Gathi (Character), Anusaya (Latent Defilements), and Asava (Cravings)

Revised March 31, 2017; Re-revised August 26, 2017

We are going to tie up a series of posts that I have posted on gathi and asava with this post. See, “Habits and Goals, and Character (Gathi)”, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gathi), and Cravings (Asava)”, “Sansaric Habits, Character (Gathi), Cravings (Asava)”.

It is difficult to find English  translations for some of the Pali words that the Buddha used. But the key is to grasp what is meant by those terms. Once the idea is grasped, that is all that matters; one could even just use the Pali term, and KNOW what is meant by it. It is like learning the meaning of the word “dollar” or “car”. The exact same words are used in different languages, but everybody understands what is meant by those words.

  • Anusaya is sometimes translated as “latent tendencies” and asava as “mental fermentations” and those are also correct and related to the above definitions.

1. As a given sentient being traverses the “sansara” or the “rebirth process”, it makes uncountable number of  transitions from birth to birth: It may be born as a deva many times in succession, then a human many times, then a dog…etc.

  • Through all these, the physical appearance will change drastically. Thus when it makes a transition from being a deva to human, or from a human to a dog, there is no resemblance of a “personality”.

2. The only thing that keeps at least resembling a “personality” is the manomaya kaya (gandhabbaya). This is because the mamomaya kaya has the asava, anusaya, and gathi of that being transferred from “bhava” to “bhava”, for example from a “deva bhava” to “human bhava”.

  • It is important, however, to keep in mind that all three parameters are NOT FIXED; NOT PERMANENT; they keep changing even during each “bhava” or even “jati”, for example, during a given “human bhava” but also in each “human birth” during that bhava; see, “Bhava and Jati – States of Existence and Births Therein”.
  • Now let us examine the roots of the words anusaya and asava (asaya); äsava” is a synonym for “äsaya”.

3.  In both Pali and Sinhala, “saya” means a storage place: “jaläsaya” means a water reservoir; “ämäsaya” means the stomach where the food we eat goes to; “gabbäsaya” is the womb where the unborn baby is kept and nurtured until it is ready to come out, etc.

  • Saya” also means “sleeping” as in “sayanaya“.
  • Therefore, “anusaya” means “sleeping” or “in storage” with some dominant characteristics. Thus one may have “räga anusaya” for a specific sensual activity that lies hidden and sleeping, but is ready to come out when triggered by a suitable event.

4. When an “anusaya” is awakened by such a trigger then it is out and one will have asaya (asava) being displayed through one’s actions.

  • For example, a calm person with “räga anusaya” for a beautiful woman Z, will get agitated upon seeing Z. Now that anusaya has come to the surface as asaya (asava).
  • And if he keeps thinking about that woman, that asava will ferment and grow (condense). This is why it is sometimes translated as “mental fermentations”.
  • How much one gets “agitated” depends on one’s asava and the strength of the sense input. Rapes, for example, occur when both are strong.

5. Anusaya can be compared to the active gun powder in a matchstick. The matchstick is harmless by itself and will cause no fire. But the POTENTIAL to create a fire is there.

  • When it is rubbed against a rough surface, the heat generated causes gun powder to ignite and generate fire.
  • In the same way, a strong sense input can “awaken” and “fire-up” the sleeping anusaya.
  • An Arahant has removed all types of anusaya; thus no matter how strong a sense input comes in, he/she will not be “triggered” by it. A matchstick with no active gun powder cannot be ignited, no matter how hard a march strikes.

6. “Asaya” or “asava” are the things we have liked for long, long times through uncountable lives in the sansara or the rebirth process and they keep hidden as “anusaya“. They keep changing, but there is an unbroken flow from birth to birth. They are the deep-seated cravings we have for certain things.

  • “Immoral gathi” due to asavas is what makes the akuasala-mula paticca samuppada to take place and create “bhava” for the sansaric process. These “immoral gathi” are the “san gathi” in “thinnan san gathi phasso“; see, “Tanha – How We Attach Via Greed, Hate, and Ignorance“.

7. The asava or asaya have a deeper meaning than just “craving” in the sense of something one likes. It can be one’s own set of beliefs, dislikes for certain things, etc. It defines a “dynamic personality” in the sense of a personality “in flux”, changing and evolving.

