Norman gives the second talk of the Loon Lake 2011 Sesshin on the first two of the Five Hindrances – Sense Desire and Ill Will.
Five Hindrances – Sense Desire, Ill Will
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 07, 2011
Edited and abridged by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Probably you have all had this experience: you go for a walk in the forest, and it’s really nice. It feels good to be there – the trees and the atmosphere. Then later on, you decide that you want to learn something, so you learn about the trees. You learn to identify the incense cedars, ponderosa pines, jeffrey pines, lodgepole pines. Then you go for a walk in the forest again, and all of a sudden, you see all these lodgepole pines and incense cedars and ponderosa pines, and they weren’t there before. Before there were a lot of nice trees, but you didn’t really see any incense cedars and ponderosa pines, and now they are everywhere! It is kind of astonishing. Where were they before?
Maybe you just bought a new Honda Civic. You go out the first time, and you commute to work. And all of a sudden, it seems like since you bought yours, everybody else bought one too! You are driving along, and there are all these Honda Civics. Just in the space of a few days, people have gone out and bought enormous numbers of Honda Civics. Before, you were aware that there were a few Honda Civics, but not this many. Did you ever have that experience?
It’s a stunning thing. It is almost magical when you have that experience. What happened there? You have eyes and ears, but somehow you weren’t seeing before. You weren’t seeing, until your attention was brought to something in a particular way. Then, what was there all along, but might have been invisible, suddenly becomes visible.
It is just like this with meditation practice. Sitting on the cushion gives you a very intense and focused perspective on your mind: your thoughts, your emotions, your attitudes, your tendencies. Oddly, paying attention to breathing–not necessarily looking at your mind or analyzing your mind, but just paying attention to being present–gives you a perspective on how your mind and heart are operating. Of course, you knew quite a bit about this before, because you are a thoughtful person, a perceptive person. So it is not that you have no concept of what is going on in your mind and heart. You knew a lot, but somehow with the meditation practice, it’s different. You see a lot more, and you see differently.
It is often the case that you begin to see a lot more of your dissatisfaction and your pain. There is more of it than you thought. You may have realized that you are not the happiest person in the world. Maybe you already knew that, but now there seem to be Honda Civics everywhere. It’s nothing but dissatisfaction, anxiety, despair, grumpiness, jealousy, anger. Wherever you look, there it is again.
Part of the task of meditation is to begin to notice all of this and begin to sort it out, because that is how you overcome it, and that’s how you will become more cheerful. Really cheerful. You begin to notice that previously a good deal of your cheerfulness was a kind of a cover- up. Underneath your previous cheerfulness, there was actually a lot of angst that you didn’t necessarily know was lurking there. You were coating your angst with a nice patina of cheerfulness – a nice, pink, glossy cheerfulness. You thought it was really cheerfulness, but now you realize it was just a coating. With some meditation practice there can be actual cheerfulness, because you see the angst for what it is, and in doing that, you can deal with it in a forthright and effective manner.
A traditional Buddhist way of talking about this is The Five Hindrances – features of the defiled, confused mind. Defiled here doesn’t mean evil or somehow wrong. It just means unwise, unhappy, angst-ridden, and a default habit of making matters worse.
The Five Hindrances are a very effective way to experience how the mind is defiled and how to straighten it out. I am sure that many of you have studied The Five Hindrances before: sense desire, ill will or anger, laziness, anxiety or worry, and doubt. So if you observe your mind and emotions through the lens of these five hindrances, you will begin to see patterns in a way that you were not able to see before. Once you see these patterns, and you understand how they operate, it now becomes possible for you to do something about them.
The first one: sense desire. Sense desire isn’t a defilement in and of itself. The defilement arises because for most of us, most of the time, it is impossible for us to simply enjoy the enjoyable and endure the unpleasant. Instead, we want to hang on to the enjoyable, and we want to get rid of the unpleasant. We can’t just experience what’s going on; we have to improve it. If you look at your mind closely, you will see this. It is kind of a stunning thing to notice. Right in the middle of something pleasant, that you really wanted, and that you are really enjoying, the mind is suddenly murmuring, often just below the level of your awareness, Oh this is good. This is really good. I want more and more and more of this. How can I keep this going forever? How can I make it even stronger and even better? Simultaneously with your saying this to yourself, you are also saying, at the same time, Oh boy, this is really great. Probably I don’t deserve it. Probably I shouldn’t be having this. Probably someone is going to take it away. For sure, I am going to lose it right now. I know that I am going to lose this. It’s not going to last. I just know it. All of which, of course, is true. No wonder you are saying it. It is going on right at the moment when you are enjoying this wonderful thing.
