2019-03-15 Off-Week Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True
94 - Buddha's Teachings 13 - The Five Hindrances - Part 3

The Buddha taught that there are five main “hindrances” we encounter in our spiritual practice. In this 2nd episode of 3, I start going into detail about each hindrance and recommended ways to abandon them. I get through worldly desire and ill-will. In the next episode I’ll cover sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and uncertainty (or skeptical doubt).

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Noble Friendship and Suitable Conversation as Antidotes
The Hindrance of Worldly Obsession
Abandoning the Hindrance of Worldly Obsession
The Hindrance of Ill-Will
Abandoning the Hindrance of Ill-Will

 

The Buddha taught that there are five main “hindrances” we encounter in our spiritual practice – especially when we sit down to meditate, but the hindrances are definitely not limited to that situation. The five hindrances are: 1) Desire; 2) ill-will; 3) sloth-and-torpor; 4) restlessness-and-worry, and 5) uncertainty (or skeptical doubt).

In the first part of this series on the five hindrances (there are going to be three episodes total), I defined each of the hindrances and shared some of the Buddha’s teachings about them. I also talked about why it’s important to “abandon” the hindrances, and how abandoning them starts with the practice of mindfulness. Then I briefly discussed two basic approaches to dealing with one of the five hindrances in the moment – namely, redirecting the mind (such as contemplating someone’s good qualities if you’re angry with them) or reminding yourself of the negative consequences of not abandoning the hindrance (such as contemplating how worrying wears you out and wastes your meditation time).

In this episode I’m going to start going into more detail about each hindrance, and then discuss the recommended ways to decrease the hold they have over you. I’ll get through the hindrances of desire and ill-will, and then next week I’ll finish up with sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and skeptical doubt.

As I discussed in the last episode, one of the trickiest things about the five hindrances is their intoxicating, self-perpetuating quality. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, “while one is overcome with them, they impair one’s ability to see that they are in fact unbeneficial.”[i] Therefore, abandoning the hindrances isn’t so much about overcoming some kind of obstacle. Instead, it’s about recognizing how we’re inviting, nourishing, or holding on to a hindrance, and then convincing ourselves to let go. Actually, you might even call these the “Five Temptations” instead!

Noble Friendship and Suitable Conversation as Antidotes

Before I get deeper into a discussion about each hindrance, I wanted to share an interesting and helpful fact I encountered when studying the traditional lists of antidotes to each of them. According to a great article by Nyanaponika Thera (“The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest,” available on the Access to Insight website), there are two things that appear on every list (that is, they are helpful for abandoning any one of the hindrances, including desire, aversion, sloth-and-torpor,  restlessness-and-worry, and skeptical doubt). These two versatile and ubiquitous antidotes are 1) noble friendship, and 2) suitable conversation.

Isn’t this great? Noble friends are those who support us in our aspirations, and encourage us to do what is wise and skillful. Of course, if people just get on a high horse and lecture us about our laziness or bitterness or irrational anxiety, that’s not helpful. I picture a noble friend as someone who knows when to listen supportively, and when to make a suggestion. They know when to change the subject of the conversation to something more suitable – for example, talking about something positive you’re engaged in, instead of hashing out your resentments about someone over and over.

How often, when we’re caught up in one or more of the five hindrances, do we seek out noble friendship and suitable conversation? These may sound like minor ways to support your spiritual practice, but they’re actually hugely impactful. It’s a real practice to seek out noble friendship and suitable conversation when you’re feeling full of desire, aversion, sloth, worry, or uncertainty, because you’re likely to be drawn, instead, to people and conversations that will reinforce your current way of thinking and feeling. Fortunately, being connected to a Buddhist Sangha (or other kind of spiritual community) usually means you have plenty of opportunities for interactions with people who will encourage the best in you and refrain (for the most part) from conversation that fuels the hindrances.

