Oct 26, 2010

Obstacles and Devils (Sansho Shima)

UKE March 1997 by Catherine Cinnnamon 

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 two best-known letters in which Nichiren Daishonin explains these obstacles and devils were both written to the Ikegami brothers, whose father threatening to disinherit them because of their refusal to give up their faith. This was a serious matter in those days. In the first of these, 'Letter to the Brothers', Nichiren Daishonin warns:
As practice progresses and understanding grows, the three obstacles and four devils emerge, vying with one another to interfere (MW-V1 p.145, WND p.501)
Once we start practicing we soon realize that constant effort is necessary to maintain a consistent practice; the same is true of attaining the supreme life-condition of Buddhahood. Even the difficulty of believing we can manifest this condition, or that everyone has it, can in itself be an obstacle.

In 'Letter to Misawa', Nichiren Daishonin writes, "Even if you should manage to overcome the first six (of the three obstacles and four devils), if you are defeated by the seventh, you will not be able to become a Buddha".
(MW-V3 p.252, WND p.894)

It is important, therefore, to recognize sansho shima and overcome it. The support of people who are more experienced in practicing Buddhism is often very helpful in enabling us to identify and overcome this negativity, as President Ikeda points out:
The human mind wavers and changes from moment to moment. Over time, one experiences confusion even regarding things that one has previously decided on. This is an unchanging aspect of life. For precisely this reason, guidance and encouragement in the correct practice of faith are very important.
(Buddhism in Action, Vol.6, p.8)

He also says:
During the past forty years, I have been the target of unjustifiable criticism and faced raging waves of persecution again and again. However I have never been defeated in my struggles for kosen rufu… Time and again, I have transcended the raging waves of the three powerful enemies and the three obstacles and four devils. Each time, I did my utmost to carry out my faith exactly as the Daishonin taught. (ibid., Vol.6, p.360-1)
Nichiren Daishonin wrote: "Where it not for these (obstacles), there would be no way of knowing that this is the true teaching" (MW-V1, p.145, WND p.501).

It is precisely because the Mystic Law is a great positive force that the negativity inherent within us and our environment resists our attempts to strengthen it through our practice. If chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo had no power to change karma or draw out our Buddha nature, no one would experience any difficulty in practising it!

It is at a crucial time that obstacles or devils are most likely to appear. That is why the Daishonin emphasizes that we should neither fear them nor give in to them. In the second of his letters to the Ikegami brothers, 'The Three Obstacles and Four Devils', he says:
There is definitely something extraordinary in the ebb and flow of the tide, the rising and setting of the moon, and the way in which summer, autumn, winter and spring give way to each other. Something uncommon also occurs when an ordinary person attains Buddhahood. At such times, the three obstacles and four devils will invariably appear, and the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat. (MW-V2 p.288, WND p.637)

The important thing is to realize that when difficulties appear, they present an opportunity to make renewed efforts in our practice so that we are able to grow further and show proof of the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Obstacles and devils are a natural function of our practice and we should not be afraid of them - as our practice and faith deepens, we come to recognize the form our own particular demons take, tailor-made for each of us, so that we can continue to challenge ourselves in our quest to become really great human beings.

The three obstacles are:
 1. Earthly desires (bonno-sho), or obstacles arising from the three poisons of greed, anger and stupidity.
2. Karma (go-sho), 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 (ho-sho), 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 devils are the hindrance of:
1. The five components (on-ma), that is, those hindrances caused by one's physical and mental functions.
2. Earthly desires (bonno-ma), or illusions arising from the three poisons.
3. Death (shima), 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 (tenji-ma). 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.


Tina Z. said...

Aloha - Thank you for your wonderful posts! I have just found your blog - and am a new member of SGI. I've been studying the concept of sansho shima & your post is very helpful. You referenced a book or document (MW-V1 p. 145, WND p. 501). I'm assuming WND to be Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. But what is MW-V1? Thank you again. I look forward to reading more from you!

Lotus Flower said...

Hi there Tina! nice to meet you.
Thank you so much. yes you are correct, its Writings of Nichiren Daishonin. And MW- V1 if not mistaken because Ive never noticed before I think means Major Writings...but agsin Im not sure. If you know or anyone knows please let us ones who dont know, know..lol Thanks!