8. There are 7 types of anusaya: ditthanusaya (wrong views), vicikiccanusaya (tendency to do the unwise), kamaragaanusaya (temptation for sense pleasures), patighanusaya (temptation for hatred), bhvaraganusaya (instinct for existence), mananusaya (pride) , and avijjanusaya (ignorance); see, for example, “Dutiya Anusaya Sutta (AN 7.12)“.

  • There are four broad categories of asava: DitthiasavaKamasava, Bhavasava, and Avijjasava; see, “Asava Sutta (AN 6.58)“.

9. Those asava (asaya) can arise due to the anusaya.

  • Ditthasava arise from ditthanusaya and vicikiccanusaya.
  • Kamasava arise from kamaragaanusaya and patighanusaya.
  • Bhavasava arise from bhvaraganusaya.
  • Avijjasava arise from avijjanusaya and mananusaya.
  • One cannot REMOVE other three asava until one removes ditthasava at the Sotapanna stage.

10. Ditthasava is the craving or attachment to certain views. This is why sometimes it is hard to accept or even consider other views. Again, there are views on numerous topics: religion, philosophy, politics, and many combinations thereof.

  • Comprehension of anicca, dukkha, anatta automatically leads to getting rid of ditthasava.
  • Kamasava is craving for indulging in sense pleasures via the five physical senses. Within this broad category. each person will have own set of cravings: some like music more than food, and food more than reading, etc. The combinations are endless.
  • Bhavasava is a craving for existence. No matter where in the 31 realms one is born, one always wants to live. Again there are many possibilities: most like the kamaloka with all five senses, some who enjoy jhanic pleasures may prefer birth in an arupaloka with just the mind, etc.
  • Avijjasava is of course the root cause for all asavas: not knowing the real nature of this world, i.e., not comprehending anicca, dukkha, anatta, and thus not comprehending the Four Noble Truths.

11. These four asavas are removed as one goes through the four stages of NibbanaDitthasava is removed at the Sotapanna stage; Kamasava is lessened at the Sakadagami stage and removed at the Anagami stage. The other two are reduced at each stage also, but removed only at the Arahant stage.

  • When asaya (asava) are removed then of course anusaya are removed without a trace. One will never be perturbed by anything; that is the ultimate state of “cooling” or Nibbana.

12. It should be obvious by now how our character (gathi) is defined by our asava and ultimately by our anusaya.

  • All three, asava, anusaya, and gathi are reinforced by each other. One has a certain character because of the set of asava and anusaya he/she has. On the other hand, unless the character is changed WILLFULLY, none of the three is going to change.
  • And there is the fourth parameter of habits (called “gathi purudu” in Sinhala), that lies at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Some people talk rough, even when they are not mad. It is just a habit.
  • Getting rid of bad habits and cultivating good habits is the first step in controlling one’s asava first and eventually getting rid of anusaya.

13. There are two key aspects in dealing with changing one’s habits:

  • One needs to be mindful the negative consequences of the bad habits and positive consequences of good habits. This is satipattana.
  • And, one needs to WILLFULLY avoid the bad habits, and WILLFULLY engage in good habits. This is anapana.
  • One can use the “search” box on top right to find relevant posts on satipattana and anapana. A practical, systematic way to do both is discussed in the “Living Dhamma” section.

14. This is the Path advocated by the Buddha. One could proceed a little on the Path and achieve a “sense of peace”; one could go further to make the future lives better, or one could go all the way and remove all four asava thus attaining the Arahantship.

  • This is why “asavakkhaya gnana” or the “way to remove asava” is the critical knowledge that the Buddha developed on attaining the Buddhahood. And that knowledge is in the Four Noble Truths, and the way to achieve “asavakkhaya” is the Noble Eightfold Path.

15. We are fortunate to live in a time when science is providing further evidence and ways to understand this process. There is a series of posts in the ‘Dhamma and Science” section starting with, “Truine Brain – How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits” and in the “Meditation” section starting with, “Key to Anapanasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gathi)”.

16. Finally, where are these anusaya are in storage? They are in the kamma bhava or our nama loka.

  • We have two “worlds”: one is the rupa loka that we can see with our eyes.
  • The other is the nama loka that has energies below the suddhashtaka stage and also nama gotta that do not have any energy but are just memory records. This nama loka is accessed with the mana indriya.
  • For those who need to dig deeper, this is discussed in “Our Two Worlds : Material and Mental” and “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis“.
  • Saying that one has anusaya is also the same as saying that a vinnana has been established in the kamma bhava, i.e., in the nama loka.

Next, “The Way to Nibbana – Removal of Asava”, ……….

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