Obstacles to Awakening

National Headquarters  |  December 12, 2019
Photo by Peter Lin

In the stillness of a dark starry night, just before the breaking of dawn, Shakyamuni Buddha attained Enlightenment under a bodhi tree – penetrating all the laws governing the universe. But the great truth that the Buddha awakened to is that all living beings possess this same capacity for enlightenment. In fact, such awakening is living beings' true nature. It is our truest, most natural, and original state.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he gained insight into the cause of suffering and the path to liberation from suffering, which he presented as part of the Four Noble Truths when he gave his first teaching. 

The Buddha’s awakening also penetrated laws and truths governing the universe, such as the law of karma, the nature of impermanence, the empty nature of phenomena and non-existence of self, and that we all possess an innate Buddha Nature.

Yet if we all have Buddha Nature and the potential for enlightenment, why is it so hard to reach full awakening? What are the obstacles that stand in our way? Master Cheng Yen explains it thus:

Since beginningless time, we’ve accumulated many inner impurities. Our mind is like a mirror; the impurities like dust covering over the mirror. Under this layer of dust, the mirror can no longer reflect objects clearly. Our inner mirror, due to the inner impurities clouding it, can no longer show us life’s true principles. As a result, we confuse right and wrong and do improper things, creating negative karma. 

The Dharma is like water that can clean our hearts and minds of impurities. These impurities hinder us. Our afflictions – ultimately rooted in greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt – keep us from developing a pure, sincere mind that can draw close to the Dharma. Having these afflictions, we take unwholesome actions which create negative karma. As a result, we reap retribution, and the retribution makes life difficult for us. We get so caught up in it that we cannot appreciate the importance of the Dharma in awakening our insight and wisdom. Therefore, our actions continue to be wrong ones and we continue to create more negative karma. 

This is how afflictions, unwholesome action, and karmic retribution obstruct us. Because of this, they are considered three obstacles to awakening. 

The first obstacle is affliction. We have three main kinds of afflictions: greed, anger, and ignorance. These hinder us on the path of learning Buddhism. With greed, anger, and ignorance in our hearts, our understanding of Buddhism would be distorted and it would be difficult to develop correct faith. For example, when we do a good deed, because of our selfishness, we would hope to gain merits or blessings for the good deed we’ve done. This is not correct faith. Correct faith is about learning to eliminate our selfish desires and greed, as well as anger and ignorance. So, in daily life, we also need to work on our temper. Learning Buddhism, we should strive to develop insight and understanding into life instead of losing our temper at the slightest thing.

The second obstacle is unwholesome actions. When we act wrongly, our wrong ways prevent us from doing other good things. There is a Chinese saying that all good deeds begin first with filial piety. If people are filial to their parents, they’ll naturally have respect for their teachers and what is taught to them. With filial piety and respect, people will naturally be good-natured and kind. On the other hand, if we treat our parents badly, we’ll likewise do many other bad deeds. When people encourage us to do good, we wouldn’t consider it. This is how unwholesome actions create obstacles to the path of goodness.

The third obstacle is karmic retribution. Due to the law of karma, we reap what we sow. The bad consequences of our actions also hinder us. For example, our karmic retribution determines where we are reborn. In the suffering realms of hell, the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm, it will be difficult to encounter Buddhism. Though the heaven realm is without suffering, we would easily lose ourselves in pleasure and enjoyment and forget all about spiritual practice. Therefore, it’s only in the human realm that we can truly encounter and learn the Buddha’s teachings. But, as there is also suffering in the human realm, our negative karma and suffering can still be obstacles to our learning the Dharma.

Because of the three obstacles of affliction, unwholesome action, and karmic retribution, we have difficulty achieving awakening and ending our suffering. So, we have to take very good care of our heart and mind, to avoid giving rise to these three obstacles. 

The sections in italics consist of material compiled into English by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team, based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks.

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