The four pathways to power are, according to the Buddha, essential aspects of realizing liberation. He said: "If a monk or nun has missed the four pathways to power, they have missed the way to liberation. If they have practiced the four pathways to power, they are practicing the right way."
These four pathways are initially mundane, which means they are an endeavor, which all of us are capable of pursuing. Only when they have become powers, are they supermundane and constitute four of the 37 factors of enlightenment.
Because they are so essential to practice and cannot be disregarded, we need to know about them in detail. We have to understand them in an analytical way, so that we can check up on our own results. This is the criterion that eventually turns knowledge into wisdom. We can learn any of the Buddha's teachings by heart, that's not so difficult, but consequently we need to look at these teachings in the light of personal endeavor. We can check whether our practice has borne fruit or not. If so, we will continue in the same way as before; if not we need to alter our approach. By investigating within whether we are actually doing what the Buddha taught and whether it has become part of our own inner being, we gain insight into our mind's capacity. When we see that, through practice, we have been able to enlarge the abilities of our mind, we will not become complacent, but resolve to increase them further.
The four pathways to power start out with chandha-samadhi. Chandha is intention, and can be wholesome, unwholesome or neutral. It also means desire or direction. In order to make it a pathway to power we have to use it as the intention towards complete insight. Samadhi, as part of the term, means that the intention has to be fully concentrated and not dissipated. This would be the difference between living a worldly life or living a life wholly dedicated to spiritual endeavor.
In a worldly life, we are forced to dissipate our intentions into different directions. It is the nature of life in the world. The necessity for obtaining and looking after many different objects, even though we can minimize that, will take up some time. There are always people and material aspects who have a claim on us. We have to honor those claims. Our own ambitions and desires are being fostered in the world as being useful and commendable. In order to cultivate "concentration of intention" leading to total liberation, we need to be in circumstances where no obstacles arise.
All four of the pathways have willpower as an adjunct. Concentration of intention also includes one-pointedness. It only becomes a true pathway when our intention is directed towards the greatest power of all, namely the power arising from letting go of all craving.
The second pathway is "concentration of energy," (viriya-samadhi). Everyone has a certain amount of physical energy which sometimes becomes detrimental to our mental endeavor when there is too much restlessness. If we have too little physical energy, that is also counterproductive. But mental energy can be increased, namely by being one-pointed, using our energy in one direction only, not having many irons in the fire. We need to be clear about what is of the utmost importance for us in this life. This needs checking up in the quiet introspection of our own contemplation. "What is it that I want most?" "Where do I want to expend my energy?" "What is my main intention?"
The answer may not be to come to the end of dukkha. That is all right too. But we can benefit by concentrating our energy and intention no matter where we are heading, as it will protect us from wasting our time with useless actions.
The willpower we can arouse depends very much on our insight. If we have seen the urgency of our own spiritual growth, we will find it easier to have the will for practice. All of us are subject to instinctual actions and reactions based on desire and craving. Willpower helps us to let go of these and direct our energy into different channels. Urgency (samvega) is an essential part of successful practice. When our insights give rise to seeing the whole world on fire from craving and ourselves burning with it, then urgency will become a natural part of our make-up and willpower a concomitant to it. Willpower arises in direct proportion to urgency, which is connected to our insight into the world around us; the world which does not stop at our front door, because it lives in our own heart and mind.
The next pathway to power is "concentration of consciousness," (citta-samadhi) or one-pointedness of concentration. When intention and energy come together in a powerful way coupled with willpower, meditative concentration can result. The first two pathways are causes for the third one to arise, leading to meditative absorptions. Deep tranquillity in one's meditation is the underlying factor needed for profound insights, which can change an ordinary worldling to a noble one, which is the goal of our practice.
Most people today are not really aware of that, but are interested in meditation to gain release from stress. That too is all right. Why not? The Buddha's purpose and teaching were relief and release from dukkha once and for all, so that it can never arise again. If we translate dukkha as stress, which we can well do, then we might say, "yes it is relief from stress. But the kind of release the Buddha had in mind is based on the depth of insight, where we realize and experience that is isn't really dukkha that disappears, but the "me" who is experiencing it vanishes.
One-pointed intention and one-pointed effort lead to one-pointed consciousness. The mind finds itself in a state of awareness where there are no obstructions or obstacles resulting from thinking. Insight does not arise from thoughts, but is an inner, intuitive knowing quite different from discursive and logical thinking, rather an outcome of a clear and calm mind. This leads the awareness into the depths of truth, which has always been there, but which did not rise to the surface before, so that the mind could not grasp it previously.
