The Five Hindrances (From Cittaviveka--Teachings from the Silent Mind)
by Ajahn Sumedho

In meditation one develops an understanding of the Five Hindrances [1] -- how, when one of them is present, you investigate it, you understand it, you accept its presence and you learn how to deal with it. Sometimes you can just tell it to go away and it goes; sometimes you just have to allow it to be there till it wears out.

We have subtle ways of being averse to that which is unpleasant and we tend not to be very honest about our intentions. Our habits are that as soon as something unpleasant arises we try to move away from it or destroy it. So long as we are doing this, we don't have any samadhi or concentration. It is only when these Five Hindrances are absent, or we are no longer attached to them, that we find any peace of mind or a concentrated heart.

It is only in the moment when a hindrance actually arises that we can really penetrate it and have insight. if you have noticed, you may go to some of these lectures and gain a profound understanding of the Dhamma, but you can still get angry or frightened or feel desire for things. When the actual situation arises, you are not mindful; you tend to resist or resent or just judge.

I spent my first year as a samanera living in a monastery in North-East Thailand. I was not compelled to do anything other than just live in a little hut. The monks brought me food every day and, as I could speak no Thai and nobody spoke any English. I didn't have to talk to anyone. The senses were not stimulated to any great extent, so sensory deprivation set in and I found myself becoming very tranquil -- so tranquil, in fact, that I attained great states of bliss and ecstasy. I'd sit on the porch of my little kuti [hut] and tears of love would well up in my eyes for the mosquitoes which were biting me. I could think in abstract terms about "all beings everywhere" and feel great love for them too. I even forgave my enemies and those who had caused me suffering in the past. I could entertain these high-minded feelings for "all beings" mainly because I was not having to live with them.

Then one day, I had to go to the immigration authorities to renew my visa. I had to travel to a place called Nong Khai, which is where you cross the Mekong river to go to Laos. Because of my new sensitive state, as I walked to the town I could see things more clearly than ever before. I saw the sorrow and anguish in the faces of the people. And then, when I walked into the Immigration, I felt this iron curtain of hatred forming in front of me. I found out later that the leading monk of the province had ordered the officials to give me a visa. This was not quite in line with the regulations, and so it had forced the officials into a position that was really quite unfair. Because of this, they had a definite aversion towards me and would not grant me a visa, which was very confusing for me because of my heightened state of awareness. The feeling of great love I had for all beings began to fade away very quickly.

By the time I got back to the monastery I was in a frantic mental state. I went to my kuti and spent the next three days just calming down all that had been aroused during that hour's visit to the Immigration.

After a few months, I become very fond of the isolated life. There's something very romantic about living that way. It's so peaceful not to be exposed to the misery of people or to have your sense excited by their actions. Nature itself is very peaceful, very pleasant to be with. Even the mosquitoes, which you might think must be terribly annoying, are not really anywhere near as annoying as people are. Actually, it takes much less skill to live with mosquitoes than with another person.

I got very attached to that way of life, but after a few months I had to got to Bangkok. I remember sitting in the train on the way from Nong Khai to the capital. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just sat there with my high-minded thoughts about helping all beings, dedicating my life to their welfare, about the Dhamma and the Buddha. I was permeated by an overwhelming state of bliss. "What a wonderful state to be in!" I thought. That nosiy, confusing and unpleasant city put paid to all that; in half an hour my mind was in terrible confusion.

From these experiences I was beginning to see that the way to enlightenment did not lie in being shut off from everything that was unpleasant, but rather through learning to understand all that we find unpleasant or difficult. Those particular conditions have been set for a purpose, to teach us. No matter how much we don't want them, and would rather like things to be otherwise, somehow they will persist in out lives until we have understood and transcended them.

My hermit life ended soon after that. I was going to be ordained as a bhikkhu, and would live with Ajahn Chah at a monastery where I wouldn't be allowed the luxury of ascetic practice. I'd have to live in a community of monks and perform my duties, learn all the disciplinary rules that bhikkhus have to learn, and live under the authority of someone else. By this time I was quite willing to accept all this; I realized that in fact it was exactly what I needed. I certainly did not need any more ecstatic blissful states that disappeared as soon as anything annoying happened.

