Most of the time we are led to believe that what meets the eye is real. It is not. The true nature of things is concealed in this world. Our eyes cannot see them even though we tend to think most of the time that we know the truth. This is because we have human urges such as lust, anger, and ignorance. These are destructive traits that cause suffering. The Supreme Buddha says that there are five hindrances that conceal our ability to develop our minds to see things as they are. The obstacles are as follows:
The first hindrance is sensual desire. We please our eyes by being attracted to the beauty of what we see. The Supreme Buddha has said, “Monks, attending unwisely with attraction, sense-desire arises, and once arisen, it grows and overwhelms the person”. The keywords here are “attending and unwisely”. An untrained mind will quickly develop unwholesome thoughts about the attractiveness of what’s seen. Unknowingly we engage in lustful thoughts and actions using our body, speech, and mind. Sensual desires arise the same way for our other senses as well.
The Buddha used the simile of seeing a reflection of your face in a still bowl of water to describe sensual desire. This was a common practice in India during Buddha’s time because mirrors were not freely available. In the simile, the Buddha talks about a bowl of water dyed with eye-pleasing colours. The vivid colours represent our attraction to the sensual desire. A person who uses the dyed bowl of water to see the reflection of his face is distracted by the colourful water in the bowl. He will not be able to see the reflection of his face. This is how lust is hidden from us. We focus on the outside appearance which distracts us from looking within ourselves. A mindful person will then understand that he is not seeing the true reflection of his face. He then will use a bowl of clear water instead. This is exactly what a person who has trained his mind will do. He sees the attraction and reflects on those thoughts. Then he realizes that they are unwholesome. These thoughts are not good for him and not good for others. Therefore he quickly gets rid of the unwholesome thoughts before they are turned into action. By doing that he doesn’t accumulate bad karma (merits) as a result of unwholesome thoughts. Instead, he accumulates good merits by not reacting.
Anger and Aversion
Next are anger and aversion. Sparks of anger are easily found in everyday life. It can be at home, at the office, or when commuting. The object that causes anger, aversion, and ill-will comes from the outside. Thinking about it unwisely leads to harmful actions. The Supreme Buddha said that “the lack of understanding of an aversion-causing object causes anger or ill will that has not yet arisen. Once arisen it becomes stronger by the continued nourishment of unwise attention”. The more you give misguided attention to anger, aversion, and ill-will, the stronger it becomes. If left unattended, these harmful thoughts will translate into destructive verbal or bodily actions.
Explaining this mental state, the Supreme Buddha uses the same simile of the water bowl. This time, the water in the bowl is boiling. A person who wishes to see the reflection will be unable to do so because the water is steaming and bubbling. The steaming and bubbling of the water show the nature of your mind when angry thoughts are present and are continually nourished. The antidote to the churning mind, as taught by the Supreme Buddha is spreading thoughts of Loving-Kindness. This helps to subdue unwholesome thoughts in moments of anger, aversion, and ill-will. When you are mindful of your thoughts, the moment the object that causes anger comes into contact, you see that harmful thoughts have entered your mind. Harmful thoughts give rise to destructive verbal and bodily actions. You don’t want to fall into this trap. The wise action is to develop thoughts of loving-kindness quickly. This will dissipate the anger because you are no longer feeding it. Now, the bowl of water from the simile is still and cool. So you are able to see your face clearly.
Lethargy and Drowsiness
Then the Supreme Buddha talks about lethargy and drowsiness as the next barrier. This is about lacking energy or being disinclined to exert effort in engaging in wholesome actions. The Supreme Buddha says, “Monks, I do not see anything that gives rise to sleepiness like the dislike of the dhamma path, laziness, lazy stretching of the body, drowsiness after meals, and mental sluggishness. When you have a sluggish mind, sleepiness and dullness arise. Once they arise, they increase and grow”. The Supreme Buddha tells the monks how to overcome it. “Monks, I do not see anything that prevents sleepiness and dullness from arising like the energy of initiative, persistence, and firm determination. Also, there’s nothing better to abandon sleepiness and lethargy like the energy of initiative, persistence and firm determination. When you are energetic, sleepiness and dullness do not arise, or, if they’ve already arisen, they are removed completely”.
In explaining lethargy, the Supreme Buddha refers to the water bowl simile yet again. This time, the bowl of water is covered with slimy moss and water plants. A person who wishes to see the image of his face looks into the bowl. He doesn’t see the reflection. This person is too lazy and lacks the energy to clean the surface of the bowl. If on the other hand, a person with a firm determination takes the initiative to clean the surface of the water bowl to remove the slimy moss and the water plants, he would be able to see the image of his face. The lesson is, that the truth is always hidden and you need to have the endurance, persistence, and firm determination to overcome a sluggish mind. Then only, you will be able to uncover the true nature of the situation that benefits you and others.
Restlessness and Remorse
The fourth hurdle is restlessness and remorse. The Supreme Buddha says, “Monks, there’s nothing that gives rise to restlessness and remorse like an unsettled mind. Also, I do not see a single thing, when restlessness and remorse have arisen, that makes them increase and grow, like an unsettled mind. When the mind is not settled, restlessness and remorse arise, and once arisen, they increase and grow.”
Restlessness and remorse taken together, obstruct the clarity of the mind. It is the inability to stay focused. It is also about anxiety. This person is unable to understand the state of his mind. He does not know how to calm his mind and focus his energy on the betterment of himself and others.
The Buddha uses the same water bowl simile to explain this point. This time the water in the bowl is ruffled by the wind. It creates ripples on the surface. The person who wished to see his reflection in the water bowl cannot see it because the water is rippling. Just like an unsettled mind.
If he was mindful, he would take the bowl of water to an area that is protected from the wind. As soon as the water settles down this person will see the reflection. In the same way, if one’s mind is settled, he has no remorse, so he sees the reflection.
The final obstacle is doubt. The Supreme Buddha says, “Monks, I do not see a single thing that gives rise to doubt like unwise attention. Also, I do not see a single thing, when it has arisen, that makes it increase and grow, like unwise attention. When you attend unwisely, doubt arises, and once arisen, it increases and grows.”
The Supreme Buddha yet again uses the same water bowl simile to explain. This time the water in the bowl is muddy and it is also kept in a dark place. If someone wishes to see the reflection of his face in the water bowl, he will not be able to see it due to the water being muddy and not having enough light.
The Supreme Buddha again teaches the monks how to get over doubt if it arises. “Monks, I do not see a single thing that prevents doubt from arising such as wise attention. Also, I do not see a single thing, when doubt has arisen, that causes it to be abandoned other than wise attention. When you attend wisely, doubt does not arise, or, if it’s already arisen, it’s removed completely.”
A person wishing to see the reflection of his face in the water bowl should take it outside and let the mud settle at the bottom while the clear water rises to the top. In the same manner, if the person gives wise attention he will have no doubts in his mind. If doubt has arisen he will be able to clear his mind, like the person coming out of the dark to see the reflection of his face in the clear bowl of water. Unless you are aware, you are not seeing the truth.
Now that you have learnt about the five hindrances and how to quell them, you can be mindful in your day-to-day lives. Concentrate on the practices that the Buddha taught and use them to clear your mind of unwholesome thoughts and actions. Once the mind learns how to understand and overcome these barriers, you will be able to have a peaceful and rejuvenated mind. Discard these five obstacles and you will be on your way to getting rid of suffering. This is how the Buddha’s taught to remove the obstacles in the path to end suffering.
“The numerical discourses of the Buddha, an1-nivaranappahanavagga, With Saṅgārava- an5.193″