What the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi Tree, when he was able to formulate the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path, was not a result of discursive thinking nor of logical or learned understanding. It was a deep inner experience which arose from a totally calm mind without obstructions.
It is our saving grace that a mind can do only one thing at a time. When we are calm and concentrated all our hindrances are momentarily laid to rest. This is the boon of meditation. When there are no obstacles in the mind, it has the ability to recognize an entirely different depth than it does under ordinary circumstances, when we are always in danger of having greed, hate or deluded mind states arise. When we arouse the pathways to power we create a different dimension in the mind. This is essential, as otherwise we may believe in the Buddha and his teaching, but may not be able to prove it ourselves. It is up to all of us to live the Dhamma in heart and mind.
The fourth pathway is the "concentration of investigation." Subsequent to the experience of calm and tranquillity with their inherent expansion of consciousness, comes investigation for insight. The meditative calm becomes a condition for insight through concentrated investigation, when we realize the impermanence of even the best meditative states. None of the pathways, however, only apply to meditation. While they benefit us greatly in the context of meditation, they are useful and practicable in all other moments of our lives.
We certainly need concentrated intention in daily living. We cannot one day intend to be kind, the next day selfish, then kind again and expect to be peaceful and happy. We also need to know what we are aiming for in mundane living. If we want a university education, we have to concentrate on that intention. We cannot go to university one day, stay home the next day and expect to pass examinations.
Concentration of energy is also a basic requirement of daily living. If we conserve our energy to use it where it bears the best fruit, our mundane endeavors will flourish and be easily accomplished. If we develop and cultivate right intention, energy, willpower and concentration, we can increase our potential manifold.
Notwithstanding any results we may see in ourselves, we should never expect to be either totally perfect or totally imperfect. We need to look upon ourselves as practitioners, those who are learning. In the Buddha's time they were called savaka, which means "hearer." If we consider ourselves in that way, we need not search for perfection or imperfection, but rather try to draw nearer to giving up all ideas of "me" and "mine."
Concentrated investigation of phenomena is an aspect of our moment to moment mindfulness, which enables us to see anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) or anatta (corelessness) wherever we look. Everything that exits proclaims these three characteristics, so that we need never be without Dhamma consciousness. Usually one of the three aspects becomes more pregnant with meaning for us and our mind veers in that direction to investigate the underlying truth behind the reality in which we live.
We are never without an object for investigation. Our thoughts and feelings are full of these three characteristics. When there is a pleasant feeling, can we keep it? Do we feel unhappy when it is gone? Are we beginning to see this whole person we are so concerned with, as nothing but flux and flow, with no solid core to be found anywhere? When we look at ourselves again and again, we will eventually realize that we cannot find an unchanging substance within.
Depth of insight arises through the meditative process. However, we need to assist our practice by investigative thoughts and directions in daily living. If our mind is concerned with worldly affairs or sensual pleasures during the day, it is asking too much of it to become calm and insightful in the evening. It is an unrealistic expectation, which no mind can fulfill. We need to prepare our mind, so that it is used to thinking in terms of Dhamma consciousness, with mindfulness already established as a daily habit. Then we can proceed with meditation without first having to shed all mental burdens. We are already facing in the right direction and can easily achieve calm and peacefulness, which are our resource for mental energy.
When we are young, we may be inclined to think that our body is our source of energy. But the body can fall sick at any time, can be maimed or even die. Our real energy source lies in the fact that the mind can renew itself and become powerful through the arising of deep tranquillity. Then it doesn't matter whether the body is old and decrepit or young and healthy, because mind is the master and body the servant.
We need the meditative calm as our fuel supply. It is more important even than food. Although one does eventually have to have food again, one can go without it for quite a long time, much longer than usually thought possible, and still have much energy to meditate. We have this natural resource within, yet very few people take advantage of it. In order to make use of it, the mind needs protection during daily living, so that it is already in the right frame of consciousness when meditation begins. Insight into the futility of ambitions and desires helps to lessen discursive and distracting thinking.
The four pathways to power are mundane when we are practicing and become supermundane when we have perfected them. They bring total liberation from dukkha if culmination of intention, energy willpower, calm and insight is achieved, which they demand of us.
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The Nobility of the Truths by Bhikkhu Bodhi