What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika

August 26, 2016

1. First on a different issue, I hope everyone will understand my reasons for emphasizing Pali words. In many cases, it is difficult or even impossible to find a single English word to convey the meaning of a Pali word  (e.g., anicca); these are powerful words that pack a lot of contentHere, there is no equivalent word in English for kilesa.

  • It is best to use Pali words (and some Sinhala words like “niveema” or “suva“), but with an understanding of what they mean; see, “Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pali Words?“. So, don’t be discouraged by these Pali terms; keep reading to the end and you will see it start making sense. You can “fill-in-the-gaps” by reading relevant posts afterwards.
  • Furthermore, this post is mainly on introducing some key concepts involving many Pali words. In the upcoming weeks, I will be discussing them and simplifying these concepts in the new “Living Dhamma” section, which used to be called “New Approach to Meditation”. This post is going to be our reference.

2.  Kilesa in Pali or Keles in Sinhala (where “kelesanava” means “make something impure”) are related to gathi and asava (in both Pali and Sinhala) and are the main reasons why we do things (sankhara) to perpetuate the sansaric journey; the closest English translation for kilesa is “accumulated impurities in the mind”.

  • Kilesa give rise to immoral thoughts or akusala citta via asobhana cetasika, as we discuss below. Asobhana cetasika are listed in “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“.
  • Sobhana or asobhana cetasika (moral or immoral mental factors) are what makes a given citta a moral (kusala) or immoral (akusala); for details, see, “Citta and Cetasika“.
  • As you can guess, sobhana and asobhana mean “beautiful” and “non-beautiful” respectively, in Pali and Sinhala.

3. There are several posts on related key concepts of sansankhara, sansara, etc.  Also gathi (habits) and asava (cravings) are cultivated via repeated bad habits; all these are related to kilesa and lead to a set of unique kilesa for each living being; of course they keep changing even for a given person.

  • When one removes all these mental impurities or kilesa (or keles), one attains kilesa parinibbana. This is also called saupadisesa Nibbana because that person is still “in this world of 31 realms”. This is the state of a living Arahant; he/she has removed all mental impurities from the mind.
  • When that Arahant dies, there is no rebirth and Nibbana is “complete”; that is called anupadisesa Nibbana.

4. Kilesa are of different types:

  • Lobha (excess greed), dosa (ill will), and moha (delusion), are of course the main mental impurities or kilesa or asobhana cetasika.
  • The others arise because of the main three, and are called upakilesa (“upa” means “close to”). The Upakkilesa Sutta lists them and these can be identified as the remaining asobhana cetasika. Also in Vibhanghapakarana-II of the Tipitaka , kilesa are listed as the asobhana cetasika.
  • Thus kilesa and upakilesa are included in the 14 immoral mental factors (asobhana cetasika). This is an important observation that will help us “quantify” these kilesa or mental impurities.
  • The other 11 asobhana cetasika are : ditthi (wrong views), vicikicca (ability to sort out moral from immoral), thina (dullness of mind), middha (trapping of the mind somewhere and losing focus), issa (jealousy), maccariya (tendency to hide wealth), kukkucca (do lowly acts), ahirika (shamelessness in doing immoral), anatoppa (fearlessness in doing immoral), uddacca (tendency to become offended), mana (self-importance).

5. With the identification of kilesa as asobhana cetasika, it becomes easier to see how kilesa (mental impurities) are systematically reduced and removed at each stage of Nibbana.

  • It must be noted that Abhidhamma Pitaka of the Tipitaka was not fully developed during the time of the Buddha. So, in the Sutta pitaka, mostly the term kilesa was used. The Buddha succinctly described Abhidhamma to Ven. Sariputta, and it took several generations of Bhikkhus of “Sariputta lineage” to fully assemble the Abhidhamma structure. It was finalized only at the third Buddhist Council; see, “Abhidhamma – Introduction“.

6. There are 4 universal asobhana cetasika that are in ALL akusala citta. They are: moha (delusion), uddhacca (restlessness), ahirika (shameless of wrong doings), and anottappa (fearlessness of wrong doings). Since all akusala citta are prevented from arising only at the Arahant stage, it is easy to see that these 4 asobhana cetasika or mental impurities are completely removed only at the Arahant stage. However, all akusala cetasika reduce in strength at each stage of Nibbana.

