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We would like to have more wholesomeness in life, but often we are unable to do wholesome deeds, to speak in a wholesome way or to think wholesome thoughts. Our accumulated defilements hinder us in the performing of kusala. We learn from the Buddhist teachings that there are “hindrances” (nīvaraṇa), which are akusala cetasikas arising with akusala cittas. The hindrances arise time and again in daily life. They are:
  • sensuous desire, in Pāli: kāmacchandha
  • ill-will, in Pāli: vyāpāda
  • torpor and languor, in Pāli: thīna and middha
  • restlessness and worry, in Pāli: uddhacca and kukkucca
  • doubt, in Pāli: vicikicchā
Kāmacchandha or sensuous desire is the cetasika which is lobha (attachment). It is attachment to the objects we can experience through the sense-doors and the mind-door. We all have kāmacchandha in different forms and intensities. Because of economic progress and technical inventions there is more prosperity in life. One can afford more things which make life pleasant and comfortable. This, however, does not bring contentedness; on the contrary, we are not satisfied with what we have and we are forever looking for more enjoyment and happiness. There is kāmacchandha with our deeds, words and thoughts. Even when we think that we are doing good deeds and helping others, kāmacchandha can arise. Kāmacchandha makes us restless and unhappy.
Vyāpāda or ill-will is the cetasika which is dosa. Vyāpāda can trouble us many times a day; we feel irritated about other people or about things which happen in life. Vyāpāda prevents us from kusala. When there is vyāpāda we cannot have loving kindness and compassion for other people.
Thīna and middha are translated as “torpor” and “languor”, or as “sloth” and “torpor”. Thīna and middha cause us to have lack of energy for kusala. The Visuddhimagga (XIV, 167) states concerning thīna and middha:
...Herein, stiffness (thīna) has the characteristic of lack of driving power. Its function is to remove energy. It is manifested as subsiding. Torpor (middha) has the characteristic of unwieldiness. Its function is to smother. It is manifested as laziness, or it is manifested as nodding and sleep. The proximate cause of both is unwise attention to boredom, sloth, and so on.
Don’t we all have moments in a day when there is laziness and lack of energy to perform kusala? When, for example, we are listening to the preaching of Dhamma or reading the scriptures, there are opportunities for kusala cittas. Instead, we may feel bored and we lack energy for kusala. It may happen that we see someone else who needs our help, but we are lazy and do not move. Time and again we are hindered by thīna and middha. Thīna and middha make the mind unwieldy (89).
Uddhacca is translated as “agitation” or “excitement” and kukkucca as “worry” or “regret”. Uddhacca arises with each and every type of akusala citta. It prevents the citta from wholesomeness. As regards kukkucca, worry or regret, the Visuddhimagga (XIV, 174) states:
...It has subsequent regret as its characteristic. Its function is to sorrow about what has and what has not been done. It is manifested as remorse. Its proximate cause is what has and what has not been done. It should be regarded as slavery.
When we have done something wrong or we have not done the good deed we should have done, we might be inclined to think about it again and again. We may ask ourselves why we acted in the way we did, but we cannot change what is past already. While we worry we have akusala cittas; worry makes us enslaved. Uddhacca and kukkucca prevent us from being tranquil.
As regards vicikicchā, doubt, there are many kinds of doubt. One may have doubt about the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, or doubt about the eightfold Path. Doubt is akusala and a hindrance to the performing of kusala.
