Are we invoking the right metaphor for “hindrances”?

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Any thoughts?


blinders? like horses happen to be equipped with


“Bedimmings” is the word that covers these options, but it’s a bit obscure.


What is the etymology of the word? Was it obscured by the Prakrit pronunciation? Were people able to perceive that etimological basis when hearing ‘nīvaraṇa’?

Aside from achieving greater linguistic faithfulness, are there any practical implications for taking up eg. “shrouds”, rather than “hindrances”?

Also, maybe “distortions” would fit in your possible word cluster.

1 Like

“veil” is how āvaraṇa(m) is ususally translated in II.52 of Patañjali Yoga Sūtra

Yoga-Sutras-Verse-Comparison.pdf (184.4 KB)

1 Like

“Obscurations” gets my vote. To me it is a more literal, direct meaning. “Shrouds” seems to be a bit too metaphorical, and conjures up images of a certain masked crusader, but then again, most people haven’t wasted hours and hours of their childhood distracting themselves with modern day hero mythologies as I have. (I mean comic books! :sweat_smile:)



Hindrance doesn’t feel bad enough for me to warrant a new translation. In addition to preventing movement or progress it also means something that makes a situation or a process difficult.

The primary meaning of ‘shroud’ is a death cloth and the word’s wrapping meaning also brings the cloth to my mind. Leaving the death cloth aside, ‘shrouded’ has connotations of being covered by something light or airy to me. Same goes for ‘veil’.

‘Hindrance’ ain’t no ‘aggregate’, that’s for sure :stuck_out_tongue:



Really interesting post. I really like shroud (and the fact that the metaphor relates to “darkness and obscurity”) but I’m not so sure its meaning is as obvious and direct, at least not in some cases. Re: your examples, I think shroud works really well in #s 3 & 6.

Also note the third quote; there the “hindrances”, far from stopping movement, are what drives it.

Yeah, hindrances certainly drive movement/action/kamma, but they also work in a more passive sense of being ‘hindered by’ something. Of course there’s a connection between the two. For example, on a practical level, shroud, enveloped or something like that is a hindrance or obstacle–for example, if you’re hiking on a mountain path and are suddenly enveloped by fog and clouds, your progress along the path is certainly going to be hindered; it’s going to be an obstacle to continuing in the right direction and in fact you might wander off and get lost or even take a very dangerous turn or walk off a cliff if you continue before the fog clears. Or if you’re inside a building and there’s a fire and the electricity suddenly goes out, the darkness is going to be a hindrance to getting safely out. For me shroud or envelop helps me think in terms of conditionality, but that might not be true for someone else.

I think the choice depends on what personally speaks most to someone. For example, I love images and similes and metaphors and find them more powerful, in terms of leading onward in my practice, than concepts expressed in language. But I know others for whom just the images, similes & metphors in the suttas leave them shaking their heads and they relate much more to verbal descriptions/explanation.

One last point, while I’m all for changing the translations for the quite troublesome Pali to English word (or more) translations (several of which you’ve brought up before), there’s a downside to changing established ones that are well-known and seem to work fairly well. I guess it depends again on your ‘audience’. If someone is really new to the teachings, fine, they’ll get to know the idea from the beginning in terms of your translation. But for someone who knows some Pali, or even just some of the most familiar words in Pali, it’s kind of a drag to be reading a sutta in English and have to guess what word the translator is translating. And it also make it more difficult at times to see how the various teachings relate, so it can contribute to confusion, not clarity.

At least for me, if I’m reading in English I like to know what Pali word stands behind the translator’s choice of words, especially for key Dhamma teachings, and especially if I don’t really really really trust the translator to know what they’re talking about, and that they’re looking at the suttas as a whole :slight_smile: . And unless I know the sutta well, or it’s totally obvious from the context, I have to stop and look it up, especially when reading some translations that tend to use, shall we say, very ‘creative’ translations for some key terms. BTW, I don’t include you in this :slight_smile:

So I guess I’m saying I subscribe to a ‘middle way’ in terms of changing established translations, but I certainly agree it’s good to keep questioning long-established, and questionable (!) ones (and certainly get rid of the really bad word choices!) In addition, as you know, one word doesn’t work in all cases. I think that’s true is some of the examples you give for nīvaraṇa.


have to admit I had to look up this word, but it certainly fits :slight_smile:

It’s certaily an okay word and we may leave it translated this way, it is true. But if there is a better word that allows us to convey more of the original meaning, then why not use it instead? :blush: Having translating experience myself, I know how you may spend hours and even days trying to figure out a better translation instead of the variant that already works but you feel it is deficient in some minor aspects :slight_smile: Think of it in terms of polishing a diamond or, even better, as hanging a funny poster over your workplace or choosing a pretty Windows wallpaper. You can actually do without it just fine, but you feel you need something to brighten things up. For a translator, if he’s dedicated to his work, it is almost a physical need :persevere:

Then ‘curtain’ maybe? ‘Curtain’ is certainly something darker, less transparent: stage curtain, Iron curtain, behind the curtain. A veil of mystery allows us to discern vague contours of something behind it, almost gives us a sneek peak. A shroud and a veil make us interested, raise our curiosity, invite us to an investigation. This can be a slightly inappropriate example, but just thik of lingerie. A curtain is abrupt and unambiguous, you don’t see what is behind it, you are not welcome to look behind it, and it can be all sorts of things.

Christian Trinitary and Christological debates of the 4th-5th centuries literally took centuries and even millenia to resolve to little or no avail. So, the Armenian and Coptic church still haven’t accepted the Chalcedonic creed. Hundreds and thousand of people were condemned, banned into exile, killed in clashes on the street or executed by the state for professing heretical views. If you look at teh heart of the matter, quite often the differences of opinion are explained by mere bad or deficient translations that had become customary.

In Greek, the Christian God has three ὑπόστᾰσιες: Father, Son , and Holy Ghost. The word ‘ὑπόστᾰσις’ may be gramatically analysed into ‘ὑπό-’ (‘sub-’) and ‘-στᾰσις’ (‘standing’). As a result, the literal way to translate this word into Latin would be ‘substantia’ (cf. with the English ‘understanding’ :slight_smile:). However, in the Greek Christian thought ‘ὑπόστᾰσις’ wasn’t though of as substance but rather a specific instance of the true ‘substance’ (‘οὐσία’, ‘essence’), comaparable to a particular person being a specific instance (ὑπόστᾰσις) of the general concept ‘human being’ (οὐσία). Mistaking ὑπόστᾰσις for substance, many Western Christians were led to believe that their Eastern brethren believe in the Trinity of substances. i.e. three gods. The Latin-speaking thinkers who recognized the problem, chose to translate ὑπόστᾰσις as ‘persona’. However, this term is deeply flawed as well, even though it has become so established in the West that it is being used even today. ‘Persona’ originally means ‘actor’s mask’. Now, imagine how the Latin translations whould have looked like for a Greek-speaking Christian: there is a single God with one ὑπόστᾰσις (that’s how a Greek would translate the Latin ‘substance’, making the literalist mistake again), this God has three ‘masks’: a concept that is totally unacceptable for the orthodox (not in the denominational sense) understanding of Christianity. These translations worked fairly well, they were kind of okay, but the small differences between languages led to very, very far-reaching consequences.

So yeah, it may be a drag to read ever new translations and guess what they mean, but the Pali studies are still in their infancy if put in the historical perspective. We are still looking for our own language expressing the Pali terminology. If we stay content with the established translations that are far from perfect, as ridiculous as it may sound, somewhere down the road the butterfly effect can lead to these imperfections resulting in deaths and wars or just poor Dhamma practice. In other words, it’s a drag, but it’s a necessary evil, I’m afraid.


I think @Linda described the main reason better than I could. Hindrance is a word well known to all serious (buddhist) meditators and minor improvements in conveying more of the original meaning aren’t worth the confusion it would create in my oppinion.

I really don’t have much against ‘shroud’ (never seen a death cloth in person or had anything to do with one, only heard/seen pictures/video of the Shroud of Turin) or ‘veil’ (have heard it used in new age - angels helping to remove 7 different colored veils until you enter an n-th dimention or stuff like that) or even ‘curtain’ and I could see all of them work great if ‘hindrance’ wasn’t so well established and a pretty good translation already.


Pali texts are texts that can be translated numerous times and in numerous ways. If some translation has become well-established, it is not an argument against a new translation at all. I think, no-one will argue against a new translation of some well-know Shakespearean line into French just because the old one is so well-established. If there is some room for improvement, an there clearly is in case of ‘hindrance’, it is a duty of a good translate to go down that road. Moreover, if it turns out that ‘nivarana’ actually means ‘veil’, then ‘hindrance’ is an outrightly wrong translation. It is a correct and workable term when applied in the Buddhist practice, so you can certainly use it yourself, that is clear. But within the translation framework it would be wrong to use it, just because it is an incorrect rendering.