I am not saying that you are necessarily having this train of thought, although you might be. Whether or not you are conscious of thinking this, those thoughts and those impulses are there right in the middle of this wonderful experience that you are having. So the actual enjoyment is painful and problematic, even though it is still enjoyment. This is a weird thing, but it’s true if you look. You’ll see that it’s true. There is something painful and anxious in your enjoyment. Maybe you know what I am talking about. Maybe you have noticed this.
I remember a time when I was young and living in the monastery. We used to eat the meal oryoki style – every single meal, day after day, month after month, year after year. There were breaks, but basically that was our life. We would eat and be served in the zendo, so it was just a continuation of the meditation practice. I remember that once I noticed, for the first time, what a lunatic I was being in the middle of every meal. Something good would come along in the first bowl or the second bowl or third bowl, and I would say, Oh boy, oh boy. I would get really excited, and I would immediately start scheming about how I could make sure that it would work out that I could get seconds. This was an intricate problem, because you had to take enough so that you could get a lot, but if you took too much, and you couldn’t finish before the seconds came around, then you wouldn’t get seconds. So you had to take the maximum amount that you could finish eating, so that then you could get the maximum amount for seconds. Then you would have to gobble up the first bowl and time it, so that when the servers came for seconds, you were ready.
This is how I ate for years! Every meal I was strategizing. I was like a general of food, figuring out how I could make this work out. Then one day I realized, This is really crazy. Because I was so anxious and greedy about the enjoyable, there was no enjoyment. There was only scheming. Based on my attachment to the idea of enjoyment, I was actually creating, on a daily basis, three meals a day, a low-level misery and thinking it was enjoyment. This is stunning, but I was doing this. It took awhile, but I realized, This is really stupid. I realized it so strongly that I stopped doing it. Of course, the result was that I enjoyed my food much more. When it worked out to have seconds, I could have seconds. When it wasn’t working out to have seconds, I wouldn’t have to freak out over that. What I had was enough.
This is pretty much what we do, and it is true of anything. If you could just enjoy what is present, just allow yourself to accept it and appreciate it and be grateful for it, and then let it go when it is over, you could live with the six senses without being entangled and without misery. This is true not only for food and other pleasant things that we could see or hear or taste or touch; it also goes for pleasant inner feelings as well: feeling loved or respected, or feeling good about what you have accomplished. If you get entangled in these feelings, there is literally anxiety and pain, even when there are these pleasant feelings. But if you recognize that there is no way you could hold on to these feelings, no way that you could scheme to get more of them, or to make them stay longer than they are going to stay, you could realize that it is a gift to have these pleasant feelings in this moment. And then you can let go, and then, maybe, they come again. And then you let go again.
When you appreciate this, you can really enjoy these inner feelings, without getting entangled in them. If through your practice you become aware enough, you can actually feel the entanglement arising in the moment of something pleasant or positive. It actually feels just like that. It feels like entanglement. It feels like you are beginning to be bound up by threads and cords and knots. You can feel that. You can notice it, and when you notice it, it’s not pleasant, and you can let go. You can release. You can know the feeling, not reacting with grasping or pushing away, and then let go.
If you practice this way carefully and intentionally for awhile, it becomes quite natural, and you don’t have to make a big deal out of it or make intentional effort. Of course, once you notice that something is painful, when you thought that it wasn’t, who wants the pain? Who wants more pain? So you can naturally live this way and practice this way—letting go when entanglement arises—once you train for awhile.
It is the same with unpleasant things too. Sitting is very helpful. You can notice when you are sitting and you don’t like it anymore. It’s becoming uncomfortable. Immediately, along with the sensation of the discomfort, comes the thought, I really don’t like this. I really want this to be gone. What’s wrong here? I must be sitting wrong. They forgot to ring the bell. Surely they are a little spaced out. This should be over by now. What’s going on? With these thoughts, and with your entanglement with the succession of thoughts, you have now taken basic discomfort and doubled and tripled and quadrupled it, so that now it has a more complicated life within you
If, instead, you notice what is going on, and you see these thoughts as thoughts – unwise thoughts that are creating a more painful situation – you can, little by little, pick through and let go of all those thoughts. You can just sit there and feel the discomfort, which you are probably afraid to feel. When you just sit there and feel it, it isn’t actually so bad. It’s a sensation. You can breathe with it. You can be with it. Sometimes it even happens that it completely disappears, because all unpleasant sensations will do that, won’t they? They will all completely disappear.
