New Moon Day: The Five Hindrances; Part 1

August 1, 2008


The Five Hindrances Part 1

Sensual Desire


Let’s say you’re planning on growing some vegetables in your garden. You’ve decided you’d like some horseradishes, cabbages, parsnips and asparagus. Now, before you embark on your voyage of vegetable cultivation you need to know that in the shadows there lurk certain beings whose sole purpose in life (it seems) is to torment you. These go by the names of rabbit, butterfly, slug and snail. These creatures will do their utmost to hinder your progression in the art of vegetable growing. So, in order for you to grow a humdinger of a horseradish, you’re going to have to work out how to overcome these charming little chompers.

The skilled veggie grower is all too aware of the things that cause his beloved greens much harm. And so he has a number of methods with which he avoids and overcomes any difficulties caused by those horseradish haranguers, parsnip plunderers, and asparagus antagonisers. (Of course, being a Buddhist gardener, he doesn’t revert to the lowly practice of using insecticide.)

Here are the enemies of our vegetable gardener, and the techniques he employs to deal with them:

  1. Butterflies: These apparently innocent creatures pose a particular threat due to their offspring’s ravenous appetite. So, what to do? Well, a good spread of golfer’s netting over the venerated veg does the job.

  2. Rabbits. Oooohh! The bane of a gardener’s existence. Jumps, digs, chomps. You name the vegetable, the rabbit eats it. High security fencing is needed here. Needs to be dug roughly one foot into the ground, standing about three feet above ground. Avoid the temptation to top it off with a bit of razor-wire, no matter how much you’ve suffered in the past.

  3. Slugs and snails: A crafty little technique here: crushed egg shells, surrounding your cabbages.

Note: Needless to say all methods are executed with the Buddhist’s trademark mind of loving-kindness.

So, the skilful grower proceeds on his voyage armed with a comprehensive array of techniques that he hopes will ensure obstacles do not arise. And if they do happen to arise, then he will be able to quickly overcome them.

A gardener who begins his cabbaging career without any knowledge of the perils ahead will quickly find himself in horseradish hell.

A meditator’s journey is the same. If we wish to progress then we must take heed of the five monsters poised in the shadows of the mind that like nothing more than to lay waste to our practice of concentration and insight. These go by the names of Sense Desire, Ill-will, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, and Doubt

Together we call these the Five Hindrances. These hindrances stop us from attaining enlightenment; they upset our concentration and they guarantee that we remain unable to see the true nature of things. If you are not progressing it’s because one or more of these has you in its clutches.

It is imperative that we, as meditators, understand these hindrances well. We then make sure we have a number of methods at hand to try to ensure that a) these ministers of moha can gain no footing in the mind and b) if they do gain entry then we have the means to overcome them.

Before we look at the hindrances individually, we’ll examine them in terms of the three root defilements of the mind. This is quite a useful way of analysing them.


The first two hindrances are synonyms of the first two primary defilements. Sensual desire (kāmacchanda) corresponds to greed (lobha): and ill-will (vyāpāda) to hatred (dosa). The last three correspond to delusion (moha). It is interesting to examine the hindrances in this way, especially the ones characterised by delusion. The mind that is plagued by the last three hindrances is quite clearly in a state of darkness, confusion and blindness – the hallmarks of delusion.


1. Sense Desire

This is listed first for good reason. It is probably the biggest obstacle to attaining a concentrated state since we’ve been generating it since the day we sprung into our mother’s womb (and then some). The Buddha said that it is less blamable than ill-will, but it is more difficult to get rid of. Sensual desire is this yearning for pleasurable sense-contact and the consequent drive to avoid unpleasant sense-contact. It bars one from being able to unify the mind in concentration. The Buddha compared the mind troubled by sensual desire to clear water mixed with manifold colours (A.V.193).

Sensual desire not only refers to the blatant wanting of objects to satisfy the senses, but it also refers to something more subtle than that, as we shall see later on.

When we are meditating, a powerful desire for something may arise in the mind and halt our concentration dead in its tracks. Let’s say an image of a succulent, ruby red strawberry has taken your mind hostage. It dances in front of your mind as a carrot in front of a horse. The mind becomes infatuated. Your mouth starts watering and you can practically smell it. You try to meditate, but instead of counting the breaths you’re just saying “strawberries”.

Or, in the case of a monk or a nun (or a lay-person for that matter) a thought of the opposite sex might arise. If you allow these thoughts to gather pace it’s as if you’ve opened the door to a hurricane: you’re going to have great difficulty shutting it! Best not to open the door at all.

Or you’re trying to still your mind, when out of the depths a desire to go and watch the telly or Google that word you’ve been meaning to for ages suddenly appears. It takes an act of supreme will power to keep your bottom on that cushion.


