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Dhammavicaya: Investigation leads to awakening

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Dhamma-vicaya is a Pāli (compound) word that is usually translated as 'investigation (vicaya) into Dhamma.' Most translators are reluctant to translate the word 'dhamma,' since its meaning is multifarious, spanning from 'thing' to 'law,' 'nature,' and more. In some contexts, Dhamma is taken to refer to the Buddha's own teachings. But Dhamma can also be rendered with 'reality,' which in English has the same sense of generality of the Pāli word. Dhammavicaya is thus 'investigation into reality.'

In the discourses (e.g. SN 46.3), dhammavicaya is presented as one of the seven 'factors of awakening.' The factors of awakening are qualities that, when cultivated and developed in the right way, lead to a breakthrough. Without now getting into the details of what awakening entails, in the discourses it is often associated with a certain new and profound way of understanding reality. This makes sense: investigation into reality is a factor that leads to awakening to reality.

Dhammavicaya works in close connection with another two factors: recollectedness (sati) and energy (vīriya). One way in which this is explained is quite straightforward. One begins by recollecting and rehearsing the Buddha's teachings. Then, one tries to use them as a matrix for investigating reality and interpreting one's experience from their point of view. This effort leads to arousing energy, to become engaged, active, and even enthusiast.

The work of Dhammavicaya is also spelled out (e.g. in SN 46.2) as the ability of discerning between couples of opposite realities, and in particular between 'virtuous' (kusala) and 'non-virtuous' (akusala) realities. The word 'kusala' can mean both 'wholesome' (in a moral sense) and 'skillful' (in a practical sense). It is thus akin to the Greek areté (Latin virtus). What both wholesome and skillful realities share is the fact of being related with a certain form of intentionality, a certain way of steering experience in a precise direction and not in others. In this sense, Dhammavicaya is also an investigation into how intentionality works, and how it can be made better, more skillful, more wholesome, more virtuous.

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