Indriyas | Faculties


1. Indriyas

Indriya (literally belonging to or agreeable to Indra) is the Sanskrit and Pāḷi term for physical strength or ability in general, and for the senses more specifically.

The term literally means belonging to Indra, chief deity in the Rig Veda and lord of the Trāyastriṁśa Heaven (also known as Śakra or Sakka in Buddhism)

hence connoting supremacy, dominance and control, attested in the general meaning of power, strength from the Rig Veda.

In Buddhism, the term refers to multiple intra-psychic processes and is generally translated as faculty or, in specific contexts, as spiritual faculty or controlling principle.

In Buddhism, depending on the context, Indriya traditionally refers to one of the following groups of faculties:

  1. the 5 spiritual faculties
  2. the 5 or 6 sensory faculties
  3. the 22 phenomenological faculties

2. 5 spiritual faculties

In the Pāḷi Canon's Sutta Piṭaka, Indriya is frequently encountered in the context of the 5 spiritual faculties (Pāḷi: pañca indriyāni):

  1. faith or conviction or belief (saddhā)
  2. energy or persistence or perseverance (viriya)
  3. mindfulness or memory (sati)
  4. stillness of the mind (samādhi)
  5. wisdom or understanding or comprehension (paññā).

Together, this set of 5 faculties is one of the 7 sets of qualities lauded by the Buddha as conducive to Enlightenment.

SN 48.10 is one of several discourses that characterizes these spiritual faculties in the following manner:

  1. Faith/conviction is faith in the Buddha's Awakening.
  2. Energy/persistence refers to exertion towards the 4 Right Efforts.
  3. Mindfulness refers to focusing on the 4 Satipaṭṭhāna.
  4. Stillness of the mind refers to achieving the 4 Jhānas.
  5. Wisdom/understanding refers to discerning the 4 Noble Truths.

In SN 48.51, the Buddha declares that, of these 5 faculties, Wisdom is the chief (agga).

Balancing the spiritual faculties

In AN 6.55, the Buddha counsels a discouraged monk, Sona, to balance or tune his spiritual faculties as one would a musical instrument:

... what do you think:

when the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your lute in tune & playable?

Yes, lord.

In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness.

Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the 5 faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.

Relatedly, the Visuddhimagga and other post-canonical Pāḷi commentaries caution against one spiritual faculty overpowering and inhibiting the other 4 faculties,

and thus generally recommend modifying the overpowering faculty with the investigation of states (dhamma vicaya) or the development of tranquillity (śamatha).

Moreover, these commentaries especially recommend that the 5 spiritual faculties be developed in counterbalancing dyads:

For one strong in faith and weak in understanding has confidence uncritically and groundlessly.

One strong in understanding and weak in faith errs on the side of cunning and is as hard to cure as one sick of a disease caused by medicine.

With the balancing of the 2 a man has confidence only when there are grounds for it.

/Vism. Ch. IV, §47, ¶1/

... Idleness overpowers one strong in concentration and weak in energy, since concentration favours idleness.

Agitation overpowers one strong in energy and weak in concentration, since energy favours agitation.

But concentration coupled with energy cannot lapse into idleness, and energy coupled with concentration cannot lapse into agitation.

So these 2 should be balanced; for absorption comes with the balancing of the 2.

/Vism. Ch. IV, §47, ¶2/

... One working on concentration needs strong faith, since it is with such faith and confidence that he reaches absorption.

/Vism. Ch. IV, §48/

... Then there is [balancing of] concentration and understanding. One working on concentration needs strong unification, since that is how he reaches absorption; and one working on insight needs strong understanding, since that is how he reaches penetration of characteristics; but with the balancing of the two he reaches absorption as well.

/Vism. Ch. IV, §48/

The commentator Buddhaghoṣa adds:

Strong mindfulness, however, is needed in all instances;

for mindfulness protects the mind lapsing into agitation through faith, energy and understanding, which favour agitation, and from lapsing into idleness through concentration, which favours idleness.

/Vism. Ch. IV, §49/

Relation to the 5 Powers

In SN 48.43, the Buddha declares that the 5 spiritual faculties are the 5 Powers and vice versa.

He uses the metaphor of a stream passing by a mid-stream island; the island creates 2 streams, but the streams can also be seen as one and the same.

The Pāḷi commentaries remark that these 5 qualities are faculties when used to control their spheres of influence, and are powers when unshakeable by opposing forces.

3. 5 material or 6 sensory faculties

In the Sutta Piṭaka, 6 sensory faculties are referenced in a manner similar to the 6 sense bases.

These faculties consist of the 5 senses with the addition of mind (manas).

  1. vision (cakkhu-Indriya)
  2. hearing (sot-Indriya)
  3. smell (ghana-Indriya)
  4. taste (jihvā-Indriya)
  5. touch (kāya-Indriya)
  6. mind (manas-Indriya)

The first 1-5 of these faculties are sometimes referenced as the 5 material faculties (e.g., pañcannaṁ indriyānaṁ avakanti).

4. 22 phenomenological faculties

In the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, the notion of Indriya is expanded to the 22 phenomenological faculties or controlling powers (bāvīsati indriyāni) which are:

A) 6 sensory faculties

  1. eye/vision faculty (cakkhu-Indriya)
  2. ear/hearing faculty (sota-Indriya)
  3. nose/smell faculty (ghana-Indriya)
  4. tongue/taste faculty (jihvā-Indriya)
  5. body/sensibility faculty (kāya-Indriya)
  6. mind faculty (man-Indriya)

B) 3 physical faculties

  1. femininity (ittha-Indriya)
  2. masculinity (puruṣa-Indriya)
  3. life or vitality (jīvita-Indriya)

C) 5 feeling faculties

  1. physical pleasure (sukha-Indriya)
  2. physical pain (dukkhā-Indriya)
  3. mental joy (somanassa-Indriya)
  4. mental grief (domanassa-Indriya)
  5. equanimity (upekkhā-Indriya)

D) 5 spiritual faculties

  1. faith (saddhā-Indriya)
  2. energy (viriya-Indriya)
  3. mindfulness (sat-Indriya)
  4. concentration (samādhi-Indriya)
  5. wisdom (paññā-Indriya)

E) 3 final-knowledge faculties

  1. thinking I shall know the unknown (anaññāta-ñassāmīt -Indriya)
  2. gnosis (añña-Indriya)
  3. one who knows (aññātā-Indriya)

According to the post-canonical Visuddhimagga, the 22 faculties along with such constructs as the aggregates, sense bases, 4 Noble Truths and Dependent Origination are the soil of wisdom (paññā).

5. Other faculty groupings

At times in the Pāḷi Canon, different discourses or Abhidharmic passages will refer to different subsets of the 22 phenomenological faculties:

Thus, for instance, in the Abhidhamma there are references to the 8-fold form-faculty (aṭṭhavidhaṁ Indriya-rūpa) which includes:

  1. the first 1-5 sensory faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body faculties)
  2. + the 3 physical faculties (femininity, masculinity and vitality)