Five hindrances

Five hindrances
Five hindrances

1. Five hindrances

In the Buddhist tradition, the 5 hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) are identified as mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives.

In the Theravāda tradition, these factors are identified specifically as obstacles to the jhānas (stages of concentration) within meditation practice.

Within the Mahāyāna tradition, the 5 hindrances are identified as obstacles to Śamatha (tranquillity) meditation.

Contemporary Insight Meditation teachers identify the 5 hindrances as obstacles to mindfulness meditation.

The 5 hindrances are:

1) Sensory desire (kāmacchanda): seeking for pleasure through the 5 senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.

2) Ill-will (vyāpāda): feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.

3) Sloth-and-torpor (thīna-middha): half-hearted action with little or no effort or concentration.

4) Restlessness-and-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca): the inability to calm the mind and focus one's energy.

5) Doubt (vicikicchā): lack of conviction or trust in one's abilities.

2. Etymology

The Pāḷi term Nīvaraṇa means covering.

These hindrances cover over the clarity of our mind, and our ability to be mindful, wise, concentrated, and stay on purpose.

According to Rhys Davids, the Pāḷi term Nīvaraṇa refers to an obstacle or hindrance only in the Ethical sense, and is usually enumerated in a set of 5.

3. In Pāḷi Literature

In the Pāḷi Canon

In the Pāḷi Canon's Samyutta Nikāya, several discourses juxtapose the 5 hindrances with the 7 factors of enlightenment (Bojjhaṅga).

For instance, according to SN 46.37, the Buddha stated:

Bhikkhus, there are these 5 obstructions, hindrances, corruptions of the mind, weakeners of wisdom. What 5?

Sensual desire... ill will... sloth and torpor ... restlessness and remorse... doubt...

There are, bhikkhus, these 7 factors of enlightenment, which are non-obstructions, non-hindrances, non-corruptions of the mind;

when developed and cultivated they lead to the realization of the fruit of true knowledge and liberation. What 7?

The enlightenment factor of mindfulness... equanimity...

Bhikkhu Anālayo underlines:

To overcome the hindrances, to practise Satipaṭṭhāna, and to establish the Awakening Factors are, indeed, according to several Pāḷi discourses, the key aspects and the distinctive features common to the awakenings of all Buddhas, past, present, and future.

Anālayo further supports this by identifying that, in all extant Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, only the 5 hindrances and 7 factors of enlightenment are consistently identified under the dhamma contemplation section;

contemplations of the 5 aggregates, 6 sense bases and Four Noble Truths are not included in one or more of these non-Pāḷi versions.

In terms of gaining insight into and overcoming the 5 hindrances, according to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Buddha proclaimed:

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the 5 hindrances?

Herein, monks, when sense-desire is present, a monk knows, There is sense-desire in me, or when sense-desire is not present, he knows, There is no sense-desire in me.

He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sense-desire comes to be.

Each of the remaining four hindrances are similarly treated in subsequent paragraphs.

The Buddha gives the following analogies in the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2, The Fruits of the Contemplative Life):

When these 5 hindrances are not abandoned in himself, the monk regards it as a debt, a sickness, a prison, slavery, a road through desolate country.

But when these 5 hindrances are abandoned in himself, he regards it as unindebtedness, good health, release from prison, freedom, a place of security.

Similarly, in the Saṅgārava Sutta (SN 46.55), the Buddha compares sensual desire with looking for a clear reflection in water mixed with lac, turmeric and dyes;

ill will with boiling water; sloth-and-torpor with water covered with plants and algae; restlessness-and-worry with wind-churned water; and, doubt with water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark.

From post-canonical Pāḷi literature

According to the 1st-century CE exegetic Vimuttimagga, the 5 hindrances include all 10 fetters:

Sense Desire includes any attachment to passion; Ill Will includes all unwholesome states of hatred; and, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt include all unwholesome states of infatuation.

The Vimuttimagga further distinguishes that sloth refers to mental states while torpor refers to physical states resultant from food or time or mental states;

if torpor results from food or time, then one diminishes it through energy; otherwise, one removes it with meditation.

In addition, the Vimuttimagga identifies 5 types of doubt:

  1. doubt regarding self is a hindrance to tranquillity;
  2. doubt regarding the Four Noble Truths and 3 worlds is a hindrance to insight;
  3. doubt regarding the Triple Gem is a hindrance to both tranquillity and insight;
  4. doubt regarding places and people is a hindrance to non-doctrinal things;
  5. doubt regarding the Discourses is a hindrance to solitude.

According to Buddhaghoṣa’s 5th-century CE commentary to the Samyutta Nikāya (Sāratthappakāsinī), one can momentarily escape the hindrances through Jhānic suppression or through insight while, as also stated in the Vimuttimagga, one eradicates the hindrances through attainment of one of the 4 stages of Enlightenment.

The 5 mental factors that counteract the 5 hindrances, according to the Theravāda tradition:

  1. vitakka (applied thought, coarse examination) counteracts sloth-torpor (lethargy and drowsiness)
  2. vicāra (sustained thought, precise investigation) counteracts doubt (uncertainty)
  3. pīti (rapture, well-being) counteracts ill-will (malice)
  4. sukha (non-sensual pleasure) counteracts restlessness-worry (excitation and anxiety)
  5. ekaggata (one-pointedness, single-pointed attention) counteracts sensory desire