The Hindrance of Worldly Obsession

The first hindrance is kamacchanda, or often translated as “sensual desire” or “sense desire.” However, I believe that translation is misleading, because it makes us think this hindrance is just about lust, or craving pleasures of the flesh like good food or comfort. The hindrance of desire is actually much more inclusive than that: It’s basically our preoccupation with everything in our lives that’s remotely pleasurable, rewarding, or attractive. The “kama” of kamacchanda is k-a-m-a (one “m,” not two, as opposed to “kamma” with two “m’s”, the word for moral cause-and-effect). Kama-with-one-m means “worldly” desire, wish, or longing – including everything from the desire for fame to the temporary satisfaction gained by zoning out in front of Facebook. The only things not included in “worldly” desire would be aspirations like becoming more generous, or making progress on a spiritual path. (Although even these things can become self-centered desires for achievement or reputation.)

If I call the hindrance of kamacchanda “worldly desire,” I realize some people may react badly to the term “worldly” because it evokes an unhelpful dualism – common in religions – between a defiled, lesser, phenomenal world, and a higher, pure, disembodied, so-called “spiritual” world. However, I think we can use the term “worldly” without necessarily falling into the trap of dualism or judgement. Buddhism doesn’t actually reject the phenomenal world the way many people think it does; rather, it simply points out that seeking for lasting refuge and happiness in phenomenal things leads to dissatisfaction and suffering, and there’s a better way to find what you’re looking for. Therefore, worldly desire isn’t a sin or even something to get rid of – but as long as we’re completely caught up in our desire, we’ll neglect our spiritual path and fail to find the deeper peace and realization the Buddha said is possible.

The key to worldly desire as a hindrance is how much we give ourselves over to it. In a transcript of a talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso called “The Five Hindrances,” Brahamvamso explains:

“In the Pāli term kāma chanda, chanda is what you have to do if you cannot attend a meeting of the community of monks, and you want to give approval and agreement to what’s happening there, you give your chanda to go ahead in your absence. It’s agreement, approval, consent, [so this is] much more subtle than mere desire. This means that you are buying into, giving in to this, you want it, you approve of it, and you allow it to happen. In the same way that we have chanda in the Vinaya [monastic regulations], we have that kāma chanda. It’s as if you give your approval for the sensory world to be in your consciousness, in your mind, you accept it, approve of it, and you play with it, that’s all chanda. It’s letting it completely occupy the mind, and it’s much more subtle than just mere desire.”[ii]

Actually, then, an even better translation of kamacchanda might be “worldly obsession!”

I appreciate Brahmavamso’s explanation, because it clearly points out to me how I end up wasting so much time on the meditation cushion. Although I don’t often daydream about delicious food, expensive possessions, or exciting vacations, I definitely get pleasure out of planning and executing my projects. I love explaining and describing things, so the instant anything happens I turn it into words. I want my Zen center and podcast to be of benefit to people, so I’m constantly thinking about how to improve them or add to them. I want my garden to be beautiful, so I envision plans for it. None of this is inherently bad. However, my intention is to dedicate X amount of time to zazen, and instead, as Brahmavamso puts it, I give my “acceptance, agreement, and consent for [the world of the five senses] to occupy [me].”[iii]

Abandoning the Hindrance of Worldly Obsession

Abandoning kamacchanda isn’t about rejecting the world or refraining from any kind of enjoyment of it, or engagement with it. Instead, abandoning the hindrance of worldly obsession involves gaining some freedom of choice around how we spend our energy, allowing us to devote ourselves more fully to activities unrelated to our self-centered desires – such as meditation, study, service, or truly being present with other people.

It’s with that aspiration in mind, then, that we aim to abandon the hindrance of worldly obsession, at least for periods of time. As I mentioned in the last episode, we first turn toward the hindrance with mindfulness. We notice its “nutriments,” or what feeds it, and then we take steps to remove the nutriments. For example, maybe we’re preoccupied with buying a fancy new car. Chances are good, if we want to break the preoccupation at least somewhat, it would be advantageous for us to refrain from car shopping on the internet for hours at a time. Once we at least stop fueling our worldly obsession unnecessarily, we might seek out noble friendship and suitable conversation.

