Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma

Kilesa means defilements hidden in the mind. They can be expressed in terms of anusaya, saṁyojana, āsava, or asobhana cetasika.

August 27, 2022; revised January 11, 2023; May 15, 2024

Pāli Word Analysis (Pada Nirutti)

1. We can understand various terms by looking at the Pāli roots of those words. Knowing how Pāli terms originated (“pada nirutti“) provides insight.

  • Kusala comes from “ku” +” sala,” where “ku” refers to “kunu” or kilesa or evils, and “sala” means “to get rid of.”
  • Akusala is the opposite of kusala. It will accumulate kilesa or evils. See  “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala).”
  • Kamma is an action with kammic consequences.
  • Kriya is an action without kammic consequences. For example, brushing your teeth is a kriya.
What Are Kilesa (Defilements)?

2. This is a crucial term hardly discussed. These defilements are not “stored” anywhere but within oneself. They are not in the brain. They are associated with the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind; see “Matter Creates Mind or Mind Creates Matter?.”)

  • Those defilements (kilesa) can be represented differently, for example, by ten types of saṁyojana or seven types of anusaya. Of course, they keep changing with time.  When one hadaya vatthu dies, those entities get “transferred” to the next hadaya vatthu. 
  • Yuganaddha Sutta (AN 4.170)” states that removing all types of anusaya and saṁyojana leads to Nibbāna.
  • A Sotapanna would have removed two types of anusaya and three saṁyojana. As a Sotapanna progresses on the Noble Path, defilements diminish at each higher stage. Thus, an Arahant is free of all kilesa.
  • Also, see “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”
Kilesa – Strengthened by Akusala Kamma and Eliminated by Kusala Kamma

3. We can see that akusala kamma strengthens one’s defilements. An akusala kamma will create kammic energy that feeds hidden defilements (anusaya/saṁyojana) and sustains the rebirth process; see “Bhava – Kammic Energy That Can Power an Existence.”

  • A kusala kamma will help reduce AND remove anusaya/saṁyojana. Thus, kusala kamma will cleanse the mind and will lead to Nibbāna.
Pāpa Kamma and Kusala Kamma

4. A pāpa kamma is a worse form of akusala kamma that will lead to rebirth in the apāyāsPāpa in Pāli and Sinhala means “evil” or “sinful” actions that are obvious: Killing of a human or routine killing of animals, raping, and niyata micchā diṭṭhi are some examples of pāpa kammā.

  • A puñña kamma is the opposite of pāpa kamma and will lead to rebirth in the “good realms” at or above the human realm. The word “puñña” is related to joy. The Sinhala word “pina” (පින) is associated with “pinaveema” (පිනවීම) or “making one’s heart joyful.” Therefore, a puñña kamma is an action that makes one’s heart filled with joy.
  • The critical point is that while a kusala kamma will help reduce AND remove anusaya/saṁyojana, a puñña kamma can only reduce them but NOT remove those defilements. That is the difference between kusala kamma and puñña kamma we discuss now.
Difference Between Puñña Kammā and Kusala Kamma

5. There is a critical difference between puñña kamma and kusala kamma.

  • A puñña kamma is a meritorious/good action that CAN lead to rebirth in the higher realms. But it DOES NOT lead to Nibbāna. Therefore, puññābhisaṅkhāra associated with a puñña kamma contributes to the “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” step in Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda. As we know, Akusala-mula PS leads to rebirths in good and bad realms.
  • Engaging in kusala kamma leads to Nibbāna. Thus, it means stopping any akusala kamma. However, that cannot be done by willpower. It happens automatically when one comprehends the “true nature of this world.”
  • That means comprehending “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”
  • Another critical aspect is to realize that our minds are fooled by “Distorted saññā”; see “Sotapanna Stage via Understanding Perception (Saññā).”
Puñña Kammā Can Become Kusala Kamma

6. When one starts comprehending the true nature of this world (as explained in the two links above in #5,) puñña kamma will automatically become kusala kamma. The difference is one’s understanding of the true nature of this world. We willingly participate in the rebirth process only because we don’t realize that “life is a sophisticated magic show” but with a bad outcome of suffering-filled rebirths. Let us take an example to illustrate this point.

