The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsāvas

Revised November 19, 2018

1. The night the Buddha attained the Buddhahood, three special knowledges (tivijjā) arose in him, namely:

  • the special vision with which he was able to recollect innumerable former human existences (pubbenivāsānussati ñāna).
  • the special vision with which he was able to see beings passing away and being reborn according to their kamma (cutupapāda ñāna); and
  • the special vision with which he was able to destroy all cankers or defilements (āsavakkhaya ñāna).

2. With the attainment of the āsavakkhaya ñāna, Sidharata Gōtama became Buddha Gōtama. This was the final step in purifying the mind. This was the fruit of all his efforts, the path to attaining Nibbāna for any being. Āsavakkhaya (āsava+khaya = cutting off all the āsavās or mental fermentations). Thus Āsavakkhaya ñāna means the knowledge of cutting off āsavās and thus freeing the mind from the ability to generate any defilement.

  • The term āsava comes from “āsravayata āva” (ආශ්‍රවයට ආව) in Sinhala or Pali, which means “came to association with”. Thus those habits (“gati“) that one keep associating with come even closer. As one continues and feeds those habits through successive rebirths, they become āsavās.
  • Asava (in Pali, Sinahala, and Sanskrit) also means a distillation to get an extract or essence. Some medicinal concoctions are fermented by keeping a mixture of ingredients underground for many months.
  • Some habits (“gati“) we have cultivated (or fermented) over innumerable lives and that is why they are hard to remove. Only through learning pure Dhamma and persistence in one’s efforts, one can break such bad habits and thus eventually āsava.  There are four types of āsava and each may be associated with many bad habits.

3. The doctrine of Paticca Samuppāda, which is made up of twelve factors, namely, avijjā, sankhāra, viññāna, nāmarūpa, salāyatana, phassa, vēdanā, tanhā, upādāna, bhava, jāti, jarā, marana became clear to him. Going over this Doctrine of Paticca Samuppāda in forward and reverse order repeatedly, he attained the Eightfold Noble Path, Ariya Magga, which is also known as Yathābhuta Ñānadassana.

4. Paticca Samuppāda clarifies how ignorant beings accumulate defilements (and āsavās), and get trapped in the round of rebirths (sansāra); these āsavās are fermented via repeated use of bad habits (“gati“). And the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to remove those “gati” (and thus āsavās) from the mind.

How Four Stages of Nibbāna are Connected to the Four Asavas

1. We all have four major types of āsavās, even though there are uncountable minor varieties:

  • Ditthāsava is the category that is due to all kinds of false beliefs (micca ditthi): for example, if someone does not believe in rebirth, there may be cravings such as “I need to enjoy everything before I die”.
  • Kāmāsava are associated with sense pleasures.
  • Bhavāsava is the craving for particular kind of existence, say as a human, deva, or a brahma; any living being, in any realm, craves for existence.
  • Avijjāsava is all cravings that arise due to ignorance; ignorance of the Noble Truth of Suffering (which is NOT merely suffering itself), and the other Noble Truths.

2. The four types of major āsavās are removed in a step-by-step process as one proceeds on the Path. Even before the Sōtapanna stage, one will be reducing them, but those reductions do not hold to future lives.

  • When one attains the Sōtapanna stage, all four types of āsavās that could trigger “apayagami” actions are permanently removed from one’s mind, i.e., one will never be reborn in the four lowest realms.  Ditthāsava (those due to wrong views) are completely removed.
  • At the Sakadāgāmi stage, kamasava and bhavāsava are reduced, and a Sakadāgāmi will be born only as a deva or above in future lives; avijjāsava is also reduced.
  • Kāmāsava are completely removed at the Anāgāmi stage, and thus one will never be reborn in the kamaloka (including the deva realm) again. Bhavāsava and avijjāsava are also reduced.
  • Bhavāsava and avijjāsava are removed without a trace at the Arahant stage. Thus āsavakkhaya becomes complete.

Removal of āsavās start with the removal of bad habits and cultivating good habits; see, “Habits and Goals“, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Asavas)“, and, “Sansaric Habits and Asavas“.

Is there a Connection Between Nibbāna and Kamma?

1. Many people have the misconception that, “one needs to deplete all kamma” to attain Nibbāna. First of all, kamma (or sankhāra) are actions and that have been done (either in this life or in previous lives); while some of the kammic power associated with them can be removed by metta bhāvanā, for example, some kamma beeja (both good and bad) due to those kamma may still be there at the time of the attainment of Nibbāna.

  • Even the Buddha had eleven kamma vipaka left that resulted in backaches and an ulcer-like ailment close to Parinibbāna, among others. Because in order to get rid of kamma seeds associated with a given kamma, the other being associated with that kamma seed need to be able to receive the merits of metta bhāvanā, i.e., that being need to have a state of mind with alōbha, adōsa, and amōha. But some of those beings may be trapped in the niraya for long times and may not even have a moment of “relief” to receive such merits. I will discuss this in a separate post, but the key idea is discussed in, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidana) – How Does it Happen?“.

2. What really happens is that when āsavās are removed, the akusala-mula paticca samuppāda at “vedana paccaya tanhā” step changes to “vedana paccaya adhimokko” (in a kusala-mula paticca samuppāda cycle) and there is no “upādāna paccaya bhavo” step in the cycle. Thus when the Arahant dies, there is no “bhava” grasped by the mind, and thus there is no “jathi” or birth.

3. Thus an Arahant could have many unspent kamma beeja (both good and bad) left, but his/her mind has lost the craving (āsava) to grasp any of them.

4. “Everything happens due to kamma” is a misconception. That is a Vedic concept, and is not in Buddha Dhamma; see, “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipāka“. The āsavakkhaya ñāna is the key to Nibbāna.

Next, “Why is Correct Interpretation of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta so Important?“, ……..