At Wat Pah Pong [Ajahn Chah's monastery] I found a constant stream of annoying conditions coming at me, which gave me a chance of learning to deal with the Five Hindrances. At the other monasteries in Thailand where I'd lived, the fact that I'd been a Westerner had meant that I could expect to have the best of everything. I could also get out of the work and other mundane things that the other monks were expected to do by saying something like: 'I'm busy meditating now. I don't have time to sweep the floor. Let someone else sweep it. I'm a serious meditator.' But when I arrived at Wat Pah Pong and people said, 'He's an American; he can't eat the kind of food we eat,' Ajahn Chah said, 'He'll have to learn.' And when I didn't like the meditation hut I was given and asked for another that I liked better, Ajahn Chah said, 'No.'

I had to get up at three o'clock in the morning and attend morning chanting and meditation. There were readings from the vinaya too. They were read in Thai, which at first I didn't understand; and even when I could understand the language, they were excruciatingly boring to listen to. You'd hear about how a monk who has a rent in his robe so many inches above the hem must have it sewn up before dawn . . . and I kept thinking, 'This isn't what I was ordained for!' I was caught up in these meticulous rules, trying to figure out whether the hole in my robe was four inches above the hem or not and whether I should have to sew it up before dawn. or they'd read about making a sitting cloth, and the monks would have to know that the border had to be so many inches wide; and there'd be a monk who'd say, 'Well, I've seen a sitting cloth with a border different from that.' And the monks would even become argumentative about the border of that sitting cloth. 'Let's talk about serious things,' I'd think; 'things of importance like the Dhamma.'

When it came to the pettiness of everyday life and of living with people of many different temperaments, problems and characters, whose minds were not necessarily as inspired as mine seemed to be at the time, I felt a great depression. Then I was faced with the Five Hindrances as a practical reality. There was no escape. I had to learn a lesson that they were there to teach.

As for the first hindrance -- greed -- you would be surprised at some of the forms that it takes for monks. As a layman, you can spend time trying to seek out suitable objects, but because monks live a celibate life and have few possessions, we find our greed accumulates over things like robes or alms bowls. We were allowed one meal a day, so a lot of greed and aversion may arise with regard to food. At Wat Pah Pong we had to accept whatever hut we were given, so sometimes you were fortunate, you got a really nice one, and sometimes you got not very nice one. But then you could watch the aversion that arose if you were given something you did not like, or the pleasure if you were given something you liked.

I became obsessed with robes for the first few months -- the colour of the robe, believe it or not. At the monastery where I lived before, they wore robes of a bright 'knock-your-eyes-out' kind of orange -- and it was not my colour. When I went to Wat Pah Pong, they wore a kind of ochre yellow or brownish coloured robe, and so I developed great desire for this kind. At first they would not give me one; I had to wear one of these 'knock-your-eyes-out' orange robes, and I became very greedy to get new robes, big robes. The robes in Thailand never fitted me properly, and at Wat Pah Pong they'd make them to your size, you'd have tailor-made robes. Finally, after a month or so Ajahn Chah suggested that a monk make me these robes, but then I became obsessed by the colour. I did not want it too brown, and I did not want too much red in it. I went through a lot of sorrow and despair trying to get the right colour for my robe!

Although we could not eat anything in the afternoon, certain things are allowed in the vinaya, and one was sugar. So I found myself having a fantastic obsession with sweets, while before I had not really cared about sweets at all. At Wat Pah Pong, they'd have a sweet drink once every two or three days in the afternoon, and one began to anticipate the day when they would give you tea with sugar in it - or coffee with sugar in it. Or sometimes they'd even make cocoa! When word got around that we'd have cocoa that evening, one could not think about anything else.

I did not find sexual desire any problem in those days, because my obsessions were with sugar and sweets. I'd go to bed at night and dream about pastry shops. I'd be sitting at the table just about to put the most gooky pastry in my mouth, and I'd wake up and think: 'If only I could get just one bite!'