Once we set up supportive conditions for our effort to gain more freedom from worldly obsession, we go about applying the recommended antidotes to it. The first basic approach is to redirect our mind. For example, in the Pali Canon there are recommendations for meditating in graveyards (actually, charnel grounds, where you could see burned corpses), and methodical meditations mentally breaking the body down into puss and blood and bones and such. These practices may sound extreme to modern practitioners, and perhaps they would exacerbate the troubled relationship many of us have to our bodies. Still, the idea is to counter our obsession with attractive things (or people) by reminding ourselves of their less-than-beautiful aspects. A modern version of this might be recalling the challenges of a past romantic relationship that ended badly for you in order to bring yourself down to earth when you’re infatuated with someone you probably shouldn’t get involved with.

The second kind of antidote might make more sense to most people: contemplating the negative effects of not abandoning the hindrance. Traditionally this means calling to mind impermanence. Eventually your object of desire will grow old, get worn, or you’ll tire of it, or you’ll eventually lose it. Then you’ll experience disappointment at the very least, if not anguish – if, that is, you remain obsessed and neglect to cultivate your spiritual practice. All things are impermanent, constantly changing, impossible to hold on to. The delight we feel in things likewise changes or passes. In addition, the amount of time you have left in life is much shorter than you realize, so there’s no time to waste. Deliberately contemplating these things – on the meditation cushion or off – may help you abandon worldly obsession, at least for a few moments at a time, so you can taste the alternative to it.

The Hindrance of Ill-Will

That brings us to the hindrance of ill-will, or vyapada. Vyapada can also be translated as malice, and according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, it refers “to the hateful wish that harm will befall another.”[iv] Ill-will ranges from subtle irritation and dislike, to bitter resentment, to fury that can fuel aggression and violence. It can take the form of a specific fantasy of revenge or a conscious wish for someone to get their comeuppance, but it can also take the form of a more general, vague, lack of goodwill. Ill-will can be aimed at anyone: Specific people, groups of people, human institutions, a nameless and faceless “other” who is to blame, or ourselves.

I think we all know how preoccupied we can become with ill-will. We play out scenes where someone has wronged us over and over in our minds, building up a sense of righteous indignation or trying to figure out what we could have done to better protect ourselves. We dwell endlessly on manifestations of injustice in our lives, or in the lives of those we care about. On behalf of ourselves, or others, or the planet, we rail inwardly against the evil, greedy, immoral, corrupt, or stupid people (whether we can assign them names and faces or not). We rehearse devastating future actions we can take that will put things to right and punish those responsible. Or maybe we just sink into a pit of self-hatred, finding an endless list of faults and mistakes to prove how we’re to blame for our own misery.

As I talked about in the last episode on the five hindrances, the hindrance of ill-will must be distinguished from the wholesome use of discriminating wisdom and compassion employed to keep appropriate boundaries and protect what needs protecting. When anger arises, it’s because we believe something or someone is being threatened. This may or may not actually be the case. If we allow anger to arise and pass quickly, taking it as information but not necessarily believing it, we can then we make the most skillful response we’re capable of, without relying on blame. This process leads to appropriate and compassionate action, not ill-will.

Ill-will arises when we nurture our anger or aversion, feeding it by dwelling on the subject of our resentment. As the Buddha said in the Dhammapada,

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.[v]

As I mentioned earlier, refusing to “carry on” about the harm that’s been done to you and instead turning toward “non-hate” isn’t about accepting injustice or being passive when harm is being done. (I talk more about this in Episode 65 – Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist.) It’s also understandable to be upset after negative or traumatic experiences. However, I think we’ve all observed – either in ourselves or in others – when it becomes fruitless or even toxic to dwell on past harmful actions and the people who perpetrated them. Our minds get stuck in a tiresome, stressful loop of negativity that usually makes us less able or likely to take appropriate and effective action. That’s the hindrance of ill-will. As Ajahn Brahmavamso says:

“When you really see that ill will, you see that it’s wasting so much time in your life. You haven’t got much time to practise this path…  why waste it with the distraction of ill will? …It’s craziness, I think the Buddha described it as a sickness, and with that sickness there is no way you can acquire any wisdom, happiness, or meditation concentration.”[vi]

Abandoning the Hindrance of Ill-Will

And how does ill-will, or hatred, end? As the Buddha said, only by non-hate. This means we must find a way to abandon the hindrance of ill-will directly, without waiting until circumstances change and we get the justice, retribution, or redemption we’ve been craving. We have to work on ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, the hindrances have an intoxicating, self-perpetuating quality, so when we’re caught up in ill-will it can be very challenging to arouse the willingness to take any steps to end it.

