NAMO TASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMASAMBUDDHASSA
The major obstacles to successful meditation and
liberating insight take the form of one or more of the Five
Hindrances. The whole practice leading to Enlightenment can be well
expressed as the effort to overcome the Five Hindrances, at first
suppressing them temporarily in order to experience Jhana and
Insight, and then overcoming them permanently through the full
development of the Noble Eightfold Path.
So, what are these Five Hindrances? They are:
KAMACCHANDA : Sensory Desire
VYAPADA : Ill Will
THINA-MIDDHA: Sloth and Torpor
UDDHACCA-KUKKUCCA : Restlessness and Remorse
VICIKICCHA : Doubt
1. Sensory desire
refers to that particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness
through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical
feeling. It specifically excludes any aspiration for happiness
through the sixth sense of mind alone.
In its extreme form, sensory desire is an
obsession to find pleasure in such things as sexual intimacy, good
food or fine music. But it also includes the desire to replace
irritating or even painful five-sense experiences with pleasant
ones, i.e. the desire for sensory comfort.
The Lord Buddha compared sensory desire to taking
out a loan. Any pleasure one experiences through these five senses
must be repaid through the unpleasantness of separation, loss or
hungry emptiness which follow relentlessly when the pleasure is used
up. As with any loan, there is also the matter of interest and thus,
as the Lord Buddha said, the pleasure is small compared to the
In meditation, one transcends sensory desire for
the period by letting go of concern for this body and its five sense
activity. Some imagine that the five senses are there to serve and
protect the body, but the truth is that the body is there to serve
the five senses as they play in the world ever seeking delight.
Indeed, the Lord Buddha once said, "The five senses ARE
the world" and to leave the world, to enjoy the other
worldly bliss of Jhana, one must give up for a time ALL concern for
the body and its five senses.
When sensory desire is transcended, the mind of
the meditator has no interest in the promise of pleasure or even
comfort with this body. The body disappears and the five senses all
switch off. The mind becomes calm and free to look within. The
difference between the five sense activity and its transcendence is
like the difference between looking out of a window and looking in a
mirror. The mind that is free from five sense activity can truly
look within and see its real nature. Only from that can wisdom arise
as to what we are, from where and why?!
2. Ill will
refers to the desire to punish, hurt or destroy. It includes sheer
hatred of a person, or even a situation, and it can generate so much
energy that it is both seductive and addictive. At the time, it
always appears justified for such is its power that it easily
corrupts our ability to judge fairly. It also includes ill will
towards oneself, otherwise known as guilt, which denies oneself any
possibility of happiness. In meditation, ill will can appear as
dislike towards the meditation object itself, rejecting it so that
one's attention is forced to wander elsewhere.
The Lord Buddha likened ill will to being sick.
Just as sickness denies one the freedom and happiness of health, so
ill will denies one the freedom and happiness of peace.
Ill will is overcome by applying Metta, loving
kindness. When it is ill will towards a person, Metta teaches one to
see more in that person than all that which hurts you, to understand
why that person hurt you (often because they were hurting intensely
themselves), and encourages one to put aside one's own pain to look
with compassion on the other. But if this is more than one can do,
Metta to oneself leads one to refuse to dwell in ill will to that
person, so as to stop them from hurting you further with the memory
of those deeds. Similarly, if it is ill will towards oneself, Metta
sees more than one's own faults, can understand one's own faults,
and finds the courage to forgive them, learn from their lesson and
let them go. Then, if it is ill will towards the mediation object
(often the reason why a meditator cannot find peace) Metta embraces
the meditation object with care and delight. For example, just as a
mother has a natural Metta towards her child, so a meditator can
look on their breath, say, with the very same quality of caring
attention. Then it will be just as unlikely to lose the breath
through forgetfulness as it is unlikely for a mother to forget her
baby in the shopping mall, and it would be just as improbable to
drop the breath for some distracting thought as it is for a
distracted mother to drop her baby! When ill will is overcome, it
allows lasting relationships with other people, with oneself and, in
meditation, a lasting, enjoyable relationship with the meditation
object, one that can mature into the full embrace of absorption.
3. Sloth and torpor
refers to that heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one
down into disabling inertia and thick depression. The Lord Buddha
compared it to being imprisoned in a cramped, dark cell, unable to
move freely in the bright sunshine outside. In meditation, it causes
weak and intermittent mindfulness which can even lead to falling
asleep in meditation without even realising it!
Sloth and torpor is overcome by rousing energy.