All this seems very reasonable, right? I think you understand that this is a really good idea. But the idea of it is insufficient. You really have to experience it for yourself more than once. You have to experience it for yourself at some depth. When you do, you find that meditation is actually a tremendous pleasure. It is really a special kind of pleasure that is not really available in any other way.
Dogen calls zazen “the dharma gate of repose and bliss.” That’s a good way of putting it, because there is nothing better than just enjoying whatever is there. It doesn’t take so much for there to be enjoyment. The cookies are very good. The tea is very good. All the sounds are good. The silence is excellent. Just the breath is enough to make you happy. Think of that! Think of how much money you could save on that theory. Just the breath in and out. Taking a breath, what a great thing.
Even the unpleasant sensations in the body are good, once you are really there for them, and you have stopped resisting and hoping for a better life in this moment. Even your habitual cock-eyed thoughts are fine. They are fine, when you can let them come, and you can let them go, and you can let them float through. What’s the difference whether they are positive or negative thoughts? If a ridiculous, self-defeating, self-flagellating thought comes through – fine! Who cares? It’s okay. It can come. It can go. It is really no different from any other thought. It’s all about your feeling about it, holding on to it, or not wanting it to be there. That part is problematic. But if you are just paying attention, it can come, it can go, and it’s fine. It doesn’t really matter. To accept the coming and going of everything, as it comes and goes, is the best thing. You realize that everything has its charm.
If you keep doing this over time, it becomes something that you do not only on your cushion, but in your daily life. What happens on the meditation cushion is just an intensification, a super-focus on what is going on all the time. There is no difference: consciousness comes and goes. Things happen. It is no different. When you develop the vision and the training on the cushion, it just happens in your daily life
The second of the five hindrances, anger or ill will, is quite intimately connected to sense desire, because when you can’t get rid of the bad feeling, or you can’t keep the good one, you can get very irritable about it. You can get crabby. You can get frustrated, and, eventually, you can get pretty angry.
Fundamentally, we are always angry with only one thing: we don’t accept this moment of reality as it is. Since this moment of reality is what it is, and we are absolutely powerless in this moment to make it be otherwise, we become enraged, because we are completely impotent and very frustrated.
I always maintain that this is a primal experience that we have all had, when we were tiny infants. The moment comes, and we absolutely can’t believe that mother is not here. Where is she? She’s supposed to be here! I need her now! Why isn’t she here? This is shocking. It is really upsetting to realize that this is the way the world is. It is not the way we want it to be. It is the way it is. When you first realize that, it is really shocking and completely unacceptable. Then right away there is pain, grief, and then, anger. Although we are all grown up now, we have not really gotten over this.
Or the opposite: I had something I wanted. I was perfectly happy, and now it’s gone. This is outrageous! And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. It’s a simple thing. Why can’t I get what I want and just keep it? It’s not that big a deal. Why can’t I get it? It’s outrageous.
Since this basic cause of our anger is absolutely impossible for us to accept, we usually interpret it down to some more manageable object. It is a little too much to say, The nature of reality makes me angry. [Laughter] It’s a little bit much for us. So we say, It’s her fault! It’s his fault! It is this screwy world’s fault. It’s God’s fault. Or maybe it is my fault: my stupidity, my bad character, my woundedness, that I have never been able to overcome. Somebody is to blame, somebody more manageable than reality itself is at fault here. So we fixate on that object of anger – the blameworthy one. Often our many arguments about why he or she or they or it or I am at fault are quite convincing arguments. They might even be true. But ultimately, they are never true. Ultimately we are angry because reality is the way it is: impermanent, non-graspable, and definitely not organized around my personal needs and desires.
The Buddha compared getting angry at someone to throwing hot coals. In order to throw hot coals on somebody else, first you need to pick them up. Depending how far away the person is and how good your aim is, you may or may not hit the person with the hot coals, and even if you do, as the coals fly through the air, they cool off somewhat. But you yourself will definitely be burned. It’s a painful thing. You know what happens when you get burned: the flesh keeps burning. The hot temperature maintains itself. So a burn, after the removal of the source, continues to burn and damage and wound. When you pick up a hot coal and grasp it firmly, as you need to do in order to throw it at somebody else, you give yourself a nasty burn.
So there is no good in anger for you. It’s just pain. It makes no difference if you are right. You can be right. Maybe you are right. Still, you are going to be engulfed in pain, and you can go on being right forever and ever, and go on being in pain forever and ever.
