91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?
2019-03-15 Off-Week Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True

We all know meditation and other aspects of Buddhist practice can be difficult. According to the Buddha, it’s useful to pay attention to exactly what’s going on when we’re feeling challenged. Any obstacle can be characterized as one of five hindrances: 1) Sense desire; 2) ill-will; 3) sloth-and-torpor; 4) restlessness-and-worry, or 5) uncertainty (or skeptical doubt). By identifying our hindrance, we get a better sense of what caused it to arise and how we can best overcome it, because the Buddha offered a number of teachings on the subject.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Five Hindrances as Presented by the Buddha
The Five Hindrances Defined
Vivid Metaphors for the Five Hindrances
The Importance of Abandoning the Hindrances
Practicing Mindfulness of the Hindrances
Abandoning the Hindrances – Two Basic Approaches
Natural Human Feelings Versus Hindrances
A Note on Spiritual Bypassing

 

In this episode I introduce the five hindrances in general – what the Buddha said about them, their definitions, and how, generally speaking, we’re supposed to practice in order to abandon them. In the next episode, I’ll go into more detail about the nature of each hindrance and the recommended antidotes to it.

You may find it helpful to identify some of your own obstacles using the five-hindrance framework; sometimes it can be liberating to recognize recurring issue as a common, age-old human problem, rather than seeing it only as a personal character flaw. If it’s just our problem, we have to struggle on alone, but we have some reason for optimism if our Dharma ancestors experienced the same challenge and found positive ways to deal with it.

The Five Hindrances as Presented by the Buddha

First, let’s hear directly from the Pali Canon about the five hindrances. This is from the Avarana Sutta as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

“The Blessed One [Buddha] said: ‘These five are obstacles, hindrances that overwhelm awareness and weaken discernment. Which five?

‘Sensual desire is an obstacle, a hindrance that overwhelms awareness and weakens discernment. Ill will… Sloth & drowsiness… Restlessness & anxiety… Uncertainty is an obstacle, a hindrance that overwhelms awareness and weakens discernment… when a monk has not abandoned these five obstacles… when he is without strength and weak in discernment [it is impossible] for him to understand what is for his own benefit, to understand what is for the benefit of others, to understand what is for the benefit of both, to realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction in knowledge & vision…’”[i]

The Buddha goes on in the same Sutta to offer an analogy for how the five hindrances affect our practice effort:

“Suppose there were a river, flowing down from the mountains — going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it — and a man would open channels leading away from it on both sides, so that the current in the middle of the river would be dispersed, diffused, & dissipated; it wouldn’t go far, its current wouldn’t be swift, and it wouldn’t carry everything with it…’”[ii]

In this analogy of the river, the flow of water is like our mind in meditation. If our mind’s energy or attention stays focused on our meditation, we have more power and ability to achieve stillness and insight. If our mind’s energy is dispersed by being pulled in all directions by the five hindrances, our meditation will be shallow and not very effectual.

The Five Hindrances Defined

I’ll go into more detail about each hindrance in bit, but here’s a basic overview because a few of the hindrances require a little explanation.

The first hindrance, sense desire, is so-called in order to distinguish it from spiritual desire – that is, the desire to practice the Buddhist path and awaken, which is a help, not a hindrance. Sense desire includes, of course, our attraction to physical pleasures including sex, food, comfort, etc. That’s why this hindrance is sometimes translated as sensual desire. However, that translation primarily evokes the idea of physical pleasure, and in Buddhism, the mind is considered our sixth sense (it perceives thoughts and feelings). Therefore, sense desire also includes objects and experiences that give us mental or emotional pleasure, such as achievement, status, or the positive regard of others.

The second hindrance, ill-will, is aversion of all kinds, from minor irritation to anger, outrage, or hatred. We all know how overwhelming this hindrance can be, at times.

The third hindrance is sloth-and-torpor. The name of this hindrance is two words – sloth and torpor – hyphenated, because the original Pali term is a compound word “thina-middha,” where “thina” means sloth and “middha” means torpor. Sloth refers to our unwillingness to strive, while torpor refers to the resultant sluggishness of mind and body. These two phenomena are seen as always occurring together and feeding each other (sloth leads to torpor, torpor leads to more sloth). If you like, you can just think of the third hindrance as laziness and its consequences.

