Staying in the highest life condition – being aware of the three obstacles and four devilish functions within life

There is no doubt that staying in Buddhahood is accompanied with struggles. As we keep striving for greater development, obstacles will invariably arise. Just like an Olympian encounters great challenges in his or her efforts to be the best he or she can be, so does anybody who rises to the challenge of becoming a wiser, more humane individual face obstacles.

Buddhism refers to these challenges and obstacles as ‘the three obstacles and four devils’.  The three obstacles and four devils is a literal translation of the Japanese term ‘sansho shima’. This is a traditional classification of the types of difficulties and obstacles we encounter when we practise Buddhism.

Obstacles usually refers to external problems we may meet, whereas devils refers not to scary demonic spirits, which do not really exist, but rather to our own innermost negative tendencies, or the workings of life’s innate deluded nature. We could say that obstacles are anything that functions to obstruct our practice of faith, whereas devils are self-destructive and destroy the quality of life itself.

The three obstacles

1. Earthly desires, or obstacles arising from the three poisons of greed, anger and stupidity.
2. Karma, or obstacles due to karma created by committing any of the five cardinal sins or ten evil acts (this category is also interpreted as opposition from one’s partner or children).
3. Retribution, or obstacles due to painful retribution for actions in the three evil paths (Hell, Hunger and Animality). This category also indicates obstacles caused by one’s sovereign, parents or other persons who carry some sort of secular authority.

The four devilish functions

1. The five components, that is, those hindrances caused by one’s physical and mental functions.
2. Earthly desires, or illusions arising from the three poisons.
3. Death, because the fear and suffering that death entails, whether our own or someone else’s can shake our faith and obstruct our practice of Buddhism, especially if death seems untimely.
4. The Devil of the Sixth Heaven. This is regarded as the most serious hindrance; in Indian cosmology this king of devils represents the fundamental darkness inherent in life itself. This can assume any number of forms to obstruct believers and is often said to take the form of persecution by those in power. It is the most powerful of all the negative forces, and takes the form most likely to trouble us or cause us to suffer from doubt or illusion.

Last updated by at .