The Five Hindrances

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.

One of the examples given is of a watch. Now, the true working of the watch will be that the parts are separate and they come together and they work together, then they separate again. If the watch has been magnetized from a distance they’ll come together suddenly; but when it’s time to separate, they won’t want to separate.  The only way to demagnetize the watch is to separate it, for a time, from the source of magnetization.

Now you could say, “When you discover these hidden desires, these hidden hindrances, how do you meet them?” In Alice In Wonderland the hatter is very nervous, isn’t he? The queen says, “Don’t be nervous, I’ll have your head off if you’re nervous.”  Well, we can see how ridiculous this is, “Don’t be nervous, I’ll hack your head off if you’re nervous.” They really have to try not to be nervous then. “One command, I give you, that you love one another. Practise kindness, compassion, fellow feeling.” “Well, I can do it, but I’m like a ham actor: ‘Oh, how terrible for you. Oh, dear, I’m so sorry’. ‘No, how awful, how can you bear it?’”

How do we do it? A friend of mine had two daughters. When one of them was about five, she was at the school. He went to a sports day and a little boy of about five came out. He was a very good father and the girls were very fond of him. He gave very few orders, but they always had to be obeyed and they always were, and they very much appreciate their upbringing now.  This little boy came up and he said, “Are you Sophie’s father?” He said, “Yes.” So the boy replied, “Sophie says she always does what you tell her. Well, tell her to love me, I love her, but she thinks I’m terrible.”

How can you command love? This is one of the riddles in all forms of training. How can you?  We can look at a Western example because we’re familiar with these training traditions in the West. The religious training tradition has rather tended to be obscured and not many people know it, but they know of some others.  One of them that’s close to the inner training, is the training in music because it must be practised every day without exception. “Well, I got a headache.” “Well, I’ve got a stomach-ache.” “I’m too damn tired.” I’ve still got to do my exercises on the violin, or those that the ballet dancer has to do.

When you’re about seven or eight and you’re keen on the piano, what you like is Johann Strauss waltzes. You don’t like Beethoven, it’s all ponderous stuff. This is not just about children.  At Beethoven’s a benefit concert in Vienna, a lot of the audience walked out, this was near the end of Beethoven’s life. In the review, which I’ve read, which appeared in one of the top Viennese papers the next day, it said that the Beethoven followers made a great to-do.  They all clapped like mad, but most of the audience walked out and the fact is that Beethoven could not write a good tune like Johann Strauss.

We feel that as a child we want tunes, we want the Blue Danube, or something; not these grinding Beethoven sonatas. Now, an experienced teacher, he says, “I know how you feel, you can play your stuff – in my time it was jazz. You want to play the Vienna waltzes by Gounod.  Do the technical exercises and play these pieces by Beethoven that I give you and don’t hate them. When you’re playing, just try to appreciate a little bit, and then you can forget it.”  He knows that if you play and you grow up, suddenly Beethoven will click. He knows that there’s something inside, it’s not forcing oneself to like Beethoven, when you actually think it’s nonsense. He knows there’s something inside, something which will awaken if certain amount of practice is done, and not to feel, “Oh, I don’t like this.” With a certain attention, he knows there’ll be a clear awakening in any child who’s got any musical talents at all.

In the same way, they’re not telling us that the virtues of friendliness, compassion, and love are something that have to be imposed by force, by commandment; but that the practice, although grinding, and artificial and awkward, will gradually awaken something which is inside. It’s a partial refinement.

My teacher told me to read poetry every day and I thought, “Oh, not that stuff?” I couldn’t stand it. At school, we were put off poetry more or less for life.  He said, “You should read poetry.” To please him, I thought if I read Japanese poetry against the translation, at least I’d learn some Japanese. It’d be awful reading the poetry but how good that I’d learn some Japanese.  Gradually, I came to appreciate the poetry and even became able to appreciate some of the Western poetry. There’s something which will awaken – it’s a process of awakening, not of imposing.  The word “command” is, of course, right: “I command you; love one another.” It’s not so strong in Buddhism, it’s bhavana, which means causing something to be – causing fellow-feeling and compassion to be in yourself, and you change gradually.

If some attention is given to this, when somebody tells you they’re in some serious trouble, first, you’re thinking, “Well, better you than me.”  But gradually, something will change; and you’ll see something else, not just the suffering person but something else, something beyond.