The fourth hindrance is another compound: restlessness-and-worry, from “uddhacca-kukkucca.” This is when the mind searches endlessly for the solutions to our problems, or relief from our suffering – even if that suffering is very minor, like the discomfort we experience when we’re bored. Uddhacca, or restlessness, has to do with mentally grasping after things that might bring satisfaction, even if only in the moment (such as a banal distraction from boredom). This describes what meditators often refer to as “monkey mind,” because it feels like the mind is swinging through a forest of thoughts, momentarily clinging to this, then to that. The other half of this hindrance, kukkucca, or worry, can also be translated as regret or remorse, and involves focusing on our past actions and their impact on the present, or on how our present actions might impact the future. The compound of restlessness-and-worry, then, covers our habit of engaging in relentless self-referential mental activity whenever we’re not engaged in a task or being entertained. In modern psychology this is commonly called our “default mode.”

The fifth hindrance is uncertainty, or skeptical doubt. This is not healthy doubt, where you question and investigate things in order to verify them for yourself. Instead, this is persistent and undermining doubt, particularly doubt about the practice you’re doing and your ability to do it. If you’re meditating, for example, you may doubt the effectiveness of the form of meditation you’re doing and wonder if there’s a better method. You may doubt your teacher, or sangha, or Buddhism in general. You may wonder if you have what it takes to practice, or even to be a good person. The key to identifying such doubts as a hindrance is when you secretly think you know the answer to the questions they pose, and the answers are negative (this practice/ teacher/ sangha/ path isn’t working for me, or I’m not up to this). This isn’t open-minded questioning, it’s harboring skeptical doubt that leaves you floundering in uncertainty.

Vivid Metaphors for the Five Hindrances

There are a couple vivid metaphors in the Pali Canon which can give you a better sense of the five hindrances and how they relate. First, the Sangaravo Sutta (SN 46.55)[iii] compares our practice and meditation to trying to see our reflection in the surface of water in a pail. When we’re caught in sense desire, it’s like the water is made opaque with dyes and other substances; when we’re caught in ill-will, it’s like the water is boiling. When we’re caught in sloth-and-torpor, it’s like the water is covered over with algae and slime. When we’re caught in restlessness-and-worry, it’s like the surface of the water is ruffled by the wind. Finally, when we’re caught in uncertainty, it’s like the water is not only turbid from being stirred up, the whole pail’s been hidden away in the dark.

The Samaññaphala Sutta offers similarly colorful metaphors for the five hindrances. Being under the sway of sense desire is compared to enjoying things while incurring debt – debt you’ll later have to pay, with interest, and often with some form of suffering. Being overcome with ill-will is compared to being sick; just as a sick person can’t enjoy physical ease and good health, an angry person can’t enjoy spiritual ease and joy. Under the sway of sloth-and-torpor, we’re like someone stuck in a cramped, dark prison. Under the influence of restlessness-and-worry, we’re like a slave, constantly at the beck and call of someone else (of course, there is no “someone else,” but when our own minds feel out of control, the analogy feels appropriate). Under the sway of uncertainty or skeptical doubt, we’re like someone traveling in the desert who has become lost and has no map.[iv]

The Importance of Abandoning the Hindrances

You can probably imagine, given the descriptions of the five hindrances, why it would be important to find a way to become freer of them, on and off the meditation cushion. In his book Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains further:

“These hindrances need to be abandoned because they function as intermediate levels of the three roots of unskillfulness. Sensual desire is a form of greed; ill will, a form of aversion; and the remaining three hindrances, forms of delusion. All five, in their various ways, block concentration and weaken discernment by making it difficult to realize what is beneficial for oneself, for others, or for both.”[v]

Thanissaro also points out that what’s particularly harmful about the five hindrances is that, “while one is overcome with them, they impair one’s ability to see that they are in fact unbeneficial.” In other words, each of the hindrances has an intoxicating, self-perpetuating quality. When we’re caught up in sense desire, we tend to be convinced the object of our desire will bring us the happiness we’ve been seeking and we need to think about it right now. When we’re full of ill-will, it seems like pure folly to abandon it and leave ourselves vulnerable. When we’re feeling lazy and drowsy, all we want to do is give in to the urge to slack off or sleep. There’s no end to the self-referential thoughts and worries our mind can generate, but nonetheless there’s something compelling about them. And if we’re going down the road of skeptical doubt, our whole worldview can be colored by our sneaking suspicion we’ve been hoodwinked (or are about to be).