Energy is always available but few know how to turn on the switch,
as it were. Setting a goal, a reasonable goal, is a wise and
effective way to generate energy, as is deliberately developing
interest in the task at hand. A young child has a natural interest,
and consequent energy, because its world is so new. Thus, if one can
learn to look at one's life, or one's meditation, with a 'beginner's
mind' one can see ever new angles and fresh possibilities which keep
one distant from sloth and torpor, alive and energetic. Similarly,
one can develop delight in whatever one is doing by training one's
perception to see the beautiful in the ordinary, thereby generating
the interest which avoids the half-death that is sloth and torpor.
The mind has two main functions, 'doing'
and 'knowing'. The way of meditation is to
calm the 'doing' to complete tranquillity while maintaining the
'knowing'. Sloth and torpor occur when one carelessly calms both the
'doing' and the 'knowing', unable to distinguish between them.
Sloth and torpor is a common problem which can
creep up and smother one slowly. A skilful meditator keeps a sharp
look-out for the first signs of sloth and torpor and is thus able to
spot its approach and take evasive action before it's too late. Like
coming to a fork in a road, one can take that mental path leading
away from sloth and torpor. Sloth and torpor is an unpleasant state
of body and mind, too stiff to leap into the bliss of Jhana and too
blinded to spot any insights. In short, it is a complete waste of
refers to a mind which is like a monkey, always swinging on to the
next branch, never able to stay long with anything. It is caused by
the fault-finding state of mind which cannot be satisfied with
things as they are, and so has to move on to the promise of
something better, forever just beyond.
The Lord Buddha compared restlessness to being a
slave, continually having to jump to the orders of a tyrannical boss
who always demands perfection and so never lets one stop.
Restlessness is overcome by developing
contentment, which is the opposite of fault-finding. One learns the
simple joy of being satisfied with little, rather than always
wanting more. One is grateful for this moment, rather than picking
out its deficiencies. For instance, in meditation restlessness is
often the impatience to move quickly on to the next stage. The
fastest progress, though is achieved by those who are content with
the stage they are on now. It is the deepening of that contentment
that ripens into the next stage. So be careful of 'wanting to get on
with it' and instead learn how to rest in appreciative contentment.
That way, the 'doing' disappears and the meditation blossoms.
Remorse refers to a specific type of restlessness
which is the kammic effect of one's misdeeds. The only way to
overcome remorse, the restlessness of a bad conscience, is to purify
one's virtue and become kind, wise and gentle. It is virtually
impossible for the immoral or the self indulgent to make deep
progress in meditation.
refers to the disturbing inner questions at a time when one should
be silently moving deeper. Doubt can question one's own ability "Can
I do This?", or question the method "Is this the right way?", or
even question the meaning "What is this?". It should be remembered
that such questions are obstacles to meditation because they are
asked at the wrong time and thus become an intrusion, obscuring
The Lord Buddha likened doubt to being lost in a
desert, not recognising any landmarks.
Such doubt is overcome by gathering clear
instructions, having a good map, so that one can recognise the
subtle landmarks in the unfamiliar territory of deep meditation and
so know which way to go. Doubt in one's ability is overcome by
nurturing self confidence with a good teacher. A meditation teacher
is like a coach who convinces the sports team that they can succeed.
The Lord Buddha stated that one can, one will, reach Jhana and
Enlightenment if one carefully and patiently follows the
instructions. The only uncertainty is 'when'! Experience also
overcomes doubt about one's ability and also doubt whether this is
the right path. As one realised for oneself the beautiful stages of
the path, one discovers that one is indeed capable of the very
highest, and that this is the path that leads one there.
The doubt that takes the form of constant
assessing "Is this Jhana?" "How am I going?", is overcome by
realising that such questions are best left to the end, to the final
couple of minutes of the meditation. A jury only makes its judgement
at the end of the trial, when all the evidence has been presented.
Similarly, a skilful meditator pursues a silent gathering of
evidence, reviewing it only at the end to uncover its meaning.
The end of doubt, in meditation, is described by
a mind which has full trust in the silence, and so doesn't interfere
with any inner speech. Like having a good chauffeur, one sits
silently on the journey out of trust in the driver.
Any problem which arises in meditation will be
one of these Five Hindrances, or a combination. So, if one
experiences any difficulty, use the scheme of the Five Hindrances as
a 'check list' to identify the main problem. Then you will know the
appropriate remedy, apply it carefully, and go beyond the obstacle
into deeper meditation.
When the Five Hindrances are fully overcome,
there is no barrier between the meditator and the bliss of Jhana.
Therefore, the certain test that these Five Hindrances are really
overcome is the ability to access Jhana.
Buddhist Society of Western
Newsletter April 1999