The five hindrances are desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt

When they become subtle they are great enemies

Well, these are translated the five hindrances, and I wasn’t too sure what they were three or four weeks ago, so I had to (TPL produces an illustration) and something finally said, “Trevor, you got to do this.”  “Well, I don’t know”.  “You’ve got to do this.” It was a sunny day, so I went to on the balcony and the voice said, “Well, now you can use that huge Chinese Buddhist dictionary you’re so frightened of.” I took that out with a magnifying glass, because the characters are tiny, and [looked at the text] and thought, “Yes, that’s right. It’s not the basic Sanskrit ones.  But how it was translated into Chinese and the Chinese commentaries on it – that’ll be really interesting, exciting.” After some difficulty, I found the big Chinese character for the hindrances. Well, it was very satisfactory to find that.

Somehow you seem to have done something.  You seem to know, “I know a thing or two, now.”  And somehow you seem to have partially overcome the five hindrances, then. That gave me a real, real lift, and then going through this tiny print, there were a lot of characters, not great big ones and it got very [complicated]. Then I found out by chance that there were two entries, one under gokai and the other under gogai, and they weren’t cross-indexed. I thought, “Oh, for God’s sake.” Then I found that the explanation is different.

Then I was realizing what a business this was going to be. I was getting in quite a temper over it. The sun was hot, and the characters were big. Then somebody said, “You know, we could do with a coffee and maybe a cake. We’ve earned it. Let’s put this off.” Then I just looked a little bit, I had a translation. It didn’t seem to agree with the Sanskrit translation, which is “hindrances” and the Chinese translation was “coverings”. I began to think, “Do they know what they are talking about?”

Then I realized that I’d experienced the five hindrances one after another. I’d experienced desire, excitement, then anger, because there were two entries and the dictionary was so fiddling, and then the sloth when it got all too tiring, and then the restlessness when I thought I’d rather have a cup of coffee instead of all this stuff – and finally, the doubt, as to the difference between the Chinese and the Sanskrit. I had at least direct experience of them.

There seem to be some differences in view but, in general, we recognize these hindrances – they’re our old friends: desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt. The lists differ a bit, but there’s one rather good comment: “When they become subtle; they are great enemies”. When they’re on the surface; they can be confronted. When they become subtle, they’re great enemies.

Now, I thought I’d not try to run through this list, because other people will be doing that much better, and I don’t want the later speakers to have to disassociate themselves from what was said.  I thought I’d just do a little corner of one or two of them.

So – desire.  Now one of the important points made in the text is that they’re endless. There was a report of a church in a country I won’t name, where there were two congregations, one used to come in the morning, and another used to come in the evening.  The ones in the morning had got the idea that they liked tall candles, very tall candlesticks, as they gave them a feeling of solemnity. The ones who came in the evening had got the idea that, on the other hand, they didn’t like tall ones, they liked short ones, because that brought the light onto the altar. The chap in charge finally got hold of candlesticks that could be adjusted, so that everybody could have what they wanted. That was thought to be good. He was praised for that.

But from the Buddhist point of view, this is simply keeping people in childhood, in babyhood – gratifying an absolutely trivial and pointless desire. Then they’ll have another one, and then another one. The thing is, instead of gratifying that desire by having extensible candlesticks, to try and persuade people to grow up just a little bit.

Another point is that the desire can’t be specified.  I think, “I’d like half-a-million pounds. I mean, I could do something with that. Of course, I’d have to keep my health and I wouldn’t want a lot of hangers-on and wouldn’t want all my relatives praying for my death. I’d like to keep my friends; my reputation would have to remain and so on.”  I think it’s just half-a-million pounds, but actually, it isn’t.  It’s an endless extension of other conditions as well. So that one of the points that text makes is that, in fact, together with the immediate desire, if we pursue it, we shall find we desire the whole universe. The desires are unreal. Very often there’s some masked point.

They had some advertisements in the London underground some time ago that showed a married couple who had a newborn baby.  The man said, “Don’t you worry sometimes about the children’s education?  Supposing you couldn’t pay for it. Now, wouldn’t you like to be assured of their education at the most expensive school and extra tuition and maybe the trip abroad, if they’re studying foreign languages? Wouldn’t you like all that to be assured?  And it can be assured, if you pay just two pounds a week.”

I asked my brother who was in the financial world, “How can they possibly do it – because the education would be enormously expensive – just putting down two pounds a week.”  He said, “Well, there’s just one extra thing you see.  They would pay all the education, but there’s just one extra point. You’d be dead. This is a life insurance policy scheme, so that although your children would have the education, you yourself would not be there to see it.” That’s a masked condition. They could have the education, but one would also like to be alive to see it.

The desire becomes subtle – now, an example is given. There’s a desire and it can take form of virtue and kindness, the desire to serve. But that service gradually becomes domination.  If we study the career of the Emperor, Nero, we can see this. He started as the best of the Roman emperors and he gradually degenerated, with the best of motives, into one of the worst.  So that the desire for power and cruelty become masked and they become subtle. Then they’re very hard to distinguish.

We often see people who are engaged in some charitable work. You can do two hours a day of social service for 15 years and work hard at it – and not know at the end, really, whether you’ve done more harm than good. You know you’ve done some good, but you also begin to discover you’ve done some harm too.  When the things become subtle, they’re much harder to distinguish between a genuine kindness and a desire to promote myself somehow into a position of power.

Talks in this series are:

1. The five hindrances are desire, anger, sloth, restlessness, and doubt

2. Hidden hindrances

3. Anger is a hindrance

4. Restlessness and doubt are hindrances

The full talk is The Five Hindrances

© Trevor Leggett


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