Our teacher told us that people like smoking, he wasn’t promoting smoking at all. There are various theories about it, that it’s something to do with breastfeeding or something like that. This is not so because if you go blind, and I have experienced this, you lose the desire to smoke, it’s no pleasure. People don’t enjoy smoking in the dark, either.  There’s something about watching the smoke go away. In the same way, if you’re on a hilltop or on a beach, in men at least (I don’t know if women have this) there’s an impulse to take a stone and throw it into the sea down below. The teacher said this is a physical expression of a deep instinct to be free of the entanglements, and the desires, and all the heavy responsibilities – to smoke and see it all curl away.  I’ve just passed that on, as a hint which was given. I’ll leave you to guess who said: “Poor is he who has many desires.”  Just sometimes we can be free from desires, to throw them, one by one – and then afterwards we can take them up again.

The second one is anger. An example from Judo is that if your hand is practically on the table, you can’t hit it very hard. To hit the table very hard, you’ve got to have a space between it and your hand. Well, similarly, anger needs a certain time to get going. It can seem to be instantaneous, but it isn’t. We feel, “Yes, it is.  If you’re hit in the face, you feel anger immediately.”  No.  Often in a thing like Judo, you are hit, sometimes with an elbow in the face. You don’t feel anger, anger comes afterwards.

One of the things the teacher says is that if it’s caught very quickly, and immediately we either make the deep breath, or we turn away or – as one teacher says, we “put up the traffic lights and bring through another stream of traffic.” This is my ordinary stream of mental engagement, then to practise suddenly putting up the red lights and bringing through, for instance, the consideration of the five hindrances just for half a minute.  Then again, to go on with adding the figures or polishing the floor or whatever it might be. If we practise like that then at the time of anger, if we’re quick, we can catch ourselves before the anger develops.

Before taking a course of studies, I learnt high-speed shorthand and typing. I had six months before I could go to the university, and this was one of the few sensible decisions I made in my life.  I thought it may be useful. At the time, it wasn’t usual for men to study shorthand and typing. Anyway, I got a high speed in shorthand, 160 a minute and really good skill in touch typing.  Well, when I came on scene [at Shanti Sadan] the teacher was lecturing twice a week, and for years [they had been taken down] in these painful longhand fractional notes.  I was asked if I had shorthand, and so I took these things down, absolutely verbatim, every word. If he repeated himself, well, the repetition was there; if he hesitated over a word, that [was included] etc.  It took some time to get me to type it back, but when it was typed back [it was complete].

I only give this as an example because it shows just how these things can develop.  A disciple of that teacher, an old lady, came up to me once and said, “This is wonderful work you’re doing.  You see, we get complete notes, hundreds of them.”  Now, there’s a custom in India to put at the beginning of an undertaking, such as a book, or important document, certain words like ‘Shri’ or [‘padram astu’] – ‘May it be auspicious’. The effect is supposed to be that the deleterious effects of any mistakes that may be in the document will be rectified by the powers that be, if this reverence has been made by this word at the beginning.

She said to me, “Wouldn’t it be nice if at the beginning of your report of the lecture each time, you were to put the four-lettered ‘Shri’; then any mistake wouldn’t have any bad effect on you.  That’s a charming thing, isn’t it?”  But I said, “What mistake?”  So she said, “Well, if there should be a mistake, you see it would be [covered].”  “Show me the mistake!”  Well, this gradually developed.  At the beginning, it didn’t matter a damn to me, but gradually, one hardens, and you seem to be standing on a white marble plinth in a purple robe, standing for the sort of integrity of reporting.  You say, “He did not say this word and therefore this word must not be put in; because if you put in one word, people will be putting in 10 words.  Then people will be writing prefaces and the whole text will be altered.”  You believe you’re standing for great principles, but actually, you’re just being bloody-minded.  This was a good experience and I only pass it on. I know that nobody here would ever suffer anything like that, but it can build up. This was an example of the gradual building up of anger.

Sloth – a very well-informed Chinese, a great scholar, who also knew this country extremely well, told me that the character of the people here was ‘lazy angels’. He said, “There’s a tremendous lot of goodwill in Britain, but they are lazy.” So sloth is going to be one of the hindrances that we might be suffering from and one of the forms of sloth is interpretation.

When I read or hear the Buddhist teaching, if I agree with it, I say, “These are the very words, isn’t it wonderful?” These are the very words of the Buddha, coming to me through the living teaching tradition, which has been handed down. But if I disagree with it, I shall say, “Well, wait a minute. This was spoken 2500 years ago, in India, to Indians in their mother tongue – completely different, I think you’ll agree, from Westerners in Britain  – and it’s got to be interpreted.  And I generally interpret it into the exact opposite.”

