In Aversion Weeds Grow
What are the Hindrances: Part Three
“The Buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.”—Eihei Dogen, “The Genjo Koan”
A while back I was meandering through a small garden where tomatoes, squash, and beans were growing. I saw some green stalks rising from a furrow and protruding white bulbs. I knelt down to check it out and to my amazement it was garlic! I will sheepishly add that I had forgotten how garlic grows as I only ever see the bulbs in grocery stores. Had I’d been unable to identify this as garlic, I might have mistakenly thought this precious plant was a weed.
The Buddhist scriptures speak of 84,000 negative emotions, which is a whole lotta weeds! Fortunately for us, the Buddha and his disciples distilled these afflictive psycho-emotional states into lists that aid in our ability to be mindful of their arising and to experience freedom within suffering. The Five Hindrances is one such list. These hindrances are: the desire for sensual pleasure, ill will and aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and corrosive doubt.
What do these five hinder? They impede our ability to sit still on the meditation cushion so our bodies and minds can experience peaceful abiding or shamatha. If we’re unable to calm the body-mind then it’s more difficult to not only continue meditating but also to have insight (vipassana) into the Three Marks of Existence: suffering, impermanence, and the not-self characteristic. In Theravada practice (what’s morphed into the lay insight tradition), clearly seeing the nature of reality is the goal. In some Zen lineages, there’s not such a focus on this goal; however, true shikantaza (just sitting) embodies calm and insight.
If we drop the labels and focus more on the felt experience of each hindrance, most of the obstacles we encounter on the spiritual path (which is life) could fit into these categories. The desire for sensual pleasure is a grasping energy. Ill-will is a pushing away energy. Sloth and torpor (or lethargy and drowsiness) is a collapsing energy. Restlessness and remorse is an over activation. With corrosive doubt, we get stuck in the vacillating energy of what I refer to as “ping-pong mind.”1 When they are present, these hindrances obscure reality by distorting how we perceive what’s happening.
The desire for sensual pleasure seems to be embedded in us as human animals. We are conditioned to move away from unpleasant sensations and grasp onto the pleasant ones. Sometimes our grasping devolves into a greedy obsession, causes harm to ourselves and others, and hijacks our good intentions. How many of us have had engrossing food or sexual fantasies while meditating only to wake up to the mind’s meanderings and find ourselves facing the blank wall of reality. The escape wasn’t really an escape, just another wall of mind.
Like all of the hindrances, ill-will and aversion can be subtle or gross. Sometimes the aversion is so gossamer that we don’t even notice it floating around until we encounter the situation or person we dislike and then BAM! we are overwhelmed by this pushing away energy. Sometimes this energy of aversion is so intense that we can’t tolerate being in the person’s presence. It’s more precise to say that we cannot tolerate being in our own body-mind when we’re with this person. Whatever we’re unable to make peace with in ourselves is a hindrance in making peace with “the other.”
Sloth and torpor can afflict us throughout the day, of course, and we often take mood/mind altering substances like caffeine to Red Bull our way through this dense fog. However, like all of the hindrances, we can learn much about ourselves (i.e., reality) by sitting amid the torpor without any chemicals interfering with our sensory apparatus. How does this collapsing energy prevent us from keeping our heart-minds open to what we rather not face?
Restlessness and remorse prevents deep sleep and calm meditation. This energy feels to me like I am being swept up in a tornado or shaken like a smoothie in a blender. Although we need energy to maintain our practice, when we are overly stimulated it’s impossible to focus. Our minds jump here and there, perhaps chasing after projections about how wonderful or awful the future will be, or regurgitating memories that trigger remorse about something we said or did. The only fact amid the swirl of restlessness is that the body is in the present moment and is the anchor that can prevent us from becoming untethered.
Corrosive doubt sows confusion or indecisiveness in us. As I mentioned above, it feels to me like ping-pong ball being batted back-and-forth. A vacillating energy, perhaps similar to feeling restless, but it’s more insidious because being curious about what’s arising is a healthy “doubt.” However, when doubt corrodes our faith in the efficacy and truth of the Buddha’s teachings and training, we can feel like we’re stuck in a perpetual ping-pong match. This doubt can also manifest as doubt about whether or not we’re capable enough to practice meditation and study The Way. “At the extreme it paralyzes us, preventing us from initiating any activity.”2
For what reasons do flowers fall? Ordinarily when we have love and attachment we say, “Oh! Beautiful! I want to keep them in bloom forever.” Then flowers fall. How do weeds spread? From the feeling of aversion. We say, “Ugh! That’s disturbing. Here they come again.” In this way, falling and blooming arise from love and hate.—Bokusan Nishiari, Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries
If we’re unfamiliar with the Five Hindrances, we won’t notice these weeds spreading through the garden of the body-mind. With practice we can cultivate the intimacy necessary to notice and gently prune them. In the next Sunday Spark, I will discuss how to work with these hindrances so we can experience them as wildflowers.
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Ajahn Thiradhammo. Working with the Five Hindrances. Aruno Publications, 2014.