  • Offering food to bhikkhus is a puñña kamma for an average human. Even though one may not specifically wish for a “good kamma vipāka” in terms of future wealth or a good rebirth, such an expectation is there even without knowing it. That is part of the anusaya/saṁyojana.
  • When one starts seeing the dangers of remaining in the rebirth process at the Sotapanna stage, that leads to the removal of diṭṭhi anusaya (together with three saṁyojana of sakkāya diṭṭhi, vicikicchā, and silabbata parāmāsa.) Thus, the above puñña kamma may become a kusala kamma for that person; it will help remove the remaining defilements (anusaya/saṁyojana.)
  • Any “good action” will “branch out” to puñña kamma or kusala kamma based on one’s comprehension of the Four Nobel Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. Therefore, we should never stop doing puñña kamma.
  • When one gets to the Arahant stage, there are no more anusaya/saṁyojana to remove, i.e., an Arahant does not do either puñña kamma or kusala kamma. All “good deeds” by an Arahant are kriya without kammic consequences.
Average Humans Engage Only in Puñña Kamma, Akusala Kamma, Pāpa Kamma

7. Until a Buddha is born, no one would have a clear idea about (i) the rebirth process, (ii) that most rebirths are in the apāyās, and (iii) how to stop that rebirth process. Other yogis or religions teach about the rebirth process, but no one but a Buddha can teach how to stop the rebirth process by cleansing the mind.

  • Most religions teach how to live a moral life. They teach how to engage in puñña kamma. But even those who try their best are tempted by sensory pleasures and spontaneously engage in pāpa kamma.
  • One can automatically stop such temptations by understanding the Four Noble Truths. At that point, one is on the Noble Eightfold Path. As one makes progress, more puñña kamma will automatically become kusala kamma.
  • Strictly speaking, both pāpa kamma and puñña kamma fall into the category of akusala kamma that maintains the rebirth process with the Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda starting with “avijjā paccayā (abhi)saṅkhāra.” Such abhisaṅkhāra includes puññābhisaṅkhāra involved in puñña kamma. See “Saṅkhāra – Many Meanings.” It is critical to understand various types of abhisaṅkhāra.

8. Therefore, living a moral life (and engaging in puñña kamma) is not enough to stop future suffering in the rebirth process.

  • That is stated clearly in the “Sabhiya Sutta (Snp 3.6):
    Kosāni viceyya kevalāni,                                                     “Having investigated all possibilities of rebirth,
    Dibbaṁ mānusakañca brahmakosaṁ;                                  Heavenly, human, even the Brahma-realms,
    Sabbakosamūlabandhanā pamutto,                                 One is truly freed only when free of all of them,
    Kusalo tādi pavuccate tathattā.”                                          That requires cultivating “kusala.”
Engaging in Kusala Kamma Starts at the Sotapanna Anugāmi Stage

9. No one is even aware of kusala kamma until comprehending the Four Nobel Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana.

  • Many try to evade suffering by engaging in moral deeds, cultivating jhāna, etc. Those can lead to temporary relief when born in the good realms. But until the rebirth process is stopped (at Parinibbāna), suffering does not stop.
  • The “Anusaya Sutta (SN 18.21)” states the key to attaining Nibbāna is to realize that nothing in the five aggregates (rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana) can be considered to be “mine.” That is the same as getting rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi. See “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – Wrong View of “Me” and “Mine.”
  • The Buddha defined Nibbāna as “rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo—idaṁ vuccati nibbānan” ti” OR “the ending of greed, hate, and delusion/ignorance “is called Nibbāna.” See, for example, “Nibbānapañhā Sutta (SN 38.1).”
  • Thus, the result of the step-by-step removal of the ten saṁyojana/seven types of anusaya, etc., is equivalent to the elimination of rāga, dosa, and moha.

10. Akusala kammā cultivate defilements; pāpa kammā are the strongest kind of akusala that lead to rebirth in the apāyās.

  • Puñña kammā are the opposites of pāpa kammā; they lead to rebirths in the “good realms” at or above the human realm.
  • Kusala kamma leading Nibbāna can be done only by those on the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • Starting on the Noble Eightfold Path requires comprehending “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”
  • An Arahant does only kriyā (actions without kammic consequences.)

11. Defilements (kilesa) in mind can be described differently: anusaya and saṁyojana are two good “indicators.”

  • Those who have not yet reached the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage have kilesa in various strengths. Their strengths keep changing but are never eliminated until starting on the Noble Eightfold Path at the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage. All defilements are absent only in Arahant’s mind.
  • Living beings spend most of their saṁsāric journey in the apāyās. Even when a “good birth” takes place, it has a finite lifetime, and after that, rebirth in an apāya is inevitable unless one gets to the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage.
  • Thus, the only way to stop future suffering is to comprehend the Four Nobel Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana and start on the Noble Eightfold Path. See “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”

12. More information on kilesa (in terms of cetasika) at “What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika” and “Cetasika – Connection to Gati.”

Note: This post replaces an old one, “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Puñña and Pāpa Kamma.”

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