Hindrances to mental well-being: A Buddhist view

[Note: This is a slightly edited extract from a piece of academic writing which formed part of an MA Buddhist Studies]

Hindrances/defilements take many forms, the Vatthupama Sutta, for example, lists sixteen cittassaupakkilesa (‘defilements of the mind’). Hindrances/defilements are grouped in the suttas in a multiplicity of ways, and are given metaphorical names suggestive of their affects: samyojana (‘fetters’), bandhana (‘bonds’), ogha (‘floods’), and so forth. Both Theravada and Mahayana traditions commonly summarise pañcanīvaraṇāni (‘five hindrances’): 1) abhijjha (‘longing’) orkamacchanda (‘desire for objects of the five senses’), 2) vyapada-padosa (‘ill-will’), 3) thina-m-iddha (‘sloth and torpor’), 4) uddhacca-kukkucca (‘restlessness and worry’), 5) vicikiccha (‘doubt’) and it is argued that ‘all defilments are included in the attachment to the five hindrances’ (p.40, Shaw,2006; Vim.92). At the root of the five hindrances are the triakusalamulas (‘three unwholesome roots’): lobha (‘greed’), dosa (‘hate’) and moha (‘delusion’).

The hindrances/defilements have often been described within Buddhist thought as mental illnesses. The Buddha stated that: ‘…apart from those whose taints [hindrances/defilements] have been destroyed, it is hard to find people in the world who can claim to enjoy mental health even for a moment’.

Both the ancient Indian medical text, the Caraka Samhita and an early Buddhist Āyurvedic text, the Bhesajjamañjūsā mention ‘greed’ and ‘hatred’/‘anger’ as examples of mental illness, and focusing on the Sallekha Sutta, Dhammasami (2012) stated that the Buddha referred to ‘forty-four of the numerous illnesses that afflict the human mind’ (e.g. uddhata (‘agitation’) orvicikiccha (‘doubt’), issuki (‘jealousy’)).

Nandisena (2012) also equated the meaning of mental illness with hindrances/defilements, but conceptions of mental illness within Buddhist traditions do not universally suggest a hindrance/defilement-based reductionism. Nissanka (2002) argued that it is the way in which hindrances/defilements are handled that distinguishes mental illness, and whilst Galmangoda (2012) explained hindrances/defilements as ‘the psychological basis’ for mental problems, this does not mean it is the only basis (p.3, Galmangoda, 2012).

Understanding the hindrances/defilements is an important way of understanding and recognising some of the barriers to our mental wellbeing.