Overcoming Sensual Desire

There are various ways to overcome these obvious manifestations of sensual desire:

Reflect on the disadvantages of that thing

Take the strawberry in your mind and follow up on your fantasy. Imagine eating it. Delicious. Then imagine eating another. And another. Then keep eating them until you’re absolutely sick of them! Doing this draws a bold red line under such objects of desire, marking them as unsatisfactory, which then causes the mind to lose interest in them allowing it to concentrate on the object of meditation.

Often at the meal time at the monastery I’ll see something I like just before the food is to be offered. Let’s say there’s a chocolate bar eyeing me from afar. The desire to taste that thing may give my mindfulness a bit of a thump. Looks gooood. But when it comes to actually eating it after I’ve eaten everything else, then I can barely look at it, let alone force it into my mouth! Then when I do try to eat it I can only manage half of it, and even then I’d really rather not be eating it. Reflecting on experiences like this before we get taken for a ride helps the desire to subside.

Or in the case of a thought concerning the opposite sex. Again, reflect on the disadvantages: “That person will no doubt bring me a lot of suffering!!!”

Or with the television show or the internet, think: “I’ll be dissatisfied after two minutes, as usual!”.

Sensuality fools us if we are not careful. We continually believe its empty promises. All pursuits of pleasure to be gained through the senses are in vain. So often did the Buddha speak in no uncertain terms of their futility. In a well known sutta (MN 54) he compared them to a bone smeared with blood (taste but no nourishment); a charcoal pit (they burn), a blazing grass torch (dangerous); borrowed goods; and a dream.

We reflect in this way so that we can partake of the serious pursuit of happiness, that born of concentration and wisdom.

Be Mindful

The best way of overcoming the obstacle of sensuality (and all of the others for that matter) is to be mindful of it.

When it arises in your mind, step back, don’t encourage it, and allow it to pass away. This is the most skilful way of dealing with such problems. Being patient, without wishing the desire to stay or go, simply let it come and go without getting tangled in it. As with the hurricane battering at your door, if you open the door you will have enormous difficulty shutting it once the hurricane is in. It’s best to keep it shut. So carefully guard the door of the mind with mindfulness, and don’t allow these things to overcome you.

Once you can master this then you can simply be mindful and watch the desire charge into your awareness and just as quickly charge out, leaving you unharmed. The more we see the ephemeral nature of these mental processes then the less trouble they cause us.

Patient Endurance

“There’s nothing to it, just endure.” (Ajahn Chah)

If it really seems that there is nothing you can do about your raging lust for a strawberry or a chocolate bar or a holiday in the Bahamas then simply hang on in there and wait for it to pass. This is the most important thing to remember: it will pass. In this practice we go through many phases, some that we like and some that we don’t. The key is simply to know that they are all impermanent. The problems that assail us from time to time may seem to be so real and permanent, but yet they pass. After emerging from such experiences you may wonder what it was all about, and how you ever could have experienced such a thing. But this is how it goes. We just sit through it all, knowing that everything that has arisen must pass.


Looking a Little Closer


Looking at this hindrance in its more subtle aspects we should examine the literal meaning of the term ‘kāmachanda’. ‘Kāma’ means anything pertaining to the five objects of the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Then we have ‘chanda’. In the vinaya (the monastic code of conduct) this term is used to describe the act of a monk giving ‘consent’ or ‘agreeing’. Chanda also means ‘delight’ and ‘interest’. The term Kāmachanda, then, means ‘delight and involvement with the world of the five senses’. It is the mind which gives ‘consent’ to the objects of the senses to take hold.

When we meditate we are trying to reduce the mind’s activity. This activity comes from its involvement in the ‘world’. By world we mean that which occurs at the five sense doors. “What’s that sound? That smell? That taste? That feeling?” we constantly think. The mind is attached to the objects of the senses. It allows them to affect and disturb it. We need to overcome this obsession with the senses, initially so that we can stabilize the mind, and ultimately so that we can perceive their true nature.

One way to encourage the reduction of interest in the objects of the senses is to turn this consent around and give consent to the mind to turn inwards, away from the senses. We say to our mind “I give consent to you to let go of the senses. I allow you to become unified. I give permission for you to be concentrated and peaceful.”

We reflect that a mind that is unaffected by the objects of the senses is a wise and happy mind, and this therefore encourages us to focus on our mediation object with less difficulty.


To summarize:

We have just looked at the first of the five hindrances to progress in meditation.

To avoid sensual desire if it has not yet arisen, and to overcome it if it has:

  1. We give permission to our mind to drop its involvements with the senses.

  2. We overcome sensuality using the techniques of:

    1. Reflecting on the disadvantages of the object of desire;

    2. Being mindful of the desire; and

    3. Being patient if the desire is a stubborn one, knowing that it will pass.


We’ll look at the old peace persecutor ‘ill-will’ in the next post.


The next teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Saturday the 16th of August.


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