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Exploring key Buddhist concepts in life and society today

The Three Obstacles and Four Devils

[© Bruno Budrovic/Getty Images]

Changing ourselves can be hard work. Anyone who has tried to stick to a New Year's resolution knows that a decision to change even a simple aspect of their behavior for the better usually entails a determined struggle. Our lives seem to contain an innate resistance to change that is at least as strong as our desire to improve ourselves.

In Buddhism, such resistance is characterized as "obstacles" and "devilish functions," which are a natural part of the dynamic workings of our lives.

The most profound positive transformation that human beings can undertake is encapsulated by the idea of "attaining Buddhahood." This could be described as the process of expanding one's capacity for compassion and making concern for the happiness of all people the core of one's life--a challenge in terms of action as well as intention and awareness. The difficulties that confront a person progressing in this effort are described in the Nirvana Sutra as "the three obstacles and four devils." The description of these obstacles and devils includes such things as karma and obstructions arising from greed, anger and foolishness. More broadly, they are the various kinds of difficulties that accompany any effort to bring about transformation.

In his writings, Nichiren (1222-82) quotes the great Chinese Buddhist scholar T'ien-t'ai (538-97) who developed a system of meditation, described in his work Great Concentration and Insight, to enable practitioners to perceive the true essence of life and attain Buddhahood. T'ien-t'ai writes, "As practice progresses and understanding grows, the three obstacles and four devils emerge in confusing form, vying with one another to interfere . . . one should be neither influenced nor frightened by them."

For T'ien-t'ai, these obstacles and devils were internal obstructions and distractions arising in the mind of practitioners as their Buddhist practice developed. For Nichiren, whose adult life was a continuous series of persecutions and confrontations with the repressive social structures of his time, these obstructions were concretely manifest in the very real opposition he and his disciples experienced on account of their beliefs.

Whether they appear externally or internally, these obstacles arise from the same source, what in Buddhism is termed "fundamental darkness." This is a fundamental ignorance of the true enlightened nature of our lives, and is the source of all illusion and misery in the lives of human beings. It can manifest as dark, destructive impulses in ourselves or others or as an insidious pull toward feelings of complacency, discouragement, temptation or intimidation.

Nichiren, however, takes a positive view of the obstacles and devils, saying that when they appear, "the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat." This is because it is precisely by squarely confronting and triumphing over such negative functions that we are able to develop our lives, polish our character and ultimately manifest our enlightenment.

Life, in this sense, could be thought of as an ongoing process of striving for development, overcoming resistance and experiencing growth. Two qualities that are vital to this process are wisdom and courage--wisdom both to self-reflect and to recognize negative functions for what they are and not be influenced by them; courage to confront and not be defeated by these influences.

"There is no easy path to the realization of good," writes SGI President Ikeda in his 2010 Peace Proposal. "We have no choice but to root ourselves firmly in reality, deliberately taking on difficult challenges, ceaselessly training and forging ourselves in the smelting furnace of the soul." In this process of overcoming obstacles and devilish functions, we become, as he describes elsewhere, "protagonists of a 'story' of inner victory forged in the depths of [our] lives." This is a goal at the very heart of Buddhism.

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