneficial. Even before the time of the Buddha,
many meditators practiced concentration to
remove themselves from the world. Practicing this
kind of concentration, the Buddha was not able to
liberate himself from suffering. So he learned to use
his concentration to shine light upon his suffering,
and he was able to go deeply into life and develop
understanding, compassion, and liberation.

The Seventh Factor of Awakening is
equanimity, or letting go (upeksha). Equanimity is
an aspect of true love. It is far from indifference.
Practicing equanimity, we love everyone equally.

In the Kakacupama Sutta (Example of the Saw),
the Buddha says, "Even if robbers cut your limbs
off with a saw, if anger arises in you, you are not a
follower of my teachings. To be a disciple of the
Buddha, your heart must bear no hatred, you must
utter no unkind words, you must remain
compassionate, with no hostility or ill-will."
As a young monk, I memorized these words and even
put them to music. This teaching touches our most
noble intention, but it is the opposite of our strong
habit energies. To transform these habit energies
and realize our noblest intention, the Buddha and
the Venerable Shariputra taught us: (1) to practice
equanimity in the face of harsh words; (2) to learn
not to feel annoyance, bitterness, or dejection; and
(3) not to feel elated when praised, because we
know that any praise is not for us as an individual,
but for many beings, including our parents,
teachers, friends, and all forms of life.

In the Greater Discourse on the Example of the
Elephant's Footprint, Shariputra shows the way
to meditate on the Four Great Elements in order to
practice equanimity. When we meditate on the
elements of earth, water, fire, and air inside and
outside our bodies, we see that we and they are the
same. When we transcend our idea of a separate
self, our love will contain equanimity, knowing
that we and others are truly the same.

These Seven Factors are limbs of the same tree.
If mindfulness is developed and maintained, the
investigation of phenomena will meet with success.
Joy and ease are wonderful feelings nourished by
diligence. Concentration gives rise to
understanding. When understanding is there, we go
beyond comparing, discriminating, and reacting,
and realize letting go. Those who arrive at letting
go have the bud of a half-smile, which proves
compassion as well as understanding. The Seven
Factors of Awakening, if practiced diligently, lead
to true understanding and emancipation. The
Buddha said that the Four Immeasurable Minds of
love practiced with the Seven Factors of
Awakening bringComplete, Perfect Enlightenment.
The Seven Factors of Awakening are, therefore, the
practice of love.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh
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