All of the hindrances are obstructions to the performing of kusala. Is there a way to eliminate them? Samatha or the development of calm is a way to temporarily eliminate the hindrances. The calm which is developed in samatha has to be wholesome calm, it cannot arise with akusala citta. There is a degree of calm with each kusala citta but it is hard to know the characteristic of calm precisely, because there are bound to be akusala cittas very shortly after the kusala cittas. In order to develop the calm which is temporary freedom from the hindrances right understanding, paññā, is indispensable. If one merely tries to concentrate on a meditation subject without right understanding of kusala and akusala and of the characteristic of calm, calm cannot grow. The paññā of the level of samatha does not eradicate defilements, but it knows the characteristic of calm and it knows how it can be developed by means of a suitable meditation subject. Akusala citta is likely to arise time and again, even when one tries to develop samatha. One may be attached to silence and then there is akusala citta instead of the calm of samatha. Or one may think, when there is no pleasant feeling nor unpleasant feeling but indifferent feeling, that there is calm. However, indifferent feeling can arise with kusala citta as well as with akusala citta; lobha-mūla-citta can be accompanied by indifferent feeling and moha-mūla-citta is invariably accompanied by indifferent feeling. Thus, when there is indifferent feeling it may seem that one is calm, but there is not necessarily the wholesome calm of samatha. The paññā of samatha must be very keen so as to be able to recognize even the more subtle defilements which arise.
We read in the scriptures about people who could attain jhāna if they cultivated the right conditions for it. Before the Buddha’s enlightenment, jhāna was the highest form of kusala people could attain. Jhāna, which is sometimes translated as absorption (90), is a high degree of calm. At the moment of jhānacitta one is free from sense-impressions and from the defilements which are bound up with them. The attainment of jhāna is extremely difficult, not everybody who applies himself to samatha can attain jhāna. However, even if one has no intention to cultivate jhāna there can be conditions for moments of calm in daily life; but one must have right understanding of the characteristic of calm and of the way to develop it.
When one applies oneself to samatha one should develop five cetasikas which can eliminate the hindrances; they are the jhāna-factors. The first jhāna-factor is vitakka, which is translated into English as “applied thinking”. Vitakka is a mental factor, a cetasika, which arises with many kinds of citta; it can arise with kusala citta as well as with akusala citta. The wholesome kind of vitakka which is developed in samatha is one of the jhāna-factors. The Visuddhimagga (IV, 88) states concerning vitakka:
...Herein, applied thinking (vitakkana) is applied thought (vitakka); hitting upon, is what is meant. It has the characteristic of directing the mind onto an object (mounting the mind on its object). Its function is to strike at and thresh - for the meditator is said, in virtue of it, to have the object struck at by applied thought, threshed by applied thought. It is manifested as the leading of the mind onto an object ...
Vitakka, when it is a jhāna-factor, is opposed to thīna and middha (sloth and torpor). In “thinking” of the meditation subject vitakka helps to inhibit thīna and middha temporarily (91).
Another jhāna-factor is vicāra, which is translated as “sustained thinking”. This cetasika arises with different kinds of citta, but when it is developed in samatha, it is a jhāna-factor. The Visuddhimagga (IV, 88) states concerning vicāra:
...Sustained thinking (vicaraṇa) is sustained thought (vicāra); continued sustainment (anusañcaraṇa), is what is meant. It has the characteristic of continued pressure on (occupation with) the object. Its function is to keep conascent (mental) states (occupied) with that. It is manifested as keeping consciousness anchored (on that object).
In samatha, vicāra keeps the citta anchored on the meditation subject. When we continue to think of wholesome subjects such as the Buddha’s virtues or his teachings there is no vicikicchā or doubt. Vicāra helps to inhibit doubt.
Another jhāna-factor is pīti, translated as “rapture”, “enthusiasm” or “happiness”. Pīti can also arise with lobha-mūla-citta and then it is akusala. The wholesome kind of pīti, arising with kusala citta, which is developed in samatha is a jhāna-factor. The Visuddhimagga (IV, 94) states concerning pīti:
...It refreshes (pīṇayati), thus it is happiness (pīti). It has the characteristic of endearing (sampiyāna). Its function is to refresh the body and the mind; or its function is to pervade (thrill with rapture). It is manifested as elation. But it is of five kinds as minor happiness, momentary happiness, showering happiness, uplifting happiness, and pervading (rapturous) happiness.
According to the Visuddhimagga (IV, 99) the jhāna-factor pīti is the “pervading happiness” which is the “root of absorption”. When pīti is developed in samatha it inhibits the hindrance which is ill-will (vyāpāda). However, keen understanding is needed in order to know whether there is akusala pīti which arises with attachment or kusala pīti. Even when one thinks that one has wholesome enthusiasm about a meditation subject, there may be clinging. The jhāna-factor pīti takes an interest in the meditation subject without clinging. Wholesome pīti which delights in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha or in another meditation subject refreshes the mind and then there is no aversion, no boredom as to kusala.