So we know at least three things. One, anger is going to arise. Two, when anger arises, this is the anger that everyone has felt – this feeling we are feeling right now and will feel in the future. So in our very anger, we are close to others. Our deep emotions, even our negative ones, have that beautiful effect, if we think of it. I am now in solidarity with everyone who has ever felt this painful feeling. And that’s good. Third, when we know anger as anger; when we know how painful it is; when we recall our strong commitment to learn from our anger, not to get entangled in it; we can turn around, and we can be patient. We can endure the difficult outer and inner conditions. We can stay present. We can stay with the breath. We can stay with our practice, and because of that, the situation within and without will change. Maybe, eventually, if we practice this way for a long time, we will get to the place where it’s unusual that anger will arise. We won’t have to go through that again and again and again
In this way, our anger, our frustration, can actually be useful to us. It can be a powerful and important teacher. It can be good for us to feel anger in relation to other people and to the world, and even anger at ourselves, when we need to straighten ourselves out. Anger shows us our own pain, and it shows us justice and injustice. Sometimes the anger, when we know how to work with it, can spur us on to positive action. But it is clear that corrosive, obsessive anger, that causes us to have sleepless nights that can literally ruin our health and kill us, is no good. Ill will toward others, even people we know are our enemies and have determined to do battle with, even then, ill will toward those people is no good. It is painful to us, and it is not effective. It’s not sustainable. And we know this, so we are not fooled by the various dumb thoughts that come into our mind and heart. When we get angry, we realize that these kinds of thoughts come in anger. They are not to be validated. They are not to be believed. We know what they are. We know how to take ourselves in hand, as we would take our child in hand and calm down the child who is throwing a fit.
Just in case we don’t yet know how to do this for ourselves, we’re in luck, because we have good dharma friends, who can help us, and who can remind us. Sometimes we have to depend on our friends, and we know to go to them and talk to them. They will remind us, and we think, That’s right. You’re right. I forgot. Thank you for reminding me. Sometimes we ourselves are the good dharma friends, who help others remember this, even though we have to admit that we ourselves forget it once in awhile. But it helps to remind others. It helps us to remember ourselves. It helps to keep us humble.
Of all the antidotes to the five hindrances that the Buddha provided throughout the course of his teaching, the one that he said is the most important in dealing with all the five hindrances is having good dharma friends. This is something that we don’t think of. But this is the most important thing, having good dharma friends, and good dharma conversation. In other words, friends we can count on to remind us of what we intend and forget. Very, very important.
There is a famous little detail in the story of the Buddha’s awakening, just as he is about to sit under the Bodhi tree, not knowing what is going to happen. He has been working on this project quite awhile, and he doesn’t know if it is going to work. This is the last stand, to sit under the tree. So someone offers him food, and he throws the empty bowl into the stream. He says, If the bowl floats downstream, I don’t think it is going to work. But if the bowl floats upstream, against the current, I am sure that I will be awakened. So he throws the bowl on the water, and it floats upstream. So he sits down with confidence.
On the one hand, as we know, practice is very natural to the best impulses in our hearts. We don’t have to impose practice on ourselves. There is something in our hearts that understands it already, and that wants to go that way. That is true of us, and true of everyone. But on the other hand, dharma practice is going against the current. Although these days there are so many people who understand the virtue of some spiritual practice, it does feel that the world at large is somehow swimming in the opposite direction, doesn’t it? Dharma practice does feel like swimming upstream sometimes.
Unwise messages and bad influences are easy to find. They are everywhere. So, all the more reason why we need our good dharma friends, our good, dharma conversation, to keep us encouraged. We need the support of our sanghas at home, and we realize that when we support the sangha, it is supporting us. So we are showing up not just because we get some good out of being there that evening, but it is a bigger question than that. It’s very, very important, because no person can practice alone. No person has ever practiced alone. No-one can do it. It’s impossible. We need one another.
So I hope all of this makes sense to you. It’s very reasonable, after all, isn’t it? I think that we all know that it’s true, but, of course, this is just the beginning. We have to find out this truth for ourselves, at the depth of our experience and in the intimacy of our living. We have to see it again and again and again, from many, many angles – on the cushion and off the cushion.
I often say that Zen practice is not retreat practice. It is not about doing sesshins. It is about everyday life. But we won’t be able to do everyday life practice effectively without the experience of intense meditation practice, as we are doing this week. So this is an important week for all of us. For those of us who are new to this, it is an important week to discover within ourselves these true things. For those of us who have been doing it awhile, it is an important week to rediscover this truth, to see it again and again, from many angles, repeatedly, and to bring it deeper into our hearts and to strengthen our commitment to it and our training in it. There is literally no limit to how we can understand this truth at a deeper and deeper level. It opens out like a jewel, and it shines in all directions, beautifully, as time goes on.