  • The following asobhana cetasika are removed at the Sotapanna stage: ditthi, vicikicca, thina, middha, issa, maccariya, kukkucca. Furthermore, lobha, dosa, moha are reduced in strength to raga, patigha, avijja.
  • The above clarification could help one decide whether one has attained the Sotapanna stage (see the meanings of those Pali terms in #4 above): for example, one should have lost jealousy, tendency to hide wealth from others, etc). What this really means is that one has realized the worthlessness of material things to a significant extent; that comes with comprehending the anicca nature to some extent.
  • At the Sakadagami stage, kama raga (which is a part of raga) and patigha are reduced in strength (they still keep the same names). At the Anagami stage, both kama raga and patigha are completely removed.
  • The remaining asobhana cetasika (avijja, ahirika, anatoppa, uddacca, mana) are completely removed at the Arahant stage.

7. Thus, we can see that many “mental impurities” or kilesa or  asobhana cetasika  are removed at the Sotapanna stage, even though a Sotapanna completely abstain from only one akusala kamma as discussed in “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sotapanna?“.

  • The Buddha said that a Sotapanna has equivalent of a thumb-full of kilesa left compared to that of the volume of the Earth for a normal human. Now we can see this is because many asobhana cetasika are removed and others are reduced in strength at the Sotapanna stage.
  • Note that akusala kamma (immoral deeds) are different from akusala citta (immoral thoughts). There are ten akusala kamma and 12 akusala citta. An akusala kamma is done with an akusala citta. Mind is a very complex entity, and all these different parameters are needed to fully describe what happens in a mind. But they are all inter-consistent. With time, one will be able to grasp many different aspects of the mind with these parameters.
  • All different types of defilements removed or reduced at each stage of Nibbana are listed in “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbana“. That table provides a complete summary in one place.

8. Now that we have taken care of the technicalities, let us discuss some practical things that are of use when figuring out how different types of cetasika influence our thoughts.

  • As we can see from #6, moha (or the reduced form of avijja) is in all akusala citta. There are only 12 types of akusala citta, and 8 of them have lobha (or a reduced form of kama raga, rupa raga, or arupa raga). When one is attracted to a sense object, one of these 8 akusala citta arise.
  • Lobha and dosa do not arise together. There are only two akusala citta with the dosa  cetasika. When one is repulsed by a sense object, one of these 2 akusala citta arise.
  • The other two akusala citta do not have either lobha or dosa, but only the moha as a root. These two cittas arise not due to greed or hate, but purely due to moha (or the reduced form of avijja).
  • I hope this helps in getting a sense of the types of akusala citta that we generate each day. More details can be found in the post, “Akusala Citta and Akusala Vipaka Citta“.

9. Each person’s kilesa are thus some combination of the 14 asobhana cetasika, but keep changing. The goal is to remove them gradually. In practice, this is done by changing one’s gathi (habits) and asava (cravings); see, “9. Key to Anapanasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gathi)“.

  • Up until the Sotapanna stage, none of the asobhana cetasika is removed in the citta (thoughts) that arise in a person. They may be temporarily subdued or even lessened in strength temporarily, but never removed.
  • Of course, these kilesas (or asobhana cetasika) do not show up all the time. When they are triggered by an external stimulus (like when seeing an attractive person or an enemy), they can come to surface. This “bubbling up to the surface” is called anusaya.
  • When one is engaged in a comprehensive anariya meditation program (like those 7-day or 14-day meditation retreats), these kilesas (or asobhana cetasika) do not get a chance to come to the surface. The environment at a retreat is such that “temptations” would be minimal. Thus one could be enjoying niramisa sukha at such a retreat.
  • However, when one comes back form the retreat, one is exposed to all kinds of sense inputs and those WILL re-awaken same old akusala citta burdened with asobhana cetasika.