One teacher said he was asked, that in the spiritual tradition, it must be much easier to teach people, because they had this absolute obedience to the teacher. Whereas in other subjects, when you teach them, the pupil can say, “Go to hell, I’m not going to do that.” The teacher said, “Yes, they do everything I say, as long as they agree with it. If they don’t agree with it, they interpret it into the opposite.” He said, “As what I’m telling them is nearly always against their habitual ways of thinking, in fact, they do everything I tell them, except what I actually do tell them.”

We tend to say, from this drowsiness and sloth, “Oh, I’m getting on, but the teacher doesn’t inspire me.  It’s his fault, he’s got to teach me. Well, he’s not teaching me, you see, so I’m not getting on”.  Well now, the traditional attitude is not that the teacher is there to teach, but the pupil is there to learn; and if he doesn’t get on, the fault is in the pupil. But with sloth and drowsiness, this third hindrance, people say, “You should find means of making it more interesting and stimulating.”  So in our schools, today, we try and provide more and better facilities. But the fact is you have still got to study, you have still got to learn the same things. The extra facilities don’t help you. I’m only marginally supposed to interest you, but any subject will become difficult at certain periods and then you have to work like mad yourself.

Now this is sloth and one form of it is what used to be called ‘bat monks’. That’s to say, they find that there are differences in the Theravada discipline from the Mahayana discipline.  So that when they come to some difficult point that they don’t care for much in the Theravada system, they say, “Well really, I’m Mahayana – so that’s that.”  Then of course, if you follow Mahayana, and you find some other things which are almost equally unpleasant or unconvincing or that you don’t agree with, you say, “Oh, of course, really my true soul is in the Theravada, so I won’t do this bit of the Mahayana.”

They’re called bat monks. The bat is like a mouse with wings, isn’t it? When it’s on the ground, it’s among the mice.  As mice, there are certain things you’ve got to do in the mouse community. Then it says, “Oh, no, I’m a bird.” It flies up and gets away from all the responsibilities of the mouse community. Then when it gets among the birds there are certain things that it has to do for the bird flock. He says, “Oh, I’m really a mouse, you see.” It avoids both of them, and they’re called bat monks who alternate the discipline according to as they feel.  There’s a single sentence: “There’s a firmness and a strength with which men cling to pain, grief, and despair.” [Bhagavad Gita XIII:35?]  This is on the sloth hindrance.

The next one is restlessness. If you’re restless, you’ve got a sort of fever. Now, if you had high fevers, you know that you’re in bed and suddenly you’ve got to move, it’s terribly uncomfortable; then you get just for a few seconds, then you’ve got to move again. Then you feel alright, then you’ve got to move again. Whichever position you are in, after a few seconds, it becomes unbearable, you toss. You’ve got to have something cool here and they put a nice bandage here if you demand it. Then, “Oh no, it really didn’t work.”

This is a sort of inner fever. We think if we’re in a fever, “Oh, if only I could move, just move, just get out this, I’ll be better.” So, you move [and then feel bad again]. It’s an inner fever and, in modern terms, the teacher says the car stopped maybe, but the engine’s still running. He gave us an example of people who sometimes, even sitting in meditation, you can hear the engine revving up inside them. Now, this is a sort of fever; and we feel that when it becomes subtle, it can take the form of activity – and the form of benevolence that it takes is, “I’m going to help you if it kills both of us. I’ve got to do it.”

Now, there was one such person who was a tremendously a hard worker in a sangha – tremendously, nothing was too much trouble. Everything was perfect. She didn’t call attention to herself (as you do), but one thing really did [get to her]. She didn’t express it, but it really did anyway and that was the people just sitting there. Sometimes they’d come in, and things would be fairly well-arranged, but not perfectly arranged. She would be just doing the final touches and these people would say, “Candles should’ve been properly centred.”

One day she said, “They just sit there. I’d like to sit there, but these things have to be done.” The head of that sangha said, “Alright, now you sit, you be one of them. I will arrange for two people to do what you yourself have been doing.”  This was done and she would come, a quarter-of-an-hour or 20 minutes beforehand.  Things would not be perfect, but according to instructions, she would just sit there [as if] she had given it up. Then the two people came in and they began centring things and getting it all ready for the session.

Because she was spiritually advanced, she found this in herself, “No, I couldn’t just sit there. As they were arranging the things, I was mentally going, ‘Just a centimetre that way, just like that. Oh, those two candles don’t match, it’d be better (of course, there’s no rule), but it would’ve been better if they’d been same colour.” She came back and she said, “Yes, I understand that, when I said, ‘I’d like to sit,’ it wasn’t so.” Then she could begin training on the actual point.

