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

August 26, 2016; revised June 7, 2020; February 18, 2021

Kilesā Make a Mind Corrupt

1.  Kilesa in Pāli or Keles in Sinhala (where “කෙලෙසෙනවා means “make something impure”) are related to gati and āsava (in both Pāli and Sinhala.) They are the main reasons why we do things (saṅkhāra) to perpetuate the sansaric journey. The closest English translation for kilesa is “accumulated impurities in mind.”

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

2. There are several posts on related critical concepts of sansaṅkhāra, saṃsāra, etc. See, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra).”

  • Also, repeated bad habits cultivate gati and āsava (cravings.) All these are related to kilesa and lead to a set of unique kilesa for each living being. Of course, they keep changing.
  • When one removes all these mental impurities or kilesa (or keles), one attains kilesa parinibbāna or saupadisesa Nibbāna. That person is still “in this world of 31 realms”. That 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 Nibbāna is “complete.” That is anupadisesa Nibbāna.
Kilesā And Upakilesā

3. 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 primary three and are called upakilesa (“upa” means “close to”). The Upakkilesa Sutta lists them as the remaining asobhana cetasika. Also, in Vibhanghapakarana-II of the Tipiṭaka, kilesa are listed as the asobhana cetasika.
  • Thus kilesa and upakilesa are included in the 14 immoral mental factors (asobhana cetasika). This important observation will help us “quantify” these kilesa or mental impurities.
  • The other 11 asobhana cetasika are the following. Diṭṭhi (wrong views), vicikicchā (inability to sort out moral from immoral), tina (dullness of mind), middha (trapping of the mind somewhere and losing focus), issa (jealousy), macchariya (tendency to hide wealth), kukkucca (do lowly acts), ahirika (shamelessness in doing immoral), anatoppa (fearlessness in doing immoral), uddhacca (tendency to become offended), mana (self-importance).
Kilesā And Upakilesā Are Asobhana Cetasika

4. 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 Nibbāna.

  • The Abhidhamma Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka was not formalized during the time of the Buddha. So, in the Sutta Piṭaka, mostly, the term kilesa was used.
  • The Buddha succinctly described Abhidhamma to Ven. Sāriputta. It took several generations of Bhikkhus of “Sāriputta lineage” to fully assemble the Abhidhamma structure. It was finalized only at the third Buddhist Council; see, “Abhidhamma – Introduction.”
Four Universal Asobhana Cetasika

5. There are four universal asobhana cetasika that are in ALL akusala citta. They are moha (delusion), uddhacca (restlessness), ahirika (shameless of wrongdoings), and anottappa (fearlessness of wrongdoings). It is easy to see that these four asobhana cetasikā or mental impurities are completely removed only at the Arahant stage. However, all akusala cetasikā reduce in strength at each stage of Nibbāna.

  • The following asobhana cetasika removed at the Sotāpanna stage: diṭṭhi, vicikicchā, tina, middha, issa, macchariya, kukkucca. Furthermore, lobha, dosa, moha reduce in strength to rāga, paṭigha, avijjā.
  • The above clarification could help one decide whether one has attained the Sotāpanna stage. (See the meanings of those Pāli terms in #4 above): for example, one should have lost jealousy, a tendency to hide wealth from others, etc.). This means 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 Sakadāgāmi stage, kāma rāga (which is a part of rāga) and paṭigha reduce in strength (they still keep the same names). At the Anāgāmi stage, both kāma rāga and paṭigha are entirely removed.
  • The remaining asobhana cetasika (avijjā, ahirika, anatoppa, uddhacca, mana) are entirely removed at the Arahant stage.
Many Mental Impurities Removed at Sotapanna Stage

6. Thus, we can see that many “mental impurities” or kilesa or asobhana cetasika are removed at the Sotāpanna stage. Still, a Sotāpanna abstains entirely from only one akusala kamma as discussed in “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sotāpanna?“.

  • The Buddha said that the kilesa leftover for a Sotāpanna is equivalent to a thumb-full of sand, compared to sand on Earth for an average human. Now we can see why. Many asobhana cetasika are removed, and others are reduced in strength at the Sotāpanna stage.
  • Note that akusala kamma (immoral deeds) are different from akusala citta (immoral thoughts). There are ten akusala kamma and 12 akusala citta. See, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotāpanna Avoids Apayagami Citta.” The mind is a very complex entity, and all these different parameters are needed to describe what happens in the mind entirely. But they are all inter-consistent. With time, one will be able to grasp various aspects of the mind with these parameters.
  • All different types of defilements removed or reduced at each stage of Nibbāna are listed in “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.” That table provides a complete summary in one place.
Abhidhamma Analysis