10. However, when one removes a set of kilesa asobhana cetasika) at each stage of Nibbana, they are PERMANENTLY removed or reduced per #6 above. At that point, no external stimulus can trigger those asobhana cetasika that have been permanently removed.

  • This is the difference between the temporary relief many have experienced at meditation retreats and the permanent relief upon becoming a Sotapanna, i.e., between the anariya and Ariya Paths.

11. Since all these Pali words could make you somewhat confused at the first read, let us take an analogy to clear up what kilesa (asobhana cetasika) do to our thoughts. Here we compare citta (or thoughts) to a glass of pure water. Most of our thoughts are like clear water: they are not immoral or moral, just neutral. We see, hear, etc. millions of things a day, but generate moral or immoral thoughts only in a relatively few cases.

  • In this analogy, immoral thoughts are like dirty water. Just like added dirt makes water dirty, when asobhana cetasika gets incorporated to a citta, that citta becomes immoral. But how do these asobhana cetasika get incorporated into a citta?
  • Since a citta arises in a billionth of a second, there is no way for us to control what kind of cetasika get incorporated into a citta. It happens automatically!
  • We can get an idea of how that happens by looking at a glass water with some dirt in it.

12. Even though the glass of water has dirt in it, if the water is left undisturbed for a while, the dirt gets settled at the bottom and the water becomes relatively clear. Our minds are like that too. Most of the dirt (mental impurities, kilesa, or asobhana cetasika) remain hidden most of the time.

  • However, if the water is stirred with a straw, the dirt comes up to the top and the water becomes dirty.
  • In the case of the mind, the stirrer is a desired (attractive) or an undesired (repulsive) sense event. Mainly the asobhana cetasika of greed and hate come to the surface (always accompanied by the four universal cetasika mentioned in #6 , but could be accompanied by a few more of the other 11 asobhana cetasika, depending on the situation.
  • The other two related parameters of gathi and asavas contribute in setting up the exact asobhana cetasika that will arise based on a given sense input. For example, an alcoholic only has to see a bottle of whiskey to get the urge to have a drink; only a person with ingrained habits of a thief will be tempted to steal an item from a shop just on impulse.

13. Another related point is that a glass with dirt in it ALWAYS has some dirt in the water, even though most of the “heavy stuff” goes to the bottom. This “ever present” muddy color can be compared to the pancanivarana (five hindrances), that makes our minds “covered” almost at all times.

  • Just like the dirty water prevents us from seeing what is in the water, a mind covered with pancanivarana is unable “see through”.
  • These “ever-present” pancanivarana are responsible for the “sense of agitation” or “sense of unfulfillment” that is there with us most of the time. This is what X experienced when she got into a regular meditation schedule: “Introduction to a New Approach to Meditation“.
  • It was like getting rid of the dark color of the water (while the dirt still remains at the bottom). The mind can become relatively more pure for a considerable amount of time when engaged in a mediation program. This is called vishkambana pahäna (or prahäna), in contrast to tadanga pahäna (suppressing only for a short time) and ucceda pahäna (permanent removal). We will discuss this in upcoming discussions.
  • By the way, while listening to a discourse or reading a Dhamma post, one could get into tadanga pahäna and the content may become easily understood, and one could momentarily feel the niramisa sukha too. This is why one should read these posts at a time when the mind is relatively calm, in order to make conditions for tadanga pahäna optimum, and even extend to vishkambana pahäna, i.e, for a day or longer.

14. Now we can see how nirämisa sukha comes during meditation sessions (especially in regular meditation sessions like at a meditation retreat), per question raised by Y in a previous post, i.e., “Niramisa sukha is felt by which citta?”.

  • Niramisa sukha appears when the asobhana cetasika (or kilesa) AND the pancanivarana are SUPPRESSED. 
  • In the next post, we will address the issue of how a Sotapanna‘s mind automatically blocks certain types asobhana cetasika arising, via PERMANENTLY removing pancanivara and also by completely removing some of the kilesa or asobhana cetasika.

15. Above is a self-consistent, condensed summary. In the upcoming discussions, we will go into details and discuss the two types of hidden suffering in simple terms.

Next in the series, “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities“.

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