The last point is doubt. This is one of the things that has infinite extension. There’s an example, from the world, this is in the days of private medicine. A man who had money, but was also very effective in his profession, used to go to a first-rate doctor. He said once to a friend, “The doctor’s interest, of course, is to cure the illness you go to him for; but, of course, his financial interest is to leave you slightly sick, isn’t it? If you’re perfect, healthy, you won’t go back.  So he leaves out some little thing, nothing big, of course, otherwise you won’t go to him anymore. It’ll be just a little thing; and I realized this, that the prescription he gives me is intended to cure me 95%, but to leave 5%, so that I’ll be going back to him.”

The friend said, “What do you do?” The patient said, “Well, I amend the prescription.” He said, “I change it because I realize that he’s only given me a 95%, so I look for the extra 5%.” The friend said, “In actual fact, you are always slightly off colour, aren’t you? Nothing serious, but you are.” He said, “Yes, I think he knows, so he’s allowing for that, and he’s cutting [back more].  So that means I have to do it even more to get the proper dose.” You can imagine how the story goes on.

This is an example of doubt, and they give many other such examples. The doubt is endless and it’s a form of wanting to escape basically: “How do we know?” One of the forms that doubt takes, in fact, is that something is dangerous. It was asked of a Chinese master, “This Buddhism and these meditations and these practices you do – aren’t they potentially dangerous? They can go wrong, and they have gone wrong, haven’t they? Haven’t there been people who tried them, and it’s been not a success at all? Dangerous, aren’t they?”  The Chinese master said, “Yes. Yes, to practise Buddhism is dangerous; but not nearly so dangerous as not to practise Buddhism.”

We can have our doubts, but if they’re only on a particular basis of what we know, they can extend on this basis. When we enter a training, we are committing ourselves to a training whose basis we don’t yet know.  But it’s not making ourselves the slaves of a dogma, because these things are confirmable. The teacher’s not saying [merely] believe this; he’s saying believe this and practise it, and then you’ll confirm it. It’s not a dogma, but he is presenting something; and he says, believe this and practise it.

When the nuclear bomb was being developed, of course, there were doubts.  The American Admiral, Leahy, who was one of the Naval scientists, was told about this in absolute secrecy, of course, just before the test was to take place. He is recorded as saying, “It won’t work. I say that on the basis of a lifetime study of explosives.” He had a lifetime study of explosives, and he was an expert in them. But what he knew was molecular energy and this was nuclear energy, something entirely outside his experience.  His doubt was on the basis of his experience, which was great, but only in a particular line. What the teacher says is that we have to make a jump of faith, because it’s a new basis that we’re going into.

Well, then there’s one thing more.  We always feel, “Oh, well I have to believe this. We have to have faith, and that’s a one-way business.”  But it isn’t a one-way business – the teacher has faith in the pupil and pupils often don’t see this clearly. The teacher has faith, just as the music teacher of experience, he knows.  “Now, you have no use for Beethoven – none at all.  Well, you won’t have for four or five years.  But, if you play, you will have.”  The teacher sees this, and he has faith in this. In the same way, the Buddhist teachers don’t give us instructions of the sort, “Well, you may do it; or you may not; or you might succeed…”  They have faith in the pupils, because they’re seeing something.

Well, those are the five hindrances – desire, anger, sloth, restlessness and fever, and the last, doubt. Now, this [Chinese] character consists of three parts:


The top part can mean a lid and that’s something like a tray and it’s got the sense of covering in the Chinese. It’s not so much a ball and chain hanging around our ankles, but something that’s covering a light. One of the sayings is, “Don’t have your dealings with men, have your dealings with heaven.”  If you have your dealings with men, as they are, you will be entangled in ‘like and dislike’ of them.  But have your dealings with heaven, with space; and there’s heaven in them, and heaven in yourself.

Don’t have your dealings with the clouds, have your dealings with the sky. The clouds are the sky frowning, so to speak, and there was used to be an old song, ‘Painting the clouds with sunshine’. Well, this is the opposite of the Buddhist training, which is not trying to paint virtues onto something which is basically deluded; but it’s to dissolve delusions. There was one of those poems, which I learned when I was reluctantly reading Japanese poetry.

“’Clouds are clearing up and soon there’ll be light.’

Don’t think like this.

From the very beginning in the sky,

There has been the bright moon.”

It’s not painting, but it’s clearing.  Well, that’s from the Chinese side, but these things are thought of as coverings, as clouds. Don’t have your dealings with the clouds, have your dealings with heaven. Don’t have your dealings with the clouds in the people and in yourself, but have your dealings with the heaven, which is shining in the people and in your own heart.

Well, thank you for listening.



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