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The Five Powers

Empowering Practice

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The spiritual path can seem a frustrating slog much of the time. The Buddha knew this, and he taught that there are five spiritual qualities that, when developed together, become the panca bala -- in Sanskrit and Pali, "five powers" -- that overcome hindrances. The five are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.

Let's look at these one at a time.

Faith

The word "faith" is a red flag for many of us. The word often is used to mean blind acceptance of doctrines without evidence. And the Buddha clearly taught us to not accept any doctrine or teaching blindly (see the Kalama Sutta).

But in Buddhism, "faith" -- shraddha (Sanskrit) or saddha (Pali) -- means something closer to "trust" or "confidence." This include trust and confidence in yourself, knowing that you can overcome obstacles through the power of practice.

This trust does not mean accepting Buddhist doctrines as true. Rather, it means that you trust the practice to develop your own insight into what the doctrines teach. In the Saddha Sutta of the Pali Canon, the Buddha compared trust in the dharma to the way birds "trust" a tree in which they build their nests.

Often we experience practice as a balancing act between faith and bewilderment. This is good; be willing to look deeply at what bewilders you. "Looking deeply" does not mean concocting an intellectual explanation to cover your ignorance. It means practicing wholeheartedly with your uncertainties and being open to insight when it comes.

Read More: "Faith, Doubt and Buddhism"

Energy

The Sanskrit word for energy is virya. Virya evolved from an ancient Indo-Iranian word that meant "hero," and in the Buddha's day virya had come to refer to the strength of a great warrior to overcome his enemies. This strength can be mental as well as physical.

If you are struggling with inertia, torpor, laziness, or whatever you want to call it, how do you develop virya? I'd say a first step is to take inventory of your daily life to see what's draining you, and address that. It could be a job, a relationship, an unbalanced diet. Please be clear, however, that "addressing" your energy drains does not necessarily mean walking away from them. The late Robert Aitken Roshi said,

"The first lesson is that distraction or obstruction are just negative terms for your context. Circumstances are like your arms and legs. They appear in your life to serve your practice. As you become more and more settled in your purpose, your circumstances begin to synchronize with your concerns. Chance words by friends, books, and poems, even the wind in the trees brings precious insight." [From the book, The Practice of Perfection]

Read More: "Virya Paramita: The Perfection of Energy"

Mindfulness

Mindfulness -- sati (Pali) or smriti (Sanskrit) -- is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams or worry.

Why is this important? Mindfulness helps us break the habits of mind that separate us from everything else. Through mindfulness, we stop filtering our experiences through judgments and biases. We learn to see things directly, as they are.

Right Mindfulness is part of the Eightfold Path. Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, "When Right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the other seven elements of the Eightfold Path are also present." (The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, p. 59)

Read More: "Right Mindfulness"

Concentration

Concentration in Buddhism means to become so absorbed that all distinctions between self and other are forgotten. The deepest absorption is samadhi, which means "to bring together." Samadhi prepares the mind for enlightenment.

Samadhi is associated with meditation, and also with the dhyanas, or four stages of absorption.

Read More: "Dhyana Paramita: Perfection of Meditation"; "Right Concentration"

Wisdom

In Buddhism, wisdom (Sanskrit prajna; Pali panna) does not exactly fit the dictionary definition. What do we mean by wisdom?

The Buddha said, "Wisdom penetrates into dharmas as they are in themselves. It disperses the darkness of delusion, which covers up the own-being of dharmas." Dharma in this case refers to the truth of what is; the true nature of everything.

The Buddha taught that this kind of wisdom comes only from direct, and intimately experienced, insight. It does not come from crafting intellectual explanations.

Read More: "Perfection of Wisdom"

Developing the Powers

The Buddha compared these powers to a team of five horses. Mindfulness is the lead horse. After that, faith is paired with wisdom and energy is paired with concentration. Working together, these powers dispel illusion and open doors of insight.

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