Another jhāna-factor is sukha, happy feeling. This jhāna-factor is not pleasant bodily feeling, but it is happy mental feeling or somanassa. Sukha which is developed in samatha is happy feeling about a meditation subject. However, as we know, happy feeling arises also with attachment. Paññā should know precisely when happy feeling is akusala and when it is kusala. The jhāna-factor which is wholesome sukha inhibits the hindrances which are restlessness and regret (uddhacca and kukkucca). When there is wholesome happy feeling about a meditation subject, restlessness and regret do not arise.
Pīti and sukha are not the same. Sukha, which is translated as happiness, bliss, ease or joy, is happy feeling. Pīti, which is translated as joy, rapture, zest, and sometimes also as happiness, is not feeling; it is not vedanākkhandha, but saṅkhārakkhandha (the khandha which is all cetasikas, except vedanā and saññā (92)). When reading the English translations, we have to find out from the context which cetasika is referred to, pīti or sukha.
The Visuddhimagga (IV, 100) states concerning the difference between happiness (pīti) and bliss (sukha):
And whenever the two are associated, happiness (pīti) is the contentedness at getting a desirable object, and bliss (sukha) is the actual experiencing of it when got. Where there is happiness there is bliss (pleasure); but where there is bliss there is not necessarily happiness. Happiness is included in the formations aggregate (saṅkhārakkhandha) ; bliss is included in the feeling aggregate (vedanākkhandha). If a man exhausted in a desert saw or heard about a pond on the edge of a wood, he would have happiness; if he went into the wood’s shade and used the water, he would have bliss...
The jhāna-factor samādhi or concentration is the cetasika which is ekaggatā cetasika. This cetasika arises with every citta and its function is to focus on an object. Each citta can experience only one object and ekaggatā cetasika focuses on that one object. Ekaggatā cetasika or samādhi can be kusala as well as akusala. Samādhi when it is developed in samatha is wholesome concentration on a meditation subject. Together with samādhi there must be right understanding which knows precisely when the citta is kusala citta and when akusala citta and which knows how to develop calm, otherwise the right concentration of samatha will not grow. If one tries very hard to concentrate but right understanding is lacking, there may be attachment to one’s effort to become concentrated, or, if one cannot become concentrated, aversion may arise. Then calm cannot grow. If there is right understanding there are conditions for samādhi to develop. The Visuddhimagga (XIV, 139) states concerning samādhi:
It puts (ādhiyati) consciousness evenly (samaṁ) on the object, or it puts it rightly (sammā) on it, or it is just the mere collecting (samādhāna) of the mind, thus it is concentration (samādhi). Its characteristic is non-wandering, or its characteristic is non-distraction. Its function is to conglomerate conascent states as water does bath powder. It is manifested as peace. Usually its proximate cause is bliss. It should be regarded as steadiness of the mind, like the steadiness of a lamp’s flame when there is no draught.
Samādhi inhibits kāmacchandha (sensuous desire). When there is right concentration on a wholesome subject of meditation, one is at that moment not hindered by kāmacchandha.
Summarising the five jhāna-factors, necessary for the attainment of the first stage of jhāna, they are:
  • vitakka, applied thinking
  • vicāra, sustained thinking
  • pīti, enthusiasm, rapture or happiness
  • sukha, happy feeling or bliss
  • samādhi, concentration
The Atthasālinī (Expositor I, Book I, Part V, chapter I, 165) states concerning the jhāna-factors which inhibit the hindrances:
...For it is said that the Hindrances are opposed to the jhāna-factors, which are hostile to them and dispel and destroy them. Likewise it is said, in the “Peṭakopadesa”, that concentration is opposed to sensuous desire, rapture (pīti) to ill-will, initial application of mind (vitakka) to sloth and torpor, bliss (sukha) to flurry and worry (uddhacca and kukkucca), sustained application of mind (vicāra) to perplexity (vicikicchā, doubt)...