Our attempts to break free from the hindrances change over our life of practice. According to the classical Buddhist description of the path, one of the fruits of enlightenment is completely seeing through delusion of “I, me, and mine.” At least in theory, then, when we fully awaken, we become free of the hindrances in a profound and lasting way. Sadly, unless we gain some measure of freedom from the hindrances before we get enlightened, we’ll never get enlightened. So, in the meantime, we deal with them as best we can.

Practicing Mindfulness of the Hindrances

What does Buddhism teach us about how to deal with the five hindrances? I find it extremely relevant that the Buddha talked about abandoning the hindrances. I’m not sure what the Pali term was he actually used, but it’s consistently translated as “abandon,” not “overcome.” The use of the word “abandon” suggests our habitual way is to actually choose, or hang on to, the hindrances. The hindrances aren’t separate forces we have to do battle with, although it can feel like that sometimes. To become free of the hindrances, all we have to do is recognize what they are, realize how they’re not helpful, and figure out what choices we can make so the hindrances decrease or stop arising, and then make those choices. Easier said than done, of course.

Fundamentally, we work on the hindrances using mindfulness. I discussed mindfulness at length in Episode 79 – The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, but briefly, mindfulness is the faculty of mind that allows us remember something, willfully turn our attention to it, and then keep that object in mind. Mindfulness is somewhat comparable to noticing there’s a bird in a tree you want to get a good look at, and then being able to find the bird with your binoculars and keep it in view long enough to make a decent observation. By practicing mindfulness of the five hindrances, we learn more and more about them over time, until we eventually can find a way to be freer of them. This process is described in the Satipatthana Sutta, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta, where the Buddha explains:

“And how does a monk remain focused on mental qualities in & of themselves with reference to the five hindrances? There is the case where, there being sensual desire present within, a monk discerns that ‘There is sensual desire present within me.’ Or, there being no sensual desire present within, he discerns that ‘There is no sensual desire present within me.’ He discerns how there is the arising of [previously] unarisen sensual desire. And he discerns how there is the abandoning of sensual desire once it has arisen. And he discerns how there is no future arising of sensual desire that has been abandoned.”[vi] [the same formula applies to ill-will and the other hindrances]

When we practice mindfulness of the five hindrances, we’re actively looking within to observe our own, direct experience. We may use what we’ve heard or read as a guide for what to look for, but eventually we need to discern precisely: “Oh look, I was sitting here meditating, and when I looked out the window and saw my garden, I started thinking about how great it will be once it’s all completed and looks beautiful. Then I got all caught up a long train of thoughts about gardening – this must be what the Buddha called ‘sense desire.’” Or, “I read the news before meditating and now all I can think about while sitting here is how angry I am about what’s going on. I guess I should notice how this anger manifests in my mind and body, and be mindful of it as ‘ill-will.’”

Over time, we notice what the suttas call “nutriments” for the five hindrances – things do we do, or indulge in, or think about, that make the hindrances flare up. The first thing we might learn through mindfulness then, is how to change our behavior (e.g. not facing a window onto the garden while meditating, not watching the news right beforehand) in order to decrease the influence the hindrances have on our meditation. We also realize we can feed the hindrances during meditation by paying attention to the subject matter they’re pointing to. The suttas call this “inappropriate attention,”[vii] where you focus, for example, on the object of your sense desire and just feel more desire, or on the object of your ill-will, which just makes you more resentful.

Appropriate attention, on the other hand, means shifting your attention to the experience of the hindrance itself and discerning, “Oh, there is ill-will present within me.” As soon as our “mindfulness binoculars” are aimed at our own direct experience instead of at the annoying neighbor’s back yard, our relationship to the hindrance changes. We aren’t completely caught by it, and at least we’re not actively feeding it.