Once we do arouse the aspiration to abandon ill-will toward self or other, we first go through the standard steps: We become mindful, “Oh, ill-will is present in me.” We notice the nutriment of ill-will, which is, generally speaking, dwelling on the subject of our ill-will. Instead of indulging that impulse, we seek out noble friendship and suitable conversation. Our noble friends, if they deal with the subject of our ill-will at all, will encourage us to break out of our loop of negativity and take some responsibility for our own state of mind.

Then, having once again set up supportive conditions for our effort to gain more freedom from a hindrance, we go about applying the recommended antidotes to it. The “redirecting our mind” approach in the case of ill-will involves the practice of metta, or goodwill. I describe metta practice in detail in Episode 66 – The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes – Part 2, but in essence it involves bringing certain people to mind and then actively wishing them to be free from fear and anxiety, at ease, and happy. The good news is, you don’t have to start with the subject of your ill-will. In fact, that’s not recommended. Instead, you start with someone – perhaps a child, or an animal – for whom you can spontaneously feel sincere and uncomplicated goodwill. The important thing is you feel it. Over time you practice extending the feeling to more and more challenging people – maybe even eventually to people who have made you angry or resentful or furious – but in the meantime just your experience of goodwill – toward anyone – will serve as something of an antidote to your ill-will.

The “contemplating the negative effects of not abandoning the hindrance” approach, or as I like to call it, the “talking yourself into letting go” approach, involves honestly and firmly reminding yourself of the shortcomings of nurturing ill-will. Contemplate some of the traditional Buddhist analogies for indulging anger, like picking up a hot coal in your hand in order to throw it at someone; you may hit the other person, but you’re going to sustain a significantly more severe burn than they are. Another analogy, my favorite, is picking up some excrement to throw instead. The Buddhist texts also describe how ugly and unlikeable you become when you’re full of ill-will, and point out how happy this will make your enemy. You might also recall listening to a friend drone on and on like a broken record about a grievance, and thereby arouse the determination not to be such a drag. Or you might consider how miserable and preoccupied you are, while the subject of your ill-will is probably merrily going about his or her business. What good is your ill-will doing?

In closing, it’s important not to attack your ill-will with ill-will. That’s what we’re doing if we just try to suppress or reject how we’re feeling. It may seem counterintuitive to turn toward your ill-will with loving-kindness, gentleness, and patience, but that’s what’s recommended. Ajahn Brahmavamso explains that it’s sometimes effective to deal with other hindrances, such as desire or sloth-and-torpor, by “slap[ing] them around a bit, but if we try that with ill will it gets even worse, it comes from a sense of ‘self’, it’s ill will towards ill will, and it’s not the way. The Buddha said mettā, loving-kindness, is the way to overcome that defilement, not ill will.” Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends embracing your anger as if it’s a small child, paying careful attention to it so you can find out what will help it calm down. There’s a big difference between practicing loving-kindness toward your ill-will in an effort to decrease the suffering for everyone involved, and turning toward your ill-will with indulgence and a sense of righteousness.

I’ll finish up my discussion of the five hindrances in the next episode by covering sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and uncertainty/skeptical doubt.

 

Sources

Brahmavamso, Ajahn. The Five Hindrances: A talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso at Bodhinyana Monastery, 2001. http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books7/Ajahn_Brahm_Five_Hindrances.pdf
Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Fronsdal, Gil. The Dhammapada: A new translation of the Buddhist classic with annotations. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition, 2005.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2001.
Nyanaponika Thera. “The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest: Selected Texts from the Pali Canon and the Commentaries.” Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html .
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996. (Also available online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/index.html.)

Endnotes

[i] Thanissaro in The Wings to Awakening, Part III. (See above)
[ii] Brahmavamso, see above.
[iii] Brahmavamso, pg 5.
[iv] Buswell and Lopez, pg. 984.
[v] Fronsdal, pg. 2.
[vi] Brahmavamso, pg 9.

 

2019-03-15 Off-Week Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True
94 - Buddha's Teachings 13 - The Five Hindrances - Part 3
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