Updated: Dec 28, 2021
The essence of the Buddha's teaching is contained in the 37 Bodhipacchiyadhammas, the 37 Aids or Wings to Awakening. He gave this teaching near the end of his life as a summary of what to focus on in our practice.
What is Awakening which is also known as Enlightenment, Realization, Nibbana (in Pali), NIrvana (in Sanskrit)? It is waking up to the reality of the world which is possible once we shed all the hindrances (defilements, fetters). Awakening happens in four different stages. These can follow each other, one mind moment apart. Or they can be realized lifetimes apart. The first level is called stream entry. This is possible when the first three of a group of ten fetters is cut off at the root. Cut off at the root means they are gone, never to return. Prior to Awakening we all experience the temporary absence of our fetters, our negative habit energies from time to time. But, given certain conditions, they are back in our face. But once they are cut off at the root, it is impossible for them to return. The second level of Awakening occurs when fetters of wanting and ill will become very weak. The third level occurs when these two fetters are cut off at the root. Gone! And full Awakening happens when the final five fetters are cut off at the root.
Why do we want to Awaken? Well, it's a state of contentment. There is no wanting or ill will, no discontent. And there is easy access to the jhanas, states of beautiful bliss. And these positive states are not dependent on conditions out in the world. And for those who have developed a "been there, done that" experience with the world, Awakening means there is no return to the round of samsara (the round of rebirths). For those who still have some attachment to the sensory world, the idea of being content in this sensory world is very appealing. It can be the motivation to start us on the Path.
The 37 Aids to Awakening are an expansion of the Buddha's prescription for Awakening, known as the Noble Eightfold Path. The Path can be summarized as morality (sila), meditation (samadhi*) and wisdom (pañña). And the Pali Canon, the collection of all the teachings of the Buddha can be seen as an expansion of the 37 Aids to Awakening.
morality/meditation/wisdom < Noble Eightfold Path < 37 Aids to Awakening < Pali Canon
*Bhavana, mental development is the usual translation for meditation. But here, the focus is on the result of our meditation practice, which is stillness/samadhi.
The 37 Aids to Awakening are:
4 Right Efforts
4 Applications of Mindfulness (Satipatthana)
4 Foundations for Spiritual Power (Iddhipada)
5 Spiritual Abilities
5 Spiritual Powers (Bala)
7 Factors of Awakening (Bojjanga)
8 The Noble Eightfold Path
Four Right Efforts. We make an effort to purify the mind and overcome unhelpful reactions to life so we are settled enough to meditate. We continue this effort during meditation, but we are now dealing with more subtle disturbances of the mind. And we also make an effort to arouse postive mind states. The four efforts are:
To prevent the arising of the hindrances (wanting, ill will, restlessness and agitation, dullness and drowsiness, doubt). Doubt here refers to self doubt about whether we are capable of following the practice and realizing its fruits or doubt about the usefulness or truth of the Buddha's teachings.
To let go of the hindrances when they arise using wisdom power not will power (by investigating how they are or will cause suffering. Thus letting go happens naturally, not by force)
To put in the conditions for the factors of Awakening to arise (mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, stillness and equanimity).
To maintain and develop the factors of Awakening once they have arisen.
Four Applications of Mindfulness: The Four Satipatthana. These teachings describe how mindfulness is used. We can be mindful of:
The physical body
Our basic emotional tone (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral)
The state of the mind (eg. wanting, negativity, restlessness, confusion, stillness)
Here is a link to three good Dhamma talks on the Four Applications of Mindfulness by Ajahn Brahmali.
The Buddha's teaching on breath meditation, Anapanasati, provides a method to practice all four applications of mindfulness.
Four Foundations for Spiritual Power: Iddhipada. These refer to developing the power of the mind.
Enthusiasm. This is a desire to make the time and effort to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. This is a positive desire that we cultivate until near the end of the Path. It is then no longer needed.
Energy (viriya). Energy and effort are different. Effort is something we "do". Energy is something that arises on its own due to the good conditions we have put into our practice.
Mental devlopment. This refers to the development of stillness (samadhi) by letting go of the hindrances and developing the factors of Awakening.
Investigation (vimamsā). We investigate what is arising in our minds: "Is it wholesome, helpful? Or is it a hindrance? If a hindrance has arisen, we investigate how it causes us suffering. When we really see that suffering, then we automatically drop the hindrance like we would a hot coal. This is wisdom power. We don't have to use will power to let go of the hindrances. If something wholesome has arisen, a factor of Awakening, then our investigation guides our efforts to put in the conditions for these factors to be increased.