Identifying and acknowledging the presence of a hindrance within you is not a step that should be moved past too quickly. If we’re too quick to reject or try to fix the hindrance, we may fail to fully perceive what’s going on. This is like catching a quick glimpse of a problem through our binoculars and then throwing them down to rush out and fix things before we really understand where the problem is, what caused it, and how best to proceed. Some teachers even go so far as to suggest you embrace negative internal experiences like the hindrances – emphasizing the need to take your time, and move forward with a realistic attitude that accepts the reality of this moment.

Abandoning the Hindrances – Two Basic Approaches

Once you have spent some time mindfully becoming familiar with your hindrances, then what? Once we recognize a hindrance, what can we do? To some extent we figure this out for ourselves through trial and error, combined with careful mindfulness. As the Satipatthana Sutta states, at some point there’s an unfolding of events and we observe, “Oh, look how there was no arising of restlessness when I did (or thought) that.” However, we don’t have to wait for a positive unfolding to happen by chance. Classical Buddhism offers two primary approaches to at least momentarily abandoning the hindrances: 1) Redirecting your thoughts, and 2) contemplating the negative effects of not abandoning the hindrance.

I’ll go into detail in the next episode about specific “antidotes” to each hindrance, but I’ll give you a few examples of each of these two basic approaches here. First, redirecting your thoughts. In the suttas and commentaries, it’s recommended that if you’re caught up in ill-will for someone, you try focusing on their good qualities, or do metta practice for them (wishing them good-will). If you’re getting drowsy, you should change your meditative approach to something more enlivening (contemplating impermanence, perhaps, instead of working on calming the mind). If you’re overwhelmed with sensual desire for someone, you contemplate the ugly aspects of the human body, or even meditate on corpses. (I’ll talk more about our complicated relationship to sense pleasures in the next episode.) There are all kinds of exercises and practices in Buddhism that seek to counteract or redirect negative habits of body, speech, or mind.

The second basic approach to abandoning the hindrances is contemplating the negative effects of not abandoning the hindrance. For example, you can observe how indulging the hindrance is wasting your meditation time, or causing your blood pressure to rise. You can reflect, as recommended in Buddhist writings, on how anger makes you ugly and unlikeable, and that’s just going to please your enemy. You can mindfully observe, over time, how often something you worried and worried about never even ends up happening. This approach is kind of like talking yourself into abandoning the hindrance.

The way I’ve described these two approaches to dealing with the five hindrances presents them in their classic form, as what I call directed effort practice. (See Episode 83 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go) It’s also possible to achieve the same ends with a letting go practice like zazen. In zazen, rather than redirecting your mind to an object of meditation chosen as an antidote to the hindrance, you simply return to the physical act of sitting. In the moment of zazen, all you need to do is sit. In this context, daydreams about pleasure, subjects of anger, drowsiness, restlessness, reasons for worry, and abstractions like skeptical doubt are clearly just mental phenomena. To fight them would only make them seem more real. You might think of letting go practice as directly abandoning the hindrances over and over, and in the process becoming less and less identified with them.

The one hindrance you don’t simply accept in letting go practice is sloth, which is an unwillingness to put forth effort. When you notice internal laziness, you rouse as much determination and energy as you can and then… surrender as completely as possible to the physical act of sitting. (This is tricky, because we naturally get bored and tend back toward sloth!)

Even if you generally practice letting go, however, at times you may experience a hindrance so powerfully and repetitively that it would pay to apply some directed effort approaches to decrease or abandon it. At the very least it might help to label what hindrance you’re facing, because it might help you find a more skillful way to relate to it.

Natural Human Feelings Versus Hindrances

Some Buddhist teachings are easily misunderstood or misapplied, and I think the five hindrances can be one of them. Because of this, I want to be clear that while the five hindrances are seen as negative in Buddhism, they are near enemies of perfectly natural, acceptable human responses to the world. To illustrate this point, here’s a list of wholesome activities paired with their corresponding hindrance:

Wholesome appreciation of worldly pleasure: We enjoy physical, emotional, and mental pleasures with a sense of gratitude, without clinging to them or expecting them to bring us permanent happiness.

The hindrance of sense desire: We focus on obtaining or fulfilling a particular pleasure, oblivious to most everything else, usually while overestimating how wonderful fulfillment of our desire is going to be.

