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The Four Sublime States
Doctrine and Practice in Buddhism
Thich Vien Ly

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Section V:  Overcoming the Fetters and Mental Hindrances

It is not easy for ordinary human beings to be capable of dwelling in any abode among the various abodes mentioned above, since it is necessary to fulfill a certain set of moral and spiritual conditions to overcome so many mental fetters and spiritual hindrances prevalent in our human condition. Mental fetter are called “samyojanas”. Samyojanas tie us to the vicious cycle of “perpetual wandering” (samsara). There are ten mental fetters:

  1. the belief in a permanent personality of self view (sakkayaditthi);
  2. skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)
  3. clinging to mere rules and rituals (silabbataparamasa);
  4. sensual desire, sensuous craving (kama-raga);
  5. ill-will (vyapada), aversion, anger (patigha);
  6. craving for existence in the world of Pure Form (rupa-ruga);
  7. craving for existence in the world of Non-Form (arupa-raga);
  8. conceit, pride (mana);
  9. restlessness (uddhacca);
  10. ignorance, spiritual blindness, delusion (avijja)

If we are free from the ten fetters we will enter the Noble Abode of the triple Gateway to Liberation.

Now let us direct our attention again to the Divine Abode, the Four Sublime States (brahma-vihara) and the need to understand them so as to put them into practice in our daily lives. The primary objective is the diligent work of insight meditation in order to fulfill certain moral or mental conditions necessary to set about finding our way to the definite purification of our ordinary vision. The heart of this is developing lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. As long as we are not free from the Ten Fetters we have only a quick passing glance of the four brahma-vihara. As human life is so rare and valuable we must make the most of it, but unfortunately, by the time we understand the precious quality of being alive, most of this lifetime may already be gone.

Human beings can be easily overcome by sloth, lack of energy, spiritual apathy, moral sluggishness, boredom, torpor and lack of interest in far-reaching things pertinent to their own spiritual well-being and to the total welfare of other living beings. We all have nagging doubts about our aspirations and high ideals; we are frequently ready to take refuge in uncertainty, indecision and delusion, instead of in the joyful radiance of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Hatred, greed, mental worry, restlessness and resentment are deep-rooted in many of the well-meaning Buddhist devotees. These states, when out of control, are so strong and so much a part of our mental structure that they can not be easily changed, skillfully transformed or definitely eliminated.

Many homes and buildings in our great urban areas and in small villages were built out of lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy and remarkable equanimity despite devastating earthquakes, floods and fires which may wipe out complete communities. These qualities have developed a sense of solidarity among human beings. That is their application in worldly welfare of humanity.

People, however, are continually harassed by uncertainty, anxiety, anger, hatred, lust, impatience, and the like. These arise from the Five Hindrances (nivarana), those obstacles and disturbances which blind our mental and spiritual vision. They are:

  1. sensuous desire (kamacchanda)
  2. ill-will (vyapada)
  3. sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
  4. restlessness and mental worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)
  5. skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

All of these five hindrances are the causes of annoyance, confusion, and mental problems. The long-term objective of mindfulness and concentration is to build moral support within ourselves to rid our body and mind of these hindrances. The beginning meditation practice is to open our mind to thinking precisely on the elimination of sloth and torpor. Secondly, we continue meditating with more energy and sustained thought (vicara) to get rid of skeptical doubt. Thirdly, we dwell in rapture, in joy (piti) after having destroyed sloth and torpor; as joy or rapture is the natural consequence of rigorous thinking and enduring thought, we get rid of uncertainty and skeptical doubt; only the simple life with rigorous (vitakka) thinking is able to know the full meaning of joy or rapture.

Joy or rapture destroys hatred (dosa) and gets rid of ill-will. After joy comes happiness, true happiness (sukha) that eliminates all restlessness and mental worry. With pure happiness we enter the fourth meditation which is fully transformed into integral concentration or intense absorption in the definite state of one-pointedness (ekaggata), thereby removing greed (lobha) or sensuous desire (kamacchanda). If we do not cast away sensuous desire we are not capable of dwelling with freedom of mind and therefore will continue to be bound to the other four hindrances.

In the Anguttara Nikaya (IX, 40) it is said that there is temporary suspension of the Five Hindrances (nivaranani) upon entering, what is called the “first absorption”.

‘He has cast away sensuous desire; he dwells with a heart free from sensuous desire; from desire he cleanses his heart.’

‘He has cast away ill-will; he dwells with a heart free from ill-will, cherishing love and compassion towards all living beings; he cleanses his heart from ill-will.’

‘He has cast away sloth and torpor; he dwells free from sloth and torpor; loving the light, with watchful mind, with clear consciousness, he cleanses his mind from sloth and torpor.’

‘He has cast away restlessness and mental worry; dwelling with mind undisturbed, with heart full of peace, he cleanses his mind from restlessness and mental worry.’

‘He has cast away skeptical doubt; dwelling free from doubt, full of confidence in the good, he cleanses his heart from doubt.’

‘He has put aside these five hindrances, and come to know these paralyzing defilements of the mind. And far from sensual impressions, far from un-wholesome things, he enters into the first absorption…’

It is emphasized by these affirmations that whenever we succeed in casting away ill-will we will dwell with a heart cherishing love and compassion toward all living beings. Vyapada means ill-will, a synonym for dosa, which means “hatred” or “anger”, one of the three unwholesome roots (mula); namely (1) greed (lobha), (2) hate (dosa) and (3) delusion (moha)

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