The jhāna-factors have to be developed in order to temporarily eliminate the hindrances. For the person who wants to develop the jhāna-factors and attain jhāna a great deal of preparation is required. We read in the Visuddhimagga (II, 1 and III, 1) that the person who wants to cultivate samatha should be well established in sīla (morality), which is purified by such qualities as fewness of wishes, contentment, effacement, seclusion, energy and modest needs. Sīla will become more perfected by the observation of ascetic practices (as described in Ch II of the Visuddhimagga), which pertain mostly to the monk with regard to the use of his robes, his almsfood and his place of dwelling.
In the Buddha’s time laypeople too could attain jhāna, if they had accumulated the inclination and skill to develop it and if they would lead a life which was compatible with its development (93). One should lead a secluded life and many conditions have to be fulfilled. Jhāna is quite incompatible with sense desires. One has to be “quite secluded from sense desires...” in order to attain jhāna, as we read in many suttas (94).
The Visuddhimagga (IV, 81) explains that sense-desires are incompatible with the attainment of jhāna. The development of jhāna is not for everyone. Jhāna cannot be attained if one leads a “worldly life”, full of sense-pleasures, instead of a life of “fewness of wishes, seclusion, modest needs”.
The Visuddhimagga (III, 129) states that one should sever anything which can be an impediment to the development of samatha. Impediments are, for example, travelling and sickness, and also the place where one lives can be an impediment. One should avoid living in a monastery which, for various reasons, is unfavourable to the development of samatha. Thus, even before one begins to develop samatha, many conditions have to be fulfilled.
For the development of samatha one has to apply oneself to a suitable subject of meditation. There are forty meditation subjects which can condition calm and these are the following:
  • 10 kasina exercises, which are, for example, kasinas (disks) of
    particular colours, the earth kasina or the kasina of light.
  • 10 loathsome subjects (in Pāli: asubha), the “cemetery meditations”.
  • 10 recollections, comprising the recollection of the Buddha, the
    Dhamma, the Sangha, virtue, generosty, deities, and also the
    recollections which are: mindfulness of death, mindfulness of the
    body, mindfulness of breathing and the recollection of peace
  • 1 The perception of repulsiveness in nutriment.
  • 1 The definition of the four elements (earth, water, fire and wind).
  • 4 brahma-vihāras (divine abidings), comprising: loving kindness
    (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), altruistic joy (muditā) and equanimity
    (upekkhā, which in this case is not upekkhā vedanā or indifferent
    feeling, but the wholesome cetasika which is tatramajjhattatā).
  • 4 meditation subjects for the development of arūpa-jhānas
    (immaterial jhānas), which will be dealt with later on.
Not all subjects are suitable for everybody, it depends on the individual which subject is a means for him to develop calm. If there is right understanding of the way to become calm by means of a suitable meditation subject, calm can grow, even in our daily life. Loving kindness and compassion, for instance, can and should be developed in our daily life, when we are in the company of other people, and then there are kusala cittas instead of akusala cittas. Recollection of the Dhamma includes also reflection on the teachings and this is beneficial for everybody; it helps one to begin to understand life. While we reflect with kusala citta on the teachings or on one of the other meditation subjects, moments of calm can arise if we do not cling to calm.
In the Visuddhimagga it is explained how one can develop higher degrees of calm by means of a meditation subject. It is explained (Vis. III, 119) that meditation subjects are learned by sight, by touch and by hearsay (words), depending on the nature of the subject. As regards the subjects which are learned by sight (such as coloured kasinas and the cemetery meditations), the Visuddhimagga (IV, 31) states that in the beginning one has to look closely at the meditation subject, and that later on one acquires a mental image (“sign”, in Pāli: nimitta) of it; one no longer needs to look at the original object. At first the mental image is still unsteady and unclear, but later on it appears “a hundred times, a thousand times more purified...” The original object, for example a coloured kasina or the earth kasina, could have flaws, but the perfected mental image which is acquired when one is more advanced, does not have the imperfections of the original object one was looking at in the beginning. This perfected image is called the counterpart sign (paṭibhāga nimitta).