Wholesome use of discriminating wisdom and compassion to keep appropriate boundaries and protect what needs protecting: We allow anger to arise and pass quickly, taking it as a sign we perceive something needs protecting but not necessarily believing it. Then we make the most skillful response we can, without relying on blame.

The hindrance of ill-will: We’re caught in a particular vivid sense of separation between self and other, and seek to build ourselves up by blaming and criticizing the other – over and over and over.

Wholesome care of ourselves: We get proper rest and try to balance work and play, effort and relaxation, aspiration and acceptance, but without being too attached to any particular set of conditions.

The hindrance of sloth-and-torpor: We give up most effort and aspiration in favor of our own physical comfort, allowing the subsequent torpor of mind and body to further undermine our willingness to make an effort, thus creating a negative feedback loop.

Wholesome problem solving and creative thinking: At appropriate times, we choose to employ our powerful discriminating minds to reflect on the past and present, and make plans for the future.

The hindrance of restlessness-and-worry: At inappropriate times – that is, when we’ve committed to doing something else, such as meditation, study, work, or interacting with others – we compulsively dwell on self-referential thoughts or avoid facing the present by daydreaming about irrelevant things.

Wholesome doubt and questioning: With an open mind, we explore teachings and practices in order to verify them for ourselves – operating with provisional faith in the meantime.

The hindrance of uncertainty: Inhibited by self-referential fear – of making a mistake, of being seen making a mistake, of being taken advantage of, of being made to look like a fool, of losing out on something better somewhere else – we’re unable to devote ourselves to any path or practice long enough to make progress.

In summary, wholesome or skillful activities are characterized by a larger perspective and operating with a conscious freedom of choice. Hindrances are characterized by a narrow, self-centered view and operating out of unexamined habit energy or compulsion.

A Note on Spiritual Bypassing

Finally, teachings about overcoming, abandoning, or letting go of things always raise important questions about spiritual bypassing, which is using spiritual practice to avoid having to deal with your feelings, issues, or responsibilities. Aren’t there times when we should pay attention to our desire, anger, aversion, lack of energy, worry, or uncertainty? Sometimes these feelings alert us to important aspects of our lives we need to address or take care of. If we practice letting go, redirection, applying antidotes, and distancing ourselves through mindfulness, don’t we risk spiritual bypassing? Or missing out on life?

The answer is yes, we risk spiritual bypassing or missing out on life – but only if our overall practice is unbalanced. We prioritize abandoning the hindrances when we’re cultivating samadhi power, or stillness of mind and body. As I discussed in Episode 38 – The Two Sides of Practice: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship, samadhi power is only half of our practice. The other half is karma relationship – taking care of our lives, which definitely includes dealing with our feelings, issues, and responsibilities. This is why the Buddha laid out the Eightfold Noble Path the way he did; several aspects of the path are about mindfulness, meditation, and cultivating insight, but three aspects are about karma relationship (appropriate action, speech, and livelihood).

I go into detail in Episode 38 about how to balance your practice in terms of samadhi power and karma relationship, but in summary, there’s a time to sit and let go of all concern about your feelings, issues, and responsibilities, in order to broaden your perspective, calm your mind and heart, and renew your clarity and purpose. And then there’s a time to turn toward your feelings, issues, and responsibilities with that renewed clarity, and ask yourself how best to respond. We might occasionally do this turning-toward practice on the meditation seat, but it certainly should be what we’re doing most of the time in the course of our daily lives.

 

In the next episode I’ll describe each of the five hindrances in more detail and talk about ways to practice with them.

 


Sources

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] “Avarana Sutta: Obstacles” (AN 5.51), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.051.than.html .
[ii] Ibid
[iii] “Sangaravo Sutta: Sangarava” (SN 46.55), translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn46/sn46.055.wlsh.html .
[iv] “Maha-Assapura Sutta: The Greater Discourse at Assapura” (MN 39), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.039.than.html .
[v] “Wings to Awakening: Part III”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/part3.html .
[vi] “Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference” (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html .
[vii] “Ayoniso-manasikara Sutta: Inappropriate Attention” (SN 9.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn09/sn09.011.than.html .

 

91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?
2019-03-15 Off-Week Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True
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