It is, however, a solid argument for you or any other person not using the new translation because it may cause confusion, and there is nothing wrong with that. Think of it as your Granny who doesn’t use smartphones because she perefers keeping to her old ways. I don’t mean this comparison in any derogatory way, on the contrary: if people are more comfortable with the older translation, that’s perfect, they can totally stick to it. I mean, even the Bible translation is not a completed project, Pali texts are even further from this stage. This is an evolving project, with so few people working on it that it is pretty much still at the very first stages, still very fluid, unfirm, subject to so many corrections. Fossilizing wrong translations because they have been established in practice is a bad approach for translators of phylosophical and religious literature. Using workable fossilized terms in your own spiritual practice is a perfectly acceptable and sound thing to do. Just don’t let’s conflate these two aspects :slight_smile:

Thanks everyone for some solid contributions here. I really hope we don’t spark any schisms or wars!

Just a quick note. In the Sanskrit dictionary we also find the meaning as “hindrnace, obstacle”. Now I’m not aware of all the contexts. But my suspicion is that the sense of this was originally “something blocking your view” rather than “something standing in your way.” Hence, “shroud, curtain”, etc.

Regarding changing translations, for the record, my take on this is that, at this point in our history, it’s probably a good thing to lightly lean in the direction of changing renderings. Obviously the primary concern is to render accurately. But if a translation seems as accurate or more so, then to change traditional approaches seems to me a good thing; it disrupts our expectations, and invites inquiry. It stops us from prematurely believing that all these problems are solved. But, like I said, a “light” leaning in this direction, not a hard and fast rule.

As a historical note, many of the renderings we’re used to today were developed by Nyanamoli, who famously had rejected many of them himself and was developing a new style when he died. How much of this would have stuck or evolved, or would have reverted, is a fascinating question.


Heh…as a matter of fact my granny just called me a few days ago and asked if I could help set up a new phone she bought…with BIG buttons :smiley:

But to use this granny-phone analogy to make my original point clearer: if my granny called me and asked if she should buy a new phone with pretty much the same specs as her old phone (that still worked great) but with a different OS, then I would advise her not to do it.

I’m not against revising translations at all and after a few dozen/hundred reads I would get used to the new translation and would start to think the old one was weird :slight_smile: If a substantially more accurate word presents itself and isn’t of the kind people need to look up in the dictionary, I’m all for it…

Exactly, if you are totally okay with the old term, a traslator who is also practicing the Buddhism would tell you: ‘You know, there is this new traslation, it is totally better than the old one. The old one still does the necessary job, however, so you should probably stick to it’ :slight_smile:

In the translation context, however, the use of ‘hindrance’ in newer translations, if Ven. Sujato’s idea is correct (and is plausible and convincing as it sound it probably is), may be equal to buying this ‘smartphone’ for your eager tech savvy 15-years-old son:

1 Like

Very nice phone!

Also, just as a note, my primary target audience is people who have never read the suttas. So changing is not so much an issue as immediate comprehension.


Focusing on that aspect, ‘hindrance’ is probably too old-timey and not used in everyday English. Since the Olympics are under way (they are still, right? :stuck_out_tongue: ) maybe something simple like ‘hurdle’?


After mentioning Nyanamoli in my previous comment, I felt interested to check up his "new’ rendering choices. In many cases, his usages are still with us. In other cases, subsequent editors and translators have rejected his revised ideas. While always intelligent and well thought out, they sometimes resulted in English that was accessible only to specialists (“True Idea” for dhamma being perhaps the most notorious instance.) In some respects, also, language has evolved, or our understanding has improved.

Nevertheless, there are a number of cases where I think his choices are interesting. Several of these are cases where I have used the same or similar renderings; whether I arrived at them independently or because of an echo of a memory, I cannot say. In other cases—including nīvaraṇa—my conclusions are different, but his experiments indicate a certain dissatisfaction with older choices.

Here is a highly subjective list of a few instances, culled from the appendices of his translations of the Khuddhakapatha and Netti.

###Minor Readings and Illustrator (Khuddakapatha)

  • bhikkhu: mendicant monk, mendicant nun (possible)
  • kasiṇa: universal, wholeness
  • khandha: categories (five categories of what is affected by clinging)
  • nibbāna: extinction
  • tapo: ardour
  • cetanā: choice

The Guide (Netti)

  • abhinandati: expectant relishing
  • ayoniso: unreasoned
  • arati: boredom
  • naya: guideline, method
  • nīvaraṇa: hindrance, in-shutting
  • parāmāsa: misapprehension
  • vinaya: outguiding, discipline
  • upādānakkhandha: category for assuming
  • nibbidā: dispassion
  • virāga: fading (of lust)