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

  • As we can see from #6, moha (or its reduced form avijjā) is in all akusala citta. There are only 12 types of akusala citta, and 8 of them have lobha (or its reduced forms of kāma rāga, rupa rāga, or arupa rāga). When one is attracted to a sense object, one of these eight akusala citta arises.
  • Lobha and dosa do not arise together. There are only two akusala citta with the dosa cetasika. When repulsed by a sense object, one of these two akusala cittā arise.
  • The other two akusala citta do not have either lobha or dosa, but only the moha as a root. These two cittā arise not due to greed or hate, but purely due to moha (or avijjā, its reduced form).
  • I hope this helps to get a sense of the types of akusala citta we generate each day. More details can be found in the post, “Akusala Citta and Akusala Vipaka Citta.”
Kilesā, Asobhana Cetasika, and Immoral Gati

8. Each person’s kilesa are thus a 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 gati (habits) and āsava (cravings); see, “9. Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati)“.

  • Until the Sotāpanna 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 kilesā (or asobhana cetasika) do not show up all the time. When triggered by an external stimulus (like when seeing an attractive person or an enemy), they can come to the surface. This “bubbling up to the surface” is called anusayaSee, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).”
  • When one is in a comprehensive anariya meditation program (like a meditation retreat), these kilesā (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 nirāmisa sukha at such a retreat.
  • However, when one comes back from the retreat, one is exposed to various sensory inputs. That WILL re-awaken the same old akusala citta burdened with asobhana cetasika.
Once Removed at a Magga Phala, Kilesa Cannot Return.

9. However, when one removes a set of kilesa asobhana cetasika) at each stage of Nibbāna, they are PERMANENTLY removed or reduced per #6 above. At that point, no external stimulus can trigger asobhana cetasikā 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 Sotāpanna, i.e., between the anariya and Ariya Paths.
An Analogy

10. Since all these Pāli words could make you somewhat confused at the first read, let us take an analogy to clear up what kilesā (asobhana cetasikā) 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 relatively few cases.

  • In this analogy, immoral thoughts are like dirty water. Just like added dirt makes the water dirty, asobhana cetasikā make a citta contaminated. But how do these asobhana cetasikā get incorporated into a citta?
  • Since a citta arises in a billionth of a second, there is no way to control what kinds of cetasikā get into a citta. It happens automatically!
  • We can get an idea of how that happens by looking at glass water with some dirt at the bottom of the glass.
Anusaya Can Be Compared to Mud at the Bottom of the Glass

11. Even though the glass of water has dirt, dirt gets settled at the bottom of the water is left undisturbed for a while. Then 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. They remain as anusaya; see, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).” Thus anusaya can be thought of as “the dirt accumulated” at the bottom of the water glass.

  • However, if the water is stirred with a straw, the dirt comes up and makes the water dirty.
  • In the mind’s case, 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 gati and āsavā contribute in setting up the exact asobhana cetasika that will arise based on a given sensory input. For example, an alcoholic only has to see a whiskey bottle 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.
Connection to Pañcanīvaraṇa

12. Another related point is that 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 pañca nīvaraṇa (five hindrances), which 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 pañca nīvaraṇa is unable to “see-through.”
  • These “ever-present” pañca nīvaraṇa 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 water’s dark color (while the dirt remains at the bottom). The mind can become relatively purer for a considerable amount of time when engaged in a mediation program. This is called vikkhambhana pahāna (or prahāna.) That is in contrast to tadaṅga pahāna (suppressing only for a short time) and ucceda pahāna (permanent removal). See, “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities.”
  • By the way, while listening to a discourse or reading a Dhamma post, one could get into tadaṅga pahāna. Then the content may become easily understood, and one could momentarily feel the nirāmisa sukha too. This is why one should read these posts at a time when the mind is relatively calm. That makes conditions for tadaṅga pahāna optimum and even extends to vikkhambhana pahāna, i.e., for a day or longer.
Nirāmisa Sukha Appears With Removal/Suppression of Kilesa

13. Now we can see how nirāmisa sukha comes during meditation sessions per question raised in a previous post, i.e., “Nirāmisa sukha is felt by which citta?”.

  • Nirāmisa sukha appears when the asobhana cetasika (or kilesa) and pañca nīvaraṇa are SUPPRESSED. 
  • In the next post, we will address how a Sotāpanna‘s mind automatically blocks certain types of asobhana cetasika. That happens via PERMANENTLY removing pañca nivarana and by completely removing some of the kilesa or asobhana cetasika.
Why Is It Necessary to Use Pāli Words?

14. On a different issue, I hope everyone will understand my reasons for emphasizing Pāli words. In many cases, it is difficult or even impossible to find a single English word to convey the meaning of a Pāli 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 Pāli 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 Pāli Words?“. So, don’t be discouraged by these Pāli terms; keep reading to the end, and you will see it start making sense. You can “fill-in-the-gaps” by reading relevant posts afterward.
  • Furthermore, this post is mainly introducing some fundamental concepts involving many Pāli 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.

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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