I remember on my first retreat, perhaps the first actual set of dhammas we were taught was the 5 hindrances. It’s one of the most practical and famous of meditation teachings.
For a long time the Pali term nīvaraṇa has been rendered as “hindrance”. In the Pali, it’s sometimes paired with a slight variation, āvaraṇa, usually rendered as “obstacle” or similar. The rendering “hindrance” is found in Childers’ dictionary, from 1875. Some of these old coinages have forged an indelible place in the English language (“meditation”, “mindfulness”) but we should still keep questioning them.
Now, the rendering “hindrance” is not wrong; my doubt is whether it really captures the key feel of the original. A “hindrance” or an “obstacle” is primarily something that prevents progress. And that is, of course, what they do. But the root meaning of the word is, rather, to wrap or engulf or surround.
In Vedic myth, the primordial struggle is between the hero Indra and the serpent Vrtra, who swallows or strangles. Vrtra is from the same root; literally, the “constrictor”. Clearly it would be naive to insist that the sense must be the same based on such ancient antecedents. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the essential metaphor in Pali is rather more closely associated with “darkness, obscurity” rather than “preventing progress”.
Here’s some examples. Despite the prominent position of these terms in Buddhist doctrine, they do not occur all that often outside of the straight context of simply listing or describing the five nīvaraṇa. So what we have here is pretty much all the relevant contexts in AN and SN that I’ve come across.
ime pañca nīvaraṇe pahāya cetaso upakkilese paññāya dubbalīkaraṇe
these five nīvaraṇa, corruptions of the heart that weaken wisdom
ime pañca āvaraṇe nīvaraṇe cetaso ajjhāruhe paññāya dubbalīkaraṇe
these five āvaraṇa and nīvaraṇa, parasites of the mind that weaken wisdom
Pubbā koṭi na paññāyati avijjānīvaraṇānaṃ sattānaṃ taṇhāsaṃyojanānaṃ sandhāvataṃ saṃsarataṃ.
No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, nīvaraṇa-ed by ignorance and fettered by craving.
Ko cāhāro avijjāya? ‘Pañca nīvaraṇā’tissa vacanīyaṃ.
And what is the fuel for ignorance? You should say: ‘The five nīvaraṇa.’
Pañcime, bhikkhave, nīvaraṇā andhakaraṇā acakkhukaraṇā aññāṇakaraṇā paññānirodhikā vighātapakkhiyā anibbānasaṃvattanikā.
These five nīvaraṇa are destroyers of sight, vision, and knowledge. They block wisdom, they’re on the side of anguish, and they don’t lead to extinguishment.
Ekamekenapi kho, bhante, nīvaraṇena abhibhūto yathābhūtaṃ na jāneyya na passeyya, ko pana vādo pañcahi nīvaraṇehi?
Sir, someone who was overcome by even one of these nīvaraṇa would not truly know or see, not to speak of all five.
The overwhelming emphasis here is on the duality of ignorance/wisdom. There’s little in the metaphors to suggest these things prevent progress on the path. It’s about darkness and obscurity.
Especially note the second quote; the term I’ve rendered as “parasite” is ajjharuha, which refers to a parasitic creeper that wraps around and engulfs a tree, leading to its demise. This is basically the botanical equivalent of the Vedic myth of the serpent.
Also note the third quote; there the “hindrances”, far from stopping movement, are what drives it.
So rather than leaning to the side of “hinder, obstruct”, perhaps we should lean to words that suggest en-darkening: “obscurations”, “clouds”, “dimmers”, “shadows”, “fogs”, “covers”, “veils”, “shrouds”, “wraps”.
As always, it’s easier to find fault than it is to suggest anything better. “Hindrances” has proved itself resilient and slips easily into an English idiom. I’m not immediately taken with any of the options, but perhaps “shroud” would serve. Here’s the above quotes using this.
- these five shrouds, corruptions of the heart that weaken wisdom
- these five covers and shrouds, parasites of the mind that weaken wisdom
- No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, shrouded by ignorance and fettered by craving.
- And what is the fuel for ignorance? You should say: ‘The five shrouds.’
- These five shrouds are destroyers of sight, vision, and knowledge. They block wisdom, they’re on the side of anguish, and they don’t lead to extinguishment.
- Sir, someone who was enveloped by even one of these shrouds would not truly know or see, not to speak of all five.