At the moment the “counterpart sign” appears there is a higher degree of calm and concentration is more developed. This stage is called “access-concentration” (upacāra samādhi). The citta is not jhānacitta, it is still kāmāvacara citta (of the sense sphere), but the hindrances do not arise at the moment of “access concentration”. However, the jhāna-factors are not developed enough yet to attain jhāna, and moreover, there are still other conditions needed to attain it. One has to “guard the sign” (nimitta) in order not to lose the perfected mental image one has developed. “Access concentration” is already very difficult to attain, but “guarding the sign” which is necessary in order to attain jhāna is also very difficult. The conditions for guarding the sign are, among others, the right dwelling place, suitable food, and avoidance of aimless talk. One should “balance” the five “spiritual faculties” (indriyas) which are the following cetasikas:
  • saddhā (confidence in wholesomeness)
  • viriya (energy)
  • sati (mindfulness)
  • samādhi (concentration)
  • paññā (wisdom)
Confidence should be balanced with wisdom so that one has not confidence uncritically and groundlessly. Concentration should be balanced with energy, because if there is concentration but not enough energy there will be idleness and jhāna cannot be attained. Too much energy and not enough concentration leads to agitation and then one cannot attain jhāna either. All five indriyas should be balanced.
From the foregoing examples we see that samatha cannot be cultivated without a basic understanding and careful consideration of the realities taught in the Abhidhamma which are in fact the realities of daily life. One should know precisely when the citta is kusala citta and when it is akusala citta. One should know which realities the jhāna-factors are and one should realize as regards oneself whether or not the jhāna-factors are developed. One should know whether or not the cetasikas which are the five indriyas (faculties) are developed, whether or not they are balanced. If one does not have right understanding of all these different factors and conditions necessary for the attainment of “access concentration” and of jhāna, one is in danger of taking for “access concentration” what is not “access concentration” and taking for jhāna what is not jhāna. Neither “access concentration” nor jhāna can be attained without having cultivated the right conditions.
Not all meditation subjects lead to jhāna, some have only “access concentration” as their result, such as the recollections of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Some meditation subjects lead only to the first stage of rūpa-jhāna (95), some to all stages of rūpa-jhāna. The meditation subject which is mindfulness of breathing can lead to all stages of rūpa-jhāna. This meditation subject which is considered by many to be relatively easy, is one of the most difficult. One has to be mindful of one’s in-breath and out-breath where they touch the tip of the nose or the upper-lip. This meditation subject is not learnt by sight, but by touch: the in-breath and out-breath are the “sign” (nimitta) one has continuously to give attention to. We read in the Visuddhimagga (VIII, 208):
For while other meditation subjects become clearer at each higher stage, this one does not: in fact, as he goes on developing it, it becomes more subtle for him at each higher stage, and it even comes to the point at which it is no longer manifest.
Further on (VIII, 211) we read:
Although any meditation subject, no matter what, is successful only in one who is mindful and fully aware, yet any meditation subject other than this one gets more evident as he goes on giving it his attention. But this mindfulness of breathing is difficult, difficult to develop, a field in which only the minds of Buddhas, Pacceka Buddhas (96), and Buddhas’s sons are at home. It is no trivial matter, nor can it be cultivated by trivial persons. In proportion as continued attention is given to it, it becomes more peaceful and more subtle. So strong mindfulness and understanding are necessary here.
Mindfulness of breathing is most difficult, “it is no trivial matter”, as the Visuddhimagga stated. The Buddha and his great disciples were endowed with great wisdom and other excellent qualities and thus, for them it was a “field” in which their minds were at home.
