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Buddhist Study

Letter to the Brothers

Legally blind competitor Charlotte Brown competes in the pole vault during the Texas State University Interscholastic League Meet, Austin, Texas, May 2014. She now vaults for Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Photo by JOHN RIVERA/ICON SMI/CORBIS/ICON SPORTSWIRE VIA GETTY IMAGES.

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. (“Letter to the Brothers,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 501)

The “three obstacles and four devils” symbolize the internal and external functions that impede our progress toward genuine happiness, or enlightenment.

Here, Nichiren Daishonin reiterates that these hindrances emerge “in confusing form,” which means that their influence is usually not obvious or easy to recognize. We should be diligent in learning how to identify them and in developing the strength to win over them. Otherwise, we risk being “frightened” or “influenced” by these negative functions, allowing them to cloud our Buddha nature and obstruct our Buddhist practice.

The three obstacles are: 1) the obstacle of earthly desires; 2) the obstacle of karma (the negative actions or offenses we commit in this life); and 3) the obstacle of retribution (the negative effects of our actions in past lives, or karma).

The four devils are: 1) the hindrance of the five components—hindrances caused by one’s own physical and mental functions; 2) the hindrance of earthly desires—hindrances arising from greed, anger and foolishness; 3) the hindrance of death—one’s own untimely death obstructing one’s Buddhist practice or doubts arising from the untimely death of a fellow practitioner; and 4) the hindrance of the devil king of the sixth heaven—a strong negative influence taking various forms to cause practitioners to discard their Buddhist practice.

The three obstacles and four devils are functions that sap the bright, positive life condition we gain from our practice; they weaken our spirit to fight for our own happiness and that of others, leaving us with diminished courage and wisdom. In particular, the devil king of the sixth heaven is described as being most powerful.[1] It represents negative functions that can operate through influential people in our environment to discourage us from pursuing our Buddhist practice and keep us in a place of victimhood and suffering. The function arises from the human tendency to be ignorant of the fundamental dignity of life and to deny the noble potential for Buddhahood that all people possess. That tendency or ignorance is known as fundamental darkness. But more important than wondering what category of obstacle or devil our problems fall into is to recognize those things that hinder our Buddhist practice and challenge them with faith, prayer and action.

Lasting happiness can be achieved through learning to win over our inner darkness, or ignorance. SGI President Ikeda explains: “Buddhism is a struggle between the Buddha and the devil. It is by drawing out into the open, battling and defeating the three obstacles and four devils that we ourselves can become Buddhas” (January 2004 Living Buddhism, p. 48).

By continuously engaging in this challenge to activate our fundamental enlightenment, we can forge an indestructible foundation of happiness. When obstacles and devilish functions emerge, that is exactly the time to fight to change our karma and to win for the sake of our happiness.

As Nichiren writes, “The three obstacles and four devils will invariably appear, and the wise will rejoice while the foolish will retreat” (“The Three Obstacles and Four Devils,” WND-1, 637). Urging us to never retreat, he calls on us to joyfully challenge and overcome our problems. The wise rejoice because they know that obstacles and opposition are the resistance that makes it possible for them to achieve enlightenment.

SGI President Ikeda’s Guidance

Owning Our Obstacles

The following is adapted from Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 4, p. 136.

My mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, often spoke about the three obstacles and four devils. He said they represented the valleys of training and development that lie in between the hills of benefit that we climb on the way to scaling the highest mountain of Buddhahood.

The important thing is how we approach the three obstacles and four devils.

We need to “own” them, to look at them as something we ourselves have summoned up. It may seem that we are being assailed by the three obstacles and four devils, but the true reality is just the opposite. Because we have voluntarily set ourselves to the task of climbing the peak of Buddhahood, they have arisen. The fact that we encounter these obstacles and devilish functions is proof that we are upholding the correct teaching and advancing in the right direction. We are in charge; we are the protagonists. The three obstacles and four devils are a trial we must surmount in order to attain lasting happiness imbued with the noble virtues of Buddhahood. When we achieve that awareness, then the struggle against the three obstacles and four devils is indeed a great joy.


  1. The devil king is said to rouse his ten forces, which are the various illusions that plague human beings. They are: 1) desire, 2) care and worry, 3) mental and physical hunger, 4) love of pleasure, 5) mental vagueness and lack of responsiveness, 6) fear, 7) doubt and regret, 8) anger, 9) preoccupation with wealth and fame, and 10) arrogance and contempt for others. ↩︎

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