Before I went to Thailand I had spent a few years in Berkeley, California, where it was pretty much a case of 'doing your own thing'. There was no sense of having to obey anybody, or live under a discipline of any sort. But at Wat Pah Pong I had to live following a tradition that I did not always like or approve of, in a situation where I had no authority whatsoever. I did not mind obeying Ajahn Chah; I respected him. But sometimes I had to obey monks I did not like very much and who I thought were inferior to me. The Thai monks were very critical of me at Wat Pah Pong, whereas in other monasteries they had praised me all the time. They used to say, 'How beautiful you are.' It was the first time in my life I'd ever felt that I was a raving beauty. 'And what beautiful skin you have.' They liked white skin and though my skin is not really very beautiful, it is white. At Wat Pah Pong, however, the monks would say: 'You have ugly skin with brown spots.' I was in my thirties at the time and still sensitive to the ageing process, and they were asking, 'How old are you?' I'd say, 'Thirty-three.' And they'd say, 'Really? We thought you were at least sixty.' Then they would criticise the way I walked, and say, 'You don't walk right. You are not very mindful when you walk.' And I'd take this bag - they gave me a bag - and I'd just dump it down, and think, 'This can't be very important.' And they'd say, 'Put your bag down right. You take it like this, fold it over, and then you set it down beside you like that.'

The way I ate, the way I walked, the way I talked, -everything was criticised and made fun of; but something made me stay on and endure through it. I actually learnt how to conform to a tradition and a discipline  and that took a number of years, really, because there was always strong resist-ance. But I began to understand the wisdom of the discipline of the vinaya, which is not all that apparent on reading the vinaya scriptures. Having an opinion on the traditions and the vinaya itself, you might think, 'This rule isn't necessary.' And you could spend hours of your day just rationalising this, saying, 'This is the twentieth century, these things are not necessary. And you would keep watching the discontent and proliferation going on inside you, and you'd ask yourself, 'Is this suffering?' You'd keep watching your reactions to being corrected, criticised, or praised.

Over the years, equanimity seemed to develop. One found that anger, annoyance and aversion began to fade out. And when your mind no longer inclines towards dwelling in aversion, you begin to have some joy and some peace of mind.

As I gained confidence in the practice and the teacher and then the monastery, I developed a kind of obsessive attachment to it. I couldn't see any faults in it and I felt that this was what eve'rybody should be doing. People would come to the monastery and I'd feel it was my duty to convert them. I can understand how missionaries must feel. You feel very inspired, very attached to something that has helped you and given you happiness and insight. You feel compelled to tell everybody about it, whether they want to hear it or not.

It was all right as long as the Westerners who came agreed with me. That was nice; I could inspire them and they would feel the same sense of dedication, and we would reinforce each other. We could get together and talk about our tradition and our teacher being the best, and how we had discovered something wonderful. Then inevitably some negative American or Englishman would come to the monastery and not fall for any of this.

This happened very strongly about my fifth year, when an American came who had been at the Zen Center in San Francisco. He proceeded to find fault with Ajahn Chah, with Wat Pah Pong, with Theravada Buddhism, with the vinaya -with everything. He was quite an intelligent person and he certainly had a lot of experience in going from one teacher to another, from one ashram to another, from one monastery to another, and finding fault with them. So this put doubt in the minds of people: 'Maybe there is a better way to do it, a quicker way. Maybe Ajahn Chah is an old-fashioned nobody.' There was a teacher in India who was giving meditation courses where people were 'becoming sotapannas [2] almost immediately'. 'I don't know if I am a sotapanna yet or not. If I could have a teacher come and tell me, verify, it would be really nice to know where you are in this meditation.' Ajahn Chah would not say anything to you. So I felt a strong aversion arise towards this American, I felt the need to tear down every other type of Buddhism, every other teacher, every possible alternative. I became very critical, and every time somebody would say, 'I know a better system,' I would immediately - rather than listen to why it was better - find every possibility of why it was worse. So I developed a habit of tearing down other teachers and traditions. But this brought me no joy. I began to see the suffering in always having to defend something and having to tear down anything that threatens the security you find in attachment,

If you never really understand doubt, the nature of uncertainty in you own mind, then you get overwhelmed by it, and when someone says, 'I know a better way, a quicker way,' you start doubting: 'Maybe there is a better way, a quicker way.' Then they would describe this better way in very rational terms, and you would think, 'Well, yes, maybe that's the way to do it.' But when you are attached and feel loyal to your teacher, you think, 'I can't do that - it's better to do it the slow way and be sure.' So then you start putting down anybody who suggests there is a better or a quicker way.

But the important thing to understand is the doubting mind. I saw that it was not up to me to decide which was the best or the quickest way to do anything, but to understand my own uncertainty. So I began to investigate the mental state that would arise when doubt was put into my mind, and after a while I began to accept any kind of doubt, regarding it as a changing condition.