When one continues to be mindful of breathing, the in-breaths and out-breaths become more and more subtle and thus harder to notice. We just read in the quotation that strong mindfulness and understanding are necessary here. Not only in vipassanā, but also in samatha, mindfulness, sati, and understanding, paññā, are necessary, but the object of awareness in samatha is different from the object of awareness in vipassanā. In samatha the object of awareness is one among the forty meditation subjects and the aim is the development of calm. In vipassanā the object of awareness is any nāma or rūpa which appears at the present moment through one of the six doors, and the aim is to eradicate the wrong view of self and eventually all defilements. Through samatha defilements can be temporarily subdued, but the latent tendencies of defilements are not eradicated; when there are conditions for akusala cittas they arise again. We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Sixes, chapter VI, paragraph 6, Citta Hatthisāriputta) that even the monk who can attain jhāna may “disavow the training” and return to the layman’s life. We read that when the Buddha was staying near Vārānasi, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, a number of “elders” were having a conversation on Abhidhamma. Citta Hatthisāriputta interrupted their talk from time to time. Mahā Koṭṭhita said to him:
“Let not the venerable Citta Hatthisāriputta constantly interrupt the elders’ Abhidhamma talk; the venerable Citta should wait until the talk is over!”
And when he had thus spoken, Citta’s friends said: “The venerable Mahā Koṭṭhita should not censure the venerable Citta Hatthisāriputta. A wise man is the venerable Citta and able to talk to the elders on Abhidhamma.”
“It is a hard thing, sirs, for those who know not another person’s ways of thought. Consider, sirs, a person who, so long as he lives near the Master or a fellow-teacher in the holy life, is the most humble of the humble, the meekest of the meek, the quietest of the quiet; and who, when he leaves the Master or his fellow-teachers, keeps company with monks, nuns, lay-disciples, men and women, rajahs, their ministers, course-setters or their disciples. Living in company, untrammelled, rude, given over to gossip, passion corrupts his heart; and with his heart corrupted by passion, he disavows the training and returns to the lower life...
Consider again a person who, aloof from sensuous appetites ...enters and abides in the first jhāna. Thinking: ‘I have won to the first jhāna’, he keeps company ...Living in company, untrammelled, rude, given over to gossip, passion corrupts his heart; and with his heart corrupted by passion, he disavows the training and returns to the lower life...”
The same is said about the other stages of jhāna. We then read that Citta Hatthisāriputta disavowed the training and returned to the lower life. But not long after that he “went forth” (became a monk) again. We read:
And the venerable Citta Hatthisāriputta, living alone, secluded, earnest, ardent, resolved, not long after, entered and abode in that aim above all of the holy life - realizing it here and now by his own knowledge - for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from home to the homeless life; and he knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life is lived, done is what was to be done, there is no more of this.”
And the venerable Citta Hatthisāriputta was numbered among the arahats.
Even if one can attain the highest stage of jhāna, one’s heart can still become “corrupted by passion”, as we read in the sutta. When Citta Hatthisāriputta had attained arahatship, he had realized the “aim above all of the holy life”. The “hindrances” could not arise any more.
Through vipassanā, hindrances are eradicated in the successive stages of enlightenment. The sotāpanna (who has attained the first stage of enlightenment) has eradicated the hindrance which is doubt (vicikicchā); the anāgāmī (who has attained the third stage of enlightenment) has eradicated sensuous desire (kāmacchandha), ill-will (vyāpāda) and regret (kukkucca); the arahat has eradicated sloth and torpor (thīna and middha) and restlessness (uddhacca), he has eradicated all defilements.


  1. 1.
    Which paramattha dhamma are the jhāna-factors?
  2. 2.
    Which khandha is the jhāna-factor which is pīti (rapture)?
  3. 3.
    Which khandha is the jhāna-factor which is sukha (happy feeling)?
  4. 4.
    When seeing now, is there ekaggatā cetasika? What is ts function?
  5. 5.
    What is the function of ekaggatā cetasika which arises with the
    jhāna-citta? What is its object?
  6. 6.
    Why is mindfulness of breathing one of the most difficult subjects
    of meditation?
  7. 7.
    What is the difference between sammā-sati (right mindfulness) in
    samatha and sammā-sati in vipassanā? What are their respective
    objects of awareness?
  8. 8.
    If one only develops samatha and not vipassanā, why can the
    hindrances not be eradicated?