We also investigate what is missing from our minds. If we note that no hindrances are present, we make an effort to keep them at bay. And if we note that none of the factors of Awakening are present, we make an effort to arouse them. Both of these are achieved with mindfulness of the present moment. Being aware of the present moment doesn't give space for the hindrances to sneak in. And being aware of the present moment means practicing the first two factors of Awakening, mindfulness and investigation. And being mindful generates energy and joy which evolve into the rest of the factors of tranquility, samadhi and equanimity.
Five Spiritual Faculties: Indriya.
Confirmed faith. This comes with the first level of Awakening. At this point one knows for oneself that the teachings of the Buddha are true. We get glimpses of this truth much earlier in our practice. For example, we experience how much calmer we are as a result of our practice and how this allows us to be responsive to life situations rather than just reactive. Experiencing this gives us faith in the teachings of the Buddha.
Stillness (Samadhi). Samadhi means one pointedness. Our mind is still. It is no longer jumping around. The full development of samadhi results in the jhanas. When the Buddha mentions samadhi in his teachings, he is referring to the jhanas. These are states where all our sensory experiences are stilled....so no seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, sense of touch or any thoughts. All that is left is a pure experience of mind. This is a deeply blissful experience.
Wisdom (Pañña). This is knowledge of reality. It comes as a sudden ah hah experience.
Five Spiritual Powers: Bala
These are the same qualities as the Spiritual Abilities. No clear distinction is made in the Suttas between the Abilities and the Powers. They may refer to a more advanced stage of the qualities.
Seven Factors of Awakening: Bojjangā
Investigation into the nature of reality (Dhamma vicaya)
Equanimity (Upekkha). This is the equanimity of the fourth jhana.
The first three qualities have already been mentioned. Joy arises out of mindfulness. It then settles into a quieter tranquility which is even more satisfying. From there it evolves into the stillness and bliss of the jhana states. Equanimity is the main feature of the fourth jhana. The Buddha described the jhanas as pleasant abidings in the here and now. But more importantly, when we emerge from them, our depth of mindfulness allows us to clearly see reality. It is in this clear seeing that we can Awaken.
Noble Eightfold Path
Right View. The first step of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right View, seeing reality, not deluding ourselves about the world. To stablish Right View, it's important that we reflect on the suttas, the teachings of the Buddha. Becoming familiar with the suttas gives us the opportunity to understand and take on this Right View. if we don't read the suttas directly, we can listen to Dhamma talks of current teachers who have studied the suttas. Right View is synonymous with the Four Noble Truths: that suffering exists, its cause is desire, there can be an end to suffering and the way to do this is to follow the Nole Eightfold Path.
Right Motivation: loving friendliness, harmlessness and letting go. Letting go (renunciation) during meditation practice refers to letting go of the hindrances, letting go of the past and the future, letting go of expectations, letting go of doing. In daily life, renunciation refers to letting go, more and more, of trying to attain happiness from the sensory experiences of the world....seeing beautiful places, tasting delicious foods, hearing beautiful music etc. We become content living very simply. This is because we start to have the experience that the happiness and peace that comes from developing our mind far exceeds the short term happiness derived from sensory experiences.
Right Mindfulness (sati)
Right Stillness (samadhi)
Steps three to six refer to morality. We want our speech to be truthful and kind and our actions and livelihood to be harmless. The other steps have already been mentioned in other sets of the Aids to Awakening. The Noble Eightfold Path is explained in detail in the Teachings on CTBC's website.
These 37 aids are a practical guide on how to be more content and happy in life by cultivating our minds.
As you can see, several of the qualities appear repeatedly in different sets of the Aids to Awakening. The assumption is that the more times a quality is repeated, the more important it is.
Effort/energy, mindfulness and stillness are repeated the most. Therefore, they are the most important. We make effort to purify our actions, speech and thoughts in order to be settled enough to meditate. Mindfulness is about how to meditate. And stillness is the result of meditation.
The 37 Aids to Awakening are listed by the Buddha in Digha Nikaya 29, The Pasadika Discourse, #6. And the last section of The Samyutta Nikaya, the Maha Vaggasamyutta, contains hundreds of discourses on the 37 aids.
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