Master of Similes 1

The five hindrances

People often wonder what makes the Pali Canon so special. What is it with these thousands and thousands of suttas? Why do we need that old stuff? Have we not improved on those stories long ago? What can they tell us, since we are so advanced already? We have cell phones, so who needs suttas?

There is a valid point in that. How can anyone today really know something about the value of texts that are 2500 years old? Even if you actually would like to know, you might be lost on were to begin. Well, there are countless aspects to talk about, let me just pick out one specific for today. 

One thing, that sets the Dhamma apart from anything else I have ever found in the spiritual world is that the Buddha used very simple everyday examples to illustrate very complicated issues. Somehow he was able to make connections in his analogies, that worked for someone in India 2500 years ago and the same connections still work for us today. He was able to construct similes that were always (almost eerily) right on point.
Furthermore, the Buddha did not do this just once, he literally did it hundreds of times and he always did it perfectly.

I know what you think. That’s all? What’s so special about similes. Everyone can do that.

Well, have you tried? In my experience it is surprisingly hard to come up with a simile that fits perfectly and does not misguide you, because it will – at some point – be ever so slightly of topic. When I come up with a simile, I will always end up forgetting at least one aspect, or the whole thing will end up sounding really labored. The reason is obvious. At the end I really don’t know what I’m talking about. It is kind of self evident, that only someone who really deeply understands an issue is able to come up with a perfect simile.

The Buddha was a master of similes. Consistently. Throughout the Canon.

I will walk you through one, just for starters. Let’s talk lists. The Pali Canon is full of lists. Four truths here, eightfold path there, plus seven factors and add five hindrances on top. It really goes on and on. This fetish for lists dates back to the time where everything had to be remembered by heart, because there was literally nothing to write on or with. Turns out if you have to remember everything it’s a lot easier to do this if you put things in neat lists.
(And there are a lot! Have a look at the Dhamma Lists)

Let us take the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) as an example.
The pañca nīvaraṇāni are: Sensory desire, Ill-will, Sloth and torpor, Restlessness and remorse and Doubt. They are in the way of you getting enlightened, hence the hindrance. As just another list to remember by heart they are a bit dry to learn. The trick is to find a simile that brings them to life. A simile so vivid, that there is no chance you will forget the factors ever again.

in the Saṅgārava Sutta (SN 46.55) the Buddha explains the five hindrances to the Brahmin Saṅgarava, by using a powerful simile in which he compares the hindrances with different states of a pond in the forest.
He compares sensual desire with looking for a clear reflection in water mixed with lac, turmeric and dyes. He compares ill will with boiling water. he compares sloth-and-torpor with water covered with plants and algae. He compares restlessness-and-worry with wind-churned water. Finally he compares doubt with water that is “turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark.”

If you read through the simile and visualize a pond in the forest and follow the changes of the water through the different hindrances, it is surprisingly hard to ever forget them again. Even more surprising since I was not able to remember them (for the life of me) for many years before.

If you try to get access to the suttas and haven’t found your way in yet, than this is a powerful way to get started.
Just Google ‘The Buddha’ and search for ‘simile of the’. (Or check out this ‘ partial(!) index of the similes and metaphors that appear in the suttas’)

Also, I wrote about another famous list of five in Buddhism before. The Five Grasping Kandhas. They grasp because they represent the fingers of a hand. Check it out, it is really neat.


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