Seven Factors of Awakening – talk 1 – Introduction + Mindfulness


Tonight in the weeks leading up to our celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment let’s take up the Buddhas recognition of what he called the seven factors of mind that support awakening. The 7 factors of enlightenment or awakening.

Printable Handout:
The Seven Factors of Awakening & The Five Hindrances
(And see Home Practice Suggestion at the end) 

The subtext of these teachings is that the mind matters. Not just the contents of our thinking but the full dimensions of mind, the flows of mind, the various ways the currents in the mind get caught and constricted in various ways; the ways the flow of mind can be unlimbered and freed.  Our relationship to our thoughts and emotions. How we react to perception. It all matters, it’s all somewhat habitual, and it can be practiced with and investigated in various ways.
We know full well that the body has to be cared for. What we eat matters. Moving the body matters. Getting enough sleep matters. We know this even if we don’t always take skillful action.  We don’t get around to exercise regularly for instance.

And we hold this idea that the mind should just take care of itself if the external circumstances are right. If we have the right job, good friends who treat us the way they’re supposed to,  or even engage in the right spiritual practice we think that the mind should respond by being reasonably happy and settled.

We value learning and education in our culture. We value content. We value people who become experts in content areas.  Learning is satisfying and we expect the learning of stuff to also need to a kind of natural happiness and contentment,  either directly though the satisfaction of learning itself, or indirectly through a result like getting a good job or something like that.

These teachings of Buddha are more about process of mind than content of mind. How does the mind work. What are it’s aspects? What Buddha called “factors.” And I don’t know it was the Buddha or the great experiential mind scientists who came after him and created the Abhidharma systems but there are 52 mental factors – 52 aspects of mind. A full deck

And these 7 are the ones on that list that Buddha said are important for this process of waking up to the flexible, interpenetrated, open hearted life where we don’t believe in our problems as problems. Where there’s the joy of just being even through the tears, even through the triumphs. The growing into being full present for all of it. Without adding any suffering to unpleasant sensations. Without adding any clinging to pleasant sensations. Just fully showing up for the full show – that’s my definition of awakening for this moment. Fully showing up.

The Seven Factors of Awakening & The Five Hindrances

Aversion (anger)

Factors of Awakening:
Concentration (Samadhi)

And whether we think of that as a state – a fully shown up person – or as a process – showing up more fully more of the time – maybe it doesn’t matter so much as long as we find inspiration and vision here and do the practice.

So the 7 mental factors that lead to awakening are: mindfulness, discernment, diligence, joy, lightness-and-ease, samadhi or concentration, and wisdom.

They can be practiced with as a series which is really interesting. Cultivating the full scope of one in one’s life can be a condition that allows the next one to arise more fully.

Or they can be practice with as a kind of balance. If there’s too much of one and not so much of another see what we can do to invite the low one up and allow the high one to settle. That’s maybe a little less acquisitive which is good for us because we are so hell bent on acquiring something. And yet if we are all chilled out around “oh just let it balance out” then maybe we need a little more energy and a little more focus and then the step-wise way of looking at is better. So there could be a balance between these two different views of the list itself.

All of that is to say it’s good to talk to a teacher and that everything in Dharma is somewhat individual. Still we have talks so on we go.

The first one is the root or the turning point in either scheme. Mindfulness! Remembering to be awake to what’s actually happening, what’s actually arising in experience, right now. A radical dropping below our ideas of what’s happening or what’s supposed to happen right into what is happening as best we can tell.

As you may remember there are 4 frames of reference, 4 domains, or 4 foundations of mindfulness. Mindfulness of the body. Mindfulness of vedana which I am calling “sensations and reactions” but more usually you see “feelings” or “feeling tone”. Mindfulness of mental formations or thoughts and emotions. And lastly mindfulness of the deep patterning of experience itself. Funnily enough these teachings are kind of interwoven and circular. In our main source in the early Buddhist teachings when the Buddha talks about this fourth foundation of mindfulness he says that means mindfulness of the seven factors of awakening themselves as a pattern of reality! So the seven factors are a component of mindfulness and mindfulness is a key component of the seven factors. Just a question of where to start!

The other key list the Buddha talks about in that description of the 4th foundation of mindfulness are the 5 hindrances which I suddenly realized are not that hard to remember. They are two pairs of related qualities and then doubt. The first pair is desire and aversion. The second pair is dullness and restlessness. And then doubt. So in taking on the study of the seven factors we also have in mind the 5 hindrances. They work against each other.

And so our task for this first week is just to get familiar with these two lists and renew our practice of mindfulness. To sit regularly is an excellent conditioning factor to make mindfulness practice even possible. But then in the course of our day to pause frequently and reflect – what is the body feeling? Where is the breath? What is the actual experience of what I’m perceiving and how does the mind tilt into that or away from it? What’s happening with thoughts and emotions as events in the mind? And how does it all shake out in terms of these hindrances and these factors. This last one is a little difficult until we’ve really studied them all so don’t worry about it too much.

Home practice suggestion:
1) Familiarize yourself with these two lists, especially the five hindrances.
2) be alert for the arising of a hindrance – which hindrances seem most alive for you now?
3) when that hindrance arises do your best to practice mindfulness of body, of sensations and perceptions, of thinking & emotions. What’s actually happening when that hindrance is present?


About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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