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Sansho Shima

Sansho Shima
(from UKE August 1989 by Paul Reeves and Rebecca Irvine)

The Buddhist term for these resistant forces which arise specifically to undermine our faith and stop us from practising is sansho shima, which means the ‘three obstacles and four devils’.

Sho of sansho represents the obstacles encountered in the world around us, ma of shima literally means ‘devils’ and represents the characteristics we have which prevent us from achieving our true potential to reveal Buddhahood. In may ways, the three obstacles and four devils overlap. The difference between them is that the former are the result of external forces and the latter internal. They are united in the way that they conspire to attack us at precisely our most vulnerable point.

The three obstacles:
1. Earthly desires (bonno-sho), or obstacles arising from the three poisons of greed (hunger), anger and stupidity. We all have these three poisons; what matters is how we deal with them. Buddhism teaches that everything has a positive and negative aspect. For instance, bacteria carefully cultivated in a microbiologist’s laboratory can form the basis of life-saving medicines. Those same bacteria, allowed to thrive in a carelessly tended kitchen, can cause illness or even death. Similarly, when we chant we can harness our desires to spur us to enlightenment, or let them run riot until they dominate us entirely.

2. Karma (go-sho), encompasses the unhappiness created by committing any of the ‘five cardinal sins’ or ‘ten evil acts’ in this or previous existences. These include murder, adultery, lying, theft, the disruption amongst fellow Buddhist believers and really relate to the most hurtful wounds we can inflict on those around us. As the law of cause and effect is very strict, it is therefore quite understandable that go-sho often appears in the form of opposition from those closest to our hearts, our spouses and offspring.

3. Retribution (ho-sho), the results of causes made in the three evil paths; Hell, Hunger and Animality, which in turn form the lowest of the Ten Worlds. Ho-sho can appear in the form of opposition from the state, one’s employer, parents or other persons who wield power over us.

The four devils:
1. The five components (on-ma), is the summition of all the different sufferings attendant on being alive, a grand gala of the aches and pains of mind, body and spirit. As such, the scope of on-ma is great, as is its potential to hinder the achievement of our goals. On-ma is responsible, for example, for depression, exhaustion and despair – even apathy.

2. Earthly desires (bonno-ma), symbolizes difficulties arising from the three poisons. As such it appears the same as bonno-sho. The reason for this is very simple. Buddhism teaches that everything has both an inherent cause and an external cause. For example, the external cause (bonno-sho) of a person’s anger might be the promotion of a colleague rather than himself. The inherent cause (bonno-ma) of his suffering is his thwarted desire for personal advancement, which could be the result of stupidity, in the form of arrogance.

3. Death (shi-ma), This includes the suffering inherent in bereavement and that evoked by the thought of our own demise. In a world where technology seems to have the answers to so many of life’s problems, death is often difficult for people to deal with. It is possible to talk to an astronaut on a moon walk, but not to a parent who has died. Worse, we can plan the details of our daily existence minutely, but we cannot plan when or how we will die. Perhaps, in defence, we skirt the issue, and pretend indifference. When the reality is brought home, particularly in the sudden or early death of someone we love or deeply respect, it can provoke so much unease and upset that we seek to hide from it.
Since the basic Buddhist principle of the eternity of life invites the contemplation of the relative brevity of each of our sperate lifetimes, if we are not prepared, deep-seated terror can prevent us from exploring its implications, and cause evasion. Ultimately, this can mean the cessation of our practice, which not only prevents the attainment of Buddhahood for the individual but also prevents us from praying for the happiness of others, including those who have already died.

4. The Devil of the Sixth Heaven (tenji-ma). This is the symbol of the most serious hindrance of all. 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. Nichiren Daishonin equates it with the fundamental darkness inherent in all life. Tenji-ma comprises all deceptions and delusions, especially those which arise from misleading religious beliefs. At first sight, this may not appear to amount to much, but actually, the actions taken on the basis of a distorted view of reality can cause tremendous unhappiness, not only to oneself but everyone in one’s environment.

Obviously, as we are all individuals with different circumstances and characters, the sansho shima we experience will differ. Also, when we are confronting it head on, trying to work out which particular devil or obstacle we are fighting could well be irrelevant. It can be useful, however, to recognize that our difficulty is sansho shima in its broadest sense and that it has arisen precisely because our faith and practice are getting stronger – at the same time showing us a weak point in our amour of faith which needs strengthening. In fact, it is a chance to flex our muscles, and realize another part of our potential, and see our Buddha nature emerging.

Indeed, sansho shima is vital to our growth as human beings, for without it we would not be able to prove the power of the Gohonzon. As Nichiren Daishonin explains:

“If you propagate it (i.e. this Buddhism) devils will arise without fail. Were it not for these, there would be no way of knowing that this is the true teaching”. (MW-V1 p.145, WND p.501)

Once we can see that even our sansho shima has a positive function, by showing us that we’re on the right track, we need fear it no longer. It’s part of us, just like our Buddhahood.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Oct. 31st, 2011 10:12 pm (UTC)
Hi there, awesome site. I thought the topics you posted on were very interesting

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