Once when I was in Bangkok, people were comparing religions, and I was trying to be very tolerant and accept that all religions were equally good, even though I did not really think so. I would always try to say something good, about how the goal is the same and that we should love the Christians and try to have metta [good-will] for all Christians. But I really felt that Buddhism was better! One day this was bothering me, because I thought: 'What if somebody asks you, "Which is the best religion?" What would you say? Well, "Buddhism," that's what I'd say.' Suddenly it became very clear that that was only an opinion, and that opinions were not permanent conditions - they were not-self and you did not need to have one or believe in one. I did not have to be the authority, the one who says this is better than that. And I felt no longer any obligation to think about it or to try to figure it out. It became clear that all I had to do was to be aware of the desire to know, and the ability to say, 'This is better than that.'

Another time several years ago I became obsessed with jealousy. As I was the senior monk, I felt I had to set an example of perfect behaviour, and I began to feel jealous if other monks were praised. Somebody might say, 'This monk is better than Sumedho,' and I'd feel a tremendous sense of jealousy arise in my mind. It's a kind of competitiveness, feeling that you always have to hold your own in front of everybody else. But then I found that I did not like jealousy; it was a most unpleasant condition. So I tended to repress it. I would practise mudita [3]. When somebody would say: 'That monk is better than Sumedho,' I'd say to myself; 'Isn't that wonderful, he's better than me,' or, 'Oh, how glad I am for that person, he's better off than lam.' But I'd still feel jealous! So I realised I had to look at the emotion, and that the problem was that I was always trying to get rid of it. I decided to bring it up more; I started concentrating on jealousy, and I'd think of every possible thing that would arouse jealousy. I kept looking at the feeling of jealousy and just observing its changing nature, and after a while it began to fade out. As the resentment and the aversion disappeared I could see that it was only a natural condition of the mind and that it was not-self

Sleepiness or mental dullness is another good teacher, which appears when you no longer feel inspired by your monastic life. When you've just been ordained, you feel a lot of inspiration at least I did - and you have a lot of energy. Then afterwards you find yourself becoming very dull mentally. You start falling asleep in sitting, or in listening to talks. You sit and concentrate on the dullness, just let the mind go into a dull mental state without putting any effort in, or you try to resist this mental dullness.

On the moon days in Thailand we used to have to sit up all night till dawn. At first, like a typical competitive American, I would like to look good in front of others. So I'd sit there and, just through sheer will-power, hold myself up all night. And I'd see the Thai monks, some sinking down, some almost falling over, and contempt would arise: 'I'm better than that! I won't allow myself to give in to sleepiness or dullness.' But after a while the will-power would fade out, and I'd find myself sinking down and falling on my face on the floon I would feel aversion at this mental state and make myself stay awake by will-power.

With this, you find yourself going into a state where you don't know what's going on and you start hallucinating. So I reflected on this hindrance - if it's something you don't like, that's the real problem. Trying to get rid of something you don't want is dukkha. So I thought: 'I'll just accept it; I'll investigate the feeling of sleepiness and dullness.' Even though I thought that I would fall asleep and disgrace myself in front of all the other monks, I found that one can concentrate on the feeling of sleepiness itself. I would contemplate the sensation around the eyes, and the feeling in the body, observing the mental condition and my habitual resistance to it. In this way, that hindrance soon ceased being a problem to me.

In life, wisdom arises within us when we understand the things that we are experiencing here and now. You don't have to do anything special. You don't have to experience all kinds of extreme pain in order to transcend pain. The pain in your ordinary life is enough to be enlightened with. All these feelings of hunger or thirst, or restlessness or jealousy or fear, of lust and greed and sleepiness  all these we can regard as teachers. Rather than resenting them, saying, 'What did I do to deserve this?', you should say, 'Thank you very much. I'll have to learn this lesson some day; I might as well do it now, rather than put it off'
 

Notes:
[1] The Buddha spoke of "Five Hindrances" on the spiritual path: 1 -- sense desire (greed, lust); 2 -- ill-will (anger); 3 -- dullness (sloth/torpor); 4 -- restlessness (agitation) and worry; and 5 -- sceptical doubt.

[2] sotapanna: is the first stage (offour stages) ofthe realisation of liberation. Arahant is the culmination of that realisation.

[3] mudita: happiness at another's good fortune; 'sympathetic joy'.